Halloween reading

Hallowe’en Party

By Agatha Christie

Halloween_PartyWe don’t manage it every year, but we like to read seasonal books when we can, especially spooky Halloween stories. Not especially spooky, but I was thrilled that Agatha Christie had a Halloween novel! Hercule Poirot is summoned by a friend to a small village after a young girl is found drowned in the apple bobbing bucket at the end of the village’s halloween party. This probably wouldn’t have been an intriguing enough mystery for Poirot to expend his energy in retirement on, but the drowned girl had been insisting earlier in the party that she had witnessed a murder. A known liar, no one had believed her, so it seemed somewhat reckless for the murderer to then do away with her and give her words more importance.

As with all of Christie’s mysteries, this was excellently plotted and I had only the faintest guess as to the conclusion shortly before it was revealed. Despite this, Hallowe’en Party is not one of my favorites of hers. Published in 1969 towards the end of her life, I couldn’t help but wonder she was getting cranky in an “old man yells at cloud” kind of way. There is a fairly heavy-handed theme of the degeneracy of the younger generation, with at least half a dozen of Poirot’s contemporaries mentioning the rising crime rate among youths and the misguided mercy of showing them any leniency in the justice system. Which does not read very well in today’s climate of harsh and obviously biased policing. I was concerned that the entire plot would serve as a platform for this philosophy, but fortunately, Christie was too canny of an author to fall into that obvious indulgence.

Pumpkin Heads

By Rainbow Rowell and Faith Erin Hicks

PumpkinheadsI was a little hesitant about reading this since Eleanor and Park broke me a little bit, and I wasn’t sure I was ready for any more of Rowell’s type of coming-of-age story, but this is much more light hearted! Deja and Josiah are best friends who work together at the world’s greatest pumpkin patch – I mean, there are pumpkins, of course, but there’s bumper cars, mini golf, s’mores bonfires, petting zoo animals, pony rides, corn maze, and every possible fall-season snack you can think of (and a few more)! (In the afterward, Rowell says she was inspired by some of Omaha’s excellent pumpkin patches, but that she and Hicks created their fantasy patch.)

Anyway, Deja and Josiah have worked together at the Succotash Hut (perhaps the one stop that I wouldn’t have been super excited about) for the last four years, but they are graduating high school, and going on to college, so this is their last year. In fact, this story is the last day of their last year, and Deja is determined that shy Josiah will actually talk to the girl that works at the fudge shop (yum!) that he’s been pining over from afar for the entire time.

This leads them all over the park, into and out of various hijinx, and of course they learn important things about life and themselves along the way, but with a light touch that mostly just celebrates everything fall, holidays, and friendship. Rowell’s writing is so funny and empathetic, Hicks’ art is lovely and really brought this dream park to life, and the whole thing left me feeling very warm hearted!

ComicFest_2019Also, this is your annual reminder that today is Halloween ComicFest, so if that’s your thing, see if one of your local comic shops is hosting an event here. We stopped by two of our local shops, and picked up an excess of kid-friendly comics, since we’ve found them to be even more popular with trick-or-treaters than candy.

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.

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

Midnight Crossroad

A Novel of Midnight, Texas

By Charlaine Harris

Midnight_CrossroadI enjoyed Charlaine Harris’ True Blood series, both the books and the TV show, at least the first few issues of each, so I figured I’d check out her Midnight, Texas series. I watched the pilot episode and the characters and acting were all flat enough that I couldn’t stay engaged, but I was curious enough about the mystery itself that I decided to try the book.

Well, if the protagonist was blandly irritating in the TV show, he’s downright dislikeable in the book – self-centered, arrogant, and deeply uncharitable toward the other characters. Manfred is a psychic – mostly scam artist but with the occasional true sight, which is of absolutely no help in this first book – who needs to lay low for as yet unexplained reasons. The ghost of his grandma directs him Midnight, a simple crossroads of a town in Texas just chock full of eccentric characters.

I sort of assumed he was starting off unpleasant to create an arc of finally realizing his place among all the other supernatural weirdos in town, but it never really materialized. If anything, the other characters got increasingly unlikeable as the book went on.

We first meet Manfred’s landlord, Bobo, who initially seems attractive and pleasant, but then increasingly “naïve” to the point of stupidity. His girlfriend has disappeared, without leaving a note or taking any of her things, and he is currently bummed about being run out on. Of course the girlfriend is soon found dead in ditch, and his “aw, geez, I’m just so sad my girlfriend is gone, but there’s nothing to be done about it” attitude naturally makes him the prime suspect.

Manfred is our primary protagonist, but a good chunk of the book is also told from the perspective of his next-door neighbor, a self-identified witch named Fiji, who is quickly established as the heart of the community and I guess this story. She has been secretly pining for Bobo for years, and quickly mobilizes the community in his defense. I would have liked Fiji a lot more if she hadn’t had quite so constant an internal dialogue about how much she didn’t care that she was “curvy,” and “softer” than the other women in town.

Harris’ writing is always on the pulpy side, but this one seemed especially thinly sketched out, even for her. It was written just a few years ago, and I wonder whether her success in television has led her to focus more on that. With the concentration of varied ensemble of characters and sort of loosely tied together action scenes, it reads much more like the outline for a script than a novel to me. Unfortunately, it didn’t make for an engaging show, either.

—Anna

Women-led historical mysteries, done two ways

I’ve been on a bit of a mystery kick, lately (instead of blog-posting, clearly), and read a couple set in different periods but with strong female leads. I got them both for free through Bookbub deals, and I liked neither of them but for very different reasons.

The Rookery

By Emily Organ

RookeryThis is actually the second in a Victorian-era series featuring intrepid reporter Penny Green, but other than the awkward progression of her relationship with a Scotland Yard Inspector, I don’t think I missed much by jumping ahead. And by that, I mean I didn’t actually care enough to miss anything.

Through sheer happenstance, Penny is on the scene of a murder in the London slum neighborhood called The Rookery. She discovers that this is one of a string of murders that have been happening in the last few weeks, and when it appears that the police are not taking it seriously, she naturally decides to investigate herself, with the enthusiastic support of her newspaper, which wants the scoop. It really isn’t a bad premise at all, if only Penny wasn’t such a ninny.

Penny Green is outrageously bad at her job, and I was consistently appalled that the inspector gave her any credence whatsoever. However, not only does the inspector take her advice to an extraordinary and dangerous degree (considering how much she jumps to conclusions and then changes her own mind during the investigation), he provides her inside information which should rightfully get him fired.

Anyway, she is convinced that the wrong man is being suspected, has second (and third, and fourth, etc.) thoughts, but then is quickly distracted by a run-in with a Fagin-type figure: “I’ve given it a lot of thought since I met him and I’m certain he must be responsible for the murders. He’s an objectionable man.” That’s the kind of judicious reporting and police-work that I like to see!

When an eye-witness is discovered, she entreats the Inspector: “If the description of him is even remotely similar to that of Ed [Fagin-type figure] then he must be arrested.” To my fury, the Inspector doesn’t shut her down at once. In better-written mysteries, she would be a side character that serves as a comedic foil interfering with the actual investigation.

One O’Clock Jump

By Lise McClendon

One_Oclock_JumpOne O’Clock Jump is basically the polar opposite. It is the first in a series featuring Dorie Lennox, a private investigator in Depression-era Missouri. She is tough, smart, and deeply sympathetic, and she just can’t catch a break, which is what really did it in for me. In the first chapter, Dorie is tailing a woman for a job and follows her up a bridge, which the woman then jumps off. There’s no heroic rescue, just watching the body float away in the current, which is more realistic, I guess, but also solidly sets the tone for the rest of the book.

The woman, of course, is not who she seemed, and neither is the supposed boyfriend who hired the tail, and wants the investigation to continue, even though he had claimed it was just about infidelity. Dorie’s boss, the owner of the investigative agency, is slowly dying from a combination of exposure to mustard gas in the first world war and a broken heart over his deceased fiancée. Her closest confidante (though she isn’t particularly close to anyone) is a homeless man who sleeps near her boarding house. She has a sort of half-hearted love interest in a shifty reporter with suspect intentions.

It’s all very well-written but unrelenting in the grimness, so I’m in the difficult position of admiring the book but not exactly enjoying it. If there could have been just the tiniest bit of levity, I think I could have really liked this series, but I just can’t with this mood right now.

Night Drop

(Pinx Video Mysteries Book 1)

By Marshall Thornton

Night_DropI have been hesitating over this review for a while because Thornton writes predominately gay mystery/romances, which is definitely a niche market and not for every reader. The Pinx Video Mystery series is written for a wider audience, though, and is just so good that I have to recommend it. The first book of the series, Night Drop, begins on the night that officers that beat Rodney King were acquitted and riots broke out across LA.

The riots are only tangentially related to the plot, and the characters themselves are only vaguely curious. At first, this complacency was off-putting, but I remembered having the same sense of distance myself. As much as they seem so recent to me, the 90s were a very different time, with the racism and brutality of police and greater society only starting to become clear to wider population.

On the one hand, I wish this book had given it a little more respect, especially considering how often we are now reliving this on a daily basis, but on the other hand, Thornton really does a masterful job of capturing the (white, middle class) cultural feeling of the 90s. It is very strange to read a well-done period-piece mystery set during your lifetime.

Our protagonist Noah Valentine (other than his name, he is the quintessential everyman) has isolated himself after the death of his partner, spending his day working in the titular Pinx Video store, which he owns, and holing up in his tiny apartment in the evenings, only socializing with his neighbors, a delightful, somewhat older gay couple that are trying to take him under their wing.

The riots only vaguely break through his apathy, and only to the extent that they affect him. He reluctantly closes his video store for the day, and learns on the following day that the camera shop down the street had gotten burned down. He had a casual acquaintance-ship with the owner, and half-assedly tries to find out what happened out of a hazy sense of social duty and curiosity.

As they run across clues that don’t seem to add up, Valentine, his neighbors, and his neighbors’ friends become more drawn into the mystery, as well as the official police investigation. Of course, the official police investigation includes a handsome officer who may or may not have more than official interest in Valentine, but all three books in the series stay in solid PG territory.

Thematically, the book has an odd but very readable overlap of noir and cozy mystery genres. It is packed with amusingly odd characters, all of whom tend to shrug off the crimes around them in a sort of noir-ish existential malaise. I very much hope that this is an ongoing series, but book 3, which came out at the end of last year, had a somewhat more final sense of conclusion than the others.

P.S. – It wasn’t until I was telling Rebecca that all the books have titles relating to video rentals, that I realized that a video rental store might be the most 90s setting possible.