Thursday, April 19, 2018

still in the mood for thrillers

Here are some recent reads:

And Then There Were None, 1939, by Agatha Christie

This one is unlikely to be reimagined by Kenneth Branagh, but you never know. And Then There Were None is one of Christie's grimmest, and most famous tales. Due to its original title, it is also one of her most controversial. Christie loved to use nursery rhyme references in her book titles, and this book actually incorporates an entire rhyme in the book as a twisted framework for a crime:

Ten little Indian boys went out to dine;
One choked his little self and then there were nine.
Nine little Indian boys sat up very late;
One overslept himself and then there were eight.
Eight little Indian boys travelling in Devon;
One said he'd stay there and then there were seven.
Seven little Indian boys chopping up sticks;
One chopped himself in halves and then there were six.
Six little Indian boys playing with a hive;
A bumblebee stung one of them and then there were five.

Five little Indian boys going in for law;
One got in Chancery and then there were four.
Four little Indian boys going out to sea;
A red herring swallowed one and then there were three.
Three little Indian boys walking in the zoo;
A big bear hugged one and then there were two.
Two little Indian boys sitting in the sun;
One got all frizzled up and then there was one.
One little Indian boy left all alone;
He went and hanged himself and then there were none.

["Ten Little Indians" - based on "Ten Little Injuns" written in 1868 Septimus Winner to be performed in minstrel shows]

Ten people, strangers to each other, are invited to a remote island for a holiday weekend. Once there they are each accused of a crime, a murder, for which they had never been charged. As one after another guest is found dead, paranoia reigns, as the remaining people on the island suspect one another and fear for their lives.

And Then There Were None could be viewed as the precursor of modern horror movies, where each character is bumped off in succession. It was also spoofed in the classic comedy film Clue. The book, although ingenious, is a bit of a downer. Clearly even Christie thought so herself, and changed the ending when she adapted her novel into a play in 1943. That ending is followed in the 1949 film version of the tale, And Then There Were None, directed by Rene Clair (which I recently viewed and liked on Amazon Prime). I prefer that take on the story, although a more by-the-book adaptation was recently filmed in 2015, starring Aidan Turner.

Deathtrap: A Thriller in Two Acts, 1978, by Ira Levin

Continuing my Ira Levin binge, my local library had Deathtrap: A Thriller in Two Acts. I had only seen the movie version, starring Michael Caine and Christopher Reeve. Maybe taking a nod from Ms. Christie, there is really no innocent person in Deathtrap. A twisty-turny puzzle of a play, Deathtrap centers on playwright Sidney Bruhl, whose last play was a huge flop, and who seems burnt out, humiliated, and out of ideas.

A draft of a play is sent to him by a former student, and a diabolical light bulb goes off over Sidney's head ... as he tells his wife, Myra, "It is a thriller in two acts. One set, five characters. A juicy murder in Act One, unexpected developments in Act Two. Sound construction, good dialogue, laughs in the right places. Highly commercial." Levin has a ball winking at the audience, and the play, written in 1978, was deservedly a big hit on Broadway. It reads well, too.

Button, Button: Uncanny Stories, 2008, by Richard Matheson

This is an eclectic collection of stories by the author of What Dreams May Come and Stir of Echoes. The title story has been adapted twice - as a Twilight Zone episode and a feature film, The Box. I have yet to see either one, but I liked the story, which features a fun and creepy twist ending. Another of the stories in the book, "Dying Room Only," is a great, tense read, but may discourage the reader from ever stopping again at an out-of-the-way spot to grab a bite while on a road trip. Most of the stories were written and published previously in the '60s and '70s. They are a bit of a mixed bag - some good ("Clothes Make the Man"), some humorous, some dated ("The Creeping Terror"), some some just strange ("A Flourish of Strumpets," "'Tis the Season to Be Jelly"). Button, Button is a diverting read, but makes me wish the library had I Am Legend or Hell House instead.

By the Pricking of My Thumbs, 1968, by Agatha Christie

Agatha Christie's most famous detectives were Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple. But she also wrote five books featuring the detective couple Tommy and Tuppence Beresford. They met in The Secret Adversary (1922), were married in the collection of short stories Partners in Crime, on the track of German spies during WW2 in N or M? (1941), were retired with grown children in By the Pricking of My Thumbs (1968), and elderly in the last novel she wrote, Postern of Fate (1973).

In By the Pricking of My Thumbs the Beresfords visit Tommy's elderly Aunt Ada in a nursing home. While Tommy is with his aunt, Tuppence meets a strange old lady, Mrs. Lancaster, in the common room, who points at the fireplace and asks her, "Was it your poor child?" The next time they visit the home Aunt Ada has died and Mrs. Lancaster has disappeared.

The title comes from Shakespeare's Macbeth: "By the pricking of my thumbs, Something wicked this way comes." She is not kidding. This is one of Christie's creepier mysteries. It is also, like its writer and her detectives, a little bit older and unfocussed. But there are enough thrills and a truly sinister ending to make this book not one of her greats, but definitely worth a read.

speaking of mustaches ...

I have been into thrillers lately ...

Murder on The Orient Express, by Agatha Christie, 1934

I had to re-read this classic Agatha Christie novel after recently seeing the Kenneth Branagh movie version. I have always been a huge fan of David Suchet and his version of Christie's most famous detective, Hercule Poirot. I was initially horrified at the promotional photos of Branagh's take on the inimitable Belgian's famous 'stache, but I actually enjoyed his lively take on the character. Maybe some of that enthusiasm carried over when I was reading the novel, which is not as smooth or fast-paced as its many screen versions. But I found myself not getting caught up in Christie's clues and red herrings (a dropped pipe cleaner, monogrammed handkerchief, etc,) and instead enjoyed his conversations with a train full of suspects and his unique take on the solution of the crime.

Can Branagh's Poirot and his magnificent mustaches solves the case?

The Mystery of the Blue Train, by Agatha Christie, 1928

Christie didn't just set one murder on the famous and luxurious Orient Express, or Blue Train, as it was sometimes called. Poirot shows up about halfway through the book, written before Murder on The Orient Express. The mystery features plenty of adultery and romance, centering on a married couple who are both involved with other partners. Christie is said to have not liked this book, but that may be because she was writing it both before and after her infamous disappearance and the dissolution of her first marriage. Whether she liked it or not, Poirot is at his most charming - flirting with young ladies on the Riviera while he tracks down a murder and solveds the disappearance of a famous ruby known as the "Heart of Fire."

Agatha Christie, by Mary S. Wagoner

This is an O.K. biography of Agatha Christie. The author gives a brief biography of her life, leaning heavily on Christie's own autobiography for the majority of her quotes. Readers who are not familiar with all of the author's intricately plotted books might want to steer clear of this one, as major plot points and solutions are revealed. It is a fun but slim read for the Christie-phile who might want to learn a little bit more about the author, including lesser known features of her life, like the numerous long-running plays she wrote when not cranking out her best-selling mysteries, and the romance novels she wrote under the pseudonym Mary Westmacott.

Lori, by Robert Bloch, 1989

This book was just ... strange. It tells the story of Lori Holmes, definitely no relation to Sherlock, who comes home from college with her boyfriend/fiance to find out that her parents are dead and her childhood home has burnt down. Bloch, the author of Psycho, seems to not know whether this should be a supernatural thriller or murder mystery. Not that a book can't be both, but this book never seems to find its voice. Lori has strange, sometimes disturbing dreams, but she seems to be more a girl of the 50s than the almost-90s. She passively accepts tons of tranquilizers from the men in her life who just want to shut her up. And most of those said men have mustaches, and similar attitudes, so seem hard to tell apart. Were mustaches really a thing in 1989? I remember men being more clean-shaven. Anyway, it's not horrible, I got through it, but not so good, either. It was more than a little hard to hang in there to find out if any of Lori's dreams or hallucinations would pay off.