Murder on the Orient Express

orient express

I’ve never been much of a murder mystery fan, and so had never read perhaps the most famous one of all, Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express (published 1934, 287 pages). But two things occurred that led me to the book: the recent movie version directed by and starring Kenneth Branagh (which I have not seen yet); and the fact that the main character in the story I’m writing reads it, which means that I had better read it as well.

Famous Belgian detective Hercule Poirot is heading home after a case in Syria on the Orient Express. He meets his friend Monsieur Bouc, the director of the train line; and characteristically notices and studies the various passengers with whom he finds himself. One of the passengers, a Mr. Ratchett from America, approaches him and asks him to take on his case–he’s a businessman with many enemies, and feels that his life has been threatened. Poirot refuses the case, on the grounds that he doesn’t like his face; he feels somehow that Ratchett is evil.

That night, the train gets stuck in a snow drift somewhere in Yugoslavia, and Ratchett is found dead in his compartment, stabbed a dozen times. It becomes the task of Poirot to solve the case, without any outside help; he must use his brains to find the killer. He is aided by Monsieur Bouc and another friend, Dr. Constantine, though they hardly seem to help at all; they act more as foils to Poirot, guided only by emotion and assumptions rather than deductive reasoning. He sets to interviewing all the passengers, who include a rather diverse cross section of people, to try to piece together the events of the night and come to a rational conclusion.

Not being particularly familiar with the conventions of murder mysteries, I was surprised by the simple format of the book: Part 1, The Facts; Part 2, The Evidence; Part 3, Hercule Poirot Sits Back and Thinks. But the case is hardly simple. In fact, the conflicting evidence and puzzling facts that don’t quite fit together make it seem an impossible case to solve. However, Poirot seems to have quite an extraordinary brain, making dazzling leaps of connection that at first I found rather unbelievable. I suppose if I’d been a fan of the Hercule Poirot series, I would have been more familiar with his character and talents, and would more easily have accepted his brilliant deductions.

As it was, I found the mystery entertaining, and the answer to the proverbial question of Who dunnit? surprising and rather clever. I don’t see myself reading any more Agatha Christie, or murder mysteries in general, but at least now I can more easily understand my character’s experience of reading the book. And I will certainly check out Branagh’s film version when I can, and don’t feel it will be spoiled at all by knowing the ending. The fun will be seeing all these interesting characters come alive on screen through some pretty fantastic actors (Branagh, Johnny Depp, Daisy Ridley, Judi Dench, Michelle Pfieffer, among others), though I think they’ve been slightly altered or changed. That’s okay. There’s still nothing like a good mystery to hold you captive for awhile, and this one definitely fits the bill.

The Home for Unwanted Girls

unwanted girls

The Home for Unwanted Girls (published 2018, 384 pages) is a family drama, inspired by true events, that takes place in Quebec, Canada, between the years 1948 to 1974.

Maggie Hughes, the 15 year old daughter of an English father and a French mother, plans to follow her father into the family business, a seed and gardening store. Maggie adores her father, who, despite being prejudiced against the French population, had married a French woman. Her mother was once beautiful, but now is bitter and resentful, verbally abusing Maggie and her three sisters, but always making sure they’re well fed and the house is clean. Maggie can endure her mother’s behavior, as long as she has her father’s love and approval. But when she falls for the French farm boy next door, Gabriel Phenix, everything changes. When she finds herself pregnant, her family forces her to give up the baby girl to an orphanage called St. Sulpice.

The girl, Elodie, lives in the orphanage until she’s seven, and is tolerably happy there. Then, through a despicable new law passed that forced orphanages to turn into mental hospitals (it was all about money), Elodie and the other orphans are officially considered mentally ill, and are forced to care for the actual mental patients that are transferred there. Elodie herself is transferred to St. Nazarius Mental Hospital, where a new level of suffering is waiting in the form of Sister Ignatia, a cruel, sadistic woman who terrorizes all the “children of sin” in the hospital. Elodie must endure years of verbal and physical abuse, as well as psychological torment. She has a strong spirit, however, and tells herself and anyone who will listen (who turns out to be precious few) that she’s not crazy and doesn’t belong there.

In the intervening years, Maggie must come to terms with what happened to her, and tries to live a normal life. She marries a man her father approves of,  a kind man named Roland, a man she has affection for but not the passion she had with Gabriel. Roland wants and expects her to have children, but she suffers several miscarriages; these, in turn, cause her to think more and more about the child she gave up years ago. A chance meeting with Gabriel causes her life to change again, and she becomes determined to find her daughter, in a world that doesn’t want her found.

Admittedly, I hadn’t known much about Canada, its history and politics, but I learned a little bit about life in Quebec in the 1950’s under Duplessis, a man called “the Dictator”, someone who makes Trump seem like a kindly old uncle. I learned about the importance of agriculture in this province, the animosity between the English and the French, and the willingness of almost everyone to protect the Church and its members. There’s hypocrisy here, and unimaginable cruelty, but also love and hope.

I found this story to be emotionally gripping, a page-turner, although it was difficult to read through Elodie’s chapters of abuse and torment. I rarely am moved to tears while reading a book (movies are another thing), but I cried at several scenes in this novel. It made the need to get to the end and to see mother and daughter reunited all the more imperative.

 

 

 

 

 

Neverwhere

neverwhere

Neverwhere is a 1996 urban fantasy novel by Neil Gaiman, written as a companion to the BBC television series he wrote with Lenny Henry. The book expands and restores elements of the show that were changed or taken out during the course of the show.

Though I haven’t seen the TV show, I enjoyed the book. After reading a few heavy, theme-laden books (The Power, Who Fears Death), it was kind of a relief to read something a bit lighter, something equivalent to a beach read, for me.

Richard Mayhew is a young man who lives in London, has a decent job in business, and is engaged to a beautiful woman named Jessica. The problem is, his job is a bit of a bore, Jessica is a controlling witch, and Richard doesn’t have the back bone to stand up for himself to change anything.

One night, on the way to a dinner with Jessica’s boss, they stumble upon a bleeding girl in a doorway. Jessica is content to ignore her and get to the dinner, but Richard decides to help her. Jessica leaves in a huff while he takes the girl to his apartment. The girl (perhaps late teenager, though it’s hard for Richard to tell), when she wakes, tells him her name is Door, and needs his help. They’re visited by a strange and menacing pair, named Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar, and it’s clear they mean no good, but Door manages to hide from them. Door herself is no less strange, with opal-colored eyes and the ability to speak to rats. She sends Richard on an errand, to find an even stranger person, a Marquis de Carabas, who owes her family a favor. Richard brings de Carabas back to his apartment, and he and Door leave, thanking him for his help.

However, Richard is unable to go back to his normal life after this. It seems no one is able to see him anymore. When he manages to get someone’s attention, they don’t seem to know him, and then they immediately forget him, as if he’s invisible. He can’t go back to his job, and Jessica, who’s broken their engagement for missing the dinner with her boss, doesn’t recognize him. Strangers even move into his apartment while he’s still there. Ever since his encounter with the strangers, his staid, predictable life is lost to him.

Determined to get his life back, he retraces his steps, and finds himself in “London Below”, a shadow world beneath the streets of London Above. A world of tunnels and twisting alleyways, of stairways and dark bridges and phantom train stations, filled with colorful characters who can speak to rats (animals who are naturally important members of the world below), Velvet Sisters who can suck the warmth and life right out of you, assassins and Earls, Hunters and Beasts, Sewer Folk and Angels.

Richard eventually finds Door, and he becomes embroiled in helping her find the answers to who killed her family and why. Along the way, he hopes to find a way back to his life in London Above, but not before his courage and strength are tested in a way that changes him forever.

This was a fun read, full of fantasy adventure and some quirky British humor. I hadn’t read any Neil Gaiman before this, but I’d seen the movie Stardust some years ago (based on his book) and enjoyed it, and now I’m thinking I’d like to explore more of his work. Any suggestions?

 

 

The Power

the power

*(Some spoilers.)

At my most frustrated, I’ve often found myself muttering to myself, “If women were in charge of the world, it’d be a much better place.” It just seems to me that, if given the chance, if women exclusively ruled and made the big decisions, there’d be less misery, less violence, and less, you know, testosterone-related bad stuff. It’d be better.

Wouldn’t it?

The Power, by Naomi Alderman (2017, 341 pages), addresses just such a question, and I have to admit, I found her take on the subject bleak, to say the least.

In the novel, young women find themselves developing the power to channel electricity through their hands and fingers, as a result of a long-dormant organ called a “skein” along their collarbones. The young women can awaken the power in older women, and soon it’s spreading around the world and enabling women to defend themselves against the violence perpetrated against them by men.

This is good, of course. It’s about time women are able to fight back. But it’s not so simple as that. The Power changes everything. In countries where female oppression is at its worst–Saudi Arabia and India, for example–violence erupts, and women forcibly take control, striking back in long-suppressed rage and vengeance. In other countries like the U.S., the change is more complicated and subtle. Attitudes shift over the years as their power grows. Women’s perception of men change–they’re weaker, and so therefore less intelligent. They can’t be trusted. They’re only good for one thing: sex. At first, it’s gratifying to see the women’s confidence grow, empowering even, but all too soon it goes awry.

At the center of this milieu are Roxy, Allie, Margot, and Tunde. Roxy is a young British woman, the daughter of a crime boss; she uses the power to take vengeance on those who killed her mother, and to move up in the family business. She eventually will become a “soldier” for Allie. Allie is a young American woman who uses the power to escape her abusive foster parents; she eventually settles in a convent, where she bides her time and consolidates her influence, becoming “Mother Eve”, listening to the voice that whispers in her head, the voice of God–“She” has plans for Allie, plans that will change the world. Margot is the mayor of a major city with political ambitions, divorced with two daughters, the older of whom, Jocelyn, has woken the power within her. Jocelyn’s power is somehow damaged; sometimes she has it, sometimes she doesn’t, and feels “abnormal” because of it. Margo wants to do everything in her power to help Jocelyn, to help both her girls, live and succeed in this new world.

Tunde is a young Nigerian man, a journalist who is determined to make a name for himself documenting this revolutionary change around the world; he fails to consider how this change will impact his own life and future, how his very manhood will put his life in danger.

All of these characters, in different parts of the world, will connect and intersect, and bring about the climax of the story (the Cataclysm); each section of the book counts down the time left before it: ten years before, nine years, five years, one year, etc. The novel itself is presented as a manuscript that a man named Neil has sent to an apparently influential woman for her opinion. It’s presented as a historical novel with some archaeological evidence interspersed throughout; it’s clear he’s writing thousands of years in the future from our own time. What’s also clear from the conversation they have is that women are still in control; in fact, they don’t quite believe that it’s ever been different. The fact that men once were the dominant gender has been lost to time. The book is a reverse-mirror of our own society. Nothing’s changed, except the roles have been reversed.

There’s so much to chew on and digest in this book; suffice it to say that my outlook has changed slightly because of it. Perhaps women aren’t better equipped to deal with power. Maybe it has absolutely nothing to do with gender at all; it’s the power itself that’s the problem. Perhaps whoever has it will inevitably abuse it, simply because they can. Are women more naturally caring and nurturing? Do they hold the higher moral ground? Not in this book. In this book, as the power surges through them, they turn into the worst sort of men we see in our culture now.

The Power is an unforgettable read, not necessarily because of its literary value, but because of the galvanizing ideas contained within it. I devoured it in two days, and I’m still thinking about it. In the #MeToo era and amid our examination of gender identity, this book will provide plenty to debate and discuss, about how we relate to each other as men and women, and about how we treat each other as human beings.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Angel of Darkness

the angel of darkness

The Angel of Darkness (1997) by Caleb Carr is the sequel to The Alienist, or rather, a continuing chronicle of the work of Dr. Laszlo Kreizler, a 19th century psychologist using his knowledge of human behavior to solve crime.

The Alienist focused on a male serial killer who mutilated and murdered boy prostitutes in New York City in 1896. The Angel of Darkness takes place a year later, begins with a seemingly simple kidnapping case, and leads to a long road of investigation of a woman who’s left a string of dead children behind her.

The Alienist was narrated by John Moore, a friend of Dr. Kreizler and a reporter; and though Moore, and the rest of Kreizler’s intimate group–Sara Howard, the Isaacson Brothers, and Cyrus Montrose–are still present in the story, it is narrated by Stevie Taggart, Kreizler’s young ward and driver of the first book, now grown and relating the events of 1897.

It begins when Sara, now running her own private investigator service, calls upon her friends for help with her latest client–the wife of a Spanish consulate whose baby daughter Ana has been kidnapped. The situation is a delicate one, as the U.S. has been agitating for war with Spain, and vice versa. Senora Linares’ husband is unwilling to help find his own daughter, even beating his wife when she suggests they go to the police. As before, it must be an undercover investigation.

Sara enlists the help of John, Cyrus and Stevie, and the Isaacsons, but they soon realize they need the help of their friend Kreizler, who has been despondent over the suicide of one of his young patients, and the resulting investigation into his beloved Institute. They soon draw him in, however, and they zero in on one Elspeth Hunter/Libby Hatch.

They find that wherever this woman goes, in her services as a nurse or caregiver, children die. And yet her behavior leading up to their deaths is exemplary–loving, nurturing, even heroic. It’s a puzzling contradiction, one that gets to the heart of why Kreizler does what he does.

It’s a complex tale with many threads, one that Carr weaves over 700 pages. I often felt that I’d never finish the book, but each successive clue to Elspeth/Libby kept me reading, pulling me deeper into her confounding mystery. The prevailing belief at the time that women were incapable of committing such a crime as murdering children was something the group came up against again and again. If women were guilty of such crimes, the logic went, then they must be insane. But the cold, calculating behavior of Libby contradicted this conclusion in Kreizler’s opinion. The conflicting views of women (the angel/whore dichotomy) and the impossible standards women were held to during the 19th century (and have we really escaped such standards, even now?) is a central theme in the story and what makes Libby so fascinating–and tragic.

The Elspeth/Libby trail leads our group from the streets of New York City controlled by the coke-blowing gang The Hudson Dusters, to the lovely wilds of upstate New York in Saratoga County. As in the previous book, a few famous historical figures make an appearance: feminist agitator Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the ultra-wealthy Vanderbilts, and everyone’s scrappy Police Commissioner turned Naval official turned President of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt. Our group suffers personal tragedies, for the group as a whole, and for Stevie in particular. It’s a big, sprawling book with street fights, courtroom drama, and even a poisonous-dart-throwing pygmy from the Philippines.

I loved the TNT limited series The Alienist, and would love to see a second season. The Angel of Darkness, with its continuing themes of the complexity and darkness of the human mind and the horrific acts resulting from it, would be, in my opinion, an admirable addition to the series. One can always hope.

All Things Alienist

alienist book

I read Caleb Carr’s The Alienist when it came out in 1994. I loved it, and then promptly forgot what it was exactly about except that a person called an “alienist” (an early psychologist, so dubbed because they believed the mentally ill were alienated from their own natures) was trying to solve a crime involving a serial killer with his knowledge of the human mind.

Fast forward 24 years, and previews of TNT’s limited series The Alienist reminded me of it, and I got very excited. I promptly watched the show (twice through, for good measure) and picked up the book again. On having discovered that there was a sequel called The Angel of Darkness, I picked that up, too. Call me obsessive.

On re-reading the book, I was eager to discover how the writers of the show had adapted the novel–what was kept in, what was left out, what was changed completely. The book gives much more detail concerning New York City of 1896, historically and architecturally, though the lavish sets on the show brought it vividly to life as well. Small details were changed, dialogue tightened up and scenes re-arranged. But I was more curious about the characters: how did they measure up?

alienist

The book is narrated by Dr. Kreizler’s friend, the New York Times reporter John Schuyler Moore (Luke Evans). In the show, he’s an illustrator rather than a reporter, which solves a few plot quandaries and tightens up the storytelling. In the book, he can seem a bit boorish (this is especially true in Angel of Darkness, which he does not narrate), but he’s more likable in the show. The show has him develop feelings for Sara Howland (Dakota Fanning), a family friend who, as the first woman to work in the NYPD (as a secretary to Teddy Roosevelt), helps with the investigation. In the book, the author nixes that development fairly early on, preferring to keep Sara the proverbial independent woman who needs no man.

john moore

Sara herself is warmer and more playful in the book, while the show keeps her somewhat cold and aloof, wrapped in a kind of armor that John tries to penetrate along the course of the show. He nearly succeeds, but it’s left up in the air as to whether she’ll actually let him in.

sara howland

Dr. Kreizler (Daniel Bruhl), perhaps, remains the least changed from book to show, although we get to see some of his more intimate moments on the screen that we couldn’t in the book, especially with his love interest, his mute ward and housekeeper Mary Palmer (who was changed from a blonde, blue-eyed beauty to a Native American beauty played by Q’Orianka Kilcher). These scenes are touching and gives us more insight into Kreizler’s vulnerability, while also setting us up more efficiently for the tragedy to come.

laszlo

The Sergeant Detectives Isaacson, Marcus and Lucius (Douglas Smith and Mathew Shear) are fraternal twins in the show, rather than Marcus being the older brother in the book, but they remain essentially the same bickering, brilliant pair. The show, for reasons beyond my comprehension, created a subplot with Marcus having an affair with a lovely single mother, a thread that had no connection to the main storyline whatsoever.

Isaacsons

I was pleasantly surprised that in the show, Teddy Roosevelt (in his role as Commissioner to the Police Department) was not portrayed as the knee-slapping, cowboy/adventurer  who often cried out “By thunder!” , as he was in the book. Perhaps that was the man’s actual personality, but every time I encountered him in the book, I cringed a little bit. He seemed like a caricature, someone to laugh and roll your eyes at. Brian Geraghty played the future president with a subtlety and depth that made him come across as a real person, while still making it clear he was a man of action.

teddy roosevelt

So what about our murderer? John Beecham’s life and motivations, as uncovered by our team of investigators, follows pretty much the same route as in the book, though the book naturally went into more detail. The show invented a red herring in the form of Willem Van Burgen, the son of a powerful Old New York family, to distract the investigation and put a spotlight on the way members of these families were nearly beyond the law.

The climax, while taking place in the same building in both book and show, played out quite differently. I preferred the show ending, as it was tighter and more believable. The book had Beecham clinging to Kreizler’s leg, weeping and whining, before being ultimately shot by Captain Connor. The show had Beecham defiant until the end, taunting him and trying to get away. I’m not sure which is more believable psychologically, but the show ending is better, in my opinion.

I’m about halfway through The Angel of Darkness, and I’ll have a proper review once I’m through.

If you like psychological crime thrillers, either the book or show of The Alienist (or if you’re obsessive like me, both) will keep you entertained for quite a while.

 

Station Eleven

station eleven

Station Eleven, by Hilary St. John Mandel (2014), takes place after a devastating flu epidemic. Far from another end-of-the-world story, this spare, eloquent novel blends everything I love about genre and literary fiction, and is another stellar example of how two styles don’t necessarily have to be mutually exclusive.

It begins with Shakespeare as Arthur Leander, a prominent actor, portrays King Lear on what is to be the last day of the known world. He suffers a heart attack on stage, and a stranger (of sorts) leaps on stage to help, but it’s too late. As Arthur dies, the Georgian Flu begins its near annihilation of the human species.

It turns out the stranger, Jeevan Choudhary, is linked to Arthur, as are many of the characters in the novel. It’s this connection to Arthur and the ripples left behind of his life that forms the core of the book, rather than any showdown between good and evil. There is an antagonist called The Prophet, a religious zealot who causes some problems for The Travelling Symphony, a band of actors and musicians who travel throughout the isolated communities after the flu (“Because Survival Is Insufficient”); but this conflict isn’t the entire focus of the book, and the Prophet himself turns out to be profoundly linked to Arthur as well.

“Station Eleven” refers to a sci-fi graphic novel written and illustrated by one of Arthur’s ex-wives, Miranda, and showcases some of the themes of the book: the mourning of a lost world, and the search for home. As the novel unfolds back and forth across time, as the threads of Arthur’s life are woven together and connections are revealed, the narrative becomes much more than another dystopian yarn. It examines the nature of fame, and the longing for immortality. It’s about art and how it connects us and reflects our experiences as human beings. It’s about memory and remembrance. It’s a book I won’t soon forget.