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Finally Read: Rebecca

Aside from having a weird habit of asking for murderous books for Christmas, there’s nothing I like better at this time of year than curling up with a book that takes place at an English manor house.

I had the luxury of of a few days off ahead of the holidays this year. Once the presents were wrapped, the place was clean and we just had to wait for Santa to head this way, I decided that the time had come to read Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca.

Last night I dreamt I went to Manderley again.

The kind of opening line that is immediately familiar even if you’ve never read the book before, that sends a delicious chill down your spine because you know good things are coming.

It’s hard to explain this book to the uninitiated. It’s one of those books that is so much better if you know next to nothing about it going in. Du Maurier lays the groundwork from the beginning, delighting in red herrings and confusion caused by the social cues of the day and the lack of any sort of communication. But make no mistake, the lack of communication doesn’t make what’s actually happening any less sinister.

A young woman is learning to be a professional companion in Monte Carlo when she meets the recently widowed Maxim de Winter. When Mrs Van Hopper becomes ill, the young woman is left to her own devices and finds her time taken up with driving excursions with Mr de Winter. At the end of two weeks she becomes engaged and after an Italian honeymoon, she travels back to Manderley as the second Mrs de Winter.

Once they get back, she is thrown into a lifestyle that she certainly didn’t grow up for. She’s now in charge of a grand old house, an entire county is looking to her to provide the kinds of entertainments that the former Mrs de Winter made the estate famous for. She has to deal with the housekeeper, Mrs Danvers who was completely devoted to the first Mrs de Winter and delights in undermining the new one.

Oh this book. I don’t want to say much more – if you haven’t read it, you should remedy that. If you have, you know what I mean. When you read the first line, you know it’s a big one but it isn’t until you finish the book that you realize how big that line is.

Rebecca is now most definitely on my list of all time favourite books. I can’t wait to read this again one day.

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The Pigeon Pie Mystery

I have read a lot of different variations on the crime fiction theme this year. This year was supposed to be the year that I revisited my love for the classics and made an effort to add more non-fiction to the mix but it has turned out to be the year when I fully indulged my love of crime fiction.

I have read crime fiction by Scandinavian authors, their popularity boosted by the success of Stieg Larsson, their fan base growing because their own series’ are so depraved and diabolical. I have been introduced to the brilliance of Scottish crime writer Ian Rankin, hurrying along the streets of Edinburgh along Rebus and Fox, getting a first-hand account of the underbelly of this most inviting tourist city. And of course, of course, I’ve made sure to spend time with that scion of crime fiction, the Queen herself, Agatha Christie.

It’s no wonder then, that I was drawn to Julia Stuart’s The Pigeon Pie Mystery. This one promised a host of wacky characters and a Victorian-era murder. Aside from Sherlock Holmes, I haven’t read too many murder mysteries that take place during the Victorian era.

pigeon

So Princess Alexandrina, nicknamed Mink, is the daughter of the Maharaja. She is British-born, unmarried and used to being excessively wealthy. When her father dies under fairly scandalous circumstances, it doesn’t take long for her to find out that she is in fact penniless. The government keeps writing to her, telling her she has to sell her home and she has no idea what she will do, having seen nothing of her intended, Mr. Cavendish, since the death of her father. Queen Victoria herself comes to the rescue, offering Mink a grace-and-favour apartment at Hampton Court Palace.

Having literally no other options, Mink and her maid, Pooki, make the move. Hampton Court Palace is filled with all kinds of bizarre residents and staff from the Countess who refuses to pay for anything to the housekeeper, Mrs. Boots who is convinced that she is going crazy as she keeps seeing a monkey in red velvet trousers all over the place.

Mink and Pooki are settling in nicely and are invited to an Easter residents’ picnic. Pooki makes a few Pigeon Pies for the picnic, one especially for General Bagshot as he can’t have eggs. But after eating the pie, the General starts to feel unwell and hours later he’s dead.

That’s a lot of set up right? That’s kind of how I felt reading it. It took a really long time for the murder to even take place and then I felt like there was a lot of screwing around as Mink tries to find out who was responsible to save Pooki from a hanging. I enjoyed the bizarre English characters but I had a hard time keeping them all straight as they flitted in and out of the narrative. In the end there’s even a love story but I found that it was completely secondary to the mystery and completely unnecessary. Another one of those books where the ending seems to be wrapped up too quickly, after you’ve spent an inordinate amount of time on the foundation of it all.

I’m not sure that all of this was enough to put me off Stuart’s work in the future. I know that she has at least two other books out there and I’m curious if this was a one-off for me. But if I’ve learned anything from all this crime reading, it’s that poison really is a woman’s weapon.

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Poirot vs. Miss Marple

Earlier this year I read my first Miss Marple mysteries by the incomparable Agatha Christie. I was completely swept away by the humour, the setting and the complexity of the stories. It was easy to see how one could be completely smitten with Miss Marple, a little old lady from St. Mary Mead with a talent for crime solving.

But I stayed away from Christie’s other famous ‘detective’, M. Hercule Poirot, a Belgian with a fabulous moustache and an equal penchant for crime solving.

I don’t have an explanation for this. I just always gravitate towards heroines over heroes and Poirot just seemed kind of stern. Not what I look for in a hero. With the exception of Mr. Darcy in the first half of Pride and Prejudice. I know you will all agree with me there.

But I finally read a Poirot story, Cards on the Table and I loved it.

Poirot is walking around an exhibition on snuff boxes one afternoon (as you do) when he runs into an acquaintance, a Mr. Shaitana, who brags about an even better collection: people that have committed murder and gotten away with it. He invites M. Hercule Poirot over for dinner one night so that he can introduce him to this collection.

On the appointed day, Poirot arrives for dinner at Mr. Shaitana’s house. Along for the evening are a crime writer, a detective with Scotland Yard and a colonel in the Secret Service. Also on hand are a doctor, a major, a young woman and an older socialite. After a incendiary remark made by the host at dinner, the 2 parties break up to play cards. By the end of the evening, Mr. Shaitana is dead and it falls to the detective group to sort out who did it.

The unraveling is a delight! I kept changing my mind and was wrong every time. Poirot takes an incredibly unusual line of questioning with all of the suspects and of course he’s the one to sort it out. But not before there are more casualties. Poirot was fantastic but I think my favourite character in this one has to be the lady crime writer, Mrs. Oliver. I think she must have been a bit of a joke on the part of Ms. Christie.

It seems to be my modes operandi to read Agatha Christie novels in pairs, this time was no exception (they are so short!). Fearing I wouldn’t like Poirot, I grabbed another Miss Marple at the same time, They Do it With Mirrors. After visiting with an old friend who has a funny feeling that something is going on at the house of her sister Carrie Louise, Miss Marple is dispatched to stay in the house and see if she can puzzle out what’s going on.

Upon arrival, Miss Marple is greeted with a whole host of odd characters and circumstances. I found this one impossible to work out on my own so I just happily went along for the ride. Carrie Louise has been married 3 times and there are a variety of children, stepchildren and grandchildren running around, as well as Husband #3, and the at risk youth of the home for boys she and said husband run from their home. When her stepson arrives suddenly one night to speak to her husband and ends up dead, everyone is trying to figure out who did it. Add poison, a bludgeoning and a sizeable fortune and you have all kinds of motives for murder.

I always feel completely satisfied when I finish a murder mystery. Everything is tied up in such a neat little package, there is nothing left unsaid or done. Every once in a while, you need that kind of ending. Agatha Christie delivers every single time.

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The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time

A while back I posted about one of my favourite books of 2011, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. But I never actually dedicated a post to this wonderful book. I’m a jerk like that.

The time has finally come to remedy that.

I should tell you that this book had been on my list for a good long while, transferred diligently to at least 2 new agendas (which is where I keep my physical To Read list). I have this problem where every time I go to the book store to pick out new titles, I am seduced by the new and suggested, rather than referring to my own, ever growing, list of reads.

I digress (another problem I have).

Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time was a Whitbread Book of the Year (2003) for a reason. I’m way late on the bandwagon, I know, but this book astonished me, for all the right reasons.

It’s brilliant and original and touching and funny and so very sad all at the same time. It is unexpected in all the best ways.

It starts out rather gruesomely, when Christopher comes across his neighbour’s dead poodle on her front lawn. The poodle has been stabbed with a pitchfork. Pretty nasty business. The neighbour comes out, screams at the sight of her beloved companion dead on her lawn and calls the police when she sees Christopher there and he gives her cryptic answers about what he is doing. The police arrive, Christopher gives them more of the same and he is brought to the police station until his father can be called to pick him up.

What becomes apparent on his father’s arrival at the jail, is that there is something different about Christopher. He doesn’t like to be touched, so his parents have come up with another way to ‘hug’ each other and show affection. He doesn’t understand metaphors, taking everything literally because one can’t really eat an entire horse when they are hungry.

Christopher is autistic.

He goes to a special school to teach him how to cope in a world where no one says exactly what they mean, how to read other’s social cues so that he doesn’t make other people unnecessarily uncomfortable. After the incident with the dog in the middle of the night, Christopher decides to investigate and write a book about his investigation. He feels that he will hep his neighbour if he finds out what happened to the dog.

But Christopher ends up finding out a lot more than he expected, with further reaching consequences than he ever could have foreseen.

What starts out as a simple, if slightly different, murder mystery, turns into a story about family and love and being a little bit different. Christopher ‘s life turns upside down and he handles it better than he probably ever thought he could, a testament to the resiliency of all human spirit, even of those that think a little bit differently. The whole time that he tries to find out what happens to the dog, he is also studying for a math final that will enable him to go to college away from home and try to see how he handles those changes.

I loved this book. I loved Christopher and the way that he sees the world. I love that he takes metaphors literally and doesn’t understand why when people tell you to be quiet they never specify how long you should be quiet for. He’s one of the most original characters I’ve ever come across and I love him.

If you haven’t read this one yet, and I know I’m late to the party so you probably have, you should pick it up. Give it a read. It’s a nice quick read if you’re trying to reach an impossible book reading goal.

Grade: A-

Starts: 4.5