Book Review : Cat Among the Pigeons by Agatha Christie

I finished reading this book two days ago. I read it in a little more than a day, ignoring any and all chores that I could, just so I could keep reading…I love it when a book grips me that much.

I have read this book before, but the last time I read it, I was 16…that was 21 years ago. I remember it as a book that I thoroughly enjoyed, but I did wonder if I would like it as much this time around.

I did. I thought the resolution was a bit implausible…not the solution to the mystery, but the manner in which it was revealed…barring that, I loved everything.

The plot was brilliant and the story was full of clues, false trails and surprises, the way a good detective story should be. But what I noticed this time around was the characters. They were all so well crafted each with their own set of perfectly plausible motives for doing what they do.

When we think of Agatha Christie, we think about plot and action and lots of clever writing. All of that is very much in evidence here, but so is her ability to create believable and some genuinely likeable characters.

The story is set in a school called Meadowbank. It is one of the best girl’s schools in England, the last place that anyone would associate with murder. And yet one night, just a week into the summer term, the new games mistress is found murdered in the sports pavilion. The police are trying to solve the crime, but there are too few clues and a complete absence of motive.

Just a few days later, one of the students is kidnapped. She’s not a regular student, she’s a princess and she’s from the small middle eastern kingdom of Ramat, which has recently had a revolution in which her cousin, the former ruler of Ramat was killed.

Before there is any proper investigation of the kidnapping, a second murder happens. Another of the teachers is killed…in the sports pavilion. What is  so special about the sports pavilion? What is the connection between the Revolution in Ramat and the murders in at Medowbank? No one can make head or tail of it.

There are rumours about jewels that were smuggled out of Ramat just before the revolution, there's blackmail and secrets a plenty. And one fifteen year old school girl who figures out one part of this mystery and realises that her life is in danger. She runs away from school and goes to Hercule Poirot looking for help and advice.

He brings her back to the school and he slowly figures out exactly what happened and why. The book is an absolute romp from start to finish.

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Daily Trivia : Erle Stanley Gardner

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Erle Stanley Gardner was born in Malden, Massachusetts in 1889. He went to Valparaiso University to study law, but he was kicked out after only a month for participating in an illegal boxing match.

So he studied law on his own, and he passed the California bar exam when he was 21. He went to his swearing-in ceremony after a boxing match, and said that he was probably the only attorney in the state to be sworn in with two black eyes.

Innovative and restless in nature, he was bored by the routine of legal practice, the only part of which he enjoyed was trial work and the development of trial strategy. So in his spare time, he began to write stories for pulp magazines.

He created many different characters for the pulps, including the ingenious Lester Leith, a “gentleman thief” in the tradition of Raffles, and Ken Corning, a crusading lawyer who was the basis of his most successful creation, the fictional lawyer and crime-solver Perry Mason.

In 1933, he published The Case of the Velvet Claws, his first novel featuring detective and defense attorney, Perry Mason.

Gardner wrote more than 80 Perry Mason novels, and his books have sold more than 300 million copies.

With the success of Perry Mason, he gradually reduced his contributions to the pulp magazines, eventually withdrawing from the medium entirely, except for non-fiction articles on travel, Western history, and forensic science.

He said: “I still have vivid recollections of putting in day after day of trying a case in front of a jury, which is one of the most exhausting activities I know about, dashing up to the law library after court had adjourned to spend three or four hours looking up law points with which I could trap my adversary the next day, then going home, grabbing a glass of milk with an egg in it, dashing upstairs to my study, ripping the cover off my typewriter, noticing it was 11:30 p.m. and settling down with grim determination to get a plot for a story. Along about 3 in the morning I would have completed my daily stint of a 4,000-word minimum and would crawl into bed.”

After a few years of this, Gardner gave up the practice of law to devote himself to writing. In 1937 he moved to Temecula, California, where he lived for the rest of his life. On August 9, 1968 he married his long-time secretary Agnes Jean Bethell, the “real Della Street”.

Gardner also devoted thousands of hours to a project called “The Court of Last Resort”, which he undertook with his many friends in the forensic, legal and investigative communities.

The project sought to review and, if appropriate, to reverse, miscarriages of justice against possibly innocent criminal defendants who were originally convicted owing to poor legal representation; or to the inadequate, careless or malicious actions of police and prosecutors; or most especially, because of the abuse or misinterpretation of medical and other forensic evidence.

The resulting 1952 book earned Gardner his only Edgar award In the Best Fact Crime category.

Sources:

Writer’s Almanac
Goodreads
Wikipedia

Book Review: The Hound of the Baskervilles

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This was my first pick from my Classics Club book list. I’ve read it before, of course, but that was nearly two decades ago. So while I had a general idea of the story, I had forgotten a lot of the specifics which was good, because it made my experience of the book a lot more fresh than it would have been otherwise.

The Hound of the Baskervilles is probably the most famous of Conan Doyle’s stories which is both fitting and surprising. Fitting because it is such a good story and it is told so well. The suspense builds and builds until the reader feels as if his head is going to explode from all the tension and then comes this giant hound with glowing eyes and a glowing mouth to push the tension up even further…

Surprising, because of all of the Sherlock Holmes stories, this is perhaps the most atypical. It begins in the same way as most of the other stories, with the arrival of a client and the unfolding of a mystery. But it reads more like a thriller than a detective story. There are clues aplenty, but working out the clues is less important to the progress of the story than the unfolding action which is brilliantly written.

All the characters, Sir Henry, Dr Mortimer, Stapleton, Frankland, Barrymore…each of them is important to the story and each has a role to play in the unfolding mystery. Stapleton and Frankland in particular are written very well.

The story is full of great sequences, but my favourite is the night on the moor when Dr Watson and Sir Henry go looking for Seldon, the escaped convict and hear the awful howling of the hound for the first time. It is a chilling moment. Then there is the part where Dr Watson goes looking for the other man hiding on the moor and finds Sherlock Holmes…the suspense that is built up here is just wonderful.

Conan Doyle is a very visual writer and he has an amazing ability to paint a scene and describe a place…the moor is a very important part of this story and he really makes you feel the coldness, the isolation and the darkness of the place.

The book is very well paced and it goes easily from fast paced action to slow building tension. It was a joy to read.