Book Review: And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie

Book Review: And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie

I’m supposed to be reading The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead at the moment. I started in October and got about halfway before I decided it was time to read some more appropriate reading for the scariest month of the year. It might not be the first choice for a Halloween read but I decided it was about time to reread And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie. I always find it a bit weird to reread a crime novel because it has a completely different feel when you know whodunit. It’s not necessarily a bad thing to know because you start to pick up on things that you didn’t the first time. I guess a more pedantic person might try and pick apart the plot knowing what you know but, for me, I think it’s just worth reading a classic Agatha Christie novel whenever you can. She is still the Queen of Crime for good reason. Something that I find worth celebrating as we reach the 100th anniversary of the publication of her first novel. I’ve tried to read contemporary crime fiction but, to be honest, I’m fucking bored of psychological thrillers with unreliable narrators and super dark themes. Every other week we’re being introduced to ‘the new Gone Girl‘ which would be fine if I’d actually felt that Gone Girl was actually worth finishing. I found it tired and predictable. It was obvious we were being played with but it wasn’t a good enough book for me to let myself be taken along for the ride. These days, it always seems like crime writers are just trying to one-up the last big sensation and it’s getting too out of control. Girl on the Train was not worth my time and every book I’ve read that tried to build off that was abandoned early on. I know classic novels like Agatha Christie’s seem tame in comparison but they are based on well-crafted narratives and not cliched plots. If you call yourself a fan of thrillers and you haven’t read anything by her then you’re really doing this reading thing wrong.

What is the greatest crime thriller of all time? It’s a difficult question and one that will, undoubtedly, have different answers depending on who you ask. If you look at numbers alone then I’d say that And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie has to be in with a shot. It is, using estimates of all time sales, one of the greatest selling books of all time and most probably the number 1 selling mystery novel. It’s certainly one of my top Christie novels trumped only by The Murder of Roger Ackroyd simply because I adore that novel’s unprecedented twist ending. Although, I have to agree that And Then There Were None is one of the best crafted mystery novels ever written with an ending that will keep first time readers guessing until the end. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

And Then There Were None brings together a group of 10 strangers on an isolated island and kills them off one by one. Each character is drawn to the island by a mysterious letter but, when they become stranded due to stormy weather, they are left fearing for their life when it becomes clear that one of their number has set them up for their murderous games based around a well-known nursery rhyme. Each guest is accused of committing their own murder on a dark stormy night and, moments later, the first of their party is found dead. With no sign of anyone else on the island, they have no option but to suspect each other. As their numbers dwindle the tension increases and it becomes harder to work out who can be trusted.

And Then There Were None is a deceptively simple novel from the outside. It is very self-contained with the list of characters sticking to the main 10 and the narrative taking place on the island over the space of a few days. There isn’t a great deal of action beyond a few searches of the house and there is a lot of sitting around waiting for stuff to happen. However, there is so much more to this novel. Christie’s narrative is so well-crafted that it will, genuinely, leave readers guessing who the killer is up until the last minute. You’ll forever be trying to second-guess everything and read too much into the little details. It’s a fantastically fun novel to try and unravel. It’s also incredibly tense and, in it’s own way, scary novel. Yes, it’s lost something over the years as we get used to authors taking horror further and further but this novel has enough atmosphere to keep you unnerved.

This mostly comes down to the sense of claustrophobia you get. Just as the guests on the island are stuck with nowhere to go as the weather rages outside, the reader is kept very insular. This is a novel that doesn’t venture further than it needs to. We barely get a glimpse of anything beyond the walls of the house and very little happens between the murders. Everyone is just sitting and waiting for the next strike and trying to figure out which of the party could be capable of such awful crimes. It has a pretty big body count in the end but And Then There Were None could hardly be described as bloody. Each death is described in a suitable manner for the period in which is was published. It all feels very British as the murder is swept under the carpet to keep the true horrors up to the imagination of the reader.

And Then There Were None is a very clever novel and is classic Agatha Christie. I don’t read her novels as much as I should anymore. Every time I do I get that familiar sense of joy and admiration. She remains one of the most loved mystery writers for a good reason and this novel is probably the perfect example of why. It can be a bit of mind fuck working out where to start with Christie. You’re tempted to start with a Miss Marple or Poirot story but that begs the question of where to start. Do you try and get them in the right order or do you just go with the most popular ones? I’m sure there are people out there on the internet who have found the perfect order but I can’t say that I’m clever enough to have worked it out. If anyone asked me where to start then I, at least for the time being, would probably recommend this one. It exists as it’s own novel but is such a Christie trademark. It’s pretty perfect… no matter how many times you read it.

TBT – Young Frankenstein (1974)

TBT – Young Frankenstein (1974)

Halloween is fast approaching and, if I were any kind of film blogger, then I’d be using this post to review a classic horror film. However, I am always held back by the fact that I’m something of a wimp. I’ve never been a big fan of the horror genre and have avoided many of them. It’s not the violence as much as it is the jump scares. It doesn’t take a lot to have me leaping out of my seats so I’m constantly on edge. This is bad enough in non-traditional horror films, like Alien or something, so how would I cope watching a film that was created with the sole intention to scare the shit out of me. It’s not something I’m very proud of but I am what I am. There are some notable exceptions, obviously, but I tend to just let the biggest horror sensations pass me by. Really, though, I have no real interest in being scared. I don’t want to pay to see how far a writer will go to try and terrify people willing to pay for the experience. I know certain people enjoy the rush of watching these films but I just don’t get it. Maybe it’s because it’s harder for me to go back to normal and turn off the fear response? Who knows. Whatever the reason, I just never have a desire to
watch horror films so, in order to celebrate this time of year, I’m doing the genre the only way I know how: by watching a parody of it.

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is one of my favourite books. It helps that I was tasked with reading it for every year I was at university but it was something I was more than happy to do. Shelley’s story has been described as the birth of science-fiction because of her tale of a scientist raising the dead. However, it was the inspiration for plenty of classic horror films from as early as 1910. The character of the monster went on to frequent many films, which gave rise to the mistake that it is the monster and not the Doctor who is Frankenstein. But that’s not really important. Despite the sheer number of Frankenstein films that already existed, Mel Brooks and Gene Wilder decided that there was room for another. This time about a member of the family who does everything he can to get away from his family’s chequered past.

The Young Frankenstein of the title is Frederick Frankenstein, a professor who is so ashamed of his infamous grandfather, the Victor of Shelley’s novel, that he changes the pronunciation to ‘Fronkensteen’. Until the moment that he is presented with his grandfather’s will and he makes an unwelcome return to Transylvania. There he discovers Victor’s old notebooks that describe the process for reanimating a corpse. Very quickly, Fronkensteen is starting up the old family business and robbing corpses and brains in the name of science. All of this with the help of his trusty lab assistants, Igor, son of Victor’s own servant, and Inga, the busty babe who quickly catches his eye. There’s also the slight problem of the townsfolk who don’t trust Frederick and a monster that constantly escapes from the castle.

Young Frankenstein is a silly but incredibly shrewd parody of the classic horror films from the 1930s-50s. Brooks and Wilder created a script that played up on the traditions whilst cleverly working against them. It is Mel Brooks at his greatest. The whole thing looks and feels just like the films it is trying to copy. All of the techniques, visuals and sets are exactly the kind of thing you’d see in films like James Whale’s Frankenstein. It looks completely realistic, which not only makes it feel familiar but also makes it funnier. It’s a carefully crafted and intelligently made film. It works as a parody but also works as a story in itself. Young Frankenstein is a funny film. Yes, not everything works completely and there are definitely funnier Brooks films out there. That doesn’t mean the comedy isn’t there. Even the most obvious humour works here. There are moments that you shouldn’t want to find hilarious but just work. It may not have the sheer thrills of the normal fair you’d watch on Halloween but it’s definitely worth a watch.

Classic Gothic fiction – where to start?

Classic Gothic fiction – where to start?

I’ve been a huge fan of the literature of the Romantic period since I was 16 years old and I first read The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. It was unlike any other poem that I’d ever read and I wanted to read more. I attended Lancaster University as an Undergraduate and was able to immerse myself deeper into that period. Obviously, a University that is so close to the Lake District has a strong connection to Romantic poets so it was easy to indulge my passion. The more I read the more I loved it. I fell in love with Byron and Shelley. I adore Mary Wollstonecraft and Mary Shelley. I’ve grown frustrated with young women sighing over Keats and championing Jane Austen as a pioneer for modern feminism. It’s been a long and fulfilling love affair with a period of literature that has such a rich literary and historical significance. Something that I further explored when I studied Romantic Literature and Culture for my Postgraduate degree. Of course, when I told most people the name of my course they assumed I was studying the works of Gilly Cooper or something. Seriously, if I had £1 for the number of times I’ve had to explain it to people then I still wouldn’t be able to pay off my student debts but I’d have a fair few pound coins.

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TBT – Alien (1979)

TBT – Alien (1979)

On 25th January this year, legendary British actor John Hurt died. He was the kind of actor that never really fit into the role of leading man but would have been familiar to a whole host of people thanks to his supporting roles. As I’ve talked about multiple times since his death, John Hurt was the kind of actor that could turn his hand to anything and had a great deal of skill to bring all sorts of people to life on screen. My review on Tuesday looked at one of Hurt’s final films before he died where he made a great impression in the small role of a Catholic priest who Jackie Kennedy talked to after her husband’s death. His role has been made all the more poignant following his death as the character discusses death and the prospect of what follows. The film is definitely emotional but it was watching Hurt’s performance that really got to me. So I wanted to use my TBT post to revisit of his classic films. There are plenty of great ones to pick from and, normally, I should have watched something like The Elephant Man. There are so many great performances to decide between that it becomes impossible to pick just one. Instead, because I’ll take any chance to watch it, I picked Alien. John Hurt may not be in it for very long but his role in the film was certainly one of the most memorable moments in movie history. John Hurt is iconic in this role.

Alien is one of the greatest films of all time and, after watching it again the other day, I can honestly still say that it is still fucking scary. It’s a masterpiece of suspense and horror set in space. The casting is fantastic and the design is great. However, it wasn’t always considered to be one of the greatest sci-fi films of all time. On it’s first release, several eminent film critics declared it to be nothing more than a mass of effects and little else. Oh how the table have turned. Alien is the film that changed its genre and became the template for so many films that followed it. In the 70s science-fiction was becoming more popular but was staying in the fairly family friendly realm. Alien reinvented space with a hideous Hitchcockian twist. And it’s fucking fantastic.

The premise is super simple and it really doesn’t matter. The small crew of a commercial towing vessel are woken from stasis early. Their ship brought them out of sleep to answer a distress call coming from a nearby ship. Upon investigating they discover the crew were killed and the ship has become a breeding ground for some mysterious being. Whilst taking a closer look at one of the creepy eggs on board, one of the creatures attaches itself to a crew member, Kane’s (John Hurt), face.
When the creature eventually becomes unattached and dies, it appears that Kane is unharmed. Until a fucking tiny alien creature bursts from his chest. The rest of the crew then face the bigger issue of a fully grown and deadly monster chasing them around the corridors of their ship and picking them off one by one.

When it comes down to it, Alien isn’t a success because of it’s narrative or it’s script. It’s a mixture of elements taken from so many science-fiction or horror films before it. Writer Dan O’Bannon freely admits that he took inspiration from multiple sources to create a familiar but workable story. What elevates the film is it’s design. O’Bannon and director Ridley Scott were inspired by the artwork of H.R. Giger and it was his paintings that inspired the final look for the film’s fearsome creature. Scott hired Giger to work on the whole of the film and it is down to him that we have such amazing visuals. Those images of the inside of the crashed ship and the egg chamber are all down to his dark vision and it is the making of the film. And it is not just Giger. Every aspect of the film’s design comes together perfectly to create this materpiece. At the time, it was a special effects dream. Everything was done by a skilled team who made some incredibly complicated set pieces come to life. The chest bursting scene is one of the most infamous moments ever seen on screen and has been parodied an infinite number of times by now.

That scene is a feast of blood, gore, and jump scares but Alien is so much more than jut a mindless horror show. The film carefully builds up tension as it goes along and is designed in such a careful way to ensure that the audiences experience is just as terrifying as the crew’s. The film doesn’t rush and takes a perverse pleasure in slowing down the pace as much as possible. It’s all about the suspense because, when it comes down to it, that’s what we want. Shots are held a little longer than necessary to suggest something is about to happen. The lighting and sound helping to create that sense of claustrophobia. Ridley Scott and co. came together to create something that has stood the test of time and is, to this day, one of the most terrifying films ever created. It’s simple and full of cliches but it’s so well crafted that it doesn’t matter. It is the film that started the trend and only goes to prove that you can’t beat the original. I still have to sit through certain scenes with my hands over my eyes. But I’ll always go back for another watch.

TBT – Groundhog Day (1993)

TBT – Groundhog Day (1993)

Before I start today’s post I have to hold my hands up and say “I’m sorry”. In my flu-y haze I managed to forget that yesterday was the first Wednesday of February. That would normally be my day for a Top 10 post but I ended up falling asleep. So, you’ll have to wait a week longer to read it but, hopefully, the added time will make it a doozy. I mean past experience tells me it won’t be but you never know.

Just over a week ago it was announced that John Hurt had died. He was a phenomenal actor who could  turn his hand to any role. He was a chameleon and would always sparkle on screen, especially in his more villainous parts. So learning that he had been battling cancer was clearly devastating to his fans. So, in honour of greatest works, I was planning on using this TBT post to discuss one of Hurt’s greatest film roles. Then I found out it was fucking Groundhog Day and I decided I couldn’t miss the chance that had fallen in my lap. I’ll move the memorial post to next week and discuss one of the greatest films of all time. It’s one I’ve loved for a long time and was delighted to study in my one year of taking film studies at University. I didn’t carry on the subject because I wasn’t a fan of the course or the lecturers but it will always live on in my memory as the only time I’ve ever been able to watch some of my favourite films, like Groundhog Day and Beauty and the Beast, and call it work. Movie night with my flatmates as a learning experience? That’s the kind of shit I can get behind. As much as I love studying poetry it’s not quite the same.

As someone who grew up in the UK and didn’t really give much thought to the world outside my little social bubble, Groundhog day never meant anything to me until I saw this film. Now the quirky annual American event has become synonymous with repetition. The film centres around the small town tradition that states if a Groundhog comes out of its burrow on February 2nd and the weather is cloudy Spring will come early. However, the film really has very little to do with the celebration that takes place every year in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. Instead it has everything to narcissistic TV weatherman, Phil Connors (Bill Murray) becoming stuck in a time loop and repeating the day over and over. To begin with, Phil tries to have fun with his situation and live a hedonistic and wild life without consequences. Over time, his life becomes more bleak and he realises that he has time to become a better person. After all, it’s the only way he can end his quest to win the heart of his producer, Rita Hanson (Andie MacDowell).

Phil has been forced to cover the Groundhog day celebration in Punxsutawney for years and, it’s safe to say, he has a great deal of contempt for the assignment. He considers the town and it’s people to be insignificant and the holiday to be a huge joke. He believes he’s meant for better things than interviewing a Groundhog about when Spring will arrive. So, it’s the ultimate karmic revenge when every time he wakes up February 2nd has started over again. Phil relives the same day an unspecified number of days but there have been several attempts to work it out. These range from the modest 8 year, 8 months and 16 days to the more harrowing 33 years 350 days. Still, looking at the amount of shit that Phil achieves and manages to work out about the town people, it’s clear that he celebrated Groundhog dog an awesome number of times.

Despite the endless feeling of déjà vu that both Phil and the audience will get as the narrative repeats itself, Goundhog Day never feels old. It’s continually fresh, funny and heartwarming. That feeling comes, not from a relentless silliness that was probably most associated with Murray at this time, but from the mixture of light-hearted and deep issues that Phil deals with. Yes, he has fun with the endless cycle by eating whatever he wants and using his insider knowledge to bed women. On the other hand, he deals with dark issues like suicide and the realisation that his shallow life cannot sustain him. Harold Ramis and Billy Murrary reportedly argued about the overall tone of the film; with Ramis wanting to keep things firmly in the comedy camps whilst Murray wanted to go for a more melancholy tone. In the end, the film works so well because it is neither one thing or the other. The two ideas, like the director/actor combo, work so well together that is is seamless.

That’s what has made Groundhog Day such a classic. It uses the greatest of Murray’s comedy and dramatic chops and has become the kind of film that not only succeeds in multiple viewings but basically demands it. The late, great Roger Ebert initially awarded the film a very respectable 3 star rating but, when he revisited it, admitted that he has dismissed many of the film’s great points. The actual Groundhog Day festival may have been overshadowed by this cinematic masterpiece but it does provide the perfect excuse to rewatch Bill Murray at his best every single year. Groundhog Day is a sweet, funny, and incredibly clever film that you’ll want to watch over and over again.

TBT – Groundhog Day (1993)

TBT – Groundhog Day (1993)

Before I start today’s post I have to hold my hands up and say “I’m sorry”. In my flu-y haze I managed to forget that yesterday was the first Wednesday of February. That would normally be my day for a Top 10 post but I ended up falling asleep. So, you’ll have to wait a week longer to read it but, hopefully, the added time will make it a doozy. I mean past experience tells me it won’t be but you never know.

Just over a week ago it was announced that John Hurt had died. He was a phenomenal actor who could  turn his hand to any role. He was a chameleon and would always sparkle on screen, especially in his more villainous parts. So learning that he had been battling cancer was clearly devastating to his fans. So, in honour of greatest works, I was planning on using this TBT post to discuss one of Hurt’s greatest film roles. Then I found out it was fucking Groundhog Day and I decided I couldn’t miss the chance that had fallen in my lap. I’ll move the memorial post to next week and discuss one of the greatest films of all time. It’s one I’ve loved for a long time and was delighted to study in my one year of taking film studies at University. I didn’t carry on the subject because I wasn’t a fan of the course or the lecturers but it will always live on in my memory as the only time I’ve ever been able to watch some of my favourite films, like Groundhog Day and Beauty and the Beast, and call it work. Movie night with my flatmates as a learning experience? That’s the kind of shit I can get behind. As much as I love studying poetry it’s not quite the same.

As someone who grew up in the UK and didn’t really give much thought to the world outside my little social bubble, Groundhog day never meant anything to me until I saw this film. Now the quirky annual American event has become synonymous with repetition. The film centres around the small town tradition that states if a Groundhog comes out of its burrow on February 2nd and the weather is cloudy Spring will come early. However, the film really has very little to do with the celebration that takes place every year in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania. Instead it has everything to narcissistic TV weatherman, Phil Connors (Bill Murray) becoming stuck in a time loop and repeating the day over and over. To begin with, Phil tries to have fun with his situation and live a hedonistic and wild life without consequences. Over time, his life becomes more bleak and he realises that he has time to become a better person. After all, it’s the only way he can end his quest to win the heart of his producer, Rita Hanson (Andie MacDowell).

Phil has been forced to cover the Groundhog day celebration in Punxsutawney for years and, it’s safe to say, he has a great deal of contempt for the assignment. He considers the town and it’s people to be insignificant and the holiday to be a huge joke. He believes he’s meant for better things than interviewing a Groundhog about when Spring will arrive. So, it’s the ultimate karmic revenge when every time he wakes up February 2nd has started over again. Phil relives the same day an unspecified number of days but there have been several attempts to work it out. These range from the modest 8 year, 8 months and 16 days to the more harrowing 33 years 350 days. Still, looking at the amount of shit that Phil achieves and manages to work out about the town people, it’s clear that he celebrated Groundhog dog an awesome number of times.

Despite the endless feeling of déjà vu that both Phil and the audience will get as the narrative repeats itself, Goundhog Day never feels old. It’s continually fresh, funny and heartwarming. That feeling comes, not from a relentless silliness that was probably most associated with Murray at this time, but from the mixture of light-hearted and deep issues that Phil deals with. Yes, he has fun with the endless cycle by eating whatever he wants and using his insider knowledge to bed women. On the other hand, he deals with dark issues like suicide and the realisation that his shallow life cannot sustain him. Harold Ramis and Billy Murrary reportedly argued about the overall tone of the film; with Ramis wanting to keep things firmly in the comedy camps whilst Murray wanted to go for a more melancholy tone. In the end, the film works so well because it is neither one thing or the other. The two ideas, like the director/actor combo, work so well together that is is seamless.

That’s what has made Groundhog Day such a classic. It uses the greatest of Murray’s comedy and dramatic chops and has become the kind of film that not only succeeds in multiple viewings but basically demands it. The late, great Roger Ebert initially awarded the film a very respectable 3 star rating but, when he revisited it, admitted that he has dismissed many of the film’s great points. The actual Groundhog Day festival may have been overshadowed by this cinematic masterpiece but it does provide the perfect excuse to rewatch Bill Murray at his best every single year. Groundhog Day is a sweet, funny, and incredibly clever film that you’ll want to watch over and over again.