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What We've Been Reading


Sean Pidgeon - Finding Camlann

Fran Recommends:

I was looking for something a little different to read, so I picked up Sean Pidgeon's Finding Camlann (published in softcover last Jan, hardcover at the beginning of 2013) because it had things I'm interested in - archaeology, linguistics, Arthurian legend, Wales. And it was wonderful.

Archeologist Donald Gladstone knows there's no actual proof of Arthur's existence but believes there has to be some truth behind the myth. A find in a barrow near Stonehenge begins a quest that will take Donald, and linguist Julia Llewellyn, in search of an ancient Welsh battle poem, and will force them both to examine their lives.

This is a quiet, well-written story. There are no car chases, no gun fights, and no high tension. There's no definitive time frame for it. There are cars and telephones, but no cell phones or computers. It's reminiscent of a book written in the 60's or 70's. I found myself comparing it to Charlotte Armstrong's writing, actually. It's intelligent, complex and - to me - fascinating. I needed to pay close attention to the various time periods discussed, and my knowledge of Welsh history is sadly lacking (along with my ability to pronounce much of the language), but the people and their overwhelming need to know what happened caught my interest and didn't let go.

There's no single mystery, per se. Of course, the biggest question is whether or not the bodies found in the barrow are Arthur and Guinevere, but there's the question of an explosion in the recent past and whether or not it was an accident or sabotage, what role Julia's husband might have played in that explosion, and there is a death, so there are mysterious elements, but I'm not entirely sure you can classify Finding Camlann as a true whodunnit.

Whatever you call it, it was a thoughtful, restful break from the more action-packed adventures I normally indulge in, and I was pleased to have spent time in the Welsh mountains, exploring the history of the area and the origins of the Arthurian legend.

Agatha Christie - The ABC Murders

Amber’s project for 2014: My 52 Weeks of Agatha Christie. Here’s her explanation.

First Published: January 1936.

I Read: The ABC Murders. William Morrow, New York, 2011. 

Detective: Poirot 

Summary: Poirot receives a series of letters boasting the sender is going to kill on a certain day in Andover, Bexhill-on-Sea, Churston and Doncaster. The question is can Poirot, Hastings and his legion of helpers stop this mad man before the killer works his way through twenty more letters? 

Review: It is funny on how often the solution to a Christie novel is one I have read/watched previously (in this case many, many times). What makes Christie great is the fact I didn’t spot it until very late in the game which solution it was. In many ways, this is a stroke of luck; otherwise I may have been let down as I was with The Murder On The Orient Express. The ABC Murders I found engaging and a fun read, as John Curran points out (in his book Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks) this book was among the first to feature the idea of a serial killer as the culprit.

In the book, one of the binding agents between the murders is the letters sent to Poirot where the killer crows over his success. Sadly this type of murder, where several are killed to disguise the one intended victim, isn’t exclusive to the pages of a book.  

While reading this mystery I was reminded of a case here in the Seattle area which made an impression on me even as a kid. Back in 1986 when I was twelve there was a huge scare over Extra-Strength Excedrin aspirin. Two people were murdered by someone who had laced capsules with cyanide. I remember the panic, never-ending news reports, people throwing away their bottles and others mailing off bottles to the police with the same lot numbers as the poison pills. The person convicted for perpetrating the murders was the wife of the first victim. She’d tampered with a total of five bottles, placing three back on store shelves (and two were still in her possession). Supposedly Stella Nickell killed her husband for insurance money (she forged his signature to obtain two additional policies) and the other victim (fortunately she did not succeed in murdering more people) was meant to conceal her true target. She might have gotten away with it had she not asked the police reexamine her husband’s death. The theory on this move maintains that she got greedy and decided she wanted to sue the manufacturer for additional money. The issue was she needed to prove her husband was murdered.  

Initially Nickell’s husband's death was attributed to natural causes due his age and medical history. The medical examiner who examined the body did not smell the classic bitter almonds associated with this poison. It wasn’t until the second sudden death when the medical examiner happened to notice what her nose was telling her during the autopsy that the cyanide poisoning was discovered. As it turns out forty percent of the population is unable to smell any of the tell-tale scent. In addition, the sensitivity of the sniffer in question plays a factor in the amount needed for detection (I have heard an unsubstantiated rumor that women can detect the scent more often, but I don’t have a source to cite for that assertion).

What I didn’t know until I started researching for this post is in 1982, less than four years before the Nickell’s case, there was the Chicago Tylenol Murders where seven people died due to the ingestion of cyanide laced capsules. The scariest part of this story is the murderer was never caught; the police believed they knew who did it but didn’t have enough proof for a conviction. The case was pulled out of the inactive file in 2009 and a new investigation of old evidence is underway.

Both Chicago and Nickell’s cases helped ensure new safety measures for products as well as the introduction of the caplet which replaced the capsule. There are other real life cases which share a similar vein to the ABC Murders, the Nickell’s case is just the one which I remember best. I remember the strange feeling of panic among the adults (I was too busy reading and stuff to worry much about it) when the story first hit and the slow growth of trust in buying any over-the-counter medicines. It will be interesting to see if Nickell makes the news again. She is eligible for parole in 2016. 

On a slightly happier note, one of my favorite versions of this story (fictional obviously I do not have  a favorite real life murder, in case you were wondering) is the very first episode of ABC’s dramity Castle, Flowers For Your Grave, where mystery writer Rick Castle first meets detective Kate Beckett, who is investigating a series of deaths which eerily resembles those in Rick’s books. Just like this week’s book one person is the target, while the other two murder victims are camouflage. The by-play between the two actors (all right the whole cast) even in a first episode is wonderful and I recommend this TV series to anyone who hasn’t seen it yet.

Favorite Quote:

“What do you call the unforgivable error? Overlooking the obvious.” (pg. 5) 

“Words, mademoiselle, are only the outer clothing of ideas.” (pg. 126) 

“Murder, I have often noticed, is a great matchmaker.” (pg. 136) 

Interesting Fact: Or should I say random fact? “To hum a tune is extremely dangerous. It reveals the subconscious mind.” (pg. 136) Do you know in "Angel" (the TV show created by Joss Whedon and canceled in 2004 unfortunately) had a character named Lorne who could read futures and auras while they were singing? Gleaning all kinds of information that he shared, most of the time, with them. Proving that Poirot was not the only person who found a person’s out of key humming revealing to their current mental state. Now mind you Lorne was a demon and Poirot human but I think we can skate over a small detail like this.... 

Cheating: Wish I had something snappy here for you guys, but just like the twenty eight weeks previous to this point...I have not cheated. It was even a Hasting narrated one and I still remained on the lighert side of the force. Perhaps Hastings is growing on me, I shudder at the thought! 

My 52 Weeks With Christie: A.Miner©2014