Category: Book Review

What Makes Death on the Nile a Masterpiece

There are many good pieces of detective fiction out there. You read the book, you watch the movie, and it’s a good time.

Then there are stories that are a cut above. You read the book, and you want to watch the adaptations or vice versa. The story’s so enchanting, the characters so compelling, the themes so powerful that you just can’t get enough of it.

One such story for me is, Agatha Christie’s Death on the Nile. I watched the two filmed adaptations, I listened to the audio drama by the BBC, and then I read the book.

Knowing the ending and who did it didn’t “spoil the novel,” it allowed me to read it in a different way. Rather than focusing on whodunit, I could look for the subtle hints in structure and plot that pointed to the murder, and enjoy the atmosphere and find the themes that really make the book special and why it’s a masterpiece by the mistress of the genre, Agatha Christie.

Fair warning. I will be discussing the ending, so if you don’t know how it ends, I would recommend not reading any further until you’ve experienced the story. If you don’t want to read the novel, I’d recommend checking out the BBC Radio 4 version for accuracy or for pure entertainment value, the 1978 film version with Peter Ustinov is a delight.

1) The Mystery is Brilliantly Conceived and Executed

A detective novel can be more than a good mystery, but it also has to be a good mystery to be a good novel. Otherwise, it’s a bait and switch.

Death on Nile is definitely a brilliantly plotted story. There are plenty of clues as well as red herrings. The actual solution is one that is easily missed because Poirot makes a statement that seems to rule out the actual solution. But both Poirot and the reader make a mistaken assumption of something we didn’t actually see.

The book can trick readers, but it still plays fair in doing so. The solution really only surprises the reader (and to a degree Poirot) because of an incorrect but understandable conclusion. It’s a wonderfully written chase.

2) Lynette Ridgeway Doyle is a complicated tragic character:

Every murder mystery requires a corpse. In some stories, that’s pretty much all the victim is. However, the main victim is Lynette Ridgeway Doyle –and later Doyle is far more than that.

One big advantage of reading the book over adaptations of it is that you get a better sense of who Lynette Ridgeway Doyle is. It’s easy to define her as simply being a rich woman who could have married any man she wanted but instead stole the fiancé of her good friend Jacqueline Belfour.

Yet, if you read the book, you get a sense that while this was something she did, it wasn’t the totality of who she was. She was diligent in business, and responsible in the way she took care of and tried to help those who were dependent on her. Her friend describes her as a “beneficent tyrant.” She was very much like the best of the gentry of a prior era..

However, she’s fundamentally destroyed by her own pride, even before she makes the decision to snatch Simon Doyle away from her poorer friend Jacqueline. She’s wooed by the Lord Windlesham who really was fond of her. However, she rejects his advances because they both have country places. His having been in the family for centuries and hers she built herself. She feared going from being Queen to being Queen consort. She never alleges Lord Windlesham doesn’t love her. Part of her attraction to Simon Doyle is not only his looks, but the fact he was poor and that she could dominate the relationship easily.

Her decisions to go specifically after her good friend’s beau despite knowing how little she had and how much he meant to her was her truly selfish moment. Poirot condemns it, drawing the parallel between her decision and that of King David’s decision to sleep with Bathsheba in the book of biblical book of 2nd Samuel and the parable the prophet Nathan spoke to David. Poirot refuses to work for her but he does try to stop what’s coming by approaching Jacqueline Belfour.

As the book’s events unfold, Lynette pays the price for her actions. Her ex-friend stalks her and her husband, reminding of her guilt, and on her final voyage she finds herself “surrounded by enemies” as she puts it. As we learn later, while her husband Simon pretends to adore her, it’s all a rouse. He resented her and only married her so he could murder her and take her money. In the end, she’s killed while she sleeps by the man who she thought loved her. At the end of her book, her murder is the talk of the town at the ship’s port of call, but then is subsumed in other news and gossip of the day as she’s quickly forgotten along with her wealth, charm, and beauty.

3) Poirot Tries to Use His Powers to Prevent a Murder

This book raises a fair question for Poirot. If your powers of deduction and observation are so great, why do you only use them to catch murderers rather than preventing murders? The nature of Poirot’s adventures is that he’s usually already present when the murder occurs. Aren’t there warning signs?

Yes, there are and Poirot spots them and tries to head off the murder before it happens. His plea to Jacqueline De Bellefort to turn back and not let evil enter her heart is truly a memorable moment where Poirot makes every effort to dissuade the young woman from the path he sees her on but to no avail.

The book shows that Poirot’s gift and experience may give him an inkling that something bad is going to happen, but it doesn’t make him psychic so he knows every detail of a person’s life and what’s already been planned. Nero Wolfe often said that there was no way he could prevent murder, and this book shows why he made that assertion. Poirot had no clue the degree to which the conspiracy had already been developed, nor how it would be carried out. He only saw the public face. He tried to intervene. He did all he could, but he wasn’t enough.

4. The Book Explores the Perils of Love

Romantic love is exalted throughout literature. It’s a virtue in and of itself. This make’s Hercule Poirot’s statement when he sees Simon and Jacqueline out before Simon goes over to Linnet and he observed that she cared too much for Simon and that it was “not safe.”

At first, this comes out in what appears to be her obsessive following of Simon and Linnet around during their honeymoon, but at the end of the story it’s revealed that when Linnet became interested in him, while Simon was irritated by her efforts, he thought of the idea of marrying Linnet, murdering her within the year, and then marrying Jacqueline and living off her money. Jacqueline goes along with the scheme because she knows Simon will get caught if he tries to attempt the murder on his own because he doesn’t have the brains for it.

This shows Jacqueline cared more for Simon than he did for her because he came up with and was prepared to pursue such an unnatural scheme. It also shows Simon wasn’t worth that level of devotion. I’m not sure whether Christie was going for this, but Simon becomes the male answer to the Femme Fatale: a good-looking guy who attracts the ladies and leads them to ruin.

It also shows the dangers of love when it overrides everything. When it’s freed from ethics, morals, and even self-respect, romantic love can become poisonous.

In Jacqueline’s case, she killed three people (including Simon to save him from facing prosecution in a third world country) before killing herself.

Christie tries to balance the scales in a very unusual way on the whole issue of love. The most bizarre part of Death on the Nile is that two couples get together and get engaged. The Karnak, a ship that has three murders occur on board, becomes a love boat.

The romances, while not particularly realistic, serve as a counterbalance to the unhealthy main relationships as they have a redemptive quality to them. Tim Allerton forsakes his thieving ways to marry Rosalie, whose alcoholic mother was the victim of one of the murders. The other romance is surprising. Ferguson has been trying to court Cornelia Robson, an honest and straightforward woman, in the most obnoxious way possible. He’s a self-styled communist and social radical, which her wealthy cousin whom she’s travelling with would not approve of. Poirot discovers that Ferguson is actually a wealthy aristocrat who her cousin would approve of. With Ferguson’s true identity revealed, Cornelia agrees to marry Dr. Besner instead because she likes him and finds his profession interesting. It’s such a wonderful twist that Cornelia remains true to her character as an honest and forthright person who pursues what she wants rather than falling for the wealthy guy who she thought was a low-born vulgar man just because he turned out to be a wealthy vulgar man.

Sadly, the screen adaptations have messed with these romances, including eliminating Cornelia’s character entirely from the 1978 film.

Overall, Death on the Nile can be enjoyed as just as the great mystery novel it is, but there are also some great depths to the story for those who want to find them.

 

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Graphic Novel Review: Mask of the Red Panda

The Mask of the Red Panda is based on the audio drama podcast written by Gregg Taylor. In this three-issue comic story, the Red Panda and Kit Baxter (aka the Flying Squirrel) investigate a series of strange murders that lead them into a battle with forces of supernatural evil and Nazis. The story’s set in the pulp fiction era, so of course Nazis.

The book captures the flow and spirit of the podcast adventures well bringing our heroes on to the comic page and into the visual media. It moves at a nice pace with plenty of action. I also like the way they deal with magic, but fight with a magic inhibitor device which stops the story from getting too spooky, weird, and out of its typical depth. It’s certainly a better take than many modern superhero stories which become some entirely different series when magical beings come a calling. The art is good and the coloring (while far from natural) isn’t unpleasant.

On the other hand, you might expect something more epic for the trade paperback from a long-running series. This is a decent three-issues story rather than something epic and grand that will make readers demand more Red Panda comics. In addition, some elements don’t quite transfer over from audio to the written page.

In the Red Panda, Kit is not only the Red Panda’s sidekick but his employee as his chauffeur, so she responds to many of his statements with, “Yes, Boss.” In the radio program, Andrea Lyons, the actress who plays her, communicates a lot of what Kit thinks through voice tone as she says it. So “Yes, Boss” can be an acknowledgment or agreement or it can be annoyance, humoring the Red Panda, or something else. You don’t get that sense of expression in the comic and so you have to guess and, without voice tone, “Yes, boss” can be a bit repetitive. In addition, while I appreciate her fighting spirit, there was one panel where I think she went a little too far.

Still, overall this is a decent and nicely written homage to the pulp era that brings a beloved audio drama character to life. If you like pulp heroes like the Shadow or Green Hornet, but would like something a tad less intense than those heroes’ current comic book offerings, this is a worthwhile read even if you haven’t listened to the podcast. If you’re a fan of the Red Panda and the Flying Squirrel, this is a great opportunity to see them in a visual medium.

Rating: 4.0 out of 5.0

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Audiobook Review: Black Mask 1: Doors in the Dark


Doors in the Dark gives is the first of several audiobooks that provide material that first appeared in Black Mask Magazine, perhaps the best known of the crime magazine pulps.

The collection begins with Keith Alen Deutsch’s history of Black Mask. It’s a great listen for fans of classic crime fiction, though skippable if you just want the story.

“Come and Get It,” is written by Erle Stanley Gardener, who’d become a mystery legend for writing Perry Mason. This story features Ed Jenkins, the Phantom Crook. This story is a self-contained short novel but in a series of novels involving the Phantom Crook’s battle with a crime syndicate who is trying to hurt a girl that Jenkins likes. Jenkins has some of the cleverness and cunning that would later be seen in characters like Leslie Charteris’ the Saint. However, he’s also a bit of a throwback to the “Crook with a Heart of Gold” character that was popular in the 1920s, and his sharp self-definition of himself as a “crook” is a dominant. Overall, this story is decent.

“Arson Plus” was originally published by Dashiell Hammett under the pseudonym of Peter Collinson. It’s the first story featuring Hammett’s Continental Op. It’s a quick moving arson case with a very clever solution.

“The Fall Guy” was written by George Harrison Coxe and features Flash Casey, the great crime photographer. Having listened to many episodes of the radio show, “Casey, Crime Photographer,” I found this to be a bit of a treat. The story itself is competent, but not “flashy” with typical noir characters.

“Doors in the Dark,” by Frederick Nebel features Captain Steve McBride investigating the apparent suicide of a friend, but he believes it’s murder. This story is from the series on which the Torchy Blane film series was based, though the series doesn’t feature Torchy with McBride being the hero. Still, there are some madcap/screwball moments in this story that set the tone for the Torchy Blane series.

“Lucky” by Doc Savage creator Lester Dent is one of the few stories featuring his crime solving Ship’s Captain/Insurance Oscar Sail. This story is fast paced and with a bit more violence than any other tale in the collection. Still, quite enjoyable with some clever twists.

Overall, I enjoyed this audiobook, but it’s one of those releases that fall under, “You will like if you like that sort of thing.” One negative review criticized the stories for having the same quality as old time radio. As someone who loves old time radio mysteries, I consider that a positive. The pulp genre is not high literature but much of it is still entertaining in its own way.

Ultimately, this audiobook offers talented narration of a good history of pulp fiction along with five classic pulp stories including a Flash Casey story and tales by the creators of Doc Savage, Perry Mason, and Sam Spade. If that sounds up your alley, then this is definitely an audiobook to pick up.

Rating: 4.0 out of 5.0

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Book Review: The Lone Wolf

The Lone Wolf was a contemporary of Boston Blackie. Like Blackie, the Lone Wolf was a thief turned amateur detective who appeared in silent films, talkies, radio, and eventually television. Like Blackie, the Lone Wolf began in book form.

The Lone Wolf: A Melodrama” by Joseph Vance follows the career of Michael Lanyard, a boy abandoned in Paris to a life of hard labor, who became an apprentice thief and then a master thief who operated alone. He did this on the advice of his mentor who warned Lanyard of the pitfalls of letting his guard down. So Lanyard built a life of crime accompanied by a legitimate front that was a life of luxury, fine art, and expensive homes and solitude, thus why he became known as the Lone Wolf.

However, the Lone Wolf finds his secret veil pierced, and an international criminal syndicate is determined to force him to join with them…or not be able to either work or escape from Paris. On the run, from both the Paris police and this gang of criminals, Lanyard falls in love with the mysterious Lucille Bannon and vows to change his ways to make himself worthy of her. However, it becomes apparent she is not all she seems.

The Lone Wolf has a lot going for it. There’s plenty of plot-related mysteries and character questions to keep readers guessing and engaged. Lanyard is an interesting and sympathetic protagonist. He reminds me of Leslie Charteris’s early portrayal of the Saint, except the Lone Wolf is “tempted” to reform far earlier in his career than Simon Templar.

As the book’s subtitle promises, it has melodramatic moments and speeches which had me rolling my eyes, but Vance did warn readers upfront. The character of Lucille Bannon lacks definition, but that’s part of her being a woman of mystery, I guess. And the villains were more obstacles than real characters.

Despite its flaws, I enjoyed The Lone Wolf. The book has an amazing amount of action: fights, foot chases, car chases, attempted burglaries, and even an airplane chase make this truly action packed, add to that a lot of mystery, romance, and a fair splattering of comedy, and overall The Lone Wolf is an entertaining book that holds far better than you would expect an obscure book from more than a century ago to do.

Rating 3.75 out of 5.0

This book is available for free download through Project Gutenberg.

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Book Review: 400 Things Cops Know


In 400 Things Cops Know, veteran Milwaukee and San Francisco Police patrolmen Adam Plantinga shares his experiences as a 21st Century big city police officer.

The book is divided into nineteen chapters, the first eighteen are centered on subjects ranging from what you would think would be the mundane issues in seasonal policing to the straight dope about shootings and car chases. The final chapter is fifty-four miscellaneous “things” that didn’t fit easily into the proceeding chapters. The “400 things” are a mix of short vignettes, quick tidbits of cop information, and longer reflections on the life and methods of police officers.

Plantinga makes each of these tips engaging. Some are humorous, some are poignant, and others are just plain interesting. Some of these include sharing the advice that when a police officer stops a car full of shady characters to do a search, that the passengers should be seated in a specific manner to avoid a sudden escape or interference with the search.

Or the fact that it’s possible for pedestrians to be hit so hard by a car, they fly out of their shoes.

If you ever wondered about criminals in TV shows and movies who were horrible shots and fire repeatedly at a target without hitting it, that isn’t necessarily unrealistic. “Most bad guys can’t shoot for spit,” writes Plantinga. The book also tells how police officers can recognize a shoplifter.

The book offers several rules of the road for patrolmen that you won’t find in a manual. For example, Plantinga says, if an officer comes across children selling lemonade or raffle tickets for their school or sports team, “you shall buy some, and if you have no cash on you, you shall go to an ATM and procure some.” He further states police officers should give an offending motorist either a ticket or a lecture but that’s “it’s not fair” to give both.

The book goes into deeper and sadder sides of police work in chapters about “being among the Dead,” “Domestic Violence,” and “Hookers and Johns.”  Plantinga’s insights are often poignant and always honest. Often the book’s language reflects the ugly and coarse world many metropolitan policemen operate in.

This insightful book is a must-read for anyone who writes modern day crime fiction. It’s further recommended for anyone who wants to know what real life on the street is like for a modern urban patrolmen.

Rating: 5.0 out of 5.0

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