7

Ten Great Mysteries

I have loved reading mystery novels since I was a child, when I reread Enid Blyton’s Famous Five and Secret Seven series over and over.  Whilst I still read a lot of mystery books, I realised recently that I often neglect to post about them.  This is largely because I do not like to give things away.  I myself tend to read reviews of mystery novels only when I have read them, just in case a major plot point is thrown in by mistake.  With this in mind, I have decided to compile a list of ten great mysteries, all of which I have really enjoyed, and which I would highly recommend, whether you are a seasoned mystery reader or not.

 

1. And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie 9780007136834
‘Ten strangers, apparently with little in common, are lured to an island mansion off the coast of Devon by the mysterious U.N.Owen. Over dinner, a record begins to play, and the voice of an unseen host accuses each person of hiding a guilty secret. That evening, former reckless driver Tony Marston is found murdered by a deadly dose of cyanide.  The tension escalates as the survivors realise the killer is not only among them but is preparing to strike again… and again…’

 

97807515372842. The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova
‘Late one night, exploring her father’s library, a young woman finds an ancient book and a cache of yellowing letters addressed ominously to ‘My dear and unfortunate successor’. Her discovery plunges her into a world she never dreamed of – a labyrinth where the secrets of her father’s past and her mother’s mysterious fate connect to an evil hidden in the depths of history.  In those few quiet moments, she unwittingly assumes a quest she will discover is her birthright – a hunt for the truth about Vlad the Impaler, the medieval ruler whose barbarous reign formed the basis of the Dracula myth. Deciphering obscure signs and hidden texts, reading codes worked into the fabric of medieval monastic traditions, and evading terrifying adversaries, one woman comes ever closer to the secret of her own past and a confrontation with the very definition of evil.  Elizabeth Kostova’s debut novel is an adventure of monumental proportions – a captivating tale that blends fact and fantasy, history and the present with an assurance that is almost unbearably suspenseful – and utterly unforgettable.’

 

 

3. The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco (my review can be found here) 9780099466031
‘The year is 1327. Franciscans in a wealthy Italian abbey are suspected of heresy, and Brother William of Baskerville arrives to investigate. When his delicate mission is suddenly overshadowed by seven bizarre deaths, Brother William turns detective.  William collects evidence, deciphers secret symbols and coded manuscripts, and digs into the eerie labyrinth of the abbey where extraordinary things are happening under the cover of night. A spectacular popular and critical success, The Name of the Rose is not only a narrative of a murder investigation but an astonishing chronicle of the Middle Ages.

 

97818604925944. Alias Grace by Margaret Atwood (my review can be found here)
‘Sometimes I whisper it over to myself: Murderess. Murderess. It rustles, like a taffeta skirt along the floor.’ Grace Marks. Female fiend? Femme fatale? Or weak and unwilling victim? Around the true story of one of the most enigmatic and notorious women of the 1840s, Margaret Atwood has created an extraordinarily potent tale of sexuality, cruelty and mystery.’

 

5. The Moving Toyshop by Edmund Crispin 9780008124120
‘Richard Cadogan, poet and would-be bon vivant, arrives for what he thinks will be a relaxing holiday in the city of dreaming spires. Late one night, however, he discovers the dead body of an elderly woman lying in a toyshop and is coshed on the head. When he comes to, he finds that the toyshop has disappeared and been replaced with a grocery store. The police are understandably skeptical of this tale but Richard’s former schoolmate, Gervase Fen (Oxford professor and amateur detective), knows that truth is stranger than fiction (in fiction, at least). Soon the intrepid duo are careening around town in hot pursuit of clues but just when they think they understand what has happened, the disappearing-toyshop mystery takes a sharp turn…’

 

97801401677716. The Secret History by Donna Tartt
‘Under the influence of their charismatic classics professor, a group of clever, eccentric misfits at an elite New England college discover a way of thinking and living that is a world away from the humdrum existence of their contemporaries. But when they go beyond the boundaries of morality, their lives are changed profoundly and for ever.  The Secret History is a story of two parts; the chain of events that led to the death of a classmate – and what happened next.’

 

7. The Valley of Fear by Arthur Conan Doyle 9780241952979
‘In this tale drawn from the note books of Dr Watson, the deadly hand of Professor Moriarty once more reaches out to commit a vile and ingenious crime. However, a mole in Moriarty’s frightening criminal organization alerts Sherlock Holmes of the evil deed by means of a cipher.  When Holmes and Watson arrive at a Sussex manor house they appear to be too late. The discovery of a body suggests that Moriarty’s henchmen have been at their work. But there is much more to this tale of murder than at first meets the eye and Sherlock Holmes is determined to get to the bottom of it.’

 

97814091929548. The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield
‘Angelfield House stands abandoned and forgotten.  It was once home to the March family: fascinating, manipulative Isabelle; brutal, dangerous Charlie; and the wild, untamed twins, Emmeline and Adeline. But the house hides a chilling secret which strikes at the very heart of each of them, tearing their lives apart…  Now Margaret Lea is investigating Angelfield’s past, and its mysterious connection to the enigmatic writer Vida Winter. Vida’s history is mesmering – a tale of ghosts, governesses, and gothic strangeness. But as Margaret succumbs to the power of her storytelling, two parallel stories begin to unfold…  What has Angelfield been hiding? What is the secret that strikes at the heart of Margaret’s own, troubled life? And can both women ever confront the ghosts that haunt them…?  The Thirteenth Tale is a spellbinding mystery, a love letter to storytelling, and a modern classic.’

 

9. The House at Riverton by Kate Morton 9781416550532
‘Grace Bradley went to work at Riverton House as a servant when she was just a girl, before the First World War. For years her life was inextricably tied up with the Hartford family, most particularly the two daughters, Hannah and Emmeline. In the summer of 1924, at a glittering society party held at the house, a young poet shot himself. The only witnesses were Hannah and Emmeline and only they–and Grace–know the truth. In 1999, when Grace is ninety-eight years old and living out her last days in a nursing home, she is visited by a young director who is making a film about the events of that summer. She takes Grace back to Riverton House and reawakens her memories. Told in flashback, this is the story of Grace’s youth during the last days of Edwardian aristocratic privilege shattered by war, of the vibrant twenties and the changes she witnessed as an entire way of life vanished forever. The novel is full of secrets–some revealed, others hidden forever, reminiscent of the romantic suspense of Daphne du Maurier. It is also a meditation on memory, the devastation of war and a beautifully rendered window into a fascinating time in history. ‘

 

978000819651610. The Murder at the Vicarage by Agatha Christie
‘”Anyone who murdered Colonel Protheroe,” declared the parson, brandishing a carving knife above a joint of roast beef, “would be doing the world at large a service!”  It was a careless remark for a man of the cloth. And one which was to come back and haunt the clergyman just a few hours later. From seven potential murderers, Miss Marple must seek out the suspect who has both motive and opportunity.’

 

Which are your favourite mystery novels?  Has anything on this list caught your eye?

0

Reading the World: Holland

I used to use my Reading the World project as a BookTube feature, but at present, I have very little time to film, and am very behind schedule with it.  I thought that instead of forcing myself to film and edit, it would be easier to transition the project over to the blog.

For each country or region which I write about, I will give at least five books as recommendations, along with the official blurbs.  I must apologise for the lack of personal details as to why I selected each book going forward, but I am up against time constraints due to my Master’s.  I hope you can understand, and enjoy the recommendations!

We kick off with Holland, or The Netherlands, dependent on what you call it.

1. An Interrupted Life: The Diaries and Letters of Etty Hillesum, 1941-43 by Etty Hillesum (1999)
‘Etty Hillesum (1914-43) lived in Amsterdam, like Anne Frank, and like her she kept a diary. ‘All the writings she left behind,’ writes Eva Hoffman in her Preface to this edition of her diaries and letters, ‘were composed in the shadow of the Holocaust, but they resist being read primarily in its dark light. Rather, their abiding interest lies in the light- filled mind that pervades them and in the astonishing internal journey they chart. Etty’s pilgrimage grew out of the intimate experience of an intellectual young woman – it was idiosyncratic, individual, and recognisably modern… The private person who revealed herself in her diary was impassioned, erotically volatile, restless… Yet she had the kind of genius for introspection that converts symptoms into significance and joins self-examination to philosophical investigation… In the last stages of her amazing and moving journey, Etty seemed to attain that peace which passeth understanding… Finally, however, the violence and brutality she saw all around her overwhelmed even her capacity to understand… But by knowing and feeling so deeply and fully, an unknown young woman became one of the most exceptional and truest witnesses of the devastation through which she lived.”

2. Tales from the Secret Annex by Anne Frank 9780553586381
(2003)
‘The candid, poignant, unforgettable writing of the young girl whose own life story has become an everlasting source of courage and inspiration. Hiding from the Nazis in the Secret Annex of an old office building in Amsterdam, a thirteen-year-old girl named Anne Frank became a writer. The now famous diary of her private life and thoughts reveals only part of Anne s story, however. This book rounds out the portrait of this remarkable and talented young author. Newly translated, complete, and restored to the original order in which Anne herself wrote them in her notebook, Tales from the Secret Annex is a collection of Anne Frank s lesser-known writings: short stories, fables, personal reminiscences, and an unfinished novel, Cady s Life.”

3. The Goldfinch by Donna Tartt (Little, Brown and Company, 2013) (* Partially set in Holland)
Winner of the Pulitzer Prize
‘”The Goldfinch” is a rarity that comes along perhaps half a dozen times per decade, a smartly written literary novel that connects with the heart as well as the mind….Donna Tartt has delivered an extraordinary work of fiction.”–Stephen King, “The New York Times Book Review” Theo Decker, a 13-year-old New Yorker, miraculously survives an accident that kills his mother. Abandoned by his father, Theo is taken in by the family of a wealthy friend. Bewildered by his strange new home on Park Avenue, disturbed by schoolmates who don’t know how to talk to him, and tormented above all by his longing for his mother, he clings to the one thing that reminds him of her: a small, mysteriously captivating painting that ultimately draws Theo into the underworld of art. As an adult, Theo moves silkily between the drawing rooms of the rich and the dusty labyrinth of an antiques store where he works. He is alienated and in love–and at the center of a narrowing, ever more dangerous circle. The Goldfinch is a mesmerizing, stay-up-all-night and tell-all-your-friends triumph, an old-fashioned story of loss and obsession, survival and self-invention, and the ruthless machinations of fate.’

  1. 9781847398222
    4. Anne Frank Remembered by Miep Gies and Alison Leslie Gold (Simon & Schuster Ltd., 2009)
    ‘For the millions moved by Anne Frank: The Diary of a Young Girl, here is Miep Gies’s own astonishing story. For more than two years, Miep and her husband helped hide the Franks from the Nazis. Like thousands of unsung heroes of the Holocaust, they risked their lives every day to bring food, news, and emotional support to its victims. From her remarkable childhood as a World War I refugee to the moment she places a small, red-orange-checkered diary — Anne’s legacy — into Otto Frank’s hands, Miep Gies remembers her days with simple honesty and shattering clarity. Each page rings with courage and heartbreaking beauty.’5. Girl with a Pearl Earring by Tracy Chevalier (HarperCollins, 1999)
    ’17th Century Holland. When Griet becomes a maid in the household of Johannes Vermeer in the town of Delft, she thinks she knows her role: housework, laundry and the care of his six children. But as she becomes part of his world and his work, their growing intimacy spreads tension and deception in the ordered household and, as the scandal seeps out, into the town beyond. Tracy Chevalier’s extraordinary historical novel on the corruption of innocence and the price of genius is a contemporary classic perfect for fans of Sarah Dunant and Philippa Gregory.’

Purchase from The Book Depository

2

One From the Archive: ‘The Secret History’ by Donna Tartt ****

I read this wonderful novel whilst away in France for a long weekend, and found it a perfect book to absorb myself within as the rain streamed down across the beach outside.  I have been wanting to read Tartt’s work for such a long time, as everything which I have heard about her novels is marvellous, and I was therefore particularly pleased when April chose what is arguably her most famous of her three published novels as our February book club read.

Its premise intrigued me from the start:

“Richard Papen arrived at Hampden College in New England and was quickly seduced by an elite group of five students, all Greek scholars, all worldly, self-assured, and, at first glance, all highly unapproachable. As Richard is drawn into their inner circle, he learns a terrifying secret that binds them to one another… a secret about an incident in the woods in the dead of night where an ancient rite was brought to brutal life… and led to a gruesome death. And that was just the beginning…”

‘The Secret History’ by Donna Tartt

First published in 1992, The Secret History has become something of a cult classic.  I did not quite know what to expect when I began the novel, but upon reflection, I don’t think I would have enjoyed it quite so much if it had not unfolded in the exact way in which it did.  Broadly speaking, it is a crime novel, but the many labyrinthine layers of plot which Tartt has woven in mean that as a whole, it is much more than that.  She has laid one detail on top of another to create a rich tapestry, and this technique becomes apparent as one gets swept into the story.  The structure suited the plot so very well, and I liked the way in which the pivotal point of the novel came right at the beginning, and was then worked towards in the first half of the book.  The second half dealt with the consequences of Bunny’s death.  Throughout, particularly with the little clues which are dropped in here and there, it feels as though the reader is given time to build up their own theories about the story, and this consideration within crime novels such as this one works marvellously.

The novel, which takes place within an arts college in Vermont, begins in such an intriguing manner:

“The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation.”

In this way, Tartt is masterful at injecting feelings of foreboding into her work, and there is a marvellously suffocating feeling of things yet to come which manifests itself in her words at times.  She is such an intelligent author – for me, this showed itself most clearly in the philosophical conversations which the characters often had with one another – and the reason as to why it took her such a long time to write is certainly clear.

Tartt’s characters all interested me, and the relationships drawn between them were so intricate.  I did not like Richard at any point, but he was certainly a marvellous choice of narrator, good as he was at systematically reporting everything which mattered.  Whilst he was part of the friendship group, he still remained an outsider of sorts, and this placed him in a great position to report upon the piece.  Tartt believably builds up the male narrative voice, and at no point does it feel overly feminine as novels by women can tend to.  Richard is not an overly masculine creature in his character, and this does come across from the start, but it seems like a trait which one is able to believe in.  In terms of the characters whom I admired and liked, I was drawn towards fellow student Henry and lecturer Julian immediately – perhaps merely because they were such enigmatic beings, and one could never guess what they were liable to do next.

Some of the imagery which Tartt creates is lovely; the sky, for example, is ‘disordered and wild with stars’.  Throughout, Tartt’s splendid writing and well thought out plot render The Secret History to be a fine novel, and I for one am most looking forward to reading more of her work.

Purchase from the Book Depository

3

‘The Goldfinch’ by Donna Tartt

In this stunning novel, Tartt envisions a modern Dickensian cast of characters, substituting London for present day New York. Theo Decker, our century’s orphan, sets forth on a journey led largely on his possession of a priceless painting. Circumstances that lead to his getting this artwork are the basis for the spiraling turn his life takes in the next ten years. His mother is killed in a bomb blast (not a spoiler) at a New York museum, and in that chaos ,Theo meets the dying man, and the painting, that change him forever.

What I found most fascinating about this book is how Tartt shows the life of an American teen left with nothing familiar remaining in his life. Theo’s journey is raw and filled with drugs, thugs and a brief uniting with an extremely unstable father who exits his life yet again. Theo experiences life with the extremely wealthy in New York, to what is effectively urban squatting in a Las Vegas suburb. Through him, we see the dark sides of both lifestyles – a very neat nod to Dickens, it seems. Tartt doesn’t just tip her hat to Dickens though. The great Russian classics come to us through Theo’s friend, and possibly his worst influence, Boris. Love him or hate him – and there is plenty of room for both – Boris is a larger than life character. The modern Artful Dodger, Boris weaves in and out of Theo’s life, from high-school to involvement in the art underworld.  And we aren’t without the presence of an old curiosity shop and the proprietor Hobie who is a haven of stability throughout for all.

As a fan of the ‘big saga’ genre, I fell into this story right from the start. There are many complex characters that propel a plot that is familiar at times, and yet can suddenly become wild and fantastical. Tartt can write some of the tightest prose I’ve read and then wax philosophic for pages. She took thirteen years to write this, all the while with a print of ‘The Goldfinch’ by Carel Fabritius at her desk, so I can forgive any digressions. The painting gives a hint to the story; the little bird held to its perch by a small chain reminds the reader of whatever it may be in life that holds us forever.

Rating: 5 stars

Purchase from The Book Depository

3

Book Club: ‘The Secret History’ by Donna Tartt **** (February 2014)

I read this wonderful novel whilst away in France for a long weekend, and found it a perfect book to absorb myself within as the rain streamed down across the beach outside.  I have been wanting to read Tartt’s work for such a long time, as everything which I have heard about her novels is marvellous, and I was therefore particularly pleased when April chose what is arguably her most famous of her three published novels as our February book club read.

Its premise intrigued me from the start:

“Richard Papen arrived at Hampden College in New England and was quickly seduced by an elite group of five students, all Greek scholars, all worldly, self-assured, and, at first glance, all highly unapproachable. As Richard is drawn into their inner circle, he learns a terrifying secret that binds them to one another… a secret about an incident in the woods in the dead of night where an ancient rite was brought to brutal life… and led to a gruesome death. And that was just the beginning…”

‘The Secret History’ by Donna Tartt

First published in 1992, The Secret History has become something of a cult classic.  I did not quite know what to expect when I began the novel, but upon reflection, I don’t think I would have enjoyed it quite so much if it had not unfolded in the exact way in which it did.  Broadly speaking, it is a crime novel, but the many labyrinthine layers of plot which Tartt has woven in mean that as a whole, it is much more than that.  She has laid one detail on top of another to create a rich tapestry, and this technique becomes apparent as one gets swept into the story.  The structure suited the plot so very well, and I liked the way in which the pivotal point of the novel came right at the beginning, and was then worked towards in the first half of the book.  The second half dealt with the consequences of Bunny’s death.  Throughout, particularly with the little clues which are dropped in here and there, it feels as though the reader is given time to build up their own theories about the story, and this consideration within crime novels such as this one works marvellously.

The novel, which takes place within an arts college in Vermont, begins in such an intriguing manner:

“The snow in the mountains was melting and Bunny had been dead for several weeks before we came to understand the gravity of our situation.”

In this way, Tartt is masterful at injecting feelings of foreboding into her work, and there is a marvellously suffocating feeling of things yet to come which manifests itself in her words at times.  She is such an intelligent author – for me, this showed itself most clearly in the philosophical conversations which the characters often had with one another – and the reason as to why it took her such a long time to write is certainly clear.

Tartt’s characters all interested me, and the relationships drawn between them were so intricate.  I did not like Richard at any point, but he was certainly a marvellous choice of narrator, good as he was at systematically reporting everything which mattered.  Whilst he was part of the friendship group, he still remained an outsider of sorts, and this placed him in a great position to report upon the piece.  Tartt believably builds up the male narrative voice, and at no point does it feel overly feminine as novels by women can tend to.  Richard is not an overly masculine creature in his character, and this does come across from the start, but it seems like a trait which one is able to believe in.  In terms of the characters whom I admired and liked, I was drawn towards fellow student Henry and lecturer Julian immediately – perhaps merely because they were such enigmatic beings, and one could never guess what they were liable to do next.

Some of the imagery which Tartt creates is lovely; the sky, for example, is ‘disordered and wild with stars’.  Throughout, Tartt’s splendid writing and well thought out plot render The Secret History to be a fine novel, and I for one am most looking forward to reading more of her work.

Purchase from the Book Depository

0

Book Club: ‘The Secret History’ by Donna Tartt ****

I was thoroughly delighted to finally get around to reading Tartt’s critically acclaimed ‘The Secret History’ published back in 1992, which fast became a bestseller and cult classic, and I am very glad it was a novel both Kirsty and I were able to treasure.

Somewhat reminiscent of a Greek tragedy, The Secret History follows young Richard Papen’s stay at an elite Vermont college with a closely knit group of Greek classicists prior to the revelation of a murder that we are aware Papen has played some part in. Tartt discloses early on through introduction to Papen vague details concerning the death of Edmund “Bunny” Corcoran, a student among the group Papen later joins. We are immediately aware of such murder taking place, albeit ambiguously, therefore taking the novel in the direction of playing an almost inverted detective thriller. Thus, we are inclined to follow the events which take place onwards in order to come to an understanding as to why Bunny’s death took place, rather than how

Rich and aesthetic in detail, Tartt has crafted keen imagery with regards to the dynamics of both the group and ‘gleam’ of setting. My expectations were far surpassed by the likes of how certain sequences are described, especially concerning Hampden College and the behaviour of the Greek students. The characterisation is by far impressive and superb, and I thought Papen quite Nick Carraway-esque with regards to his isolation and loneliness. Much like The Great Gatsby – which is, in fact, referred to in the same sense directly by Papen – Papen seems to be the social outcast, the ‘external character’ whose perspective we are forced to inherit and through whom we perceive all of these characters. Not only is there an immense sense of pure scandal and unmistakable psychoanalysis, but there is also a riveting narrative and although I was never fond of Richard at any moment during the novel, I did learn to appreciate the structure of his narration and his ways of documenting events. I did find the character development particularly tremendous on Tartt’s part as despite my indifference to most of the characters she crafted – with the exception of Julian, perhaps, and maybe Henry – I was thoroughly enthralled by them all. I also thought Tartt’s diction with regards to the classic philosophoical discussions between them all entirely bewitching, and it made me regret leaving classical studies at A-Level.

More than anything I am thrilled both Kirsty and I enjoyed this book, and I cannot wait to read more of Tartt’s work and delve into more of her stories. The effort and tremendous feat with which she has poured into this novel makes it both a work of masterly talent and overwhelming opulence. I think Kirsty and I will both be picking up another work of hers very soon indeed, and I very much look forward to reviewing another one of her novels in the near future.

Purchase from the Book Depository