They Came to Baghdad by Agatha Christie – #1951club

After reading Duplicate Death by Georgette Heyer, the second novel I decided to read for Karen and Simon’s 1951 Club this week was another crime one – by Agatha Christie this time. It seems that whichever year is chosen for the club (so far, anyway) there’s always at least one Christie novel published in that year, and as soon as I saw that 1951 marked the publication of They Came to Baghdad, I knew that I wanted to read it. The title had me intrigued immediately: who came to Baghdad and why? I couldn’t wait to find out!

This book is not one of Christie’s Poirot or Miss Marple mysteries – it’s a standalone and actually much more of a spy novel or thriller than a mystery. With an exciting plot involving kidnappings, conspiracies, impersonations, disguises and secret messages, I found it a lot of fun to read – one of those books I genuinely didn’t want to have to put down until I was finished!

So, who came to Baghdad? Well, first of all there’s our heroine, Victoria Jones, a young woman with a vivid imagination and a gift for coming up with creative yet convincing lies. Having just lost her job as a typist, Victoria takes a walk in a London park where she meets Edward, a charming, handsome young man with whom she falls in love at first sight. When, to her disappointment, Edward tells her that he’ll be leaving the next day to go and work in Baghdad, Victoria decides that she must follow him there…the only problem is, she has no money to pay for the flight. As luck would have it, she then discovers that an American lady, Mrs Hamilton-Clipp, will be flying to Baghdad three days later and requires a companion for the journey. It seems that Victoria’s problem is solved.

Meanwhile, an interesting assortment of other people are beginning to converge upon Baghdad, including the flamboyant explorer Sir Rupert Crofton-Lee; the eccentric archaeologist Dr Pauncefoot Jones (no relation of Victoria’s, although she’s quite willing to pretend that he is); Anna Scheele, a clever and elusive young woman; and the mysterious Carmichael, whom we first meet in the British Consulate wearing Arab dress and trying to convey an important message to a fellow visitor. And why have all of these people come to Baghdad? It will spoil the story if I go into too much detail, but it’s probably enough to say that an international plot is brewing and Victoria Jones is about to become caught up in it.

What a great book this is! The story is a bit far-fetched and silly at times, but it was so entertaining I didn’t mind at all. Although, as I’ve said, it’s not really a mystery novel, there are still puzzles to be solved (I particularly loved the way one of my favourite Dickens novels provides Victoria with a vital clue) and there are plenty of plot twists too – I had my suspicions about some of them, but others took me by surprise. The setting is wonderful as well, with lots of colourful descriptions of Baghdad capturing a time and place that has changed forever. While it was easy enough for Victoria to travel to Baghdad (once she’d found a way to pay for it), for most of us Iraq is sadly no longer a place that we will have the opportunity to visit, apart from through fiction.

Much as I enjoy Agatha Christie’s detective novels, Victoria Jones is such an engaging heroine that it didn’t bother me that there’s no Poirot or Marple in this one. If you’re looking for something slightly different from Christie, I would definitely recommend trying They Came to Baghdad!

The Unseeing by Anna Mazzola

the-unseeingIt’s Christmas 1836 and Hannah Brown is looking forward to her wedding to James Greenacre. However, the marriage will never take place; instead, Hannah is brutally murdered and in the weeks that follow, the parts of her dismembered body are discovered in various locations around London. Her fiancé, Greenacre, is arrested and found guilty – but although he admits to disposing of the body, he claims that Hannah was already dead when he found her. This makes no difference to the judge and jury and Greenacre is sentenced to hang, along with his mistress, Sarah Gale, who is accused of concealing the murder.

Sarah had been living with Greenacre as his housekeeper before being asked to leave so he could marry Hannah. She insists that she knew nothing about the murder and Greenacre also denies that she had any involvement, but this is not enough to save her. As she sits in a cell in Newgate Prison, Sarah’s only hope is the petition she has submitted asking for clemency. The lawyer appointed by the Home Secretary to look again at Sarah’s case is Edmund Fleetwood, young, idealistic and principled. After speaking to Sarah and hearing her talk about her life, Edmund is convinced that she should be freed, but how can he prove it? And is it possible that he is becoming too emotionally involved in the case to be able to see the facts clearly?

Anna Mazzola’s debut novel, The Unseeing, is based on a true crime; the Edgware Road Murder, as it became known, really did take place and James Greenacre really was found guilty and was sentenced to death. Sarah Gale was also arrested, but I won’t tell you what her eventual fate would be. I didn’t know and that meant I was kept in suspense wondering what would happen to her. It’s important to remember, though, that this is fiction and not everything in the book is taken from historical fact – which could explain why some of the developments towards the end of the novel didn’t completely convince me.

Edmund Fleetwood, who plays such a major role in the novel, is a fictional character and the author has created a fictional story for him running alongside Sarah’s. I thought the two stories worked well together – I did like Edmund and I shared his frustration as Sarah repeatedly refused to provide any information which could have helped her defence – but there were times when I felt I was being distracted from the central plot and I just wanted to get back to Sarah in the Newgate. The portrayal of prison life is one of the novel’s strong points and reminded me of other prison-based historical novels such as Antonia Hodgson’s The Devil in the Marshalsea and Sarah Waters’ Affinity.

The most interesting aspect of the book, though, is the exploration of what it meant to be a woman accused of a crime in the 19th century: the unfairness of the law, the way in which evidence against a woman was considered, the possible bias that could arise from a verdict being reached by an all-male jury, and whether the punishments handed out were in proportion to the crime. The fact that many of these women had children – like Sarah’s little boy, George – added another complication. Sarah is lucky enough to have a sister, Rosina, who takes care of George while she is in prison, but what will happen to him if the worst happens and she can never come home?

The Unseeing is an interesting blend of fact and fiction; I did enjoy it, but I felt that there wasn’t enough to make this book stand out from others of its type. I couldn’t quite love it, but I liked it and will be looking out for more from Anna Mazzola.

Thanks to Sourcebooks Landmark for providing a review copy via NetGalley.

His Bloody Project by Graeme Macrae Burnet

his-bloody-project This novel by Scottish author Graeme Macrae Burnet attracted a lot of attention after being shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize last year.  Of all the books on the list, I remember thinking that this sounded like the one I would be most likely to enjoy, so I had a lovely surprise when I received a nice hardback copy from my sister for Christmas.

His Bloody Project is fiction but presented so convincingly as non-fiction that there were times when I wondered if I’d misunderstood and I was actually reading a true story after all!  Subtitled Documents relating to the case of Roderick Macrae, the case in question is that of a triple murder committed in August 1869 in Culduie, a remote village in the Scottish Highlands.  In his preface, the author explains that he came across the documents contained in this book while researching his own family history at the Highland Archive Centre in Inverness. 

Following a collection of statements given by the residents of Culduie, we proceed to the longest section of the book: Roderick Macrae’s memoir which he was instructed to write by his advocate, Andrew Sinclair, during his imprisonment at Inverness Castle awaiting his trial.  Roderick, only seventeen at the time of his arrest, never tries to deny that he killed his neighbour, Lachlan Mackenzie, and two other members of the Mackenzie family – we know this right from the beginning of the book – but what we don’t know is what caused him to do such a thing.  Roderick’s memoir provides some insights, giving some background information on what life was like in Culduie and describing the events leading up to the murders.

Next, we have the opportunity to read the medical reports on each of the three murder victims – and this is the first real indication we get that maybe Roderick has not been entirely honest with us.  A study by a doctor who visited Roderick in prison follows, raising and answering questions about the prisoner’s state of mind, and finally we arrive at the trial itself.  As judge, jury and spectators try to understand the motive behind the crime, witnesses are called who give statements both to confirm Roderick’s own account and to contradict it.  A verdict is finally reached, but whether it is the right one or not is up to each individual reader to decide. 

While I was reading Roderick’s own story, I had a lot of sympathy for him and I was so angry with Lachlan Mackenzie (or Lachlan Broad, as he is usually known) that I could understand why Roderick felt driven to take revenge.  However, when I read the rest of the documents, particularly the report of the court proceedings, I began to wonder how much Roderick had omitted from his memoir and whether Lachlan Broad’s actions were really as provocative as they had at first seemed.

Another interesting aspect of the novel is the portrayal of life in a tiny Scottish community in the middle of the 19th century.  Roderick Macrae’s mother dies in childbirth just before the events described in the novel, leaving Roderick and his siblings alone with their father, a crofter trying to earn his living from the land.  Culduie (a settlement of only nine houses) and the surrounding villages are the property of the Laird, who rules through his factor and a network of local constables.  Lachlan Broad is elected the constable for Culduie and this is what brings him into conflict with the Macraes.

The writing style and the language used throughout the novel feels appropriate for the time period and increases the sense of authenticity; as I’ve said, at times I could almost have believed I was reading genuine historical documents.  Dialect is used sparingly and a glossary is provided if you need to look up any unfamiliar Scots words (there were a few that were new to me, but these were mainly the names of farming implements such as croman and cas chrom).  Maybe Roderick’s narrative voice isn’t entirely convincing given his age, but we are told that he is an exceptionally bright, intelligent boy – and the author does address this issue in the preface too.

I loved His Bloody Project; although it’s not a traditional crime novel and there’s never any mystery surrounding the identity of the murderer, it’s the sort of book that leaves you with more questions at the end than you had at the beginning.  I think a re-read might be necessary at some point!    

Mystery Mile by Margery Allingham

mystery-mile I often seem to be in the mood for reading mysteries at this time of year and as this one had been on my TBR for months, I found myself reaching for it the week before Christmas. I had read Margery Allingham before – one of her standalones, The White Cottage Mystery, which I enjoyed – and was curious to make the acquaintance of her most famous character, Albert Campion. Mystery Mile is the second in the Campion series, but I had been assured that it wouldn’t matter too much if I didn’t read the books in order.

Mystery Mile opens with an American judge, Crowdy Lobbett, sailing across the Atlantic with his son and daughter, having narrowly escaped several recent attempts on his life. When a further attempt takes place aboard the ship – and is thwarted thanks to a young man with a pet mouse – it is obvious that the gang who want Judge Lobbett dead are still on his trail. On arriving in England, the judge accepts the help of Albert Campion, who brings him to stay with his friends, Biddy and Giles Paget, at their home in Mystery Mile, a small, remote village on the Suffolk coast.

Campion hopes that Judge Lobbett and his children – Marlowe and Isopel – will be safe in the Paget’s house, but when a fortune teller pays a visit and shortly afterwards the village rector is found dead, it becomes clear that they are still not out of danger. Campion and his friends must try to interpret a range of intriguing clues including a red knight from a chess set and a suitcase full of children’s books if they are to solve the mystery and deal with the threat to the judge.

I had mixed feelings about my first Albert Campion novel. I loved the beginning, with the opening scenes on the ship – I thought the way in which Allingham introduced Campion into the story was excellent – and I enjoyed watching the story develop as the group arrived in Mystery Mile and one strange occurrence followed another. The setting is perfect: a mist-shrouded village surrounded by dangerous soft mud which acts like quicksand and a lonely manor house with a garden maze in which it appears that people can disappear without trace. Later, though, when the action moves to London for a while and we meet an assortment of criminals and gang members, the novel loses the quirky country-mystery feel it has at the beginning and I found that the second half of the novel has a very different tone from the first.

As for the character of Albert Campion himself, I couldn’t decide what to think of him! I liked the fact that there is clearly a lot more to him than meets the eye – his relationship with the police is never quite explained, and there are even hints that Albert Campion is not his real name. Although there was something about his constant quips and silly behaviour that I found slightly irritating, I was intrigued because it was obvious that his foolish, flippant public persona is designed to hide his true thoughts and his true intelligence. I can see why he is sometimes compared with Dorothy L. Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey, but based on what I’ve read of both so far, I prefer Sayers and Wimsey. Still, I’m looking forward to reading more books in this series and to meeting Albert Campion again!

The Poisoners by Marjorie Bowen

The Poisoners I have read several novels by Marjorie Bowen this year and this is one of my favourites so far. First published in 1936, The Poisoners originally appeared under one of her other pseudonyms, George Preedy, and now that I’ve read it I can see why she chose to use a different name for this one. Although this book, like the others I’ve read, is set in the past, it is more of a mystery/thriller which should appeal to readers of vintage crime as well as to fans of historical fiction.

The story takes place in 17th century Paris during the reign of the Sun King, Louis XIV, and revolves around a famous murder scandal known as L’affaire des poisons (Affair of the poisons). Our hero is Charles Desgrez, newly arrived in Paris with his wife, Solange, to take up a position as Lieutenant of Police and keen to make a name for himself. At the beginning of the novel, the couple are attending a party for Solange’s birthday, when one of the guests – the Widow Bosse, a supplier of perfumes – drunkenly boasts of becoming rich by helping wives to become widows. “I’ve only got three more poisonings to do and I shall be a very wealthy woman,” she says.

To satisfy his curiosity, Desgrez asks Solange to visit the Widow in disguise, posing as a wife unhappy with her husband – and he is shocked by what he learns. Reporting his findings to the Chief of Police, M. de la Reynie, the two begin to investigate and gradually discover that the network of poisoners operating in Paris is much larger and more sophisticated than they could ever have imagined. To complicate things further, some of the people involved are closely connected to the Sun King himself – so Desgrez and de la Reynie must find a way to bring the criminals to justice while avoiding the publicity the King would prefer to avoid.

The Affair of the Poisons is a dark and fascinating episode in Parisian history. I’ve read about it before, in The Oracle Glass by Judith Merkle Riley, and it was good to revisit the same subject from a different angle. As far as I can tell, Bowen’s novel sticks to the basic historical facts of The Affair, with the addition of a few fictional characters and plot developments. The result is an atmospheric and suspenseful crime novel featuring fortune tellers and spies, counterfeiters and apothecaries, an empty house which hides sinister secrets, mysterious letters marked with the sign of a pink carnation, and a society thought to be involved in black magic.

The plot is excellent – fast-paced and exciting – but there’s not a lot to say about the characters in The Poisoners. Many of them are based on real historical figures, such as the king’s mistress, Madame de Montespan, and the notorious poisoner, La Voisin. Although they are all interesting to read about, none of them are developed in any great depth. I enjoyed reading about the work of the police officers in the novel (I hadn’t realised the French police were so well organised in the 17th century, which is something Bowen talks about in her author’s note) and I did like Charles and Solange Desgrez, but they are not the sort of characters who stay in your thoughts after finishing the book. This is a novel you would read for the plot rather than the characters, and maybe this is one of the differences between the books which were originally published under the Marjorie Bowen and George Preedy names.

If you’ve read anything by Marjorie Bowen (or any of Margaret Gabrielle Vere Campbell’s other pseudonyms) I’d love to hear what you thought!

Daisy in Chains by Sharon Bolton

Daisy in Chains I don’t read a lot of crime fiction these days and when I do it tends to be the vintage or historical sort, but one author of contemporary crime whose books I always look forward to reading is Sharon Bolton. Her latest novel, Daisy in Chains, is a standalone, which I was pleased about as although I did enjoy reading her Lacey Flint series, her standalones are usually my favourites. This one is a fascinating psychological thriller with the typically dark, twisty and suspenseful plot I have come to expect from this author.

Hamish Wolfe, once a successful surgeon, is serving a life sentence for the murder of three women. Despite being found guilty, he insists that he is innocent – and he thinks he has found the person who can get his sentence overturned. She is Maggie Rose, an eccentric blue-haired lawyer and true-crime author, who has already had several convicted murderers released on technicalities. Maggie agrees to visit Hamish in prison but insists that she needs more information before she can decide whether to take on his case.

DC Pete Weston, the man responsible for Hamish Wolfe’s arrest and imprisonment, is not happy to hear that he has been in contact with Maggie. Pete is adamant that he got the right man and that there is no question of Wolfe’s guilt…but is this what he truly believes or does he just want to stop Maggie from getting involved before she uncovers something he would prefer to keep hidden? As Maggie begins to investigate, she becomes caught in the middle between the detective and the prisoner, and it is unclear which of them, if either, can be trusted.

Being a handsome, intelligent and charismatic man, Hamish has his own fan club who send him letters declaring their love for him and who are determined to prove his innocence. I wasn’t quite sure what to think of Hamish: I thought he was innocent – I wanted him to be innocent – but because Bolton never allows us to get right into the minds of any of the novel’s main characters, I couldn’t be certain. The question, of course, is that if Hamish didn’t kill the three women, who did?

It’s never easy to work out exactly what is happening in a Sharon Bolton novel. Her plots are always filled with twists and revelations which leave you questioning everything you have read up to that point – and this one is no exception. I did manage to guess one of the novel’s big twists – not immediately, but well before it was revealed – but another, near the end, came as a complete surprise to me and changed the way I thought about the whole story.

I won’t say any more about the plot or the characters because I think it’s best to know as little as possible before you start to read, but I do want to mention some of the other things I liked about this book, particularly the way in which Bolton uses so many different types of media to tell the story. There are newspaper reports, blog posts, emails, letters, interview transcripts, and even draft chapters from the new book Maggie has started writing about Hamish Wolfe! She also touches on some interesting issues, such as the reasons why a woman might be attracted to a convicted criminal, the difficulties of relationships where one partner is in prison, and the way in which overweight women are perceived by society (all three of Hamish Wolfe’s alleged victims are described as ‘fat’).

Another of the things I always love about Bolton’s books is the mood she creates – the eeriness, the feeling of isolation and the sense of danger and foreboding. There’s usually a lonely, atmospheric setting too: previous novels have been set in the Falkland Islands, the Shetlands, a remote English village and a houseboat on the River Thames. This book does have its moments, with some great scenes set in the caves of Somerset’s Cheddar Gorge, a deserted fairground and a prison on the Isle of Wight, but I didn’t find it quite as atmospheric as some of Bolton’s other novels and for this reason only, although I did enjoy Daisy in Chains, it’s not one of my favourites. I do think all of her books are excellent, though, and if you’ve never tried one before this might be a good place to start!

I received a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood

Alias Grace This is only the second book I’ve read by Margaret Atwood. The first was The Handmaid’s Tale, which I read in December 2012 and loved; thinking about which one to read next, Alias Grace sounded the most appealing to me but it wasn’t until it was selected for my Ten From the TBR project last month that I actually got round to reading it.

Alias Grace is a work of fiction based on a true story: the story of Grace Marks, a woman sentenced to life imprisonment for murder in 1840s Canada. Grace (who was only sixteen at the time) and her alleged accomplice, James McDermott, were accused of the murders of their employer, Thomas Kinnear, and his housekeeper, Nancy Montgomery. Grace has been in the Kingston Penitentiary for fifteen years when Simon Jordan, a doctor with an interest in criminal behaviour, decides to visit her as part of his research.

Although Grace claims to have no memory of the murders, she does have plenty of other memories which she gradually shares with Dr Jordan: her childhood in Ireland, her journey across the Atlantic and arrival in Canada, her first job as a maid and her friendship with a girl called Mary Whitney – and finally, the time she spent in Kinnear’s household prior to the murders.

As Dr Jordan listens to her story unfold, he tries to make up his mind about Grace. Is she being completely honest with him? Is she really guilty of the crimes of which she has been accused? Margaret Atwood doesn’t offer any answers here; it is left up to the reader to decide – but proving Grace’s guilt or innocence is not really the point of this book. Grace’s life story is interesting in itself, giving us some insights into what it was like to be an Irish immigrant in the 19th century, and the novel also explores attitudes towards women and towards mental illness at that time.

Alias Grace is a fascinating blend of fact and fiction. Grace Marks really existed but although Atwood states in her author’s note that she has not changed any of the known facts regarding the murder case, there were enough gaps in the records to allow her to invent parts of the story. Simon Jordan is a fictional character, but his inclusion in the novel adds another perspective – and also another layer, because we can never be sure whether Grace is telling him the truth or just saying what she thinks he would like to hear. Hannah Kent uses a similar device in Burial Rites and as I read, I did keep being reminded of Burial Rites (although Alias Grace was published first, of course).

I loved Alias Grace, but it’s a very different type of book from The Handmaid’s Tale, which has made me curious about the rest of Margaret Atwood’s novels. Which one do you think I should read next?