Monthly Archives: September 2017

Agatha Christie’s ‘Death on the Nile’

Published in 1937, Death on the Nile is one of Agatha Christie’s most famous novels, known for its intricate plot and exotic setting. Murder takes place aboard the Karnak, a luxurious Nile steamer on a week’s round-trip, sailing to Wâdi Halfa and the Second Cataract, with excursions en route to the spectacular temples of Abu Simbel.Death on the Nile (Poirot) (Hercule Poirot Series Book 17) by [Christie, Agatha]

Hercule Poirot is one of the passengers, escaping from the fogs, the greyness, the monotony of the constantly falling rain of a London winter. As always, he is dressed immaculately to suit the occasion.

He wore a white silk suit, carefully pressed, and a panama hat, and carried a highly ornamental fly whisk with a sham amber handle.

During an excursion, Poirot sports a white suit, pink shirt, large black bow tie and a white topee.

The first part of the novel introduces us to most of the passengers in a series of vividly-drawn vignettes. Some scenes are quite brief, though Agatha Christie makes every word tell with her usual economy of style. The lynch-pin of the Nile journey will be Linnet Ridgeway, a young heiress and society beauty, soon to be married and visiting Egypt on her honeymoon.

Readers can be fairly sure from the start that Linnet is going to be the murder victim. We’re shown an overwhelming reason for one character to hate her and given tantalising hints that others have a strong motive to remove her. It’s interesting that the original jacket copy on the Collins facsimile edition only implies that Linnet Ridgeway will be the victim. Much better than today’s blurbs which frequently give away too much of the plot.

When the passengers are gathered at their hotel, Poirot is aware of a feeling of inexorable danger, an inevitability about what lies ahead. There are indications throughout Agatha Christie’s writing that she was intrigued by the notion of fate – perhaps due to her extensive travels in the Middle East. Her titles Appointment With Death, The Moving Finger and Postern of Fate hark back to this theme.

Christie builds the growing tension skilfully for 130 pages until the murder finally takes place. These days I seem to see a lot of reviews that complain of a slow pace in detective novels. Writing guides deem it essential to hook the reader with instant compelling action. Must be my age, because I like crime fiction where the author takes all the space they wish to show characters and setting. I really enjoy a lengthy build-up – a trademark of superb crime writers such as P.D James – and think currently fashionable style ‘rules’ are a kind of dumbing down, symptomatic of our sound-bite society.

The suspects being trapped together on the steamer, makes an interesting variation on the classic enclosed country house setting. The Karnak is large enough to have an evocative thirties’ glamour with dressing cabins, an observation saloon and smoking room, yet compact enough to feel claustrophobic. The descriptions of temple visits, the heat and passing scenery feel authentic, based as they must have been on the author’s memories.

At the half-way point, an old friend of Poirot joins the steamer for the return journey. Colonel Race assisted Poirot in Cards on the Table, published a year earlier and aids him again in the investigation. Race, a senior British agent, is on board on his own mission. A foreshadowing of the growing awareness of the coming war and the addition of enemy agents into Agatha Christie’s novels. (This reaches its height in N or M? Published in 1941).

The plot is unusually complex for Christie, with several small mysteries for Poirot to unravel along the way. Despite the tense atmosphere, Christie manages to include some quiet humour and more than one romance. Her liking for romance and happiness for young people shines through, as it does in many of her novels. It’s evident that Christie had great sympathy for youth, particularly the awkward and the over-looked.

The break-up of her marriage to Archie Christie and her life-long shyness are widely known. Even when happily settled with Max Mallowan, it’s easy to imagine Agatha Christie being the quiet people-watcher in the corner. Noticing what others miss, full of compassion and kindness, very like Hercule Poirot.

The central murder plot stands or falls, more than most, on its believable psychology. It succeeds magnificently, this is Christie’s understanding of human nature at its most acute. A brilliantly cunning plot device is one that she used in another novel – which of course, I won’t mention! Nothing wrong with authors doing a spot of recycling, especially when they trail-blazed the twists in the first place.

Death on the Nile is acclaimed as one of Agatha Christie’s greatest triumphs. I hadn’t read it since my teens and had a job to put it down. A deeply satisfying read.

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The Limehouse Golem

Last week, we went to see the film The Limehouse Golem, based on Peter Ackroyd’s novel Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem, which I blogged about a couple of years ago. (I’ve put my original blog on the novel below to save you searching.) The Limehouse Golem [DVD] [2017]

It’s a terrific take on the novel, with some great acting, a literate script by Jane Goldman, and some excellent sets that take you right back into Victorian London. The photography is superb.

I’m not going to say much about the plot, because I’ve mentioned the salient parts in the book blog below. Jane Goldman has made a few minor alterations to the plot for film purposes, but these make no difference to the story.

I’m always wary of filmed Victorian crime stories, because the slightest error jars. But there are no errors here. I was completely absorbed by the telling of the tale. Rarely have I seen a crime novel set in this period so well done.

This film stars Bill Nighy as Inspector Kildare, his role slightly expanded from the novel. The part was to have been played by Alan Rickman – one of our favourite actors – who sadly died early in the project. But Nighy makes an excellent Kildare, every inch the Victorian policeman. And how good to see Nighy get a lead credit.

There’s a great deal of British acting talent here – familiar faces such as Daniel Mays, Clive Russell, Eddie Marsan and Henry Goodman. All looking as though they’ve emerged from the streets of Limehouse.

But the film rises with the talents of two newcomers to me. Douglas Booth is quite stunning in the role of Dan Leno, totally believable as perhaps the greatest of music hall showmen. I’ve always had a great interest in Leno, a fascinating individual who forged the way we perceive popular entertainment of this kind, from straight entertainment, jests and songs, pantomime to burlesque, Leno was the grand master. His relatively early death in 1904 shocked the nation.

The tragedy of music hall before this period is that we have only scratchy recordings of some of the best acts (we’ve got just such a recording of Leno). Not being able to see these stars visually makes it hard to grasp how good they might have been. I’m old enough to have seen some of the early twentieth century stars live on the stage. They were good indeed – we’ll not see their likes again. But few of the Victorians were filmed, then only silently.

But Douglas Booth surely captures a great deal of Leno’s magic. Here’s an actor to watch out for in the future.

The key role of Elizabeth Cree goes to Olivia Cooke. Cooke is as good as Booth in portraying the growing confidence of a music hall singer, caught up in the murderous twists of the tale.

Try and see it at the cinema if you can with an audience around you – more like a music hall atmosphere than watching it at home on DVD.

Though we’ll be adding it to our DVD collection when it’s out.

Here’s my blog on the original novel…

Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem

Peter Ackroyd’s novel Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem has now been out for over twenty years. Given my interests in Victorian crime and the history of the music hall I’ve always been meaning to read it.

Now I’ve finally got round to it and I can say that it’s a terrific read, evoking a real feel of the Victorian underworld in Ackroyd’s usual and very vivid writing style.

As a writer Ackroyd is well-known not just as a novelist but as an historian and biographer. If you haven’t read it I commend to you his London – A biography – perhaps the best of all recent histories of the city.

Dan Leno and the Limehouse Golem is not your usual crime read. It’s a deeply literary novel which happens to be about crime and the low-life and middle-class existence of Victorian London. And there’s a lot more to it than that. Ackroyd has a way of plunging you deep into this imagined vision of a past age.

For those who don’t know, Dan Leno was perhaps the greatest star of Victorian music hall. But he is not the only real-life character encountered in this book. We also see the struggling writer George Gissing and a glimpse of Karl Marx during his London exile.

This is a book which begins with a hanging and works backwards. We see how his key character Elizabeth Cree progresses as a music hall turn, the murders of a serial killer, the legend of the Jewish golem, a trial at the Old Bailey and pages from the diary of John Cree delineating many aspects of Victorian life – for this is a novel of multiple viewpoints.

Ackroyd is so very good at exploring the sinister hinterlands of the Victorian underworld. The author’s great knowledge of London shines through on every page. Terrible secrets are revealed and the ending is just stunning.

A novel you’ll want to read more than once – thoroughly recommended!

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This Gun For Hire

This Gun for Hire is Hollywood’s film noir take on Grahame Greene’s early (1936) novel A Gun For Sale, with the setting altered to America and an all American cast. (Though Alan Ladd was actually half English, his mother coming from County Durham).This Gun For Hire [DVD]

There have been several other versions, some using Greene’s original title, a 1957 rather altered remake called Short Cut to Hell (interestingly, directed by James Cagney), and a 1991 television movie with Robert Wagner.

This Gun for Hire features Alan Ladd – billed as a debut turn way down the cast – as Raven, and a terrific performance he gives.

The heroine, showgirl Ellen Graham is played by Veronica Lake, who positively oozes sultriness – the first of three film noir pairings with Ladd. Her detective boyfriend, Michael Crane, is Robert Preston – who actually gets the lead billing on this film, and terrific he is. It would have been great to see him given more hard-boiled roles. Laird Cregar plays the villain of the piece, Willard Gates, giving a performance of seedy cowardice that would have got him an Oscar in a mainstream production.

The basic tale is that the anti-hero Raven, a low-grade hitman is paid for an assassination in marked notes, which will inevitably lead to his downfall. In Greene’s novel, the victim is a government minister in Prague.

But in This Gun For Hire, the initial victim is a blackmailing chemist. Determined to get revenge for being fingered by the marked notes, Raven seeks out Willard Gates and his paymaster, an enemy-collaborating industrialist called Alvin Brewster (Tully Marshall). Along the way, Raven falls in with and eventually gets help from showgirl Ellen Graham, who is working on the side for the FBI to infiltrate Brewster’s enemy-friendly organisation.

Like all films with anti-heroes (and most films noir have one) This Gun For Hire stands on our sympathy with Raven. He’s certainly a killer with a conscience, a lover of cats and a determined saviour of the threatened Ellen Graham. Alan Ladd plays him with an honesty that makes you root for him from the start, whatever he does. The film put him on the track to the stardom he deserved.

The pre-war setting of the book (a thinly-disguised Nottingham in England) is changed to wartime California, with the population rehearsing for a possible gas-attack. The wearing of gas masks gives a very sinister feel to several of the film’s best scenes.

The film ends with the obligatory shooting, very intelligently staged. But the climax is over-shadowed by the scenes in a railroad marshalling yard where the police hunt for the fleeing Raven. Scenes that are so well paced and beautifully photographed that they should be an object lesson to a new generation of movie makers.

The very intelligent screenplay was by Albert Maltz (his first screenwriting credit as such, though he’d worked on Casablanca just before) and W.R. Burnett (himself one of the best and definitely most underrated crime writers, author of classic novels such as High Sierra (see blogs passim), The Asphalt Jungle and Little Caesar, and a huge number of screenplays.

The tragedy of it all is that Alan Ladd, Veronica Lake and Laird Cregar all died far too young. What else might they have achieved?

I’ve seen this now several times over the years and never tire of it. I’ve put the picture up of one DVD version that’s available, though This Gun For Hire often features in film noir box sets with other classics of the genre, which are worth hunting down.

It would be interesting to know what Graham Greene (known at the time as more of a film critic than a novelist) made of this treatment of his story? He went on, of course, to considerable fame. I never met him properly, but we once exchanged “good mornings” in the delightful little old second-hand bookshop that stood under the castle walls of Totnes in Devon, as he knelt on the floor searching out books on one low shelf, while I did the same in a nearby aisle.

After he’d left, the bookseller told me it was one of Mr Greene’s regular haunts. He had good taste – there were always bargains and obscure titles to be found there.

 

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‘The Killings at Badger’s Drift’ by Caroline Graham

When a successful television crime drama started out based on a series of novels, the original books can sometimes be overshadowed. Especially when the drama series has the enduring popularity of Midsomer Murders, still going strong after twenty years and sold worldwide.

We love to curl up with Midsomer, both with John Nettles and Neil Dudgeon. But it’s interesting to strip away all thoughts of Midsomer Murders and re-read Caroline Graham’s The Killings at Badger’s Drift. This was her first outing for Chief Inspector Barnaby and Sergeant Troy. Our edition, published by Headline in 2016, has the bonus of a foreword by John Nettles, who played Tom Barnaby.

Published in 1987, ten years before the television series began, it’s easy to forget what a superb whodunit this is. Though I do recall finding this in the library in the ’80s and thinking it exceptionally good. Caroline Graham used the ever popular setting of murder in a seemingly idyllic village . Probably my favourite setting – like legions of fans, I love classic British detective novels where murder sends shock-waves through a small, rural community.

Miss Simpson, a well-liked, retired village schoolmistress is found dead in her cottage. A death that at first passes for natural causes, until her old friend Miss Bellringer, uneasy at signs that Miss Simpson behaved out of character, persuades the police to investigate.

So what sets The Killings at Badger’s Drift apart from countless other English village mysteries? Elegant writing with an interesting detective and sidekick, well-drawn characters, a strong plot and appealing setting. All a necessity for a decent crime novel, you might say. We could all reel off a quick dozen novelists who deliver all that.

The Killings at Badger’s Drift is lifted to another level by the author’s sly wit and moments of humour. The quirkiness of the television series is there, without its trademark bizarre murder methods. Some characters are almost Dickensian-style grotesques, yet they are horribly believable.

I loved the way in which Caroline Graham deals at length with some secondary characters. You get vivid glimpses of their back story and understand how life has shaped them. This reminded me of P.D. James’s detective novels. I always felt it was one of her greatest strengths and in Caroline Graham too, this adds an absorbing depth to the story.

Badgers Drift is St Mary Mead updated. There are council houses and commuters, modern bungalows with over-manicured gardens around the picturesque old cottages with their bee-hives. (The council houses were there in pre-war mysteries though rarely mentioned). Miss Marple would have said that the wickedness hiding beneath the surface of village life is unchanged.

Caroline Graham came up with a fairly underused premise for her series detective – at least in modern times. Chief Inspector Tom Barnaby is notable for his ordinariness. He’s a decent chap, happily married to Joyce and affectionate father to their daughter Cully. A member of the local art club and keen gardener, he isn’t a troubled maverick, doesn’t have a drink problem and the nearest his family gets to dysfunctional is his wife’s terrible cooking.

There’s more to him than can be shown within the limits of television, though John Nettles caught the essence of the character really well. We learn that earlier in his career, Barnaby was badly affected by certain aspects of his work and discover how he came to terms with his life. He’s an interesting character with a pithy line in put-downs – especially when he needs his indigestion tablets.

The Chief could be very terse at times. He was a big, burly man with an air of calm paternalism which had seduced far sharper men than Gavin Troy into voicing opinions which had then been trounced to smithereens.

Sergeant Gavin Troy is a wonderful contrast to Barnaby. Much younger, he’s torn between wanting to impress his boss and convinced he’s the coming man. Prone to envy and sneering, his thoughts are very funny and despite his prejudices, he’s somehow endearing. In his foreword, John Nettles explains how Troy’s character was toned down for the television series. This is from when Miss Bellringer calls at the police station and speaks to Troy:

The sergeant pretended he had forgotten her name. Occasionally this simple manoeuvre caused people to wonder if their visit was really worth the bother and to drift off, thus saving unnecessary paperwork.

The foreword is well worth having. John Nettles adds some interesting background to his rôle and warmly admires Caroline Graham’s work. He’s one of a select few actors who’ve played two lead detectives in British television series, being fondly remembered as Bergerac in the 1980s.

The novel is intricately plotted with plenty of alibis and red herrings. A point that intrigued me was that Barnaby quickly pieces together the likely motive for the first murder. It’s actually mentioned in the jacket copy. This seems a bold move by the author when the reason for murder is mostly a large part of the final reveal – often, discovering the motive is what finally gives the game away. It does make the plot less formulaic and knowing – partially – why Miss Simpson had to die, doesn’t detract in the slightest from the thrill of the chase.

The Killings at Badger’s Drift is a masterclass in whodunit writing and deserves its place on the CWA list of The 100 Best Crime Novels Of All Time.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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