fiction · mystery

Murder on the Orient Express- Agatha Christie

Okay, gang. Gather close for another round of Book Blogger Confessions.

This? This was my first Agatha Christie novel.

I get it. She’s super popular and people love her books like they love their children. I’ve heard librarians talk about how Christie’s books circulate as much or more than any other modern popular author and how they have to replace her books frequently due to constant use. Mysteries are some of the most popular items at almost every library, my own included (I asked at our last book club). And I almost never check them out.

It’s not like I’m opposed to the genre. I don’t mind watching movies with mysteries in them. I’m just BAD at them. And not just bad, like BAD. Really bad. I almost never guess the identity of the killer (and when I do, I’m practically doing a touchdown dance, it’s that rare for me to figure it out). There are too many characters, everyone seems suspicious, and I really overthink things and make them way more complicated than they have to be. I don’t love having to be *that* on guard while I read- don’t get me wrong, I love using my brain when I read, it’s why I enjoy nonfiction so very much- but mysteries? They’re like those logic puzzles…that I’m also bad at.

But Agatha Christie was already on my list this year, as she was an author I’d never read before and I wanted to know what I was missing out on. And it just so happened that the 2020 PopSugar Reading Challenge included a prompt for a book from a series with more than 20 books. I’m not a big series reader as it is, so I was a little nervous about this, but it just so happened that Agatha Christie fit this prompt with her Hercule Poirot books, and thus Murder on the Orient Express (HarperCollins, 1934) went on my list.

Detective Hercule Poirot is traveling on the Orient Express train when it runs into a snowdrift overnight and is stopped…and so is the heart of one of its passengers, dead after being stabbed multiple times. One by one, Poirot meticulously questions the motley crew aboard, searching for the pipe smoker, the owner of a scarlet dressing gown, and someone with the initial of H. Twists and turns abound, with each interview revealing new pieces of the puzzle to only Poirot, until at last, he’s able to click the final piece in place, revealing the dastardly plot and the name of the killer. All aboard for one serious thrill ride!

First off, and if you’ve read this, you won’t take this the wrong way- the ending is the best part. YES. I absolutely loved how Poirot ended this, though I won’t say more in case there are people other than me who are new to this book. Just a brilliant solution to what could have been messy. True justice right there.

I enjoyed Agatha Christie’s plain writing style. She never veers into much description, which made me happy. I’ve disliked long descriptive passages since I was a kid, when I would sometimes just skip over the flowery description altogether. Her writing is quite to the point, much like Poirot’s questioning, and that makes for a delightful read without much fuss.

I don’t know that this made me love mysteries any more than I did before, however. There are still a lot of characters to sort through, I still overthought every last bit of information Poirot wrangled out of each passenger, and much like the two men who were aiding his questioning, I remained baffled by the identity of the killer to the very end. I’ll never be a world-renowned detective (or a world-renowned…mystery reader…); that fact is very, very obvious by my obliviousness. I mean, at one point, I was like “How did all these people, connected with that, end up on this train???” I never once considered… At times, I’m far too jaded with the world, and at others, I give people way too much benefit of the doubt.

If you’re hiring, never hire me for a job figuring stuff like this out. I’d be terrible at it.

And then there was this passage in the book, which I will file under “Things Published Before World War II That Immediately Did Not Age Well”:

Uh…yikes.

Anyway, this was a fun book and I’m glad I’m better acquainted with Agatha Christie’s style. One more author and one more reading challenge book ticked off my list!

Visit Agatha Christie’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · mystery

The Other Americans- Laila Lalami

Back to Book Riot’s 2020 Read Harder Challenge! They’re prompting readers to choose a mystery where the victim (or victims, as some mysteries go) is not a woman. Mystery isn’t really my genre (and I’ll go into why in a future post), but I really got lucky with The Other Americans by Laila Lalami (Pantheon, 2019). While the main conflict does center around an unsolved death, the story itself is about so much more than that- family, culture, immigration, war, post-traumatic stress disorder, friendship, conflict between generations…this is a complex novel that goes well beyond any kind of ‘whodunit.’

A restaurant owner and Moroccan immigrant is struck down by a hit-and-run after leaving work late one night, leaving his family in upheaval. Nora, a struggling musician and composer who hasn’t quite found her path yet, reluctantly returns home to a mother who has never fully accepted Nora’s career path. Maryam, the widow, has complex feelings toward her homeland, America, and her deceased husband. Coleman, the detective covering the case, is also making personal discoveries; Jeremy, Nora’s high school friend, has fallen hard for his returned friend, but he’s also carrying the weight of PTSD from the Iraq war, as well as the PTSD, alcoholism, and rage of a veteran friend; EfraĆ­n, an undocumented immigrant who witnessed the accident that killed Driss Guerraoui, is afraid to come forward for fear of what authorities might do to his family.

Told in alternating viewpoints (including that of the deceased), Ms. Lalani shows the complexities of life in America and the weight each of us is expected to carry, as residents, as citizens, as friends and family. Relationships are forged and broken, out of pain and fear. Some characters fit in better in their surroundings than others, and there’s a heavy pall of the culture of American individualism that hangs over nearly every scene. It’s increasingly difficult to cultivate and maintain relationships these days, and this is evident in the loneliness and the wrenching decisions each character must make.

The Other Americans is a mosaic of stories centered around the death of one central figure, and while the initial premise- who caused Driss Guerraoui’s death?- is a sad one, the novel advances far beyond that to showcase the struggles of all varieties of Americans- immigrants, those of the second generation, veterans, working class people, parents, undocumented immigrants, children going against their parents’ wishes after growing up in a country their parents don’t always understand… There’s joy and sadness, triumph and regret, and always the knowledge that one must continue to put one foot in front of the other despite any terrible circumstances life throws one’s way.

Despite the heavy subject matter, the novel doesn’t necessarily read heavy, although it wasn’t the most uplifting of choices during this strange time. I was rooting for Nora and Jeremy until they fought and he lashed out at her in a way that felt unacceptable to me, and to be frank, I was disappointed at how they ended up. If you’ve read this, I’d love to hear your thoughts on that, because I felt Nora should have had enough self-respect to shut him down permanently after the things he said to her.

The Other Americans was a surprise for me. It’s not something I would have picked up on my own, but despite its sadness, I deeply enjoyed it (especially the multiple first-person viewpoints. TOTALLY MY JAM. GIVE ME ALL THE MULTIPLE FIRST-PERSON VIEWPOINT BOOKS!).

Visit Laila Lalami’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

nonfiction · true crime

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer- Michelle McNamara

So, according to Goodreads, I’m the last person on Earth to read I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer by Michelle McNamara (Harper, 2018). I read maybe a handful of true crime books every year; it’s not usually a section I wander through at the library, but if a case interests me for a particular reason or someone I know recommends something from this genre, I’ll pick it up. A ton of my friends read this last year; I finally picked it up based on a prompt for the 2020 PopSugar Reading Challenge: a book with gold, silver, or bronze in the title (this being an Olympic year and all…if the Olympics still happen, what with mass events like that getting cancelled due to coronavirus). Not being a huge true crime person, I went into this book almost entirely cold, which made for an interesting read.

Michelle McNamara was the wife of comedian Patton Oswalt. She passed away unexpectedly in her sleep from an accidental overdose in 2016, but in life she was a true crime writer and obsessively searched for the man she dubbed The Golden State Killer, a man who terrorized Southern California throughout the seventies and eighties. He was responsible for at least thirteen murders and more than fifty rapes (and who knows what other crimes haven’t been tied to him). Despite massive effort to pin him down, he always seemed able to slip through the fingers of law enforcement, to blend into the background and remain unnoticed.

Finding him was Michelle’s obsession. She dug through old evidence, interviewed witnesses, befriended investigators. From what it sounded like, she was as much a part of the investigation team as some of the officers and retired officers still at work on the case. She passed away before her book was finished, a heartbreaking ending to her story, and a devastating blow to her family.

SPOILER ALERT- not for the book, but for what came after:

I *thought* I remembered hearing things about this on the news recently, but I didn’t look it up while I was reading (and I wasn’t entirely sure if what I saw related to the case itself or to the book). It was only this morning, after I finished the book, that I allowed myself to Google, and sure enough, they found him, just as Michelle had so desperately hoped. His time had indeed run out, thanks to a DNA match that investigators were finally able to run through an ancestry site. With the help of a genealogist, suspects were narrowed down and a match was secured. The suspect, Joseph James DeAngelo, will go on trial at some point for being the Golden State Killer. Science is amazing, you guys. Back when he was terrorizing the people of Southern California, he was nearly unstoppable, but science hunted him down. I’ve seen articles purporting that the age of the serial killer is over, or at least greatly slowed down thanks to DNA testing, and I pray that’s the case.

Two major emotions settled in as I read Ms. McNamara’s work. First off, fear. It’s nigh impossible to read real-life accounts of home invasion, rape, murder, and the type of terror that this man evoked and not feel at least somewhat vulnerable. Even in this age of heavy locks, security systems, doorbell cameras, and the like, do any of us ever feel entirely safe? This book definitely creeped me out (and made me thankful for my cats, who would never greet me at the door like they did this morning if there were a stranger in the house, as they’re kind of terrified of strangers and scurry off to hide under the bed if someone they’re not familiar with enters the house) and made me a little more aware of my surroundings and my safety during the time I was reading.

And second, sadness. It’s hard to read the master work of someone who passed away so young, not only before she had a chance to finish the book but before she had a chance to see the case come to fruition the way it has. Reading the scenes where she talked about her husband and young daughter were heartbreaking, because I read them with the obvious knowledge that they’re still here and she’s not. Life is so very, very unfair in so many different ways. I wish Ms. McNamara were here to see this monster finally caught and celebrate his capture with her investigator friends. I wish she were here to watch her daughter grow up and to live out her natural life with her husband. I wish she could have finished the book with its rightful conclusion.

If you’re into true crime, you’ve probably already read this, but if you’re like me and only read the genre now and then, it’s a worthy pick despite the aura of sadness surrounding the untimely demise of its author. Lots of information on investigations and police procedures, what happens when a case goes cold, and the history and growth of DNA testing in here, and that alone makes it a great read, as does Ms. McNamara’s own history and her explanation of her involvement with the case.

Now that the suspect is caught, my thoughts go not only to his victims, but his family members. His ex-wife, his children, his grandchildren. They never asked for this, they never asked for the publicity or to be related to this monster. My heart breaks for the family members because he turned them into victims as well. I so hope they’re getting support from their friends and community, because this has nothing to do with them as people.

I’ll Be Gone in the Dark: One Woman’s Obsessive Search for the Golden State Killer is probably the most in-depth true crime study I’ve ever read, and I’ll definitely be following the trial much more closely than if I hadn’t read this.

Michelle McNamara passed away in 2016.

fiction

The Child Finder- Rene Denfeld

I’m not the biggest thriller fan- my brain makes enough anxiety of its own so I don’t need to go in search of it- and I’m not the hugest fan of missing and abducted children, either, but occasionally a book that ticks both of those boxes finds its way into my pile. A walk to a Little Free Library a few streets over had me grabbing a copy of The Child Finder by Rene Denfeld (Harper, 2017). I mean, it’s about a woman who finds children, right? Not just kids going missing or being abducted. That sounded like something I could handle.

Naomi Cottle has turned her nebulous past- a found child who came of age in the home of a loving foster mother- into a career, using her sharply honed instincts to search out children who have gone missing. Running from her own past and from connecting too deeply with others, she relies on word of mouth and her phenomenal success rate to give parents the answers, both miraculous and devastating, they’ve been denied for far too long. The subject of her latest case, Madison Culver, went missing months ago in Oregon’s beautiful but desolate Skookum National Forest, and Naomi has promised her desperate parents a resolution one way or another. The only things that might distract her from the case are her past, Mrs. Cottle, her dying foster mother, and the attention and growing affection from Jerome, the foster brother with whom she was raised.

Deep in the snowy mountains of the forest, the Snow Girl has developed a way to stay strong, stay alive, first in the dark basement of a man named B, and then as his companion, trapping animals in the woods. The stories she tells herself about what her life has become have helped her to survive this far, but things are changing, and the Snow Girl may not have much time left.

Content warnings for child abduction and captivity, and mentions of child sexual assault and death.

The Child Finder is a page-turner. I blew through the book within less than twenty-four hours, I think. I tend to shy away from thrillers because I can’t stand every page being so tense, but this book was a slow, simmering build, leading to a single major tension-filled climax (expected in a story like this, so I wasn’t bothered by it). Naomi has a mysterious backstory, having been found running in the night by migrant farm workers when she was just a child and dropped off at a police station miles away. She has no memory of her past, only wisps that come to her now and then, and that she fights against, scared and resistant to letting too much come back to her.

Her budding relationship with the man who was her foster brother is carefully written, sweet, and doesn’t feel at all creepy (years ago, I read a book, whose name escapes me, where the main character ended up hooking up with her stepbrother and I seriously could. not. even with that; everything about it felt wrong and gross, but Ms. Denfeld steers clear of that territory). Naomi is a complex character, and it’s fascinating watching her make the connections between the cases she’s working and her complicated emotions towards her past.

The Snow Girl’s chapters are occasionally difficult and painful to read when you remember how young she is and the horrors that have been and are currently being visited upon her. Her voice and strength feel authentic, which isn’t surprising, considering that Rene Denfeld has worked as an investigator and helped victims of sex trafficking (along with being a foster parent, which also lends authenticity to Mrs. Cottle’s and Naomi’s voices).

In some books, the setting is as much a character as any of the living people, and the isolated, snow-covered landscapes of the Skookum National Forest really give this book a creepy feel. The description never veers toward the long-winded, but instead allows just enough to create a menacing ambiance and a sense of desperation for Naomi, Madison’s parents, and the reader. It’s not a place I’d ever want to go after reading this, that’s for sure!

I tend to shy away from series, but there’s a follow-up to this book, The Butterfly Girl, and I enjoyed The Child Finder enough that I might actually pick #2 up (which is pretty high praise for me!).

Do you enjoy that edge-of-your-seat feeling when you read, or are you more of a read-to-relax person?

Visit Rene Denfeld’s website here.

Follow her on Twitter here.

fiction · mystery

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie- Alan Bradley

Another pick from the Book Riot 2019 Read Harder Challenge! This time, the task was to read a cozy mystery.

Mysteries have never been my thing. When I was young, my mom attempted to get me hooked on Nancy Drew, the Hardy Boys, and the Bobbsey Twins. Each of these series fell flat and I was bored to tears (my apologies to all the many Nancy Drew fans out there! These books just weren’t the books for me, and I tried. Multiple times in every series, even!). I don’t remember reading any mysteries as a teenager, either, because by then, I already knew that this was a genre that didn’t much captivate me. But I’m always interested in shaking things up in a literary sense, and so I grabbed this copy of The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley while visiting a thrift shop a few months ago. I remember when this was published and it seemed like everyone I knew was reading it, so I was looking forward to giving it a go myself.

Flavia de Luce is 11 years old and knows way more about chemistry than you do. She even has her own lab tucked away in her family’s Georgian home, a lab where she learns, experiments, and dreams up ways to torture her two older sisters, Ophelia and Daphne. After adding the oils she extracted from poison ivy leaves to Ophelia’s lipstick, Flavia happens upon several events that will change everything for her. First, a curious bird turns up dead on their doorstep, a postage stamp impaled on its beak; the next morning, she stumbles upon a body in the garden, a man who breathes his chemical-scented last in her face. Far from being terrified, the precocious Flavia is deeply intrigued. Using her well-honed powers of deduction and despite the efforts of law enforcement and other pesky adults, she sets forth determined to figure out the real story. Who was this dead man? How did he die? Did his death have anything to do with that argument she overheard Father having last night? The stakes rise when Father is arrested and jailed, and Flavia will have to use everything she’s learned about chemistry and life in order to save him…and herself.

I enjoyed this. It wasn’t so much the mystery aspect of it that drew me in, but instead Flavia’s precocity, her no-nonsense way of looking at the world, and her deep love of science. I barely managed to pass high school chemistry (I accept some of the blame for this, but the class average was 33; the teacher wasn’t a great one. He was also a creeper who used to sit on his porch and stare at my mom through bincoulars when she was sunbathing when I was young, but that’s another story), so I admired her strive for knowledge in her chosen subject. There was something that reminded me immediately of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon; despite their differences, Flavia and Christopher operate by the rules of logic, rather than feelings, which give both stories a similar air. Not to mention that both books are considered to be written for adults, yet they’re narrated by children. I’ve come across instances where that’s annoying, but for these two books, the authors made it work well.

I also liked getting a glimpse of village life in postwar Britain in this. Dogger, the family’s gardener (among other jobs), has a terrible case of PTSD and both Flavia and her father are so protective of him, which was absolutely lovely to read. The descriptions of the clothing and decor, Father’s hatred of the telephone, the library that’s only open Thursday through Saturday (THE HORROR!!!), Flavia’s mention of listening to the radio…it all added up to such a fascinating picture of a time I’ve only really ever read about in one other book (one of my favorites, Back Home by Michelle Magorian). And Flavia’s explanation of bits of chemistry here and there definitely interested me. I’ve always wanted to understand chemistry, but when it comes down to it, I can never wrap my mind around the different kinds of bonds, and how many electrons are shared here or there, and if you can’t grasp the basic building blocks, there’s nowhere else to go from there. Still, reading her commentary on various chemical makeups and her descriptions of experiments delighted me. I’ll take any chemistry I can understand!

Will I read more cozy mysteries? Hmm. Maybe. Some of the other choices on Book Riot’s list, such as Death by Dumpling by Vivien Chien and Murder with Fried Chicken and Waffles by A.L. Herbert intrigued me; I was planning on reading one of those two before I happened across my copy of The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie. I generally don’t care for books with a lot of grisly murder scenes or action that makes me feel anxious, but maybe this is a genre I can keep in my pocket for a rainy day, when nothing on my TBR interests me or I’m looking for something different to pull me out of a reading slump.

Do you enjoy cozy mysteries? Any recommendations that are along the lines of this book?