Tag Archives: 20th century

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton

Raven Books | 2018 (8 February) | 528p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart TurtonWhen Aiden Bishop comes to his senses, he is standing in a wood, wearing a dinner jacket splattered with mud and wine, and he has absolutely no idea who he is or where he is. All he knows is that he must save Anna, a girl he can hear running in panic through the trees. But this is the story of Evelyn Hardcastle. Tonight she will die and the night after that she will die again, and the one after that. Until Aiden Bishop can break the cycle. But on each of those days Aidan will inhabit the body of a different person, each a guest at a weekend party being held at the isolated and unhappy house of Blackheath. But somebody is determined that Aiden will never be successful, that he shall never leave, and Evelyn will be doomed to die every night forever more.

And that, which is what you can also learn from the book’s cover and blurb, is all I will reveal about the astonishing plot of The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle. In fact, it barely does it justice because this is one of the most deliciously complex, multi-layered and clever plots that I have ever read. How the author Stuart Turton managed to knot this all together is a feat beyond all comprehension. Not an end – and there are countless ends – is left loose. The author’s powers of imagination, which are substantial, are equalled by his confident and self-assured handling of a plot and structure that must at times have felt like juggling cats. I am in awe of Stuart Turton’s genius.

As befitting one of the finest novels that I have ever read, there are so many elements to it. In some ways, it is science fiction – its premise is undoubtedly mindbending, its mood at times fantastical; but it is also historical fiction. We’re trapped in the English countryside of the elite in the years immediately following the First World War. As we move above and below stairs, there is most definitely a feel of Gosford Park about it. But it is also a murder mystery and its setting and elegance, as well as the confined setting and limited cast of suspects, immediately reminds the reader (at least this one) of Agatha Christie. And it is also accompanied by wit, deceit, ugliness, horror, blood.

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle is a substantial novel and not a page of it is wasted. Every page moves on this stunning plot in some manner and, as the novel continues, everything cross references. We move around the story in ingenious ways, we meet characters from a multitude of perspectives. And hanging over it all is a mood of dread and intensity, as well as of hope and of dashed hopes.

I was glued to this incredible, beautifully-written book, reading it all over one glorious weekend. This is a novel that expects you to keep your wits about you. You might have to flick back through the pages on occasion. It makes demands. But all of them are rewarded. The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle is a debut novel – how extraordinary is that?! Surely there can be few better. Stuart Turton is about to make a very big name for himself. What on earth will he write next? I cannot wait to find out. In the meantime, make sure you don’t miss The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle.


A Darker State by David Young

Zaffre | 2018 (8 February) | 360p | Review copy | Buy the book

East German police detective Karin Müller is given an offer that is very hard to refuse. In return for running a serious crime unit, liaising with the Stasi when appropriate, she will be promoted to Major of the East German People’s Police, a jump of two ranks, and given a luxurious apartment for herself, her mother, boyfriend and their baby twins. It comes with a price. Her maternity leave will be cut short and her mother will spend more time with her babies than she will. The reality of this hits almost immediately when Müller and her partner Tilsner, likewise promoted, are sent close to the Polish border where the body of a teenage boy has been found weighted down in a lake.

This isn’t the only crime to test Müller. Markus, the son of one of her team members, is also missing and it’s clear that the Stasi are keeping a close watch on the case. Müller soon realises that she is caught up in a conspiracy and it will take all of her skill to disentangle herself. The future of her own family is at stake.

A Darker State is the third novel in David Young’s Karin Müller series, a series that I have loved from its beginning. It is set during a most fascinating time and place in modern European history – East Germany in the 1970s, during the Cold War. The West looms beyond the Wall (or the Anti-Fascist Barrier as it was known on the eastern side), a temptation to some, the epitome of immoral decadence to others. David Young’s research into the time and place is clearly considerable and his insight and knowledge can be seen on every page. But because he’s the very fine writer that he is, he carries his learning lightly. It doesn’t interfere with the narrative or the pace of the plot, but it most certainly enriches both.

One of the things I really love about these books is that Karin Müller is depicted as being comfortable in her skin. She has considerable issues with the Stasi, who have actually endangered her at times (we feel that perhaps she is ignorant of the true extent of their influence and power), and she deplores some other aspects of her life in the East, but she is an East German to her heart. She believes in its Communist ideals, she deplores the lack of social care and responsibility for the old and poor in the West. There is no right and wrong here, no black or white. Except for one thing – the Stasi. And even they, or at least individuals, are more complex than might first appear.

A Darker State has such a strong plot. The novels in this series always do. And it’s so interesting watching their investigation with 1970s’ police techniques, quite apart from the interference of the Stasi. As usual, it is also an emotional case. Vulnerable young people are its victims. Müller is such a developed individual – she feels the suffering. She’s tough, she has to be, but she cares. Her assistant Tilsner is an enigmatic character, embodying the novel’s sense that not everybody is to be trusted. As a result his relationship with Karin is particularly rich.

This is fascinating historical fiction, just as it’s also gripping crime fiction. Its sense of place and time are second to none. When I read one of David Young’s books, I feel completely immersed in it, even more so because of the quality of the characterisation and the empathy that the author feels for these people. The fact that A Darker State is also such a pageturner doesn’t hurt in the least! If you haven’t read this series before than A Darker State can definitely be read as a stand alone, but I certainly suggest that you give yourself a treat and also read Müller’s first case, Stasi Child and its excellent successor Stasi Wolf.

Other reviews
Stasi Child
Stasi Wolf

Nucleus by Rory Clements

Zaffre | 2018 (25 January) | 384p | Review copy | Buy the book

Nucleus by Rory ClementsIt is the summer of 1939 and, although nobody leaves home without their gas mask, England is carrying on as normal. A more immediate threat comes from the IRA which has begun a bombing terror campaign. But events in Europe cannot be ignored indefinitely and world powers – especially America, Germany and Britain – are well aware that in the war that is to come the atom bomb, if such a thing can be created, will be critical for victory. Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory in England has been a centre for scientific discovery and innovation and it is close to a breakthrough. America knows this and so too does Germany. When one of its scientists is murdered and another one disappears, Tom Wilde (a Cambridge professor but an American citizen) becomes caught up in the investigations.

Tom has been instructed by the American government to spy on the inhabitants of a local grand house, Hawksmere Old Hall, including a scientist (and an old friend of Tom’s) Geoff Lancing and Geoff’s sister Clarissa, one of Hollywood’s most beautiful and famous film actresses. Meanwhile Tom’s love Lydia has gone into the lion’s den itself – Berlin. A German Jewish scientist and his family has been smuggled out of Germany but a child has been stolen, presumably for blackmail to make the scientist return. Lydia is determined to find him. But this is a conspiracy that stretches across continents and oceans and both Lydia and Tom are soon out of their depth. As Europe hurtles ever closer to war, the stakes couldn’t be higher, the danger to Tom and Lydia more certain.

Nucleus follows on from Corpus, the first novel to feature Tom Wilde. Before this, author Rory Clements was better known for his Elizabethan spy series but Corpus and now Nucleus demonstrate that he is a master of the spy novel whatever the period in which it’s set. Pleasingly, Tom Wilde is a professor of history, especially of the Elizabethan spymaster Walsingham and I love the way in which these two periods of history 350 years apart are shown to share similarities. Tom has his own spymaster to deal with as well as serious issues of who he can trust – it’s difficult to see the truth when you can only glimpse a small part of the bigger picture.

The plotting is superb and deliciously intricate. You do need to keep your wits about you and keep alert and the rewards are enormous. I was thoroughly immersed in the plot and caught up in the tension. The scenes in Germany are especially intense and I found them terrifying. There is one moment in this novel when I actually gasped and had to put the book down. I even flicked through a few pages to find resolution, I couldn’t deal with what I’d ‘heard’.

I love the portrayal of England during 1939. The Old House is a symbol of decadence and the old way of living, one that will shortly be made irrelevant. Lydia is arguably the most appealing and interesting of all of the characters in the novel. It’s good to read a spy novel in which women play an equal role, although if you’re after glamour you’ll certainly find it in Clarissa.

Rory Clements has created two fine characters with Tom and Lydia and he deploys them with cleverness and skill. There’s an air of intellectualism about these novels – as there would be with a professor for the central character – but there are no ivory towers here. The world is waking up to a second world war and Tom will have to get his hands dirty. I loved Corpus. Published in January 2017, it opened up the year’s reading in fine fashion and Nucleus has done exactly the same in 2018. With no doubt at all, this is one of the best historical and spy series being written today. I can’t wait for more.

Other review
Holy Spy

Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie

HarperCollins | 1934 (this edn 2017; 19 October) | 240p | Review copy | Buy the book

Below you’ll find first a review from my recent re-reading of Murder on the Orient Express. Beneath it, there’s my report of one of the most extraordinary days I think I’ll ever have…

Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha ChristieIt is the early 1930s and there are few ways more luxurious to travel from Stamboul to London than on the glorious Orient Express. The train is full and so famous Belgian detective is fortunate to find a berth when a case he’s been working on calls him back to England in a hurry, curtailing a longed for time of rest among the wonders of the Turkish city. It is midwinter and after just a day and a night the train is stopped in its tracks by an impassable snowdrift. There is no choice but for everyone aboard to wait until help can arrive. But this can be of no concern to Mr Ratchett, the wealthy American businessman in the berth next to Poirot’s, for in the night he has been murdered, stabbed multiple times in his chest.

The passengers are trapped. And what a group they are, hailing from all over the world and from all walks of life, from an elderly Russian princess to a young English governess. Poirot has no doubt that amongst them he will find the killer, but which of them is it? And why are there so many clues? Too many clues for Hercule Poirot’s peace of mind.

I grew up on Agatha Christie’s novels and during my teenage years I read every single one of them (my young adult reading was Agatha Christie, Jean Plaidy and Arthur C. Clarke). Since then, I’ve returned to the Poirot books because these were always my favourites and, while Death on the Nile has always been the one I loved the most, Murder on the Orient Express has never been far behind.

The setting and circumstances of Murder on the Orient Express provide the perfect background for an Agatha Christie novel – the confined space, the exotic location, the limited number of suspects, the clever and seemingly unsolvable crime, the glamour, the passion. And while Agatha Christie demonstrates once more what a genius she was, the murder also gives Hercule Poirot one of his most perplexing cases as well as perhaps the biggest moral conundrum of his career.

I’ve read Murder on the Orient Express three times now and obviously I know who did it. I suspect there aren’t many who don’t – aided by the television and movie dramatisations of the novel over the years, including the most recent version directed and starred in by Kenneth Branagh. But somehow it doesn’t seem to matter. I enjoyed reading it again perhaps even more than I have done before. It didn’t hurt that I was reading such a beautiful celebratory hardback edition, or indeed that I actually carried it on to the Orient Express train itself, but it was a pleasure to read it in search of the clues. Knowing how it ended, I could observe Poirot at work as he interviews the passengers one by won and follows the clues.

There are elements that have aged less well than others, particularly in the regard of some characters for some nations. Snobbery is rife, class is everything, at least to some. But Poirot manages to bridge these cultural and social divides because he is an outsider and also because he’s more elegant and refined than the lot of them.

I thoroughly enjoyed spending time with this much loved novel again. I found Agatha Christie’s style refreshing, to the point, curt in places, but more often than not eloquent and elegant. It evokes a bygone world beautifully and so now the novel is as much a historical piece as a supremely successful crime novel. I enjoyed it for both and it inspired me to go back and re-read more. Hercule Poirot is extraordinary and it’s good to be reminded of this by rediscovering him where he was born – on the page.

Premiere report

On 2 November, I had a day unlike any other, all thanks to HarperCollins, Twentieth Century Fox and Agatha Christie Ltd. I can’t thank them enough because for one day I was treated like a movie star. I think I could get used to red carpets, five star hotels, premieres, and lots and lots of champagne. All the photos below were taken by me.

The day started with something I have always wanted to do – boarding the Orient Express train at St Pancras Station in London. I’ve seen the movie and obviously read the book and now here I was sitting in one of its plush seats in the glamorous bar carriage, listening to James Pritchard discuss the legacy of his great grandmother, Agatha Christie. Across the carriage was Agatha Christie’s portable typewriter. The last time it had been on the Orient Express it had been with her.

Orient Express

It was good to hear that more adaptations may follow Kenneth Branagh’s Murder on the Orient Express. But the overriding impression I was left with was how incredible and intrepid Agatha Christie had been – to have travelled across the world on her own in a time before television to places that she could not have fully imagined in advance. I’ve always been interested in the story of Agatha Christie’s expeditions with her archaeologist husband Sir Max Mallowan but she did so much more than that. Agatha Christie and her husband are buried in the beautiful village of Cholsey, not too far from me, and I regularly pay my respects.

James Pritchard

The premiere experience at the Royal Albert Hall was unforgettable. I’ve been to a fair few premieres due to my movie blogging years but this was the first time I’ve been to one as a guest and it was incredible. With my special pass, I was able to access the areas with the stars and so watch them all be interviewed on the red carpet stage by Lorraine Kelly. It seems a long time ago since I used to go and see Kenneth Branagh on stage with his Renaissance theatre company. Now look at him! I was particularly thrilled to see Daisy Ridley and she looked beautiful.

Daisy Ridley
Daisy Ridley
Kenneth Branagh

The film itself was thoroughly entertaining although I was a bit overcome by the atmosphere inside of the Royal Albert Hall (I collected my degree in the Hall in another century and this was my first time back), the occasion, the sound system and by the amount of champagne. I was interested in the ways in which the film veered from the novel but I thought that the addition of the viaduct and the use of the outdoors for one of the most important scenes were inspired. I thought Branagh was fantastic as Poirot – completely different from David Suchet and Albert Finney (certainly from Peter Ustinov). This Poirot is a man of action as well as a genius with his little grey cells. The practicality of the moustaches is another matter entirely.

Johnny Depp
Josh Gad
Kenneth Branagh
Judi Dench
Royal Albert Hall

An extraordinary day and one I’m so thrilled and grateful to have experienced. It means a lot to me that this was all to celebrate Agatha Christie, an author who has played such a significant part in developing me as a reader and lover of books. Many years have passed and it’s so good to think that films such as this may give new generations a nudge to read and love Agatha Christie’s mysteries, just as their parents and grandparents have done.

Agatha Christie's TypewriterPoirot choccies

Thanks again to HarperCollins (Fliss), Twentieth Century Fox (Olivia) and Agatha Christie Ltd (Lydia) x

The Zig Zag Girl by Elly Griffiths

Quercus | 2015 | 339p | Bought copy | Buy the book

The Zig Zag Girl by Elly GriffithsIt is August 1950 and Detective Inspector Edgar Stephens is about to get an unpleasant surprise. Two large black cases have been recovered from the left luggage at Brighton’s railway station, reported as suspicious for their nasty stench. On opening them, Edgar is confronted with the head and legs of a woman sawn into three. The middle section soon follows but this black case, very disturbingly, is sent directly to Edgar. And there are notes as well, sent from a Mr Hugh D. Nee. The dead girl was clearly murdered in a way reminiscent of that famous magic trick – the Zig Zag Girl. This is just the sort of trick that Edgar’s wartime comrade and friend, and now a celebrated magician, the great Max Mephisto, would perform. And the coincidences don’t end there – Max is currently performing in Brighton and it appears that this poor girl was once Max’s glamorous assistant. It’s all about to get very personal for Edgar and Max.

I recently read and reviewed The Vanishing Box, the fourth mystery in the Stephens and Mephisto series by Elly Griffiths. I fell in love with it, so much so that I immediately bought the others in the series and now I’ve gone back to the beginning. It’s in The Zig Zag Girl that we’re first introduced to Edgar Stephens and Max Mephisto who have met up again for the first time since they served together in the war in the curious and secret unit, the Magic Men. The Second World War still casts a shadow over Edgar, Max and the others in the Magic Men unit. And in that shadow answers might be found.

The historical setting in this series is perfectly realised. I love the portrayal of Brighton during the 1950s with its theatres, boarding houses, pubs and (possibly haunted) police station. These are the days in which variety performers are beginning to worry about the future in a television world, but the thrill and the skill of magicians, dancers, comedians, ventriloquists, snake charmers, performing dogs and all those other colourful personalities of the stage still lives and Elly Griffiths captures it all brilliantly. I love all of the historical details, the social codes, the old-fashioned policing, the almost theatrical suspense and danger of the case, the glamour of the theatre and the austerity of the post-war years. It’s riveting.

I love Edgar and Max. It isn’t easy deciding which I love more but I think it could be Edgar. Elly Griffiths paints his character beautifully, building it up over the chapters, as we learn his history, feel his moods, sadness and hope. He’s truly wonderful. And he and Max make such a fine partnership. Little builds a relationship like fighting together in war and they do feel like brothers. In this novel I particularly enjoyed the interaction between the surviving members of the Magic Men. They’re each very different but all linked with insoluble ties. And the little touches of humour, intermingling with the feelings of sadness and regret, are irresistible.

It’s not often that I fall for a series as fast and as deeply as this one. Smoke and Mirrors is the next in the series and you can expect a review of it very soon indeed.

Other reviews
The Vanishing Box
The Chalk Pit (Ruth Galloway series)

The Vanishing Box by Elly Griffiths

Quercus | 2017 (2 November) | 358p | Review copy | Buy the book

The Vanishing Box by Elly GriffithsIt is the winter of 1954 and a young flower seller, Lily, has been found murdered in her room in a Brighton boarding house. She has been arranged by the killer so that she matches almost completely a famous painting’s portrayal of the death of Lady Jane Grey. She has been dressed in a white gown, she is blindfolded and her arm reaches out for the execution block on which she must place her head. DI Edgar Stephens has never seen the like before. But it appears that two other young ladies in the same house are actresses currently appearing in Brighton’s Hippodrome Theatre. And they, along with a few other women, perform each night in a ‘living tableaux’ – almost naked, except for a few strategically placed props and feathers, they reenact famous historical scenes, such as the death of Cleopatra. Edgar is not a man to believe in such coincidences.

In the very same show, Edgar’s friend and wartime comrade Max Mephisto is top of the bill along with his daughter Ruby – they are a magician’s double act and, such is their fame and skill, they have attracted the attention of TV producers, even Hollywood. The significance of this show is lost on no-one. And neither is the horror of poor Lily’s fate, especially when it is shortly followed by another death. This time the victim comes from the living tableaux troop itself. Everyone at the theatre is suspect. This isn’t easy for Edgar, not least because of his engagement to Ruby.

The Vanishing Box is the fourth novel in Elly Griffiths’ Stephens and Mephisto series and I am staggered that this is the first one I’ve read. I’m a big fan of the author’s contemporary Ruth Galloway detective series but, for some reason, I’d avoided the Mephisto books. I think this might be because of the the title of the series. I thought it was something to do with carnivals and magic (subjects I fear) but I was so wrong. Mephisto is a theatrical magician but he is firmly grounded in reality, as is Edgar Stephens. In fact, we’re transported back to the fascinating early 1950s, a time still recovering from the loss and hardship of World War II. The theatre is an escape. It offers glamour and hints of sin, a new reign has begun. There is optimism but also regret and nostalgia. Stephens and Mephisto both carry burdens on their shoulders and they are compelling.

In some ways this novel could be described as cosy crime and, as far as I’m concerned, that’s no criticism. I love this sort of mystery and its setting in a bygone time. It reminds me in some ways of an Agatha Christie detective novel but that’s largely because of the period in which it’s set. just as police technology was very different in those days, the police force is also as affected by manners and social mores as the rest of society, and this is especially seen in the character of DS Emma Holmes. I really, really liked Emma. But there is something so wonderfully old-fashioned about her character and that of Edgar Stephens – or, not so much old-fashioned, as from a different time. I love it.

The nature of the crime is also from another time. There’s no excessive blood or gore. It’s stylised and evocative. The relationships in the novel drive on the story as much as the clues do. The setting of Brighton certainly adds to the mood as does the theatricality of the characters and the crimes. It’s all completely engrossing and beautifully arranged with period clothing, manners, attitudes and theatre, with a little splash of romance and sin thrown in to add a little tension.

Elly Griffiths writes beautifully and the characters she creates are full of colour and life. I had no desire to put The Vanishing Box down and read in two sittings. I have also made sure that I now have the other books in the series to enjoy. I might be about to read them backwards in order but I don’t think that will matter. Any future novels will go to the top of my reading pile for sure. I am so glad I read this!

Other review
The Chalk Pit

Another Woman’s Husband by Gill Paul

Headline Review | 2017, Pb (2 November) | 464p | Review copy | Buy the book

Another Woman's Husband by Gill PaulOn 31 August 1997 Alex proposes to Rachel during their romantic break in Paris. Everything seems perfect until their taxi takes them down into an underpass by the Seine. An accident has happened only moments before. It’s surrounded by photographers. When Alex and Rachel go to offer their help, they are shocked to learn that in the smashed car is none other than Princess Diana. All bedlam breaks loose.

In 1911 Mary Kirk is about to meet a new girl at Miss Charlotte Noland’s summer camp for girls in Virginia. When Wallis Warfield, striking and witty, walks in the door, Mary has no idea that Wallie is to become her closest friend for many years. Together they will share so much, even love for the same man, as Wallis’s glamour (and Mary’s wealth) steers them through ever more influential social circles on both sides of the Atlantic. History tells us what lies in store for Wallis Simpson (as she becomes known) but Mary will play a vital role in the lives of Wallis and Ernest Simpson and in the romance played out between Wallis and the man they call Peter Pan – the Prince of Wales.

In The Secret Wife, Gill Paul combined past and present perfectly to tell the story of the Romanov daughters and the possible fate of one of them, Grand Duchess Tatiana. In Another Woman’s Husband, Gill Paul uses the same technique, with every bit as much skill and appeal, to present the extraordinary life of Wallis Simpson while also following a (fictional) link with another woman who played such a key role in the royal history of 20th-century Britain: Diana, Princess of Wales.

Diana herself isn’t found in these pages. Instead, Rachel, who runs a successful shop selling vintage clothing and objects, finds herself compelled to discover what Diana was up to during her final twenty-four hours, a day that included a visit to the Paris home of the now dead Duke and Duchess of Windsor. Rachel’s fiancé Alex, a filmmaker, has his own reasons to become obsessed with Diana and this creates tension in their relationship.

But the true heart of this wonderful and engaging novel is with the story of Mary and Wallis. It is wonderful to follow them through the years, through marital turmoil, tragedies and glories. Their relationship feels so real. There are moments of such pettiness between them, selfishness and arrogance (Wallis Simpson was no wall flower), but they are always fascinating. Wallis isn’t someone you could ever describe as likeable – on the contrary – but Mary certainly is and it’s Mary who fills this book with so much light and warmth as well as sadness and bitterness. I liked Mary very much.

I love how Gill Paul writes. She has such a gift for dialogue. She sweeps me away with these stories of grand men and women, all set against such sumptuous backdrops. There is such a strong sense of time and place, a luxuriousness filled by the author’s knowledge and use of contemporary objects and, most of all, dresses and suits. It’s all so decorous and involving. Knowing the high stakes that Wallis was playing for certainly adds extra spice and tension. But above all else Another Woman’s Husband is the glamorous portrayal of a scandal that continues to fascinate. Hanging over it, though, is the shadow cast by the tragedy of Diana’s fate and this is dealt with by Gill Paul with great sensitivity and sadness. There is nothing about Another Woman’s Husband that doesn’t appeal to me – I gobbled it up and loved every single page.

You can read about the author’s use of historical sources for Another Woman’s Husband in this guest post.

Other reviews and features
The Secret Wife
Guest post – Gill Paul, author of No Place for a Lady, ‘on feminism, bereavement and squeamishness’
Guest post – ‘Historical Sources for Another Woman’s Husband‘ by Gill Paul