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  • Jeff Somers 7:30 pm on 2017/11/09 Permalink
    Tags: , , , , whodunnit?   

    10 Absolutely Essential Agatha Christie Novels 

    Tomorrow, Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of Murder on the Orient Express chugs into theaters with a full head of steam, and naturally, there’s been an accompanying surge of interest in the source material—perhaps the most famous of mystery master Agatha Christie’s long and stories career.

    But then, when aren’t millions of people obsessing over the fiendish cases concocted by the Grand Dame of mysteries? Every day, someone discovers her for the first time. After all, to read one Christie book is to want to read them all. Christie was a genius. She played fair with the reader even as she constructed diabolical plots loaded with so many plausible red herrings and misdirections, it’s often impossible to predict whodunnit it on your first read.

    Ah, but those first reads are glorious. If you’ve never read a Christie novel before, or if you’re simply looking to read for the cream of the crop, here are our picks for the 10 Agatha Christie books every mystery buff simply must read.

    The Murder of Roger Akroyd
    Still the greatest twist ever in the history of mystery stories, bar none. The controversy over whether Christie plays fair with the reader rages to this day—but anyone arguing that she doesn’t is just dealing with sour grapes after having their mind blown, because a reread will demonstrate that Christie never cheats with this story of a wealthy widower who is murdered in a small English town. Anyone unspoiled reader who claims to guess who the killer is before the final reveal is almost certainly lying.

    The ABC Murders
    Christie was still experimenting with form in this 1936 novel, mixing first- and third-person narration to add new levels of twisty complexity. Her legendary Inspector Hercule Poirot receives three letters detailing the serial murders of people whose initials are A.A., B.B., and C.C., and the race is on to solve the riddle before the fourth victim is killed. Containing one of the most audacious red herrings in mystery history, this novel’s solution establishes a trope Christie more or less invented, and is still used to this day by writers seeking to throw readers off the scent.

    Murder on the Orient Express
    One of Christie’s most famous novels for a reason, it remains a part of modern pop culture for two reasons: one, the devious twist behind the solution to the murder, and two, the sumptuous descriptions of a train ride, and a lifestyle long vanished from the world (while there are still train rides labeled “Orient Express,” they are mere recreations for tourists). It’s was a slower, more elegant world (assuming you had the money), and long before CSI came along to put the brilliant detectives like Poirot out of business—but in the end, it’s that absolutely amazing twist that makes this such an incredible read, even today.

    And Then There Were None
    It’s a simple premise: eight people are invited to a remote island under various pretenses, trapped there, and murdered one-by-one as punishment for past crimes they’d seemingly gotten away with. The result is widely regarded as Christie’s best book, and is today the most popular mystery novel of all time, with more than 100 million copies sold. Christie also named this book the most difficult of her novels to plan and write, which makes perfect sense once you’ve discovered the solution. The level of intricacy involved in pulling this one off makes it an absolute must-read.

    Hercule Poirot, the fussy, fearless Belgian detective who was Christie’s greatest creation, meets his final case. Although Christie’s writing had suffered a serious decline by the time this novel was published (just a year before her death), it’s one of her strongest works, with a twist that catches every Poirot fan off guard. This may be because Christie actually wrote it 30 years before, when she worried that World War II might, well, kill her. She wrote Poirot’s last case—setting it in the same location as his first—and locked it in a vault, bringing it out only when she knew she had no more novels in her.

    Death on the Nile
    One of Christie’s twistiest puzzles is set during a holiday in Egypt, where Hercule Poirot meets a couple being stalked by the husband’s former lover. The couple books a cruise down the Nile to escape the woman, but she follows (as does Poirot). Several murders are committed on board, including the murder of the unfortunate wife. As each crime occurs, the sense of danger and paranoia increases to a level almost impossible to withstand. It seems impossible it will all fit together in any sort of sane way—but once again, Christie proves to be smarter than all of us.

    Endless Night
    Probably the last really good book Christie wrote before her natural decline took away her genius, this is also the novel Christie herself named her favorite. Published in 1967, it’s a dark story that puts the detection in the background, as the crime is revealed to the reader only partway through. Instead, it’s a fascinating study of greed, guilt, and desperation that proves beyond a doubt that Christie was not only a great designer of mysteries, but a flat-out great writer.

    Peril at End House
    Another Poirot adventure, this one finds him investigating a series of crimes at a country estate called End House, and pivots on one of Christie’s smartest misdirections. Let’s just say always you have to be on guard against your own assumptions when reading Christie. This is one of those books where the solution almost makes everything seem too obvious—if not for the fact that, a few pages before the reveal, the atmosphere was tense with mystery, and finding the truth seemed nearly impossible.

    The Mysterious Affair at Styles
    The very first Hercule Poirot case (and Christie’s first published novel overall) is also one of her best, a story that captures a long-gone time and place—in this case, England, immediately following World War I]. A classic mystery setup sees a wealthy woman poisoned, and Poirot, a recent refugee from Belgium, called on by a friend to assist in solving the crime. As Christie’s first novel, it’s a little more concerned with scene setting and description than some of her more efficient later works, but it’s a satisfying mystery all the same, and introduces one of the greatest detective characters of all time.

    The Murder at the Vicarage
    In the first novel to feature Christie’s other famous detective, Miss Marple, someone everyone in town wanted dead turns up murdered, and there is not one but two confessors to the crime. Miss Marple is a fantastic creation—a seemingly mild, unexceptional old woman whose keen intellect catches clues others miss and makes deductive leaps others would never dream of. The determined, gentle pressure of her investigative techniques eventually bring out the truth—which is naturally something Christie made very plain, but which readers almost always misconstrue. It’s a classic.

    The post 10 Absolutely Essential Agatha Christie Novels appeared first on Barnes & Noble Reads.

  • Jeff Somers 8:30 pm on 2016/09/12 Permalink
    Tags: , locked-room mysteries, , , , the woman in cabin 10, whodunnit?   

    6 Fiendish “Locked Room” Mysteries 

    Everyone loves a good mystery, but a with everything else in life, there’s a hierarchy to the genre, ranging from thrillers who make no effort to hide the identity of the killer, to the most hardcore of all mystery types: the locked-room whodunnit. What is a locked-room mystery? Exactly what it sounds like: a crime (usually a murder) is committed in a locked room or other inaccessible area, or  more abstractly, in another recognizably impossible way. After all, if the room was locked from the inside, how could the murderer have gotten out? Here are six unputdownable locked-room mysteries ever written.

    The Murders in the Rue Morgue, by Edgar Allen Poe
    Often recognized as the pioneering story in the sub-genre (which isn’t surprising, as Poe pioneered detective fiction in general, among a dozen other things), The Murders in the Rue Morgue sports the classic setup: two women are brutally murdered in a room locked from the inside. Witnesses report a plethora of odd clues, including someone talking in a language that everyone describes differently. Modern readers might find the ultimate solution a little odd, but Poe’s work to outline the detective’s investigative method is one of the most influential pieces of writing of all time.

    The Woman in Cabin 10, by Ruth Ware
    Ware’s latest is a classic locked-room mystery with a Hitchkockian flare: Laura “Lo” Blacklock is a tightly-wound writer for a travel magazine, assigned to cover a luxury cruise while suffering from PTSD after a break-in at her apartment. She observes a woman in the cabin next to her and one night hears what sounds like a body splashing into the water. The next day, there is no record of the woman, Cabin 10 is locked up tight, and everyone thinks Lo is imagining things. That’s the sort of premise mystery writers have been working with for decades, and Ware manages a perfect balance between a classic and modern approach, resulting in a fantastic read.

    The Adventure of the Speckled Band, by Arthur Conan Doyle
    Doyle’s iconic Sherlock Holmes still defines much of the mystery genre today, especially when it comes to short fiction. Holmes investigated locked rooms four times in Doyle’s original stories, but The Adventure of the Speckled Band is probably the best known. Holmes is contacted by a woman living with her spiteful, unpleasant stepfather at their dilapidated estate. About to be married, the woman is haunted by the mysterious death of her sister, whose last words referred to “the speckled band;” now, she is being forced to sleep in her sister’s old room because of repairs to the house. Holmes does his thing, and the story resolves with a bit of the graceful action Doyle was so good at writing (but which often gets overlooked in favor of Holmes’ brainy deductions).

    The King is Dead, by Ellery Queen
    Ellery Queen was for a time the most famous fictional detective (and literary pseudonym) in the world, and this classic novel is a prime example of him at his best. A man makes a public threat that he will shoot his father at midnight; his father retreats to a secure room alone with his wife, while Queen, hired on, sits in another location with the son, who has an unloaded weapon. At midnight the son raises the empty gun and pulls the trigger—and the father is shot dead, seemingly impossibly. Queen eventually gets to the bottom of it, and the novels were always presented as a fair-play “challenge to the reader,” stating that all the clues necessary to solve the mystery were in the story, and if you paused before reading the explanation you would have a fair chance of figuring it out.

    The Mystery of the Yellow Room, by Gaston Leroux
    Another “fair-play” story, The Mystery of the Yellow Room is not only a cracking locked-room mystery, but also distinctive in its inclusion of detailed floor plans and other information for to the reader, inviting them to “play along” and try to solve the case before the fictional detective Joseph Rouletabille. A woman is found in her locked bedroom, severely beaten and confused. As the investigation proceeds, the perpetrator is spotted several times—but each time seems to vanish into thin air when pursued. As with any good mystery, the solution is more practical than sensational, but is still making people feel foolish to this day.

    Almost Every Book by John Dickson Carr
    Carr was more or less the King of Locked Rooms—his hard-to-find novel The Hollow Man was once selected as the best locked-room mystery of all time. Inspired by writers like Gaston Leroux and G.K. Chesterton, Carr plotted intricate puzzles for his readers, usually involving an “impossible” crime, and then followed the investigation to its inevitable conclusion. In fact, an entire chapter of The Hollow Man is dedicated to the detective Dr. Gideon Fell discussing locked-room mysteries in general, one of the greatest meta-moments in detective fiction of all time.


    The post 6 Fiendish “Locked Room” Mysteries appeared first on Barnes & Noble Reads.

  • Jeff Somers 1:42 am on 2015/10/09 Permalink
    Tags: career of evil, , , , , , , whodunnit?   

    5 Reasons We’re Excited for the New Robert Galbraith Thriller Career of Evil 

    Famous writers choose to publish under pseudonyms for many reasons. Sometimes it’s simply to get more material out the door, as was the case with Stephen King’s alter-ego Richard Bachman. Sometimes it’s because their new work is shockingly different than the genre they’re known for (Nora Roberts, meet J.D. Robb).

    We’re not sure why J.K. Rowling chose to write under pseudonym for her series of gritty detective novels. Possibly the writer so famous for Harry Potter wanted to see if she could be successful in a new genre, without her built-in audience. Whatever her reasons, we’re certainly glad that the fictional Mr. Galbraith continues to exist, and that his third Cormoran Strike novel, Career of Evil, is hitting the shelves this year. Here are five reasons we can’t wait to read it.

    The first two rocked
    When Rowling’s use of a pseudonym was revealed, most people focused on the impact the news had on sales of Galbraith’s “debut”; it famously went from moving a few hundred copies to shooting up the bestseller lists. But let’s not forget that before the revelation, the book had received more than solid reviews—because it is a well-written, well-plotted mystery with great characters, lots of action, and a wealth of evocative detail. The Cuckoo’s Calling and The Silkworm are tight reads that stand up to any other thriller out there, and in addition to their genuinely surprising solutions, they sport Rowling’s warm, energetic creative voice, which brings the characters and settings to life.

    Rowling is still underrated
    Speaking of that creative magic, Rowling is a talented and accomplished writer who still doesn’t get her due. Rowling’s not flashy, but she’s insightful and pithy, as in these lines from The Cuckoo’s Calling and The Silkworm: “Seven-and-a-half million hearts were beating in close proximity in this heaving old city, and many, after all, would be aching far worse than his”; “One mellows almost without realizing it’s a compensation of age, because anger is exhausting.”

    Cormoran Strike is a great character
    In many ways, Rowling’s love of the mystery genre is embodied by her main character: Cormoran Strike is the ultimate down-on-his-luck detective. After losing a limb in the war, he’s packed on weight—and he was never particularly handsome or neat in appearance. People continually mispronounce his name, and his personal relationships are messy. But he is sharp and funny, rarely misses an important detail, and relies on his first-class brain to save his bacon more than once. Although his fortunes improve slightly over the course of the books, he’s still your classic underdog. Which makes perfect sense, because …

    Rowling is still standing up for the underdog
    One of the most charming aspects of Rowling’s imagination is her fierce defense of the oppressed, the unlucky, and the disadvantaged. Seemingly inspired by her own early struggles, Rowling’s universes are filled with characters who don’t fit in, and who struggle to rise above the casual cruelty of the world around them. This quality, so apparent in the Harry Potter novels, persists in Galbraith’s books, in which Strike—overweight and missing a limb—is always the smartest man in the room. Rowling’s stories are interesting precisely because she doesn’t imagine a world dominated by the effortlessly cool and beautiful, but rather, because she sees the power of intelligence and character.

    The premise is a knockout
    Great mysteries demand great characters and great writing, of course, but they also have to serve up a fantastic mystery, and Career of Evil sounds like a doozy: Strike’s partner, Robin Ellacott, receives a package containing a woman’s severed leg—and Strike can immediately think of no fewer than four people who could have sent it. While the police focus on the one suspect Strike is quickly certain didn’t do it, more horrifying acts occur, pressuring the detective and his partner to figure out what’s going on, and fast. Now, that’s a premise—one made even more powerful now that we’ve gotten to know Strike and Ellacott over the course of two earlier novels.

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