Keeping Up With The Penguins

Reviews For The Would-Be Booklover

Category: Mystery (page 1 of 2)

And Then There Were None – Agatha Christie

This year (aside from everything else) marks the 100th anniversary of the publication of Agatha Christie’s first mystery novel, the one that introduced the world to our most-beloved detective since Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Poirot. Christie went on to become the Queen of Crime. She has sold over a billion books in English, and another billion in translation. The lady’s got the chops, if popular opinion is anything to go by. So, for my first foray into her body of work, I chose the best-of-the-best: And Then There Were None, which, according to the blurb on this edition, is the world’s “best-selling mystery” with over 100 million copies sold.

(Christie herself also declared it to be the “most difficult” book she ever wrote, by the way.)

Ten strangers are lured to an isolated island mansion. All were brought there under similar false pretenses: an invitation from an old friend, a job offer from an agency, and so forth. On the first evening, while they’re all finishing up dinner, a recorded voice piped into the room by gramophone accuses them all of having a guilty secret. Specifically, each one of them has committed (or contributed to) a murder. By the time they’ve stopped reeling from the announcement, one of the guests is dead.

Obviously, they all decide to get while the getting’s good – who wants to hang around on an island with a corpse, especially when all the living souls there with you know your darkest secret? The thing is, a terrible storm blows up, preventing any boats from traveling to or from the mainland. There’s another death, then another, then another… none of them accidental. Who is the killer? Will anyone survive?

As far as mystery novels go, And Then There Were None demonstrably has a (pardon the pun) killer premise. It’s a locked-room mystery, with a ticking clock.





Alas, I’m going to have to pull us away from the intrigue for a second to address the very obvious elephant in the room. Agatha Christie was… well, a racist, homophobic, shit-storm of a person. If she’d been alive today and had a Twitter account, she would have been publicly flayed for her outrageously prejudiced depictions of her characters that weren’t white and straight. And Then There Were None was originally published as Ten Little N*****s (no, the original title was not censored) in the U.K., and as Ten Little Indians in the U.S. Obviously, those titles are problematic in the extreme.

Both versions were drawn from alternate versions of a nursery rhyme, which (in turn) forms a central part of the novel’s premise (more on that in a minute). Even back at the time of publication, in 1939, the n-word was a bit too contentious for an American audience (thus, the name change). Various editions continued to use the racial slurs, on both sides of the pond, until 1985, when decency finally won out and all references to n*****s and Indians were replaced by “soldiers”. Thus, the nursery rhyme in question is “Ten Soldier Boys”, and the island on which the story takes place is “Soldier Island”.

Still, traces of Christie’s personal prejudices remain. In the first chapter, there’s some truly alarming anti-Semitic remarks. She uses the word “queer” at least fifty times – whether as a slur or a contextually appropriate equivalent of “strange”, it’s difficult to tell, but it’s still discomfiting. Really, it’s a wonder that she even counted the butler and his wife as “people”. As such, I feel obliged to warn all readers up front: if you’re particularly sensitive to these kinds of insensitivity, And Then There Were None (and, in fact, Christie’s entire back-catalogue) is not for you.





But, assuming you can stomach it, let’s get back to the story: in each guest’s room is a framed copy of the Ten Soldier Boys poem. The deaths of the guests follow the pattern of the rhyme: the first chokes to death at dinner, the second “overslept” (i.e., never woke up), and so on. Luckily, this edition includes the poem as an epigraph, because I couldn’t help flicking back to it after each murder to see how it related to the original poem and to try and guess how the next murder might take place. Sure, the whole thing is a bit far-fetched… but it was fun!

And Then There Were None was pretty much what I’d expected, given its age and reputation. It was quaint, and there were some unintentionally hilarious moments (such as the woman who marvels at “how big the sea was!”, and the frequency with which brandy is offered as a cure for fainting), but it also managed to be compelling and clever.

“When you read what happens after that you will not believe it, but you will keep on reading, and as one incredible event is followed by another even more incredible you will still keep on reading. The whole thing is utterly impossible and utterly fascinating. It is the most baffling mystery that Agatha Christie has ever written, and if any other writer has ever surpassed it for sheer puzzlement the name escapes our memory. We are referrinng, of course, to mysteries that have logical explanations, as this one has. It is a tall story, to be sure, but it could have happened.”

Isaac AnDerson, 25 February 1940, The New York Times Book Review

Everything is wrapped up very neatly in the end (no ambiguous fade-to-black endings for the Queen of Crime, no siree!). The epilogue appears in two parts: first, a confused conversation between two Scotland Yard officers attempting to reconstruct the events that took place on Soldier Island; then, a trawler captain finds a message in a bottle, a written confession from the murderer. Normally, I’d be happy to go ahead and spoil the ending (the story is over eighty years old, after all), but seeing as it managed to keep me guessing right up until then, game respects game and all that.

And Then There Were None is the most-adapted Agatha Christie book. In fact, a few of the adaptations she even wrote and produced herself. She famously changed the ending for theater audiences when she wrote the 1943 stage-play, the original version being a bit “too bleak”. Many subsequent adaptations have also used that alternative ending. I like the original, though, and I can’t imagine that a more up-beat version could be any better. All told, And Then There Were None is an (almost) thoroughly enjoyable classic crime novel, a quick and satisfying read (if you can set aside the problematic elements).

My favourite Amazon reviews of And Then There Were None:

  • “Good read!! The pages are smooth! I felt it.” – Mushfiq Ayon
  • “Looking forward to more books by her. Completely enjoyed this….” – Craig S. Pederson
  • “I ordered the book for my sister-in-law who has lost her sight. She also lost the ability to borrow listening tapes from the state during the lockdown. The book was a disappointment as the reader has a heavy accent making it difficult to understand. This isn’t expected since British programs such as the “Crown” and “Keeping up Appearances” are produced without English accents. “ – Marlene Gantt
  • “As you would expect from the Grand Dame. I am more than a bit confused over the epilogue, but I can live with that. Unlike the 10 Little Indians. “ – Mike

Gone Girl – Gillian Flynn

It is nothing short of miraculous that I’ve managed to go so long – over eight years, including the release of a wildly successful film adaptation – without reading Gone Girl. It’s doubly miraculous, surely, that I managed to avoid spoilers that whole time, too. But the jig is up, and I’m buckling down. Gone Girl is a crime thriller/mystery novel by American writer, Gillian Flynn. It came on the crest of the wave of “psychological thrillers”. In fact, given how many copies it sold (over two million in the first year alone), how long it spent on the best-seller lists, the extent to which it has permeated the popular consciousness, we might say that Gone Girl was the typhoon that caused the wave to begin with.

Nick Dunne’s wife, Amy, disappears on the morning of their fifth wedding anniversary. There’s a sign of a struggle in the living room, but no other real clues as to where she’s gone. The police suspect Nick was involved somehow in her disappearance, but he swears he had nothing to do with it. That’s how Gone Girl begins.

Flynn deftly weaves in their back-story, in the form of Amy’s diary entries. Nick and Amy had a fairy tale meet-cute and courtship. They married after dating for two years, merging seamlessly into one another. But when the global financial crisis hit, they both lost their jobs (Nick as a pop-culture writer for a magazine, Amy as a personality-quiz creator).

This change in circumstance all but forced them to leave cosmopolitan New York, moving to Nick’s hometown in backwater Mississippi. There, he opened a bar with his twin sister (borrowing the last of Amy’s family money to do so), and focused on caring for his terminally ill mother and demented father. Meanwhile, Amy… did nothing much, really, until she disappeared.

Flynn has borrowed from a few different sources to put this plot together. She used her own experience of being laid off from her job as a writer for Entertainment Weekly. She has also said that she was inspired by the real-life disappearance of Laci Peterson in 2002. It’s a strange mix, but damn, it’s delicious.





Nick and Amy’s perspectives alternate throughout the novel. They describe their marriage in very different ways, each (obviously) more sympathetic to their own cause and critical of the other. Both narrators feel unsteady, unreliable, but it’s not exactly clear why… at first. Every character in Gone Girl – from the married couple to the childhood friends to the greasy lawyer – exists in a murky grey area. No one is entirely likeable or unlikeable, trustworthy or untrustworthy, hero or villain.

The “big twist” comes almost exactly half-way through. Amy isn’t who she’s been telling us she is in her diary entries. At first, the switch felt a bit jarring, too extreme to be believable. But I went with it, and stopped using “believability” as a criterion by which I gauged my enjoyment of the story. I quickly found it added a whole new dimension to an already-complex plot. Plus, it was a great subversion of the kind of “suspense” we expect from these kinds of novels. The reader is forced to change gears, from wondering whether Nick Dunne was actually involved in his wife’s disappearance and waiting for the “big twist”, to wondering where on earth the story could possibly go after the truth is revealed.

I debated long and hard whether to discuss the details of the “big twist” here on Keeping Up With The Penguins. I mean, they’ve already been discussed and debated elsewhere at length – even some publicity materials have at least alluded to them. Plus, I don’t really believe in “spoilers” (if you don’t want to know what happens in a book, what the heck are you doing here?). But in the end, I had to concede: I won’t reveal all, just on the off chance that there’s some other Keeper Upperer out there who hasn’t read Gone Girl yet and would like to someday. The reading experience will definitely be better, as it is with all thrillers, if you don’t see what’s coming.

(What I will say, for those who already know, is that I really liked the ending. That might be a controversial position, as I’ve seen other reviewers bemoan it for being “unrealistic”, but I thought it was very fitting. I really appreciated that Flynn avoided the neat-bow-around-everything approach of so many other contemporary crime thriller writers. So, there.)





I was pleasantly – if weirdly – surprised by Gone Girl. I wasn’t going to stay-up-all-night to finish it, the way the schlocky blurbs promised I would, but I was always curious to see what happened next. I was particularly impressed by the complexity of the characters, and the way that Flynn weaved intriguing, tantalising hints into the story. In the Battle Of The Girls (Gone Girl versus The Girl On The Train), this one definitely comes out on top.

The film adaptation was released in 2014, written by Flynn herself and starring Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike. I’m actually planning to watch it – a very rare outcome, but one that should be a testament to how much I enjoyed Gone Girl. I’m also keen to read Flynn’s other books (Sharp Objects, in particular, comes highly recommended), though I worry that they couldn’t possibly “live up” now that my expectations have been elevated. But even if they don’t, at least Flynn will already have a win on her record.

My favourite Amazon reviews of Gone Girl:

  • “Too many sexual remarks that were not necessary” – Tonga
  • “This is a great book, the shipping was fast, but the book was somewhat dirty. I had to wipe off dust.” – Esmerelda
  • “I would rather read an offensively revisionist middle school history textbook from a religious private school in a red state cover to cover once a week for the rest of my life then have to read this again. So you hate yourself go ahead and give somebody money for it and insult yourself by reading it. Trash.” – DangItBobby
  • “I didn’t like what was revealed in the middle of the.book because it should have been revealed near the end of the book. I went to Wikipedia to read a review and I shouldn’t have. The idiot who did the review disclosed the whole story of what happened in the second part of the book. When I read a mystery I want the main event to be revealed at the end of the book not in the middle” – Bruce
  • “Wife loved it.” – Jeremiah

The Big Sleep – Raymond Chandler

So, I’m not particularly familiar with Raymond Chandler, but for crime fiction fans he’s basically God. Anthony Burgess once said: “Chandler is an original stylist, creator of a character, Philip Marlowe, as immortal as Sherlock Holmes“. That’s some mighty comparison! The Big Sleep is Chandler’s best-known novel, published in 1939, and it was the first to feature that immortal Sherlockian detective.

Everyone comes to The Big Sleep for Chandler’s descriptions of Los Angeles, and he was certainly an evocative place writer, but I personally loved his characterisations most of all. I got a lot of smirks out of descriptions like: “He sounded like a man who had slept well and didn’t owe too much money” = brilliant! That said, Chandler was far from perfect when it came to plotting. The Big Sleep is complex, criss-crossing, and full of holes, like a hand-knitted jumper from a kindly arthritic grandma. So, bear with me as I try to explain…

Private investigator Philip Marlowe is having a grand old life, being vaguely sexist and drinking a lot of hard liquor, when he gets a call from wealthy patriarch General Sternwood. Sternwood wants Marlowe to “deal with” a recent blackmail attempt on his daughter, Carmen. And Marlowe won’t have to work too hard, because they’ve already fingered the culprit: bookseller Arthur Geiger, whose bookselling operation is actually a front for his illegal pornography trade.

Oh, and there’s the small matter of Sternwood’s son-in-law, husband of his other daughter Vivian: Rusty Regan has disappeared off the face of the earth. Vivian puts the heavies on Marlowe herself, trying to figure out whether he’s on that case, too. But mostly, it’s the blackmailing thing. Sternwood tells Marlowe to deal with that as a priority.

So, off Marlowe trots to investigate this “bookseller” Geiger, starting with a good old-fashioned stakeout at his house. He sees Carmen walk in, but doesn’t follow her, figuring he’ll wait and see what happens… and then he hears gunshots, and screaming. He heads inside and finds Geiger dead, Carmen drugged and naked, both sprawled out in front of an empty camera.

First thing’s first: he gets Carmen into a jacket and home safe. But, upon returning, he finds Geiger’s body has disappeared. Uh oh.



The next day, the coppers come around and tell Marlowe that the Sternwoods’ car was driven off a cliff with the chauffeur still inside (but he was whacked around the head before the car hit the water, so at least he didn’t suffer). They also grill Marlowe about whether he’s chasing after Regan. Seriously, every other minute someone’s pestering Marlowe about this missing Regan bloke – I can’t think of a single character that doesn’t ask him about it at some point.

Anyway, still on the blackmailing case, Marlowe heads back to Geiger’s bookstore and sees his porn stash being moved to the home of one Joe Brody. Before he can figure out what to do about that, Vivian hits him up, telling him Carmen is still being blackmailed, but now with nude photos from the night before. She also tells him, just casually, that she likes gambling at a casino belonging to Eddie Mars, whose wife (she suspects) ran off with Regan.

To his credit, Marlowe doesn’t take the bait straight away. He heads back to Geiger’s house first, and finds Carmen trying to break in. They search for the nudes together, with no luck, and she plays dumb about what happened the night before. Then Eddie Mars, the casino owner, coincidentally shows up. He says he’s Geiger’s landlord and he’s looking for him. He and Marlowe have a pissing contest.



Are you lost and confused yet? I hope not, because we’re not even halfway through! With all the crossing and double-crossing, it’s easy to lose track of who’s doing what to whom. Plus, I’m not sure I quite buy how often Marlowe “just happened” to witness a murder, or arrive on the scene while the body’s still warm…

Next, Marlowe heads over to Joe Brody’s, where they’re stashing the porn. He works out Brody is in cahoots with Geiger’s clerk, Agnes. He tells them both the jig is up: he knows about the porn, he knows about the blackmail… but before he can finish them, Carmen breaks in and tries to shoot them both. Marlowe gets the gun off her, thank goodness (a strumpet with a temper and a firearm is not a good combination), and he tells her to head out, he’s got this.

Geiger was, in fact, the one initially blackmailing Carmen. The (now dead) chauffeur, Owen Taylor, didn’t like it much, because he had the hots for her. He snuck in and killed Geiger, and took the nudes out of the camera for safekeeping. Brody had also been staking out the house (how did he and Marlowe not run into each other?), and he followed Owen when he left. He knocked the driver out, stole the nudes, then decided to do a little blackmailing of his own.



Then – bam! Geiger’s lover shows up, and shoots Brody dead. He thought Brody was the one who killed Geiger, and wanted to get some revenge. Also, he admits, he was the one who hid Geiger’s body – he wanted to get all of his stuff out of the house before anyone figured out they were more than friends (this was the ’30s, after all).

So, case solved! Yay! All the blackmailers are dead, happy days. But Regan’s disappearance is still troubling Marlowe – probably because everyone around him won’t shut up about it. The cops aren’t that concerned though; they figure he just ran off with Mrs Mars, like Vivian said.

Now, we meet Henry Jones (yes, Chandler is still introducing new characters, and they all have super-generic names – ack!). He offers to sell Marlowe the location of Mrs Mars, but he doesn’t get the chance, because Eddie has him killed. The Big Sleep‘s death toll is now up to four. Luckily, Marlowe manages to squeeze the information out of Agnes instead. He finds Mrs Mars (killing Eddie’s henchman in the process – that’s five!), only for her to tell him that she hasn’t seen Regan in months. Dead end, after all that!

With hat in hand, Marlowe goes to see his client. But Sternwood ups the stakes, offering him $1,000 for Regan’s whereabouts. Marlowe quickly decides that this isn’t the moment to give up. On his way out the door, he returns Carmen’s gun to her, and she asks him to take her down the back paddock and teach her how to shoot. Fair enough, he thinks, but as soon as they get out there she decides to use him as the target.



But Marlowe, being a clever bugger, has loaded the gun with blanks. Carmen immediately falls into a (very convenient) seizure, which saves her from having to explain herself. He carries her up to the house, and he and Vivian finally piece it all together. A while back, Carmen came on to Regan and he rejected her, so she killed him (as she just tried to do with Marlowe). Eddie Mars, who had been an investor in Geiger’s little porno enterprise, had helped Vivian cover it up. He disposed of the body, and invented a cock-and-bull story about his wife running off with the dead guy. Vivian claims she did it all to keep her father from finding out his other daughter was a psychopath, and she promises to get Carmen locked up in a nice cozy mental institution.

So, to celebrate a job well done, Marlowe heads down the pub. He downs a few scotches, muses briefly on death, and tells the bartender he has the hots for Mrs Mars but can’t be bothered to do anything about it. The title, The Big Sleep, is Marlowe’s euphemism for death that he uses in those final pages.

The Big Sleep, like most of Marlowe’s novels, was written by what he called “cannibalising” his short stories. Chandler would take stories he had already published and rework them into a coherent novel. For The Big Sleep, he mashed together his short stories Killer In The Rain (1935) and The Curtain (1936). Although the stories were independent, and shared no characters, they ran along similar lines – an old powerful bloke whose daughter is stressing him out, basically.



As might be expected, all of this cannibalising sometimes produced a plot with a few loose ends. The famously unanswered question in The Big Sleep is who killed the chauffeur, Owen? I mean, logic would suggest that it must have been Brody, but Chandler never confirmed it – in fact, when the question was put to him, he said he had no idea. To him, plot was less important than atmosphere and characterisation (and it shows). An ending that answered every question mattered less to Chandler than interesting characters, so bear that in mind when you pick this one up.

The Big Sleep is quite similar to one of my other recent reads, The Maltese Falcon, in a lot of ways, but I think I preferred Hammett’s style. If you’re a dedicated crime/detective mystery reader, though, The Big Sleep would be a good one for you – you’ll be well practiced at following the twists and turns, and it’s clearly a classic of the genre.

If you’re not sure, you can try before you buy. There have been a bunch of different adaptations into almost every format – most famously a 1946 film starring Humphrey Bogart (naturally). I’m not sure I’ll read The Big Sleep again, but I’d be keen to give the movie a go – it reads like it would translate really well into film.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Big Sleep:

  • “Lime gimlets. What more do I need to say.” – AH Jones
  • “I read a great deal and have read nothing better. Frequently not as well crafted. Correct as to the time period. Yes I’m that old.” – cain paul the less than apostle
  • “a classic that doesnt dissapoint. named my cat marlowe.” – ssfn
  • “Book showed up good. Had pages and ever thing.” – Ken Johnson
  • “chandler like so many authors puts too many non essentials in his plots make them a little too much boring” – Astan papemazon Customer
  • “Descriptive wording. Love that.” – Lynne B.
  • “A good reader. Turnpager.” – Maycoon


The Maltese Falcon – Dashiell Hammett

If you’ve ever found yourself reading a detective mystery and wondering “but, wait, could that really happen to a reallife detective?”, The Maltese Falcon might be the book for you. Dashiell Hammett was an American writer, but before that he was an actual real-life detective. He’s now regarded as one of the masters of detective fiction, and The Maltese Falcon (first published in 1930) is perhaps his best-known work. He didn’t promise his readers that it would be a true-to-life story, but his background gives him a lot of credibility, don’t you think?

The first thing you need to know about The Maltese Falcon is that it is told from a fly-on-the-wall perspective. Hammett doesn’t describe (or even hint at) any of the characters’ internal worlds, thoughts, or feelings. It’s up to the reader to guess for themselves each character’s motivations and secrets, based purely on his descriptions of what they say and do. Hammett took this style of writing to a new post-Hemingway extreme, and I know this next comment might be controversial, but I stand by it: Hammett does it way better than Papa ever did.

Plus, it’s a really clever approach to writing a detective fiction novel when you think about it. Without too much effort on Hammett’s part, he’s able to keep the reader guessing, and he doesn’t have to tie himself up in knots to keep a character’s internal monologue from giving away the ending.

I suppose this is as good a place as any to offer a boilerplate spoiler warning, too; The Maltese Falcon is a mystery novel, after all. I find it practically impossible to properly discuss or review a book without spoilers, so don’t read on if you don’t want to find out whodunnit.



There’s a lot of mini-mysteries within this book, a lot of red herrings and blind paths. Despite its paltry page count, it’s a rather intricate story of double- and triple-crossings. So, that makes it kind of hard to break down – I’ll do my darnedest!

The big dick is Sam Spade, a private detective working in San Francisco, with his business partner Miles Archer. And I do mean “big dick”, in every sense of the word; it’s the 1930s, he’s the boss, so it’s very old school with lots of calling secretaries in tight dresses “darling” and stuff like that.

Spade and Archer are going about their usual business when in comes one Miss Wonderly, and wants a guy followed. She says Floyd Thursby ran off with her sister, and she wants them to keep an eye on him. They take the job, and Archer takes the first shift on the guy’s tail.

Later that night, Archer is found dead, and shortly thereafter Thursby is found dead, too. Sam Spade becomes the prime suspect in both murders, as it turns out he was shagging Archer’s wife on the side, and Miss Wonderly wasn’t entirely honest about her reasons for wanting Thursby followed…

Miss Wonderly confesses that she’s using a fake name (no kidding). She’s actually an “acquisitive adventuress” by the name of Brigid O’Shaughnessy, She’s tied up in an international hunt for a treasure they call the Maltese Falcon (thus, the title).

Then, we get some back-story: in the 16th century, the knights of Malta made a statue of gold and jewels to present as a gift to the King of Spain, but it was intercepted and stolen by pirates. The statue passed from owner to owner over the years, and one of them covered it in black enamel to conceal its true value from would-be thieves. A man by the name of Casper Gutman had been tracing the history of the Maltese Falcon for years, and when he found out it was in the possession of a Russian exile living in Constantinople, he paid Brigid O’Shaughnessy to secure it for him.



Brigid worked with Thursby, and another bloke called Joel Cairo (who Hammett only ever describes as being Greek and gay, we don’t really learn anything else about him). They managed to get the falcon off the Russian, but Brigid’s no fool; she realised how much the thing was worth, and decided to cash in. She hid it on a ship that was setting sail for San Francisco, then she and Thursby went on ahead, planning to meet it there. Gutman, meanwhile, none too pleased with his prize being whipped out from under his nose like that, followed hot on their heels, and enlisted the services of a vicious gunman called Wilmer Cook.

It takes Sam Spade a while to piece this story together, especially seeing as he starts shagging Brigid O’Shaughnessy and she’s determined he find out as little as possible. Sex is a good way to stop a detective asking questions, I suppose, but it only works for so long. Plus, they’ve both got cops coming at them from all directions, because they know something smells funny with this whole deal (and there’s the unsolved murders of Thursby and Archer hanging over their heads).

The Maltese Falcon falls into Spade’s possession when a wounded ship captain stumbles into his office, hands it over, and promptly dies. It seems like a stroke of very good luck, and I think that’s the only way Hammett could think of to keep the story moving forward. Spade’s a real mensch, though, and he doesn’t seem at all tempted to keep the falcon for himself… but he’s not quite so high-and-mighty that he doesn’t use it to negotiate a good deal.

Spade outsmarts O’Shaughnessy, Gutman, Wilmer, and Cairo at every turn. He ends up getting them to agree to pay him $10,000 for the falcon, and use Wilmer as the fall-guy into the bargain (seeing as, Spade explains, they’ll need someone to take the rap for all the murders, and Wilmer is a real arsehole so it might as well be him). Happy ending, right?



Wrong! The falcon, it turns out, is a fake! *Gasps*

Wilmer escapes, seeing no reason to hang around and take the fall for murders now. Gutman and Cairo decide to keep searching for the real falcon together, and off they trot. O’Shaughnessy starts planning a new life for herself with her new boyfriend Spade… only our big dick has put on his detective hat, and he’s worked out it was she who killed Archer and Thursby, back when this whole thing kicked off. He’s had a bloody gut-full of the lot of them, to be honest. He turns snitch, handing them all over to the cops, and wipes his hands clean. The story ends with Spade back in his office, back to normal, and Archer’s widow showing up to “talk”…

And there we have it: a twisty-turny detective mystery thriller, with a hint of the hunt for pirate treasure and a bare-bones love story to keep things interesting.

It’s a surprisingly Woke book (tight-dressed “darling” secretaries and reductive gay representation aside), given the time period in which it was written. The female characters were surprisingly complex, even if they were objectified at every turn. Hammett was a pretty cool dude, and he devoted much of his life to left-wing activism and anti-fascist movements. Those philosophies clearly seeped into his work, which is markedly absent the racism and brutal sexism of so many other books of that era.

Spade is an amalgamation of all those hard-nosed detective tropes we know and love: cold, detached, observant, ruthless, unsentimental, determined, with a keen sense of justice and a willingness to bend the rules to see it administered. There was endless speculation, upon release of The Maltese Falcon and a handful of lesser-known short stories also featuring the character, that Spade was based on a real-life detective that Hammett had encountered in his former work, but he vehemently denied it.

“Spade has no original. He is a dream man in the sense that he is what most of the private detectives I worked with would like to have been, and, in their cockier moments, thought they approached.”

Dashiell hammett

I only realised later that this book was the basis of the 1941 film noir classic of the same name. It stars Humphrey Bogart, which is perfect casting – as I was reading, I kept picturing Spade as a Bogart-esque figure. There have been a few other film adaptations made since then as well, but that one remains the best, according to basically every film critic ever.

The Maltese Falcon is formulaic, by today’s standards, but it’s also fast and fun to read. It’s not particularly challenging, but you do need to focus your attention, because it moves fast and it’s a short book to begin with. There’s not a lot of room for your mind to wander between plot points! Keep your wits about you, or you’ll lose track of what’s going on and where allegiances lie in the hunt for this golden bird statue…

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Maltese Falcon:

  • “Awesome very different than the movie Bogart character was BLONDE!” – Debra Anderson
  • “Didn’t care for this book too much. Sam Spade is not a nice guy. Nuts to him.” – Phillip Marlowe
  • “classic af
    love living in San Francisco and I can literally visit the spots that are in the book. . .with this being said hire me someone! Marketing – is me at this time..” – Louis Quinteros
  • “Holy crap, if people were really this stupid in the early 20th century it’s surprising the human race has developed to the level it is in now. The characters are all dumb dumbs even the supposed bright private investigator is a dumb dumb. The book plays out like a boring episode of Scooby Doo if the characters were all victims of self inflicted anoxic brain injuries patients from trying to breath under waters.
    The ending which is supposed to be dramatic (I guess?..) is really dull and leaves me yelling at Sam the detective to shut up and call the police to arrest the woman already, but no it plays out like this: Semi-Spoiler Alert:

    Dumb detective: “I don’t know if I love you or not, sure we’ve known each other less than a week and may have banged once. Maybe that is love, maybe it isn’t. Don Draper from Mad Men isn’t alive yet to use creative marketing to tell us what love is. So like I said how can I know for sure if we’re in love?”
    Dumb Lady: “Oh Sam, I do love you, sure your contemplating calling the police because I straight up murdered your business partner and royally screwed over the other criminals I was working with but, I would never do that to you…”
    Dumb Detective: “That maybe, but I still don’t know if I can trust you. I think the best thing will be to still arrest you, maybe when you get out of jail, if you don’t get the death penalty, we can be a couple because that seems like the reasonable and responsible thing to do. Especially since I’ve known you for a week and you murdered my business partner and pretty much lied since we met.”
    Dumb Lady: “I guess.”

    The End” – Todd K.


The Lake House – Kate Morton

Once again, I’ve reached a point where I’ve read too many dead white dudes back-to-back. I need to get back to lady business! It’s one of the most important lessons that I’ve learned in the course of the Keeping Up With The Penguins project: variety is really important to me in my reading life. If I read too many of the same kinds of books in a row, it makes me feel like a caged animal. So, this week, I turn to an Australian woman writer to break me out: Kate Morton, with her international best-seller The Lake House.

The Lake House is Morton’s sixth novel, published back in 2015 (The Clockmaker’s Daughter is her most recent offering, and it made a real splash at the end of last year). She is one of Australia’s biggest literary exports since Colleen McCullough, with international sales at ten million books and growing. Every single one of her titles has made the New York Times Best Seller List. She’s also, for some strange reason, really big in Canada. So, my expectations going into this one were pretty high.

Morton and I actually have quite a bit in common. She’s a fellow Queenslander-by-birth, and we both grew up loving Enid Blyton and dreaming about snowy England and adventures in moors and forests with the Famous Five and the Secret Seven. When she sat down to write The Lake House, she was based in Brisbane, but she decided to set the story in Cornwall as a kind of tourism-of-the-mind experiment.

Perhaps she got swept away with her life-long romanticisation of the English landscape, perhaps she’s just naturally wordy: either way, her writing in The Lake House was extremely descriptive right from the outset. In practically every sentence, she described a smell, a sight, a taste, or a sound. That doesn’t bother me at all – I’m more than happy to read a doorstop novel that describes every facet of a world (real or imaginary) – but I know it gets up some readers’ noses, so I thought I’d offer a warning straight-up.



What did bother me, though, was the bloody timeline(s)! There were three, for crying out loud! And all told from different perspectives! The 2003 timeline focuses on a detective called Sadie, the 1933 focuses on a young aspiring writer named Alice, and the 1914(ish) timeline focuses on Alice’s mother, Eleanor. And, if that’s not tricky enough, they all criss-cross and overlap, so you end up reading Alice’s 2003 story and Eleanor’s 1933 story as well. Oy! I understand why writers do this – they’re being very clever, drip-feeding the story to the reader, et cetera, et cetera – but having to triple-check the dates at the beginning of each chapter, and flip back-and-forth to piece together the chronology for myself, really takes me out of it. Hmph!

I’ll straighten out the timeline as best I can for the purposes of this review, but it ain’t easy. Also, spoilers abound, yadda yadda yadda – this book is recent enough to warrant at least a perfunctory warning.

Back in 1914, a young woman (Eleanor) fell in love with a bloke, married him, and popped out a few kids (one of them being Alice, the would-be writer). Hubby went away to war, came back a bit upset, but he seemed mostly okay. In 1933, when Alice was 16, they threw a “Midsummer Eve” party, but it all went to hell when their youngest child (Theo, an infant) disappeared while everyone was out having a good time. Yikes!



Alice, at the time, blamed herself for the disappearance. She was in love with the family’s gardener, and showed him a book she had written about how to kidnap a kid without getting caught. And, surprise surprise, the gardener goes missing at the same time as the kid. She never mentions any of this to the cops, though, and she spends her whole life trying to put it behind her by building a fabulously successful literary career.

The family home sits abandoned for decades, until 2003, when Sadie – a police detective on “enforced leave” for speaking to journos about a case she believed her department bungled – comes across it while out on a run. She does a little digging, and hears about the (still unsolved) case of the missing child. She starts asking questions, trying to figure out what the heck went down that night, and follows her nose through the whole mystery.

Yes, it’s a mystery novel, but one set outside the system of law enforcement. I appreciated that Sadie was, y’know, a lady, and not a gruff, cynical, end-of-his-career, whiskey-swilling male detective. That was the main basis of The Lake House‘s appeal, to be honest. Also, despite the sex-and-death stakes, this is actually a very “clean” read. All the dirty bits take place out of sight for the reader, so if that’s your preference in literature you’re onto a winner here.



Morton uses a third-person perspective the whole way through, but privileges each of the main characters in their own timeline, which really cleverly highlights the different perspectives each character has on the “truth” of the matter. It turns out Alice wasn’t the only one who blamed herself for Theo’s disappearance – both of her sisters also had reasons to believe they caused the kidnapping in some indirect way, and they all felt very differently about their mother’s behaviour (and Eleanor, of course, thinks of herself in much kinder terms than any of them). Morton weaves in various subplots and unspoken character motivations, which leads to her effectively braiding the three stories together (the story of a missing child, the story of an abandoned child, and the story of an adopted child). That’s in addition to the standard mystery-trope red herrings and big twists. So, I can concede that The Lake House wouldn’t have worked if Morton had tried to tell the story in any kind of chronological or linear style (but the jumpy timeline was still bloody annoying).

Morton has said that she long wanted to write a story about a child’s disappearance. Most readers would (reasonably) assume that she drew her inspiration from the disappearance of the Lindbergh baby (which also happened in 1933), but she has said she was actually thinking more of the case of the Beaumont children, who disappeared here in Australia in 1966. It’s clear that she had motherhood on her mind as she was writing; indeed, she was pregnant with her youngest child at the time, and it really comes across in the pages (and pages!) she devotes to the bond between mothers and infants. But that’s not to say that all of the mothers in The Lake House are Virgin Mary types, far from it! In fact, all of them are strong, but deeply flawed, and they spend a lot of time feeling sorry for themselves for various reasons.

The World Wars (both I and II) also play major roles in the narrative, and serve as turning points in the plot. When Alice’s father/Eleanor’s husband returned from WWI, he was actually far more “shell shocked” than he initially appeared, with attacks of grief and anxiety and anger that could turn violent. WWII, later in the story, kills one of Alice’s sisters, preventing her from revealing what she knows of Theo’s disappearance.



In fact, each of the sisters held one of the keys to the big mystery of Theo’s disappearance – if only they’d been capable of communicating like fucking grown-ups, the whole mess would have been sorted out long before Sadie came along. I’m going to give you a pared-down version of what happened (apologies to Morton). Deborah, the eldest sister, knew that her father was experiencing severe symptoms of shell shock that couldn’t be controlled and put all of the children at risk. Alice knew that the object of her affections, Ben Munro (the family gardener), was familiar with strategies for making a child disappear, had the means to make it happen, and coincidentally had a barren friend who desperately wanted a child. Clementine, the youngest sister, knew that Eleanor (their mother) was having an affair with Ben Munro The Gardener, and (once she grew up a bit) could have connected the dots and worked out that Theo was in fact Ben’s son, not their father’s. Yep, Eleanor was screwing the help, and it all ended in tears. If Clementine had lived long enough to tell Alice that part of the mystery, and Alice in turn had passed it on to Deborah, it all would have come to a head quite quickly.

Instead, it took an outsider with her own axe to grind sticking her nose in where it didn’t belong. Most of The Lake House is iterations of Sadie trying to get the remaining sisters to spill their secrets and sorting through the red herrings. Oh my goodness, so many red herrings! There isn’t a single character Morton didn’t want the reader to think did it, at one point or another. In the end, Sadie gets to the truth of it: Eleanor and Ben “kidnapped” Theo, to save him from the wrath of Eleanor’s shell-shocked husband, whom they feared would hurt the kid in one of his turns. And it turns out (drumroll please) that Sadie’s own grandfather is the long-lost Theo. There you have it. Everyone’s a winner!

(Oh, and Morton totally ripped off my “whydunnit” phrase, which you’ll recall I trademarked back when I reviewed In Cold Blood. Either that, or I’m not as brilliant and unique a creative mind as I thought…)

I wouldn’t say the mystery of The Lake House gripped me – I was more mildly curious about how it would turn out. I wouldn’t have cancelled plans to stay at home reading, but I wasn’t ever inclined to abandon it either. The ending was satisfying, and I didn’t guess the “truth” of it a hundred pages in (and thank goodness for that, or forcing myself through the remaining five hundred pages would have been a real slog). I did find the big reveal to be a bit of a set-up, though, as though Morton was just wallopping the reader with a very heavy-handed reminder that all mothers deeply, truly, no-matter-what love their children, and blood is thicker than water and all of that. Still, the ending is very neat, and it ties up all of the loose ends. As nice as it was to vacation in Lady Land for a while, I’ll happily confess that my favourite character was actually Edwina, the golden retriever. She was the one I connected with most of all. Make of that what you will.

My favourite Amazon reviews of The Lake House:

  • “This is asking too much from me. This is not something I want to do. I think it is silly for everyone to do it.” – Jessie
  • “Wait to long! To much description. Interesting” – Patricia Paez
  • “A LONDON COP OF LEAVE GOES TO VISIT HER GRANDFATHER AND FINDS AN OLD ABANDONED HOUSE. THE TWISTS AND TURNS WILL THRILL YOU AND THE ENDING WILL ALSO, I’LL BET YOU CAN’T FIGURE IT OUT, I COULDN’T EVEN THOUGH I TRIED.” – SUSAN F
  • “I love to read but I chose not to finish it and waste my time.” – Patricia Sheyka
  • “Is she serious with this ending??? Total crap. Cornier than Cornwall itself.” – Karen
  • “Slower than crap. Worst book ever.” – Jessica A. Stice
  • “No literary quality as hoped. My first (and, last) Kate Morton book. Thin broth, indeed.” – David A. Oxford
  • “Silly little Soap Opera. Expected Amelia Earhart to come out of the bushes as a long lost Great Aunt there at the end. It’s a good thing daughters are ignorant of household secrets and they don’t talk to each after the man event for seventy or so years. ;-)” – richard briddick


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