Agatha Christie – Some Thoughts on Writing


As I mentioned in Part One, Agatha Christie did not include much about her writing in her autobiography.  There are references sprinkled here and there, and some observations, but no real advice.  It’s as if she regarded the writing to be a minor aspect of her life, necessary but not of that much importance, which is peculiar for such an established and prolific author. I suspect she did not think the details of her craft would be of much interest to her reading audience, as writers were not as common back then, not like now when social media has made everyone a writer.

I can’t imagine coming up with the plot and characters for 66 plus books. I read somewhere that she would put all the characters together at the end and then decide who did it, and then go back and insert the clues, but I can’t substantiate this. While there is little in her autobiography about her technique or what inspired the books, she does tell us how she got started.

Her older sister had written and published a few short stories, and it was an early conversation with her which proved crucial to her own writing career.  Her sister, in an informal bet, dared her to write a detective novel, a popular genre at the time.  She was discouraging, “I don’t think you could do it,” said Madge, who had thought about it herself, but “they were very difficult to do.”  “I should like to try,” was Agatha’s reply.  ‘Well, I bet you couldn’t,” said Madge.  There the matter rested….but the “words had been said….from that moment I was fired by the idea that I would write a detective story…..I didn’t start to write it then, or plan it out but the seed had been sown……the idea had been planted.  Some day I would write a detective story.“    

An earlier attempt at a novel set in Cairo, had been rejected and then critiqued by a neighbour who was a popular novelist, who realizing how shy she was, was kind in his criticism, offering encouragement and some advice about plotting.  

She wrote her first book, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, while her husband Archie was off at war.  The idea was conceived at work in the dispensary, where she was surrounded by professional poisons.  Soon she had a sketchy picture of some of the characters, including her detective, Hercule Poirot, whom she imagined as a meticulous, tidy little man, Belgian like the Belgian refugees in the area, but she wished she had made him younger, considering they were to be together for so many years.  (In later years she found him “insufferable” according to her diary.)  

“In leisure moments, bits of my detective story rattled around in my head.  I had the beginning all settled, and the end arranged, but there were difficult gaps in between.  It made me absent-minded at home.”  Her mother encouraged her, her mother had the usual complete faith that her daughters could do anything.   She wrote it out longhand, and then typed it.  “Up to a point I enjoyed it.  But I got very tired, and I also got cross.  Writing has that effect, I find.”   She had difficulties with the middle, “the complications got the better of me, instead of me being the master of them.”  It was then that her mother made the suggestion that she go away on holiday and write undisturbed.  She booked into a large dreary hotel in the country, walked on the moors and wrote.  She spoke to no one – it would have taken her mind off what she was doing.

She sent it out several times with no success, and had almost forgotten about it as Archie had come home from the war. They were busy looking for a place to live, as flats were in short supply in post-war London, so she was surprised when it was accepted for publication.  They requested a few minor changes, and it was finally published in 1920.   

Like many young authors, she got trapped into a lousy contract promising them her next five books. (After fulfilling her end of the bargain, she changed publishers with no explanation given, although they were willing to bargain by then.)  

“Having given up hope for some years of having anything published, except the occasional short story or poem, I would have signed anything……I would not receive any royalties until after the first 2000 copies had been sold…..none of it meant much to me – the whole point was the book would be published.  I didn’t even notice there was a clause binding me to offer him my next five novels……I signed with enthusiasm…..In spite of the clause about the next five novels, this was to me a single and isolated experiment.  I had been dared to write a detective story, I had written a detective story.  It had been accepted and was going to appear in print.  There, as far as I was concerned, the matter ended.  Certainly at that moment, I did not envision writing any more books.”  

Her child Rosaland was born.   She was worried about keeping Ashfield, her family home as her mother still lived there.  Her husband suggested she write another book.  

She started making money and had an unexpected request from the Income Tax people about her literary earnings.  She had not thought of herself as an “established author” and had not kept track of the royalties, so she got herself a literary agent – a young man named Edmund Cork – and a friendship which lasted for 40 years.   

 “The nice thing about writing in those years was that I directedly related it to money.  If I decided to write a story, I knew it would net me L45, deducting income tax.  This stimulated my output enormously.  How different from the last ten or twenty years of my life.  I never know what I owe. I never know what money I have…..or shall have next year.” 

In 1927 she went to the Canary Islands to get away from the publicity of her disappearance and pending divorce, and managed to write the best part of a new book,  but admitted she had no joy in writing it. “I had worked out the plot, a conventional plot….I knew where I was going, but I could not see the scene in my mind’s eye, and the people would not come alive.  I was driven desperately on by the desire, indeed the necessity, to write another book and make some money.  That was the moment when I changed from an amateur to a professional.  I assumed the burden of a profession, which is to write even when you don’t want to, don’t much like what you are writing, and aren’t writing particularly well.  I have always hated The Mystery of the Blue Train, but I got it written, and sent it off to the publishers  It sold just as well as my last book – though I cannot say I have ever been proud of it.” 

By the time she remarried in 1930 she had written ten books.  

Surprisingly, she never had a room of her own to write in.  “I suppose I was enjoying myself so much in ordinary living that writing was a task which I performed in spells and bursts.  I never had a definite place which was my room or where I retired specially to write.  All I  needed was a steady table and a typewriter.   I had begun now to write straight on to the typewriter, although I still used to do the beginning chapters and occasionally others in long-hand and then type them out.”  Many friends had said to her, “I never know when you write your books, because I’ve never seen you writing, or even seen you go away to write.” 

She never felt any desperation as to whether she could think of one more book to write.  “There is always of course, that terrible 3 weeks or a month which you have to get through when you are trying to get started on a book……when you think you can’t do it.”   She admitted to talking to herself, while working out bits of dialogue.    

Later she branched out into writing plays – she was good with dialogue – and it was a new adventure, along with her annual Christie for Christmas.  She discusses how Three Blind Mice became The Mousetrap and her feeling of happiness when the audience enjoyed it so much, and its long run on the stage, and, the dread she felt about having to make a speech for a party at the Savoy on it’s tenth anniversary.  She hated public speaking, crowds, large parties, and fuss.  I don’t think there were as many author interviews back then and it was not as necessary to promote your book the way it is now when there is so much competition. 

She doesn’t state how long it took her to write a book, or how many drafts or revisions she went through, but mentions that she once wrote a book in 3 days flat – Absent in the Spring, under her pseudonym, Mary Westmacott.  It was a fiction novel she had always wanted to write, about a woman whose image of herself was completely mistaken, an idea that had been clear in her mind for some time, and the one book which satisfied her completely.  She wrote the first chapter, and then the last because she knew so clearly how it was going to end, then wrote straight through, calling in sick to work, so frightened was she of interrupting the flow, then she slept for 24 hrs.    

Of her detective books, the two that satisfied her best are Crooked House and Ordeal by Innocence. “No book was exactly as I wanted it to be, and I was never quite satisfied with it.”

Regarding any piece of creative work she wrote, “There always has to be a lapse of time after the accomplishment of a piece of work before you can in any way evaluate it.   You start into it, inflamed by an idea, full of hope, full indeed of confidence (about the only times in my life when I have been full of confidence).  If you are properly modest, you will never write at all, so there had to be one delicious moment when you have thought of something, know just how you are going to write it, rush for a pencil, and start in an exercise book buoyed up with exaltation.  You then get into difficulties, don’t see your way out, and finally manage to accomplish more or less what you first meant to accomplish, though losing confidence all the time. Having finished it, you know that it is absolutely rotten.  A couple of months later you wonder whether it may not be all right after all.”   (I find this is true, it’s difficult to evaluate your own work.)

To sum up, after reading her autobiography, I know more about her life, but I don’t feel that I really know her any better as a person or as a writer, although I enjoyed reading and can relate to many of her observations on writing.  I found her to be a complex person, contradictory in some ways, but that might just be because she was a product of her time and the times had changed.

It seems as if the writing was just a sideline to her marvelous and enjoyable life. She wrote mostly for herself – that you could make money from it and that other people liked it was a bonus.  Of course, in her later years, when she was expected to produce a book every year it could be drudgery and work – but by then she had assumed the mantel of a professional writer and she had her plays as a diversion.  Like any other job, writing has its good days and its bad days.  So perhaps there is some advice here, for those of us slogging away putting words on a page, after all.

PS. I watched the new Kenneth Branagh version of Death on the Nile recently. It was nicely filmed but just okay, casting and plot-wise. The usual quota of dark- haired men and very thin women. I guessed the ending about 20 minutes in, and there were way too many dead bodies for me.

Agatha Christie – An Autobiography

     I sometimes find writers lives more interesting than their books.  Such is the case for me with Agatha Christie, whose autobiography I was inspired to order after reading The Christie Affair (see link – A Tale of Two Mysteries), a fictionalized account of her famous eleven-day disappearance in 1926.  I wanted to know more about her life, and what an interesting life it was.  I found her autobiography fascinating, both from a historical point of view (think Downton Abbey in print), and a literary one.  It’s a long book at 532 pages so I’ll split this review into two posts, the first dealing with her life, and the second with some of her thoughts on writing.     

Agatha Christie started working on her memoirs in 1950 when she was 60 years old and finished them in 1965 when she was 75.  Although she had further successes after that, she felt that 75 was a good place to stop.  She didn’t actually write, but dictated and then had a typist transcribe them.  Her grandson found a box of the tapes when he was cleaning out her house Greenway, after his mother had died, but as she reused the tapes, they only pertain to the last quarter of the book.  Only a handful of recordings of her voice exist, so the 2014 reissue of the autobiography contains a code to listen to a selection of excerpts from the tapes on Audible, in which she talks mainly about her life as a writer, which ironically is probably more of interest to the rest of us than it was to her.  The link did not work for me, but there may be something similar online.         

Agatha Christie was born in 1890, so she had a typical upper middle class Edwardian childhood, and a good third of the book deals with that.  There is less about her older adult life, and even less about her writing, although bits and pieces are sprinkled through out the narrative.

Although she says they were not rich, they had cooks and maids and nannies, and a big house named Ashfield.  She was educated at home, and later there was a succession of finishing schools.  She showed an interest in music and took voice lessons with the aim of becoming a professional singer, but realized she did not have the temperament for it.   She considered herself shy.

Her father, to whom she was close, did not work and eventually lost the family fortune, and after a period of ill health, died when she was 11, leaving her mother in much reduced circumstances.  She considered this the end of what had been a happy childhood. 

I found her opinions on working women of interest, but perhaps they reflected what was commonly thought at the time, such as this excerpt.

“There seems to be an odd assumption that there is something meritorious about working……The position of women over the years has definitely changed for the worse.  We have clamoured to be allowed to work as men work.  Men, not being fools, have taken kindly to the idea.  Why support a wife?  She wants to do it….she can go on doing it…….You’ve got to hand it to Victorian women – they got their menfolk where they wanted them.   They established their frailty, delicacy, sensibility – their constant need of being protected and cherished…..all of my grandmother’s friends seem to me in retrospect to be resilient, and almost invariably successful in getting their own way.  They were tough, self-willed and remarkably well-read and well-informed……Mind you they admired their men enormously – they genuinely thought men were very splendid fellows – dashing, inclined to be wicked, easily lead astray.  In daily life a woman got her own way whilst paying lip service to male superiority, so that her husband should not lose face.”

Of course, this reflects her privileged upbringing – I’m sure the scullery maids did not share the same point of view on the necessity of work – but it’s also interesting, considering the profits of her publishing paid for many of the perks in her married life, as neither of her husbands were particularly well off.  She considered her writing as a fun thing to do, despite its periods of drudgery and commitment, so perhaps she didn’t regard it as work.

Her main aim, like most women of her generation, was to marry.

“In fact, I only contemplated one thing – a happy marriage.  About that I had complete self-assurance – as all my friends did.  We were conscious of all the happiness that awaited us.  We looked forward to love, to being looked after, cherished and admired, and we intended to get our own way in the things which mattered to us, while at the same time putting our husband’s life, career and success before all, as was our proud duty.  We had our own personal disappointments – moments of unhappiness, but on the whole life was FUN.  Perhaps it is fun for girls nowadays – but they certainly don’t look as if it is.”

After this section, she goes on to discuss how modern-day anxiety, and anxiety about education have strangled hope, including the bizarre statement that some people enjoy being the drama of being melancholy.  I seem to recall it being a characteristic of the young to be optimistic and hopeful, and maybe that is somewhat missing now, even more so than in the 1960’s when she was writing this, but perhaps it would be best to conclude that she was lucky to be possessed of a happy disposition, a fact she admits, for she had a great sense of enjoyment of life.  In the preface by her long-time publisher, he wrote that few people have extracted more intense or more varied fun from life and that she was a testament to the joy of living.

I find the above statements difficult to juxtaposition with my feminist image of her, for she lived a very adventurous life – and no, flappers were not mentioned, not even once, but it was an era of rapid progress, and much had changed since her sheltered childhood.  She went on an early airplane ride (with her mother’s approval) in the infancy of flight, describes the thrill of riding in a car for the first time, then buying her own car and learning to drive it.  She loved to travel and went on a ten month around the world trip with her husband – they went surfing in Hawaii.  She also traveled by herself frequently, including to the Middle East after the break-up of her first marriage.  Perhaps the world was a safer place then.  

Egypt was a regular tourist destination for wealthy Britons, and she went to Cairo with her mother when she was 17,  “Cairo, from the point of view of a girl, was a dream of delight.  We spent three months there, and I went to five dances every week.”   There were regiments stationed there, and polo, and lovely inexpensive hotels.  When they returned to London, she went for weekends at country houses, riding horses during the hunt, side saddle of course which was “wonderfully safe.”  She was a slim pretty girl and there were many flirtations, as well as an engagement to someone older, a major away for 2 years, when she met Archie Christie.  She broke off the engagement and after an on-off relationship they married  in 1914 during WW1.  She wrote her first novel, the Mysterious Affair at Styles, while Archie was off at war, and she was working at a hospital dispensary to help out, her evenings being free. 

After the war, her only child Rosalind was born.  She was worried about keeping her childhood home, Ashfield (her mother was still living there), so Archie suggested she write another book.

Archie took a new job which required travelling around the world, so she went with him, leaving her young child in the care of her sister.  A wife’s first duty was to her husband, and her daughter seemed to prefer her favorite aunt.  (This reminded me of Downton Abbey where the parent saw their children at least one hour a day for afternoon tea.)

She started making money from her books, and bought her own car, a gray Morris Cowley, a suggestion made by Archie, although she says they were not rich in those post-war years. 

 “We were prepared to have a nurse and a servant as a necessary extravagance, but would never have dreamed of having a car.  If we went to theatres it would to the pit.  I would have one evening dress and that a black one so as to not show the dirt.  We would never take a taxi anywhere.  There is a fashion in the way you spend your money – it made for less luxury, plainer food, clothes and all those things.  On the other hand, in those days you had more leisure, to think to read, and to indulge in hobbies and pursuits.  I think I am glad I was young in those times.  There was a great deal of freedom in life, and much less hurry and worry.”

Celebrities did not write tell-all biographies back in the 1960’s.  It was not the fashion it is now to be too revealing and people in general were more reserved, so the next chapter of her life is summed up by a single sentence, “The next year of my life is one I hate recalling.”  

Her mother had died, and as Archie was in Spain she had to deal with the funeral alone.  “Archie, I had always realized that he had a violent dislike of illness, death and trouble of any kind.”  He left her to clear up Ashfield by herself, deal with her mother’s and grandmother’s things, as well as the leaky roof and general state of disrepair.  He finally returned but stayed in London and when she suggested he come down for the weekend, he made excuses – she suspected he did not want to miss his Sunday golf game, although they made plans to go to Italy later.  So, there was grief and sorrow over losing her mother, until her sister, who was dealing with her own matters, eventually joined her.  When Archie finally arrived, he asked for a divorce.  He had fallen in love with a colleague’s secretary. “With those words that part of my life – my happy, successful, confident life – ended.”   “Archie said, I can’t stand not having what I want, and I can’t stand not being happy.  Everybody can’t be happy – somebody has got to be unhappy.”   My mother had always said he was ruthless. He was ruthless because he was fighting for his happiness.”  Agatha had previously admired his ruthlessness as it was offset by his many acts of kindness, but this was a total shock.    

Of her mysterious eleven day disappearance there is no direct mention, although she does allude to her fragile state while cleaning out her mother’s house.  She was ill, lonely, not sleeping or eating, subject to crying spells, feeling confused, muddled and suffering from poor memory – all signs of a nervous breakdown.  There was speculation that she had suffered an episode of amnesia and could not recall how she ended up staying at a hotel registered under the name of her husband’s mistress.  She said later that she was unaware how a period of unhappiness, worry and overwork could affect your physical health.

She hoped the affair would blow over, and finding life in England unbearable, departed to the Canary Islands with Rosaland and the governess who was also a friend. She dated her revulsion with the press, her dislike of journalists and crowds from that period.  “I felt like a fox hunted….but I came back to England myself again.”

After agreeing to the divorce, fate intervened.  She sat beside someone at dinner one night who was talking about Baghdad and the Persian Gulf and how nice it was.  He suggested she go by train via the Orient Express, something she had always wanted to do.   So she changed her travel plans from the West Indies and Jamaica and booked the Orient Express to Istanbul, Damascus, and then across the desert to Baghdad.  “Trains have always been one of my favorite things.”

She mentions taking the Orient Express so many times back and forth to digs in Syria and Iraq that I lost count.  It was cheaper then but no wonder she set one of her most famous books on it.  (Just once I would like to take the Orient Express – see link for prices most for only one night)

“Not until you travel by yourself do you realize how much the outside world will protect and befriend you – not always quite to one’s own satisfaction.”   She suffered the good intentions and advice of fellow travelers, you must see this and that, or don’t stay there it is too dangerous, as there were friends of friends and British everywhere.  So travelling all by herself to the Middle East may not have been as adventurous as it seems.

In Iraq, she met archeologist Leonard Woolley and his wife, and then when she returned the following year, she met Max, his assistant.  A quiet young man, they set off sight-seeing, staying in some rather rough conditions.  He decided right then that she would make an excellent wife for him – “there was no fuss, you didn’t complain.  You took things in stride, not getting in a state.”  They were comfortable together.

She had a hard time deciding whether to marry him or not when he proposed back in England.  She was 13 years older, a huge difference back then.  “We were friends, close friends.If I had considered Max a possible husband when I first met him, I should have been on guard, I should never have slipped into this easy, happy relationship.”  Her young daughter approved, and soon she felt it was the only thing to do.  They married in 1930 and the last quarter of the book deals with her life with Max, their travels and life on archaeological digs in Iraq and Syria.  She later wrote the book, Come, Tell Me How You Live, about those years. (I read this many years ago, but don’t recall much about it.)

By the time she remarried in 1930 Agatha Christie had written ten books.  But writing wasn’t her only source of income. She loved old houses and decorating and at one time had bought and renovated 8 of them – ”broken down slummy houses in London, renovating, decorating and furnishing them.”  WW2 came and they were separated for a time.  She updated her skills and went back to work in the hospital dispensary, finding more bottles ready made this time.

After the war she settled comfortably into middle age.  I always thought of Agatha Christie as the stout grandmotherly person she was in her old age, not the slim stylishly dressed girl in the photos so I enjoyed seeing the photos in the book, although I think the photo on the book cover is not a flattering one.

“I have enjoyed greatly the second blooming that comes when you finish the life of the emotions and of personal relations, and suddenly find, at the age of fifty say, that a whole new life has opened before you, filled with things you can think about, study or read about.  You find that you like going to picture exhibitions, concerts and the operas, with the same enthusiasm as when you went at 20 or 25.  For a period, your personal life has absorbed all your energies, but now you are free again to look around you.  You can enjoy leisure, you can enjoy things.  You are still young enough to enjoy going to foreign places.  It is as if a fresh sap of ideas and thoughts was rising in you.  With it of course, goes the penalty of increasing old age – the discovery that your body is always hurting somewhere…..these things happen and have to be endured.  But one’s thankfulness for the gift of life is I think stronger and more vital during those years than it ever has been before.” 

I enjoyed reading this book, but I didn’t get a real sense of what she was like as a person, as it’s not a revealing kind of autobiography, full of feelings and emotion, but more of a factual record of a very interesting life. It was written when she was older and looking back on what was for the most part a happy and comfortable life. She took great pleasure in reliving her memories  She started it in Nimrud, Iraq while on a dig with Max.  Not hurrying herself, writing a few pages from time to time – a task which will she predicted would go on for years….and it did – fifteen.  She died in 1976, and it was not published until the following year.  Her husband Max died a year later.

“I like living. I have sometimes been wildly despairing, acutely miserable, racked with sorrow, but through it all I still know quite certainly just to be alive is a grand thing.”

“I have been singularly fortunate.  I have with me my husband, my daughter, my grandson, my kind SIL, the people who make up my world.”

“What can I say at 75.  Thank God for my good life, and for all the love that has been given to me.”

See next week for Part Two – some of her thoughts on writing.

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?

The Literary Salon – Mary Higgins Clark R.I.P.

I did not include Mary Higgins Clark’s latest in my Books and Brownies round-up of the winter’s best reads, as while I enjoyed it, I detected a slight difference in style with this one.   I noted that she had dedicated it to the memory of her late husband (2018) and thanked her son who was with her every sentence of the way, which along with the six months delay (she usually publishes around Mother’s Day), I wrote off as being due to the inevitable life crises which sooner or later affect us all.   So I was surprised to see from an in-memoriam display at my local library that she had passed away on Jan 31 at the age of 92 of natural causes.   As she has blessed us with decades of good reading, this month’s literary salon will pay tribute to the original Queen of Suspense.  

Kiss the Girls and Make Them CryKiss the Girls and Make Them Cry by Mary Higgins Clark

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Her Highness delivers as usual, her latest and unfortunately her last.   R.I.P.

About the Author:     Mary Higgins Clark was born in 1927, of Irish descent.  Her family owned an Irish pub and was fairly prosperous but fell on hard times at the end of the Depression after her father died.   She worked as a secretary, copy editor and airline stewardess before marrying and having five children.   A gifted storyteller right from the start, she took writing classes at NYU, and started selling short stories to supplement the family income, and later turned to mysteries after being widowed in 1964 at a young age.    First published at 43, she had her first bestseller in 1975 with Where Are The Children,which she sold for the low price of $3000.   Six months later when the paperback rights went for $100,000, she quit her day job at an advertising agency and devoted herself to writing full time.   She sold her second book for $1.5 million and was at one time the highest paid female author in the country.   Her net worth is estimated at 140 million and over 100 million of her books are in print in the US alone, plus many international translations.   She has written 56 books, 38 of them suspense novels, four collections of short stories, a memoir (Kitchen Memoir), five books with her daughter Carol and six with Alafair Burke – the Under Suspicion series.   All I might add, with the same publishing company Simon and Schuster, and the same editor Michael Korda – here’s a link from S&S and for more on her story see Wikipedia link.   

Why I Read Her Books:    While the market today is saturated with psychological thrillers, for a long time Mary Higgins Clark was the designated Queen of Suspense, and the only suspense novelist I read.   (I was never a fan of Agatha Christie).    She was popular, and while considered fluffy formula writing by some, her books were immensely readable and you were always guaranteed of a happy outcome.   Her main protagonist was usually an independent young woman no older than 35, and while there was often the suggestion of a romance, it was not the main course.   While suspenseful, there were no gory forensic reports or ambiguous or surprise endings – nor were her books so creepy that you went around double-checking the locks at night.   She was dependable – her books could be counted on for a good light read.   

I remember when Maeve Binchy died in 2012, and she was only 70.   When you are used to reading a favorite author every year, it can be upsetting to realize there will be No More Books!    Although Maeve’s husband continued to publish a few short stories which hadn’t seen the light of day and a biography, it just wasn’t the same as having a new novel to crack open.   I wonder if that will be the case with Mary Higgins Clark, (although having seen the final episode of last weeks PBS Sanditon mini-series, an adaptation of Jane Austen’s last unfinished manuscript, sometimes it’s better if things are left undone).   While I’ve read a few of her early short stories, including one about her experience as a Pan-Am stewardess dealing with a stowaway on board, I’ve never read any of her earlier books including Where Are The Children or A Stranger is Watching, so these will have to do next summer when I need a M.H.Clark fix at the beach.             

What does it take to produce an annual bestseller like that?    Maybe it came easy to her, (Danielle Steele once said she could knock off a manuscript in a weekend), in which case she was lucky, but I suspect it took a fair degree of dedication and determination and a lot of hard work and  perseverance.   As she aged into her 80’s, it amazed me that she was still churning them out – her books stayed up to date, with cell phones/gadgets and modern settings and plots.   Her last book concerned the #metoo movement, and another, a murder at the famous MET gala costume ball.   She had a passion for writing and a zest for living until the very end.    Maybe that’s what everyone needs when they get older – a reason to keep on going.    I hope she is up there in the big library-in-the-sky (which is how I like to think of the afterlife for book lovers), resting in peace and reading her heart out….and maybe sending some gentle plot suggestions to a few of us earthlings looking for guidance.              



The Literary Salon – A Modern Gothic Mystery

“It’s a dark and stormy night….the November winds are howling around the house as the last of the leaves go scurrying across the yard.   Inside, all is silent except for the sound of sleet pinging against the window.   It will be snow tomorrow.”      

Thus reads my journal entry for last weekend.   We had eight inches of snow on Monday, Veteran’s Day, a record for this early in the season.   It was the perfect day to snuggle inside and read a good book, preferably one with lots of atmosphere.

Gothic mystery is heavy on atmosphere – there’s always a haunted house with a dark history, a slightly sinister caretaker, an unexplained murder or two and some ghostly phenomena to set the proper tone of creepy ambiance.  Add in a determined but solitary heroine who confronts terror head on, and a dash of potential romance with a male of the strong and silent type, and the genre is complete.    Dauphne du Mauier’s Rebecca, Charlotte Bronte’s Jane Eyre, and Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights set the bar high for this standard.    But if you want a modern update on the Gothic mystery then Ruth Ware’s latest book, The Turn of the Key, provides a modern twist – a haunted house with Smart technology set on the windswept Scottish moors…but maybe it’s not a good idea to be too Smart. 

The Turn of the Key - Ruth WareThe Publishers Blurb:

When she stumbles across the ad, she’s looking for something else completely. But it seems like too good an opportunity to miss—a live-in nannying post, with a staggeringly generous salary. And when Rowan Caine arrives at Heatherbrae House, she is smitten—by the luxurious “smart” home fitted out with all modern conveniences, by the beautiful Scottish Highlands, and by this picture-perfect family.

What she doesn’t know is that she’s stepping into a nightmare—one that will end with a child dead and herself in prison awaiting trial for murder.Writing to her lawyer from prison, she struggles to explain the unraveling events that led to her incarceration. It wasn’t just the constant surveillance from the cameras installed around the house, or the malfunctioning technology that woke the household with booming music, or turned the lights off at the worst possible time. It wasn’t just the girls, who turned out to be a far cry from the immaculately behaved model children she met at her interview. It wasn’t even the way she was left alone for weeks at a time, with no adults around apart from the enigmatic handyman, Jack Grant. It was everything.

She knows she’s made mistakes. She admits that she lied to obtain the post, and that her behavior toward the children wasn’t always ideal. She’s not innocent, by any means. But, she maintains, she’s not guilty—at least not of murder. Which means someone else is.

About the Author:
Ruth Ware is an international number one bestseller. Her thrillers In a Dark, Dark Wood, The Woman in Cabin 10, The Lying Game and The Death of Mrs Westaway were smash hits, and she has appeared on bestseller lists around the world, including the Sunday Times and New York Times. Her books have been optioned for both film and TV, and she is published in more than 40 languages. Ruth lives near Brighton with her family. Visit to find out more.
Why I Liked It:

This is the third Ruth Ware book I have read, and by far her best.   I blogged about The Death of Mrs. Westaway in last years post A Gothic Read for Halloween.   While I enjoyed that book, it took over a hundred pages to establish the protagonist as young, poor and alone, although she did an excellent job of describing what it’s like to live never knowing where your next meal is coming from.   While The Woman in Cabin Ten was more of a psychological thriller, her last two books rely on the haunted mansion theme to supply the needed atmosphere.   Her first book, In a Dark Dark Wood, was my least favorite but they were all good reads.   I do love it when I discover a new author and find she churns out a new book every year that I know in advance will be good.    So often I pick up a promising thriller in the library, start into it and then abandon it from sheer boredom.      

The Turn of the Key is told in first person, which is not my favorite, being so limited in scope, but somehow it works.  The young protagonist isn’t even all that likable, as many of her heroines aren’t, and they’re not always the brightest either.    If someone offered you a nanny position with high pay, but you knew the four previous nannies had quit, would you take it on?   You would if you were poor and struggling….and had another reason.     Scotland seems a popular locale for books these days but there isn’t even that much about it in the book.   At the center is the house with its modern Smart technology – the owners are IT/tech specialists who travel extensively (thus the need for the nanny), so the house is equipped with all the bells and whistles to control everything from lighting to music to locks.    Well, someone is controlling it….   

The annual hospital lottery Dream Home in my neck of the woods is equipped with all the latest technology, and although I intend to buy a ticket I’m not sure I would want to live in such a place.   It creeps me out knowing that Smart TVs and Alexa are listening in on our conversations, but perhaps I am too old-fashioned and you grow used to all these modern devices and wonder how you ever lived without them.   I’ve noticed that many of the protagonists in her books tend to have a wee bit of a drinking problem.   This is a plot device which started with The Girl on the Train but the fuzzy alcoholic memory thing has been overdone IMO.    Or perhaps it is just a reflection of the popularity of binge drinking among young women.   I don’t know, we never had the money or the inclination for that type of recreation.   (Note – the protagonist in The Woman in Cabin Ten is drunk throughout the whole cruise).    Other than that small criticism, the plot here is nicely revealed and the ending well done although perplexing in some ways.   Technology is great but it can sometimes make life more complicated.   Perhaps there’s something to be said for old haunted houses full of ghosts who aren’t too Smart….

Fairbanks mansion

The Literary Salon – An Unwanted Guest

An Unwanted Guest

This is the perfect book to curl up with by the fire, when the first big January snowstorm descends, perhaps with some mulled wine in hand to calm your nerves, for it is so well done you may feel like you have checked into the country inn yourself.     

The publishers  blurb:  When the storm hits, no one is getting away….

A remote lodge in upstate New York is the perfect getaway. . . until the bodies start piling up.  It’s winter in the Catskills and the weather outside is frightful. But Mitchell’s Inn is so delightful! The cozy lodge nestled deep in the woods is perfect for a relaxing–maybe even romantic–weekend away. The Inn boasts spacious old rooms with huge wood-burning fireplaces, a well-stocked wine cellar, and opportunities for cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, or just curling up with a book and someone you love. So when the weather takes a turn for the worse, and a blizzard cuts off the electricity–and all contact with the outside world–the guests settle in for the long haul. The power’s down but they’ve got candles, blankets, and wood–a genuine rustic experience! Soon, though, a body turns up–surely an accident. When a second body appears, they start to panic. Then they find a third body. Within the snowed-in paradise, something–or someone–is picking off the guests one by one. They can’t leave, and with no cell service, there’s no prospect of getting the police in until the weather loosens its icy grip. The weekend getaway has turned deadly. For some couples, it’s their first time away. For others, it will be their last. And there’s nothing they can do about it but huddle down and hope they can survive the storm.

A bit about the Author:

SHARI LAPENA  is the internationally bestselling author of The Couple Next Door and A Stranger in the House. She was a lawyer and an English teacher before turning her hand to fiction.
She lives in Toronto.



My Goodreads review:

An Unwanted GuestAn Unwanted Guest by Shari Lapena

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Best to save this book for a dark and stormy night in January when a sudden snowstorm has descended and you are safe by the fire with a hot toddy. Absolutely loved it, so creepy and suspenseful I went around and checked all the locks before bed. It’s a simple premise, probably done before, a group of strangers snowed in at a country inn with no outside communication, and one by one they get picked off – by an unwanted guest. Vivid descriptions of the inn and the weather, a twist turning plot, and solid characterizations all make for a great read. A well developed story, from a psychological point of view – how well does anyone really know anyone else……psychopaths dwell among us.

Some thoughts:

It’s a deceptively simple premise for a murder mystery, take a group of people, in this case eleven, nine guests and two staff, and confine them to a space, a la Murder on the Orient Express, so you know the murderer must be among them.    Although this book generally received good reviews there was some criticism that it was too similar to Agatha Christie’s, And Then There Were None, which I have not read, having only ever read her Orient Express book.   But as a famous author recently proclaimed in one of his podcasts, all possible ideas have been done before anyway, what makes a book different is the authors unique spin on it.    At 290 pages it is a slim book, with the author giving us just enough information about the guests in the first few chapters to enable us to differentiate between them…..and then slowly revealing more background. 

‘The large diamond glittered when she picked up her champagne glass, her eyes sparkled when she looked at her fiance.  Everything about her was shiny and bright.  She has a bright shiny life, Lauren thinks.  Then she directs her attention to the man to whom she is engaged.  What does she think of him?  She thinks he is someone who collects bright, shiny things.’

By the end of the book five of them are dead and I still had no idea who did it until the last couple of pages, although I was a bit let down as there was no dramatic climax, just a slow unraveling, and one clue which I found rather cliche.    Perhaps all the clues have been done before too.     

I always like to check out the authors background, and an English major with a law degree is a lethal combination –  grammar and details.   I hope she sells the movie rights because I’m already casting it in my head.    Her first novel was published in 2007, and her second, Happiness Economics, was shortlisted for the Stephen Leacock Medal of Humor in 2011.    Just how does one switch from writing humor to murder, but I suspect there is more money in murder mysteries.   This is her third mystery and best so far.   Her two previous books had simple plot ideas as well.    In the Couple Next Door, a couple is invited to dinner at the townhouse next door, but when the babysitter cancels at the last minute, they decide to go anyway and rig up the baby monitor and one of them goes home hourly to check, except when the evening is over, the baby is gone.   In A Stranger in the House, a newly married couple find they don’t know much about each other’s background at all.    As a Canadian writer she has a Canadian agent, and while not as well known as Claire MacIntosh or Ruth Ware, I think she is well on her way, and certainly an inspiration for those of us still struggling to find a plot.   How hard can it be to write such a simple thing… turns out very hard indeed.   

(See introduction to The Literary Salon link). 

Song of the Day:


A Gothic Read for Halloween

Here’s a spooky book to read while handing out the Halloween candy….and a link to last years blog on decorations, Come In For A Spell

(I had not intended on doing a Halloween post other than this short book recomend, but the opportunity arose for A Visit with the Paranormal – so stay tuned for Fright Night at the Museum early next week). 

The Death of Mrs. Westaway


The Death of Mrs. Westaway by Ruth Ware

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I had  enjoyed British Crime Writer, Ruth Ware’s earlier books (In a Dark Dark Wood and The Woman in Cabin 10) but found this one very slow going at the start, to the point where I thought I might abandon it altogether, but I am glad I stuck with it because the ending was brilliant. The stage must be set, but I don’t know if we needed seventy or so pages to establish the protagonist as poor, cold and alone, and then the next seventy pages to establish the Gothic mansion as decrepit, cold, creepy and full of magpies…and well Gothic. I noticed she used the same descriptions over and over……her breath huffing in the frosty air……the cold draft at the window…..shivering in the rain etc……it made me long for a cuppa hot tea. But once the story got going, it took flight just like those menacing magpies…..and I couldn’t put it down. Even though I had guessed part of the ending half-way through, there was still a surprise twist.  Jolly well done.

Add the soundtrack from some classic Hitchcock….