Endless Night – Agatha Christie

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“Some are born to sweet delight, some are born to Endless Night…”

This was my choice for March’s #1967PastOffences, run by Rich (see how behind I am?!) And I’ve yet to begin April’s #1936PastOffences (James M Cain’s Double Indemnity, if you’re interested – I’m only hoping it’s not too long; as it’s in a collection of his work, I can’t see at a glance!) Plus this is the second month in a row I’ve picked the same book as Jose Ignacio at the wonderful The Game’s Afoot website, which I’m sure you all know, but if you don’t, drop by for some great (bilingual) reviews and some fabulous recommendations, especially if you’re a fan of translated fiction, particularly of the Scandinavian sort (warning: be prepared to increase your TBR pile hugely!)

As with Double Indemnity, I chose this book for one reason and one reason only – it was amongst the piles and boxes of books in the flat (I was actually surprised how many older books I have. Hell, I was surprised at how many I have, period..!) Endless Night is a book I bought for a bus trip, and ended up not reading, but, as is so often the case with me, I still have it. It’s not a Poirot or a Marple; instead, it’s a strange little novel about a young couple who, coincidentally, meet in an area of ground on the edge of an English village. This piece of land, which is up for sale, is supposedly cursed, due to gypsies being turned off this area which was their rightful land, but our young lovebirds, Michael and Ellie (Fenella) are cynical of such superstition. Michael, who tells the story in the first person, had been working as a chauffeur, driving rich people on their European holidays, but it’s immediately apparent he’s easily bored, changing jobs frequently, and not particularly well-educated, but quite streetwise. However, he’s fallen on his feet by meeting Ellie – by coincidence, she’s the heiress to a massive American fortune – a fact she initially conceals from Michael. With the help of her companion – and close friend – Greta, she is able to deceive her family – who, to be fair, mostly consist of hangers-on: an ex-wife of her late father, and uncles who aren’t really uncles – as to her whereabouts, in order to spend time with Michael until, eventually, they are married, unbeknownst to the “family.” Predictably, they aren’t happy, presumably as this means that the cash cow, Ellie, is now betrothed, and the money might not flow so freely to them now she has a husband…It’s clear that this is the first time Ellie has stood up to them and avoided the cloistered background they’ve kept her in, for their own benefit, and this has made the hangers-on she calls her family very unhappy and angry.

Somewhere on his travels on the Continent, Michael met and befriended genius architect, Rudolf Santonix, who had always promised him that, should Michael’s boat ever come in, he would build him a perfect house. Santonix is ill (probably cancer, going by the clues in the book) and says he thinks he only has two or three houses left in him, so it looks like Michael and Ellie have met just in the nick of time. Santonix is drafted in to create the house of their dreams, but Michael and Ellie – particularly Ellie – are continually accosted by a gypsy woman, Mrs Lee, who lives in the village and never tires of threatening Ellie, appearing when she’s out riding and suchlike, and telling them both of the bad luck which will afflict those who live on what is rightly gypsy land.

Unlike Ellie, Michael has a mother (but no father), who doesn’t seem very fond of him, as if she knows him better than other people – which, to be fair, she probably does – but not in the loving, proud way you would expect a mother to behave. And due, perhaps, to his humble background, he is reluctant to introduce her to Ellie. She is, on the rare occasions we come across her, warning Michael she knows his character and that he’s no good.

This strange little book, which apparently provoked mixed responses from Christie fans, is a fast, easy read. Michael’s narrative of the story comes across as sounding slightly dated and in what was presumably then meant to be working-class language, but obviously that quaint air is to be expected in a book written in 1967.

Of course, this being an Agatha Christie, there is a twist in the tale, which I can tell you I didn’t see coming at all – essentially, I thought we’d had our twist! After that, though, there is another twist which I found a touch too unbelievable. Apart from that very minor niggle at the end, I really enjoyed my reacquaintance with Agatha Christie. I think I’ve spent too long away from the Queen Of Crime – I must’ve been a teenager the last time I read one, and I think I assumed I’d grown out of them (I remember finding ancient copies of The Clocks, Hallowe’en Party, and A Murder Is Announced in my parents when I was 12 or 13, presumably abandoned by bed and breakfasters!) I hugely enjoyed the book as a whole, and it made a pleasant change from reading current crime fiction. After almost 30 years away from Agatha Christie, I think it’s time to renew my acquaintance with her – I’ll be digging out the few I have in the house, and keeping my eyes peeled in second-hand shops too. To be honest, I really don’t think crime fiction lovers ever really grow out of Agatha Christie!

Gun Street Girl – Adrian McKinty

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Oh! Sean Duffy how do I love thee? Let me count the ways…

This is the first book I’ve read from this series – and I’m embarrassed to admit I’ve waited this long! (Although that does mean I have the advantage of three other books to read, not to mention Adrian McKinty’s other works…) Clearly I’m not revealing anything you don’t already know by saying I totally loved it!

To begin with, we have a couple of highly amusing incidents giving us a taste of the, um, more bizarre sides of life of Inspector Sean Duffy, head of CID at Carrickfergus Station, of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, and one of the few Catholics in the entire force (it’s 1985.) Also stationed there – his team Sergeant “Crabbie” McCrabban, Detective Lawson and Detective Fletcher, the only female, who all happen to be called out to a murder. After a stand-off with Larne RUC about which county the house actually stands in, Carrickfergus, perhaps – in retrospect – draw the short straw, and end up investigating a 9mm slug in Mr Kelly’s head and Mrs Kelly’s heart, then head. As Mr Kelly is a local very well-to-do bookie, and the hit looks very professional (casings removed, for example) perhaps it’s some kind of robbery or protection racket gone wrong. But – a word with the cleaning lady, who found the bodies, reveals that young Michael Kelly, their only child, had had serious shouting matches with his father (he’d been arguing a lot with his father, since he’d recently returned from Oxford just a couple of months before he would have graduated), plus Mr Kelly’s 9mm pistol is missing from it’s usual place…When, a couple of nights later, young Michael’s car is found parked on a clifftop, with him dead on the rocks below and a note in the car reading, “I lost my head. I’m really sorry”, it’s assumed to be an open and shut case of murder/suicide. But of course, it isn’t…

One of the most interesting things about Adrian McKinty’s books, as well as the most compelling (and I assume they’re all like this), is that he uses real life events from history – although he may juggle the timeline slightly – which adds realism for those of us who remember the Troubles, or some of them (even if, like me as a schoolkid, it was thought “boring” when your dad asked for the news to be put on at 6pm. Every night. And, incidentally, he still does have this timetable, followed at 6.30 by the Scottish news. Caused hell when Tucker’s Luck was scheduled on BBC 2 at 6, I can assure you.) So if it wasn’t based on fact you wouldn’t believe the daughter of a Cabinet minister could tragically die of a heroin overdose whilst studying at Oxford, missiles could possibly be stolen from a Belfast arms factory, that these very missiles were in the process of being purchased by Americans working under-the-table to get round an arms embargo so they could sell them on to a country they certainly should not be dealing with, and that an entire Chinook helicopter packed with the great and the good from the Army, M15, M16, plus who knows who else, would crash into a very remote Scottish hillside, killing all aboard…He takes seemingly disparate events and weaves a highly plausible, pretty damn scary cop story (with, of course, some tasty pickings from the best of spy stories.)

What else is there to like? (Or should that be what is there not to like?!) Well, McKinty knows how to anchor his yarn firmly in 1985, particularly by using music (like his taste!), but also films, clothes and hairstyles (Constable Lawson gets a rollicking for wearing gel on one investigation, “Do you think it’s an appropriate look for a trainee detective constable in the RUC?” Duffy questions him.) One aspect of the book I particularly enjoyed and was amused by was the portrayals of Kelly’s (mostly Protestant) neighbours on Coronation Road: like Bobby Cameron, an ardent Protestant who likes to debate theology with Duffy, and, who despite their religious differences, seem to get along fine, most of the time anyway, while to save face pretend to hate each other. There’s the man who keeps a toothless lioness as a pet nearby, giving Duffy cause to give him the odd rollicking. As Bobby Cameron astutely observes, “There should be a law against keeping lions in a council house.” Plus there’s his neighbour, who clearly has a crush on an oblivious Duffy:  “Mrs Campbell from next door was standing on the porch with a Black Forest gateau she’d made, presumably as a thank you for getting her off on a speeding ticket…She was wearing a little black PVC miniskirt and a white blouse with the two top buttons undone…She was talking about the cake, about how no one in her house liked cherries, but she knew that I had ‘more adventurous tastes’. You don’t know the half of it, sister.  I made a cup of tea and had a slice of the Black Forest. I remembered about the pharmaceutical coke, went outside and nailed a line so pure it was like getting yelled at by God. Yorkshire tea, Mrs Campbell’s Black Forest, Bayer cocaine – the lunch of champions.”

It’s little observations, asides, and bits of patter like that (and there’s plenty of it to laugh or smile knowingly at) that kept me turning the pages, only putting the book down when I was getting so tired I wasn’t fully appreciating the storyline. I read it in three sittings, which is fast for me. To call a book a “pageturner” is clichéd, but that’s because it’s true, of course. There’s a couple of, er, romantic liaisons, one of which provides the title (all the titles in the Sean Duffy series come from Tom Waits songs, so you know I was on the right track when I mentioned good taste!) Really, there’s everything a connoisseur of a crime fiction fan could possibly want.

A few years ago, post-Ian Rankin, all we heard about was Tartan Noir. But – and this is speaking as a Scot who hugely enjoys many authors who fall under that umbrella – Tartan Noir better watch its back. I’ve read a few excellent novels from the likes of Eoin McNamee, Stuart Neville, Anthony Quinn, Jane Casey, Sinead Crowley…call it what you will, I’ll say Celtic Noir. But with talent like that of Adrian McKinty, Ireland could very well be the place producing the next lot of up-and-coming crime authors. Now, I think it’s time I went back and met Mr Duffy at number 1 – The Cold Cold Ground. But I really can’t recommend this book highly enough.

Wolf Winter – Cecilia Ekbäck

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Wolf Winter is the debut novel by Cecilia Ekbäck, whose family originates, not surprisingly, from the north of Sweden and Lapland. This doubtless accounts for the novel’s hugely strong sense of atmosphere and place, and makes it the unique book that it is. The phrase also refers to the longest and hardest times in a person’s life – so, for our main characters, it is certainly an appropriate title!

It’s set in 1717, and is the story of a family: father Paavo, mother Maija, and daughters Frederika, 14, and Dorotea, 6, who move to a settlement on Blackåsen mountain in a “swap” deal with Paavo’s uncle (mainly arranged because Paavo has developed a phobia of working on the sea as a fisherman), from the seas of Finland to the mountains of Sweden. So they arrive at their new settlement on the side of the remote mountain, where there are only six households, not including the Lapps, who only come down to the mountain in winter from higher ground. Life is very tough, and really seems to consist of survival for the families. Obviously, as it’s so far north, in summer it’s almost completely light, and in winter the opposite.

At the very opening of the book, just three days after arriving on the mountain, Frederika and Dorotea come across the dead body of a man in a glade. Their mother fetches other residents of the mountain, none of whom she’s yet met, who dismiss the death as a wolf attack. But Maija knows wolf don’t attack humans, and even if they did, the wound wouldn’t resemble that inflicted on Eriksson, which she believes was caused by a rapier. The other settlers would also know this. She believes Eriksson was murdered, but knows that the pool of suspects on the mountain is obviously small, and that she, as a newcomer (and a woman!), is not in a position to publicly disagree with the longer established male settlers. So she does her best to gather more evidence (a little of which she manages to do at an examination of the body, requested by Elin, the dead man’s widow, and also attended by the priest.) Thereafter, she watches and waits, taking in all she can regarding relationships between the settlers, past disputes, etc, hoping to find out the truth behind Eriksson’s demise. Meanwhile, before winter starts, Paavo decides it would be prudent to travel south to gain employment, and leaves his wife and daughters to run the smallholding – although to me, this merely seems a plot device to allow Maija to take centre stage.

Frederika, the oldest daughter seems to have some kind of supernatural powers, which are recognised by Fearless, one of the Lapps. She is also on a quest to find out what happened to Eriksson, although she and her mother seem the only ones concerned, as he was apparently an unpopular man who liked to discover people’s secrets and use them for his own gain. Almost everyone, it seemed, was on remote Blackåsen mountain to hide away and conceal secrets – and in the course of Maija and Frederika’s respective investigations, many such secrets people would prefer to keep to themselves come tumbling out. And I can promise you, some will certainly surprise you. Other secrets are revealed when people take trips to the coast and “make enquiries” about their neighbours .

Wolf Winter is a novel most of which I really enjoyed, although I did put it down for a week or two at one point as it seemed to lose momentum slightly. About halfway through, though, the story picked up considerably, mainly with Frederika’s attempts to use the supernatural powers she feels she may have, and with the secrets of the various settlers being revealed – some innocuous, others the hiding of which you can certainly understand.

Where Ekbäck really excels, though, is in her description of the weather – to me, it beggared belief that people were able to survive in these circumstances, never mind live self-sufficiently! One description of a storm is so evocative, you can almost feel the wind blowing the windows in. The nature of the area; its animals, and particularly its plants, is another area where you can tell she’s done her research.

I really liked Maija – she was a tough, resourceful woman who got on with what had to be done, without complaint, although there were a few points in the book where it was clear she wondered what they’d let themselves in for by moving somewhere so isolated and demanding. Paavo, to be honest, we barely got to know, although it was apparent that, of the couple, Maija was definitely the stronger one. However, their relationship was without doubt rock solid – despite receiving no letters from him throughout the winter (we learn of the reason why) she has faith he will return.

Frederika was equally likeable – sweetly protective of her little sister, she initially rejected any sign of any kind of “power”, before doing her best to use it – not for her own benefit, but to see justice done and protect her family. The justice that she sees done, though, may not be for the crime she’d initially hoped…

I’d really recommend Wolf Winter as a perfect winter read (although I may be a tad late for this winter!) It would also probably please the many fans of Nordic Noir, containing as it does murder and mystery at its heart. Also, if you enjoy books with a supernatural element, this would also be just the ticket for you.  Also, the many fans of Hannah Kent’s Burial Rites should enjoy this.  I’ll be looking forward to seeing what comes next from Cecilia Ekbäck.

This review was originally written for and posted on http://petronaremembered.com/, where crime fiction fans should find a great selection of picks by various bloggers – but the hard work behind the scenes is done by that tireless promoter of crime fiction, and talented author herself, Margot Kinberg!