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[838] The Mystery of the Blue Train – Agatha Christie

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“A mirror shows the truth, but everyone stands in a different place for looking into the mirror.” (Ch.32, 291)

On the luxurious Blue Train Ruth Kettering, daughter of American billionaire Rufus Van Aldin, travels to Nice on her annual winter getaway with some precious rubies in her possession. Without her father’s knowing, she has planned a secret rendezvous with an old flame, of whom her father despises, in the French Riviera.

In another compartment sits Katherine Grey, who has come to wealth after she inherits a fortune from the old lady she has taken care the past ten years. Also on board is Dereek Kettering, who has no idea that his wife is on the train, and he is with his mistress, the actress Mirelle. The next morning, no sooner has Grey got off the train than she is called as a witness to Ruth Kettering’s murder. She has struck a brief conversation with Ruth Kettering who confided in her her troubles. What is more, Katherine Grey recognizes Dereek as the man she saw going into Ruth’s compartment on the night of her murder.

The story, though lesser known, is well-crafted, and the characterization nuanced. At stake is the precious jewelry that would benefit Dereek, but Hercule Poirot from instinct dismisses the obvious evidence that implicates the husband. There are things that do not add up: a lighter with the engraved ‘K’, the victim’s maid left the train in Paris and didn’t accompany her mistress, and the fact that Ruth’s face was disfigured. It’s the layering of issues and their underlying problems that are most impressive about the plot. Christie has deftly led reader astray from the original assessments, and there is more to the story than what appears.

Mystery aside this book is about women who are coming to terms of their own. Ruth Kettering is locked in an unhappy marriage; Katherine Grey is a woman who keeps her own counsel. They meet on the train just hours before Ruth was murdered. This is not a fast-paced mystery, but Christie has a way of bringing together characters, who at first seem so far apart from one another in distance and temperament.

317 pp. Black Dog & Leventhal. Hardback. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[837] The Travelers – Chris Pavone

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“I was handicapped by my assumption that the serious business of espionage would be handled by equally serious reporters of world events.” (Ch.37, 523)

Will Rhodes is a travel writer whose job brings him to exotic destinations and in touch with influential people. Early in the story, he is off getting himself permanently compromised and ripe for blackmail in Argentina, where he is forced to become entangled with some international spy network. Some of the people in this book do have espionage connections, but Pavone doesn’t things that simple. The reader and Will Rhodes alike must sort out the real agents from the impostors. At the magazine, there is editor Malcolm Somers, whose furtive activities include something shady with Will’s wife Chloe, who after leaving the magazine, begins pursuing her own furtive career. A former editor has disappeared. A shady group monitors the moves of a number of people, including some of the staff at the magazine.

The idea of spy thriller set in the publishing world is clever but lagged in the execution. A travel writer’s life lends a good cover for spying, but as Will Rhodes becomes entangled in this global intrigue, the story actually falls flat because it is over-written, feels too long and meandering. The self-indulgent ruminations really slow the pace, so much that it takes 351 pages to convey what I have figured out at about page 100. The saving grace is the final third, when Pavone pulls together the many threads, connecting characters that seemed unrelated to the plot and stepping up the tempo.

606 pp. Crown Books. Pocket Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[836] The Girl on the Train – Paula Hawkins

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“Hallowness: that I understand. I’m starting to believe that there isn’t anything you can do to fix it. That’s what I’ve taken from the therapy sessions: the holes in your life are permanent. You have to grow around them, like tree roots around concrete; you mold yourself through the gaps.”

The Girl on the Train is a fairly well-crafted thriller that revolves around the daily delusion of one woman, Rachel, who has been divorced and dismissed from fer job. She is the girl on the train who takes her mind off her beleaguered life by imagining the lives of others. Specifically, the lives of “Jess and Jason” who live at the house near the railway signal where her train stops every morning. To her they seem to live up to the exemplary marriage she had always dreamed of—until one morning on which Rachel sees something the completely shatters that image.

The book is full of secrets—everyone has them. The narrative makes up of those from three women, who are, between an alcoholic, a liar, and a cheat, all unreliable. They are also entangled in relationships that are gradually revealed. These little mysteries, personal secrets that exist outside of what we see on the surface propel the plot, which delves into the timeless question of how much can you really know a person. As Rachel is pulled into the lives of these people for whom she invents life details, she is restless to find out about their secrets. She probes and tries to recall exactly what happened on the fateful night the victim disappeared. She is prone to blackout and drunk dialling. The memory loss prompt means a blurry repetition of images redolent throughout the pages—blood, an underpass, a blue dress, and a man with red hair, all jumble in her mind.

I give credits to Hawkins for the bold move to create a flawed female lead. Her alcoholic lifestyle discredits her testimony. She wobbles in misery and the aftermath of a failed marriage, but she is quite magnetic in her occasional spite. She is more sympathetic than the missing Meagan, and Anna, the wife of her ex-husband. Hawkins juggles perspectives intentionally full of blind spots with great skill, building up a suspense along with empathy for an unusual central character that doesn’t immediately grab with the reader.

336 pp. Riverhead Books. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[818] The Angel of Darkness – Caleb Carr

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“As Marcus had said the night before, the jury was past caring about any psychological explanation of what context had produced a normal, sane girl who would one day be capable of murdering her own children; in fact, they were past believing that she had murdered her children in the first place…” (Ch.48, 606)

The Angel of Darkness is the sequel to The Alienist in terms of the same cast: the brooding alienist Dr. Lazlo Kreizler, his indomitable servant Cyrus Montrose, the high-living New York Times reporter John Schuyler Moore, the detectives Lucius and Marcus Issacson, and feisty Sara Howard, now a private investigator for her own. The current story is narrated by a former street urchin taken in by Dr. Kreizler, the street-smart and observant Stevie Taggert, who figures prominently in this investigation of a peculiarly dastardly crime.

The plot is initiated by the kidnapping of a Spanish diplomat’s baby, then thickens, quite convolutedly, as suspicion falls on Elspeth Hunter, a malevolent nurse (actually an imposter) who left under the allegation of having suffocated several babies. Further probe reveals that she has been a suspected murdrress of her own children in upstate New York, under the name Libby Hatch. The most baffling aspect of this woman, and thus the long pursuit, capture, and attempted conviction, is that she is an unending string of paradoxes—some of them, unquestionably, possessing deadly dimensions. Her contradictory behavior confuses many: she looks like a predatory animal, but she seems genuinely caring for the girl she kidnaps.

The book is more a courtroom thriller than a police procedural; and the pursuit of Libby Hatch involves such notable historical figures as women’s-rights crusader Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Libby’s defense attorney Clarence Darrow and Thomas Roosevelt.

The story sags here and there, but Carr’s presentation of the socio-politics is authentic of the period and cannot be easily dismissed, because the villainess is almost as much of a victim as the actual victims. The very theme is the role of females in that world, how females must assimilate to the roles expected of them—motherhood, housekeeping, nurturing children; and if they cannot fulfill these responsibilities, they are worthless. Dr. Kreizler seeks to connect the two sides of the character, leading to that shaky ethical question about a woman’s determination to gain over her life against society’s expectation of her. So what the investigation team and reader are faced with is not an inconsistency as much as a troubled unity.

The book can plodding at times, but characterization is detailed and nuanced, really getting into the mind of the criminal. Carr is attentive to historical details which makes the reading very enjoyable. Once again, forensics and psychiatry are used to nail a very dangerous perpetrator who is not only sane, but calculated, manipulative and meticulous to cover her trail.

749 pp. Ballantine Books. Pocket Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[811] Mrs. Roosevelt’s Confidante – Susan Elia MacNeal

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Maggie Hope’s Mystery #5

“She had returned to the United States hoping to find out where she belonged—the United States or the United Kingdom. But now I struck her that a woman without a country, without a husband, without parents, and without religion was in the perfect position to be a spy. To be on her own, not answering to anyone.” (Ch.20, 316)

The fifth installment in the series takes Maggie Hope back to her native country. After the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States has finally joined the war effort in December 1941. In the entourage of Winston Churchill, she returns to America, where she comes to work closely with Elanor Roosevelt after the mysterious death of the First Lady’s personal secretary, Blanche Belfour.

Within the frame of this book, the murder of Blanche’s murder takes priority over the unstable and urgent political situation at large. Whoever behind the murder is determined to incriminate Elanor Roosevelt, to discredit her, and to poison the country with a scandal in the White House on the verge of war. Maggie is quickly drawn into Eleanor’s confidence in order to track down the murderer.

Within the story were days leading up to the scheduled execution of Wendell Cotton, a black tenant accused of killing his white landlord, but out of self-defense. It’s not difficult to put two and two together as Maggie becomes more involved in advocating for the suspension of death penalty. The First Lady is a target of incrimination because of her support for minority and civil rights. Wendell comes to personify all those to whom democracy is denied. Deprived of a fair trial, he really embodies the deep-seated racial and economic injustice that poisoned the society then and now.

Meanwhile, imprisoned in a Tudor mansion where conversations are under surveillance, Clara Hess talks of German rock installation. John Sterling, the ex-RAF pilot, becomes involved in Hollywood commissioned propaganda.

The social fabric is very rich, redolent of details in the White House ministrations and the President’s own secret agent. But Maggie Hope, again, is marginalized and she is involved in no more than a murder investigation that amounts not much to a mystery. The perpetrator has been explicitly stated out front so there isn’t a mystery. In this book social commentary preponderates over Maggie’s assignment. There’s the moral question of colonization: nothing Hitler does is worse than what the Brits did to the natives of its colonies when acquiring them. And how is it that white Americans can become so incensed over the ousting and purging of Jews in Europe and yet not the ousting and purging of blacks in their homeland? Such social critique is what makes the book so engrossing.

319 pp. Bantam Books. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[810] The Prime Minister’s Secret Agent – Susan Elia MacNeal

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Maggie Hope’s Mystery #4

“Not unless we want to be slaves, and see the rest of the world enslaved as well . . . while I will, with all my strength, defend our right to exist against a monster who would destroy everything honorable and good . . . There’s no glamour in it . . . do anything to make sure the next generation knows peace.” (Ch.23, 267)

The fourth installment finds Maggie Hope on the mend in rural Scotland after she cracked the Nazi’s Compassionate Death Program in which sickly children were sent to be euthanized in Berlin. Her mother, Clara Hess, a top Abwehr agent, is now held captive in London Tower waiting to be executed unless she divulges the secrets of the Nazi. She is in a catatonic state, reverting back to past personalities that the Nazi contrived to eradicate when training her to become a spy.

Meanwhile, in Arisaig, Scotland, Maggie Hope becomes an instructor for the Special Operations Executive (SOE). On the shore she stumbles upon a dead sheep whose skin is encrusted with black, blistering sores—symptoms of poisoning. When attending a friend’s ballet performance in Edinburgh, a ballerina crumples dead to the floor. To Maggie’s consternation, she has the same poisoning symptoms as the sheep. Two other ballerinas, one of whom is her friend, also fall gravely ill. The discretion practiced by bureaucrats alerts Maggie that Britain might be experimenting with biological weapons in preparation for the war. Somehow the murderer gets access of anthrax and uses it for personal vendetta.

This pretty much sums up the action of the book, which is a transition in the series as Britain is about to declare war on Germany. Maggie also has recovered from some personal struggle from the previous assignment. She confronts Churchill that he has used her family connections and she has doubts about continuing as an agent for the Britain. On account of this transition, I do not recommend casual reader that enters the series in the middle. The book often makes allusion to her complex history and draws on her past assignments. Although not much action takes place in this book, it provides a supple fabrics for the historical background, mainly concerning Britain’s reluctance to go to war with Germany without the United States being an ally. There is an allusion to Britain’s knowledge of the surprise attack by the Japanese, which deliberately sought to deceive the U.S. by false statements and expressions of hope for continued peace. Churchill, certain that the U.S. will respond to any attack with the declaration of war, ponders the moral implications of ignoring the coming crisis.

MacNeal adroitly floats between fictionalized accounts and historical re-enactments while keeping all of the action relevant. The feelings of unrest that permeated Europe in this period (circa. 1941) just before the United States entered the war are documented and add a true sense of verisimilitude to the proceedings.

301 pp. Bantam Books. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[809] His Majesty’s Hope – Susan Elia MacNeal

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Maggie Hope’s Mystery #3

“There was no choice. I was lucky I was able to work for the Abwehr, not be a soldier, not kill. At the Abwehr, there are a few other like-minded people. We are doing what we can to help as many Jews escape as possible. To lay the framework for a new Germany, a non-Communist Germany, after Hitler.” (Ch.7, 106)

Margaret Hope, when working as Prime Minister Churchill’s secretary in 1940, cracked a secret code on a newspaper put in by a Nazi spy and saved not only Churchill’s life but also St. Paul’s Cathedral from destruction. These strengths along with her fluency in French and Germany landed her an assignment to protect Princess Elizabeth from a kidnapping scheme in Windsor Castle. On account of these achievements, she is initiated into Special Operations Executive, a covert organization designed to aid the British effort abroad—and her first assignment sens her to Nazi-controlled Berlin.

This isn’t about morality—it’s anout delousing. Genetic hygiene. The mercy killing of the sick, weak, and deformed is far more decent, and in truth a thousand times more humane, than to support a race of degenerates. (Ch.5, 79)

Hope is dropped into Berlin to delivered communication devices to a resistance group made up of anti-Nazi Abwehr officials and priests. Working with Lehrer, an Abwehr agent who is a spy for Britain, she is to plant a microphone in the study of a Nazi high official, who happens to be Clara Hess, Maggie’s mother. She is part of the plot to poison London’s water supply. Maggie then stumbles upon Elise, her half-sister, who is uncovering the euthanasia program of sickly and weak children with the help of an anti-Nazi Catholic priest. Elise becomes crucial in Maggie’s mission and delivers her to safety, along with Jews she is hiding in her attic.

The first half of the book is way more engaging than the second. It’s all dynamics at the beginning: the mission to infiltrate Clara Hess’s house; the planting of a bug; the stitching and knitting for coded messages. But the chaotic events ensued are less-than-convincing. They waste all the dynamics that was built up in the preparation stage of the mission. And the only “mystery” that involves poisoning London’s reservoirs is no more than an afterthought. The whole mission to Berlin doesn’t live up to its promise.

The book owes a great deal of its strength to the well-fleshed Maggie Hope, who is brave and determined but not without flaw. She is also beset by doubts. The writing is also a strong suit. It gives a well-researched look at the maneuverings of intelligence gathering efforts on both sides of the English channel.

334 pp. Bantam Books. Trade Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[802]A Sudden Light – Garth Stein

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The narrator, Trevor Riddell, is the 14-year old scion who visits the crumbling, supposedly haunted Riddell House with his father in a quest to try to convince his senile grandfather to sell the family’s property. Living with Grandpa Samuel is the overbearing, kooky Aunt Serena, who has her own secret agenda. Trevor is trying to repair his parents’ unraveling marriage but it’s obvious that money will not resolve all his father’s issues. Jones Riddell is trying to come to terms with his mother’s death from years ago, which sent his father berserk.

The house is founded on a huge piece of land. The patriarch Samuel thinks he has a moral duty to fulfill the intentions of his ancestors and let the family estate return to the forest as an expiation of the sins of the fathers, who had been money-grubbing timber barons that exploited workers and dissipated the forests. Grandpa Samuel doesn’t want to let go of the property because he thinks his wife’s ghost is there with him.

There are just way too much going on that if the book would have concentrated on one or two things Stein dabbles in, the potential of the story would have been achieved. What irritates me the most is the overuse of easy information dumping: it’s obvious a 14- year old teenager cannot have had the vantage point to describe the whole situation, regardless his being precocious. To get around this problem, Stein supplements Trevor’s knowledge with “timely discovered” letters, diaries, and ghostly speeches when explication is needed.

The novel starts off with an enticing atmosphere: a house deep in the forest with huge carpeted room full of books. The many rooms and secret passages. The supernatural qualities of the house are taken for granted. The overall execution of the plot is a flop. Almost the entire book is devoted to the question whether the house should be sold or not. All the back stories told by ghost and the timely discovery of diaries and letters that shed light on the death of a gay greatuncle’s death are really stretching credulity. Ironically after all the contrived twists and turns the ending is straight as an arrow.

396 pp. Simon & Schuster. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[800] N or M? – Agatha Christie

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“It was so still, so unblinking in its regard, that it seemed to Tuppence as though it was not human. Staring, staring up at the windows of Sans Souci. It was devoid of expression, and yet there was—yes, undoubtedly there was, menace about it.” (Ch.9, 92)

N or M? is all about atmosphere, not so much a whodunit as an espionage mystery set during the Second World War. Tommy and his wife Tuppence follow a dead British agent’s last words to seaside guest house Sans Souci for male N and female M, Hitler’s most trusted to lead Fifth Column. They assume other names to check in to the hotel and maintain secrecy and consistency of their adopted identities. Their antics are hilarious; but they on occasions forget to lie and thus risk blowing their covers.

Other than a German refugee von Deinem, Tommy and Tuppence are looking at a group of ordinary everyday people. Could the German spies be part-Spanish landlady Mrs. Perenna, sulky daughter Sheila, bulky Mrs. O’Rourke, bluff Major Bletchley, elderly Miss Minton, invalid Mr. Cayley or his attentive wife Elizabeth? Surely not Mrs. Sprot with lisping toddler Betty?

A hefty amount of pages devote to Tommy and Tuppence’s secret probing and meeting away from the house. There’s a mysterious woman seen around town. There’s room being searched. The toddler is kidnapped. Kidnapper is killed. The haven of peace and quiet does bode menace, something indescribable, a queer formless dread of something is going to be. Despite the plenty twists and turns, the surprised ending is rushed and weak.

191 pp. Dell Books. Pocket Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]

[799] 13 At Dinner – Agatha Christie

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“Hers was not a face to command instant attention or recognition. It was one of those mobile, sensitive faces that pre-eminently lend themselves to the act of mimicry.” (9)

A well-known, beautiful actress Jane Wilkinson approaches Hercule Poirot with an unusual request: to convince her husband, Lord Edgware, to divorce her. The actress shamelessly makes no secret about how her husband is in the way of her romantic dreams. She is in love with a Duke to whom she plans to marry. The next day Lord Edgware tells Poirot that he has already agreed to the divorce and had mailed a letter to inform Jane of his agreement. That very evening Lord Edgware is murdered. The police regards Jane the prime suspect based on evidence of two witnesses, Lord Edgware’s butler and secretary, who corroborate seeing her in the house on the night of the murder.

The best of the book is the investigation by Detective Japp as instructed by Hercule Poirot. Solving the mystery means looking at many different options. A plethora of seemingly unrelated evidence baffles them. Jane Wilkinson has the perfect alibi as corroborated by thirteen dinner guests in the party she attended. How could she be in two places at one time? Before the detective can pursue the many questions, another woman is found dead, a reputable American actress-impersonator Carlotta Adams.

Christie gives us a lot of clues—almost too many clues that the book risks of going too long with no resolution and no real breaks in the case. But the solution is obvious except one has to make sense of all the puzzle pieces. Characterization is supple and well done in this book, shining light on the period details (1930s) and women’s roles in society. Majority of the characters are women, and they all have to fend for themselves and improve their social status by marrying above them or having a life made on their own.

213 pp. Dell Books. Pocket Paper. [Read|Skim|Toss] [Buy|Borrow]