Review: “Hercule Poirot’s Christmas” by Agatha Christie (Novel)

Well, since I seem to be going through a bit of a detective fiction phase at the moment, I thought that I’d take a look at Agatha Christie’s 1938 novel “Hercule Poirot’s Christmas” today.

I found a second-hand copy of this novel online a couple of weeks earlier, after both getting nostalgic about binge-watching a DVD boxset or two of the old ITV adaptation of “Poirot” a couple of years ago and realising that it has been at least a decade since I last read an Agatha Christie novel.

So, let’s take a look at “Hercule Poirot’s Christmas”. Needless to say, this review may contain some mild-moderate SPOILERS, but I’ll avoid giving away the ending.

This is the 2013 Harper (UK) paperback edition of “Hercule Poirot’s Christmas” that I read.

The novel begins three days before Christmas in a train station in London where a man called Stephen Farr happens to meet a beautiful woman called Pilar Estravados who has been invited to Gorston Hall in order to meet her long-lost grandfather, Simeon Lee.

Meanwhile, Simeon Lee’s middle-aged sons are talking to their wives about the Christmas invitations. None of them like Simeon very much, what with him being the kind of grumpy, cynical, rich old man who sometimes cackles to himself when no-one is looking. Likewise, many of his sons also harbour resentment about his cold demeanour during their late mother’s illness. Still, out of formality and tradition, they reluctantly agree to spend Christmas at Gorston Hall.

Needless to say, it is the kind of miserable family Christmas that you would expect. Something not helped by the fact that Simeon is brutally murdered in bizarre circumstances, with his throat slashed inside a locked room. Luckily for the head of the local police, famed investigator Hercule Poirot is visiting him for Christmas….

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it was a lot of fun to read. Everything from the hilariously stuffy and formal bickering during the early parts, to the intriguing locked room mystery (where everyone is a suspect) to the scenes featuring the hilariously, cartoonishly evil Simeon Lee were just so much fun to read. This novel is a proper, traditional Agatha Christie mystery 🙂

Although the early parts of the novel focus more on the characters and backstory, as soon as the murder happens, the story becomes the kind of focused, gripping detective story that you would expect. Interestingly, this novel includes some vaguely Sherlock Holmes-style deductions made from evidence and experimentation in addition to Poirot’s more typical interview-based methods of detection. Plus, the fact that pretty much every character has a motive for murder really helps to keep things suspenseful too.

Yes, some of the plot twists and events of the story are a little bit contrived at times – although, like with every good detective story, there’s a subtle clue for every part of the mystery (which Poirot explains during his traditional end-of-story speech) and a few clever red herrings too. Plus, with something as intriguing as a locked room mystery, a certain amount of contrivance is to be expected anyway.

One amusing thing about this novel is that it is prefaced by a letter from Agatha Christie to her brother-in-law which states that she wrote this story because he expressed dismay about how “refined” and “anaemic” some of her recent stories had been. As such, this novel is – by Agatha Christie standards – surprisingly grisly (but, it’s pretty tame by modern standards). But, the bloody nature of the crime helps to lend the story a little bit more of a Sherlock Holmes-style atmosphere, which is kind of cool.

The novel’s characters are fairly good too. They’re given enough characterisation to make the reader understand their personalities and motives, with a lot of the novel’s funnier and more dramatic moments happening during their various arguments with each other. The stand-out character has to be Simeon Lee, who is this hilariously melodramatic grumpy old man (seriously, you can just imagine an actor really hamming it up when you read his scenes 🙂 ). Surprisingly, Poirot doesn’t actually get a huge amount of characterisation in this novel – then again, pretty much everyone knows who Hercule Poirot is anyway.

In terms of the writing, it’s fairly good. The novel’s third-person narration is fairly readable and, although it is a little bit on the formal side (after all, it was written less than 40 years after the 19th century) it is still fairly easily readable today. Likewise, the novel also focuses quite a bit on dialogue too, which helps to keep the story flowing at a fairly reasonable pace too.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is excellent. At a lean and efficient 268 pages in length, the novel never really feels bloated. Likewise, there’s a good contrast between the slightly slower dialogue and background scenes at the beginning and the slightly faster-paced and wonderfully focused detective scenes after the murder has been committed. Whilst you shouldn’t expect an ultra-fast paced novel, this isn’t as much of a slow-paced novel as you might expect either.

As for how this eighty-one year old novel has aged, it has aged surprisingly well 🙂 Yes, there are a few slightly dated generalisations (eg: about relationships, about the differences between English people and people from mainland Europe etc..), not to mention that some “modern” words (eg: “fantastic”, “batteries” etc..) actually use their completely different old-fashioned meanings in this novel. But, for the most part, this novel has aged really well. It’s still fairly gripping, fairly readable and filled with the kind of timeless vintage charm that you would expect.

All in all, this is a really enjoyable “old school” detective novel 🙂 If you want an intriguing locked room mystery, if you find stuffy aristocrats bickering with each other absolutely hilarious and if you want a reasonably focused, well-paced detective story, then you can’t go wrong with this one 🙂

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get at least a four.

Advertisements

Review: “The Midnight Line” By Lee Child (Novel)

Well, I hadn’t planned to read a Lee Child novel (the last one I read was in 2017, when I wasn’t reading much) but, after reading a fairly slow-paced novel recently, I wanted something relaxing, gripping and refreshingly fast-paced.

Out of instinct, I’d bought a copy of Child’s 2017 novel “The Midnight Line” in a charity shop in Petersfield last year when I realised that it was a Lee Child novel I hadn’t even heard of before. So, this seemed like a good time to read it.

So, let’s take a look at “The Midnight Line”. Needless to say, this review may contain some mild-moderate SPOILERS.

This is the 2018 Bantam (UK) “Richard & Judy’s Book Club” paperback edition of “The Midnight Line” that I read.

The novel starts with an ex-military policeman Jack Reacher in Milwaukee. His lover has just left him after three days together and Reacher decides to deal with this by continuing his travels. So, he gets on a bus that is heading for a small town near Lake Superior.

But, on the way, the bus stops off for a rest stop at a small town. Reacher wanders around the town and ends up in the local pawn shop. He spots a ring. It is a graduation ring from the prestigious West Point US military academy that is inscribed with the initials “S. R. S” . Soldiers don’t usually sell things like that. So, after buying the ring, Reacher stays in town and decides to track down the owner….

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that I’d forgotten how good Lee Child novels are. Yes, even though this one doesn’t quite live up to the standards of some of Child’s older novels (eg: “Gone Tomorrow”, “The Hard Way”, “Persuader”, “Tripwire” etc..) – it’s still the kind of gripping, incredibly readable, precisely-written thriller novel that is as compellingly relaxing as a good DVD boxset. Or, to put it another way, even a “low-budget” Lee Child novel is still considerably better than most books by many other thriller authors.

For the most part, this novel is actually more of a detective thriller novel than an action-thriller novel. Seriously, there are only about four or five short fight scenes in the entire book – with at least a few other moments where Reacher actually solves problems in a non-violent way. Surprisingly, this actually adds some extra realism (and unpredictability) to the novel, in addition to placing emphasis on the detective elements of the story too.

And, for the most part, these work fairly well – with Reacher and several other detectives (eg: a cop, a P.I. and a federal agent) investigating the mysterious case in different ways and for different reasons. However, a lot of the story’s gripping suspense is lost when Reacher meets the ring’s owner about two-thirds of the way through the novel. After that, the novel turns into slightly more of a conventional crime thriller/action-thriller novel – which is good, although it isn’t quite as good as the compelling mystery of the scenes where Reacher is trying to find out about who owns the ring.

Even so, these crime thriller/action-thriller scenes later in the book still remain reasonably compelling, thanks to a well-placed set piece and a rather clever, if unconventional, plot device involving a character with a dwindling supply of narcotics. However, Reacher’s final showdown with the novel’s main villain is surprisingly brief, anti-climactic and understated (with the most dramatic part of the scene also being little more than an implied background detail too).

Likewise, given that the crime thriller elements of the novel revolve around the drug trade, this allows Lee Child to explore how the opioid epidemic has affected rural America. This element of the book is handled surprisingly well, with Child’s ire about the situation quite rightly directed towards pharmaceutical companies and organised crime gangs, instead of their victims (who are presented in a fairly compassionate way).

In terms of the settings, most of this novel takes place in a small town and in various remote areas of Wyoming. Although this rural remoteness adds some mystery and menace to a few scenes in the novel, it does tend to get a little bit dull after a while. Even so, the plot still helps to keep everything interesting – especially during the parts where Reacher is trying to track down the ring’s owner.

As for the characters, they’re reasonably good. Jack Reacher is, well, Jack Reacher – he’s the same intelligent, tall and courageous wandering ex-military policeman as usual (although he’s a little bit more of a pacifist, relatively speaking, in this novel). The other characters are also pretty interesting, with most of them having distinctive quirks, motivations and flaws. However, the novel’s main villain doesn’t quite get enough characterisation though. Although the characterisation in this novel is very slightly on the minimalist side of things, it still works reasonably well and you’ll find yourself caring about what happens to the characters.

One interesting element of this novel is how all of the various detectives etc… interact with each other. Unlike in some of Lee Child’s other novels, Reacher seems to be on incredibly good terms with the police in this novel – with his old military credentials (and the business that the villains are in) basically meaning that the police everywhere he goes end up siding with him, helping him out and/or looking the other way when he breaks the rules. I’m not sure if this is realistic or not, but it works reasonably well – although it slightly lessens the suspense in some parts of the novel.

As for the writing, Lee Child’s third-person narration is the kind of precise, fast-paced, “matter of fact” narration that you would expect. As thriller novels go, Lee Child’s are some of the most well-written ones that I’ve read and this novel is no exception. The writing never patronises the reader, yet this is the kind of novel which can still be read easily when you’re really tired and/or the weather is annoyingly hot, which is quite an achievement on Lee Child’s part.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is fairly good. Although it’s about 450 pages long, this is the kind of novel which will take you less time to read than some 300 page books will. In other words, the story is reasonably fast-paced throughout. Seriously, even in the scenes where nothing much happens, the novel still remains pretty gripping.

All in all, whilst this certainly isn’t the best Lee Child novel I’ve read, it’s still an incredibly gripping and compelling novel. Yes, it’s more of a detective thriller novel than an action-thriller novel, but this works surprisingly well. But, if the Jack Reacher novels were a TV show, this one would probably be a low-budget bottle episode. Even so, it’s still one of the better non-sci fi/non-urban fantasy/ non-horror thriller novels I’ve read since I got back into reading regularly a few months ago.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get at least a four.

Review: “The Dead Dog Day” By Jackie Kabler (Novel)

Well, it’s been a little while since I read a detective novel. So, I thought that that I’d take a look at Jackie Kabler’s 2015 novel “The Dead Dog Day” today. This was a novel that I found in a charity shop in Petersfield last year – mostly on account of the awesome purple/black/gold cover art, the intriguing blurb and the first couple of pages.

So, let’s take a look at “The Dead Dog Day”. Needless to say, this review may contain some mild-moderate SPOILERS.

This is the 2015 Accent Press (UK) paperback edition of “The Dead Dog Day” that I read.

The story begins in a TV studio in London. The boss of the Morning Live news program, Jeanette Kendricks, is furious. The dog who that was supposed to be featured in the ‘Britain’s Bravest Pets’ segment of the show has just died two hours before the broadcast and no-one thinks that Jeanette’s idea of just pretending that the dog is asleep will actually work.

Whilst all of this is going on, one of the show’s newsreaders, Cora Baxter, meets up with the rest of the news team to prepare for the show, chat and have a laugh. However, this isn’t an ordinary day at the office. As that morning’s episode of Morning Live comes to an end, someone murders Jeanette…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that, despite the brilliantly funny and compelling beginning, the story takes quite a while to really get started. Although it eventually turns into a fairly compelling, if unconventional, detective thriller novel – don’t expect the kind of sharp, focused storytelling that you’d expect in a traditional detective novel. Even so, this story is a reasonably ok mixture of comedy, drama, romance and mystery.

The detective elements of this story are, as I mentioned, slightly strange. Despite the “A Cora Baxter Mystery” subtitle on the cover, Cora isn’t really that much of a detective. In fact, most of the actual detective work is actually done by a couple of background characters. Cora is more of a character who gets caught up in events surrounding the story’s central mystery – which is why, for example, she doesn’t like discussing the murder in the earlier parts of the story and why there’s so little focus on the mystery during the early and middle parts of the book. Likewise, she’s also more of a “realistic” TV show presenter than a typical “intrepid reporter” protagonist too.

Still, the story’s suspense is just about maintained through a series of smaller mysteries that are sometimes connected to the main mystery in one way or another, such as a mysterious man who seems to be following Cora, a mysterious Twitter conversation, the bizarre behaviour of one of the other newsreaders, a few mysterious descriptions of the murderer planning their next crime, the police’s suspicions about one member of Cora’s camera crew etc…

In addition to this, even though this novel uses some rather corny tricks and tropes, they still work surprisingly well. I mean, at one point, I was certain that I’d guessed who the murderer was after re-reading an early part of the story after seeing a clue, only to find that it was a red herring. Likewise, there’s a gloriously random plot twist or two near the end which should be really corny and contrived, but which still come across as rather dramatic whilst you’re actually reading them.

Even so, the detective elements of the story sometimes feel more like a sub-plot than anything else. Large parts of the story place more emphasis on Cora’s everyday life. And, although this contains a romantic sub-plot, some drama and some comedy – it is sometimes just about Cora’s mundane, ordinary life.

Needless to say, some of these “mundane” segments of the novel (eg: Cora going Christmas shopping etc..) aren’t exactly the most compelling thing in the world (and I even thought about abandoning the book out of boredom at one point). Even so, the story does get a bit more focused and compelling as it progresses – with the comedy, romance and drama elements often helping to keep many of the non-detective parts of the story fairly interesting. Even so, the middle parts of this story could have probably done with a bit of trimming.

The novel’s comedy elements are reasonably interesting. Although the novel only had a few moments that really made me laugh out loud, it contains a reasonably good mixture of slapstick comedy/ farce, satire (about the media industry and broadcast journalism), character-based comedy, silly outfits, immature humour, running jokes (eg: one of Cora’s crew constantly getting popular sayings wrong) etc… These comedy elements also contrast really well with the darker and more suspenseful elements of the story too.

In terms of the characters, there’s a lot of characterisation in this novel. Which is both a good and a bad thing. On the plus side, all of the characterisation helps to add some depth to the story (to the point where even some of the unsympathetic characters become vaguely sympathetic). Likewise, the novel’s cast of characters are all presented as fairly realistic (if somewhat stylised) people with flaws, emotions, motivations etc.. On the downside, all of this characterisation can sometimes distract from the story’s plot a bit.

In terms of the writing, this novel’s third-person narration is written in a reasonably informal and descriptive way. Although this can sometimes come across as a little bit cheesy or corny, it works reasonably well most of the time and the story is fairly readable.

In terms of the length and pacing, this novel is a bit of a mixed bag. At 331 pages in length, it isn’t too long, although trimming about fifty pages or so from the middle of it would probably have made it a lot more focused and streamlined. As for the pacing, it is at it’s best during the gripping beginning and ending of the story. However, the middle parts of this story are far too slow-paced for a story of this type.

All in all, whilst I eventually enjoyed this novel, it wasn’t really the traditional-style detective story I’d expected. Yes, this novel has some funny moments, some romance, some dramatic moments and a few gripping moments. Yes, the story certainly gets better as it continues. However, it isn’t without flaws either. In short, this book would be vastly improved by trimming a few scenes, having better pacing in the middle parts of the story and having a more consistent focus on the central mystery.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get a three.

Review: “Dying Words” By Shaun Hutson (Novel)

Shortly after I’d finished reading Shaun Hutson’s “Last Rites“, I wanted to read some more of Hutson’s novels from the 2000s. And, after looking online, I found a cheap second-hand copy of Hutson’s 2006 novel “Dying Words”.

I wasn’t sure if I’d already read this novel back in the day (I probably did), but it intrigued me enough to buy a copy…. which then promptly languished on my “to read” pile for about three months. But, after reading Hilary Mantel’s “Bring Up The Bodies“, I wanted to read something a bit more fast-paced. So, yes, this review is long overdue.

So, let’s take a look at “Dying Words”. Needless to say, this review may contain some mild-moderate SPOILERS.

This is the 2007 Orbit (UK) paperback edition of “Dying Words” that I read.

The novel begins in London with a high-speed car chase. Detective Inspector David Birch is in pursuit of a serial killer and he’s damned if he’s going to let him go. After leaving a trail of destruction, the killer gets out of his car, draws a knife and flees – cutting down anyone who gets in his way. Birch gives chase. Finally, there is a tense stand-off in an underground station – which ends with Birch gleefully throwing the disarmed killer onto the electrified rails.

Meanwhile, a biographer called Megan Hunter is discussing her latest historical book about a little-known Renaissance thinker called Giacomo Cassano with her editor Frank. Compared to Dante and Caravaggio, no-one has heard of Cassano, and Megan hopes that her book will change this.

Back at the police station, Birch is called to the Commissioner’s office to account for his actions. After giving Birch a scare, the Commissioner eventually decides to turn a blind eye to the serial killer’s suspicious death.

A while later, Birch is called out to investigate a new case. Frank has been brutally murdered, yet there is no evidence of anyone else leaving or entering the locked room that he died in…..

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it’s a really brilliant, but intriguingly different, Shaun Hutson novel. Although it still contains the horror and thriller elements you’d expect from a Shaun Hutson novel, this novel is actually more of a detective novel most of the time. And this works surprisingly well. Likewise, this novel is also an intriguing piece of metafiction, an awesome heavy metal novel and a wonderfully evocative piece of mid-2000s nostalgia too 🙂

I should probably start by talking about the novel’s detective elements. Apart from the beginning and the ending, this novel mostly takes a fairly “realistic” attitude towards detection, with large parts of the story involving Birch interviewing people, examining crime scenes, talking to other detectives and following up on leads. In a lot of ways, this novel is kind of like a cross between a drama and a gritty police procedural. And, surprisingly, this works really well – with the “locked room mystery” elements also helping to add some intrigue to the story too.

Likewise, this novel is also a really good horror novel too. Although it isn’t really that scary, there’s a really brilliant mixture of ultra-gruesome splatterpunk horror, creepy implied horror, suspenseful horror, atmospheric horror, criminal horror, medical horror and some paranormal horror … all of which gradually engulf what initially appears to be a fairly “ordinary” detective story 🙂 Seriously, this is one of the best blendings of the detective and horror genres that I’ve seen in a while.

As mentioned earlier, “Dying Words” is also a work of metafiction too – and it works really brilliantly. Although it initially appears to be a rather cynical satire about the publishing business and about critics (of which I now seem to be one), the novel also covers topics like the power of books, the power of authors and the nature of creativity itself too.

In addition to this, one fun element of the story is that one of the characters is a horror author called Paxton. Although I initially thought that this was an author insert, it’s probably more of a self-parody and/or a parody of the popular image of horror authors. Plus, there’s an absolutely brilliant description of one of Paxton’s books being launched, which is wonderfully evocative of the genre’s heyday in the 1970s-90s (which, sadly, I only discovered belatedly via second-hand books during the ’00s).

This novel is also a brilliant piece of mid-2000s nostalgia too 🙂 Everything from the cynical description of a “misery memoir”, to some of the fashions (eg: Megan’s boho chic outfit in one scene), to the general atmosphere of the story, to the vaguely “Silent Hill 3“-style settings in one part of the novel, to the mentions of CDs/DVDs, to the blissful absence of smartphones etc… is gloriously reminiscent of an era of history that popular nostalgia hasn’t quite reached yet.

So, if you miss the mid-2000s (and, back then, I never thought that I’d say those words… Wow, the present day sucks!), then this novel is well worth reading for nostalgia alone.

This novel is also a heavy metal novel too 🙂 In addition to some utterly brilliant Iron Maiden references (especially to this song) that are integrated into the story in a really cool way, there are also possible references to Judas Priest’s “Electric Eye” and Metallica’s “Nothing Else Matters” too 🙂 Seriously, it’s always brilliant to read a novel by an author with such good taste in music \m/ 🙂 \m/

In terms of the characters, they’re reasonably good and they all come across as fairly realistic – if somewhat stylised – people. Although, like in Hutson’s “Last Rites”, many of the characters have tragic backstories – this element isn’t emphasised quite as much in this novel, which helps to stop the story’s emotional tone from becoming too bleak or depressing (still, don’t expect a cheerful tale. This is a Shaun Hutson novel, after all).

In terms of the writing, the novel’s third-person narration is a really interesting mixture of the more descriptive (and slightly formal) style that Hutson used in his classic 1980s horror novels and the faster, grittier and more “matter of fact” style that he used in his 1990s/2000s thriller novels. Still, this novel mostly tends be more like a classic-style Hutson novel in terms of the writing.

Interestingly, this novel only partially includes some of Hutson’s trademark phrases though (eg: the word “cleft” appears, but I didn’t notice the word “liquescent” anywhere). Still, it includes the brilliant description “mucoid snorting” at one point.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is fairly good. At 357 pages in length, this novel doesn’t feel that much longer than Hutson’s classic 1980s fiction. The novel’s pacing is handled in a really interesting way too. Both the beginning and ending are as fast-paced as a good thriller novel, whereas the pacing of the rest of the novel is much closer to that of a horror or detective novel. This contrast works really well, since it helps to build suspense and make the thrilling segments of the novel even more fast-paced by comparison 🙂

All in all, this is a brilliantly enjoyable novel 🙂 Yes, it’s a bit different to pretty much every other Shaun Hutson novel, but at the same time it is also very much a Hutson novel. If you want a really interesting mixture of the detective, thriller and horror genres, if you want some intriguing metafiction or if you’re just feeling nostalgic for the mid-2000s, then this novel is definitely worth reading 🙂

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would just about get a five.

Review: “Sacrilege” By S. J. Parris (Novel)

Well, it’s been a while since I last read a historical detective novel. So, since I had a bit more time than I’ve had for the past three book reviews, I thought that I’d check out S. J. Parris’ 2012 novel “Sacrilege”.

This was one of a number of historical novels I found in a charity shop in Petersfield last year (the same one where I found my copy of Hilary Mantel’s “Wolf Hall) and, given how much I enjoyed other novels in this genre like C.J.Sansom’s “Shardlake” novels (eg: “Heartstone“, “Lamentation” etc…), Parris’ novel seemed like just the thing to get me back into reading books that aren’t based on films, TV shows, videogames etc…

So, let’s take a look at “Sacrilege”. Needless to say, this review may contain some mild-moderate SPOILERS.

This is the 2012 Harper (UK) paperback edition of “Sacrilege” that I read.

The novel begins in London in 1584. Giordano Bruno, an Italian exile who is working for both the French ambassador and Queen Elizabeth I’s spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham, fears that he is being followed.

A short while later, Giordano catches his pursuer – only to find that she is his ex-lover Sophia in disguise. Sophia tells him that she has been falsely accused of murdering her cruel husband in Cantebury and has been a fugitive ever since. So, Giordano decides to travel to Cantebury in order to clear her name and catch the real killer….

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is that it is very gripping 🙂 On the day I started reading it, I’d planned to read about 180 pages -I got to 300 before reluctantly deciding to save the rest of the book for the following day. Imagine a C.J.Sansom novel, but with better pacing, more suspense, slightly more formal/modern-style narration and a slightly grittier tone. Seriously, this is one of the best Tudor detective novels I’ve read in a while.

Not only does this novel contain a series of intriguing mysteries, but this is kept extra thrilling thanks to the novel’s brilliant use of suspense. A lot of this comes from the precarious, dangerous world that Giordano finds himself in. Not only does Giordano have to worry about protecting Sophia from arrest, he also has to contend with some powerful enemies in Cantebury, a corrupt justice system and Tudor-era xenophobia too. Throughout the novel, he’s constantly in danger from someone or another, which really helps to keep things grippingly suspenseful.

Interestingly, Parris’ depiction of Tudor England is considerably grimmer, crueller and more hostile than in the fiction of C.J.Sansom or Hilary Mantel. In a lot of ways, it reminded me a bit of G.R.R Martin’s “Song Of Ice And Fire” novels in terms of the atmosphere/emotional tone. This helps to add drama and suspense to the novel and, although a few moments of the story can be fairly depressing, this dystopian depiction of Tudor England fits the story really well.

Another interesting thing is how Parris’ “Sacrilege” presents Tudor England’s relationship with Europe in a different way to Mantel’s “Wolf Hall” too. In “Wolf Hall”, Tudor England is shown to be a resolutely European country – with many people speaking multiple languages, and people from across Europe living relatively harmoniously in London. On the other hand, “Sacrilege” mostly depicts Tudor England as a cruelly conservative dystopia that is teeming with narrow-minded xenophobia and general backwardness. I would say that this was a satire about Brexit… but this novel was published four years before the referendum.

In addition to all of this, “Sacrilege” is also a pretty good spy thriller too. Although the spy elements are something of a sub-plot, they help to add a little bit of extra intrigue and suspense to the story – especially since they often tend to involve classic-style spy stuff like coded messages, invisible ink, hidden doors, sneaking around etc… too.

Likewise, this sub-plot also allows for some exploration of the religious politics of Tudor England too – but, although this is an important element of the story, it isn’t quite as prominent as it is in novels like Sansom’s “Lamentation” and Mantel’s “Wolf Hall”.

The novel also includes a few interesting horror elements too – mostly consisting of some rather gothic moments that take place inside gloomy crypts and tunnels, in addition to some more traditional horror elements involving monstrous crimes of various types.

In terms of the characters, this novel is fairly good – with most of the characters coming across as realistic flawed people with realistic motivations. Like in C.J.Sansom’s “Shardlake” novels, the sympathetic characters don’t really “fit in” with the world around them for one reason or another (with “Sacrilege” being a novel about exiles and fugitives). And, of course, the story’s villains are also suitably monstrous too. Likewise, just like C.J.Sansom, this novel also takes a fairly modern approach towards things like psychology, social ills etc.. too.

As for the writing, Parris’ first-person narration works really well. Like C.J.Sansom, Parris’ narration is modern enough to be easily readable, whilst also carrying a slight Tudor flavour too (albeit less than in a Sansom novel). However, since the narrator of “Sacrilege” (Giordano) is a well-travelled scientist/scholar and diplomat, the narration is slightly more on the formal and descriptive side of things – although it is still “matter of fact” enough to keep the story fast-paced and gripping.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel is really good. Although, at 481 pages, this novel is a bit on the longer side of things – it never really feels bloated. Likewise, the pacing in this novel is excellent too 🙂 In other words, the story starts dramatically and remains consistently gripping throughout. Seriously, I cannot praise the pacing of this novel highly enough 🙂

All in all, this novel is a brilliantly gripping historical detective thriller novel. If you enjoy C. J. Sansom’s “Shardlake” books, then you might enjoy this book even more. It’s a bit like a Sansom novel, but with better pacing and more suspense. Likewise, if you want a novel that combines spy fiction, detective fiction and dystopian fiction, then this one might be worth looking at.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get a five.

Review: “Box Nine” By Jack O’ Connell (Novel)

Well, after reading Jack O’Connell’s excellent “Word Made Flesh” about three weeks ago, I was eager to read more of his novels. And, I thought that I’d start with a second-hand copy of O’Connell’s 1992 novel “Box Nine”. And what a novel it is 🙂

So, let’s take a look at “Box Nine”. Needless to say, this review may contain some SPOILERS.

This is the 2015 No Exit Press (UK) paperback edition of “Box Nine” that I read.

The story takes place in the fictional New England city of Quinsigamond. A new drug, lingo, has hit the streets. It lights up the language centres of the brain like a Christmas tree before eventually sending the user into a violent homicidal rage.

Lenore is a badass, heavy metal-obsessed speed freak whose main spiritual belief is in the power of her .357 magnum. She’s also a narcotics cop who, much to her disdain, has been paired with a mild-mannered scientist for the investigation into lingo…

One of the first things that I will say about this novel is wow! It is a masterpiece. This is an information-dense, intelligent, imaginative noir detective novel that is so well-written that you’ll be reading it as quickly as an action-thriller novel. It is a book that has the human depth of Winston Rowntree’s “Subnormality“, as much atmosphere as a cyberpunk novel, the uncensored weirdness of old beat literature (or maybe something a little bit like Warren Ellis’ “Crooked Little Vein”) and more cool-ness than you can shake a stick at. Seriously, this novel is awesome 🙂

This is a book that really has to be experienced first-hand to truly be appreciated. A mere review really doesn’t do it justice. And, like with “Word Made Flesh”, it probably isn’t for everyone either. But, I’ll try to describe it to the best of my abilities.

I should probably start by talking about the detective/thriller elements of this story. Like any good noir novel (and, yes, “The Maltese Falcon” is referenced in this book), this novel focuses on things like moral ambiguity, atmosphere, complex plotting and an intricate web of criminal intrigue. Although the investigation sometimes seems more like a background detail (when compared to all of the compelling characterisation, drama etc..) it is certainly well-written and well-plotted. Like a thriller novel, there are also quite a few story threads that are expertly brought together by the end of the story.

One interesting element of the detective parts of the story is how the story approaches the topic of policing and drugs. Not only is the novel’s main detective (Lenore) a morally-ambiguous gun nut who takes a lot of amphetamines, but the story also includes a brilliant satire of the war on drugs too. Whilst the story doesn’t shy away from the damage drugs can cause, the novel’s police and drug dealers are shown to exist in a symbiotic relationship of sorts.

But, although this is a detective story, the main thing that keeps this novel page-turningly compelling is the writing and the characterisation. Like a good cyberpunk or noir novel, this story is written in both a grippingly fast-paced way and an information-dense way. This links in absolutely perfectly with the novel’s themes of language, paranoia and stimulants. This story dazzles you with atmospheric descriptions, deep insights and complex drama at a hundred miles an hour and it is a joy to behold 🙂

The novel’s third-person narration is written in an intelligently informal way and this is one of those stories that has a wonderfully distinctive narrative voice that you’ll want to read more of. The narration flickers between “matter of fact”/thriller-style descriptions and more literary narration so quickly that you’ll read it as fast as the former and get the intellectual satisfaction of the latter. Seriously, this is the kind of novel that tells a high-brow story with the gripping intensity of a more low-brow story 🙂

The novel also includes some interesting experimental touches too. These take the form of conversation transcripts, talk radio excerpts and dictaphone messages from one of the other characters (which are related in breathless, paragraph-less “stream of consciousness” rambles). These segments really help to add some intensity and background depth to the story, although the dictaphone segments can – ironically- slow the story down a little.

The other thing that keeps this novel so brilliantly compelling are the characters 🙂 This novel devotes a lot of time to characterisation and, yet, all of this characterisation was so fascinating that it never really seemed like a distraction from the gripping, atmospheric story.

Lenore is an absolutely fascinating protagonist (plus, she listens to Iron Maiden too 🙂 ) who could have easily become a two-dimensional “Tank Girl“- like cartoon character in the hands of a lesser writer. But, here, she’s presented as a complex, flawed and intriguing character who is more interesting and original than the characters in many other novels.

The other characters are also really fascinating too. Whether it is Lenore’s shy, methodical and introverted twin brother Ike, some of the other detectives, some of the local gangsters, the owners of Lenore’s favourite restaurant, the boss of the local post office or the scientist that Lenore has to team up with, I cannot praise the characters enough 🙂 Not only are they interesting and well-written, but a lot of the novel’s characterisation also comes from character interactions and the contrast between different characters too.

Thematically, this novel is really interesting too. In addition to the story’s main theme of language and communication, the novel also tackles topics like loneliness, memory, drugs, books, politics, violence etc.. too. Seriously, this is one of those books that probably needs to be read multiple times in order to be fully appreciated.

In terms of length, this novel is really good too. Although this novel is 352 pages long, it manages to cram 450+ pages of storytelling into this space. In other words, this novel never really feels like it is too long and the story doesn’t suffer from the bloatedness that more modern novels can sometimes suffer from.

As for how this twenty-seven year old novel has aged, it has aged really well. Yes, it is clearly the product of a slightly more “edgy” decade (and a few descriptions/words in it would probably be frowned upon if written today) and there are a couple of brilliantly ’90s moments – like a hilarious scene where some gnarly 1990s surfer dudes perform Shakespeare’s “The Tempest” but, for the most part, this novel is pretty much timeless. In addition to still being very gripping and atmospheric, a lot of the novel’s satire has also aged astonishingly well too.

For example, the novel’s satirical depiction of paranoid, ranting talk radio hosts could easily be a satire of the more unsavoury parts of the modern internet. Likewise, the novel’s hilarious satire of the trendy, hipsterish part of Quinsigamond wouldn’t seem too out of place in the 2010s. The novel’s satire of things like police violence, corruption etc.. are also still reasonably relevant in the present day too.

All in all, this novel is a masterpiece 🙂 Yes, it probably isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, but I absolutely loved it. It’s an intelligent, atmospheric, creative and complex novel that is as grippingly fast-paced as an action-thriller novel. But, as I mentioned earlier, this is one of those novels that has to be experienced in order to be fully appreciated. A mere review really doesn’t do it justice.

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get a very solid five.

Review: “Heartstone” By C.J.Sansom (Novel)

Although I reviewed C. J. Sansom’s “Lamentation” about two months ago, I hadn’t expected to review another one of his novels so soon. But, a family member found a copy of Sansom’s 2010 novel “Heartstone” in a charity shop and thought that I might like it. And, since this was one of the few Shardlake novels that I haven’t read, I was eager to read it.

So, let’s take a look at “Heartstone”. Needless to say, this review may contain some mild SPOILERS.

This is the 2010 Mantle (UK) hardback edition of “Heartstone” that I read.

The year is 1545 and England is under threat from the French fleet. In London, the lawyer Matthew Shardlake finds himself involved in several cases. A random descripton from a friend of his from a previous case, Ellen Fettiplace, makes him curious about the dark secrets that have caused her to become agoraphobic.

Not only that, the Queen has summoned Shardlake. The son of one of her servants has hanged himself. Shortly before his death, he was investigating an adopted boy – Hugh Curteys- in Hampshire who he had tutored several years ago before being mysteriously dismissed from service. After returning from Hampshire, he believed that something terrible was going on inside the household and wished to lodge a legal complaint. The Queen wants Shardlake to take over this case and see if it has any merit.

So, with war looming, Shardlake and his faithful assistant Barak set off for Hampshire and Sussex in order to unravel these mysteries….

One of the first things that I will say about “Heartstone” is that, although it is fairly slow to start, it is one of the most gripping Shardlake novels that I’ve read. Not only does this book have a rather ominous atmosphere, but there is a complex network of intriguing mysteries and plot twists that will have you turning the pages in morbid fascination to find out more. Seriously, despite the slow-paced beginning, this is as much of a thriller novel as it is a detective novel.

Another thing that I will say about this novel is that, being from Hampshire myself, it was absolutely amazing to see so many familiar place names in this book (eg: Portsmouth, Portsdown Hill, Petersfield, Gosport, Horndean, Cosham, Portchester, Southsea Castle etc..).

Seriously, I don’t think that I’ve ever read a novel set around here before – and it was such a cool experience. Then again, as soon as the Mary Rose was mentioned, I instantly knew what was going to happen to it (after all, I’ve seen what’s left of it in a museum. Plus it is mentioned in Sansom’s 2014 novel “Lamentation” too).

In terms of the detective elements of this story, they are utterly brilliant. Not only is there an intriguing network of mysteries (seriously, at one point, Shardlake is investigating at least three different deaths that happened in three different places), but they are all connected to each other in all sorts of clever ways too.

As you would expect from a C. J. Sansom novel, the detective elements of the story are also tinged with a grim sense of horror that will keep you reading out of morbid fascination. And, this is where this novel really excels. For example, Shardlake spends quite a bit of time in a manor house that teems with dark secrets and hidden threats. To call these parts of the novel suspenseful and atmospheric would be an understatement. Seriously, if you can get through the slow-paced beginning of the story, then you’ll be utterly gripped for the rest of it.

The novel’s settings and background are really interesting too. Not only is there a tangible sense of threat from the French fleet (even if you already know how the history plays out), but the novel also focuses on things like the horrors of conscription and war, the poverty of the time and the religious politics of the 16th century too. Likewise, as mentioned earlier, large parts of this novel are set in Hampshire too 🙂 Although the main location in Hampshire (Hoyland Priory) is fictional, there are enough mentions and descriptions of real places to make this element of the story absolutely fascinating.

The characters in this novel are absolutely stellar too. In addition to quite a few familiar faces (eg: Shardlake, Barak, Guy, Tamasin etc..), the novel has a fairly large cast of well-written background characters too.

One of the things that both Sansom’s Shardlake series and G.R.R Martin’s “Song Of Ice And Fire” novels do really well is to show how people are realistically affected by events and live complicated lives, even when living in a more ignorant age. Likewise, since Shardlake finds himself embroiled in several mysteries, there are lots of dramatic and suspenseful dialogue exchanges too.

In terms of the writing, it is also brilliant. Like in the other novels in the series that I’ve read, Shardlake’s first-person narration is written in a way that has a bit of a historical flavour but is “matter of fact” enough to be extremely readable. In other words, it is a really good balance between modern-style and old fashioned-style narration. Not only does this lend the novel a lot of atmosphere, but it also means that the narration never gets in the way of the gripping story.

In terms of length and pacing, this novel isn’t quite perfect but is still good. Although, as mentioned earlier, the first part of the novel (at least the first 100 pages, if not more) is far too slow-paced, the rest of the novel is an absolutely gripping, suspenseful and expertly-paced detective thriller story. And, the rest of the novel is quite long. The main story is a gargantuan 626 pages in length, with a few pages of historical notes afterwards. Yes, the story is atmospheric and most of it is fairly gripping, but I wish that it had been trimmed down to at least 500-550 pages.

All in all, this is a brilliant novel. If you like dark, suspenseful and gripping detective stories, then you’ll love this one. If you want to read a novel set in Hampshire, then you’ll love this one. If you like historical fiction, then you’ll enjoy this novel too. Yes, the beginning of this novel is rather slow-paced and the story goes on for a long time but, these flaws aside, this novel is astonishingly good 🙂

If I had to give it a rating out of five, it would get at least four and a half.