I’ve been incredibly lax on the blog this month, but with the scorching weather and some rubbish health issues to boot, I’ve struggled to have the motivation to read – or do very much of anything in fact – these past few weeks. I did manage to get through two books in early July though that I should have reviewed long before now.
I have something of a complex relationship with Sherlock Holmes pastiches – sometimes I really enjoy them, sometimes I’m completely ambivalent, sometimes I loathe them – but invariably I pick them apart with the relish of a pedant. Partly it’s because I’m too much of a book snob for my own good, but largely it’s due to the fact that Sherlock Holmes is a series so close to my heart that, although I always want more stories, I have almost unreasonably high standards when it comes to other people playing in the sandpit.
In the last ten days or so, I’ve got through three very different pastiches that between them showcase some of the best elements of Holmes imitations and also some of the reoccurring niggles I have with them. Here is a brief summary of what I thought about them – I will keep it spoiler free for any Holmes fans looking for a new mystery to enjoy.
Travelling back and forth to Fife from the North East two days in a row last week may not sound like much fun, but there was a definitely silver lining. I got through two of Edward Marston’s Railway Detective novels! As my thoughts on both novels were very similar, I thought I might as well kill two birds with one stone and review them together. I won’t go into any big plot spoilers – there’s nothing worse than a mystery spoiled!
I was very much in need of a new murder mystery series, having long ago finished the Sherlock Holmes canon and then systematically worked my way through all the Poirot and Marple novels, C.J. Sansom’s Shardlake stories and all 21 Phryne Fisher novels. I do prefer my murders historical though – modern crime just doesn’t draw me in the same way – and so the Railway Detective series by Edward Marston seemed a suitable choice, especially as I had read the Christmas special (see my review here) in December and had quite enjoyed it.
A fortnight ago, when my husband and I were in Waterstones, I had what can only be described as a weak moment. I really only meant to pick up a couple of books to put in with a family member’s Christmas present, but before I knew it I was also holding a Christmas compendium of Jeeves and Wooster and a Christmassy Georgette Heyer.
Just as I decided I’d better head to the till for my own good, my husband appeared holding a hardback and said “Christmas and murder – sounds like your cup of tea!”. He handed me A Christmas Railway Mystery by Edward Marston. I’d not read any of the author’s other work, but I decided to give it a try (I’d filled up my Waterstones stamp card and got a £10 voucher in return so it didn’t even cost me a penny – bargain).
I treated myself to this book in the summer, though sadly it sat in my ‘To Read’ pile much longer than anticipated because this term has been killing me! Finally though, I’ve made enough headway in my marking to allow me to read for pleasure again, rather than only for work.
I quite enjoyed Sophie Hannah’s Poirot debut, The Monogram Murders, in 2014, finding it a pleasant exception to the rule that detective pastiches are almost always awful (seriously, there are sooo many bad Sherlock Holmes pastiches out there, I’ve almost given up on finding a decent one). It was original enough to be gripping and faithful enough to Christie’s Poirot novels that it didn’t feel like a low quality rip-off. I was pretty confident therefore that I would enjoy this one too.
It didn’t disappoint. Everything that I enjoyed about her first book was present in this one too. All the hallmarks of a Christie classic murder mystery are there: the stately home setting, the dysfunctional aristocratic family, the obtuse police inspector, the idée fixe of a literary allusion – in this case Shakespeare’s King John – and, of course, Hercule Poirot himself. Also returning is Edward Catchpool, Hannah’s detective from the first novel who serves as a sort of hybrid of Inspector Japp and Captain Hastings.
The novel utilises one of the classic tropes of detective fiction: the alteration of a will and the ensuing numerous murder suspects this creates. Lady Playford, a very successful children’s writer, invites Poirot and Catchpool to her manor in Ireland for the weekend where she announces at the dinner table that she will be altering her will in favour of her terminally-ill secretary Joseph Scotcher, despite his pronouncement that he has only months to live and much to the dismay of her son Harry, daughter Claudia, their respective partners and her solicitor Michael Gathercole.
Poirot immediately suspects that he and Catchpool have been invited to prevent a murder. Ultimately though, Lady Playford’s goal is not successful and Joseph Scotcher is murdered that very night, leaving Poirot and Catchpool with an entire houseful of people with a motive and nothing more than a bewildering overheard conversation about a closed casket to start them on their quest for answers. However, it soon becomes clear that this about far more than just money.
The period vocabulary, the pacing and the plot are all wonderful. They very much fit with the atmosphere of Christies’s novels and serve as a faithful homage. The mystery itself – I’ll refrain from revealing who did it – was pleasingly complex enough that I struggled to identify the murder successfully before the dénouement. Hannah touches on concepts of obsession and psychology with modern wisdom yet makes it work believably in the period setting.
My one real complaint was that one particular character’s quoting of King John felt a little overdone at times, so that it occasionally felt like a parody of a Christie character, rather than a real one. However, this didn’t spoil my overall enjoyment and I think this book is perfectly entitled to share a shelf with all my others by the Queen of Crime herself.
Should Sophie Hannah be inclined to write another Poirot story, I wouldn’t hesitate to buy it.
My rating: 3.5/5
It was with some hesitation I booked tickets for my husband and I to go and see Murder on the Orient Express this morning. It struck me as yet another instance of Hollywood remaking something that didn’t actually need remaking. Plus, how could anyone – even a titan of the acting world like Kenneth Branagh, of whom I am a huge fan – hope to compete with the matchless David Suchet? For me, Suchet is the definitive Poirot; a man who so perfectly captured the character that it was as though he’d walked straight out of one of the books. I’ve never watched anyone but him in the role.
As it turns out, I was pleasantly surprised and really enjoyed the film.
Sometimes you come across absolute treasures completely by accident, and I love when that happens! This was the case for me when it came to the character of the Honourable Miss Phryne Fisher.