The Monogram Murders, by Sophie Hannah
Harper Collins (2014), Paperback, 384 pages
I cannot in all honesty say that I am a dedicated Agatha Christie fan. I read many of the best-known examples many years ago and have never felt particularly tempted to re-visit. I though the humble whodunnit had moved on considerably and grown up in the process, and the era of cosy mysteries in cosy villages was probably over. However, in the middle of a particularly dry spell of watchable television, I started, casually at first, but with growing interest, to watch the excellent Poirot series on TV starring David Suchet. I now own the whole set on DVD and they have given me many hours of pleasure. As usual when something on TV grabs me, I instinctively start looking for books that reflect what I am watching. But the thought of revisiting the old original Christie Poirots did not enthuse me, as I was pretty sure that they would be nothing like the TV adaptations. Then I heard about this new reboot by Sophie Hannah and grabbed it with glee, it sounded just what I was looking for. It would be the Poirot for modern sensibilities I had seen in the TV series, I thought. Well, it didn’t quite turn out that way. This is not a bad book, by any means. The beginning is intriguing, the denouement sparkles, with intricate twists and turns. Unfortunately, the middle third is a let-down. To put it bluntly the book feels padded, as if 380 pages should really be about 280, perhaps 300. The plot itself is interesting enough, Poirot, while dining at an insalubrious coffee house, is waylaid by a woman in obvious fear, who blurts out that she is about to be murdered, but that her murder must never be solved. She then runs into the night. Poirot is led to a nearby hotel where three people have been murdered, all with monogrammed cufflinks thrust into their mouths. Poirot, assisted by the latest in his long line of reasonably thick police offsiders, Edward Catchpool, finds a link between the murders, the terrified woman and the long-ago suicide of a minister and his wife in a village with many secrets. It is a well-written, intricately plotted, fiendishly complicated story, it’s just that middle third where it seems to get lost. Disappointing, but far from a total loss. As of time of writing, the second book in the series, Closed Casket, has just hit the shelves, I will be reading it. I think this is a series that is worth sticking through for the long haul.
Fifteen Young Men: Australia’s Untold Football Tragedy, by Paul Kennedy
Random House (2016), Paperback, 320 pages
On May 21, 1892, the pleasant seaside town of Mornington, about 60 km from Melbourne, on the shores of Port Phillip Bay, suffered a truly devastating tragedy. At a stroke, fifteen of the town’s young men, its best and brightest, were lost in an appalling tragedy. The young men were members of the Mornington Australian Rules Football team, and they had travelled to play a game at Mordialloc, a suburb of Melbourne up the coast from Mornington. They were returning in the early evening in a small yacht owned by one of the players, when a sudden squall capsized the vessel, leaving them struggling for survival in the icy waters. None survived, and only 4 bodies were recovered. The loss for one family in particular was truly devastating. The Presbyterian Minister, James Caldwell, lost three of his sons in the disaster. Paul Kennedy relates this awful tragedy, one of the worst in Australia’s sporting history, but which has been almost forgotten, with verve, empathy and a real feel for the times. In part it is a story of a tragedy, but it is also a story of the growth of Australia’s obsession with sport. Kennedy carefully documents how the sport of Australian Rules began to have the extraordinary hold it has over southern Australia at least, and especially in Victoria, by showing it evolved from simple scratch matches between nearby towns, into organised leagues with fierce rivalries developing. The feel of the times, the hazards and difficulties of life and travel in 19th century Australia are well-captured, as are the close bonds between family members and neighbours. This is a great read for those who love sport, those who love history, or those who just appreciate a good story of warmth and tragedy well-told. Highly recommended.
The Last Days of Night, by Graham Moore
Simon & Schuster (2016), Paperback, 384 pages.
I had previously been aware of the so-called “Current Wars” between Thomas Edison and George Westinghouse from reading about the development of the electric chair, but now this superb fictionalized account of the battle to power the world has made me realise that was merely one front in a truly epic legal struggle. The story revolves around Paul Cravath, a lawyer fresh out of college, who is hired by Westinghouse to defend an avalanche of lawsuits from Edison over infringments on Edison’s lightbulb patent. Edison’s stated intention, in a mesmerizing opening scene where he demonstrates his power to Cravath, is to bankrupt Westinghouse and force him out of business. Cravath takes on the challenge and is forced to come up with truly novel legal strategies to thwart Edison. Meanwhile Westinghouse is pinning his hopes on the charmingly eccentric inventor Nikola Tesla to invent a lightbulb that will not infringe the patent. However Tesla is simply not amenable to any form of control, and it takes the combined efforts of Cravath and Agnes Huntington, a young singer with a mysterious past, who becomes Cravath’s love interest as well as Tesla’s protector, to keep him safe and productive. It won’t be giving anything away to say Cravath is eventually successful, and Westinghouse the ultimate winner of the Current Wars, but the process of getting there is fascinating and scintillating. The book fairly crackles along, there are no blacks or whites, everyone has their own motives, some noble, some less so. Giving it added spice is the knowledge that all these events actually happened, with some creative licence where needed. This is a terrific piece of writing, it grabs the reader and never lets go, in Moore’s sure hand even tedious legal manoeuvering becomes exciting and suspenseful. The book is ably finished off with an fascinating epilogue where Moore describes where he has used creative licence, what really happened during those events, and the future lives of each of the protagonists. First-class piece of writing, I cannot wait for more from this author.