Book Review: On Green Dolphin Street by Sebastian Faulks

Sebastian Faulks doesn’t write happy novels but there is much joy to be had in reading them. The writing is wonderful, the characters flawed but interesting with enough of their history that you can see why they are the way they are. With On Green Dolphin Street we have three people, each of them bright and talented, but who are struggling with other people’s expectations of them and the politics of their time.

Mary lost her fiancé in the Africa campaign of World War 2. She didn’t think she’d ever fall in love quite like that again. Then she met Charlie, a dazzling young man who made everyone laugh and the room come alive. We catch up with them a decade or so later, married and living in Washington where Charlie’s a career diplomat at the British Embassy. It’s 1960 and we have a sense of a world where things are beginning to change.

Charlie had been an officer in the war, and still remembers all the letters he’d had to write to the loved ones of his men fallen in battle. At work a lot depends on Charlie too, all that glad-handing, maintaining a perpetual state of exuberance while his finances are shaky to say the least. It’s not surprising that he self-medicates with alcohol.

Then there’s Frank, a journalist fighting his way back into political reporting after an FBI probe deemed him unsafe a few years before – the McCarthy era hadn’t been kind to the press. Frank still dreams of all the enemy soldiers he had to kill in the war, remembering all the chilling details. He considers all the men he sees on the street, wondering if they too are murderers. The thoughts are fleeting as Frank is too busy with an upcoming election. Old hand Richard Nixon is poised to win, if only he can hold off newbie John Kennedy. But it’s the young buck who looks so much more assured on television.

The election provides an interesting backdrop to the main drama of the novel: a love triangle, triggered by the party when Frank met Mary. The story of their affair adds a lot of the dramatic moments through the book, fraught with difficulties of distance (Frank in New York based at the NY Times), and all the people who depend on Mary, particularly her children, but also her parents in England (Mary’s mother is ill) and not least of all, Charlie, who is struggling to keep himself together.

Ultimately it is Mary we most feel for as it is Mary who has to decide the fate of all three. With no career of her own, in spite of a university education and her mother having been a doctor, her role in life is to be the perfect hostess, wife and mother. Under this facade is a seething mess of feelings. In their own ways it’s not so different for Charlie and Frank, the secrets, the emotions. No wonder there are a lot martinis and scotch going down. Goodness, such a lot!

I was very moved by On Green Dolphin Street. It could have been a little maudlin, but it all seemed so real, the characters so intense and believable, and the politics of America in the midst of an election resonating with today. Lovers of New York will be enchanted by Frank’s informative tour of the city. Throughout, we have Faulks’s nice way of prose, though he likes to show off his vocabulary (describing a little boy peeing off a balcony as ‘micturating’). It’s a very minor quibble in a novel that is in all other ways memorable and superbly crafted with an ending that took my breath away. A four and a half star read from me.

Book Review: Actress by Anne Enright

Some authors you read for the story, and others you don’t care so much what the story is, you just love them for the writing. Anne Enright falls into the latter category, and this is probably why she’s won awards and has been reported in the Sunday Times as ‘One of the most significant writers of her generation.’ She’s kind of literary then.

So I was mad keen to grab her new book, Actress, as soon as it came my way. There are a lot of minor characters in the book adding a cast of theatre and film people, but mainly it’s about Nora FitzMaurice, now in her sixties, looking back at her relationship with her mother, the celebrated actress of stage and screen, Katherine O’Dell. The book wonderfully conjures up the world of drama, film producers, agents and artistes of various kinds seen from the point of view of the young, fatherless girl who watches from the wings.

It’s not a happy story. Katherine is soon revealed has having descended into some kind of madness, peaking with her shooting a producer in the foot, before dying well before old age, her career having died long before. Nora is also a little adrift – emerging from her teens somewhat promiscuous and beginning to wonder who her father might have been. In the background we have a glimpse of the Troubles – a chunk is set in Dublin in the 1970s – and there’s plenty of that dry kind of Irish wit which is at its best when it is self-aware. This is particularly so with Enright.

The play may have been about homosexuality, or heterosexuality, or it may just have been about loneliness. It was certainly about a young curate who flees, after a difficult day, from the kindness of a busty, frilly-bloused, female parishioner. The role was played by an Englishman because, rumour had it, no Irish actor would take it on.

For much of the novel, I was reading thinking this is just a bunch of interesting aspects about the famous actress – her growing up with her theatre parents, her time in America, her marriage – balanced with Nora’s delving into her mother’s life, revelations of her own affairs and eventual settling down. How Nora has to step up and be the parent when her mother goes mad and during her final illness, the quirks of their relationship.

I laid the carton on the table, very casually, and she pretended, very casually, that they were not there. I am ashamed to say that I enjoyed it a little. Two hundred fags sitting between us, a blue oblong of desire.

Then about three quarters of the way in there was suddenly a pivotal moment and the story, the structure and everything else came together and it occurred to me that I’d been distracted by the smart writing and intriguing anecdotes. I had failed to notice the big things happening – the way fame and beauty and talent can be gobbled up mercilessly by the less-than-scrupulous with ruinous effect. And that what everyone really wants is just to be loved – I wonder if that isn’t what Enright’s books aren’t aways about one way or another. And so beautifully told in a way that’s very real and personal but universal too. Just perfect. So it has to be a five out of five from me.

Book Review: The Hiding Places by Katherine Webb

Set in Wiltshire in 1922, The Hiding Places is a mystery which throws together two unlikely allies. When Donny Cartwright is accused of murder – he was caught holding the bloodied murder weapon – the police, unable to find any other suspects, look no further.

Not that the police are sloppy. Inspector Blackman likes to know ‘the why’ of a crime, and Donny didn’t have any reason to commit murder. But Donny, once a talented youth with his heart set on studying engineering, has returned from the war a damaged man. Mere days before, he’d lost control and smashed to pieces two rose bushes at the Hadleighs’ Manor Farm where he works in the garden.

Donny’s teenage sister Pudding (she was a tubby child and the name sort of stuck) is determined to prove Donny’s innocence – he said he didn’t do it and that’s enough for her. Pudding also works at Manor Farm, taking care of the horses, though her father, the local doctor, thinks she has university potential. But with Donny to care for and now her mother showing signs of dementia, she’s not going anywhere.

Oddly enough everything seems to have started with the discovery of an old doll at Manor Farm. Irene Hadleigh has had trouble settling in as the new wife of Alistair Hadleigh. Alistair’s Aunt Nancy dotes on her nephew but is chilly and supercilious towards the incomer. Irene has escaped a scandal through her marriage but is still broken-hearted. So to please her, Alistair’s having the old schoolroom made into her study. When they pull off the mantlepiece and clear out the chimney, the discovery of the doll creates a sense of unease among the workmen – could the doll have been cursed?

The story recounts Pudding and Irene’s gradual friendship through their determination to uncover the murderer. Surprisingly they are both good for each other – Pudding with her chatter brings Irene out of her shell and even gets her riding. Having something important to do gives Irene a bit of backbone. Gradually events from the past make their way to the surface and a bundle of secrets, simmering jealousies and evil intent emerge.

I raced through The Hiding Places, which turned out to be the perfect read for a day of torrential rain. There are some wonderful secondary characters, including PC Dempsey, who has a soft spot for Pudding; Dr Cartwright, Pudding’s troubled father who valiantly tries to put on a brave face but doesn’t always succeed; and young, nature-loving Clemmie, forever mute, who could have stepped out of Hardy. In fact, the atmospheric rural setting, the relentless heat of summer, the distinctions of class also reminded me of Hardy, but maybe with a little less impending doom.

As for the story, there’s a decent sort of twist towards the end that will have you flipping back through the book thinking, ‘How did I miss that?’ The plot then powers on to a satisfactory ending, not Hardy-like at all, thank goodness. Webb is an accomplished storyteller, and with complex characters plus a nice way with prose, there is a lot to enjoy. Four out of five from me.

Book Review: The Long Call by Ann Cleeves

Many readers were disappointed when award-winning crime writer, Ann Cleeves decided to call it a day with her Shetland series. I guess there are only so many crime scenarios you can imagine for a tiny place like the Shetland Islands. But if there’s a silver lining here, it has to be her new series set in North Devon, featuring local police inspector, Matthew Venn.

The Long Call is the first Two Rivers novel and I happily devoured it. The story begins when Matthew attends his father’s funeral having recently returned to the area of his boyhood with his husband, Jonathan. It’s a Brethren funeral and he keeps himself at a distance, not daring to approach his mother, having disgraced himself as a teenager by declaring himself an atheist, dropping out of university and later breaking his parents’ hearts by marrying a man. But his new case, the murder of a troubled loner, Simon Walden, will take him uncomfortably close to the people from his family’s church.

The story of Simon Walden will take some uncovering – the man had shed his life of family, friends and belongings. Plagued by guilt over an accidental death, he had become an alcoholic before being rescued by a church group run by Caroline Preece, the daughter of one of the movers and shakers behind the community centre known as the Woodyard. Caroline took him in as a lodger, helped with counselling and found him some voluntary work.

Surprisingly, Walden made a connection with a woman with Downs Syndrome who also attended a drop-in group at the Woodyard. So much seems to centre on the Woodyard, which is managed by Matthew’s husband, Jonathan. Should Matthew declare a conflict of interest and hand the case over to DCI Oldham? But his boss has his eye on retirement and will only step in if Matthew messes up – so no pressure then.

When another woman with Downs Syndrome goes missing, the first Matthew learns of it is a phone call from his mother – phone calls from his mother are unheard of. The victim is the daughter of a good friend, another member of the Brethren who remembers Matthew and his disgrace. Fortunately he has a smart team to work with. Jen, his DS is from Birmingham, a no-nonsense sort with a failed marriage and two teenagers at home. She’s good at building relationships with witnesses and getting them to spill the beans. DC Ross is young and restless, but eager to prove himself, and there are plenty of opportunities here.

Looking ahead, I know we will come to love Matthew Venn and his sidekicks – Cleeves is so good at character development, highlighting the pressures put on police officers and connecting them to the crime story. This book pivots on the relationships of parents and their children, not just Matthew and his mother, but our other players too. What is it like to bring up a child with severe learning difficulties? What would we do to keep them safe? How far would we go to make our children happy?

So while Cleeves gets plenty of points for character development in her fiction, I am always impressed by the way she can pick apart relationships, the secrets that imbue them and the passions – positive and negative – that they generate. The Long Call has this in spades. Easily a four star read from me.

Book Review: Treacherous Strand by Andrea Carter

An atmospheric setting does wonders for any mystery series. In Treacherous Strand, we’re way up in the Irish county of Donegal, and the Inishowen Peninsula. Small-town solicitor, Ben (Benedicta) O’Keefe is badly hung-over when she learns a client and friend, Marguerite Etienne, is dead. Her body washed up near the shoreline, clothes neatly folded on the beach, suggests suicide but Ben isn’t convinced.

On the night before she died, Marguerite had called in to see Ben about making a will, revealing plans to leave her few possessions to a daughter of 23 she had not seen since the girl’s infancy. It was the end of the day, and Ben’s secretary had left work, so there was no one to witness the document. Ben promised to draw up the will ready for Marguerite to sign over the coming days, but never saw Marguerite alive again.

Ben is a troubled woman, plagued with guilt for not being able to save her sister and now she’s got this to reckon with. No wonder she sits up late at night getting through the red wine. She also has a problematic relationship with Sergeant Molloy, who’s in charge of the case – there was some kind of romantic spark that didn’t quite happen in the first book, Death at Whitewater Church, which still haunts Ben in this book. (I really must learn to read these crime series in order.)

Talking to witnesses reveals that Marguerite had a difficult past, escaping a religious sect, the Damascans, but unable to take her daughter with her. Marguerite’s neighbour, an overtly charming Scottish artist, Simon Howard, immediately takes a shine to Ben when he calls in to her office to reveal that he’d agreed to be executor of Marguerite’s estate. Meanwhile Simon’s troubled son, David warns Ben off. His dad’s a terrible womaniser, he says, and surely that puts Simon at number one on the suspects list.


Further suspects soon pile up, including a town councillor, and Marguerite’s therapist, both of whom seem to have fallen in love with the victim. Throw in some lively characters: Phyllis, the owner of the bookshop where Marguerite worked and Ben’s bestie, Maeve the vet, plus a bunch of quirky locals, and you get plenty of small town colour. Another thing I really liked about the book is that Ben is a proper solicitor. She has to fit her amateur sleuthing in around real work and the author, having been a lawyer herself, makes this seem very real.

The story cranks up the tension nicely – Ben gets the sense that someone is warning her off and opens herself to some dangerous situations. Sergeant Molloy is not best pleased. Over all it’s a decent enough crime novel, although I must confess to getting confused from time to time with the many characters and having to skip back to check who was who. So this one’s probably more of a three than a four from me.

Book Review: The Perveen Mistry series by Sujata Massey

I love a good crime novel and throw in the setting of India under British rule and I just can’t help myself. That’s probably why I love this new series by Sujata Massey. Her sleuth is Bombay solicitor, Perveen Mistry, the only female lawyer in town – this is the 1920s, after all. She works for her father, has put a terrible marriage behind her and just wants to get on with her career.

The first book, A Murder at Malabar Hill, sees Perveen get involved with three widows of a wealthy mill owner whose estate is being managed by an employee from the firm. Studying the documents which show the women have signed over their inheritance to a trust, Perveen smells a rat, and decides to talk to the widows in person. That’s the advantage of being a female lawyer – the women live in strict seclusion, a male lawyer would never be admitted. Tensions mount as Perveen learns more about the family, and then a murder takes place.

Perveen’s snooping is interrupted by fears for her safety when she thinks she recognises her estranged husband all the way from Calcutta. The story of her ill-fated marriage is woven through the main plot in flashbacks with some resonances with the main story, both revealing the difficulties for women living in very traditional family settings. It’s just as well Perveen’s own family – her parents, brother and sister-in-law, are more forward thinking and loving.

Along for the ride is Perveen’s old friend from her Oxford days, Alice Hobson-Jones, bored and restless to use her fierce mathematical brain now she’s back home with her well-healed parents. Her mother’s keen to see her daughter settle down with a suitable husband, as if that’s ever going to happen. Another woman eager to shape her destiny in a society that would rather she didn’t.

Massey recreates 1920s Bombay with lots of colour, some wonderful meal descriptions, and interesting characters. Perveen is feisty when she needs to be and also has a good memory when it comes to the law – the reader gets lots of insight into the relevant legislature without being too bogged down in details. You get the sense that the author has done her homework. I loved the minor characters: the Mistry’s general factotum, Mustafa who keeps Perveen up to speed with her father’s moods is a particular gem, as is Alice – tall and fair, she’s a head taller than Perveen but a brilliant friend.

This book won an Agatha Award and the Mary Higgins Clark Award, which is why I wanted to read it after having just devoured the second book in the series: The Satapur Moonstone. Yes, again I read the books in the wrong order, but at least now I’m all square. The second book sends Perveen to the remote state of Satapur, home to the widow of a maharaja and her mother-in-law, the dowager maharani. The two women are in dispute over the education of the young prince and future maharaja, and a lawyer is required to sort out an agreeable solution.

The women live in purdah, so no men are admitted and Perveen is requested by the British agent overseeing their kingdom. Perveen must travel by palanquin, a kind of sedan chair arrangement, through forests inhabited by tigers and other deadly animals to the palace. Here she finds a royal family living under a curse not long after the deaths of both the last maharaja of cholera, and his eldest son to a hunting tragedy.

We’re in monsoon country, transport is difficult and news travels slowly. The local villagers live a traditional and fairly impoverished existence, while up at the palace, we’ve got power plays, secrets and treachery while the uncomfortable political situation brought about by British rule rears its ugly head from time to time. Tension of various kinds build to a ripping ending. This a terrific addition to the series, and some unfinished business for Perveen makes me eager for Book 3.

Book Review: Five Little Pigs by Agatha Christie

I’d picked up and put down this one a few times before, not sure it would hold my interest. Contemporary crime fiction is written in a more pacy style than this old Poirot novel, first published in 1942. But I put my reservations aside and once I got going I was soon absorbed.

Five Little Pigs begins with a new client calling on Poirot, a well-turned-out young woman asking him to review the case of her mother murdering her father, sixteen years before. Carla Lemarchant has only recently learned about the deaths of her parents – she’d been brought up in Canada by relatives and had a happy upbringing. Only now she wants to get married, but before she can plan her wedding, she needs to know what really happened. And then there’s the troubling letter from her dying mother, declaring her innocence.

The novel is divided into three parts as the great detective slowly pieces together the events of that fateful summer. In the first part he interviews the lawyers for the defence and prosecution as well as a policeman to find out why it was so easy to find Caroline Crayle guilty of the murder of her husband, the celebrated artist, Amyas Crale. Everyone agreed she’d put poison into his glass of beer while he was painting a beautiful young woman at their country home. In court, Caroline had just sat there, doing nothing to fight back, immobile but looking lovely just the same.

Along with Elsa Greer, the artist’s model, four others were present when Amyas died – all possible suspects – making the five little pigs of the title. Somehow Poirot can’t quite get the nursery rhyme out of his head. One by one, he visits the five and asks them to write a description of events leading up to and including the murder.

The first (little piggie who went to market) is Amyas’s great friend, the investor Philip Blake; the second (little piggie who stayed home) is Philip’s brother Meredith who had a bit of crush on Caroline, and immersed himself in amateur pharmacology. Elsa is the third little piggie who had roast beef – well, a succession of wealthy husbands, while the little piggie who had none is governess Cecelia Williams who adored Caroline while seeing to the education of Caroline’s precocious young sister, Angela Warren. Angela, now a respected archaeologist, is the little piggie who cried wee, wee, wee all the way home.

The second part of the novel is made up of the written narratives of each ‘piggie’ and the same threads run through each of them: the theft of some coniine from Meredith’s laboratory; the overheard arguments, the simmering jealousies. Of course, we don’t know who might be lying or making unsubstantiated assumptions. The third part is the coming together of all the witnesses so that Poirot can explain all and unmask the killer.

So unlike a modern murder mystery, there is no second murder, or ramping up of tension through imminent danger. And while Christie linked nursery rhymes from time to time to her plots (One, Two Buckle My Shoe; Hickory Dickory Dock; And Then There Were None), perhaps we are too sophisticated to be amused by such a contrivance today.

And yet, this such a good story. The characters are interesting – all of them have emotional ups and downs to do with the lovely, long suffering Caroline or enfant-terrible Amyas, the couple vividly brought to life even though they are both long dead. And then there’s the beautiful mansion with its battlements and coastal setting, the languorous summer weather, the simmering tension of people behaving badly.

The story slowly builds and the reader is swept in to make connections and deductions, pick up the red herrings, and examine motives – Christie’s novels work very much with the reader playing detective alongside her sleuth. And the finale is so well done, the vivid reconstruction of Amyas’s death revealed with Poirot’s wonderful delight in the dramatic. I loved it. It just goes to show that a book doesn’t have to have the expected plot-points to work and this one works just fine. It’s not quite a classic but still a four out of five read from me.

Book Review: The Spies of Shilling Lane by Jennifer Ryan

The Spies of Shilling Lane by is another wartime story by Jennifer Ryan, the author that brought us the hugely popular novel, The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir. As before we have a mix of unlikely heroes and heroines thrown into the maelstrom of World War II, with outcomes to surprise both the reader and themselves.

With her second novel, we meet the loud, bossy and unlovable Mrs Braithwaite on her way to London to find her daughter, Betty. It is 1941, and London is being hammered by the blitz, so why would Betty want to leave the comforts of home and the small town of Ashcombe? To make matters worse, Mrs B has been dropped by the Aschombe Women’s Voluntary Service where she was Queen Bee, a role taken on by former friend Mrs Metcalf. The ladies aren’t happy with Mrs B because of her divorce and general bossiness.

No wonder Betty escaped to work for Bexley Sewage Works – who wouldn’t? When Betty seems to have disappeared, Mrs B inserts herself at Betty’s address, number 3 Shilling Lane, also home to landlord, Mr Norris, a quiet unassuming accounts clerk, and two girls: vague and messy Florrie, and coolly beautiful Cassandra, neither of whom were particular friends of Betty’s.

Mrs B discovers that Betty has never been an employee at the sewage works, but a series of clues lead her to a butcher shop in Clapham. Suddenly Mrs B is thrown into the dangerous world of MI5 and an undercover operation to infiltrate a Nazi spy ring. She may have over-focussed on social standing at the expense of her daughter in the past but she’s brave enough to get to the bottom of things, determined to make amends.

Mrs B drags Mr Norris into her plans – a reluctant hero if ever there was one. But while Mrs B is learning what it means to be a caring parent, Mr Norris is developing the courage he’d always thought he’d lacked. In the meantime, London is repeatedly under siege, and our team of reluctant heroes are completely confounded by not knowing who they can trust, Ryan throwing in a few plot twists before the final page.

Jennifer Ryan has created a humorous story about ordinary people doing extraordinary things, with a cast of colourful characters and believable settings. It is also at times an emotional book, the carnage of the blitz creating a relentless backdrop to events, out of which appear small moments of hope. However, I struggled not see Mrs B as a kind of wartime Hyacinth Bucket (tv’s Keeping Up Appearances), and yes, I did find my credulity stretched a little at times. So while I found it competently written and engrossing enough, it’s a three out of four from me this time.

Book Review: The Turn of the Key by Ruth Ware

Psychological thrillers aren’t my favourite genre but I do make time to read anything that comes along by Ruth Ware. She is such a master of atmospheric settings and unreliable narrators. In The Turn of the Key, the story is told in letters from Rowan Caine, a young woman in prison for murdering a child in her care. So potentially, this is about as unreliable as you can get.

Rowan is writing to a top barrister, hoping he will review her case and secure her release. She swears she is innocent. The best way to explain why she’s innocent is to tell him everything as it happened. The story begins with Rowan answering an ad for a live-in nanny for a family in a remote part of Scotland. Sandra and Bill are high-flying architects, their home, Heatherbrae, a modernised Victorian manor with electronics that run everything from the temperature in your shower to the fridge telling you when to buy more milk.

The couple have seen nanny after nanny abandon their four gorgeous girls. Perhaps it’s the remoteness of the house, far from the bright lights. Then again, the children can be a handful (wee Petra is a typical two-year-old, Maddie sullen and scheming, Ellen highly strung and Rhiannon a rebellious teen), but someone as experienced in childcare as Rowan should manage just fine. Is it the controlling and creepy Happy app, that allows Sandra and Bill to tune in to what’s going on at home wherever they are? Or is it something about the house?

The title of the book will soon have you thinking of the Henry James ghost story, The Turn of the Screw, where again we have a nanny killing a child. And there’s definitely something weird and supernatural going on here. Tragedy has struck Heatherbrae before – the ghost of a former owner, the one who planted the walled and locked poison garden, is said to haunt the house. Ware has everything set up for a tense and chilling read.

With the bulk of the story from Rowan’s point of view, we follow her difficulties, first with the children and the spiteful housekeeper – thank goodness she makes a friend in Jack, the hunky handyman – and then with eerie happenings at night. Surely the house can’t really be haunted, can it? Or worse, does it have a mind of its own. It starts to seem a little bit like The Twilight Zone.

Rowan is determined to get to the bottom of things. She’s not a quitter like those other nannies. And like the good-hearted person she is, she develops a fondness for her charges, even stroppy Rhiannon. But there are secrets here as well as creepy happenings and a few terrific twists before we turn the last page.

Ruth Ware has been dubbed ‘the queen of just-one-more-chapter’, and the title is never more fitting than with this novel. I dare you to pick it up and try to put it aside, even if you think you don’t really like psychological thrillers. The Turn of the Key shows Ware at the top of her game. (If you like this one, try The Woman in Cabin 10 which is another doozy.) This one gets a solid four out five from me.

Book Review: Death in a Desert Land by Andrew Wilson

Andrew Wilson is obviously a big fan of Agatha Christie – something he and I have in common – so much so that he has written a series of mystery novels with the Queen of Crime starring as his amateur sleuth. Wilson isn’t the first novelist to find Christie so fascinating that he has fictionalised an aspect of her life. Her famous disappearance in 1926 when her marriage failed has inspired films and fiction (The Woman on the Orient Express by Lyndsay Jayne Ashford; On the Blue Train by Kristel Thornel are two novels worth checking out).

And Wilson isn’t the first novelist to make his detective a famous author. Nicola Upson has chosen Josephine Tey for her sleuth in a series of nine excellent mysteries; Oscar Wilde uses his great wit to solve crime in a series by Gyles Brandreth and more than one author has chosen Sir Arthur Conan Doyle to foil criminals (who better?), the latest I’ve come across: Bradley Harper, pairing the great writer with a Derringer-toting Margaret Harkness in a series kicking off with A Knife in the Fog.

So Andrew Wilson’s series should come as no surprise. How did I feel picking up this book? Were there a few twinges of reluctance? A sense of dabbling with a holy of holies? Yes, definitely. But one day I found myself holding a copy of Death in a Desert Land, the third book in the series, and I just couldn’t help myself.

… I felt a little more secure knowing that in my handbag was a syringe filled with a fast-acting drug that could put a man to sleep in minutes.

In this story, Agatha is divorced and independent, taking a break from novel-writing to help out Davison, her pal from the Foreign Office, to investigate the death of Gertrude Bell. The famous archaeologist, another real person, supposedly died of a drug overdose, but two letters have recently come to light expressing her fears for her life. Agatha is to stay with Katherine and Leonard Woolley who are running a dig at Ur, site of the famous Death Pit and full of wonderful artefacts. Bell had worked with the Woolleys, sorting out which exhibits were to stay in Iraq and which could be shipped to the British Museum.

The storyline has echoes of Christie’s novel, Murder in Mesopotamia, and Wilson wonderfully conjures up the setting – sunsets across the sand-dunes, desert storms, the chanting chain-gang of Iraqi workers. I’ve always loved Christie’s Middle Eastern novels (Death on the Nile, Appointment with Death, They Came to Baghdad) so was soon enjoying myself. When there’s a murder – the spoilt daughter of the wealthy American sponsoring the site bludgeoned to death – Agatha has to forget about Gertrude Bell as the finger is pointed at Katherine, a volatile character at the best of times.

An archaeological dig in the middle of nowhere offers the perfect ‘locked-room’ mystery in that we have a small group of characters in situ, each with their own secrets and motives. The plot puts Agatha through her paces, risking a face-off with a potential killer, wielding her syringe (why couldn’t Davison have set her up with a neat little pistol at the outset?) often at night. The finale around the table with all the suspects and witnesses as Agatha presents an account of events and eventually unmasks the killer will remind you of more than a few Christie novels.

Death in a Desert Land is altogether very entertaining, with enough humour not to take itself too seriously and is a welcome addition to the Christie canon for anyone who has read all the original books and craves more. It is very much in the spirit of Christie, and the smart, deductive and charming character of Agatha, with her knowledge of poisons, a perfect reluctant heroine.

Make sure you read the notes at the end of the book where Wilson outlines The Facts but only when you’ve finished the novel as there could be spoilers. It adds some interesting details and shows us that Wilson has done his homework. Wilson has written a number of biographies, including one of Patricia Highsmith, so we know we’re in good hands. I can’t wait to read the rest of the series; this book gets four-and-a-half out of five from me.