Monthly Book Club (April 2017)

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It’s a mix of old and new crime this month as my novels originate from both this century and the last.

My love for the genre only builds with time, and it’s seeped into my TV viewing habits as well as my reading ones. I love seeing the contrast between how crimes are solved with modern-day technology and increasingly complex and crafty plots, with the simpler stuff from middle to late 1900s where the genius of the protagonist is what really helps them catch the killer. There is no one style that’s better than the other, but simply a progression in the way that they’re written.

What better way to show that off than by reading an example of both and sharing them here for you to see.

In the Dark (Mark Billingham)

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One of Mark Billingham’s few standalone works outside of the Tom Thorne book series, In the Dark is an intriguing crime novel that sees the lives of three different characters become unexpectedly entwined in a plot full of murder and revenge.

I’d purchased this book several years ago and had been meaning to read it for the longest time, but other things kept getting in the way. It was only after I’d finished it that I discovered a BBC series is reportedly in the works based on this novel. Not only that, but also the author is one of the headlining authors for this year’s Noirwich crime festival, a four-day crime writing extravaganza that I attended for the first time last September. With those in mind, I guess it’s a good thing I finally sat down to read the book.

On the whole, I was pretty absorbed in this piece of fiction. The beginning definitely sets up an expectation for later events, but then subverts that with a reveal of what truly happened in the opening flash-forward. It was a delightful twist, one which then allowed the character of Helen Weeks to have more of a purpose in the story. Her guilt and the way it manifests is fascinating to read, especially with the added weight of a baby on the way. She was certainly the most interesting character in the book.

This twist I mentioned is not the only one to occur during the narrative, but it’s certainly the most compelling. The reveal that the death in the flash-forward was the result of murder, not an accident, was quite a shocker, but unfortunately the killer’s identity was not so surprising. I’m not sure if it’s because I’m a big fan of the genre or the clues were just too obvious, but there were moments in the last third of the book that made it easy to guess who the culprit was. What was even less shocking was the final twist, the one that is plastered all over the front and back cover of the book as being completely unexpected. It was sad, yes, but I could hardly say that you couldn’t see it coming.

There were some fairly cliche character models present in the novel, such as the London wannabe gangster with a soft side and the two-faced cop, but Billingham is a talented writer and kept the flow going pretty strongly throughout the novel. Admittedly, I found the very end to be a bit of a disappointment, but I’m glad that it didn’t all turn out rosy for everyone. It kept it just that little bit grittier, and no-one ever really gets a happy ever after.

Stars (3)

Murder on the Orient Express (Agatha Christie)

IMG_5892.JPGThe works of Dame Agatha Christie are some of the most highly-regarded when it comes to crime fiction. She is, after all, the best-selling novelist of all time.

I’ve been watching a lot of the Miss Marple adaptations on TV recently and I’ve been meaning to pick up a Christie novel for quite a while now, so where better to start than one of her greatest mysteries. Most people are familiar with ‘Murder on the Orient Express’, even if they haven’t read it before. The reveal is certainly a unique one, and the premise has been used in a number of popular television programmes such as ‘Doctor Who’ and ‘Sabrina the Teenage Witch’. The story is a classic.

It’s definitely an adjustment reading a piece of fiction like this after a modern novel, especially when I’m not that accustomed to the older style of writing. The structure is a lot simpler than anything you’d find nowadays, and the sentences don’t try to be over-complicated. As a writer it can be frustrating to read, especially given my penchant for the complex, but it creates a feel of nostalgia for the time it was written in. Given I wasn’t alive during Dame Agatha’s lifetime, it’s a refreshing insight into the aspiring author’s world.

At the end of the day, it’s not the style of writing that draws such a crowd to her work, but rather the stories. ‘Murder on the Orient Express’ does a wonderful job of setting up the many characters of the novel, to the point that it’s easy to remember all of them despite the large number. Their characteristics stand clear and remain memorable as the curious Hercule Poirot works his way through the mystery.

It can be easy to grow impatient for the real story to get going, after all the murder doesn’t happen until a third of the way into the book, but Christie is great at creating an evocative world that distracts until the mystery begins. The three act set-up makes the investigation come alive, and the ultimate reveal comes in that wonderful manner of bringing everyone together and unleashing the truth. While this story, and other works by this author, may not be the most gripping for a 21st century audience, you can’t beat a classic every once and a while. We wouldn’t have the crime novels that we do today if it wasn’t for books like this.

Stars (3.5)

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March 2017                                                                                                                            May 2017

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