Agatha Christie

For as long as I can remember in my adult life, I have been vaguely attempting to amass a complete collection of Agatha Christie’s books. My love affair with them began at university, when I went to stay with a boyfriend whose family were weird and intimidating (though not as weird and intimidating as he was), and I spent most of the weekend holed up in the spare bedroom, which contained a shelf full of battered old detective stories. I gorged my way through three books – I can’t remember which ones – and was hooked.

Back in Colchester, I was already in the habit of visiting the two secondhand bookshops on the High Street to look for cheaper copies of university text books (a hint to teenagers: art history is a very expensive subject to study, bookswise). The next time I was in town I went and had a look at the “Crime” shelf in the larger bookshop, the one inside someone’s house, and was delighted to discover dozens of aged Christies, all priced at 70p. I bought a handful, then periodically went back over the following weeks and months and acquired the lot. I discovered that I’d inadvertently struck gold the first time out and that not all the stories were as good as the early ones, but there was never one I didn’t enjoy reading.

Having gotten hold of about thirty books for pennies at a time, I was loath to start spending £6.99 a go on the remaining titles – it seemed somehow against the serendipitous spirit of the affair – and I found myself content to check every car boot sale, thrift store and charity shop I passed in the hope of picking up an unread Christie.

Last year, now the owner of two full bookshelves of battered Marples and Poirots, I arranged them in alphabetical order, found a list of her complete works and made a meticulous list of everything I didn’t yet have. Some of them, borrowed from friends or libraries or lost over the years, I had read but didn’t have a copy of, and I decided it would be lovely to have an absolutely complete set, not counting the romances which I find readable and entertaining but nothing like as exciting as the detective books and which in any case are written pseudonymously, so don’t technically count as Agatha Christies.

Using this more systematic approach I acquired a dozen or so more books, and of the remaining ones on the list some are US versions of books I already have, some are thrillers rather than mysteries (although the dividing line is not always clear, of course) and others are titles I know I have somewhere, but I can’t think where.

So what next? The answer is obvious: sign up for a book club offering brand new copies of every single Agatha Christie, sent out fortnightly at £5.99 a pop.

Yes, I know it sounds a bit mad, but in another piece of beautiful serendipity, I went into a newsagent yesterday to top up my Oyster and spotted a copy of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, complete with accompanying magazine, for £1.99. So naturally I bought it, and discovered that Hachette are republishing every single Christie, in hardback, in a facsimile of the original binding and cover art, accompanied by a magazine with contemporary detail and modern analysis of each story. Plus, you get free gifts – a bag, some mugs, glass coasters – if you subscribe, as well as the obligatory free binder with part two.

This is exciting for me, even though I’ve read almost all of the books, so it ought to be even more exciting for someone who hasn’t read the books and would like to, which is why I think you should also subscribe. £5.99 for a book is quite cheap, especially as the first one is £1.99, the second is £3.99 and the third is free (if you subscribe by post, rather than just buying it from the newsagent), AND you get a load of free stuff, AND the bindings are gorgeous, AND, well, Agatha Christie is just really lovely to read. The stories are so cleverly plotted and have been so ripe for TV and film and radio adaptation that it’s easy to forget that they are also beautiful evocations of an England – of a world – that few of us knew but which we can all recognise. And more than that, they provide an eloquent social history of a particular class of English life of which Christie herself was a part. So if your new year’s resolution was to read more, I think you should sign up now and join me in reading a Christie a fortnight in 2012. Sorry if this reads like an ad, it wasn’t meant to. Also, if you don’t want to subscribe but do want to try one of the stories and I know you in real life, let me know and I will pick one out for you and give it to you.

Comic fiction

I am irrepressibly, unforgivably drawn to books written by comedians. I know they’re mostly awful, but I can’t seem to help myself. I think it all started when I read Ben Elton’s Stark, which I will still staunchly defend even though I’m slightly embarrassed about having enjoyed it so much. The law of diminishing returns applies to an almost painful degree to the subsequent follow-ups, but Stark was good.

I have also read:

Getting Rid of Mr Kitchen (Charlie Higson)

It’s Not A Runner Bean, Reasons To Be Cheerful and What’s Going On? (Mark Steel)

The Fountain At The Centre Of The World (Rob Newman)

Time For Bed, Whatever Love Means and The Secret Purposes (David Baddiel)

Paperweight, The Liar, The Hippopotamus, Making History, The Stars’ Tennis Balls and Moab Is My Washpot (Stephen Fry)

The Gun Seller (Hugh Laurie)

Frank Skinner (Frank Skinner)

Without Feathers (Woody Allen)

No Cure For Cancer (Dennis Leary)

Are You Dave Gorman? (Dave Gorman)

Billy Connolly (Pamela Stephenson)

I’m sure there are more; that’s off the top of my head. As you will know if you’ve read them all too, this list is a mixture of fiction, biography, scripts and other collected writings. As you will further know, quite a lot of them are not very good, and some of them aren’t even funny. But that somehow never puts me off, so when I went to see Jeremy Hardy and Jack Dee talking as part of Lambeth Readers’ and Writers’ festival a couple of weeks ago I should have known I’d end up buying more  books by comedians.

The talk took place at West Norwood library, which turns out to have a fully functional theatre tucked away in the back room. After the interviews the floor was opened up to questions, and as I wavered Englishly in the back row, wondering whether I had the balls to raise my hand, someone else got in with the question I was going to ask.

“Is it easier to write a book if you already know how to write stand-up, or are they two completely different skills?”

Jack said that it wasn’t very different for him, because he deliberately wrote his book in the style of his stand-up. Having read it, I can now confirm that this is entirely true. Reading it is more or less exactly like reading a Jack Dee stand-up script, except that occasionally he says something very earnest, usually about god, and you anxiously wait for the punchline before realising he means it. There are some good jokes in between, though, and a cheering photo of Jack aged four wearing exactly the expression he always has.

I found Jeremy Hardy’s book more engaging. For a start, it isn’t a straight piece of autobiography but a family history, so it’s not really very much about him. I know comedians like to talk about themselves, but it’s refreshing when they talk about other people too.

But then, Jeremy Hardy has always struck me as unusually humble for a comedian. Another question someone asked was “which other comedians do you admire the most?”. Jack Dee gave the usual answer, which is always some combination of Monty Python, Spike Milligan, Peter Cook and Morecambe and Wise. This is a popular answer because it says “I only admire the very best, and nobody of my generation is better than me.” So I was completely charmed when Jeremy Hardy chose Mark Steel, Daniel Kitson and Jo Brand. Not only are they his contemporaries, they also all live round the corner from him. He didn’t pick unassailable icons; he picked his mates.

The book is likeable and well-written, and also moral and thoughtful. In the end he decides that it doesn’t really matter who you’re descended from, or where they lived, but that there is real human joy in meeting people and forming relationships with them, whether they’re distant relations you haven’t seen in forty years, children who aren’t biologically related to you but whom you love none the less for it, or just the friendly folk at Arundel Castle who help you look up some records on a rainy day.

I also got both books signed. Well, I was there. I can report that Jeremy wrote “To Laura, love Jeremy Hardy”, but that Jack slightly trumped him by adding a little kiss underneath.


As I approached the entrance to Brixton tube yesterday morning, I had a train of thought which went like this:

Please don’t try to give me a copy of Stylist magazine, please don’t try to give me a copy of Stylist magazine…you bastard! Why didn’t you try to give me a copy of Stylist magazine? Is it because you think I look like a MAN?

After I stopped reading Stylist for the fun of spotting the typos (it gets old quite quickly), I started reading it for the content, but that only lasted a week because it’s full of exortations to spend lots of money on really stupid things, and I am going through one of my periodic phases of disgust at the amount of stuff I have. When I moved from north London to south London three years ago under dramatic circumstances, I left everything behind. Well, almost everything – I kept my clothes, my books and my piano. I moved into a rented room in Brixton and felt the peculiar lightness that comes with leaving everything behind, including most of your responsibilities. I have new responsibilities now, ones I chose myself rather than picking up by accident, but I still don’t have that much stuff. I don’t need any new stuff.

So Stylist magazine isn’t for me. Sometimes I pick up a copy of Metro and read the celebrity gossip, the Nemi cartoon (I am the only person in the world who likes it, but I like it enough to make up for all those other people) and the football pages, along with anything else that catches my eye, but that lasts for less than half of my commute. So I read my book. At the moment, my book is Emma, and it’s the first Jane Austen I’ve attempted as an adult. And it’s sweet and funny and I’m enjoying it, but good grief, everything that happens is flagged up at least fifty pages in advance. And then there’s a hundred pages where actually nothing happens at all. I think it’s the perfect example of style overcoming substance.

Me Cheeta

It took me ages to read Me Cheeta, mainly because I lost the first copy and had to wait while Amazon delivered a replacement. In the meantime I read Murder At The Academy Awards™ by Joan Rivers, which coincidentally was quite similar, except that it was rude about living movie stars rather than dead ones.

Anyway. To begin with I had a conceptual problem with Me Cheeta because I couldn’t quite work out what it was for. Why publish a fictional autobiography of a real animal? If it had no ambition other than to be funny, would that sustain 300-odd pages?

To begin with, I didn’t think it would. It’s full of scandalous stories about legendary Hollywood characters, but without knowing whether they’re true, false or vicious rumour I couldn’t quite bring myself to care about them. I had the same problem I have when I read fantasy novels (OK, I only tried it once), which was that without an anchor to something I recognise that tells me what’s real and what isn’t, none of it matters.

Except that bit by bit, it grew on me. There is a certain amount of scurrilous badmouthing of people who don’t seem to deserve it, but as it goes along it turns into something quite different – a love story, a poem, a tale of loss and loneliness, which is certainly made up, but now that we’re definitely in the realm of fiction that’s suddenly OK.

And there is some beautiful writing. You know when an image is so lovely you have to stop and drink it in for a few moments before you can carry on reading? Those images must be different for different people, and anyway they probably only work in context, but I’m going to share one with you all the same because I think it’s just perfect. Here’s Cheeta describing the view from the terrace of a movie star’s mansion:

The lawn that rolled your eye down to the inevitable rectangle of turquoise was as densely irridescent as a hummingbird’s breast. If you watched very closely you could see the dents left in it by the gardeners’ footsteps disappear slowly back into its sheen, like the marks of fingers on a human arm.

Isn’t that great?

And it is very funny, and very smartly written in places. And, well, the last chapter made me cry. So despite my initial misgivings, I am recommending it wholeheartedly.

Peace by peace

As I may have mentioned here before, I am reading War and Peace. I’ve been reading it since the start of December, when I loftily and optimistically expected to be finished by the new year. As of this morning, I am 1,155 pages in with 289 to go, so I’m well in sight of the finishing line, relatively speaking, but I still don’t quite believe I’m ever going to get there.

Part of the problem is that the physical thing itself is so large that my reading locations are limited. I lug it to and from work every day and read it on the tube, but I can’t read it in bed – which is where I get most of my reading done – because I have a habit of dropping my book on my face when I fall asleep, and doing that with W&P would result in severe facial injuries (or at the very least a nasty shock).

Another distraction is the pile of mystery books I was given last week: I am currently also in the middle of The Penguin Book of Gaslight Crime, which is as much fun as it sounds, and once I’m finished with that I’ve got an anthology of detective stories to read, as well as Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks. All of these books draw me in and keep me breathlessly bound to them in a way that War and Peace is not doing, though I admit that the fault may lie with me rather than with Leo. I am so used to reading stories with a mystery that must be solved that I keep waiting for something to happen, some sort of denoumenent or revelation; and I can’t help feeling that all that will happen is that various people will get married and some of them will die, and it all will be a bit like real life, only…longer.

My sister recently emailed from somewhere on the Red Sea and said she’d given up on her current book because, in her words, “I was quite enjoying it, but all the characters had the same name and it always returned to describing war tactics”. Although she happened to be talking about One Hundred Years of Solitude, this is more or less exactly how I feel about War and Peace. I’m going to plough grimly on to the end, however, and will let you know if I experience a sudden change of heart, or if I find out whodunnit.

Bookshop dilemma

A new bookshop has recently opened in Herne Hill, which has for the first time caused me to question my highly successful “no new books” policy. We already have an Oxfam shop with a good selection of books, and I am a library member and anyway have a pile of about thirty unread books sitting in the flat, all of which are good reasons for not buying any new books at all, let alone new books at full price, which in Herne Hill Books they mostly are.

And yet. I’d like them to do well, and not have to close down in six months’ time because everybody thinks the same way as me. Apart from anything else, you can’t give library books or Oxfam books as presents, so it’s useful to have somewhere nearby available for emergency birthday purchases when I’ve left it too late to go anywhere else.

I solved this dilemma temporarily today by buying a copy of East of Acre Lane, which since it’s set locally seemed an appropriate purchase, even though it broke the rule. And I think I have a good ongoing solution too, which is to order my book club books from there, since they are exempt from the rule, being too hard to find by other means. I just have to remember not to accidentally buy a pile of four extra books each time I go in to place an order. I will let you know how I get along.

But right now, I have to go: it’s Ronnie O’Sullivan v Mark Williams in the snooker semi-final. Shh.

Book Crossing

An exciting start to the new year: today I found my first Book Crossing book. I had heard about the scheme (whereby, in case you don’t know, members read books, attach labels to them saying “please read this book and pass it on”, and then leave them in a public place to be found by someone else), but never seen it in action.

My first thought, on seeing a copy of Kate Atkinson’s Emotionally Weird left on the tube at Brixton, was to look for whoever had left it there and give it back, but once it became clear nobody was going to claim it I opened it up and found the Book Crossing sticker. As well as explaining the way the scheme works, the sticker displays a reference number unique to that copy, and you can go online and report where you found it and what you’re going to do with it next, which I have just done. I’ve been giving unwanted or unwieldy books away to the local charity shop, but I think this is much more fun.

I was also quite pleased that it was Kate Atkinson, because when I worked at a bookshop I had two colleagues who used to rave about her, and I could never quite bring myself to be bothered to read her. This feels like the right time to do it, although she will have to slot into the gaps in War and Peace – of which there are plenty, because W&P is too big to be read in bed. Since I started reading it in early December I have got halfway through it, but have also started and finished four other books. It actually works very well to read something big and important during the day and something small and silly at night, although my most recent bedtime book was Julian Barnes’ Nothing To Be Frightened Of, which is many things (very good, mainly) but which is certainly not small or silly.

Now I must send off for a sheet stickers and release some books of my own into the wild. If in the future you ever discover a Book Crossing book registered by “EllseeM” (I know: elsiem was already taken and I panicked), it’s one of mine.

New books!

I’ve proudly stuck to my two-year-old resolution not to buy new books, but I make an exception for book club books, because it’s not always possible or practical to get hold of a library or second-hand copy in time.

As a result, today for the first time in, ooh, ages, two shiny new books have arrived on my desk (literally: we have a very obliging postman at work). The first, Global Women: Nannies, Maids and Sex Workers in the New Economy, looks interesting and thoughtful, but the one sending anticipatory shivers up my spine is Come Closer by Sara Gran, about which I know almost nothing except that it’s scary. I like scary books, and the cover blurb is enough to make me want to feign sickness, go home and read the whole thing in one sitting:

Hypnotic, disturbing… a genuinely scary novel


Deeply scary, blurring as it does the bounds between everyday life and the completely unthinkable. Just don’t read it alone.


Sara Gran’s swift, stylish narrative quickly leads to a terrifying place where anything at all might happen


The sly little novel…slides its icicle shard into the warm, pulpy flesh of your dark desires. Gran’s swift finale is very, very cool.

Doesn’t it sound exciting? Fortunately I am sharing both books with other people, and for reasons of timing must read the first one first, so I can prolong the anticipation for a little longer.

I shan’t start either until after I’ve finished my current book, which is When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro.  I’m not sure why I haven’t read it before, since it has everything I like in it, but now I’ve picked it up I’m enjoying it very much. My one small criticism, and that’s too strong a word, is that there is slightly too much of this sort of thing (not a quote, but a composite example from memory):

As I sit here pondering the events of this morning, it occurs to me that my curious conversation with Sarah last night might not have happened at all had it not been for an incident which took place a week ago, at the Palm Hotel.

We then get the story of what happened  a week ago at the Palm Hotel, followed by the curious conversation with Sarah and finally the events of this morning. I suppose it’s a trick or gimmick designed to draw the reader in with the promise of secrets yet to be revealed, and it’s quite effective, but it does require the reader to do quite a lot of work (“what day is it now? Is this happening before or after the scene I’ve just read?”) and I think it’s slightly overused here.

Still, it’s a detective story set in inter-war Shanghai, which is so much my bag that when I’ve finished reading it I shall sling it over my shoulder and keep my lunch in it.

The Da Vinci Problem

I’ve just – this minute – finished reading “The Shadow of the Wind” by Carlos Ruiz Zafón, translated by Lucia Graves, who as the daughter of the poet Robert might have been expected to know better. The cover proudly proclaims it to be a number one bestseller and, even more thrillingly, “shortlisted for Richard and Judy’s Book Club”. The first two pages are full of enthusiastic reviews from the usual suspects (The Observer, The Scotsman, The Daily Mail) as well as from some less obvious sources (Trinny Woodall, Susannah Constantine, Elle Magazine).

Now, I’m all for thrillers, generally. There’s nothing I enjoy more than a big, violent, plotty, twisty, romp, and I get a bit cross when people try to argue that a book whose main purpose is to be exciting is somehow by definition an inferior piece of writing. I’m with whoever it was who said that bookshops should just have a “fiction” section in which the best storywriting gets showcased, rather than separate “literary fiction” (what?) and “genre” categories.

But it does annoy me when a book which comes in for huge amounts of praise is full of obvious, avoidable, stupid mistakes. And unfortunately this is one of those books. It is gripping, and I raced through it and enjoyed it very much, but my pleasure was tempered by constant glaring reminders that somebody, somewhere, hadn’t bothered to take five minutes to get things right.

Some of the mistakes are the writer’s, though a good editor should have corrected them. They range from actual, honest mistakes (characters go out for a walk after breakfast and return half an hour later at dusk) to wildly improbable plot points designed to haul the story awkwardly towards a designated point.

Some of the mistakes are the translator’s and I really think she’s done a poor job. The most frequent and irritating example is the dangling construction which occurs when the translation requires a change in word order. In Spanish it’s fine to say “la casa di mi tío, un hombre gordo”, but it’s not OK to translate that as “my uncle’s house, a fat man”. That’s not a real example (I couldn’t be bothered to look one up), but that’s precisely the syntax and it happens over and over again. It’s kind of hideous.

And some mistakes might be his, or might be hers. One character leaves his house “at dawn”, crosses the city, takes a tram up the mountain and arrives at a mansion, at which point “dawn is just breaking”. No way of knowing, without tracking down the original, whether the author really used the same word twice, or whether it’s a lazy and innacurate piece of translation.

There’s also 100 pages of exposition presented in the form of a posthumously-written letter explaining the mystery at the centre of the book, which seemed to me a cheap way of getting to a solution, and a twist in the last couple of chapters which is so cynical and manipulative that I almost stopped reading.

But I didn’t, of course, because it’s also exciting and I needed to know the ending, which is why the book reminded me of The Da Vinci Code, which is slightly better written than this, if you’re counting mistakes and nonsensical plot points against it, but which easily takes the gong by being called “The Da Vinci Code”, as though that makes any kind of sense at all. As you, being educated and naturally smart, know, “Da Vinci” wasn’t Leonardo’s surname; it was where he was from. Calling a book “The Da Vinci Code” is as meaningless and as bizarre as calling the New Testament “The Of Nazareth Story”. All the time I was reading the book, and enjoying it, because it’s a big, violent, plotty, twisty, romp, and because I am a sucker for riddles and puzzles and mysteries (at one point a character says that over 100 anagrams can be made from a particular word or phrase – I forget what it is – and naturally I had to put the book down and work out what they all were before I could keep reading), I had a simultaneous irritation that nobody had stopped him halfway through and said “woah, Dan, you’ve made a silly mistake here: let’s put it right before ONE HUNDRED MILLION PEOPLE read it!”.

So I can’t recommend the book, really. Which is a shame, because it was a birthday present and I enjoyed it and it’s 510 pages long which makes it good for taking on holiday. But now I’ve told you all the annoying things about it, you’re going to find it even more irritating than I did. Sorry.