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.

Crooked House

By Agatha Christie

Crooked_HouseI’m a fan of Agatha Christie, but I find both Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot kind of tiresome. So, I’m mostly a fan of her stand-alone books. (Though for a truly bizarre experience, read her faintly supernatural Harley Quin short stories.*)

Anyway, Crooked House was new to me, and was extremely entertaining! I mean, of course it was – Agatha Christie is a master at plotting and characters! It is sort of a classic English country estate mystery, with the patriarch dying under mysterious circumstances, and all members of the extensive family, who naturally all live together in the sprawling estate (the titular ‘crooked house’), are under suspicion. It takes an outsider to sift through all the relationships, in this case the fiancé of the beloved granddaughter, who is coincidentally also the son of the assistant commissioner of Scotland Yard.

It is all very genteel and English, and because Agatha Christie is so good, I basically rotated through suspecting pretty much every character, with in retrospect the obvious exception of the actual culprit. The ending came as a huge surprise to me, which I always appreciate. There are also shenanigans around the will, which is always a fun bonus to a murder mystery.

A movie of it came out last year, which has an amazing cast, though somewhat odd choices for some of the characters. I’m very much looking forward to seeing it as soon as I can figure out how to access it without Amazon Prime. (For the most part, streaming has made movies more accessible, but a few times, it makes it more difficult to track down a specific movie that I know a local video rental store would have had, if those were still around.)

* That’s right, Christie had a Harley Quin, way before DC finally figured out it would benefit them to invest in some of their female characters. Christie’s Quin, though, is male and reads so obviously gay by today’s standards that it makes me wonder whether Christie was being fairly subversive for her time.)

And Then There Were None

By Agatha Christie

So, over the holiday season, Rebecca and I finally broke down and got Amazon Prime. I’d been resisting because Amazon does some really shady stuff with pricing and publishing, but that free two-day shipping is really seductive. The streaming service isn’t so bad, either, and I finally got a chance to see the recent BBC production of “And Then There Were None,” which I’ve been eagerly waiting to be widely available. I remember reading and really enjoying the novel in high school, so I remembered the basic premise – that ten people are invited on a holiday weekend at a remote island mansion, where they are murdered one by one over the course of a few days – though I didn’t remember all the details.

aidan-turnerI have to admit that I mostly wanted to watch the miniseries because I am a shameful sucker for a pretty face, and Aidan Turner is just so damn attractive. He is so attractive that I’ve watched two very mediocre shows (“Being Human” and “Poldark”) solely in order to look at him. He was very good in this, though his character also turned out to be the most problematic part for me.

Mild spoiler from the first few chapters: all the people on the island are accused of murdering one or two people, except for Turner’s character, who unrepentantly admits to killing about 20 African tribesmen. The other characters are appalled, but not enough to my mind, given we are talking about a large-scale massacre. The other characters make stifled British exclamations over it, but still seem to view him as dangerously fascinating. It really did come across as killing 20 Africans is equal in “badness” to killing one to two English people.

and-then-there-were-noneThat was the one sour note for me; overall, it was all very dramatic and fun to watch. Since there was a fair amount of sex and violence, I wondered what liberties the show had taken to ‘modernize’ the source material, so I checked out the book, and it turns out, not much. That Agatha Christy was quite the salty lady! The show ups the ante just a bit on both, but still sticks remarkably close to the original novel.

I’m not going to spoil anything more of the plot – murders! sex! violence! racism! – but Agatha Christy said that she considered this her most difficult plot to write, and her care and eye for detail really shows. Since I already knew whodunit, I could see all the small ways she had revealed that person throughout the plotting, which provided additional enjoyment to rereading it.