Thursday, 31 January 2019

Game Review: Mystery Trackers: Raincliff (replay)

Developer: Elephant Games
Publisher: Big Fish Games
Original Release Date: 5 May 2011
Platform: PC

I’ve played a few Mystery Trackers games. It’s not a bad series, but it’s always felt a little bit like the poor cousin of Mystery Case Files. I’ve enjoyed some of the titles, including Raincliff (the first one I played). Generally, though, Mystery Trackers titles tend to have a lot of potential story-wise, but never quite develop it fully. That said, I randomly felt like replaying Raincliff the other night – I think this was the third or fourth time I’ve played it.

In all the Mystery Trackers games I’ve got, you play as a detective (very similar to Mystery Case Files in that respect). Raincliff begins with a report of some missing people and a brief intro scene linking them to the eponymous town. The game itself begins in an abandoned snowy town street, with the usual locked shop doors and junk-filled car to be examined.

As you search for clues, you discover hints about the town’s fate, but also quickly encounter one of the missing students. Although most of the people in the town have fled, there’s something stalking the streets, and it’s this unseen foe who is (probably) responsible for the disappearance of the students (who are actually paranormal investigators). There are a few jump scares and animated cut scenes that impede your progress, revealing that the unseen foe really is ‘unseen’ – something invisible is trying to stop you from finding the students.

As I say, the Mystery Trackers games always have real potential, and the story that begins to unfold in Raincliff is certainly intriguing. There’s the invisible foe, of course, and also the discovery of a soporific flower that has been used to incapacitate the students. Later on – much later on – in the game, you start to find information that reveals some backstory to the invisible enemy, and another invisible person with a different agenda makes their presence known. However, the storyline never quite comes together, and you’re left with quite a few unanswered questions and logic leaps that are hard to overcome. (There is a sequel, Raincliff’s Phantoms, that expands a little on the background.) I’ve played the game a few times now, and I’m still not exactly sure why the students were abducted or why everything is frozen.

I will say that Raincliff definitely looks great, and there are some good music loops that add to the atmosphere in places (though there are only a couple of these and so there’s no variation in the music when you reach different parts of the game). Some of the details are really nicely done, and the animation is smooth – which is always a plus when gameplay is going to be abruptly interrupted by cutscenes! It is a stylishly designed game – certainly rivalling some of the Mystery Case Files titles in that respect – and the setting is certainly atmospheric.

In terms of gameplay, Raincliff is pretty standard HOPA stuff. You move between a number of scenes, gradually unlocking more and more landscape as you go. There are HOGs and mini-games throughout, and lots of collecting multiple puzzle parts to open locks. There are three difficulty modes (but no Custom option), and Hint and Skip. However, the gameplay is rather frustrating, and it gets a little tedious towards the end. There’s a lot of back-and-forth in this one – you never really ‘finish’ with a scene, so even towards the endgame you still have to go back to where you started at times. There’s no jump map, so you really do have to click back-and-forth through the same screens many times.

A couple of reviewers have commented on the fact that you sometimes add items to your inventory that won’t be needed until you reach a much later screen. I don’t mind that so much – though you do run the risk of forgetting what’s in your inventory at times. What does grate on me is the illogical and counter-intuitive use some inventory items are put to. Using a stick of butter to grease a rusty wheel or a mobile phone to light a dark space is pretty annoying, but the worst example is undoubtedly the use to which you put a can of petrol. You’re standing right next to an abandoned car, but it turns out you’re supposed to pour the petrol on some ice, then set it alight, in order to get an item that’s frozen underneath. I had to use Hint way more times than I like, despite having played before.

Your player-character in this one is the generic detective – again, pretty standard stuff. In some of the other games, there’s a little bit more detail as to what Mystery Trackers actually are, but that’s absent here (it is, after all, only the second instalment of the series). You are also flying solo in this game – in the next Mystery Trackers title, you acquire an animal helper, namely a dog called Elf. Animal helpers are rather divisive for HOPA fans (and I have really mixed feelings about them), so I’m not going to talk about Elf unless I play another Mystery Trackers game this year.

When it comes to non-player characters, Raincliff does one thing really well, and one thing really weirdly. The thing it does well: Because the foes in this game are invisible, and the victims are unconscious, there is no direct interaction with any NPCs. So, there’s no animated dialogue and no odd scenes where an NPC tells you to do something and then just stands around in the background (which I hate – I’m looking at you, Gregory Logain). Later in the game, you do get helpful notes from an NPC, but this sort of makes sense in context. But then… the thing it does weirdly: The whole point of the game is to rescue a group of NPCs. As you approach the endgame, you are finally able to free the students and get them ready to escape. Thing is, they’re still unconscious. So… you just pick them up and add them one-by-one to your inventory with the other items! I mean, what does that imply? That you’re just wandering around an abandoned with a flare gun, a chainsaw and a young man strapped to your back?? This is definitely one of the stranger bits of gameplay here.

I have the Standard Edition of this game, so there’s no bonus content. I believe the Collector’s Edition has some extra gameplay, but there are no collectibles or morphing objects in either edition. The game doesn’t have achievements, and there are no replays on HOGs or mini-games after you’ve finished. There is a sequel though, which I might replay later in the year (just for comparison).

Overall, I like the potential of Raincliff, but it doesn’t quite live up to its promise. Illogical and counter-intuitive gameplay makes it a bit of slog towards the end. Still, it’s a game I’ve come back to a few times so it must be doing something right!

Friday, 18 January 2019

Performers Wanted for Live Poetry Special

Want to perform your poetry on the radio?

On Saturday 23rd February, Hannah’s Bookshelf on North Manchester FM will be hosting a live poetry special. I’d like to invite poets and spoken word performers to come along and perform their work on the show.

The Hannah’s Bookshelf Live Poetry Special will be going out live from the studio in Harpurhey, North Manchester at 2-4pm. It will be broadcast on 106.6FM (in the North Manchester area) and online (for the rest of the world). Performance slots are 6 minutes long.

Whether you’re a veteran performer or new to reading your work, I’d love to hear from you. Drop me a line via email, tweet me or message me on Facebook if you’d like to perform. Slots will be allocated on a first-come-first-served basis.

Sunday, 13 January 2019

Game Review: Mystery Case Files: The Countess Collector’s Edition (first play)

Developer: Eipix Entertainment
Publisher: Big Fish Games
Original Release Date: 21st November 2018
Platform: PC

Perhaps unsurprisingly, I am a big fan of the Mystery Case Files series. Or rather, I’m a big fan of the Ravenhearst arc within the MCF series – though I enjoyed the two Dire Grove games, and I like going back to Huntsville occasionally for something lighter. I’m not quite at the stage of writing Charles Dalimar fan fic, but I will admit to getting really quite invested in the Ravenhearst story. My favourite Mystery Case Files games are Fate’s Carnival (for the mind-boggling detail and complexity of the gameplay) and Escape from Ravenhearst (which is a truly bizarre and disturbing experience, even if it does have some problems when it comes to gameplay). It’s fair to say that no HOPAs have come close to those two games for me, though I live in hope.

Nevertheless, Mystery Case Files has been something of a disappointment for me since Dire Grove, Sacred Grove – and since Eipix took over the development. I’m still hoping that we can just do a Highlander 2 on Key to Ravenhearst and Ravenhearst Unlocked, because these were just terrible (and inconsistent) instalments of the story. Broken Hour and The Black Veil (non-Ravenhearst games) were okay, but they lacked the magic of the earlier games. I decided to give Mystery Case Files: The Countess a try, since I can’t quite let go of my Master Detective badge yet. I knew it wasn’t going to be another Fate’s Carnival, but I thought it might at least be better than Ravenhearst Unlocked! And I was right… The Countess is somewhere in between.

You play – once again – as a Master Detective, though it’s not clear whether you’re the same detective who had the run-ins with Charles Dalimar and his dad. The game begins with a short intro scene, setting up a story about a creepy mirror and the thing that lives inside it. You then hear a message from the queen (on a tape recorder this time, not the phone) giving you your mission. Lady Eleanor Coddington has disappeared while renovating her ancestral estate, once the home of children’s author Gloria Coddington (Eleanor’s grandmother, you’re told). When you arrive at the estate, it’s closed off, crumbling and massively creepy (as with most of the Mystery Case Files games, this one goes for the Gothic aesthetic).

Early on in the game (and highlighted in the intro scene), you discover that a large black mirror has some significance, and that there is a supernatural creature residing within it who is most likely responsible for the dark goings-on. Your main objective is to find and rescue Eleanor, but this is wrapped up in a quest to uncover the truth about Gloria, the mirror and the sinister force at work in the manor. To be honest, it’s not the most original storyline for a HOPA, and there are few twists or surprises as things unfold. Rescue the girl, defeat the demon, leave the house.

This is a haunted house game, and it’s very much in the expected style. The colour palette is dark, though I didn’t find scenes too dark to identify objects. As with the other Eipix MCF games, there are some great bits of illustration here – the creature in the mirror is particularly well-done – but there are some fairly bland elements too. NPCs are illustrated but not always fully animated, though they are a big step up from the cartoonish characters in Key to Ravenhearst and Ravenhearst Unlocked. The cutscenes are well done and integrated into the gameplay without being too jarring. There’s also a nice scene in a ballroom that reminded me a bit of Escape from Ravenhearst – though it’s much less unsettling (obvs).

In terms of design though, there were a couple of things that frustrated me as a Mystery Case Files fan. I missed the visual nods to other games in the series (unless I didn’t spot them first time round) – a Madame Fate bobblehead here, a 13th Skull decoration there. The music also annoyed me. It’s almost the Mystery Case Files theme (I was going to say ‘iconic’ theme, but I’m not sure the games are well-enough known for me to make that claim), but the refrain is never quite finished. Key to Ravenhearst/Ravenhearst Unlocked played the same trick – the first few notes are played, but it’s not quite the full theme. If I wasn’t expecting my beloved MCF theme, I would’ve said that the music was good – it’s atmospheric and evocative, and it doesn’t loop too much. In a way, the music is illustrative of the game as a whole… it’s almost recognizable as Mystery Case Files, but stops just short of being satisfying.

This is a fairly straightforward HOPA – you move from room to room, putting stuff in your inventory, using stuff from your inventory, and finding mini-games and HOGs as you go. There are some ‘plus items’ (where you have to do something or add something to an item in your inventory), which some people like but I find a bit irritating to be honest. There’s also an interactive jump map in the game. I try and avoid using jump maps – it draws you out of the story if you start teleporting between rooms – but this means that I end up having a bit of back and forth at times. However, The Countess does have another feature that I do like, and that’s the closing off of rooms after you’ve finished a chapter. That’s done reasonably seamlessly here – something happens within the story that makes it plausibly impossible for you to return to your previous location.

There’s a range of mini-games here, some of which are really tricky. I played on Custom difficulty mode (and I do like games where you can customize difficulty), so I had a slow recharge on Hint and Skip. I did still have to use both though, as some of the mini-games were really hard (and some needed lots of fiddly clicking, which I don’t enjoy). There are some almost ‘Super Puzzles’ here – where you have to complete a series of small puzzles in order – but they’re a shadow of Fate’s Carnival’s Rube Goldberg games.

Puzzles aside, I found the gameplay a bit frustrating. The progression from one task to the next wasn’t always logical – I felt like I was mostly wandering in and out of rooms checking them out, rather than consistently searching for Eleanor (who I occasionally forgot all about). Items from the inventory weren’t always used in a logical way either. Often, the what, why and where were unclear, and I had to resort to guesswork and random tries. Towards the end of the game – and I don’t know if this was just because I was tired – I found it less and less obvious what I had to do next, and so I reluctantly resorted to Hint (I even used the jump map a couple of times – shock, horror!).

Obviously, I’m tempted to say that the characters are also a shadow of former instalments. That probably wouldn’t be fair though, as the Ravenhearst arc is a bit of an outlier when it comes to HOPA characters – no game is ever going to come close to creating a character like Charles Dalimar. The Countess gives us some standard fare: the first-person PC is an undifferentiated Master Detective, and the adversary is a demonic creature that we see, but don’t really interact with. There are a couple of other NPCs, with whom you have a little bit of interaction, but most of the characters’ backstory is revealed through cutscenes. An interesting storyline emerges about one of the characters (which isn’t too difficult to guess, but apparently comes as a surprise within the game), which does add a little bit of depth to the story. However, I found it difficult to get really invested in the characters.

I played the CE for this one, and there were a few extras with it. There’s a bonus chapter – which, to be honest, left me a little confused by its ending (you’ll know what I mean if you’ve played it). The CE also has collectibles – the now-ubiquitous but totally pointless morphing objects, and mirror shards – but there’s no endgame with these collectibles, so sadly nothing happens if you get all the pieces of the mirror. There are, however, achievements – and the CE has replays on the HOGs and mini-games, so you can make sure you’ve achieved all you want from a single play-through.

Overall, this is a decent game. On Custom difficulty (no sparkle-indicators, slow recharge on Hint and Skip, minimal black bar instructions), it took me just over six hours to play through. I did find the illogical progression frustrating towards the end, and the story didn’t massively enthuse me, but I probably will play this one again at some point. The big problem is that, while the game is alright if you treat it as a standalone, it is a Mystery Case Files game. But it’s just not Ravenhearst.

Saturday, 12 January 2019

Game Review: Abyss: The Wraiths of Eden Collector’s Edition (replay)

Developer: Artifex Mundi
Original Release Date: 29th October 2012
Platform: PC

I thought I’d try something new this year – let’s see how it goes. I’ve been playing Hidden Object Puzzle Adventure games for a while now, though admittedly I’m about as casual as a casual gamer can get (and I very rarely play other types of game). I really do love these games, and like everything I love I do tend to have a lot of thoughts about them. Last year, I wrote an academic paper on HOPAs for the 2018 IGA conference, and I’m intending to expand on that work later in the year. But I have a lot of (less academic, more fan) thoughts as well.

A couple of things I guess I should say… I really don’t play other types of games, so all these reviews will be of HOPAs. And I don’t get chance to play very often, so it might be that I’ll only write a couple of reviews this year. When I do play, I tend to get very immersed and focused (because I play these games when I need a complete distraction from everything), and so I usually play an entire game in one sitting. And I often get way more invested in the storyline and characters than is strictly warranted by a point-and-click hidden object puzzle. It’s quite possible that these will turn out to be ‘blog posts about games’ rather than ‘reviews of games’, to be honest.

That said, here are my thoughts about the first game I played this year: Abyss: The Wraiths of Eden Collector’s Edition. Artifex Mundi games were the first HOPAs I played, and the games that got me hooked on the format. I think Abyss was the second one I got, and I’ve played it through several times. (I do replay my favourites – sometimes a lot).

Robert Marceau is a famous diver who disappeared during an expedition. You play as his lover (also a diver), and you’ve undertaken to follow Robert’s tracks and bring him back safely. This background is told in the intro scene – the game begins when you discover the entrance to an underground city (and clues indicating that Robert may be inside). The city is Eden, a once-utopian underground settlement – now apparently abandoned and fallen into ruins. All the indications are that something bad has happened in Eden, and black wraith-like creatures float in and out of view at certain points. Other reviews tell me that this setting is very similar to the city of Rapture in Bioshock, but having not played that game I’ll happily take their word for it.

The wraiths are ‘Legates’, strange figures of evil that swarm around Eden and, it appears, have imprisoned or killed the human population. Something has happened to release or empower these creatures, and your interactions with a couple of members of the human resistance helps you to piece together the story behind the fall of Eden. Although your primary objective is to find and rescue Robert, this becomes entwined with a quest to uncover the truth about what’s going on and free the remaining survivors of the city.

I really like the storyline in this game – perhaps it’s helped by the fact that I’ve never played Bioshock? – as the dystopian vibe is definitely to my taste. The Legates are creepy, and I like the evidence you find of the resistance movement as well. Obviously, given the type of game this is, the story is only lightly sketched out – though Abyss does this better than many – and so much of the background about Eden’s utopian ambitions and failure is suggested rather than spelt out. Abyss is successful in its show-don’t-tell backstory, which is one of the reasons I like it so much.

The game is very much in the typical style of Artifex Mundi’s HOPAs. Scenes are detailed and beautifully illustrated (with some nice little incidental details here and there), and there’s a rich colour palette throughout. The HOGs themselves – though they are kind of the standard ‘junk piles’ – are designed in a way to seem vaguely plausible as the stuff left behind by fleeing inhabitants. NPCs are illustrated (but not cartoonish) and not fully animated, though there are voiceovers and mouth movements when you interact with them. The music is great and atmospheric, but it is quite a short loop so it gets a little repetitive (especially noticeable in the bonus chapter). Overall, it’s a stylish game with some nice effects and detail.

I’m not going to say much about the basic mechanisms of gameplay here, as it’s pretty standard HOPA stuff. You move from room to room, picking up stuff, using things from your inventory, and finding mini-games and HOGs along the way. There are three difficulty modes, but no custom option. I play on Expert, so I don’t have an interactive map or sparkle-indicators (these are available on the other modes though). The mini-games are all fairly straightforward puzzles (Hint and Skip are available with different recharge times depending on difficulty mode), and the HOGs include some interactive ones. The game does include an option to switch from a HOG to a domino game instead, which some players seem to like. I guess it makes a change if you’re tired of junk piles! Most importantly, the puzzles and progression are fairly logical – it’s usually pretty clear what you’re looking for, why you’re looking for it and where you go next. On the whole, the items in your inventory are used in a logical way (so if you find a glass-cutter, you’re likely to need it to cut some glass and not for another more obscure task).

I don’t really have a lot to say about the gameplay for this one, because I mostly want to talk about characters. In fact, there’s a small chance that I only decided to write this post in the first place so I could rant about one of the characters. Because, you see, although the story is great, the design is great, the gameplay is great… Abyss: The Wraiths of Eden has one of the worst characters ever in it. He’s just a bad person, and I need to tell you that. I need to tell you how much I hate Gregory Logain.

HOPAs have a bit of a problem when it comes to non-player characters. These are single-player, first-person games, which revolve around the player-character’s interaction with objects. Even this object interaction requires a bit of suspension of disbelief (easier in some games than others): we have to just accept that we have no equipment to begin with, and that we don’t keep hold of items after we’ve used them. Interaction with people is even trickier – these games just wouldn’t make sense if we were accompanied by a helpful NPC (animal companions notwithstanding), and there’s (almost) no mechanism for dispatching a hostile one (save the ‘kill the boss’ mini-games that usually involve clicking on swirling shapes to counter an attack). Some games get around this by only using NPCs in cutscenes, but others allow for limited interaction – usually cut short by the NPC running away, being abducted or dying before they can offer any material help. Essentially, HOPAs only really work if you’re wandering around an empty landscape on your own.

Abyss, like some other titles, attempts to create more meaningful interactions. And it’s here that it falls short. Most of the members of the resistance you encounter are dead (including one who, worryingly, looks exactly like the baddie in Artifex Mundi’s Enigmatis series), so that’s fine. You run into a couple of helpless children, who ask you to find things to help them, and that’s also fine. But then you meet Gregory Logain, a member of the resistance. Logain is clearly more than capable of looking after himself (since he’s survived this long), and he seems to know the location of various helpful items. But he doesn’t lift a finger to actually do anything. His niece and nephew are imprisoned and injured in a cage, but he insists that you should run around Eden looking for ways to free them, while he sits around in his bunker doing a big think. And there are various useful items in the bunker itself that he’s clearly never bothered to pick up. I’m not going to go through all the interactions you have with Logain (as some of these would be spoilers), but the guy is seriously a waste of space. After a while, it gets really annoying listening to this idiot saying ‘You go and find all the equipment we need, and I’ll wait in the bunker and do a big think.’ Sadly, the game does not allow you to hit him with any items from your inventory (and trust me – I’ve tried them all).

Seriously, he’s a terrible person and I’m surprised he survived as long as he did in Eden. I think the Legates just keep him around for a laugh.

I’ve got the Collector’s Edition of the game, which has some bonus content. However, I’m not sure how many of these extras are specific to the CE – I think most of them are also included in the Standard Edition. There are no collectibles in this game, but there are achievements. You have to play more than once to get all of these, as one requires the completion of all the HOGs and another requires the completion of all the domino games. There’s also a bonus chapter, but this is quite short and a little repetitive.

There is, of course, another massive problem with the bonus chapter. It’s a prequel chapter, which Artifex Mundi have used elsewhere (e.g. Enigmatis: The Ghosts of Maple Creek) and which I normally quite like. The problem here is – and I apologize if this is a bit of a spoiler – your character in the bonus chapter is… Gregory Logain. And I hate that guy. I really do.

Overall, Abyss: The Wraiths of Eden is still one of my favourites. It’s stylish and atmospheric, and it has a decent storyline. The HOGs and mini-games aren’t the most difficult or intricate I’ve played, but they are reasonably logical and intuitive. Even having played several times, I still get around five hours of gameplay each time (on Expert mode).

Tuesday, 1 January 2019

My Year in Books 2018: December

Well... I did it! I stuck to my New Year's Resolution for an entire year! I read loads more novels for pleasure (i.e. in addition to the ones that, while still very pleasurable, I had to read for work, review or my radio show), and I kept up with my short reviews for each one.

And I'll let you into a little secret... while I did say that my reviews were going to be a maximum of 250 words, in fact every single one was exactly 250 words. I didn't intend to do that, but the first one I wrote was dead on 250, and I thought it would be interesting to see how long I could keep that up. It was actually quite a fun exercise (well, my idea of fun anyway), and I might keep going into 2019 with it.

You can read the other Year in Books posts here: January, February, March, April, May, June, July, August, September, October, November

And here's the final list - the books I read in December.

Three Things About Elsie by Joanna Cannon (2018)

Each year, we stay in a cottage in Cornwall for the week before Christmas. As in most holiday cottages, there’s a little shelf of paperbacks, and this book had been left by another guest since our last trip. It’s interesting that I started the year discovering Elizabeth is Missing by Emma Healey, and then ended it with Three Things About Elsie, as they have much in common. Cannon’s book is about Florence, a woman in her eighties who is having trouble remembering things (the ‘D’ word is mentioned a couple of times, but the book takes a broader view on memory, grief and ageing than simply a diagnosis). Florence spends her time talking to her best friend – the eponymous Elsie – and generally being a thorn in the side of the staff at Cherry Tree supported accommodation. One day, a new resident moves in, and Florence is sure it’s a man named Ronnie Butler – but Ronnie died in 1953, and Florence is forced to try and remember what happened sixty years ago (with a bit of help from Elsie). This is a book that deals with the terror that comes from having no one who will listen – or hear – what you’re trying to say to them, but it’s also much more than that. It’s a celebration of the ways in which we are all connected, and how one life can touch and change others (even if it’s not apparent at the time). Moving, thought-provoking, compassionate – but above all, charming. Highly recommended.

Bats in the Belfry by E.C.R. Lorac (1937)

My mother-in-law has bought me quite the collection of British Library Crime Classic books over the years. I like to save most of them for when we’re on our pre-Christmas getaway, as there’s something special about reading these Golden Age gems in an isolated cottage on a Cornish cliff-top. The first one I read this year was Lorac’s Bats in the Belfry – though it’s a London mystery rather than a country house one (which might have been more fitting). Lorac’s mystery revolves around Bruce Attleton, a once successful writer who is happily living off his actress wife’s income. Attleton’s friends – Neil Rockingham and Robert Grenville – become convinced their friend is being blackmailed by a sinister (possibly foreign) man named Debrette, and they decide to do a bit of investigating. Their search takes them to a bizarre and incongruous old building in Notting Hill. Known as the Belfry (or, sometimes, the Morgue) this decrepit old pile was once a religious house but is now a run-down studio favoured by artists. And it seems Debrette has been renting it. Things take a confusing turn when both Attleton and Debrette go missing, and so Rockingham and Grenville turn to C.I.D. (in the shape of Lorac’s regular detective Chief Inspector Macdonald) for assistance – but is everything as it seems? With an excellent (as always) introduction from Martin Edwards, Bats in the Belfry is everything I want from a BL Crime Classic: atmospheric, evocative, and with a strong sense of place and time. Loved it.

Murder at the Manor: Country House Mysteries, edited by Martin Edwards (2016)

And I continued my holiday foray into the BL Crime Classics with a collection of short stories. This anthology is a selection of country house mysteries, selected and edited by the excellent Martin Edwards, whose knowledge and affection for Golden Age detective fiction is evident in every title in the BL’s series. This collection is themed around setting – all of the stories take place in what is, to some degree or another, the country seat of a landed family, though (as Edwards points out in his introduction) Golden Age fiction often engages directly with the changing face of the country house through the various socio-political shifts of the twentieth century. Not all of the houses here are still ‘in the family’, and not all of them are as cosily domestic as they might once have been. Nevertheless, all the selected stories share the ‘closed circle’ of the house party mystery, in which a small but often diverse group of people are thrown together for a short time. The stories collected here vary from the ‘straight’ murder mystery (e.g. ‘The Problem of Dead Wood Hall’ by Dick Donovan) to the thriller (e.g. ‘An Unlocked Window’ by Ethel Lina White). There’s even a light-hearted parody of the subgenre from E.V. Knox (‘The Murder at the Towers’). Bookended by pre- and post-Golden Age stories (‘The Copper Beeches’ by Arthur Conan Doyle and ‘Weekend at Wapentake’ by Michael Gilbert), this anthology gives a great overview of the pleasures and perils of the country house.

Cuckoo by Sophie Draper (2018)

I picked this up in the supermarket on a whim while we were away – I don’t know why, as I’d packed enough books to keep me going for months. I had a bit of debate whether to read this or the Christmas-themed BL Crime Classic I’d been saving for the festive season, but in the end decided to go with Draper’s book – and it turned out to be a win-win, as a large part of Cuckoo is set at Christmas too! It’s also the perfect book for reading in a cottage in the middle of nowhere. The blurb intrigued me, but I was sort of expecting something along the lines of other psychological thrillers I’ve read this year: a woman goes back to clear her family home after the death of her stepmother (who hated her). Being back home brings back painful memories of her childhood, and she’s forced to confront the long-buried secrets from her past. Okay, okay – clearly I’m a sucker for this type of plot, as I’ve read at least two other books with that exact premise this year. But… Cuckoo blew me away. I genuinely stayed up for hours unable to put it down (clichéd as that may sound). It’s dark, unsettling and compelling – but it’s also incredibly well-written and just a really good story. I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that Cuckoo is one of the best books I’ve read this year, and this is totally down to Draper’s excellent storytelling. Loved it.

Portrait of a Murderer: A Christmas Crime Story by Anne Meredith (1933)

Time for another BL Crime Classic, and one that I was saving for the festive season. Although, as it turns out, it’s not wasn’t the most festive book I’ve ever read! Meredith’s novel is an unusual one. Its set-up is very much that of a Golden Age whodunit – an unpleasant man gathers his family together for Christmas at the country house, only to be murdered by one of the guests – but the book is actually a thriller, and a rather cynical and hard-edged one. This isn’t a whodunit, as the reader sees the murder taking place, and is then offered a first-person insight from the murderer as to the reasons and motives. What emerges is a book that almost works as a dissection of Golden Age detective fiction, which reveals the things that are never said in country house mysteries and the subtle obscurities that we fans take for granted. All of the characters in the book are given some backstory and explanation that allows us to see them as people, rather than simply characters in a well-trodden formulaic plot. Most fascinating, for me, is the detail given to one of the housemaids who, in any other book, would have been simply a felicitous plot device. Meredith does a great job of reminding us that all those oodles of undifferentiated servants bustling through Golden Age mysteries are really people with pasts, families, hopes and ambitions. This is not a cosy novel by any means, but it’s certainly an interesting one.

With Our Blessing by Jo Spain (2015)

Another impulse purchase from when we were on holiday – this time, a book I picked up in a charity shop in Truro. And would you believe it? It’s also set at Christmas (or at least the run-up to Christmas)! This is Jo Spain’s debut novel – she’s published (I think) three others since. I’ll admit, Spain’s wasn’t a name I’d come across. I picked the book up because it looked like a good atmospheric winter read, and I’m a sucker for ‘crimes of the past haunt the present’ storylines. And my instincts were right – I really enjoyed this one! The book begins with a prologue set in 1975 – a young woman gives birth in a Magdalene laundry, and her baby is taken from her by the nuns before she can even hold it. The book then moves us into 2010, and D.I. Tom Reynolds is called to investigate the murder of an unidentified elderly woman found mutilated and displayed in Phoenix Park, Dublin. I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler to say that the woman turns out to have been a nun, and that the investigation leads Reynolds and his team to a (very atmospheric – and snowed-in) convent. This is a chunky book (surprisingly long for a debut novel), but a real page-turner. The underlying motive for the crime didn’t come as much of a surprise, but Spain’s writing style is engaging and the setting is beautifully evoked. A solid contemporary crime novel – I’m glad I picked this one up.

Poirot Project: The Yellow Iris (review)

This post is part of my 2016 2016-17 2016-19 Poirot Project. You can read the full story of why I’m doing this in my Introduction post. The previous post was a review of ‘The Underdog’.

Beware: Here be Spoilers

The third episode of the fifth series of Agatha Christie’s Poirot – ‘The Yellow Iris’ – was first broadcast on 31st January 1993. It was based on the short story ‘Yellow Iris’ (aka ‘The Case of the Yellow Iris’), which was first published in the Strand in 1937. Christie’s original short story has Poirot flying solo, as there are no recurring characters (not even George) in this one.

I loved this episode when I first saw it. When I come to talk about the adaptation, I’ll try and put my finger on what it was that intrigued me so much. But first, I have to say something about Christie’s story – and its successor.

‘Yellow Iris’ begins with Poirot sitting home alone, admiring his electric radiator: ‘Its neat arrangement of red hot bars pleased his orderly mind.’ It’s clear that Hercule is a teeny bit bored tonight. When the phone goes at half eleven, he gets a bit excited and fondly imagines it might be some mad case that only he can solve:
‘“And it might,” he murmured to himself with a whimsical smile, “be a millionaire newspaper proprietor, found dead in the library of his country house, with a spotted orchid clasped in his left hand and a page torn from a cookbook pinned to his breast.”’
(This jokey idea for a case seems to ring a bell with me… I don’t know if it’s an allusion to an actual story, or if it crops up in the series as one of Ariadne Oliver’s plots. If you know why it seems familiar, do let me know in the comments.)

The phone call, though, is even more cryptic. A woman’s voice – ‘with a kind of desperate urgency about it’ – tells Poirot that she’s in danger, and asks him to go to the Jardin des Cygnes immediately. He is to find the table with the yellow irises. Poirot is intrigued, and he hurries along to the fancy French restaurant (which is owned by a man named ‘fat Luigi’).

The table with yellow irises has been booked by Barton Russell, a wealthy American, who has gathered a motley crew of friends around him for the evening: Pauline Weatherby (Russell’s sister-in-law), Anthony Chapell, Stephen Carter (a man is diplomatic service known as ‘Silent Stephen’) and Lola Valdez (a South American dancer). As it happens, Poirot has a prior acquaintance with Tony Chapell, and so he manages to get himself invited to the table. No one admits to being the mystery caller, and the party speculate as to what the great detective might be doing at the Jardin des Cygnes:
‘“He’s got an appointment with a body, I believe, or is it an absconding financier, or the Rajah of Borrioboolagah’s great ruby? […] The stolen plans must be found or war will be declared tomorrow!”’
(I know why these jokes all sound familiar – they all have echoes of actual cases Poirot has worked. The ‘appointment with a body’ could be anything, but the ‘absconding financier’ sounds like ‘The Disappearance of Mr Davenheim’, the ‘Rajah of Borrioboolagah’s great ruby’ could be ‘The Theft of the Royal Ruby’, and the final joke evokes ‘The Incredible Theft’.)

Poirot demurs and pretends to just be out for a standard night on the tiles, and the party open up and tell him what they’re doing at the Jardin des Cygnes.

Four years earlier, Barton Russell’s wife Iris died at a party in New York attended by the same guests. Although a verdict of suicide was returned, Russell believes it was murder. He has gathered the suspects together that night in order to uncover the ‘truth’.

Iris’s death occurred during a cabaret performance. The lights went down as the singer took the stage, and when they came up again Iris was slumped dead on the table. A packet of potassium cyanide was found in her handbag. Russell is determined to recreate the events of that night, and so after explaining the circumstances to Poirot, he hurries off to make an arrangement with the band.

The lights go down, and a singer takes the stage to perform the same song as that fateful night four years ago. When the song ends, Pauline drops down dead.

The story is quite a simple one and the puzzle has an elegance to it – Poirot is able to solve it without even leaving the restaurant. In fact, Pauline isn’t dead. The little Belgian warned her not to drink any champagne, but to simply pretend. He then reveals that it is Pauline’s brother-in-law himself who is responsible. Under the pretence of speaking to the band, Russell disguised himself as a waiter, topped up glasses at the table, and sneaked cyanide into Pauline’s glass. Since Iris’s death, Russell had been Pauline’s guardian, and Poirot surmises that the man had been dipping into her inheritance. He couldn’t allow her to reach her majority and uncover his embezzlement, and so he sets up the dinner at the restaurant to get rid of the problem. Poirot is unable to say for sure whether Russell killed Iris four years ago, but he knows that it was Pauline who telephoned and summoned him to the restaurant.

With that, Russell snarls a lot, Pauline decides not to press charges, and Poirot has a bit of a boogie with Lola Valdez.

‘Yellow Iris’ isn’t the most developed or intriguing Poirot story, but it has a couple of neat little features. Namely, the idea of the remembrance party (with the eponymous ‘Iris’ being present, but absent from the entire story), and the ‘no one notices the waiter’ trick to effect the murder. These features are the threads that hold together some quite disparate retellings of ‘Yellow Iris’ over the year, beginning with Christie’s own revision of the story in 1945.

A few years after the publication of ‘Yellow Iris’, Christie rewrote and revised her short story (as was her wont). She turned it into a novel, Sparkling Cyanide, and replaced Poirot with Colonel Race. Colonel Race is a recurring character in Christie’s work, who pops up in a couple of Poirot novels as well. I’ll be writing a separate post on Colonel Race later, so I won’t say much more about his appearances here.

Sparkling Cyanide is recognisably related to ‘Yellow Iris’, but it’s a quite different take on the story. I’ll admit I didn’t even know it existed until a number of years after I’d seen the ITV version of ‘The Yellow Iris’ (which, as I’ve said, was a firm favourite). I accidentally stumbled on the 1983 film version on telly one night. I didn’t know it was even an Agatha Christie adaptation, but it soon became clear that it shared certain important features with ‘The Yellow Iris’ – namely, the remembrance party, the poisoned champagne, and the waiter disguise. Later on, I saw the 2003 version of Sparkling Cyanide with Oliver Ford Davies and Pauline Collins, in which Colonel Race becomes Colonel Reece and acquires a co-investigating wife. The story gets an espionage subplot, and the whole thing has a Tommy-and-Tuppence feel to it. But those key features are retained, of course.

I don’t want to get into the respective merits of the adaptations of Sparkling Cyanide here, but I do want to admit that I hadn’t read the novel until I was preparing this post. I think I’d been put off by the adaptations, to be honest, as they both felt a need to ‘update’ Christie’s work and make it ‘glamorous’, whereas I always had a soft spot for the simplicity of the mystery plot in ‘The Yellow Iris’. Perhaps, also, I was quite loyal to the earlier story, and I didn’t want to cheat on it with the non-Poirot rewrite.

But, this blog is nothing if not completist, so I took the plunge and gave Sparkling Cyanide a go. (The academic in me insists I point out that all references to the book are from the 2017 Kindle edition, published by HarperCollins.)

It was… really not what I expected! I loved it!

Sparkling Cyanide really focuses on the remembrance aspect of the story. It’s divided into three books, and the first one is literally just the main characters remembering the events of nearly a year earlier (and preceding circumstances). In this version of the story, the dead woman is Rosemary Barton (though she still died of drinking poisoned champagne after a cabaret show). Her younger sister is Iris Marle, who has been under the guardianship of Rosemary’s widowed husband George Barton. Other characters include Ruth Lessing (Barton’s competent secretary), Anthony Browne (Iris’s kind of boyfriend, who was previously infatuated with Rosemary), and Stephen and Alexandra Farraday (friends – or are they? – of the Bartons).

As this is a novel, these characters are substantially fleshed out in a way that wouldn’t have been possible in the short story. It should be said, as well, that they are different characters to those in ‘Yellow Iris’. Most notably, George Barton is not Barton Russell. He’s a ‘kindly, pleasant, but definitely dull’ man who, while he does eventually become obsessed with the idea his wife was murdered, is nothing but kindness and compassion to his young sister-in-law.

Being familiar with ‘Yellow Iris’, I was expecting this all to be a ruse to throw you off the scent. But then Christie pulled the rug from under my feet… when the suspects get together for their remembrance party, one of their number drops dead from poisoned champagne… but it’s George Barton, not Iris Marle. Was not expecting that!

So that’s the big change between ‘Yellow Iris’ and Sparkling Cyanide (which clearly I hadn’t paid much attention to on my cursory viewings of the adaptations). The significant details remain the same though, with the memory element played up even more in the novel (hence the name changes: Rosemary, as we’re repeatedly reminded, is for remembrance) and the murder technique kept the same.

I did enjoy Christie’s Sparkling Cyanide, and it made for an interesting companion piece to ‘Yellow Iris’ (I’m always fascinated as to which bits of a story Christie retains, and which she changes in her rewrites). However, I will say… Colonel Race is almost entirely redundant in the novel. I can understand why Christie removed limelight-stealing Poirot from the mix, but she doesn’t exactly put his replacement to work. He only appears halfway through and, even then, he doesn’t do an awful lot of investigating.

Poor Colonel Race… hopefully his time will come in another novel.

Right… on to the ITV adaptation of ‘Yellow Iris’, which gains a definite article and becomes ‘The Yellow Iris’.

This episode was directed by Peter Barber Fleming and written by Anthony Horowitz. As I’ve said, it was always one of my favourites of the early series, so it does pain me a little that I’m going to point out historical inaccuracy and an icky race thing in this post – but rewatching the episode in the context of this project has sadly brought a couple of negative points to my attention.

Let’s start with the positives though, shall we?

Overall, as might be expected, Horowitz’s adaptation is a reasonably faithful adaptation of the plot of ‘Yellow Iris’ (though the setting and set-up have been changed). And it was this plot structure that I fell in love with all those years ago.

During a tetchy argument with Hastings about the failings of English cuisine, Poirot discovers that a restaurant called the Jardin des Cygnes is to open in London. This stirs up an unhappy memory for the detective, which is only exacerbated when Miss Lemon arrives bearing a yellow iris that has arrived with the post.

The remembrance element of the story, here, is all Poirot’s, and he decides to recount a painful story to his associates that took place during a disastrous trip to Argentina two years earlier. He tells them that, while staying in Buenos Aires, he came upon a party of people – Barton Russell (played by David Troughton), his sister-in-law Pauline Wetherby (Geraldine Somerville), his business partner Stephen Carter (Hugh Ross), journalist Anthony Chapell (Dorian Healy) and dancer Lola Valdez (Yolanda Vasquez). Also in the party, though Poirot saw little of her, was Russell’s wife Iris (Robin McCaffrey). One night, Poirot ended up at the same restaurant as the people who had attracted his attention – the Jardin des Cygnes, run by an Italian named Luigi (played by Joseph Long and not, as he is in Christie’s story, nicknamed ‘fat’). At dinner, the group watched a cabaret performance, raised their glasses in a toast to Iris, and then looked on in horror as the woman died from drinking poisoned champagne. Poirot wished to investigate, but he was arrested by a certain General Pereira (Stefan Gryff), accused of espionage, and unceremoniously deported. It was a shameful episode, and he decided never to speak of it again.

Now a new Jardin des Cygnes is opening, and a yellow iris has been sent to the detective. Poirot fears that history might be about to repeat itself.

Ultimately, that is the story of ‘The Yellow Iris’. While Poirot and Hastings do a little bit of investigating to find out the party’s backstory (which is a little different and much expanded from the source story), the main focus of the episode is on the tragedy in Buenos Aires and the remembrance party in London two years later. The denouement comes when Pauline drinks her champagne and falls down dead, only to reappear at the key moment when Poirot reveals how the murder/attempted murder was pulled off by Russell.

The plot elements that had me enthralled as a teenager are the ones that Christie obviously thought were the central points – since they’re the ones she retained in her otherwise much revised novel. They’re also the points that are common to all adaptations of ‘Yellow Iris’ and Sparkling Cyanide – the remembrance party, the poisoned champagne, the waiter disguise. The episode makes the latter even clearer, as it introduces a little trick on the part of the detective during his climactic reveal. While in Christie’s story, Pauline simply sits up at the right moment and says ‘Resurrection of Pauline’, the adaptation has the young woman disguise herself as a waitress and serve the suspects coffee to prove that no one notices the waiting staff (this was my favourite bit of the episode when I first watched it).

There are some other little details that are retained from Christie’s story – in the source, it’s Pauline who makes the panicked phone call to Poirot inviting him to the restaurant, and here it’s Pauline who sends the yellow iris as a cry for help. And the all-important cabaret song – ‘I’ve Forgotten You’ – is included in the episode with lyrics taken directly from Christie’s story (in fact, I think Christie wrote these lyrics specifically).

In addition to this, there are some added touches in-keeping with the rest of the TV series that are quite nice. In particular, I like Poirot’s classy art deco breakfast.

It is this slice of toast that leads to Poirot and Hastings falling out about food. It’s a grumpy little argument that is put to one side when Hastings spots the advert for the Jardin des Cygnes. But we come back to it nicely at the end when, having been deprived of a fancy French dinner by the machinations of Barton Russell, Poirot is treated to some fish and chips by his old pal.

Awww… sweet.

But now… Argentina. Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear.

As I’ve said, the backstory – the murder of Iris – is transposed to Argentina from New York, and in this version Poirot was actually present at the first dinner. There are three reasons this really doesn’t work, and they all hinge on the fact that the episode’s opening scene pins the date of Iris Russell’s death to 1934.

Clearly, the ‘present day’ bit of the episode is meant, as other episodes in the series are, to be set in 1936. Characters keep referring to Iris’s death as happening ‘two years ago’, so we don’t really need the gravestone to tell us she died in 1934. But it’s there nevertheless, literally setting the date of the Argentina section in stone. Which causes the following problems:

1. Poirot is in Buenos Aires en route to visiting Hastings who is living in Argentina on a ranch in La Pampa. Is he?? Why hasn’t this been mentioned before? Does he still own the ranch? Why has he come back to mooch off Poirot if he owns a ranch in Argentina? Is someone running it for him in his absence? How did he afford it in the first place? How come, in August 1936, he spends ages telling Poirot and Japp about his six-month holiday in South America without mentioning anything at all about a ranch in La Pampa? Had he lost it by then? Does he buy another ranch after he gets married? Is Hastings some sort of mad ranch addict?

This does raise another question in my mind about Hastings’s ranch-o-philia. In Christie’s stories, Hastings makes the switch to Argentinian farming in the early 1920s. When he comes back for a visit in 1936 (in The A.B.C. Murders, he bemoans global and local economic circumstances that are making it hard for him to succeed. This isn’t surprising. The 1930s in Argentina are known as the ‘Infamous Decade’, during which time political unrest, corruption and the Great Depression caused huge economic upheaval in the country. It’s not surprising that Hastings’s ranch, which had seemed a sensible investment in the early 20s, is struggling by 1936.

And yet, in the TV series, Hastings actively chooses to start farming in Argentina in the middle of the Infamous Decade. I know he’s a bit daft, but surely this is an unwise decision even for him?

2. Now, this talk of the Infamous Decade reveals another potential problem with the episode, though I’m not 100% sure I heard the dialogue correctly here, so feel free to correct me if necessary.

When Poirot arrives in Buenos Aires, things are a bit hairy. There are regular power cuts, general strikes, and a foreboding military presence. Poirot quickly befriends Anthony Chapell, who gives him a bit of background as to the situation. Now, I’ve listened to the scene over and over again, and I’m convinced Chapell says:
‘The rumours are that President Yrigoyen can’t last much longer.’
This bugs me, as the series is normally so careful with historical detail. Hipólito Yrigoyen was deposed in a military coup in 1930 and died in 1933 (the year before this part is supposedly set).

I could have misheard – perhaps Chapell doesn’t say ‘Yrigoyen’ – but the episode certainly adds in an Argentinian coup d’etat that has no basis in historical fact. This just seems a bit disappointing given the eye for detail elsewhere in the series. Looking at the episode now, I really wonder why the story of Iris’s death was moved to Argentina in the first place. It doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense, and…

3. Isn’t it all a bit of a coincidence?

In Christie’s stories, Poirot and Race aren’t actually present at the first dinner. They are invited to the remembrance dinner in order to find out the truth about what happened to Iris/Rosemary. In the TV episode, however, Poirot was an eye witness to Iris’s death.

And then, two years later, not only does (not fat) Luigi decide to open an identical restaurant with an identical name down the road from Poirot’s house, but it also has its opening night on the anniversary of Iris’s death. And all the attendees from the first party are now living in London as well (while this is understandable in the case of Russell, Carter, Chapell and Pauline), is it not stretching it a bit to reveal that Lola Valdez also happens to be in town at just the right time?

Now, you might say that it’s not really a coincidence, that Russell took advantage of Luigi’s new restaurant to bump off Pauline. But the episode is at pains to remind us that Pauline is just one month off reaching her majority – and discovering that Russell has nicked her inheritance – and that Russell’s company is literally on the verge of financial ruin.

So Luigi opens a new restaurant and Lola moves to London and it’s the anniversary of Iris’s death at the exact moment that Russell needs to do something to cover his financial tracks? Suspicious… very suspicious.

I blame Luigi.

Anyway, as I’m nit-picking over an episode that I keep saying I love, I might as well raise one final uncomfortable point. It’s a bit of a strange one.

There is one final element that is common to Christie’s ‘Yellow Iris’, Sparkling Cyanide and ITV’s ‘The Yellow Iris’ – the race of the singer who performs at the cabaret.

In ‘Yellow Iris’, the singer of ‘I’ve Forgotten You’ is described thus:
‘A girl walked out into the middle of the floor, a coal black girl with rolling eyeballs and white glistening teeth. […] The sobbing tune, the deep golden Negro voice had a powerful effect. It hypnotized – cast a spell.’
In Sparkling Cyanide, the cabaret is described as ‘one of those negro shows’, a fact which is affirmed several times by different suspects.

In the TV episode, the singer at the Buenos Aires cabaret is played by Carol Kenyon (probably best known for her vocals on Heaven 17’s ‘Temptation’, which I’ve had stuck in my head for most of the time I’ve been writing this post). She is replaced by a white singer (played by Tracy Miller) for the second rendition of ‘I’ve Forgotten You’, which I’d suggest is performed in a much less ‘hypnotic’ way.

It was the insistent repetition of the description of a ‘negro show’ in Sparkling Cyanide that drew my attention to this detail, and I started to wonder why. Why does the race of the singer matter? It’s clearly not meant to denote a particular type of cabaret or venue, as it appears in both versions of the story (where the parties are otherwise quite different). The cabaret itself should be an irrelevance – it’s simply the thing that distracts everyone while the murderer is slipping cyanide into the champagne – so why give such specifics? And then to see Kenyon doing the ‘big’ performance in the TV episode, with Miller being simply the replica chosen for the rerun, really does make this detail stand out.

I suspect the answer is to be found in Christie’s original description in the original short story. ‘I’ve Forgotten You’ is meant to work like a spell – just as the figure of Iris/Rosemary will exert an almost supernatural power over those who saw her die. Its singer, then, functions almost as a ‘Magical Negro’ (or, at least, a ‘soulful’ singer), hypnotizing the dinner guests into a state of melancholic remembrance. Christie used this trope in 1937 and 1945 – and it was then replicated in 1993. Some things, perhaps, don’t change.

I feel like I’ve been way too critical of this episode. Sorry. I still really like it though. So let’s end with a picture of Poirot enjoying his fish and chips.

This post was way too long. And way too obsessed with Hastings’s ranches, Argentinian politics and dodgy racist tropes. It’s possible that this is the point where I start getting accused of overthinking Poirot.

Anyway, it’s the first day of 2019! Onwards and upwards! I reckon this is the year when I’m finally able to watch ‘Curtain’ – only a few more episodes to go (haha!).

Next up: ‘The Case of the Missing Will’