Friday Book Whimsy: Murder at Mallowan Hall

I’ve loved author Agatha Christie since i was 12 years old. I’ve read all of her mysteries, many more than once. Or twice. I am unfailingly impressed at how she weaves her stories, how she carefully tosses out her red herrings, and how she wraps the mystery up at the end of the book.

Murder at Mallowan Hall, by Colleen Cambridge, is the first in a new historical mystery series that takes place at Mallowan Hall, the fictional home of famed author Agatha Christie and her second husband, archeologist Max Mallowan. In real life, Christie and her husband remained happily married in their rural English estate until Christie’s death, though it was not called Mallowan Hall.

In the novel, Christie hires her personal friend to be their housekeeper and manage their estate. Phyllidia Bright and Christie are long-time friends, and Bright is hired because she has the author’s complete trust. For her part, Bright is protective of her friend and faithful as all get-out. Plus, she has a crush on Hercule Poirot.

Things are fine until one day, Bright is opening up the house, and stumbles upon a body in the library. She recognizes the person as a fellow who had shown up late the night before uninvited and a stranger. The Mallowans are having a house party that weekend, and no one wants to make a fuss. They allow the man to spend the night, but the good intentions have a tragic ending.

Bright does all the right things. She calls the police. She alerts her employers. She does what she does best: manages the crisis. However, when it becomes clear to her that the local police are inept at best, she begins working on solving the crime herself, with Christie giving her own advice and input. And when a second person is murdered — this time a member of the staff — Bright realizes the murderer must be someone attending the house party. Who could be next?

I found the plot to be clever and fun, or at least as fun as a murder mystery can be. I liked the fact that it wasn’t Agatha Christie who solved the murder, but instead, her intelligent and faithful friend.

Murder at Mallowan Hall is purported to be the first in a series, and I’m looking forward to book number 2.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: The Bodies in the Library

Sometimes a lightweight, easy-to-read-and-solve mystery is just what the doctor ordered. The Bodies in the Library, by Marty Wingate, does the job most agreeably.

Hayley Burke takes on the position of curator of Lady Georgiana Fowling’s First Edition library in Bath, England. The First Edition Library features books written during the so-called Golden Age of Mysteries, offering authors such as Agatha Christie and Raymond Chandler. She is hired for this position despite the fact that she has never read a single mystery story. Her expertise lies in Jane Austin novels. Still, she knows she can learn, and hopes she does so before her board of directors figures out she doesn’t know a thing about detective stories.

And then Hayley is presented with her own mystery. She has agreed to allow an Agatha Christie fan fiction writers’ group to meet weekly in the building that was once Lady Georgiana Fowling’s home, and now is the library and Hayley’s living quarters. Before she knows it, one of the members of this group is murdered. The victim is killed elsewhere and carried into the library, left for Hayley to find.

Hayley puts on her Miss Marple thinking cap and sets out to help the police solve the mystery. It is the best way to show the board of directors that she is capable of doing the curator’s job. She is faced with clues and red herrings and even a handsome love interest.

The book was a quick and fun read, as long as you can get past the fact that while the title is The Bodies in the Library, there is only one body ever found in the library — or anywhere else in the book. I presume that is because the title is so similar to an Agatha Christie novel — The Body in the Library — featuring Miss Marple. But when Hayley puts on her own Miss Marple hat, she solves the mystery.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: The Mystery of Mrs. Christie

I’ve been a fan of Agatha Christie almost since I learned to read. Dame Christie helped define my taste in literature. I learned to love the mystery book genre by following the activities of Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple. Tuppence and Tommy taught me how to work together as husband and wife to solve a murder, a skill that I shockingly haven’t had the opportunity to put to use.

And yet, it wasn’t until I was an adult that I learned about Agatha Christie’s personal mystery. In 1926, Mrs. Christie went missing for 10 days. She drove away from her house just after lunch, and her car was discovered not far from her home. Mrs. Christie was no where to be found, and her winter coat was in the back seat, despite the frigid weather. It became a worldwide news story. She was later found at a hotel not very far from her home, and claimed she had amnesia. Though many theories were put forth, the mystery was never satisfactorily solved.

Author Marie Benedict presents her own theory in the historical novel The Mystery of Mrs. Christie. Ms. Benedict’s theory is as good as — and perhaps better — than any I’ve heard. And it made for a clever story.

Agatha Christie was born into a upper class family in England. In 1914, she married handsome Archie Christie after dating only a few months. In 1916, she wrote her first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, featuring Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. Her career was off and running.

At first the marriage was a good one. She gave birth to a daughter, and the two were very happy. And then Archie became bored with marriage, jealous of her success, and began a relationship with another woman. Mrs. Christie suspected his daliance, and shortly after, she disappeared.

Just like in an Agatha Christie’s novel, Benedict’s story is carefully laid out, doling out hints and secrets like Hercule Poirot. While we all know how the story ends, it was fun to read about one person’s solution to the mystery.

I loved this novel, and recommend it to mystery readers, particularly any Agatha Christie fans. As you well know, her writing career went on for many more years.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: One By One

Agatha Christie’s mysteries were the first I read when I graduated from the Nancy Drew and Trixie Belden level of the genre that I still love the best — mysteries. While I must admit that my favorite Agatha Christie book is and will always be Murder on the Orient Express, a close second is And Then There Were None. Imagine being in a secluded place with nine other strangers, having been invited by an unknown person. Imagine further how frightening it would be when one by one, they are being murdered.

Undoubtedly, prolific mystery author Ruth Ware had Dame Christie’s novel in mind when she wrote her spooky One By One. In this novel, a group of people working for a high tech start-up company that offers an app that allows you to not only learn what famous people are listening to at any point in time, but also allows you to listen to the music at the same time. The company — called Snoop — is led by a former couple who, while no longer a couple, still work together and are on the brink of great success.

The cofounders organize a company retreat at an isolated mountain lodge in the French Alps with all of the employees in attendance. It is a time for the employees to learn more about the company. More important, there will be team-building activities like snowing and snowshoeing. Things are going smoothly until there are whispers about one of the cofounders underhandedly trying to sell the company.

Adding to the distress, unexpected weather, including an avalanche that buries the nearby village, leaves the people helplessly stuck in a freezing cold lodge with no electricity or cell service. Still, the lodging is top-notch, and the food is delicious. Things aren’t looking too bad until people start dying, one by one.

Just as in Christie’s novel, they know someone among them is a murderer. No one is to be trusted. Who is the killer?

Ware provides just the right amount of tension as the people try to figure out who they can trust. In the end, this reader was caught off guard by the killer and the reasons for the murders. The book kept me up past bedtime as I tried to figure out who was next in line.

This is the best novel by the author that I have read. Agatha Christie would be satisfied.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: Once is Not Enough

I recently read an article written by someone unknown to me who said that during the recent months of quarantine, people have been re-reading books at an unusual rate. Interesting observation, though I have no idea how she knows what books we are all reading. Perhaps since Apple and Amazon and Pinterest and Instagram all seem to be fully aware of what we are doing at all times, they spilled the beans to this particular writer (who they interrupted while she was re-reading Little Women for the 27th time). 

I don’t want to disappoint the writer, but I haven’t re-read a single book for quite some time. It’s not that I don’t re-read books; I have my favorite books that I have read on many occasions. But I continually put e-books on hold at two libraries, and they have been keeping me busy. I think people are reading more than they normally read because they have nothing else to do while they’re drinking their Bloody Marys at 10 o’clock in the morning. So the books are coming to me at a furious rate.

According to the writer of the article, the reason people are re-reading is that during this time of restlessness and insecurity, readers enjoy their familiar authors and the memorable story lines. That could well be true in my opinion. For me, there are certain novels that make me feel like I’m sitting with an old friend or a beloved family member.

One of my favorite novels, and a book that I re-read regularly, is the first novel by Colorado author Kent Haruf entitled Plainsong. The story is good, but I will tell you the truth: I don’t love the book because of the story. The plot isn’t remarkable. I love the book because of the dialogue. One hundred percent. As I read the words written by Haruf and spoken by the two bachelor brothers who raise cattle outside of the fictitious town of Holt, Colorado, it’s like sitting and listening to my uncles talk. The dialogue is the most accurate and comforting of any other book I’ve ever read.

Voice is really important to me. I discovered that when I used to listen to books on tape (and yes, they really were on tape) as I commuted to work. It never took me long to figure out whether the book’s author had a gift with dialogue when you hear someone reading the book out loud. There are books where every person’s voice is interchangeable. If the sentence wasn’t attributed to a character, you wouldn’t know who spoke.

The books in the Mitford series by Jan Karon are another wonderful example of books that I could (and do) read again and again. Perhaps the characters are too good to be true, but what’s wrong with that? I want each and every one of them to be my friend. I want Fr. Tim to JUST ONCE come and pray with me. Or pray for me. The author has given each character a unique voice.

So, though I have admitted to being too busy keeping up with my library holds, I can certainly see why people are re-reading their favorite books. It’s like hanging out with someone you love.

Here, by the way, are SOME of the books I have re-read…..

Little Women, by Louisa May Alcott
At Home in Mitford, by Jan Karon
A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, by Betty Smith
Plainsong, by Kent Haruf
My Antonia, by Willa Cather
Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier
True Grit, by Charles Portis
Jane Eyre, by Charlotte Bronte
Hercule Poirot books by Agatha Christie
To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee

What have you re-read?


Friday Book Whimsy: Closed Casket

I vowed I wasn’t going to read any more of the books that continue the story of Agatha Christie’s famous Belgian detective Hercule Poirot. I was enormously disappointed in author Sophie Hannah’s first effort, The Monogram Murders, which I reviewed in 2016. Still, I am such an enormous fan of the Poirot mysteries that I finally caved and read the second in the series — Closed Casket.

Once again, the book features Hercule Poirot along with his sidekick, a Scotland Yard detective Edward Catchpool. Rather than writing it as a sequel — fans will recall that Christie famously killed off the detective in her final installment called Curtain — the series takes place prior to Christies’ books — a prequel of sorts.

In this novel, Poirot and Catchpool are invited to the home of a famous children’s book writer named Lady Athelinda Playford, and neither can figure out why they were included. Perhaps she expects a murder to take place? At least that’s what Poirot speculates.

At dinner, things become a bit clearer. The rich woman announces that she has changed her will to exclude her two grown children, a daughter and a son. This comes as a unfortunate surprise to the two children. They are further shocked to learn that she is leaving her fortune to her secretary. Joseph Scotcher has worked for Lady Playford for a number of years. What is particularly confusing about the change in beneficiary is that Mr. Scotcher has been diagnosed with Bright’s disease and has only weeks to live.

Why oh why would she leave money to a person who she will almost certainly outlive? Before the day is over, he is found dead in the parlor by Scotcher’s fiance who insists she witnesses the daughter beating him to death. However, it is impossible for her to be in two places at once, isn’t it?

Hannah’s second effort was decidedly better than her first. Nevertheless, the bar is set pretty high. The two detectives seem to stumble and bumble more than Poirot ever did under Christie’s pen. Poirot misses clues that even I got.

Still, it’s nice to have my old friend Poirot back, even if he isn’t in his finest form.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: Magpie Murders

Magpie Murders, by author Anthony Horowitz, is a refreshing break from many mystery novels with predictable plots and authors that try just a bit too hard to give the reader a surprise ending. Horowitz is the creator and writer of one of my favorite British television crime dramas Foyle’s War, so I was very excited to see what he had up his sleeve with the unusual format of this novel.

Magpie Murders actually gives the readers two separate mysteries to ponder – a mystery within a mystery, so to speak.

Editor Susan Ryeland is given a copy of the manuscript of author Alan Conway’s latest novel featuring his famed detective Atticus Pund. Pund is very much like Agatha Christie’s famed detective Hercule Poirot, spending his time solving mysteries in little English villages, providing his readers with hints and red herrings galore. Since Ryeland has been Conway’s editor from the get-go, she is used to his formula; however, the more she reads, the more she thinks Conway is giving the reader a mystery within a mystery.

She continues to read, but just as Pund is getting ready to gather the suspects together to identify the killer, the story stops. Whaaaaat? The last chapter is missing. Why did Alan Conway not finish the book, but turn it in to his editor anyway shortly before he commits suicide?

Despite being ordered by her boss to leave it well enough alone, Ryeland begins trying to figure out why Conway would end the story in this manner. As you follow along with Ryeland, can you figure out what’s going on?

What I liked best about this book is that in the first chapter, Ryeland sits down with a cup of tea and hours of time and begins to read the manuscript. And then the book is presented to the readers of Magpie Murders just as Ryeland is reading it. And the Pund novel is a fun romp, very reminiscent of Agatha Christie. Manor houses, murders, mysterious guests. If that had been the entire book, I would still be giving it a good review.

But it isn’t. Because suddenly, the book ends, and the second mystery begins. It was so much fun (if you can call murder and suicide fun).

This really is a must-read for lovers of good mysteries with challenging endings, and definitely a must-read for Agatha Christie fans. As for me, I’m on the lookout for other books by this author.

Here is a link to the book.

Friday Book Whimsy: The Woman in Cabin 10

imgresMurder on a cruise ship. It sounds very Agatha Christie, doesn’t it? All it needs is a small Belgian detective using his little gray cells to solve the mystery. Except about the only similarity between Agatha Christie and author Ruth Ware is their British background.

The Woman in Cabin 10 is Ware’s second novel. Her first, In a Dark, Dark Wood, (which I reviewed here) was a psychological thriller that took place in an all-glass house deep in the woods somewhere in England. Her second, The Woman in Cabin 10, is another psychological thriller, this one taking place on a cruise ship.

In fact, for the most part, The Woman in Cabin 10 is simply The Girl on a Train, except on a cruise ship. I found myself alternately at the edge of my seat because of gripping tension, or screaming out loud, “Oh for heaven’s sake, don’t have another drink!”

I found the book frustrating.

Laura Blacklock (called Lo) is a writer for a London magazine. Circumstances result in her getting a coveted assignment – reporting on the inaugural cruise of a very fancy schmancy small cruise ship on some rich-and-famous people will be traveling. This is her BIG CHANCE. DON’T. SCREW. IT. UP.

Unfortunately, at the very beginning of the book (and shortly before she leaves on this business cruise), Lo’s apartment is burgled while she is home. The burglar, though he has a gun, does not kill her, but instead leaves with some of her belongings. The incident shakes her up so much that she pretty much is a wreck for the rest of the book.

Already freaked out because of her own personal incident, the very first night on the cruise ship, she borrows some makeup from the woman in the next room, and later on witnesses a body being thrown overboard from that same room.

Well, it turns out no one else has seen that particular woman – EVER – and no one else heard a body being thrown overboard. And since Lo has been diagnosed with an anxiety disorder for which she takes antidepressants, and since she is already freaked out by her own scare prior to leaving, no one believes her.

So what does she do? She drinks too much, takes too many prescription medications, and tries to solve the mystery herself.

The main problem with the story, at least in my opinion, is that the character of Lo Blacklock is so inherently dislikable. I wanted to not believe her myself. She seems to be paralyzed with fear – something that might be realistic, but doesn’t make for a very interesting novel. And I seriously got so very tired of her being drunk and overmedicated. Just say no to drugs, Lo.

And yet, just as with Ware’s first novel, the writing is quite good. Good enough, in fact, that I continued to read. And while the ending didn’t blow me away with surprise, I found it to be fairly satisfying and somewhat unpredictable.

Overall, I can recommend this book for people who like thrillers such as The Girl on the Train. Just be prepared to understand that this novel, readers, is not the next The Girl on the Train, as hard as the author might try and as strongly as the publishers might try to sell the idea that it is.

Here is link to the book.


Friday Book Whimsy: Agatha Christie’s The Monogram Murders: The New Hercule Poirot Mystery

imgresThe newest thing seems to be authors taking over the writing of popular mystery series after the original author dies. Ace Atkins continued Robert B. Parker’s Spenser series. More recently author Kyle Mills continued the iconic Mitch Rapp series originated by the late Vince Flynn. It is my understanding that these authors have continued the series with the deceased author’s family’s permission.

I wasn’t aware, however, that there was a new Hercule Poirot book. SERIOUSLY?????

I was amused to find out very recently about Sophie Hannah’s new addition to mystery writer extraordinaire Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot series. The reason for my amusement was that it has been said that by the later books, Christie was sick and tired of the somewhat annoying little Belgian detective. She is to have said “he was a detestable, bombastic, tiresome, egocentric little creep.

But he was a detestable, bombastic, tiresome, egocentric little creep who I absolutely ADORED. As did many others. So I shouldn’t have been surprise to see this addition.

Since Christie famously killed off the detective in her final Poirot offering Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case, I wasn’t sure how Hannah was going to handle the new Poirot mystery. As it turns out, it is not subsequent to Curtain. Instead, it is just folded into his earlier life.

Hercule Poirot as portrayed by David Suchet in the wonderful PBS long-running series.

Hercule Poirot as portrayed by David Suchet in the wonderful PBS long-running series.

I was excited when I first began reading The Monogram Murders, though slightly apprehensive about another author besides Christie presenting Poirot, both in his appearance and actions, and by how the mystery would unfold. As much as I read mysteries, I admit I was rarely able to figure out the murderer in any of Christie’s books. Cheers to Dame Christie.

I started out optimistically, but I’m afraid I was soon disappointed. As hard as Hannah worked at presenting a reasonable imitation of the famous detective, it’s not surprising that she fell just short of success. Poirot did things in this book that he simply wouldn’t have done. It is hard to put my finger on what I mean, but if you are a fan of Poirot, you will understand. So then he was simply a detestable little creep.

Poirot has a new sidekick in this mystery, a Scotland Yard detective named Catchpool, and he is certainly no Arthur Hastings. I found him to be both unlikable and quite inept. It’s true Captain Hastings was not the brightest bulb on the Christmas tree, but you couldn’t help but like him. Poirot and Catchpool worked together to solve the mystery of the murder of three people from the same small English village who share a dastardly secret.

I found the ending particularly unsatisfactory. One of Christie’s many strengths was that she could wrap it all up so satisfactorily, and all of the clues she sneakily placed throughout the book suddenly made sense. Hannah was not successful in this effort. The ending was frankly, terrifically confusing and chaotic. I found myself skimming the last confusing chapters because by that point I didn’t care who killed whom.

I’m thinking this might be the last attempt at adding to Hercule Poirot’s legacy.

Here is a link to the book.


Ask the Librarian

I got my first library card when I was probably 6 or 7. Back in those days (when dinosaurs walked the earth), we didn’t learn to read until we were 6 or so. These days, kids go to kindergarten already knowing how to read. When I was in kindergarten, we learned our colors, our shapes, how to take naps on little rugs on the floor, and how to be away from our mommies. Reading didn’t come until first grade when we met Dick and Jane. See Spot run. Run Spot run.

But as soon as I was able to read, Mom took me down to get my library card. I have had a library card ever since.  And it isn’t something that just disintegrates in my billfold. I am an active library user. In fact, I am very happy because now I can have a library card from two different library systems. Look up geek in the dictionary and there I happily am!

searchWe can thank Benjamin Franklin for coming up with the concept of libraries. Apparently when he wasn’t out flying kites in lightning storms (and who thinks that is a good idea?), he was spending time in the more valuable pursuit of figuring out ways to encourage people to read.

The library in Columbus (at least when I lived there; it has since moved) was located in a big brick building downtown. You climbed up the long cement staircase, walked through the wooden doors and were greeted by an array of books that could make you cry from happiness. I literally can remember to this day how it smelled.

Off to the right was the children’s library. When I was younger, I recall I was addicted to a series of biographies about famous people of all sorts – Susan B. Anthony, Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, Florence Nightingale, John Quincy Adams. The stories were seemingly endless.

As I got a bit older, my tastes began to gravitate towards mysteries. And heaven, sweet heaven, I discovered Agatha Christie. My life was forever changed. The library had the complete set of books written by the Queencollins-crime-club of Crime. They were hard-covered, and on the cover and the spine there was a little gun and the words  “Crime Club.” I remember this distinctly because when I was in 6th grade, I had an Agatha Christie book on my desk at school, and Sr. Amica spotted it on one of her prowls around her classroom. She held it up and pointed out to the class about the sinful book I was reading. “Crime Club!” I remember her saying as she looked at me like I was Adolf Hitler. I remember even at that young age, and even being so painfully aware of wanting people to think the best of me, thinking, “Seriously? Agatha Christie? Miss Marple?”

Sr. Amica passed away that school year, and, well, that’s all I’ll say about that.

neighborhood lending libraryI began to think about libraries because Jen sent me a picture of something she saw during one of her walks in Fort Collins. Someone built a lending library of sorts in their front yard. It is full of books, and apparently you are invited to borrow the book, bring it back when finished, donate your own books, etc. I really, really love this idea.

I have mentioned before that I have become an avid ebook reader. In fact, ebooks are literally the only way I read these days. I get them from the library if I can; if I can’t, I buy the book either from Amazon or Barnes and Noble. I like that I always have a number of books at my ready. The biggest disadvantage, of course, is that most ebooks are not sharable unless you are willing to actually hand your reading device to another person. I’m not.

But if I still read paper books, I would sooooo take advantage of this enthusiastic reader’s personal lending library. In fact, I would be happy to donate some of my own books to his/her cause.

One final word about libraries. When I was in college, one of my work/study jobs was to reshelf books at Norlin Library at the University of Colorado. I would get the books reshelved in quick order, and had enough time at the end of my shift to peruse the stacks. Even a few minutes to read. It was while working at Norlin Library that I read Dracula by Bram Stoker – in 15 minute increments.

Thank you Benjamin Franklin. You deserve to be on the Hundred Dollar Bill. Libraries were one of your best ideas.