“Five Little Pigs” by Agatha Christie

Five Little PigsThis week, my book group read The Monogram Murders, the “new” Hercule Poirot novel written by British crime writer Sophie Hannah, who was selected by the estate to continue Agatha Christie’s beloved series. Personally, I’ve always preferred Miss Marple to the self-satisfied Belgian sleuth (the author famously derided her own literary creation as “an egocentric creep”). So it’s doubtful I would ever have picked up The Monogram Murders had it not been chosen for my group.

I’m not surprised that Hannah was unable to channel Christie—there’s something deceptively simple about Dame Agatha’s elegant prose, and when paired with her ridiculously complex plot twists, it creates a combination that no one could ever truly replicate. Instead of just picking apart The Monogram Murders, I decided to revisit one of Poirot’s old cases.

What’s remarkable about Five Little Pigs (1941) is how minimalistic it seems in comparison to the much-longer Monogram Murders. Hannah’s Poirot is constantly going around spouting French and making extravagant assurances that his “little grey cells” will enable him to solve the case, whereas the Poirot of Pigs is offstage for long stretches of the brisk narrative. His client, Carla Lemarchant, was orphaned at a very young age—her father was murdered, and her mother, sentenced to life in prison for the crime, died a year later. Carla is engaged to be married and is afraid her husband will feel like she’s a ticking time bomb: “Supposing we were married and we’d quarreled—and I saw him look at me and—and wonder?” In addition, her mother left her a letter to be opened on her 21st birthday; in the letter, she assured Carla that she was innocent, and the daughter is convinced her mother was telling the truth.

Poirot takes on the 16-year-old case, which he investigates by visiting everyone who was present the day Carla’s father, the famous painter Amyas Crale, was poisoned. After interviewing each of the suspects, Poirot convinces them to write down their recollections of the events leading up to the murder, and about a quarter of the book consists of these narratives. Now, naturally it’s highly unlikely that anyone would be able to remember things that happened a decade and a half ago in such vivid detail (the precise order in which several people exited a room is a crucial clue), but if you can suspend your disbelief, it’s great fun to match wits with Poirot and see if you can figure out whodunit. Chances are extremely high that you’ll draw the wrong conclusion; if there appears to be a neon arrow of guilt pointing at one character, you’re right to be suspicious.

Five Little Pigs may have been written 75 years ago, but in many ways, it feels fresher than the “new” Poirot novel.

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“The Sympathizer” by Viet Thanh Nguyen

The SympathizerFull disclosure: after finishing The Sympathizer, I decided not to review it. The reason is not because I had no opinions about it—I did—but I worried that my dislike for a book which won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction, the Edgar Award for Best First Novel and was named a Best Book of the Year by the New York Times, meant that I was somehow not intelligent enough to appreciate it. However, my friend Vallery, who didn’t care for it either, convinced me to write it up anyway.

I can appreciate the fact that The Sympathizer is an important book, a worthy examination of the Vietnam war and its aftermath. But I found it a real slog to get through. (I read it for my book group, which is why I didn’t toss it aside a couple of chapters in.) For one thing, there are no quotation marks, an affectation I find extremely annoying. The last quarter of the book is an extended depiction of torture. A set piece satirizing the filming of “Apocalypse Now” seems oddly irrelevant to the rest of the plot. And then there’s the writing. For example, we have this lengthy meditation on—let’s be frank—boobs:

While I was critical of many things when it came to so-called Western civilization, cleavage was not one of them. The Chinese might have invented gunpowder and the noodle, but the West had invented cleavage, with profound if underappreciated implications. A man gazing on semi-exposed breasts was not only engaging in simple lasciviousness, he was also meditating, even if unawares, on the visual embodiment of the verb “to cleave,” which meant both to cut apart and to put together. A woman’s cleavage perfectly illustrated this double and contradictory meaning, the breasts two separate entities with one identity. The double meaning was also present in how cleavage separated a woman from a man and yet drew him to her with the irresistible force of sliding down a slippery slope. Men had no equivalent, except, perhaps, for the only kind of male cleavage most women truly cared for, the opening and closing of a well-stuffed billfold. But whereas women could look at us as much as they wanted, and we would appreciate it, we were damned if we looked and hardly less damned if we didn’t. A woman with extraordinary cleavage would reasonably be insulted by a man whose eyes could resist the plunge, so, just to be polite, I cast a tasteful glance while reaching for another cigarette. In between those marvelous breasts bumped a gold crucifix on a gold chain, and for once I wished I were a true Christian so I could be nailed to that cross.

The Sympathizer is the second war novel in a row to win the Pulitzer, following Anthony Doerr’s All the Light We Cannot See, which is set during WWII. All the Light is one of my top 10 favorite books of the past decade; it’s a big-hearted, beautiful story full of characters I cared deeply about. The Sympathizer, on the other hand, is the sort of book I wanted to keep at arm’s length (consider yourself lucky that I quoted the passage about cleavage and not the part where the narrator defiles a squid). Obviously a lot of people think this is a bona fide Great Book; I’m not among them, and I realize that may say more about me than it does about The Sympathizer.

“When the Music’s Over” by Peter Robinson

When the Music's OverPeter Robinson is one of my all-time favorites, and when a new book of his arrives, I drop everything to read it. For a while, his books were coming out in the U.S. a few months after they launched in the U.K. (Robinson was born in Yorkshire and his books are set there), but When the Music’s Over was published simultaneously, which I hope means Harper is giving it a bigger push in this country. Robinson’s Inspector Banks series is terrific, and he deserves a larger following on this side of the pond.

That said, When the Music’s Over is a very British book, dealing with issues much in the news there; its events take place pre-Brexit, but racial tensions between the white and “immigrant” communities is a big feature (though it’s noted several times that the Pakistanis in question are all U.K.-born), as is Operation Yewtree, the notorious police investigation into prominent pedophiles that ensnared pop stars like Gary Glitter and Rolf Harris and shocked Britons with its revelations about the once-beloved late media personality Jimmy Savile.

Alan Banks, now Detective Superintendent Banks following a promotion, is tasked with investigating an allegation that TV presenter Danny Caxton raped a 14-year-old girl in the late 1960s. The victim, Linda Palmer, came forward following the Yewtree revelations, but almost 50 years later, Banks doubts justice will be done: “No physical evidence. Dodgy memories. Missing statements… One person’s word against another. What gives us a better chance of making a charge that sticks?”

Meanwhile, DI Annie Cabbot is also investigating a case involving a young teenager: Mimsy Moffat, who was found dead on an isolated road, her battered body showing signs of being gang-raped as well as assaulted. Annie’s search leads her to suspect a group of Pakistani men who were befriending young, neglected girls (Mimsy’s mother struggled with drug addiction) and grooming them for sex work. The police’s press officer tries to dissuade Cabbot, arguing that it would be a “public relations nightmare waiting to happen. We’ll be accused of racism. Worse, of Islamophobia.”

Both cases are potentially explosive, and in one case, a young detective on the Moffat case makes a decision that could put her life as well as her career in jeopardy. As usual, though, Robinson manages to wrap everything up in an extremely satisfying way. When the Music’s Over may be his 23rd Banks novel, but this series still delivers fresh thrills.

“This Must Be the Place” by Maggie O’Farrell

9780385349420The title of this book seems rather ironic, considering how This Must Be the Place tends to make the reader feel unmoored at every turn. The story begins with a first-person account of a man who is standing at the back door of his house in rural Ireland, rolling a cigarette, when he thinks he spots an intruder. (The house is very isolated, half a mile and 12 gates away from the nearest road.) We learn that the man is named Daniel and that his wife is an Oscar-winning actress who pulled one hell of a disappearing act; she makes Garbo look like Kim Kardashian by comparison. Has she finally been discovered?

After that set-up, Chapter Two drops us 20 years into the past, when the actress, Claudette, is just getting started, meeting the Swedish director who will become her collaborator and lover. There are 28 chapters in the book, and they move through time and space—one moment you’re in Fremont, California in 2010, the next you’re whisked away to Scotland in 1986, then it’s off to Dalsland, Sweden* in 2014 and Chengdu, China in 2003. Chapters are told from different points of view; besides Daniel and Claudette, there are also their children (both have them from previous relationships, as well as a couple of their own), various relatives and friends, and in one case even a tourist whom we haven’t seen before and won’t encounter again. It can be highly disorienting, and often left me flipping back through the book: “Now, who was Niall again?” I finally approached it more as a book of linked short stories, reading a couple of them each evening over the course of a couple of weeks.

O’Farrell writes beautiful prose, with a lot of empathy and insight about families and the way they are made and un-made. But in the end, I always felt at a bit of a remove, making This Must Be the Place a book I admired instead of adored.

* Footnote: my mom grew up in the province of Dalsland and it’s a rather sparsely populated place, so I was surprised and delighted to see that a chapter had been set there. Unfortunately, it’s one of the briefest chapters in the book and takes the form of an interview transcript between a journalist and Claudette’s former partner, so there isn’t a lot of local color on offer. We do hear the reporter describe it as “the middle of nowhere,” which sounds about right.