Top Social

The Year of Agatha

Image Slider

Agatha Superlatives + HAPPY BIRTHDAY, QUEEN!

9.15.2017


Happiest of Agatha Christie Birthdays to you all!

We thought it would be fun to honor the Queen of Crime on her bday by sharing a list of superlatives we've compiled throughout our Christie reading adventures! Feel free to leave us a comment with any of your Agatha superlatives below!


Most Likely to Succeed: Hastings! (Jk, poor thing fails at every venture...but we love him anyway!) - prize actually goes to plucky, young Julia Upjohn from Cat Among the Pigeons for her tenacious pursuit of the truth & fetching of Poirot.

Best Hair: Tie goes to every single auburn-haired lady Hastings falls in love with.

Best All Around: Lucy Eyelesbarrow from 4:50 From Paddington/What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw for being adorable and brilliant and resourceful and making a mean curry!

Most Beautiful: Linnet Ridgeway from Death on the Nile because her fabulous looks are all anyone wants to talk about...besides her money & fiancé stealing, of course.

Best Pet: BOB from Dumb Witness! No explanation needed - please see book for numerous amahzing examples!

Best Couple: Leonard and Griselda Clement from Murder at the Vicarage #relationshipgoalz

Best Bromance: Hastings & Poirot - we imagine Poirot would be secretly thrilled about winning this one, but would never admit it.

Best Couple Who NEVER WAS: Poirot & Countess Vera Rossakoff (#asongoficeandfire) - Poirot WOULD fall for a jewel thief.

Best Transportation-Based Book: The Man in the Brown Suit! (#darkhorse) due to unexpectedly fun adventures on an international cruise! Honorable Mention for Best Use of Trains goes to Murder on the Orient Express (out in theaters November 10th) and Honorable Mention for Best Use of Tour Bus goes to Nemesis #YOIKES

Biggest Gossip: Every Resident of Lymstock via The Moving Finger...also maybe mostly the murderer from that book (#nospoilers, but you know what we mean...#gossipbasedmurder)

Most Opinionated: Ariadne Oliver for always being happy to tell Poirot he's doing it all wrong.

Most Likely to Leave and Never Come Back: Dulcie "Cinderella" Duveen-Hastings aka Hastings' wife aka WHAT HAPPENED TO HER?!

Best Vacation* (*aside from death): Take us to Burgh Island (Bigbury-on-Sea, Devon!) aka the inspiration for Evil Under the Sun & And Then There Were None AND the setting for the ITV adaptation of Evil Under the Sun!

Cambridge Revisited: The Incredible Crime | 1931

8.05.2017
Image from here

"It was a fine, windy morning in Cambridge. Down King's Parade the wind came swirling along, sweeping the insecurely-propped bicycles on to the road and pavement, picking up sheaves of loose white papers and sending them dancing along. Those who had hats were holding them on, and those who wore gowns were holding them down. Young women with bundles of books under their arms and preoccupied expressions, hurrying tradesfolk, and gowned figures of all ages and sizes, filled the street. Among all this busy, familiar crowd one alien figure, watching it all with obvious interest, was making his leisurely way." - The Incredible Crime, p. 213

The Sum of It:
Prudence Pinsent does not have time for the romantic tales of life in British country-houses, nor the dramatic and bubble-headed ladies of detective fiction. On the first page of The Incredible Crime, she tosses a work of detective fiction on the floor in a huff about this very thing, setting up a different type of lady-led mystery story than those readers of the 1930's might have been used to. 

Prudence is the charming, auburn-haired (#donttellHastings) daughter of the Master of Prince's College, Cambridge, where she spends her days doing the duties of the hostess of the college and hanging out with her pals, mostly the wives of professors and fellows. Though adored, she doesn't quite fit in with them, provoking one of her friends to say of her "I love her, but I should never be surprised if one day she kicked over the traces altogether" and a bit later in the conversation, another friend responds "I don't trust her conventionalism...she is too independent now to want a man, or to marry; but at bottom she is completely indifferent to public opinion, and if she wanted to flout it, she would do so without hesitation."

Perhaps a bit heavy-handed, but we certainly come quickly to understand that Prudence is unique, and that we might want to follow her adventures. To get away from the responsibilities and uprightness of her daily life, she regularly escapes to her cousin's country estate, Wellende Hall, on the Suffolk coast (home to some lovely descriptions of russet-toned landscapes). Lord Wellende is described as outdoorsy, athletic, maybe not handsome but attractive, and Austen-Leigh always arranges him in attractive settings, studying a book about veterinary science next to a huge fireplace or riding to hounds on a powerful horse. But does the straightforward and charming Lord Wellende have a secret in the tunnels beneath his family estate? And why is the author constantly bringing up links between him and a rather unusual nutty-professor style character back in Cambridge? Aside from alleged drug smuggling, that's where the mysteries lie.

The YOA Treatment:
A bit over a month since our trip, and do we miss England? MAYBE. Do we miss our walks through Cambridge, strolling along the river and past the magnificent campus? MAYBE. Do we wish we could have installed ourselves in some little cubbyhole there and never left? MAYBE. Needless to say, our nostalgia for the beautiful college town started even before we came home, and we couldn't wait to read The Incredible Crime: A Cambridge Mystery, one of the newest British Library Crime Classics releases. 

We first discovered the book at the British Library's Bodies from the Library crime fiction conference while we were in London, a seriously fascinating deep dive into the Golden Age of detective fiction with some of the foremost experts on the topic. One of the coolest things about this book is that it was written by a the granddaughter of Jane Austen's nephew, Lois Austen-Leigh #bookroyalty. The first of four Golden Age crime fiction tales by Austen-Leigh, The Incredible Crime lavishes finely wrought detail on vivid descriptions of the town of Cambridge, college life, the classic English manor of Wellende Hall, and the quintessential Suffolk country village. The atmosphere evoked in each of these settings is crisp and clear, not overly flowery but so enveloping you can almost feel the breeze as Prudence speeds along amid the marshes in her cousin's motor-boat;

"The bright winter sun touched the shingle banks near the mouth and turned them into gold. A flock of very white gulls was circling overhead, and a single curlew was calling. Prudence drove fast. Arriving at the mouth, she saw a heap of shingle left bare and wet; and in another place a rougher tumble of water. She appeared to have forgotten what she had said to her cousin at breakfast, for without a moment's hesitation she left the shingle heap on the starboard, and headed straight out to sea." 

or hear the crackle of a fire in the cozy hall at Prince's College: 

"Men with brains and ability can be found all over the world, moreover there are always others coming up to fill their places, but such Jacobean rooms as this are not to be found all over the world, nor are they to be reproduced. The ceiling was finely moulded, and the walls panelled with oak, stained and darkened by the passing years. The dominant colour of the room was dark red or red-brown, the carpet was one or the other, the drawn curtains dark read, and two generous fires at each end of the room lit up the ruby tints of the decanters of port on the table and the splash of scarlet of a doctor's hood someone had thrown down on a chair."

Though the settings are deftly handled, and reason enough to give the book a read, the mystery is a bit clunky (someone is shipping DRUGS into the country! For SHAME! The coast guard is quite flustered. Just a bit trite, as crime hooks go, and some of the very 1930's attempts at descriptions of illicit drugs are chuckle-worthy). Until very near the end when some of our favorite characters seem to be in danger (and in fact ARE), the setting is really what keeps the reader invested in the book. In fact this is not a murder mystery until the end, and for the most part is something of a spy caper (-ish). There are certainly shades of Agatha in the book, particularly in the attitude and spunkiness of the main character, Prudence (interestingly reminiscent as a character of the plucky Tuppence Bereford, whose real name is Prudence -- we quite wondered if this was coincidence or homage). The dialogue is not quite as snappy as Tommy and Tuppence's repartee, and there are so many characters, many of whom are pre-middle-age British men, one can get a bit lost from time to time, but the scenes featuring Prudence are certainly the highlight. One thing we've always loved about Tuppence is the early feminism the character demonstrates, also present in Prudence Pinsent.

Man to Prudence: "I don't like talking secrets with a woman, it's damned risky, they nearly always blab, but there -- is there anywhere we can talk in private?"

Prudence's first impulse was to point out to him the unwisdom of belittling the trustworthiness of women in general, to the woman he apparently proposed to trust, but seeing how much in earnest he appeared, she refrained; besides which, she was really curious, and quite at sea as to what she was going to hear." 

Like Tuppence, Prudence Pinsent is an independent lady, despite the concerns of everyone around her that she will remain a spinster (she's in her very early 30's) forever if she doesn't settle down. She seeks out adventure on her own, riding horses, speeding along in motor-boats, and climbing down terrifying vertical tunnels to see if she can uncover illegal activity -- IN PANTS. Also like some of Agatha's earlier works, there's a bit of a romance line in this tale that the modern reader might do without, though it takes some interesting twists and turns along the way and there's kind of a hilarious reverse-My-Fair-Lady scene. Though this book feels a bit less fresh than much of Agatha's work from the same era, it was a fun read and a truly lovely way to revisit some of the quaintest and most beautiful parts of jolly old England. 

- E. 

Disappearing Agatha: A Talent for Murder | 2017

7.25.2017
(image by The Year of Agatha)
"'I am quite convinced that , had you not had the outlet of your books, books that are full of murder, poisonings, betrayals of the worst kind, you yourself may even have been tempted to commit a heinous crime.'
'That is the most ridiculous thing I've ever heard. Quite preposterous. Just because I make a small living out of writing about crime and its detection doesn't in the slightest mean I could possibly do it myself.'
'We will see about that, won't we?' Kurs smiled."
A Talent for Murder, p. 82-83

The Sum of It:
This week we are so excited to share our thoughts and feels about A Talent for Murder, a book that seems a bit full circle for us after having immersed ourselves in Agatha Christie's works last year as this novel features the Queen of Crime herself as the protagonist. We meet Agatha in the winter of 1926 in a really horrible time of her life. Not only is she mourning the loss of her beloved mother and suffering a bad case of writer's block, but her hubby, Archie, is turning out to be a real winner (#sarcasm #archiesux) and has told Agatha he plans to leave her for his new girlfriend, Nancy Neele. Agatha is, understandably, not in the best place emotionally. During a rather tumultuous errands run, she meets Dr. Kurs, a preeeetty gross guy with bad breath and a creepy amount of knowledge of Agatha's personal life (aka 100% not the guy you want to be your doctor). Dr. Kurs is like hey, so I totally know all about this affair your husband is having cause Homewrecker Nancy is my patient and she's told me everything and I need you to do something for me or I'm gonna make sure everyone knows about your private business. Agatha is like uh, I don't know you and you're weird so no. And then Dr. Kurs is like oh alsoooo I know you have a young daughter and I know some really psycho dangerous guys and I wouldn't want anything to happen to her or anyone else you love.

Emotionally vulnerable, Agatha feels backed in to a corner and very reluctantly decides she needs to comply with Dr. Kurs' demands. However, these demands get pretty intense when Dr. Kurs informs her that he needs Agatha to use her experience as a brilliant mystery author to commit a murder of her own (#thisescalatedquickly)! Now, as Agatha leaves her family and friends behind and literally disappears into the night to take on this #murderquest, she has to decide whether to go through with Dr. Kurs' wishes...or use her wits to figure out a way to out-manipulate him.

The YOA Treatment:
When we attended the "Agatha Christie: A Reappraisal" conference last month, we were delighted to meet A Talent for Murder's author, Andrew Wilson. Ironically we had JUST purchased his book before leaving for England, but had not had a chance to read it yet! After having a chance to get to know him and his immense love for Agatha, we hurried home to devour his latest novel. Andrew has done a wonderful job of providing a massively intriguing explanation for Agatha's real-life 1926 disappearance, while also creating a complex yet personable character in Mrs. Christie as she navigates her own suspenseful mystery. A Talent for Murder is a thoroughly wonderful read that Christie fans of all levels will enjoy! We can't wait to dive into his next Agatha Christie adventure, A Different Kind of Evil (out in March 2018!)

We are so honored to have had the chance to ask Andrew a few questions about his experience writing this book about the Queen of Crime - please enjoy his insights a bit further down, BUT FIRST! Andrew's bona-fide Agatha mega fan/expert status has also been bumped up a notch further as he is currently wrapping up speaking at the Theakston Old Peculiar Crime Writing Festival at THE hotel in Harrogate where Agatha stayed during her disappearance! This festival looks AMAZING and we are truly jealous we aren't in attendance - here's hoping we can next year. Andrew has also kindly shared some of his photos from the festival below, and they're followed by our super fun interview with him about A Talent for Murder!

(Harrogate!)


(We spy some EXCELLENT reading options here - congrats, Andrew!)

YOA asks:
 You mention in your Acknowledgements that you had the idea to write A Talent for Murder during a train ride, but we'd love to know the full story. As a long-time Christie fan, was this something you had been thinking about doing for a while and the pieces came together for you on your train ride? Or was there something about that particular trip that sparked the inspiration?

AW answers: I love train journeys, as Agatha did. This particular train journey was the Great Western Service from London down to Devon, where I now live. It’s a route that Agatha would have travelled many times, both when she lived in Torquay and then later, after buying Greenway, on the banks of the river Dart. There’s something about the rhythm, the movement, and then the continual changing view, that is good for the imagination. At at subconscious level, I’m sure I must have been thinking of Strangers on a Train, because of  course, there is something of Highsmith’s first novel in A Talent for Murder.

YOA asks: I have usually been skeptical about novelizations of Agatha's life because I didn't want to be drawn into a scenario that couldn't possibly be true. Your attention to research and strict adherence to the facts we have from Agatha's disappearance in 1926 made me a believer that this kind of novelization can be done and done well! Your presentation at the "Agatha Christie: A Reappraisal" conference referenced how factual inaccuracies in the portrayal of Christie can be very disappointing. As you set about writing A Talent for Murder, what were some pitfalls you wanted to avoid and how did this fit into your writing process? 

AW answers: I wanted to make the background of the book - the tone of the period, the “facts” of the case, the characterisation of the protagonists - to feel as authentic as possible. My first task was to construct a framework of what we know happened in real life. I drew on newspaper accounts, police statements and witness interviews to build up a picture of what Agatha was doing over the period of the disappearance. Then, using this blueprint, I injected a crime story to explain what could have happened. At the end of the book I list “the facts” to show readers what was true and what was a product of my imagination. 

YOA asks: You have done a marvelous job with your portrayal of Agatha Christie as a character. It was such fun to see the woman behind so many of my favorite books come to life! In your book you have listed many sources for the details of her disappearance and her life, including Christie's Autobiography, but I'm curious where you would say you found the greatest inspiration for Christie's character during this particular period of her life (her 1926 disappearance) since she talks so little of it in her Autobiography?

AW answers: I suppose the voice of Christie is something that came to me over time. After immersing myself in her work since the age of 11 or so I didn’t find it hard to strike the right note. But of course this was a huge gamble. Luckily, so far many readers have told me that the book sounds as though it could have been written by Agatha.  But here in this book, one must remember, Agatha is still a character - she is a product of my imagination. I didn’t want to write a pastiche or a parody. I hoped to give the reader a flavour of my vision of Agatha’s perspective, the way she saw the world.

YOA asks: In the book, Mr. Kurs proposes to Agatha that he is convinced that, "had you not had the outlet of your books, books that are full of murder, poisonings, betrayals of the worst kind, you yourself may even have been tempted to commit a heinous crime" and Mr. Davison suggests she may have a darker side beneath the surface as well. Agatha's character balks at this idea immediately in the pages, however, I'm curious about what clues you may have found through her work or your research that others or perhaps even she may have thought this as well?

AW answers: I think this is very much one of the demands of the story. In order for the plot to work we have to believe that Agatha is in a very vulnerable place. In 1926, we know her mother died, she discovered her husband’s infidelity and learned the news that he wanted a divorce, and she also seemed to be suffering from a period of writer’s block. Both Dr Kurs and Davison want something from Agatha - Kurs tries to manipulate her as a character and Davison would like her to work for a shady government organisation.Agatha fans know that she was not the cozy writer of the popular imagination. In many respects, many of the TV adaptations  have leached the work of its darker elements, reducing it to Cluedo-like whimsy. But one only has to read novels such as Crooked House and And Then There Were None to see that Christie was far from cozy.

YOA asks: As a massive Christie fan myself, it was an absolute delight to come across little references to her works throughout your book - you mention the phrase 'by the pricking of my thumbs", there is a reference to Mrs. Astor (an inspiration for a character in Appointment with Death), and near the end of the novel it seems as if Agatha has encountered characters resembling Poirot and Miss Marple. And yet A Talent for Murder is very approachable for readers who may not be as familiar with Agatha Christie. What did you want to share most about Agatha with your readers as you wrote this book?

AW answers: We know Agatha was highly intelligent and creative, she was expert at plotting and also had a deep knowledge of poisons. But the central question is a moral one: she could write about murder, but would she - under the right circumstances - ever commit one? I wanted to make the book just as readable and exciting for non-fans as for those with a greater knowledge of Agatha. So yes, there are a few clues dotted around, allusions and references that a Christie fan can pick up on. But no prior knowledge of Christie is needed!

YOA asks: You write that you have been a Christie fan since childhood - something that I can certainly relate to, as well as many of our blog readers and social media followers. Do you think being such a longtime fan and having a deep knowledge of her as an author created any barriers as you set about writing this book?

AW answer: Obviously, I didn’t want the narrative to be bogged down by too many facts about Agatha’s life or a flood of allusive references.  The key was to give the reader a taste, a hint of these things. The main challenge was to come up with a storyline which was gripping and full of suspense.

YOA asks: Agatha Christie's 1926 disappearance is utterly fascinating and her silence on the matter really does lend to letting the imagination run wild! What aspect of those missing days do you find the most intriguing?

AW answers: The central idea - a crime writer who went missing from her own crime scene - is a tantalising one. Also, the fact that - after an interview with the Daily Mail in 1928 - she decided not to to discuss it. There have been so many speculations over the years, so many scenarios. I like the ambiguity of it all, the fact that we don’t really know what happened during those ten or eleven days. It is this mysterious quality which still endures and which makes it such an irresistible subject for fictional exploration.

YOA asks: While Emily and I love the crime fiction of the Golden Age, we are also very fond of more contemporary mystery novels. As you've gone about writing a mystery in 2017 about events from the Golden Age, how do you see that the crime or mystery fiction genre has changed since Agatha and her contemporaries were writing between the Wars?

AW answers: One can only generalise here, of course. There is an accepted position that the Golden Age was all about restoring order within the pages of a book - so a killer is exposed/murdered/forced to commit suicide/imprisoned at the end. This is, in many respects, true, but there are exceptions, as any Agatha fan knows. Just look at Murder on the Orient ExpressI think the main trend postwar is the general exploration of moral ambiguity. Under what circumstances would force/tempt each of us commit a terrible crime like murder? How do “normal” people end up as killers? How does danger lurk within the domestic sphere? Of course, Patricia Highsmith is one of my great influences (I wrote the first biography, Beautiful Shadow) and I think she is expert at exploring themes such as guilt, moral ambiguity, and the banality of evil.

YOA asks: And, of course, we must ask about your personal Christie favorites! What would you say are your top three Christie novels?

AW answers: Always so difficult and, of course, these do change. But … The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, is always there in my top 3 - I love the cleverness of it, the technical challenge it presented Agatha and I always recommend it to people who have never read Christie’s novels. Then I would choose Sleeping Murder, because of its themes of repressed memory and its psychological intensity. And Five Little Pigs, for too many reasons to mention here!

Thanks for joining the YOA family, Andrew!

- A. & E.
SaveSave

The Destroyers: Our Rhapsody and a GREAT Interview with Author Christopher Bollen | 2017

7.12.2017
Image from here
"One lie. That was all that was asked of me. One lie concocted between old friends to keep a house in order. And now the lie is growing to the size of an island and must be watered and pruned and fed." - The Destroyers, p. 244

Last year we raved about Christopher Bollen's book Orient, a truly Christie-inspired mystery set on Long Island featuring a truly frightening denouement and named an NPR Book of the Year. Loving that book as we did, and knowing the author's genuine adoration for our muse, Agatha (his article about visiting Greenway is a classic for fans), we were shoe-ins for pre-ordering his acclaimed new book, The Destroyers, as soon as we got wind of it. We were clearly beyond thrilled when Christopher (who edits Interview magazine in addition to writing great fiction) agreed to do an interview with us about the new book and crime fiction in general. First we'll summarize the book, and then we'll let the interview serve as the YOA Treatment because it's awesome. We guarantee you're going to enjoy reading Christopher's thoughts (and The Destroyers) as much as we did.


The Sum of It:
Read this book in two days, it's one of those. The Destroyers was described by one reviewer as "equal parts Graham Greene, Patricia Highsmith, and F. Scott Fitzgerald," and if that's not a compelling combo, I don't know what is. Set on the Greek island of Patmos, the gorgeous descriptions of sparkling seas, looming monasteries, deserted beaches, gleaming yachts and sunwashed tourists will immediately draw you in, and the building sense of ominous tension amid the glamour and carefree days will hook you. 

For the most part, we see the story through the perspective of Ian Bledsoe, an Ivy-league educated former New Yorker from a wealthy family whose idealism often leads him to dubious allegiances and decisions that have made him a black sheep in his family and his profession life. Desperate for someone to give him a hand, Ian tracks down his old school friend Charlie on Patmos, whose family was originally from Cyprus and possess wealth and power that dwarfs that of Ian's family. When Ian and Charlie were kids, they invented a game they called Destroyers, where they'd take turns laying out a scenario in which the other player was trying to escape from a band of attackers in their school, on the subway, in a bank or a museum, forcing each other to think on their feet and use their surroundings to stay safe in a mental game of wizard's chess. Ian was always better at it than Charlie, who let his emotions and wandering eye for the ladies cloud his judgement. Anyhow, Ian and Charlie both grew up with the mindset of using their mental acuity to try and skirt the rules and stay ahead, even if it's just one jump, Aladdin-style. 

When Ian finds Charlie on the island, the latter is running a fleet of yachts for tourists, dating a beautiful if frantic former actress, and juggling some real family drama, as well as being harangued by the various expats who call Patmos home for the summer. Ian wants Charlie to give him a job, and the role he ends up with is unique. Or so he thinks. A bomb that exploded in an island cafe earlier in the summer has everyone on edge, and some apocalypse-obsessed hippies who've made the island where Revelation was written their base camp add to the strange atmosphere. Ian starts wondering if that's all that has Charlie and his motley crew acting secretive and feeling suspicious, and when something happens to throw everything into chaos, Ian feels like it's up to him to get to the bottom of the trouble in paradise.

The YOA Treatment:
Without further ado, Christopher Bollen!

YOA asks: Your last novel, Orient [which we loved], was set on Long Island, NY. Obviously the setting of The Destroyers, the Greek Island of Patmos, is a bit more exotic. The imagery of the island is crystal clear; you can basically feel the sun dazzling your eyes off the water and the whitewashed walls. Did you choose the island before visiting, or after?

CB answers: After. I had been to Greece a few times before visiting Patmos in August 2013, but it was on that trip—and on that particular island—that the faint flame of an idea began to beat in my head. Actually it wasn’t so faint. I think I was determined to set my next novel on Patmos before my return flight touched down in New York. But to be honest, the cards were stacked in favor of Patmos from the very beginning. As a kid who went to Catholic school, I knew that it was the island where St. John wrote The Book of Revelation. And then, later, in my twenties, I kept hearing about Patmos from wealthy, mostly European jet-set friends as this perfect vacation destination. Those two realities—Apocalypse island/ideal holiday island—seemed so impossible that I was hopelessly fascinated in the place before I ever booked my ticket.

YOA asks: Both settings are coastal. Is there something about a waterfront locale that feels particularly mysterious or sinister for you as a writer?

CB answers: Absolutely. I tend to like to have elements of crime in my books, and that always seems to lead me toward the water. I’m not alone on this idea. Jean Genet’s Querelle starts with this delicious line: “the notion of murder often brings to mind the notion of sea and sailors.” Of course, ports and waterfronts are traditionally where “unsavory” things happen, where transients and people quite literally on the edges of society gather. But I think there is also a personal reason for my obsession with coasts. I grew up in Ohio, which is in the very center of the United States. I was intent at very young age to move to the coast—either New York or California. So in a sense I think being raised in a landlocked place has made me instinctively reach for the sea, and I seem to end up near water every time I write fiction.

YOA asks: As a writer in this style, you may be asked to consider this question often, but why do you think we as readers are fascinated by tales of the worst parts of human nature? Do you think we like knowing that sometimes the good parts -- curiousity, care, determination, loyalty -- struggle with the worst parts, and win, or is it something more?

CB answers: I think especially in this age, where everyone has stage-managed their lives and serves as their own PR consultant on their personal habits and interests—look at basically any Instagram account, from your grandmother to the young man who rang you up at the grocery store this morning—where everyone is showing off their best selves and spreading Vaseline on the lens of reality, we do need a reminder of our darker proclivities. We need works that remind us of the house of horrors that lurks inside each one of us. And I don’t just mean selfishness, which has been taken up by comedy as a badge of individualism. I mean the twisted desires and perverse compulsions that haunt and frighten each of us. And of course, yes, murder as entertainment is a release for your own feelings of fear dread.

YOA asks: In a recent interview, Anthony Horowitz (creator of Foyle's War, Midsomer Murders, and the new book Magpie Murders) said he believes that "whodunits" give us truth. While The Destroyers isn't a straight, Poirot-style whodunit, the mysteries at the heart of the story: the bomb, the disappearance, the mistaken identities, the deceits (large and small) are reminiscent of these tales. Do you feel that stories like yours help us find truth?

CB answers: Oh, they probably do in a sense, in that we are taught to remain skeptical jurists when listening to the confessions or alibis of each character. But I worry that their inevitable solution—and their hero worship of the detective—often gives the false notion that the truth prevails, that justice is eventually served, that the lie is always brought to light. And that is a dangerous delusion for “whodunits”: that even in their sometimes far-fetched solutions, they promise that a solution will be reached.

YOA asks: We approach this story through the eyes of Ian, a guy who means well but always seems to get it a bit wrong, and who's reached the end of his rope. Since we see the story through his eyes, we still trust him in spite of that. In Orient, we saw the story through the eyes of Mills, a character who was also at the end of his rope, caught just before he slid off into the ether by the last person who was willing to catch him. What is it about this type of character that makes you want to let them tell the story and control the narrative?

CB answers: In one sense, Mills and Ian couldn’t be different characters. Ian is from a wealthy Manhattan family, while Mills doesn’t have more than five dollars to his name; Ian has too much family, and Mills has none; Ian really has no one but himself to blame for his mess, while Mills is really a victim of society in a lot of ways. However, you’re right. No matter where they started psychologically or socio-economically, they are both at the ends of their ropes and in crash circumstances. I like a struggling character, I like someone who is in a position where they can’t sit back and relax, I like a hidden motive to be running through even an ordinary scene of a dinner or a day at the beach. I love what you say about these characters hoping to be saved by “the last person who was willing to catch them”. That’s so true. But doesn’t life often feel as if, behind the solid floors and the comfortable bed and the weekly paychecks, it’s all hanging by a few threads? It only takes a few snips before any of us could be Mills or Ian.

YOA asks: One of the things that brought us to your books was your notoriety as a fan of Agatha Christie :). What did your history as a connoisseur of Christie's work teach you about writing mysteries that delve into the human condition?

CB answers: Quite simply, Agatha Christie taught me to love reading. I don’t mean I had never loved a book before I read Christie at around age eleven. But until I discovered Christie, I had never felt the passion—really the hunger—that brings us running to the shelf as soon as we finish one book to consume another. Christie did that for me, unlocked the pleasure and drug of exciting fiction. So simply on the addictive qualities of her books, I owe her a tremendous debt. Now, on a more philosophical scale, Christie is one of the great advocates of complicated lives, reminding us not to trust our first impressions or believe the official verdict. There is always more to the story.

YOA asks: How do you feel like the crime or mystery fiction genre has changed since Agatha and her contemporaries were writing between the Wars?

CB answers: I am not an expert. I tend to still read all over the map (or bookstore) in terms of genre. I will read horror, sci-fi, poetry, etc. as much as I read from the mystery section. But in my opinion, it hasn’t changed enough. There are lots of trends—serial-killer tropes being the obvious winner—and lots of new geographic regions being promoted. But really the mystery as a form hasn’t been revolutionized or challenged. That might be the fault of us authors for not being harder on ourselves. Or it might be that the murder mystery is such a solid formula that, like a formula in math, it’s really trustworthy in delivering the result. It’s battletested. Still, I’d love to read a mystery that swam in the wrong direction (Paul Auster’s 1985 novel City of Glass is a start).

YOA asks: We recently visited the "Bodies from the Library" conference at the British Library, where a panel discussion focused in part on the fact that the Golden Age's "cozy" mysteries aren't really that cozy at their hearts, the people in them are harboring terrible thoughts, feelings, motives, and actions. Orient and The Destroyers are both mainly set in small, closed worlds (Orient, Patmos) where it's tough to hide or remain a stranger. What draws you to this type of setting?

CB answers: I’ve never understood the word “cozy”—unless it is used cynically/sarcastically to describe the great comfort we humans experience watching other people’s tragedies from a safe distance (and then I think it is a very apt description). Yes, it’s hard to write about buried secrets in the middle of Manhattan, because your neighbors (who you might not know by name let alone by sight) would mostly prefer you kept your secrets buried and left them alone. They simply don’t care! Which is the joy and liberation of living in Manhattan. One of the graces of setting a book in a smaller, isolated, and more socially-knit setting is that your neighbors DO CARE who they are living next to. And they watch. And they remember. There is a personal and cultural history to any set of houses in a small town. So there are clear advantages in setting crimes there merely for the tension of intruding lives.

YOA asks: Following the "Bodies from the Library" conference, we also participated in the "International Agatha Christie: A Reappraisal" conference last month. There was a quite a bit of focus among speakers on the way justice is handled in Christie's books: very often outside the legal system, sometimes through suicide, another murder, or a whisking away of the offender to care. Did that style of justice from authors like Christie influence the way you choose to handle justice in your own work?

CB answers: I don’t believe in justice, and that’s where I part ways with most of the mystery genre. You can see the murder mystery as an inherently conservative form: there is a well-adjusted society until it is thrown into chaos by a murder and the detective comes like a sort of ethical cleaner to detect the agent causing the chaos and remove it, thus restoring harmony to society. But I tend to write from the idea that there was never harmony in the society, and sometimes the agent causing the chaos is the hero and not the villain. So I tend to write in the opposite direction. And thus I celebrate Christie’s occasional fondness for endings that happen outside of the courtroom and leave us wondering about the nature of justice.

YOA asks: AND FINALLY, we have to ask: What is your favorite Agatha Christie book? Feel free to list more than one; we know that's kind of a Sophie's choice!

CB answers: Yikes! I have to list more than one. And it changes. There are so many I admire (The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, A Mirror Crack’d, A Murder is Announced). Even some of the black sheep I admire (The Man in the Brown Suit, They Came to Baghdad). But okay I will pick three: One stand-alone, Ten Little Indians, because I think it changed the way stories are told (no exaggeration); one Poirot, Death on Nile, because it’s so stylish, so far-flung, and so deviously smart; and one Marple, Nemesis, fiendishly clever.

Safe to say we are big fans. Go pick up a copy of The Destroyers today!!!

- E. & A.

Art Appreciation: The Last Painting of Sara de Vos | 2016

6.06.2017
Image from here
"The paintings on your walls, the Dutch rivers and kitchens, the Flemish peasant frolics, they give off fumes and dull with age, but connect you to a bloodline of want, to shipbuilders and bankers who stared up at them as their own lives tapered off. Like trees, they have breathed in the air around them and now they exhale some of their previous owners' atoms and molecules. They could last for a thousand years, these paintings, and that buoys you as you drift off, a layer just above sleep. Skimming the pond, Rachel used to call it, or was that something you once said to her? You should turn everything off in the room, but you don't. You let the lamps burn all night."
- The Last Painting of Sara de Vos

You guys, this book is #gorgeous.

The Sum of It:
Though people are essential to Dominic Smith's atmospheric story, and represent much of the finely wrought detail, the book's main character is really a melancholy painting by a fictional female Dutch master, Sara de Vos, called "At the Edge of a Wood." We first truly meet the painting in 1950s Manhattan, where it hangs above the bed of wealthy and debonair Marty de Groot, who inherited a vast collection of valuable art and a very Don-Draper sounding penthouse from his father. The painting, which readers can see in their mind's eyes as clearly as if the book contained illustrations thanks to Smith's magical powers of description, depicts a winter scene with a forlorn, barefoot girl at the edge of a wood gazing at children ice skating on a frozen river. Though the painting is sad, its one of Marty's favorites, so when something seems off about the nails in the frame, he realizes that somehow his priceless original has been replaced with a forgery. 

We gradually learn more about the painting in a timeline centuries earlier, where the artist, Sara de Vos, and her hometown in Holland are depicted just as vividly as more contemporary scenes. Though she typically paints only still lifes, Sara is brought to this visual depiction of her own grief following a family tragedy. 

The painting and its meticulous copy that even had Marty fooled for a while in the 1950s come together with Marty and the art forger, in the year 2000 in Australia, when both paintings make their way to a gallery for a highly publicized show. 

Along the way, luminous depictions of 1950s New York dinner parties and jazz clubs, fabulous Manhattan homes and humble artist's apartments in Brooklyn, the bleak but beautiful landscapes and ruined villages of the Netherlands of long ago, and well-heeled art galleries and seaside scenery of modern-day Australia all wrap you in the world of the story. Aside from the painting, the book's other beautifully drawn main characters: art collector Marty, art historian Ellie, and enigmatic painter Sara bring to light the very human themes of self-reflection, loss, heartache, and what it means to grow old. 

The YOA Treatment:
Once again we find a tale that toes the line between genre fiction and literary fiction, a line we constantly bump up against (and wonder if we could just throw out?) in our travels here on the blog. This book certainly begins as a #whodunnit; a valuable painting is missing from a very secure penthouse apartment and replaced by a meticulous but still fake copy -- who managed to steal it and how? Was the forger the same person who crept in and stole away with it? This central mystery is also supplemented by the mystery of the painting itself. So little is known of the artist, Sara de Vos, or why she seems to have only one work, despite being the first female member of the artist's Guild of St. Luke. We have the added suspense of the forgery and original coming together under the watchful eyes of both the forger and original owner; how will that situation conclude? Who knows how much? It'll keep you turning the pages, that's for sure.

On the other hand, this book is so beautifully written that those who feel crime fiction is not really capable of being true art might protest to us placing it so close to the genre fiction line (we aren't those people, obvi). Each time period painted in this tale is so painstakingly drawn you might as well be watching a movie (and just to be clear, we'd watch a movie of this one fo sho). As someone who secretly wishes she could go back in time and study art history and spend days studying brushstrokes in a museum, the windows into the world of painters and art collectors is a genuine treat you want to wrap yourself in like a beautiful cashmere blanket. The language (ever important to us, especially Emily) is so lovely and glittering it could high five Annie Dillard. Each character struggles with their own identity, and how their actions reflect who they are (or want to be) as each timeline is drawn closer and closer together. Basically, GO READ IT and THANK US LATER #yourewelcome. 

- E. 



Time After Time: The Rocks | 2016

5.11.2017
Image from here

“And the seasons, as now, reliably made everything new again. He liked to remember Goethe’s line: 'A man can stand anything but a succession of ordinary days.'” 
-The Rocks

The Sum of It:
Oof - this is a hard one to summarize, but we will do our best! The most important thing to know is that the book is written in reverse time order in that we begin at the end of the tumultuous relationship between main characters Lulu and Gerald and then trace that relationship and the lives that surround it backwards from there. These two used to be married, but when the book begins in 2005, the two are 100% not together and have a super non-friendly confrontation near some seaside cliffs and then (kinda spoilers, but not really because this literally happens in the first chapter of the book) both tumble over the cliff and die. As their two adult children (each from a different marriage, so not related at all #noncousinlove), Aegina and Luc, meet up to sort out the cliff situation, it becomes apparent that those two ALSO have some kind of a romance-riddled past. Each section of the book travels back in in chronology all the way to 1948 a few years at a time, with each section revealing a new piece of the puzzle of the totally mysterious horrible incident that drove Lulu and Gerald apart, and the reason why Aegina and Luc can't seem to look each other in the eye...

Author Peter Nichols weaves an amazing, lushly visual albeit a bit cringe-y at times (see Treatment below for more on that), tale that is full of literal and figuratively rich characters. Lulu's Mallorcan villa/hotel, The Rocks, hosts a constant stream of visitors, from the rich British couple who helped fund her resort venture to a decidedly skeezy regular to a smorgasbord of movie stars and producers, and Nichols will leave you hooked to the last page to see the genesis of each and every one. The settings range from the glittering water and olive groves of Mallorca to Paris apartments to north African bazaars, and each is vividly painted. The settings, images, relationships, and complex emotions that build the story's tapestry are, together, a knock out.

The YOA Treatment:
Opinions on this book range, but we have to say that we really liked it. It is set in Mallorca, a place we've become increasingly fascinated by (especially since "The Night Manager" starring bae Hiddleston; if you haven't watched it, DO IT). The scenes are painted so vividly, my passport was itching. We were also intrigued by the structure of the book, which begins with an extremely dramatic scene that was obviously precipitated by a significant event in the past, so the premise of the whole book is traveling backwards through the lives of the characters until the mysterious situation that sparked lifetimes of drama for both of the initial main characters is finally revealed. Each character in the book brings something else to the story, either demonstrating the consequences of some long ago action or illustrating heartache or unachieved potential. That sounds kind of depressing, but we promise this book is not! None of the characters are perfect, but then, neither are people, and we feel like this book paints a great picture of how simple misunderstandings or actions can have a ripple effect across lives.

In this way, this book strikes us as absolutely a mystery. One of the most compelling features of the narrative is that you are constantly trying to figure out what it is that has caused these two families to be pitted against each other, Capulet vs. Montague style, for like 60 years. Amid this narrative device, the mysteries of actual crimes as well as the emotional damage people can do to each other are totally intertwined. 

In poking around online about this book before reading it, we came across some VERY mixed reviews. Some people described the book as "boring" (which we find COMPLETELY baffling), some were frustrated with the sex scenes (there is one in particular that we agreed we could have done without, though we get why it was there for one character in particular), and some said they didn't like some of the characters. Many reviewers compare it to Beautiful Ruins by Jess Walter, which was honestly a bit of a deterrent for us because while we very much enjoyed the portions of that book set in the past, we loathed the modern-day storyline and wished that the author had left it out altogether, and speed-read through it to get back to the interesting parts. The Rocks, for us, was nothing like that, and was a #pageturner from start to finish and by the time we reached the last page, we wanted to just turn the book over and start again. Pick it up!

- E. & A. 

Sister, sister: Dead Letters | 2017

4.20.2017
(image from here)
"Zelda is fully aware that she's enticed me to play, and now I can't let it go until I've figured her out, found her, looked her in the eyes and told her that I know her BEST, that I GET HER. Which, of course, is how she will win too." - Dead Letters, p. 113

The Sum of It:
Dead Letters is like if the twins from Sweet Valley High were from Upstate New York instead of California (question mark?) and then also with more murder/arson. Because here's the thing, this book starts out with one of our main characters, Ava, through whose eyes we see most of the action, flying home to New York from her expat home in Paris to attend her dead twin sister's funeral. ONLY she is feeling a little conflicted about this because she's still getting emails from said sister, Zelda, that could only be written by her #lettersfrombeyondthegrave? Their mom let her know that Zelda died when her barn/hideout at the family's failing vineyard burned to the ground with her inside. Only sister on the plane (Ava) is like, ok, whatever, I'm having a hard time being sad about this because I'm really just wondering what's going on. Is Zelda really dead? Ava thinks not and plans on getting to the bottom of it as soon as she lands. And has a glass [bottle] of wine. 

Once she gets home, the police figure out that the barn doors were chained shut prior to the fire starting. Isn't that peculiar. Maybe the fire wasn't an accident caused by dead (?) sister's candles after all. Meanwhile, the emails keep coming and it quickly becomes clear that Ava is being led on a bit of a scavenger hunt by her supposedly deceased twin, who loved mischief. She starts digging around in her sister's life, which proves a bit tricky initially because they sort of stopped speaking when she moved to Paris, leaving Zelda at home in New York to care for their mother, who is in the throes of dementia. Add in a high school boyfriend, drug dealing strippers, literal gallons of booze, and some poor judgement, and you've got quite the situation.  

The YOA Treatment:
First of all, that cover is bangin', kudos to the designer at Random House. So we snapped this one up in a pre-order because it was recommended by fairly reliable sources as "Agatha Christie-like." Talk about a high bar. And in reading it, we both really looked for the hints of Agatha in the fast-paced tale. The premise is juicy; is the twin sister dead or not?? If not, who's sending the emails?? Is this Pretty Little Liars for grownups?? (#kindof #actuallyreallyalot). Definitely keeps you turning the pages, although for readers who are legit steeped in mystery like us (it's no one's fault but our own that we've read like hundreds of murder mysteries over the last year and a half) the ending started looking pretty inevitable about half way through. While the ending is certainly a "twist," for us the inevitability of the twist took quite a bit of the wind out of the sails (honestly if the twist had been opposite it almost would have been MORE surprising to us). Like The Long Room, I (Emily) read this one on the beach, and UNLIKE The Long Room, this was absolutely a beach read. Almost to a fault, if you know what I mean (I guess what I'm saying is any book that spends more than one scene discussing the way a tshirt lays over various aspects of a man's anatomy starts to feel less like literature and more like a romp, which is fine as long as that's what you're in the market for!) 

All that to say is that I think we both had slightly mixed feelings about this one. It was a pretty compelling mystery and kept you turning the pages, and the author (newcomer Caite Dolan-Leache) knows how to paint a picture for sure. If you're looking for a light mystery to page through while you sip pina coladas poolside, this could be a totally viable candidate. However, we didn't see a lot of Agatha in it. I mean, it was a mystery, and there was a twist, but in our opinion Agatha is in rare air, and this book didn't really carry the weight, offer the clever turns of phrase, or keep the reader guessing the same way the Queen of Mystery would. 

Our tastes are maybe too specific, but where The Long Room was a bit too serious and bleak for our palates, Dead Letters was a bit too meringue. Don't worry, next we'll post about a book that was WAY more than just right ;). 

- E. (& A.)