2015 Reading Challenge – Book #22 – The Secret of Terror Castle

Book #22 – A book from your childhood – The Secret of Terror Castle by Robert Arthur (Alfred Hitchcock and The Three Investigators #1)
Genre: Young Adult/Mystery/Suspense/Adventure
Published: 1964
Country: USA

The Secret of Terror Castle

Confession: Until a couple of years ago, I used to think that The Three Investigators’ series was actually written by Mr. Alfred Hitchcock himself. My mistake was justified since the couple of books that I possess from this series have the name Alfred Hitchcock on the cover (they don’t even say Alfred Hitchcock and The Three Investigators as it is named), and all the books of course have introductions by him as well. However, I just found out from Wikipedia that the actual author Robert Arthur used the famous director’s name as one of the main supporting characters in the series’ to draw attention to his books. I was also under the impression that the protagonists were at least 16 or 17 years old when in fact they were about 13 or 14. So many revelations!

The Secret of Terror Castle is the very first book in the original series of 43 books which was published from 1964 – 1987. In this exciting debut of the three investigators, we are introduced to three young teenage boys who live in Rocky Beach, a few kilometers away from Hollywood. Jupiter “Jupe” Jones who is the ‘stocky’ (read: chubby) main brains of the group, Peter “Pete” Crenshaw who is the most athletic and Robert “Bob” Andrews, is the nerdy, studious one in charge of records and research. Their business cards say that they “investigate anything”.

TTI - Business CardUsing initiative, ingenuity and his superbly crafted grey cells, Jupiter secures their very first case as investigators from Mr. Hitchcock himself. The three are employed or rather ‘reluctantly permitted’ to find an authentic haunted house for Mr. Hitchcock’s next film. In return, Jupiter asks Mr. Hitchcock to introduce their very first case should they be successful in solving it (aah, that cleared up my earlier misunderstanding). Mr. Hitchcock is not happy dealing with the three boys but agrees to do it to get them out of his….errrr…hair, whatever little he has of it.

Alfred Hitchcock

“I’ll introduce whatever you write about your case.”

Even though Pete and Bob are not keen to mingle around with ghosts, they are duty-bound by Jupiter whose curiosity and the thrill of a challenge gets the better of him. And so the three set out to investigate a haunted castle which Jupiter has found, aptly known as Terror Castle. The castle, which was owned by a silent movie actor Stephen Terrill, now deceased has been abandoned for several decades and whoever has tried to inhabit it since then, has been driven away in sheer terror by various freaky paranormal incidents. It is up to the three to find out if it is in fact a real haunted castle or not.

Now, I have loved The Three Investigators since my early teenage years so I was quite eager to revisit this series because somehow I had never read the first book which started it all. There’s a right mix of excitement, suspense, thrill, fear, adventure and Jupiter’s cheekiness and intelligence to make it a good young adult mystery of the 60’s. The main supporting characters are all well etched – Mr. and Mrs. Titus Jones, Jupiter’s aunt and uncle who are owners of a salvage yard, Worthington, who is the proper, polite British chauffeur of a Rolls Royce that Jupiter has won the use of and of course Mr. Hitchcock who needs no introductions.

As a lover of secret hidey-holes like sheds, tree-houses, islands and caves as mentioned in The Famous Five, The Secret Seven and The Five Find-Outers, I have obviously loved the Headquarters of The Three Investigators as well. I mean, who wouldn’t want to have an office made up of a rusty old trailer fully equipped with a printing press, a telephone, speaker system, microphone and accessible via more than one secret entrance which no normal person can find? It was always a childish fantasy of mine to have a little private cubbyhole or nook where I could hold my own meetings and plan adventures.

The Three Investigators HQ

The Three Investigators’ Headquarters

Why should you read this book? Because it’s short, it’s snappy, there’s lots of thrill and excitement to keep you satisfied and it’s reminiscent of a much simpler time devoid of mobile phones, laptops and other modern technology. If your childhood memories were filled with Enid Blyton, Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys, you’ll definitely love this one. If not, you should still give it a go.

Book Rating: 4 stars out of 5

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2015 Reading Challenge – Book #19 – The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie

Book #19 – A book by an author you’ve never read before – The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie by Alan Bradley
Genre: Murder Mystery/Crime
Published: 2009
Country: Canada
Book to Movie/TV Adaptation: TV Adaptation in-development produced by Sam Mendes

The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie - Alan Bradley

Take a glass beaker and fill halfway with water. Now using a pipette, take some of Miss Marple’s amateur sleuthing skills, a splash of Hercule Poirot’s gray cells, a few drops of Nancy Drew’s spunk and determination, a dash of Houdini and a whole lot of Friedrich Wöhler’s passion for organic chemistry and shake vigorously. Voila! You’ve got yourself a perfectly made solution in the form of an 11-year old girl called Flavia de Luce.

Flavia is no ordinary little girl living in 1950’s post-war Britain. With a natural penchant for chemistry and a special fondness for poisons, she is a dangerous person to mess with. Forever playing a never-ending game of revenge with her two older sisters Ophelia and Daphne whilst trying to avoid her father’s depressed silences and her housekeeper’s custard pie, Flavia’s happiest moments are spent poring over her chemistry books and tinkering around in her home laboratory. In fact, the only person she seems to be comfortable with is odd-job man Dogger who is a little off in the head as well as her faithful bicycle Gladys.

So when someone leaves a dead bird with a stamp attached to its beak outside the front door and the next day a stranger literally takes his last breath before her eyes in her garden, Flavia puts on her Curious George hat and tries to solve the case much to the chagrin of Inspector Hewitt of the local police.

The book started off very strongly and I got the impression that this was going to be a very gripping mystery because the protagonist’s unusual hobbies and talents gave me the chills. In fact, it had all the makings of a typical Agatha Christie complete with harmless village characters and cold-blooded crimes.

But my impressions, though not totally off the mark, failed to prove me right entirely. The plot which was simple yet quite ingenious and told from Flavia’s POV, was bogged down by too many details and descriptions of backgrounds and fictional history that slowed down the pace considerably and there was a sense of loss of its gripping essence about halfway through. What I did enjoy, was the smatterings of real historical characters that meshed very well together with fictional characters. It was interesting to learn tidbits about various scientists, musicians and royalty who actually existed. I enjoyed the style of writing overall but didn’t care for the oodles of very odd similes which received top marks for creativity but unfortunately, none for their excessiveness.

I uncorked the partially filled bottle and held it to my nose. It smelled as if someone had dropped vinegar on the back of a sticking plaster: an acrid protein smell, like an alcoholic’s hair burning in the next room.

I liked Flavia, I really did. Possessing a strong feminist streak, she had a lot of gumption and quick thinking brains which I admired earnestly but I had a little bit of hard time adjusting to her level of maturity as the book progressed. Very wise and sagacious, she seemed to be 11 going on 21 (even more than Hermoine Granger at the same age!) Which is a good thing I suppose, but from the way she thought and spoke, I could only imagine a much older girl investigating the case than Flavia’s petite self. If this series had come out a decade earlier, then Dakota Fanning or Emma Watson would have been the perfect choice to play Flavia on screen.

So that was it. As at a birth, so at a death. Without so much as a kiss-me-quick-and-mind-the-marmalade, the only female in sight is enlisted to trot off and see that the water is boiled. Rustle something up, indeed! What did he take me for, some kind of cowboy?

Despite Alan Bradley’s Canadian roots, he has done a spectacular job writing a British mystery set in the fictional village of Bishop’s Lacey. I don’t know yet if I will read the rest of the Flavia de Luce series of mysteries but this was a very interesting experience indeed. I am excited to see how this series will be translated on the small screen.

I wish I could say my heart was stricken, but it wasn’t. I wish I could say my instinct was to run away, but that would not be true. Instead, I watched in awe, savoring every detail: the fluttering fingers, the almost imperceptible bronze metallic cloudiness that appeared on the skin, as if, before my very eyes, it were being breathed upon by death.

And then the utter stillness.

I wish I could say I was afraid, but I wasn’t. Quite the contrary. This was by far the most interesting thing that had ever happened to me in my entire life.

Book Rating: 3 out of 5 stars

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2015 Reading Challenge – Book #16 – The Voice of the Violin

Book #16 – A mystery or thriller – The Voice of the Violin by Andrea Camilleri (translated into English by Stephen Sartarelli
Genre: Mystery/Crime
Published: 1997 in Italian, translated into English in 2003
Country: Italy
Book to Movie/TV Adaptation: Adapted for television since 1999

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This book review is long, long, long overdue. I started reading this translated book over two months ago and abandoned it twice before finally picking it up again a few days ago to finish reading it.

The Voice of the Violin is the fourth to be published in the Inspector Montalbano series set in the fictional Sicilian town of Vigàta and the plot begins when Inspector Salvo Montalbano discovers the naked body of a young woman lying face-down in her bed in a house. Suspicion naturally falls on several of her acquaintances and friends.

The book starts off really well with the action happening in the first chapter itself. Since the events are slightly fast-paced, the writing isn’t too overly detailed which helps the story stay on track. The matter-of-fact style in which this book is written gives a broader overview of all that’s happening in the protagonist’s (Montalbano’s) life. Without wasting any more words than are absolutely necessary on the descriptions of physical looks or giving undue importance to aesthetics, you are given a sense of the places and characters’ personalities and what does or doesn’t make them tick. For instance, throughout the book, we get the sense that Montalbano is quite the temperamental man – mostly gruff, insulting and reckless on the outside, but with a certain level of sensitivity to his credit. He is certainly not perfect and some of his mistakes have led to huge consequences. You are also shown – mostly through snappy, well-written dialogue – Montalbano’s dynamics with the people around him which include his long-distance girlfriend Livia, Francois who is the little boy he and Livia wish to adopt, his superiors and his subordinates. He even has a true Italian love affair with his food judging from the handful of meal descriptions provided by Camilleri.

Although it has its merits, I wouldn’t say it is the best mystery I have read because halfway through the book, I started to lose some of my interest. Montalbano had a lot of personal and professional problems going on which seemed to distract him from the case. I also felt I had to have read the previous three books for me to understand some of his relationships in better detail. Montalbano was intuitive but also quite impulsive and not too thorough in his investigation. He did not seem to be asking the right questions at the right time or investigating things thoroughly which would have moved the case forward in a more efficient way. He had his own tricks up his sleeves which he played around with recklessly when he felt it was time. I know that’s just the way his character is written, but it was a bit frustrating at some points because as a reader, I felt I was being swept away by the story instead of being guided logically forward as is the case in most whodunnits where you are laid all the bare facts of the case and left to make your own assumptions. However, what bugged me most was that the most important piece of the jigsaw puzzle that held the key to the mystery was given away quite openly in the blurb at the back of the book but by the time Montalbano figured it out, 200 pages had already gone by with only 40 odd pages to go!

Although the book did have a certain hook to it, I wasn’t really convinced by how quickly it moved and wrapped up at the end. Even though it just didn’t seem like a whodunnit in its truest sense of the word, the book had its own charm and Camilleri certainly has a very unique talent for storytelling.

Book Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

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2015 Reading Challenge – Book #7 – The Mysterious Affair at Styles

Book #7 – A popular author’s first book – The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie
Genre: Murder Mystery/Crime
Published: 1920
Country: United Kingdom
Book to TV/Movie Adaptation: Adapted for TV in 1990 and subsequently for BBC Radio as well as several touring plays.

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What do I say about the Queen of Mystery and Crime? She has set the bar so high for me, that I have yet to read a mystery that can match her level of ingenuity and simplicity. Her characterizations, settings and plots are so deceptively simple yet so clever in their detailing, it is impossible to not be able to imagine them in your mind’s eye. The picture she portrays is crystal clear.

This is her first novel and set in the middle of the First World War. We are introduced to Arthur Hastings, a young man of about thirty years who has been given a month’s leave from the Army to fully recover from an injury he sustained a few months ago. Having no close relations, he is unsure of where to go when he runs into an old friend John Cavendish. John invites Hastings to spend his leave at his home in the village of Styles St. Mary in Essex county, an invitation which Hastings accepts. On the way, John tells Hastings about his old stepmother’s recent remarriage to a much younger man who is disliked by everyone in the house. Hastings senses the hostility towards Mr. Alfred Inglethorp, Mrs. Emily Inglethorp’s younger husband and within a fortnight of his stay, witnesses several arguments in the household. A tragedy occurs when Mrs. Inglethorp is violently killed a few days later by way of strychnine poisoning.

The local police and Hastings unofficially employ the help of trusted friend Monsieur Hercule Poirot, a very famous Belgian detective now seeking refuge in Styles in his old age. Poirot loves a good mystery to exercise his little ‘gray cells’ and is a neat freak who likes order in his surroundings and thought. Despite several odd eccentricities that he is prone to display, Poirot is a very clever man who lets no small detail or information escape his mind.

Hastings is a man with much emotion yet little imagination. He is often baffled at the way Poirot’s overactive mind sees details that no one can see.  Poirot is a man with a method to his madness that only he can understand. Together, the two attempt to solve the mystery that has even got Scotland Yard involved.

The pairing of Poirot and Hastings is akin to Holmes and Watson, indeed the inspiration for the two has been derived from Doyle’s novels, but Christie’s writing style is her own. Her language is uncomplicated and timeless and her insight into human psychology makes for very interesting characterizations, each possessing their own quirks and idiosyncrasies. In fact, body language and expression play a very strong role in her novels.

What I love about Agatha Christie’s writing is her ability to keep the mystery alive till the very end. All the facts of the case are straightforward and laid bare on the table, making you think deeply along with the characters in the book. However, there is a purposeful enjoyment she derives in leading her readers astray. You think you have figured it out but the ending completely shocks you and you realise how far you had been thrown off track. This is a charming characteristic I have not seen in most mystery writing.

Despite my amateur attempts at sleuthing, I definitely did not guess the mystery right as expected, but I also wasn’t completely satisfied with the ending of this one. I have absolutely enjoyed her subsequent novels more than this first attempt. Having said that, I will definitely recommend anyone to read this book, just to get acquainted with Poirot and Hastings and see if they can solve the mystery.

Book Rating: 4.5 out of 5

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2015 Reading Challenge – Book #4 – The Five Red Herrings

Book#4 – A book with a colour in the title – The Five Red Herrings by Dorothy L. Sayers
Genre:
Murder Mystery/Crime
Published:
1931
Country:
United Kingdom
Film/TV Adaptations: Adapted for television in 1975. Available for viewing on YouTube.

The Five Red Herrings

The plot is deceptively simple – an unpopular town artist is murdered and suspicion falls upon six of his artist peers with whom he had several unpleasant encounters previously. Five of them are red herrings (or distractions) to keep the authorities from finding out who the real murderer is.

The setting is breathtaking. The adjacent towns of Kirkcudbright, Gatehouse of Fleet and Newton-Stewart with quaint cottages, rolling hills, ramshackle castles and rocky creeks which are part of the Galloway countryside in Scotland provide the handsome premises of the story.

In the beginning, we are introduced to a very drunk and arrogant Campbell in a local pub who provokes a fellow painter, leading to a physical brawl. Several other townsfolk who also find Campbell insufferable, bear witness to this disagreeable situation. Among the people present, is also Lord Peter Wimsey, an Englishman and a fairly newer member of the Galloway community.

The next afternoon brings some unfortunate news. Campbell is found dead by the river Minnoch, in the hills near Newton-Stewart. Luckily, a good old-fashioned mystery is right up Lord Peter Wimsey’s alley and he sets off gleefully in his large Daimler Double-Six to assist the local authorities in solving this case.

Despite the straightforward scenario, the book is utterly maddening, infuriating and exhausting to say the least.

Many difficult elements in this book made for a very laborious read. Too many things were happening at once, creating a tangled web of confusion. Train schedules and routes were so excessively mentioned that it became apparent that the author spent too much time at railway stations poring over train timetables rather than creating a lucid plot. Coupled with that were sudden disappearances of five of the six suspects and quite a few bicycles that dragged the story unnecessarily to the point of sheer frustration.

In fact, the author too shares the same opinion when a dialogue is shared between Wimsey and his faithful manservant.

“Bunter,” said Wimsey, “this case resembles the plot of a Wilkie Collins novel, in which everything happens just too late to prevent the story from coming to a premature happy ending.”

The heaviest use of Galloway slang and accent, although very intriguing in the beginning, slowed down the reading process considerably and I found myself reading these dialogues aloud (in what I considered to be a very good Scottish accent) to get the gist of the conversations.

Like an overcooked melange of conflicting textures and flavours, the involvement of too many characters than was crucial to the plot, completely spoiled the broth.  These included Wimsey, seven official investigators, six suspects and their families, friends, housekeeping staff, neighbours and several other witnesses. It seemed that the whole country was involved in this village mystery.

What was absolutely the last straw was when each official would reconstruct the crime each time a small clue was found and endless possibilities and theories were made to be proved. This must have easily happened at least 15 times in the whole novel. In the end, all seven of the officials and Wimsey gathered to tell their own versions of the sequence of events. It was like swimming through a muddy river with nothing in sight.

Sayers mentions in the beginning of the book that every place described is real (even the irksome train schedules). When Wimsey finds out about the murder, he sets off in his car to the scene of the crime, which is some distance away from the towns. His journey is through a beautiful part of the countryside but it was difficult for me to picturise it due to the overly-described sceneries to the point where I felt like a lost tourist. I felt it was necessary for me to be acquainted to some degree with what was being described about. Google came to my rescue and I found a blog post where the blogger had actually followed Wimsey’s journey in person and posted pictures of the same. You can find the blog post here. 

This book took me the LONGEST time to get through and to abandon it held a strong appeal. Several times I had the urge to press delete (since I was reading an ebook version) and start reading another one. However, since I had publicly declared it on Instagram that this would be my next read, I was determined to see this book through even though it literally put me to sleep each time.

This book is NOT an exciting page-turner in my opinion, in spite of the beauty of the locale and the plot. Google also tells me that many Dorothy fans share the same opinion that this wasn’t her best work.

Some of my favourite parts of the novel, including a lovely typically English breakfast description are:

1. It was a marvellous day in late August, and Wimsey’s soul purred within him as he pushed the car along. The road from Kirkcudbright to Newton-Stewart is of a varied loveliness hard to surpass, and with a sky full of bright sun and rolling cloud-banks, hedges filled with flowers, a well-made road, a lively engine and the prospect of a good corpse at the end of it, Lord Peter’s cup of happiness was full. He was a man who loved simple pleasures.

2. ‘It depends on how clever you are,’ replied Wimsey, coolly. ‘You remember Poe’s bit about that in The Purloined Letter. A very stupid murderer doesn’t bother about an alibi at all. A murderer one degree cleverer says, “If I am to escape suspicion I must have a good alibi.” But a murderer who was cleverer still might say to himself, “Everyone will expect the murderer to provide a first-class alibi; therefore, the better my alibi, the more they will suspect me. I will go one better still; I will provide an alibi which is obviously imperfect. Then people will say that surely, if I had been guilty, I should have provided a better alibi. If I were a murderer myself, that is what I should do.” ’

3. After a further interval came a large and steaming tea-pot, a home-baked loaf, a plate of buns, a large pat of butter and two sorts of jam. Finally, the landlady reappeared, escorting the ham and eggs in person.

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