Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Justice Disguised as a Bag Lady: Vera Stanhope

Who's that detective with the droopy raincoat of uncertain vintage? You know, the one with the slouch hat that saw Margaret Thatcher come into office? Is it Columbo? Or is it Wingfield's Jack Frost? Try again. That's right––it's Vera Stanhope! Ann Cleeves introduced her in The Crow Trap. I have been an avid fan ever since.

A crow trap is a large wire mesh cage with a funnel inserted into the top. Inside is placed a live tame crow that dances and flutters about, inviting any other crow to come in and defend its territory. Once in through the funnel there is no way out.

On a windy April day, three women meet for the first time at Baikie's Cottage in the North Pennines. This cottage had been owned by a naturalist and illustrator, Constance Baikie, who once walked through these hills in search of inspiration. In her will, she launched a charitable trust to encourage environmental education and research, and donated the cottage to that end. The three women visiting Baikie's Cottage are all scientists; Rachel is an expert in bird life, Annie is a botanist and Grace is a zoologist.

Their purpose for visiting the cottage is to do a survey for an environmental concern, prompted by a developer's desire to buy the land for a quarry. The land is next to a farm known as Black Law Farm. Rachel visits the farm and discovers the body of a friend of hers, Bella, with a suicide note. Rachel believes a look beyond the obvious is called for.

Before long, there is another death, a murder, and Detective Inspector Vera Stanhope enters the case. Vera is a native to this part of the country and she is unlike any police inspector these women have ever seen. As a matter of fact, she knew the original Constance Baikie and attended Bella's funeral. When she did so, the women all took her for a bag lady. Vera is large and dresses in loose-fitting clothing because she suffers from eczema. She is always barelegged and wears sandals in all weather because of her condition. No one would realize that she is very well regarded in the Northumbria police and heads her own murder squad.

She is obsessive about her work, and is driven by her own demons. Her associates accept her bad temper and cutting sarcasm because she is quite intuitive. Her trusted and long-suffering colleague is Detective Sergeant (DS) Joe Ashworth, her sometimes right-hand man and occasional surrogate son.

These women all have more in common than they realize. Life has treated none of them gently; more specifically, men in one way or another have betrayed them all. But they are all insightful and can see through facades more easily than others. Vera Stanhope is also very good at her job and, while she lacks for romance in her life, she usually gets her man––in the police sense of the word.

Vera theorizes that if the women stay at the cottage, the murderer will be drawn back and will be bait––like the crow in a trap. Is she doing the right thing? Rachel recognizes the ploy right away; after all, she is an expert on the avian psychology.

There are many currents swirling below the surface of this story. Some locals don't want the quarry.  The local landowners have dirty little secrets, as is always the case. Bella, the suicide victim, is not at all what she seemed, Annie had secrets, and Annie's husband had secrets, Grace had secrets and Rachel’s mother had secrets. It is an excellent start to a gripping series.

In the fifth series book, 2012's The Glass Room, Cleeves joins the ranks of those writers who turn the spotlight back in their own direction and write about writers and writing.

It all begins when a tired Inspector Vera Stanhope drives home, trying to appreciate what remains of a perfect October day. The views are one of the reasons she lives far from people of any kind, except for a couple who are living nearby in a back-to-the-land, sort-of-hippie fashion. She is astounded to find that Jack, one of these neighbors, has Goldilocked his way into her chair in front of her own fire and then proceeds to loudly wail that his wife is missing.

On her own time, Vera tracks her down to a retreat for writers of all sorts. It belonged to Miranda Barton, a once-successful author who now owns a large rambling house, in which Miranda puts on a number of residential courses for writers with different levels of experience. She calls her place The Writer's House, and she and her son Alex provide excellent experiences for small groups of writers. For any given event, there several well-known authors as tutors, and others in the business who can provide connections to publishers as well as a good word. The current course is directed to the wannabe crime writers.

Before Vera gets her foot through the door, she is recognized as police and she is escorted directly to a recently murdered guest, found knifed to death in a glass conservatory. By the time her partner, Joe, arrives Vera has had a good look around, also managing to find the errant wife, Joanna. The writers have locked Joanna in a room because she was seen coming out of the conservatory, knife in hand.

While Vera realizes that it would be appropriate to excuse herself from the case because of her acquaintance with the suspect, she has her own definition of appropriate. She has always plowed ahead and little gets in her way. Courage mixed with guile is stock in trade for Vera.

The victim was well-known critic and teacher, Tony Ferdinand. He was a man with such power in literary circles that a word from him could guarantee success in getting published and in getting read. If only he hadn't abused this power, he wouldn't be lying dead with few to mourn him.

The murder itself was unusual, not only in its setting but in the critical way it was staged. Vera sees the killer as creative and detail oriented, with a flair for the dramatic. It is clear to Vera that neighbor Joanna has been set up.

Cleeves has depicted a cast of very well drawn and interesting characters, and the story moves along at a rapid pace. Vera uses her murder squad for the details, but it is her insight into the workings of murderous minds that brings this story to life.

Cleeves has been writing clever mysteries, with birds as a backdrop, since the mid-1980s. She started with George Palmer-Jones, who was an amateur bird watcher in Surrey, England. I still have a few of those, although they are yellowed and dry. I also follow the Jimmy Perez Shetland Island series.

In 2011, British television launched the series Vera. For public viewing, they cleaned Vera up a little. I suppose the bag lady, homely, eczema-ridden Vera just wouldn't make it on TV. But her essential character translates very well to the screen, and series five has been promised for 2015.

The latest book in Cleeves's Vera Stanhope series, Harbour Street, was just released in Great Britain and I hope the US debut won't be far behind.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Under Pressure: Leo Marks's Between Silk and Cyanide

I'm excited about my book club meeting tonight because we're going to discuss one of my all-time favorite nonfiction books, Leo Marks's Between Silk and Cyanide: A Codemaker's War, 1941-1945. Regular readers of Read Me Deadly are only too aware of my fixation on World War II, and especially espionage of the period, so you won't be surprised that this book is so important to me. Besides, it has everything: adventure, romance, coming of age, nail-biting suspense, brain-teasing puzzles, political infighting, sorrow and hope.

Leo Marks was the son of the proprietor of the London antiquarian bookstore, Marks & Co., at 84 Charing Cross Road. Yes, that's the eponymous bookstore made famous by Helene Hanff's book and the movie starring Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins. Marks's introduction to cryptography came when, at age eight, he read Edgar Allen Poe's The Gold Bug and, fascinated by its description of a coded message leading to a buried treasure, he quickly broke the code behind the penciled letter notations inside the book covers that told the staff how much they'd paid for each book.

Once the Nazis overran Europe in 1940, Prime Minister Winston Churchill realized that the British would have to take the fight behind enemy lines. Churchill created the Special Operations Executive, whose brief was to "set Europe ablaze." SOE agents were fluent speakers of the languages of the occupied countries, and they infiltrated the Low Countries, France and Norway to help the local resistance, sabotage the German war effort and gather information to transmit back to Britain in code.

After writing to every agency he could think of and lobbying every possible influential contact, Leo Marks was accepted to cryptography school in 1941. His youth (he was just 21), flippancy and, perhaps, his Judaism, meant that after his training, he was not sent off to Bletchley Park with the rest of his class. Instead, he was sent to the new SOE, thought by some to be a collection of misfits. He soon learned that the life expectancy of an agent was poor, especially if the agent transmitted radio communications back to England. Germans patrolled with radio interception trucks to triangulate signals and find agents in the act of transmission; anyone could be stopped and searched at any time and might be found with coding paper on them. There were so many ways of getting caught, and capture meant certain torture, followed by execution or a trip to a prison camp where death was more than likely. No wonder the agents' standard kit included a cyanide pill.

On his first day at the SOE code room, Marks discovered that the main coding system in effect for agents was for them to use a poem as the key to code their messages. SOE knew each agent's poem and could decode the message. One problem with this system was that the codes used poetry well-known to anyone, including Germans, and that poem codes required messages to be lengthy. Another was that an agent under pressure might make a mistake, rendering his message an "indecipherable." That wasn't hard to understand, given how a poem was converted into a code. The agent had to choose five words from the poem, convert each letter in those words to a number, using a prescribed system, then use those numbers as the cipher to encode his or her message, beginning the message with an indicator to tell HQ which five words from the poem were being used. Standard operating procedure at SOE was to tell the agent who'd transmitted an indecipherable to re-send the message.

Young Leo was appalled. Poem codes were insecure and contributed to indecipherables. Requiring retransmission wasn't the answer. "Squads of girls must be specially trained to break agents' indecipherables. Records must be kept of the mistakes agents made in training––they might be repeating them in the field. . . . There must be no such thing as an agent's indecipherable."

Marks's war was with SOE bureaucracy as much as the Axis. Chain of command was reluctant to change any of its practices––especially on the say-so of a smart-mouthed 22-year-old working his first real job. But by buttonholing agents and sly insubordination, he managed slowly to introduce changes. Poem codes were largely replaced with one-time cipher pads printed on silk, which could be placed inside the lining of a coat and wouldn't rustle like paper if the agent was patted down by the enemy.

Though Marks was constitutionally unable to get along with the authorities in the SOE (he was called "not SOE-minded," though nobody could explain exactly what it meant to be SOE-minded), all of that disappeared when he worked with the "squads of girls" battling to decode indecipherables and, even more so, when he prepared agents about to be dropped behind enemy lines.

Marks had a sort of awed reverence and protectiveness for the agents, from the four Norwegians who pulled off one of the most important actions of the war, the sabotage of the heavy-water plant that was indispensable for the Nazi plans to develop an atomic bomb; to "Tommy," Lieutenant Forest Frederick Yeo-Thomas, who went back and forth to France on missions three times to work with resistance groups, was captured, horrifically tortured by the Gestapo and sent to Buchenwald, but escaped his execution order by taking advantage of confusion in the camp in late 1944 to fake his death and take on a false identity; to several young women.

Female agents were indispensable in the occupied countries. Young men were often rounded up for forced labor, but women were not. They traveled relatively freely, could hide messages and weapons in their shopping baskets or under their skirts, and could get away with so much, simply because the Germans didn't tend to suspect them. Sixty women became agents in the SOE during World War II, and of the 39 who were dropped into France by parachute or fishing boat, 18 were captured, of whom only three survived. Marks trained some of the women who have become most well-known in the years following the war, including Violette Szabo and Noor Inayat Khan.

Violette Szabo
Violette was a tomboy, with an English father and French mother, who'd spent several years in France before the war. Her husband was with the Free French forces and had been killed early in the war, leaving her with a little girl whom he never met. She was popular in the SOE for her boisterous humor, cockney accent and sharpshooting skills. When she had trouble coding with her poem, Marks gave her a poem that he'd written after the death of the woman he'd loved. Violette was captured on her second mission, reportedly after a fierce gun battle with the Germans, and executed at Buchenwald. Violette's story was told by R. J. Minney in his book Carve Her Name with Pride, which was turned into a 1958 film of the same name.

Noor Inayat Khan
Noor Inayat Khan, the daughter of an Indian Muslim father and American mother, grew up in London and near Paris, returning to England when France fell to the Germans. Noor was a published author of a children's fable book and was known as a sensitive and dreamy young woman. Some of her trainers thought she was likely unsuited to be a secret agent. Her coding was poor, but Marks had read her book and used its stories to help her improve it in time for her mission. Noor was sent as a radio operator to Paris, to help its resistance network, but the network was broken almost as soon as she arrived and most of its members rounded up. She had the chance to leave, but she refused, moved from place to place, and continued to transmit messages back to London.

After several weeks, she was betrayed and captured by the Gestapo. Despite her reputation as gentle and unworldly, she fought her captors like a tiger and twice briefly escaped from Gestapo headquarters on the Avenue Foch. She was shackled as a dangerous prisoner and brutal interrogations continued, but Noor is not known to have given any information to the Gestapo. She was transferred to a German prison and later to Dachau, where she and three other women from the SOE were executed on September 13, 1944. Noor was posthumously awarded the George Cross. For more about her, read Shrabani Basu's Spy Princess: The Life of Noor Inayat Khan, or watch the recent documentary, Enemy of the Reich, narrated by Helen Mirren (see the documentary's website here).

Marks's book was embargoed by the British government for over 10 years before it was finally published in 1998. If you have an interest in World War II espionage, cryptography, or just a gripping and well-told story of human behavior under pressure, please give it a try. I just hope my book club members feel the way I do about it.

The poem that Leo Marks gave to Violette Szabo

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Review of Walter Mosley's Rose Gold

Rose Gold by Walter Mosley

Like Conan Doyle with Sherlock Holmes, Walter Mosley killed off his protagonist in 2007's Blonde Faith. Whether the author just needed a vacation from his most popular detective, or had really intended to drop him forever, he was persuaded to relent. Little Green was published in 2013, and Rose Gold, the latest in the series, was released yesterday by Doubleday. I was fortunate to get a pre-release copy for review, and am very glad the author decided to resurrect the series; he has lost none of his touch.

Easy has his hands full in this story, set not too long after the first Watts riots in 1965, that turbulent period of Vietnam veterans and protesters, free love, black militarism, and hippies. It was a time when everyone had passionate opinions and society seethed with sit-ins and riots. Easy, a black decorated World War II veteran, usually tries to keep a low profile; the racial equality promised by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 hadn't yet had much effect on the lives of blacks in Los Angeles.

For a change, the Los Angeles police acknowledge needing Easy's help, and are prepared to pay for it. Roger Frisk, Special Assistant to the Chief of Police, approaches Easy, who is in the midst of moving house, and asks him to find Rosemary Goldsmith, daughter of a millionaire arms dealer. Rosemary has disappeared from her college dorm room, likely in the company of a militant young black boxer named Bob Mantle, who is calling himself Uhuru Nolicé. Mantle is wanted for the shooting of three police officers during the course of a robbery. Whether Rosemary went with him willingly or was kidnapped is a matter of conjecture. Frisk wants Easy to find Mantle and recover the girl if possible, but under no circumstances to contact her family.

But the L.A. police are not the only people interested in finding Rose. First the FBI shows up and tells Easy to drop the case, but to report any results from inquiries he has made to them and not to the L.A. police. When two State Department officials come by to say that he is interfering with national security and tell him to stay out of the case, Easy starts a slow burn. Despite his instructions to the contrary, he visits the girl's father. Foster Goldsmith will neither confirm nor deny that his daughter has been kidnapped. He tells Easy, "I taught Rose to make her own bed when she was six years old. I told her that when a man or woman makes their own bed they sleep in it too." Whew, tough love in these circumstances!

One of the most charming things about this series is the network of friends that Easy has managed to build. Rich or poor, on either side of the law, many people have reason to remember him kindly. Part of the reason is that he is willing to do favors for others. Melvin Suggs, Easy's informal contact in the police department, has been suspended. Melvin had arrested a woman for passing counterfeit money, but then fell in love with her. Their affair may cost him his job, even though Mary has since left him. In exchange for information, Mel wants Easy to find Mary, regardless of the consequences.

By the time a ransom has been demanded––with one of Rosemary's fingers as earnest––Easy has begun to suspect that Bob Mantle, her apparent kidnapper, is being made a scapegoat by a number of parties. Rosemary is a wild child with a troubled past, who would love to publicly embarrass her father. When a robbery at a liquor store occurs, the tape shows Rosemary, holding a gun, robbing the clerk, while Bob timidly guards the door.

The story is loosely based on the Patty Hearst case of the same era. Patty, a daughter of publishing mogul Randolph Hearst, was kidnapped by the Symbionese Liberation Army, a self-styled left-wing revolutionary group, which she later joined. She was convicted of bank robbery and served time in prison, but is still thought by many to have been a victim of Stockholm Syndrome, in which the kidnapped bond closely with their captors.

In this series Mosley––with some humor and without lecturing or excessive bitterness––presents clearly the difficulty of living in America as a second-class citizen. In each of the Easy Rawlins books, my blood pressure spikes several times at the casual dismissiveness or outright cruelty of bigotry. They are not the most comfortable reads for an empathetic person, but the perspective always gives me something to think about. Mosley's plots are complicated, but tightly woven. His characters are vivid, and after several books I feel that I know them. For those reading Easy Rawlins for the first time, this is not the best place to start; each book in the series builds on the network of friends and obligations that Easy established in earlier books. For those of us who remember those times, Rose Gold is tightly-woven, bittersweet reminder of a turbulent and exhilarating era.

Note: I received a free copy of Rose Gold for review.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Sleepless in Scotland

I looked for Nervine in my bathroom cabinet without success.
It's Friday night at the end of a head-spinning work week, the sort of week when you crawl home and you're too tired to even think about what's in the fridge, so you eat vegetable soup straight out of a can without heating it up; and then you collapse onto the bed, but when you close your eyes, the gears in your brain are still clicking and clacking away, and there's no chance you can simply slip into slumber. This is when you face the facts: sleep will no doubt come later, but what you need to do in the meantime is flush work out of your head by picking up a book and pouring yourself something to wash it down with. Since the big news this week is the Scottish decision to remain in the UK, I vote we decide on a setting in Scotland.

Now, you can go several ways: you can go quiet with a visit to a private girls' school in Scotland in the 1930s with Muriel Spark's The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Or, you can tell yourself your head is already whirling any way, so why not make it really gyrate with the fantastical Lanark: A Life in Four Books, by Alasdair Gray, set in Glasgow and a hellish version of that city called Unthank. Or you can opt for a charming and relaxing read with Compton Mackenzie's 1947 book, Whisky Galore, in which the S.S. Cabinet Minister, carrying a cargo of 50,000 cases of whiskey, is wrecked off the remote fictional Scottish islands of Great Todday and Little Todday during World War II. Happily, unlike those scrambling Scottish islanders, we can pour a glass of Macallan before the bottle threatens to disappear under the ocean surface.

If none of those books sound good, how about an unusual thriller? The protagonist and some-time narrator of Steve Alten's The Loch is Zachary Wallace, a brilliant young marine biologist, whom we meet during a catastrophic encounter with a giant squid in the Sargasso Sea. This experience is Zack's second near-drowning (his first came on his ninth birthday in Loch Ness), and the trauma sends him into a downward spiral in South Beach, Florida. Zack is suffering from hydrophobia and night terrors when he receives a message from his father, Angus, in the Scottish Highlands.

Zack hasn't seen Angus since his parents divorced, and his mother took Zack to America when he was nine. Now, 17 years later, Angus is on trial, facing the death penalty for the murder of an Englishman, Johnny Cialino. Angus's defense? Basically, "I punched Johnny, and he fell into Loch Ness, where he was eaten by you know who." Once Zack arrives, Angus asks his hydrophobic son to prove the Loch Ness monster's existence. Grisly events ensue, and a media circus develops. The Loch is soon swarming with searchers. Templar Knights even appear. Oh, boy!

It's hard for me to convey the flavor of this 487-page book. It's not one of those short-chaptered page turners that make you feel as if you have ADHD. Writer Alten is interested in ancient Scottish history and the roles of mutation and natural selection in evolution. This is not to say this thriller isn't far-fetched; however, given its premises, it hangs together in a stew of history lessons, swashbuckling action, pulse-racing horror, and budding romance.

It begins with a prologue set in 1330, when Sir Adam Wallace possesses Robert the Bruce's heart in a silver casket. From time to time, several pages of hard-to-read print appear, giving us Adam's 1330 journal entries. They explain how Zack carries the curse, "wrought by nature," that's haunted the Wallace men since the passing of Robert the Bruce. Chapters close with quotations from scientists about evolution and from eye-witness accounts of the Loch Ness monster. It's a long way to the end; shortening could have been done. There's not a whole lot of dialect, but what's there is annoying. Zack occasionally irritated me, too. But, give the guy his due. He returns to Scotland and faces his demons, and I enjoyed losing sleep reading about it.

Thursday, September 18, 2014

National Book Awards: Fiction Longlist

On the heels of the British Booker Prize shortlist come the American National Book Awards longlists in Fiction, Nonfiction, Poetry, and Young People's Literature. The five-book shortlists will be announced on October 15th, the day after the Booker winner is announced. We will learn the winner in each NBA category on November 19th.

While we're waiting for Scotland's decision on independence, let's take a look at the NBA's 10-book Fiction longlist below:

Rabih Alameddine: An Unnecessary Woman (Grove Press, February 2014). Aaliya Saleh is 72 years old. She was born in Beirut and still lives quietly in her apartment there. Translating a literary classic is the highlight of her year, even though no one else will read it. Now that life is threatened. I loved this beautifully written book, narrated by an unforgettable woman, and rushed to get Alameddine's The Hakawati, a saga about four generations of a Beiruti family.

Molly Antopol: The UnAmericans (W. W. Norton, February 2014). Antopol is a National Book Foundation 5 Under 35 Awardee. This is a critically lauded short-story collection, set in various countries, involving Jewish immigrants who struggle with feelings of estrangement.

John Darnielle: Wolf in White Van (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, September 16, 2014). Darnielle, a musician and lyricist for the Mountain Goats, has crafted a novel about a disfigured young man who created and runs the role-playing fantasy game, Trace Italian, from his southern California apartment.

Anthony Doerr: All the Light We Cannot See (Scribner, May 2014).​ Marie Laure is blind. She and her father, master of locks at the National History Museum in Paris, flee to Saint-Malo on the Brittany coast during World War II. In her dad's pocket is a famous gem, sought by a Nazi treasure hunter.

Phil Klay: Redeployment (The Penguin Press, May 2014). Klay served in Iraq with the U. S. Marines. This is a collection of powerful short stories about fighting in Afghanistan and Iraq, and fitting in back home afterward. I read it and shelved it with books such as Herman Wouk's The Winds of War, Karl Marlantes's Matterhorn, and Pat Barker's First World War trilogy (Regeneration, The Eye in the Door, The Ghost Road).

Emily St. John Mandel: Station Eleven (Knopf, September 9, 2014). Set in the days before and after the Georgia Flu eliminates most of humankind, this dystopian novel features a band of Shakespearean actors traveling through the Great Lakes region of North America to perform for scattered groups of survivors.

Elizabeth McCracken: Thunderstruck & Other Stories (The Dial Press, April 2014). McCracken is a former public librarian whose The Giant's House was a National Book Award finalist. Publishers Weekly says she has a "slightly askew manner of looking at the world," which should make this collection focusing on loss very interesting.

Richard Powers: Orfeo (W. W. Norton, January 2014). When Peter Els's dog has a heart attack, he calls 911. Responders discover the 70-year-old composer's home microbiology laboratory. The feds think he's a bioterrorist, so Els scrams. I enjoyed this book, Els's reflections on life, music, and technology while on the road.

Marilynne Robinson: Lila (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, October 7, 2014). This is the third in Robinson's trilogy of books set in Gilead, Iowa (Gilead and Home are the first two) and tells the story of Lila, who became Rev. John Ames's wife.

Jane Smiley: Some Luck (Knopf, October 7, 2014). Rosanna and Walter Langdon raise their five children on a Denby, Iowa farm. This is the first in a trilogy that begins in 1920 and will cover a century.

The books I haven't read on this longlist are on my list of books to read. I loved last year's National Book Award for Fiction winner, James McBride's The Good Lord Bird, rollicking historical fiction about abolitionist John Brown (see review here). I'll be very curious to see this year's whittled shortlist and winner.

P.S. My twice-promised Monday review of Celeste Ng's Everything I Never Told You fell victim to an unexpected deluge of work. I realize my credibility is shot, but I will have the review done on Monday.

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Happy Birthday, Agatha Christie

There are a few significant dates that seem to stick in my memory, despite the fact that they have become moveable celebrations, such as Columbus Day, October 12, Washington's birthday, February 22, and Lincoln's birthday, February 12, and I celebrate them in my own way.

I also like to celebrate Agatha Christie's birthday, September 15, by reading one of her books. Christie is the most widely-published author of all time, in any language, not counting Shakespeare. And we don't count the Bible.

This year, I picked Crooked House, which Christie always claimed as one of her own special favorites. She said she saved it up for years, thinking about it, working it out and waiting for the time when it was ripe in her mind and ready to be put down on paper. Like many of her other books she took the title from a nursery rhyme:

There was a crooked man, and he walked a crooked mile,

He found a crooked sixpence 
upon a crooked stile,

He bought a crooked cat, which caught a crooked mouse

And they all lived together in a little crooked house.

The crooked man of this story is Aristide Leonides, a Greek immigrant from Smyrna, who had come to England near the turn of the century, where he opened a restaurant. He worked diligently and, very like the ancient Greek king Midas, everything he touched was a success. He was not exactly crooked, but he was the type of man who made the authorities realize that there "oughta be a law"––and then there was one.

Leonides built himself a higgledy-piggledy mansion and had a large family. The narrative begins in a way familiar to Christie fans, by means of a serendipitous sleuth. In this case, that sleuth is Charles Hayward. Charles, a young man working for the British foreign office, met and fell in love with Sophia, Leonides's granddaughter, when they were both in Cairo, but their relationship was interrupted by the war and they put everything on hold.

When Charles returns to England, hoping to reunite with Sophia, one of the first thing he sees is the obituary of the magnate Aristide Leonides. Leonides has been murdered and the police suspect someone close to the old man. The family is not allowed to leave the house. Charles arranges to meet Sophia that very night.

Sophia slides down a drainpipe and sneaks out to meet Charles to fill him in. There are few family members left at this point. Aristide's first wife has been dead for a long time, and he has a young, nubile 24-year-old spouse whom Sophia describes as a harem wife, a woman who rather likes to spend her time sitting around eating sweets, reading novels and perhaps carrying on with the young tutor who is teaching Sophia's younger brother and sister. Sophia describes the tutor as somewhat of a rabbit, easily frightened.

The other family members are Aristide's oldest son and favorite, Roger, who is a ne'er do well who can't escape his dependence on his father. Roger's wife, Clemency, is a scientist who has all the knowledge necessary to do murder in all sorts of ways––and the cold-bloodedness to go with it.

Sophia's father is the second son, Philip, who suffers from severe sibling rivalry and shuts himself in the library all the time. Sophia's mother is an actress who has been moderately successful, but insists in remaining on center stage even when at home.

Edith de Haviland, Leonides's unmarried sister-in-law, the sister of his first wife, has never cared for the old man, but moved in to care for the children and stayed. Sophia has two younger siblings: Eustace, a victim of polio, and Josephine, who is 12, precocious, plain––a very unpleasant character who makes you wish for a Flavia de Luce.

Poison is one of Christie's favorite modes of murder, and it is clear from the onset that eserine, an eye drop, was injected into Leonides instead of insulin; that is no secret. All of the family members are equally adept at doing this evil deed. All may be seen to have motive and opportunity. The means were available to all. The drops, the needles, syringes and insulin were out in the open. All this is grist for Christie's mill.

Sophia tells Charles that she cannot marry him until everything is cleared up, and according to Scotland Yard there is no way to get evidence one way or the other.

Of course, Charles Hayward is in the right position to be an inside man. And we are reminded that he once worked for Special Branch. But he has quite a job to do in this crooked house. Crooked because, as Sophia points out, everyone is twisted and twining, interdependent in unhealthy ways. Sophia is afraid, because she is aware of inborn ruthlessness in all of them, and she believes that all of them in the end are capable of murder, herself included.

There is a subtle psychological tension as the family members eye each other and each person has his or her suspicions. Josephine, a very sneaky child, insists she knows who the murderer is and the tension ratchets up a notch when another death by poison, meant for this little snoop, misses its mark and kills another innocent victim. It is, indeed, a very crooked family that keeps turning on itself.

I enjoyed my classic Christie birthday present very much.