Saturday, 15 January 2022

Stories to be Read with the Lights On 17: Killer on the Turnpike by William P. McGivern


I didn't finish my Hitchcock reread in 2021, and it's taken a bit of time to get back to it in 2022... but I'm not giving up yet! The next story in the book is 'Killer on the Turnpike' by William P. McGivern. I thought the title of this one seemed familiar, but I wasn't sure when I started it if I remembered it from before. It's the longest one yet, so there was plenty of time for it to come back to me.


I'm not sure at all if I remembered this one. Every so often I got a little glimmer of almost-déjà vu (like when the killer tips his coffee cup back to get the sugar at the bottom), but it didn't come back much more than that. Admittedly, the bit about the killer having a plan of how to get off the turnpike did seem a bit familiar, so I'm pretty sure I sort of remembered this one, even if the details were very fuzzy.

Even if I don't properly remember reading it the first time round, I enjoyed Killer on the Turnpike. It's a proper cat-and-mouse tale of... well... a killer on a turnpike, and it captures the atmosphere and conditions of the road in a really compelling way.

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Monday, 10 January 2022

A Year of Celebrating the Seasons

This post is about our New Year's Resolution for 2022. After last year's 31 Days of Halloween and a very festive countdown to Christmas, Rob and I have decided we've nailed those two celebrations. The problem is, it's a long time to wait between Christmas and Halloween so New Year can often seem a bit flat after all the festive fun. Additionally - and I'm not sure if this is a result of the pandemic or if it had been creeping in before then - we've both been feeling weird about the way time is passing. Sometimes it feels like it's whizzing by, but then a single day can feel like it lasts for years (and not always in a good way). So, in an effort both to keep the festive feeling all year round and to feel a bit more comfortable and in control of the passage of time, we've decided to celebrate seasonally this year. Since we already celebrate a quarter day (Christmas/Yule) and a cross-quarter day (Halloween/Samhain), we thought we might as well celebrate the other six seasonal markers.

Neither of us are religious, and our Christmas and Halloween celebrations are always a mish-mash of traditions, including a few we've invented ourselves. Our plan is to celebrate the other seasons in the same way. We've planned a week for each, except Halloween and Christmas (which both get a month, because they're the best ones). Mostly, our celebrations are likely to be seasonal earrings, going for walks and watching films, but we're hoping to come up with some other new traditions along the way! (Any interesting suggestions would gratefully received!)

Since a lot of the seasonal celebrations are muddled together versions of Christian festivals, astronomical phenomena, neo-paganism and other traditions, the first thing we had to do was decide what to call our festivities. We've basically decided just to go with the names we're most familiar with, even though that's a bit of a pick-and-mix: Imbolc, Vernal Equinox, Beltane, Midsummer, Lammas, Autumnal Equinox, Halloween and Christmas.








Wednesday, 5 January 2022

My Year in Books 2021: December

And so onto my final book round-up post of the year. As promised, there are more books on it than last month's... but it's not like there could've been less! I mostly read seasonal/festive stuff in December (as usual), and I have to admit I feel a bit flat about this selection. I only read one novel in December that I would say I loved. Most of the others were a bit meh. Ah well... maybe next year will have something a bit more exciting in store.

In case you're interested, here are my other posts from the rest of the year: January, February, March, April, May, June, July, August, September, October, November

The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton (2018)


Do I like Agatha Christie novels? Yes. Do I like the film Triangle? Yes. Do I like the film Cube? Yes. Did I ever imagine I would find a novel that somehow combined these three things. Erm… no, of course I didn’t; that’d be impossible. Imagine my surprise when I discovered it wasn’t impossible, and that The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle really does combine elements reminiscent of all three. It’s hard to explain the book without giving too much away. I went into it pretty blind – just a cursory glance at the blurb, no other knowledge – and it was an absolute joy when it started to dawn on me what might be going on. I was so excited by the book’s premise that I almost missed my tram stop on two different occasions. Suffice to say, the book opens with a man coming to in a forest. He has no memory of who he is or where he is, but the first thing he sees is a woman he thinks is called Anna being murdered. He’s given a compass and told to head east, and eventually he stumbles onto a dilapidated old country house where a group of people are gathered for a party. Apparently he’s one of the guests, but he doesn’t recognize anyone. And no one’s taking his concern for Anna very seriously. To be honest, I was hooked by this point, but this is only the opener. In case it isn’t obvious, I loved this book.

The Invisible Host (aka The Ninth Guest) by Gwen Bristow and Bruce Manning (1930)


Do I like Agatha Christie novels? Yes. I think that should be patently clear by now. I am particularly fond of And Then There Were None, and at the beginning of the year I read a series of recent novels that use the same premise as Christie’s novel. I’ve been saving The Invisible Host for a while, as this is also a book that uses the same premise as And Then There Were None, but – plot twist – it was published before Christie’s novel. Was it the inspiration for the more famous book? Did Agatha steal the idea from the earlier work? I’ve been intrigued (and nervous) about finding out. Well… here goes… there are undoubtedly a lot of similarities between the two books. The Invisible Host sees a disparate group of people invited to a fancy house party in a New Orleans penthouse apartment. After food is served by a butler who claims not to know who their host is, the doors are locked and an ominous voice addresses the party from a radio. They are going to die, one by one, unless they can work out how to win ‘the game’. The book starts off wonderfully, with a great sense of atmosphere and setting (and some flourishes are reminiscent of the Saw films, which I enjoyed). But, ultimately, it doesn’t really go anywhere. The characters are a bit flat, and the big reveal is lacklustre and not particularly surprising. I have to be honest here: Agatha did it better.

The Z Murders by J. Jefferson Fargeon (1932)


Do I like Agatha… well, I think you get the picture. After I finished The Invisible Host, it struck me that I had another book on my to-read pile with a similar vibe. The Z Murders was published several years before Christie’s The ABC Murders but, as the title indicates, it has a lot in common with the later book. The Z Murders – like most of Fargeon’s crime fiction – had fallen into relative obscurity until its recent republication as part of the British Library Crime Classics series. You may remember from previous posts, my mother-in-law has been steadily buying me an impressive collection of the BL books for birthdays and Christmases, and so I thought it was time to give this one a try. The Z Murders – much like The ABC Murders – is a serial killer thriller, rather than a classic whodunnit. And more specifically – much like Christie’s book – it’s about a serial killer who leaves a calling card with an alphabetical flavour. In this case, it’s an enamelled letter ‘Z’ left by the bodies, the only thing that links the seemingly unconnected victims and locations. The protagonist is Richard Temperley, who stumbles into the first murder after disembarking a train at Euston station and who – for reasons that remain a little fuzzy – embroils himself in the chase to catch the (rather unsettling) killer. There’s a lot of atmosphere and tension here, but the story isn’t quite as gripping as I’d hoped. Turns out, once again, Agatha did it better.

I Saw Him Die by Andrew Wilson (2020)


I’m not even going to start this one with a question. I like Agatha Christie books, and I assume that’s why my mother-in-law bought me I Saw Him Die for my birthday this year. This isn’t a book by Christie, but rather one that features her as a character. Last year, I read a book by Nicola Upson, in which the crime novelist Josephine Tey was the main character. I’m not convinced this is my favourite subgenre of mystery novels, but given the way this month’s reading was going, I thought it was the right time to try I Saw Him Die. In Wilson’s novel, Christie is on holiday on the Isle of Skye ahead of her upcoming marriage to Max Mallowan. She’s asked by a friend in the Secret Intelligence Service to give up part of her holiday to investigate threats made to a former agent who lives on the island. No sooner have they arrived than the man is murdered, and an apparent allusion to the nursery rhyme ‘Who Killed Cock Robin?’ suggests a potential suspect. I’ll just be honest here and say that this one didn’t do it for me. I’m not sure why Agatha Christie had to be used as a character, as the story could’ve been told with an entirely fictional investigator. I also found it a bit repetitive with constant recaps that added little to the mystery and slowed the pace down. With this one, I have to say… Agatha would’ve done it better.

Cornish Short Stories, edited by Felicity Notley and Emma Timpany (2018)


Time to change the pace a bit now. This is a book I actually bought two years ago. We normally go on holiday to Cornwall every December, and at the end of our 2019 holiday I bought this book to save for the following year. Of course, the following year’s holiday didn’t happen, so it’s been waiting patiently ever since. I took this collection on holiday this year as I really wanted to read it in the right setting. All the writers in the book have some connection to Cornwall – either through birth, upbringing or residence – and all of the stories are set in the county. As you might expect, it’s a varied collection, with different takes on the setting and different styles of writing. Interestingly, there is some consistency of tone across the collection with a number of the stories having a wistful or melancholy quality that I wasn’t expecting. As with all multi-author collections, there were some stories I liked more than others. But this is a matter of personal taste, so I imagine other readers will have different preferences. Overall, though, the collection does do a good job of conjuring up a sense of place. Yes, there are the expected beaches (occasionally busy with tourists), but there’s also a real sense of the wide emptiness of the Cornish landscape and the strong connection to nature that you can’t help but feel when you visit Cornwall. And I’m glad I saved this one to read on our holiday!

A Christmas Railway Mystery by Edward Marston (2017)


Earlier this year, I was in the Air Ambulance shop in Bakewell, and I witnessed an older lady very aggressively shopping for Edward Marston books (pushing other customers out of the way, demanding volunteers search for other titles for her). It was the quite the show, and quite the introduction to Marston’s fiction (or, perhaps, his readership). I’m not a huge fan of historical fiction, but somehow I ended up with two copies of this one to read during our December holiday. The first I bought in 2019 to save for our next Cornwall holiday, as I like to have festive fiction to read while we’re away. The second was a surprise – I bought two mystery books from The Works just before we went away, each wrapped in Christmas paper and with a teaser blurb written by a member of staff. The one for this one read: ‘A man with a missing head. Christmas approaching. Will Santa bring it back again?’ Turns out, that’s a bit of a misleading blurb! Christmas 1860 is definitely approaching in A Christmas Railway Mystery, but the man with a missing head is actually a mutilated corpse discovered at the Swindon Locomotive works! Marston’s Railway Detective, Inspector Colbeck, is called away from his family to investigate. I’d say, on reflection, the book has much more ‘railway’ than ‘Christmas’, but that’s sort of what I expected. The mystery is okay, but I think you probably read this one for the historical setting rather than the puzzle.

The Cottage by Lisa Stone (2021)


Another one I read while we were away, and a bit of an impulse buy. Our December holiday is in an isolated cottage, so I thought it might be fun to read a creepy thriller set in an isolated cottage! The blurb on this one suggested an atmospheric tale of a woman who rents the titular cottage on the edge of a forest and is soon disturbed by strange noises in the night. Unfortunately, that’s not really what this one’s about. There’s a bit of description of the cottage, but it’s not as atmospheric as I was hoping. Much of the storyline revolves around a seemingly unrelated (though it all comes together in the end) plot about a midwife and a fertility clinic. It wasn’t really a surprise that the author has also written in the ‘difficult lives’ genre (sometimes known as misery lit), as this is very much the style of writing here. That’s not really my sort of thing, so I found it quite hard to lose myself in the story here. I’m not sure what to make of the plot either, as it seemed a bit farfetched to me and some of the character motivations were rather hard to believe. I think this is one that was mis-marketed, in all honesty. It’s packaged as a creepy thriller – the title and cover lead you to believe it’s going to be all spooky shenanigans at a lonely cottage – but that’s not quite what you get when you read it.

The Christmas Egg by Mary Kelly (1958)


The last book I read this month was the one I read over Christmas itself, and I generally like to choose something appropriately festive as a Yuletide read. I’d got a couple of Christmas-themed British Library Crime Classics saved, but I decided to read this one as it’s a novel rather than a collection of short stories. As Martin Edwards’s excellent (as always) introduction explains, The Christmas Egg is a rather off-beat mystery novel, as it’s not quite a whodunnit and not quite a police procedural. As with a lot of the Crime Classics, the author isn’t particularly well-known now, but I enjoyed learning a bit about her and her writing career in the introduction. The Christmas Egg is set – surprisingly enough – in the days before Christmas (it’s split over three days, with the climax coming at Christmas Eve), and it follows the investigation into the death of an old Russian aristocrat, a survivor of the revolution who’s been living in somewhat refined squalor in London. The detective here is Kelly’s short-term series detective Brett Nightingale, who combines being a police inspector with his love of opera. I enjoyed the book’s depiction of the bustle of Christmas, and there’s a brilliant description of London preparing for the festive season at the start of the book. I also liked the victim’s backstory and the way that was revealed. The third part of the novel – when Nightingale tracked down the crooks – dragged a little for me, but otherwise I enjoyed this one.