The ABC Murders

By Agatha Christie

ABC_MurdersI was telling my mom, a big Agatha Christie reader, how disappointing the miniseries was, and she casually gave me a spoiler to the novel which made me want to read it immediately. I won’t pass along the spoiler, but I will say Christie sets up so many zigs and zags that I was surprised at almost every turn, even knowing a key part of the ending.

In the past, I’ve found Hercule Poirot just a bit too self-satisfied to be entertaining, but compared to the completely dour Malkovich portrayal, he’s an absolute delight. Like the miniseries, Poirot is older and has retired, but unlike the series, he is happy as a clam, traveling around, selecting only the very most interesting crimes to solve.

One particular scene stood out to me early on in contrast: John Malkovich shuffles around his threadbare apartment, dying his hair over a chipped and stained sink in a scene of utter pathos. Book Poirot, on the other hand, delightedly shows off his new blackening hair tonic to his friend, after being complimented on his youthful appearance. He is unapologetic and incorrigible, and I loved it!

Ordeal by Innocence

By Agatha Christie

Ordeal_By_InnocenceWe finally bit the bullet and got Amazon Prime in order to watch “Good Omens,” and since then I’ve also been diving into all the Agatha Christie I’d been pining after. I’d previously reviewed the novel Crooked House, and the movie lacks a fair amount of the charm of the novel, replacing the more familial relationships with additional drama. However, the casting is truly amazing: Glenn Close, Gillian Anderson, and Christina Hendricks, all playing extreme personalities rubbing against each other in the titular crooked house. So, while I preferred the novel overall, the movie is well worth a watch.

After Crooked House, Amazon recommended “Ordeal by Innocence,” a three-part miniseries based on another stand-alone Agatha Christie novel I wasn’t familiar with. Well, I absolutely loved it! An authoritative matriarch has adopted five children from a variety of troubled backgrounds and raised them with dictatorial love. At the time of the book and miniseries’ start, she has been murdered 18 months ago, and the youngest son, with a history of delinquency, found guilty from overwhelming evidence. The son had insisted on his innocence until he died in prison, providing an alibi that couldn’t be confirmed.

The first character we meet is the man who could have proven the alibi, but has been incapacitated for the past 18 months, and is only coming forward now. This of course opens a whole can of worms, as the family had finally settled into some semblance of acceptance of the mother’s death and the son’s culpability, and now suspicion is everywhere again.

The miniseries takes some of the subtext from the book and makes it straight up text, leading to some deliciously shocking reveals along the way. Controversially, the series actually changes the ending, going with a different perpetrator and motive than the book. The revised ending maintains the spirit of the book, and gives a clear nod to a pivotal relationship in the original.

The book is much quieter, taking a more philosophical approach toward what it means to be innocent of a crime if no one can prove it (thus the title). Wikipedia cited that it was not one of Christie’s more popular novels, with reviewers wary of the psychological delving into motives and character. I wouldn’t normally have minded this, but 1950s psychology is rough. The women are portrayed especially uncharitably, which I would guess inspired the changed ending.

As Rebecca pointed out, the two books complement each other fairly well: both large, wealthy families consisting of conflicting strong personalities; in one, the troubled backgrounds of the family members lead naturally to conflict; in the other, the family seems to turn to conflict themselves just for the entertainment. For each, I preferred the version that included the most warmth in characters, and for one that was the novel and for the other the updated series.

As an aside, we also tried to watch “The ABC Murders” with John Malkovich as an aging and depressed Hercule Poirot, and it was such a depressing grind that we couldn’t get past the first episode.

eNewsletters

I promise that I’m going to review an actual book eventually, but in the meantime, here’s some more links!

We’ve all mourned the closing of The Toast on this blog (though thank god for the archive!), and before it closed, the editors tried multiple ways to make it financially sustainable but not exclusive without success. E-newsletters may be the answer! Both Nicole Cliffe and Daniel Mallory Ortberg, founding editors of The Toast, have ones that mirror their respective writing styles. Both newsletters are primarily for a paid subscription, though include periodic public posts for people who either cannot afford the subscription or want to read some samples first.

Nicole Cliffe’s daily newsletter, Nicole Knows, lists interesting reads from around the web, including long-form articles, YouTube videos, tweets, advice column letters, and my favorite, particularly juicy reddit posts. She also recently published an interview with Alanis Morissette in Self Magazine, and I’ve never been a huge fan of Morissette’s music, but reading these two smart and compassionate women talk about feminism and motherhood and individuality was a real inspiration.

Daniel Mallory Ortberg’s newsletter, The Shatner Chatner, is not as regular as daily, but several times a week, and my best idea is that it spans whatever he happens to be thinking of that day. It is often very funny, often very insightful, and sometimes so educational on trans issues that I’m scrambling to keep up.

And finally, this isn’t really a newsletter in the same way as the above, but R. Eric Thomas, an incredibly funny writer for Elle.com, writes a weekly tinyletter, in which he collects his 3-4 articles for Elle.com with some additional commentary or personal anecdote. They are free to subscribe to, and I look forward to them every Sunday as the only thing making current politics even remotely bearable.

—Anna

Running from COPS

So, I’ve moved to Michigan! My life got increasingly frantic leading up to the move, and now I’m surrounded by boxes, but things are calmer. I’m currently reading Rewind, the fourth in the Pinx Video mystery series, which continues to be a delightful mix of noir-ish detachment and absurdist humor. It is a perfect counterbalance to the stress of packing all of one’s belongings up in boxes and then having to unpack them again.

Running_from_COPSHOWEVER, have I got a podcast recommendation for you! It is fascinating, intense, and disturbing, and I have to take it a little at a time. “Running from COPS” is a widespread look at the show COPS, which I was shocked to realize has been on for 30 years and has aired more than a thousand episodes.

I was never a huge fan of the show, but also didn’t think very hard about it, assuming it was just a normal look at law enforcement, and how you viewed the show depended on how you viewed law enforcement in general. Which, according to the podcast, is an entirely intentional impression created by the show and has had truly insidious effects on the evolution of law enforcement.

The podcast interviews the creators of the show, network producers, retired police, lawyers, and most importantly the “criminals,” who are often found not-guilty after the cameras have turned away but will forever be “the person on COPS”. The creators ask a lot of very good questions and then follow up with the people that can answer them, which is the very best of critical-thinking media these days.

I think, like a lot of complacent, middle-class, white people, I had generally bought the argument that while flawed, law enforcement was generally trying its best, and the last decade or so has been a continual waking up to a very different reality. This podcast, for me, has been yet another wake-up call on how methodically the institution of law enforcement has been normalizing and even celebrating human rights abuses. It is not always an easy listen (honestly, in this day and age, just listening to the audio from episodes is upsetting), but I highly recommend it, not only because it is an important eye-opener but it is just great podcasting!

Great Literary Takedowns

HunterSThompsonI can’t remember what social media recommended this, but a while ago, someone linked to this truly incredible ‘eulogy’ that Hunter S. Thompson wrote for Nixon on his death:

Some people will say that words like scum and rotten are wrong for Objective Journalism — which is true, but they miss the point. It was the built-in blind spots of the Objective rules and dogma that allowed Nixon to slither into the White House in the first place. He looked so good on paper that you could almost vote for him sight unseen. He seemed so all-American, so much like Horatio Alger, that he was able to slip through the cracks of Objective Journalism. You had to get Subjective to see Nixon clearly, and the shock of recognition was often painful.

It is also shockingly reflective of the current president, as well. In these terrible times, I’ve been really missing the political writers like Molly Ivins, who could make me laugh while exposing the most outrageous politics, and we need more of them. I hope to God someone writes something similar about Trump on his demise (or sooner).

* * * * * * * * *

MarkTwainWhen I was relating this to my mom as perhaps the best literary take-down I’d ever read, she reminded me of Mark Twain’s savaging of Fenimore Cooper, which if you haven’t read, you need to go do right now:

We must be a little wary when Brander Matthews tells us that Cooper’s books “reveal an extraordinary fullness of invention.” As a rule, I am quite willing to accept Brander Matthews’s literary judgments and applaud his lucid and graceful phrasing of them; but that particular statement needs to be taken with a few tons of salt. Bless you heart, Cooper hadn’t any more invention than a horse; and don’t mean a high-class horse, either; I mean a clothes- horse. It would be very difficult to find a really clever “situation” in Cooper’s books, and still more difficult to find one of any kind which has failed to render absurd by his handling of it.

Honestly, is there anything better than a truly skilled author using their gifts for maximum snark?

* * * * * * * * *

Unrelated, but since I’m linking to things, I’ve been obsessed with this tweet all week:

GarthGreenwell

Some good samaritan put together a spotify list that I’ve been listening to all week, and just mulling over how hard it is to feel vulnerable in your teens, trying to make meaningful connections with other people. And, of course, it is just a total shot of pure 90s teenage longing!

— Anna

Hey Ladies!

By Michelle Markowitz and Caroline Moss

Hey_LadiesAfter all my recent disappointments, I decided to go with a book with zero male voices at all. Hey Ladies! started as a randomly occurring column on the late, lamented Toast.

It was one of my favorites – just a series of emails from the most vapid group of friends trying to plan outrageous outings – but it was also a bit controversial on The Toast, with some commenters feeling like it was too broadly satirizing women in general and tipping over into anti-feminism. For the book, which borrows and expands from the original columns, the authors wrote a forward in which they explicitly write:

We’re not making fun of you or your friends or women in general. We’re making fun of ourselves, and how mass emails to big groups seem to bring out the “OMG SO EXCITED!!!!!!!!!” in all of us.

I have to admit that I was skeptical, because while I always looked forward to a Hey Ladies! column, it was definitely a sharply-pointed satire of a certain class of women. And the beginning of the book was exactly the same seven truly appalling women (and one audience-proxy who mostly doesn’t respond) that entertained me so much before.

But, damn me if by only a quarter through the book, I started getting twinges of sympathy for each character: Nicole who is always mooching off her friends, but is clearly scrabbling to maintain the lifestyle that lets her keep her friends; Ali who railroads everyone into her preferred decisions, but is also just trying to a decision made; Caitlin who is on the edge of success as a social media influencer but also really does honestly want to help everyone around her; etc.

I mean, good satire lures you into some introspection on how you view yourself and others, right?

Women-led historical mysteries, ruined by the male romantic interest

I’m just so tired, y’all. Thirty years of overlooking or excusing bad behavior by male leads and I seem to have hit my wall. Negging is not flirting, condescension is not fondness, and ignorance is not protection. How hard can it be for a man and a woman to treat each other with fairness and respect, especially in a work of fiction? Both of these mysteries started strong, but got problematic far too quickly.

A Girl Like You

By Michelle Cox

A_Girl_Like_YouA Girl Like You features Henrietta, a beautiful young woman trying to find decent work to support her widowed mother and numerous siblings in Chicago during the Great Depression. She waitresses in increasingly risqué venues, following better money while trying to hide it from her strict mother. After the manager at one club is murdered, the handsome and charming (?) Inspector Howard convinces her to go undercover at an even shadier club to get an inside view on a possible criminal network that may have included the deceases manager.

Though young, Henrietta is smart, brave, and increasingly cares what the inspector thinks of her. Inspector Howard, for his part, realizes that his age and station make him unsuitable to court Henrietta, but deals with this knowledge by blowing hot and cold in a frustrating way, including withholding information pertinent to her safety.

The author really shines in capturing the time and place across different sects of society. The shine is tarnished a bit by Henrietta’s chronistic disgust in the face of lesbianism among the waitresses and showgirls, written with just enough emphasis that I began to side-eye the author a bit.

Still Life With Murder

By P.B. Ryan and Patricia Ryan

Still_Life_With_MurderThis novel also features a beautiful young woman, working her way up socially from a shadowy past of crime and poverty in Boston, just post Civil War. Nell is first introduced as the assistant to a rural surgeon, who had rescued her from her upbringing, but in the first chapter she is hired as a governess to an old-money Boston family. Through complicated circumstances, the oldest son of the family is accused of murder, and his mother entreats Nell to do some background investigation.

Like A Girl Like You, the scene-setting and most of the characters are very well done, but the oldest son is awful! Broken from his experiences in the war, William is an enthusiastic opium addict who would rather hang for murder than try to be agreeable to his family, and by halfway through the book, I was ready to let him. Unfortunately for me, but fortunately for him, I guess, Nell is filled with the zeal of saving an innocent man and becomes increasingly smitten. When William isn’t moping over his circumstances, he is purposefully misleading Nell and then scolding her (playfully?) for making assumptions.

I would have washed my hands of him completely and it just made me feel old and cynical. With this string of recent books with intolerable male “romantic” characters, I am feeling a bit demoralized in general, like the older I get the more books I won’t like since I’ve already experienced so many other, better books.

—Anna