53) Agatha Christie — A Caribbean Mystery
Miss Marple’s nephew has paid for her to have a holiday in the Caribbean as part of her convalescence after a bad bout of pneumonia. The setting is very different to St Mary Mead, but the behaviours on display amongst the ex-pats are only too familiar. As the novel opens, Miss Marple is listening to the hotel bore, or at least making a polite show of same. She starts to pay more attention when the Major tells a story about a friend having accidentally taken a photo of someone who was almost certainly a serial murderer, but doesn’t it take it seriously until the the Major starts to pull a copy of the photo out to show her — and then sees someone and hastily puts it away. When the Major dies in his sleep that night, Miss Marple thinks there may be more to it than high blood pressure. Of course, nudging the local doctor to check whether the major really did have a prescription for blood pressure tablets is only the start. There are several potential suspects to be investigated as only Miss Marple can.
There are some nice characterisations in this book, not least being Miss Marple herself. There was some fairly acid internal monologue from Marple in the previous book (The Mirror Crack’d) about the young not having invented sex, and it continues here. On the second page:
“Sex” as a word had not been mentioned in Miss Marple’s young days; but there had been plenty of it–not talked about so much–but enjoyed far more than nowadays, or so it seemed to her.
And there’s more in that vein. This is not an unworldly spinster, whatever the world may think.
I spotted the murderer straight off, which diminished none of the pleasure of reading the book; not least because I realised who, but not why, which is neatly concealed in a shoal of red herrings. Not my favourite Marple, but still an entertaining way to pass a few hours.
52) New Writings in SF 20
One of the 1972 editions of the long-running science fiction anthology series. I was always very fond of this series, but I found it hard to connect with some of the stories in #20. In fact, half way through I was thinking that there was no point in keeping it once I’d read it, as even the ones I liked didn’t make me feel inclined to re-read them.
Conversational Mode by Grahame Leman — decidedly grim short which consists of a transcript of a conversation between an involuntarily committed patient in a mental hospital and a psychiatric program running on a computer. The story is really about the potential abuse of psychiatry rather than the mechanics of such a program, but even so I was rather distracted by early 70s mainframe computer output conventions in software that is clearly at least as sophisticated as any of the AIs running in Turing Test competitions in 2010. Not one I feel inclined to re-read.
Which Way Do I Go For Jericho? by Colin Kapp — It’s the middle of a war, and a scientist volunteers for a military intelligence operation in which he will be left behind as an apparent civilian refugee after a military pullout. The aim is to give him a chance to look at a new sonic laser weapon being used by the enemy. The catch is that he will have to be a very convincing refugee, to the point of making him so starved and ill before the pullout that he will barely be able to function. It’s the sort of science/engineering problem in harsh conditions story that Kapp was so good at. I liked it but am not inclined to re-read it.
Microcosm by Robert P Holdstock — an astronaut visits an alien planet and gets caught in two time streams. I didn’t entirely understand it and didn’t like it. A complete waste of time as far as I was concerned.
Cain(n) By HA Hargreaves — long story about the rehabilitation of a young teen who has been caught for some crime which has been wiped from his memory as part of the rehabilitation process. It’s clear from what he does remember that he has been homeless and living on the streets for years, and has no clear idea of what happened to his family. Beautifully and movingly written to show how he is slowly resocialised and comes to recognise that what he initially perceives as punishment genuinely is an attempt to rehabilitate him to the point where he is fit to serve his time.
Canary by Dan Morgan — The canary in question is a human being used the same way that canaries were used in mines — he’s a psychic who’s sensitive enough to the possibility of his own death that he can be used as an early warning of the outbreak of nuclear war. There’s some nice discussion of the problems faced by the sane members of government on both sides of a cold war in trying to stop their hotheads from stirring up trouble.
Oh, Valinda! by Michael G Coney — on an alien planet, icebergs are harvested for fresh water. Since the locals sold the rights to the icecaps to humans long ago before they realised there might be any value to them, it’s the humans who transport the icebergs to the seaboard cities where they’re needed. But the unusual mode of transport requires the help of a hired local — some of the icebergs are inhabited by giant worms who ingest seawater and filter it for food before expelling it. Persuade the worm to point in the right direction and the water jet can propel the berg. But it’s a complicated business finding a worm and keeping it going…
51) Edward Marston — Railway to the grave
Seventh in the Railway Detective series, about a Victorian detective inspector specialising in railway crime in the early days of the railways. As usual with this author, enjoyable pulp fiction that I won’t bother keeping but am glad to have read. In this one a retired Colonel commits suicide by walking into an oncoming train. Tarleton’s wife went missing a few weeks earlier, and is presumed murdered. The case might have come to Robert Colbeck in the normal course of events anyway, but there is a personal link — the dead man was a friend of Colbeck’s superior officer, from Tallis’s days as an army officer. Tallis wants his dead friend’s name cleared, and the person responsible for both deaths found. Colbeck has to persuade Tallis to leave the investigation to him, because Tallis is far too emotionally involved to do a good job.
The series in general tends to fairly cardboard characters, and Tallis has been something of a stock stereotype in spite of being a regular character, but Marston has finally begun to flesh him out a little in this book.
I’d note that the author tries to reflect period mores and attitudes in his historical mysteries, and this does mean that some of the characters’ reactions to various plot developments are not likely to sit well with much of my friends list. Colbeck himself is a broad-minded and humane man, but that simply means that he gets to clash with people who aren’t, such as the local rector who has no intention of allowing a suicide to be buried in hallowed ground.
50) Leslie Charteris – Enter the Saint
Second book in the Saint series, a trio of novelettes/novellas rather than a novel. Simon Templar continues in his adventurer ways, a moral criminal who only targets immoral criminals, bringing a little justice to the world a la Robin Hood and taking a 10% fee to cover his expenses. These stories introduce the Saint’s gang of like-minded honest crooks, and one of the stories is largely about Dicky Tremayne. Great fun from the 1930s.
49) Agatha Christie – The mirror cracked from side to side
This one’s interesting not just for the murder mystery itself, but because it was written in 1962 and Miss Marple is feeling the passage of time. Change has come to St Mary Mead, with the advent of the Development, a new housing estate. Change has come to the social structure, with the slow disappearance of household servants, and the appearance of supermarkets. And age is affecting Miss Marple, who is old enough to need some personal care after an illness, but is not the completely dependent and mindless old lady her home nurse insists on treating her as. Her doctor and old friend prescribes some unravelling of knitting for her. He’s not just referring to her knitting, and soon Miss Marple has the opportunity to unravel a murder. Her friend Mrs Bantry sold Gossington Hall some years earlier after the death of the Colonel, and after several changes of ownership and some unfortunate attention from developers it has now been sold to a Hollywood film star, who has restored it to a private home. Marina Gregg intends to take part in village life, and this includes hosting a public fund-raising event in the grounds for charity, and inviting various village notables to a private reception to view the refurbishments. As the former owner of the house, Mrs Bantry is an honoured guest — which puts her in a prime position to view events at the reception that in hindsight were a prelude to a murder.
This was one where I spotted who and part of why pretty much at the point of the murder — but the misdirection was so good that I wasn’t sure until almost the very end, even though the rest of why had been laid out quite clearly part way through the book, if you know what to look for. It’s a great read that kept me turning the pages, although it has a more melancholy feel to it than the earlier Marples. Christie has written a superb portrayal of an old woman who recognises that change isn’t necessarily all bad, but nevertheless feels discomfited by it even as she does her best to embrace the good aspects. And the ultimate motivation for the murder is heartbreaking, all the more so because it appears to have been based on a real life incident.
48) Justin Richards — Doctor Who: The Deviant Strain
Fourth of the new series tie-in novels. This one has Rose and Captain Jack as the companions, in a story set in a remote Soviet naval base abandoned after the end of the Cold War. The nuclear submarines were simply abandoned to rot as the cheapest method of dealing with them, as were the people from the village that had been there since before the base was built. The last real link with an unheeding government is the research institute which still receives limited funding and supplies. At least until something very odd is spotted by a satellite, and a Russian Special Forces team is sent to investigate.
The Tardis crew show up as well, because Jack has unthinkingly answered an emergency beacon’s signal. While there is some suspicion from the Russian group, this is because Nine’s psychic paper ID has declared him to be from a rival agency, and Jack is considered to be the sort of Intelligence agent who wouldn’t know a real fight if he saw it. The two groups manage to work together reasonably well in spite of the tensions, investigating a series of mysterious deaths that show all the hallmarks of a mythical monster.
Enjoyed this one a lot, and not just because it has Captain Jack (who does not get to be on the cover). There’s a good science fantasy mystery here, with the Special Forces team being more than just foils to show off how clever the Doctor is.
47) Agatha Christie – A pocket full of rye
City businessman Rex Fortescue has a nice cup of tea at the office, and dies of poisoning. The peculiar points to this are the poison used, and the fact that the dead man’s pocket had grains of rye amongst the contents. Inspector Neele sets about investigating the dead man’s household, which provides a good selection of potential suspects. Alas, one of the best suspects is next on the murderer’s list, and then there’s a third death.
Miss Marple doesn’t appear until nearly half way through the book. Her interest in the matter is the housemaid who was murdered, who happened to be one of the many girls Miss Marple has trained as a maid over the years. When she arrives to provide information on the girl’s background, Inspector Neele recognises her as someone who has a great deal of common sense and the ability to get people who wouldn’t dream of talking to a policeman to reveal secrets to her. The resulting interplay between Neele’s investigation and Miss Marple’s investigation is most entertaining. Neele’s no fool, even if he’s happy to play one in public, but it’s Miss Marple’s experience of human behaviour that allows them to unravel who, how and why.
Well plotted, with one or two twists on the resolution of the red herrings which make them interesting little tales in their own right, rather than just a distraction from the true identity of the murderer.