A Tale of Two Mysteries

     One hundred years later, Agatha Christie remains the most famous of mystery writers, with a prolific output of 66 detective novels, 14 short story collections, six fiction novels under a pseudonym and the theater’s longest running play, The Mousetrap.  One of the highest selling authors of all time (2 billion copies) her books are still in print and movie versions abound even today.  I recently saw Crooked House on Netflix (mixed opinion on that one) and Death on the Nile is on my to-see list.  

   As I’ve only read a couple of her books, Murder on the Orient Express, and And Then There Were None, I can’t say that I’m a big fan.  The flaw I find in her writing is the sheer number of characters in some of them, it’s hard to keep them all straight, especially when she gives such a small amount of description and background about them.  In my opinion, we never really get to know the people in her books, except perhaps for the recurring ones, like Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot and I’ve always disliked that ridiculous mustache.

    The same with the movie adaptations, on both Crooked House and the 2017 version of The Orient Express, there were so many actors with similar appearance – the same tall dark looks (the men) and thin with bobbed hair (the women) that it was hard to keep them all straight.  In Crooked House, the filming was so dark and the camera so distant that we seldom got enough of a close-up of a face to be able to distinguish between them.  This is perhaps a problem with casting and scripts however, not the books.  

     I know only the barest outline of her life – her first marriage to a husband who left her for another woman, and who, it was reputed, never bothered to read any of her books after the first, (good riddance to him), her second marriage to a younger archaeologist, her stints as an apothecary’s assistant during both world wars, which resulted in her extensive knowledge of poisons.  (I can’t say I share that expertise despite my forty years experience, but medication was mainly compounded from scratch back in the day.)  But one thing has always puzzled people – her disappearance for eleven days in 1926.   While all of England searched for her, she was holed up in a hotel, registered under the name of her husband’s mistress.  Her mother had died earlier in the year and rumors abounded that her husband had asked for a divorce. Had she suffered a nervous breakdown, or perhaps intended to embarrass him? There was even speculation it might have been a publicity stunt.  Once found, they got back together again, but she eventually left him and he married his mistress.

So it was with interest that I read the new release, The Christie Affair, by Nina de Gramont – a fictionalized account of her mysterious disappearance. The reviews were great, and it did not disappoint.  I would consider this one of the best books I’ve read this year, deserving of being a Reese Book Club selection, which is not always the case.

The writing was excellent and suspenseful, and I am in awe of how the author spun the various stories together, with a very satisfactory ending, and of course there was a crime to solve, although it wasn’t the main focus.  I can’t say too much because of spoilers, but I do wonder how they got this book past the Christie estate because of that one pivotal detail. It’s all pure fiction of course, but masterfully done.  In short, it’s difficult to summarize this book, it’s historical fiction, it’s a suspense novel, but it’s mainly it’s just a very good story.

I’m not familiar with the author, but she has five other books I will check into. This book has also inspired me to read more about Agatha Christie’s life.  She never discussed the disappearance the rest of her life, only mentioning it briefly in her autobiography as “So, after illness, came sorrow, despair and heartbreak. There is no need to dwell on it.”

Contrast this to my experience a week later reading Lucy Foley’s latest – The Paris Apartment – a modern day locked room mystery. 

Goodreads Publisher’s Blurb: Jess needs a fresh start. She’s broke and alone, and she’s just left her job under less than ideal circumstances. Her half-brother Ben didn’t sound thrilled when she asked if she could crash with him for a bit, but he didn’t say no, and surely everything will look better from Paris. Only when she shows up – to find a very nice apartment, could Ben really have afforded this? – he’s not there. The longer Ben stays missing, the more Jess starts to dig into her brother’s situation, and the more questions she has. Ben’s neighbors are an eclectic bunch, and not particularly friendly. Jess may have come to Paris to escape her past, but it’s starting to look like it’s Ben’s future that’s in question. The socialite – The nice guy – The alcoholic – The girl on the verge – The concierge. Everyone’s a neighbor. Everyone’s a suspect. And everyone knows something they’re not telling.

Reading this book a week after The Christie Affair, I couldn’t help but compare the two.  Lucy Foley also wrote the previous locked room mysteries, The Guest List (destination wedding on an island off the coast of Ireland) and The Hunting Lodge (a Scottish lodge during a snow storm).  Now I have to admit I’m not the demographic the author is writing for (young, lots of beverage imbibing and bad language, some of it in French) but in my opinion any book which starts with an offensive opening sentence has nowhere to go but more of the same. Where were the editors?  Is there anything wrong with a simple “Ben, answer your phone – I’m freezing out here.”  No, but in a modern day mystery, it seems we must use explicit adjectives, and maybe that is the way young people talk, but I almost closed the book after the first page.  I was discussing this with the librarian when I returned it, and she argued that the author was trying to establish that the protagonist was from a disadvantaged background. I suppose there’s that….but she’s also unlikable.  It seems to be the fashion now to have an unlikable protagonist, but really, none of the characters were likable.  Which made me think – do I really want to spend 300 pages with these people? Still, I persisted….because I know Lucy Foley can spin a good tale.

It’s not a bad book, suspenseful, more character development than what Agatha Christie was prone too, but that is to be expected today.  We must have multiple motives, and in order to have motives you must reveal something about your characters, disagreeable or not.  I’m a sucker for any book with Paris in the title, but it’s like the author threw everything stereo-typically French – thin chic women afraid to eat, lots of wine, extramarital affairs and a rather sleazy descent into the seedier side of Moulin Rouge – into a pot and this is the plot she came up with.  There isn’t really even that much about Paris in it, it could be an apartment building anywhere, as that is where the majority of the story is set, although I think she ate a croissant, despite her dwindling cash reserves? I can see it being a Hollywood movie – lots of passion and sizzle, a rather thin plot, but a suspenseful ending.   It was somewhat better the last hundred pages, and was certainly a fast paced read for a book where nothing much happens, but will it stand the test of time?  That remains to be seen.   

Both were good books, in their own way, but my preference was for The Christie Affair – tell me an interesting story along with my dose of suspense.  

Which begs the question, does every mystery author eventually succumb to being dated?  Have you read any good mysteries lately?

48 thoughts on “A Tale of Two Mysteries

  1. www.rosesintherainmemoir.wordpress.com says:

    Well, now, you’ve certainly piqued my interest in the first book you reviewed. I used to read many of Agatha Christie’s books and, of course, enjoyed the Masterpiece Mystery series of Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot (yes, silly moustache, that). So I must read THE CHRISTIE AFFAIR for sure. The latest mystery I read is MY HOUSE IN UMBRIA, on which the film by the same title is based and features Maggie Smith as narrator/protagonist. I loved the movie and have watched it several times, but the mysteries surrounding the characters (survivors of what the narrator calls “the outrage,” a bomb explosion in only one compartment of the train, the very one she is traveling in) compelled me to get the book, a short novella, to clear up several points. She invites the other three survivors to convalesce at her house, a sort of pensione in Umbria, all strangers to each other. Together, they form a bond of friendship out of necessity, slowly emerge from their individual shell-shocked selves to nurture the eight-year-girl whose parents perished. It’s really a lovely story in and of itself; but it was the narrator’s own background that had me thoroughly confused until I read the book. But I didn’t like the ending at all, and overall liked the movie version better, probably because of the scenery of Umbria casting a spell over me.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Joni says:

      Jo, I loved the movie My House in Umbria with Maggie Smith, but it’s been a few years since I watched it. I did not know it was based on a novella – will have to look for it.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Anne says:

    I read my way through Agatha Christie when I was very young and enjoyed them at the time. We watched a series featuring some of her stories on television many ears ago and loved Poirot. As for the expletives used in modern novels … I find foul language quite unnecessary and certainly do not agree that using such language goes hand-in-hand with coming from a disadvantaged background. I always enjoy your book reviews!

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Dorothy's New Vintage Kitchen says:

    I’ve been a fan of hers since I was a teenager, and still love the books. There are some pretty awful movies out there based on her books, but I love the PBS Miss Marple (Joan Hickson) and Hercule Poirot (David Suchet) the best. Well filmed, great sets and costumes, and true-to-the-book plots.

    Liked by 3 people

  4. Deb says:

    Mysteries can be fun and an opportunity to escape into a bit of detective work as the reader. I get very focused on trying to figure things out although Christie isn’t necessarily on my list. I did just watch Death on the Nile. It kept me entertained.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. LA says:

    Yes. I think mysteries can become dated quickly. I didn’t love the Lucy foley…I didn’t like the protagonist so it was a slog for me. The Christie affair is in my tbr. I like The Maid…

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Linda Schaub says:

    Unbelievably, as many Agatha Christie novels as are out there, I’ve never read a single one. I must fix that soon. My mom loved detective novels and would be gripped by the plot and eager to finish it to find out whodunnit.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Joni says:

      Well I’ve only read two, and I’m no sure I even finished them. Mysteries are a genre which have really become incredibly popular, more so than I remember a decade ago, so there is lots to chose from. I’ve been known to stay up until 2 turning the pages….

      Liked by 1 person

      • Joni says:

        One of the benefits of having a commute…I got your email and hope you are feeling better. Will answer tonight or tomorrow….going to Reader first…..but it’s already past twelve. Have a good weekend!

        Liked by 1 person

      • Linda Schaub says:

        Well, dare I whine that it’s too hot? I went out again today – the storm was supposed to begin around 3:00-ish, now it is 10:00-ish, but I came home earlier because the winds picked and very gusty and it was hot and I have no A/C in the car right now. Came home and decided to look at the pics I took at Heritage Park. Turned the old computer on (in my room I use just for pictures as I store them there) and walked away to shut off the hall light – came back and had the Blue Screen of Death. That was about 11:30 and it is still doing its repair. The storm got delayed – instead of 3:00 p.m., it’s now at 10:00 p.m. so hope to catch up here a little now.

        Liked by 2 people

      • Joni says:

        Does the Blue Screen of Death repair itself? I think I’ve had that before – it’s like a light blue/gray and nothing on the screen for a few minutes? Agree, it was too hot. I bought 20 bags of $1 dirt/black earth at the grocery store and 3 bags of potting soil and my neighbour unloaded it for me, and then I swept all the maple buds off the deck, and did a yard inspection of the early flowers and that was enough for me. Way too hot, too much of a change too quickly. We are expecting thunderstorms too and a drop in the temps.

        Liked by 2 people

      • Linda Schaub says:

        Yes, mine was a black blank screen, then a blue blank screen, then looked like a starburst … a darker blue with a gold color in it and so I shut it down and brought it back and it said “do you want to repair damage – you should click yes”so I did. Hours later it was working. But I kept dashing down the hall to check on it and it said it could not restart on its own, so I had to click “yes” more repair – proceed. Finally, that didn’t work, so it said it would revert to an earlier time – no files will be lost (I did not pick the date/time to revert to – it did it on its own) and that took another hour and then it was back. This is why I like Hewlett-Packard. I had a Dell desktop and a Gateway Desktop crash, both as a result of doing Service Pack updates. I did not like this hot weather at all – miserable with no A/C in the car and I did not take the A/C cover off so could not run it in the house and could not open the windows. We’re in the 40s all week after the cold front comes in after the storm – good. I said “you’re complaining already? Well 20 pounds of dirt is a lot – that’s nice of your neighbor. The last few years I bought dirt or mulch in my car I have a little dolly in the garage and moved it to the backyard that way. I won’t buy the 40-pound bags anymore as they are just too heavy – the mulch isn’t as bad, but still awkward. We had rain start up here about 1/2 hour ago – severe weather anytime after that. Heat and severe weather – not a joy, either one.

        Liked by 1 person

  7. Eilene Lyon says:

    I did enjoy a number of her books when I was in my teens. I thought Branagh’s Orient Express film was decent enough. The first book sounds interesting, the second one not so much. I don’t generally read mysteries anymore, though I’ll read a thriller now and again.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Joni says:

      I bought a copy of Rebecca at a book sale a few years ago but have never read it, but have seen several movie versions, most recently the British one with Lily James which was very good and visually lovely.

      Liked by 1 person

      • www.rosesintherainmemoir.wordpress.com says:

        I saw the Lily James version, too, and I agree it’s quite lovely, but I’ll need to see it again to refresh my memory. The old version from 1940 remains stuck in my mind. The book is especially gripping right from the beginning with the vivid descriptions of the old Manderley place, as the narrator dreams it. “Last night I dreamed I went back to Manderley . . . ” down the long rows of huge gnarled and tangled rhododendrons black with age (as quoted somewhat from memory). That set the tone right away. Maybe that’ll entice you to pick up the book?

        Liked by 1 person

      • Joni says:

        I was familiar with the opening sentence…..but no further! I always have so many books out of the library (and due back) that it’s difficult to get to the stash I have bought.

        Liked by 1 person

  8. Ally Bean says:

    When I was in college and studied in England my research paper was on Agatha Christie, specifically the Miss Marple series. The mystery of her missing days were intriguing, but not the focus of my paper. I need to read this book. Sounds great.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Dave says:

    I haven’t read any of Agatha Christie’s stories for the same reason I never watched “Columbo” back in the day; it’s not a genre I prefer. Your comments about too many characters and not enough detail reminded me of a “Murder Mystery Dinner” my wife and I were dragged to several months ago. I couldn’t get into it because solving the mystery demanded a lot of interaction with complete strangers, asking questions that seemed awkward. At the end of the dinner the mystery is solved, the path to the solution is revealed, and you’re left wondering how anyone would be able to solve it (no one did), especially with the brief amount of time we had over dinner. Long story short, still no Christie books for me, Joni, but I’ll give The Christie Affair a try. Always appreciate your candid reviews.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Joni says:

      Oh, I always wanted to do one of those murder mystery dinners….there was one locally not too long ago at a local golf course…but not if I have to socially interact with strangers….or if they make people from the audience stand up and act out parts. Hopefully at least the food was good.

      Like

  10. J P says:

    Bad language and unlikable protagonists seems to be a thing in modern television too. We just started watching The Flight Attendant on HBO. It is a good story with an interesting mystery at the center, but the main character is a young woman who seems to spend all of her free time drinking heavily and hooking up, both of which lead to her waking up next to a guy whose throat has been slit and she has no idea how it happened.

    I ask that same question: am I just getting old when I find her lifestyle off-putting?

    Liked by 2 people

    • Joni says:

      Oh I agree totally…..I tried watching Promising Young Woman with Carey Mulligan and never got past the first ten minutes. The young librarian told me she didn’t find offensive language in books to be that offensive so I must just be an old fogey…

      Liked by 1 person

      • Joni says:

        True Jo, and I don’t mind if it suits the character or situation, it’s just that it seems so prevalent anymore that it’s becoming the accepted norm for anyone.

        Like

      • www.rosesintherainmemoir.wordpress.com says:

        Along with lack of manners and general rudeness in public places. My biggest gripe in that department is disrespect by medical personnel who insist on addressing me by my first name when I am plainly old enough to be their grandmothers! Lately, I’ve begun to take the bull by the horns and gently remind them, “I am Mrs. —– .” Works. Perhaps those young folks just have not been trained in professional courtesy?

        Liked by 1 person

      • Joni says:

        I suspect part of the problem is too much time spent on cell phones and not enough time spent in face to face/social interactions, although professional correspondence isn’t much better. I receive an email from a gallery curator this spring regarding the cancellation of my mom’s art show, which stated “Hey there…..we don’t seem to have any record of your mom’s show, the previous curator left no schedule.” Although my youngish doctor has been known to say, “Hey Joni…”

        Like

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