Not to get ahead of myself, but I might actually finish all my books for this season’s challenge. I might even finish the bonus books as well! Last month I read three of my six mystery novels for Spring. A bit of mystery and intrigue was the perfect way to welcome the warm air and sunshine back into my life. Yes, murder and 70-degree temperatures really brighten my mood. My first batch here were all older and all written by women. They range in tone, mystery style, and types of characters.
First up for me was The Circular Staircase, which is the oldest novel on my list (1908) and also one of the funniest. Rachel Innes, an old spinster, plans to spend an extended vacation in the country with her niece and nephew, Gertrude and Halsey, in a lovely house they’ve rented in the country. The first night of her stay, she deals with a trespasser trying to break into the house and a strange noise that sounds like something large falling down a circular staircase at one end of the house. The next night there is an unexplained murder near the same stairs, and a body is discovered. This throws the family into a whirlwind of trouble. First Halsey is a suspect, then his friend that was visiting with them that evening, then almost everyone in the town! The pieces of the puzzle are so intricate and intertwined, that it was very hard for me to guess most of solution until rather close to the end of the book. There are several overlapping narratives at play and they just happened to coincide in a perfect storm. As I’ve mentioned in earlier posts, she’s one of the first originators of the “if I had only known” style of mystery, and if Rachel had only known one or two pieces of this puzzle, she would have probably been able to solve it much quicker.
Some parts of this book are eyeroll-worthy, such as a man dying of fright, a hidden passageway, and a buried treasure of sorts. But then other elements are absolutely charming and hilarious. Rachel and her maid Liddy have that lovely relationship that only two cranky old biddies can have, and Rachel herself is full of a mischievousness that I admire. She is stubborn and not easily scared, which turned out to be great assets to her throughout this case. At the beginning of the novel, she admits that the events that transpired during this particular summer made her realize her passion for the case, and if she were a man she would have most certainly have been a hunter. That, to me, is an interesting character; an older woman who would normally be resigned to boring daily activities suddenly realizing a whole new exciting element to her own life.
I listened to The Circular Staircase on Audible in the car on my way to Pittsburgh to see my aunt and uncle, which is kind of hilarious because Mary Roberts Rinehart is actually from Pittsburgh. The narrator was delightful, and I laughed several times out loud by myself in the car. And some parts of it were actually pretty creepy. I definitely recommend it both in print and audio.
Next I tackled Whose Body?, the first in the Lord Peter Wimsey series by Dorothy Sayers. I listened to this one on Audible as well, and unlike The Circular Staircase, my focus drifted a bit. The narrator’s voice was very soothing, and since I was driving back from Pittsburgh at the time I ended up just zoning out. I had a hard time following the actual story, and even if I had been, I don’t think I’d be terribly impressed.
The plot is crazy. If I were to play two truths and a lie with plot points from Whose Body?, you’d never be able to tell which were truths. Here are some highlights:
- A naked dead man is found in an architect’s bathtub.
- An enormous amount of stock is bought in Prussian oil.
- A man is jilted by a woman years ago and is finally now taking his rightful revenge, because when women turn men down the whole world falls apart.
- Two similar looking men go missing and it throws everyone off for like half the book.
- A doctor believes that we should remove the part of the brain that produces guilt because it’s a weak part of human evolution. I missed a lot of this plot point and don’t really understand the reasoning for it.
- There is a complicated and confusing body switch.
Lord Wimsey gets involved in what at first appears to be a puzzling yet simple case of a mysterious dead body being dumped in a stranger’s bathtub. He is first alerted to the case by his hilarious mother, the Dowager Duchess of Denver, who happened to know the poor architect whose bath was violated. Lord Wimsey inserts himself in an unofficial capacity, annoys a lot of people, almost gets killed, and finally solves the incredibly strange puzzle.
While I know Lord Wimsey is a beloved character and very influential, the best character in the whole book is Wimsey’s mother, the Dowager Duchess. She’s crafty and sassy, not unlike another Dowager we all admire, and she truly enjoys the company of her son even though I think he’s a bit strange. What a good mom. If I were actually reading this book I think I would have enjoyed it a lot more. I have the next few on my Kindle, so I’ll be sure to continue on with the series to give it a fair shot. And maybe one day I’ll go back and read Whose Body? again, just to see what I missed.
Lastly, I read Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express. I’ve only read her And Then There Were None and absolutely loved it, so it didn’t surprise me that I enjoyed Murder the most of the first three. Poirot is such a treat to read, so arrogant and sly and confidant about his theories. It was such a quick read and allowed you to try to investigate along with Poirot. And if you can solve it before him, my hat off to you. The answer to this puzzle is a bit of a trick and slightly unfair, but Christie pulls it off.
Hercule Poirot, famous Belgian detective, boards the Orient Express on his way home from his last job only to find the train uncharacteristically crowded for the time of year. He notes the vast diversity of people in his car in particular; people of all classes and nationalities bunking together and, seemingly, completely unconnected to one another. One fellow puts Poirot on edge, a sinister looking American named Mr. Ratchett. Ratchett attempts to enlist Poirot for his talents as a detective, but Poirot throws some serious shade and tells Ratchett that he straight “doesn’t like his face” and won’t help him. Well poor Ratchett ends up dead on the train, and since Poirot’s buddy works for the line, Poirot decides to take it upon himself to solve the murder. It is an excellent example of a locked room mystery, which was very popular at the time. I enjoy these mysteries because, if done well, they force you to think outside of the box despite the label.
Most critics absolutely loved the book. They found it entertaining and surprising, not being able to guess the solution. And yet, some haters just really need to hate. Raymond Chandler, whose The Big Sleep I will also be reading for this challenge, criticized Christie and many others in his essay The Simple Art of Murder for being too contrived and dull and simply bad writers. He sounds like a lot of people I know and absolutely hate.
Murder on the Orient Express is not the beginning of the Poirot series, in fact it’s not even close, but I didn’t feel like I had missed a thing by jumping in at the middle. I will absolutely be starting this Christie series from the beginning soon, however, as I thoroughly enjoyed Poirot as a character.
One interesting thing I noticed in each book was a whole lot of casual racism. All of these books were written at least over 50 years ago, if not over 100 years ago, and even our lovable heroes and heroines had some pretty ignorant comments about Blacks, Jews, Swedes (hilariously enough), Italians, and even Americans. Women were also judged to be weaker and more nervous, which is why Rachel was so much fun. It was too bad that she was the most racist of them all. It’s not surprising that racist comments and assumptions popped up in these books. Stereotypes are an important ingredient to a good mystery, either relying on them or breaking them. These books were written during times when offensive language and stereotypes were more widely accepted, so of course they’re going to show up here and there. It still caught me off guard.
I’m currently on In The Woods by Tana French. This was the novel I bought for my Mom and my best friend but never read myself. They both loved it, and now I see why. This book is absolutely riveting. I’m terrified and excited and completely sucked in. Part of me is mad that I didn’t read it sooner, but then I wouldn’t be reading it and enjoying it so much right now. Stay tuned for my full thoughts on the first of the Dublin Murder Squad novels, as well as Chandler and Hammett, next time.