Thursday, January 09, 2014

Year in Review: Worst Reading Moments of 2013

I’m afraid that my year-end recaps of 2013 have started late this year. This is due to a variety of reasons that I really don’t need to go into detail here. But I’m here now and I’ll be running this show for the next little while, so please don’t change the channel just yet. As is tradition, I like to do a series of recap articles, highlighting various elements of the year that came before. And today, I’d like to start with the worst moments I experienced in 2013.

Let me just emphasize that these are my worst moments, and I’ve expanded the list this year to include categories other than books (for reasons that will soon be obvious). Just because a book is on this list does not mean it’s a terrible book; sometimes, something will happen to ruin my reading experience, and I can use these articles as a way to advertise the issue so that future readers can be warned. Sometimes, however, the items featured in these articles just plain ol’ suck, and the lower down you go on the list, the likelier this eventuality is.

I’ve been relatively lucky in 2013: it was a year of nostalgia for me, as I spent much of the year revisiting reliable favourites and so I didn’t run into quite as many bad moments as I did in years past, which is why I expanded the categories this year to include moments that otherwise would have remained unmentioned. (Remember that charming edition of Crispin’s Swan Song which spoiled the solution on the front cover? Or that Fred Vargas novel that was so poorly-edited it seriously made me question my knowledge of the French language?) But there were some bad moments nonetheless, so let’s get started with this last exorcism.

11. In which I learned why a reviewer’s responsibility includes knowing what they’re talking about… or, Jimmy the Stick by Michael Mayo
First of all, let me get this straight: Jimmy the Stick is not a bad book by any means. It’s actually quite a well-done hardboiled novel, clearly inspired by Dashiell Hammett. Unfortunately, I read the book expecting an homage to both Hammett and Agatha Christie, based on reviews by some other book bloggers out there. Unfortunately, they did not know what they were talking about. Just because part of the novel takes place in a country house, the name “Agatha Christie” entered their heads, and their reviews led me to expect a book in which a tough-guy-P.I. is transplanted into a genteel country-house mystery like the one forever associated with Christie. This did not happen, and because I was expecting such a different book, I didn’t enjoy the one I got nearly as much. So, to my fellow book bloggers, I implore you to please know what you’re talking about if you’re going to use a comparison. Your reviews can suggest a very different novel from the one you’ve read, and using a simplistic (and/or inaccurate) comparison can only mislead readers and could lead to unreasonable disappointment.

10. Didn’t you get the memo? or, Psycho II by Robert Bloch
I’m a very, very big fan of the book Psycho by Robert Bloch, and the Hitchcock adaptation. But until 2013, I’d never read any of Robert Bloch’s sequels (although I did, unfortunately, watch all the film sequels). I kind-of wish I hadn’t. Psycho II is often downright disturbing, in the worst-possible way. Throughout the book, Bloch asks interesting questions about violence in the media, and whether it causes more violence in real-life or whether it is simply a reflection of increased violence within the culture. Then he forgets all about these questions, and simply joins the rest of ‘em, providing more detailed violence, more twisted sexual desires, and details that we quite simply didn’t need to know (such as the rape of a nun). The original Psycho is a masterwork, a fine example of disturbing subject matter being handled with subtlety. Psycho II has none of that, and doesn’t live up to the original in terms of plot, either. It’s not a terrible book, but with some editing, it could have stood proudly next to the original. Instead, it’s a bit too derivative and a bit too violent for its own good.

9. Great Expectations… or, The Daughter of Time by Josephine Tey
I was told this was a masterpiece of detective fiction, a book that wasn’t just a great detective story, it was ingenious and so deep and raised plenty of questions and was compelling and thought-provoking and just brilliant in every way. What I got was a good book. Yeah, I think “good” is a fair word. It isn’t brilliant: when the ending comes, it comes with an anticlimactic feeling of “Wait, that’s it? Where’s the brilliant twist ending I was told about???” Although one of Tey’s major themes is how history is the daughter of time, and reputations can be grossly distorted, she isn’t content with just leaving it at that. She has to paint a black-and-white picture; it’s Us vs. Them, Good vs. Evil, and so if King Richard III wasn’t pure evil, that must mean (logically!) that he was a Kind, Saintly, God-Fearing Man, and then Mean, Old, Wicked, Evil Henry VII came and snatched it all away from Kind, Innocent, Pious little Richard. And how does Inspector Grant know that King Richard III was a good man! Why, his painting – look at it! Clearly, his eyes are the eyes of a saint! To which I laugh right in the author’s face. This was a painting, not a photograph: if it had showed an evil, leering snarl, the artist would probably not have lived much longer. Not only that, throughout all of detective fiction, you constantly find murderers who don’t look like murderers. The killer could be that mean-looking old man across the street, but it could be the sweet postmistress, or the charming nephew, or the absent-minded vicar, or even an innocent-looking child! Yet over and over again, the author tells you that Richard III’s face is the key to the whole mystery. Well I call BS on that, and that’s why I just can’t consider this book a great one. Good? Yes, without a doubt. But not great. Certainly not great.

8. Jack be nimble, Jack be quick, Jack the Ripper has got me ticked… or, Dust and Shadow by Lindsey Faye
I don’t know exactly where Lindsey Faye went wrong in Dust and Shadow. The plot has got complexity and meat to it, and it could have been a great Sherlockian pastiche. Unfortunately, somewhere along the line, the author decided that Sherlock Holmes was not interesting enough, and invested a female character named Miss Monk. Basically, she exists so we can get a feisty female character, who bounces her merry little way along the novel, reports every once in a while to Sherlock Holmes, and he gets to tell her what a clever girl she’s been. She’s a dull character, yet the author seems to find her far more fascinating than Holmes! But the ending of the book disappointed me, as Holmes makes idiotic choices that endangers far more lives than is necessary. We go through a bunch of familiar and predictable clichés, and in her haste to make her choice of Jack the Ripper a credible one, the author only weakens the book’s entertainment value as a work of fiction.

Having read Meyer’s The Seven-Per-Cent Solution, I was expecting something fun, something inventive, something clever. Instead, I got a boring book which felt far too long, even though it’s a pretty brief read. Holmes is remarkably dull at times and takes forever to spot the obvious. And the “horror” that Dr. Watson keeps telling us is just too shocking and horrifying isn’t that shocking or horrifying at all. It’s a story that desperately needed the Giant Rat of Sumatra or something of its kind to liven things up.

6. Things Best Left Unsaid… or, The Spy Who Loved Me by Ian Fleming
This is a James Bond novel written from the point of view of a Bond girl, and not a particularly interesting Bond girl at that. Unfortunately, Ian Fleming’s attempt to examine Bond critically from another POV failed miserably, because he created a female character he might have fantasized over, a “strong and independent” character who can’t stop gushing over how marvellous and strong and brave and wonderful Bond is. And then she goes on to utter the most heinous thing ever written in all the Bond novels: “all women enjoy semi-rape”. I’m sorry, but I just can’t forgive that line, especially since the same woman who says this had to fight off two potential rapists just pages earlier!!! Mercifully, it’s a short book, but it’s the closest Ian Fleming ever got to being straight-up unreadable. Apparently, he agreed with me: he was so embarrassed about the book that he refused to allow paperback reprints and apparently stipulated that a movie adaptation could not use the book’s plot.

5. What a Twist! or,  Carte Blanche by Jeffery Deaver
Jeffery Deaver sounds like a nice guy. I also like, from what I’ve read, that his approach to writing places emphasis on plotting and clever twists. I tend to like this kind of book. But Deaver’s writing style just does not belong in a James Bond novel. Ian Fleming would always give you the same information James Bond got (with the exception of The Man With the Golden Gun, and as far as I know nobody considers it the best Bond novel). You and Bond were on a level playing field, and it helped you to see yourself beside Bond as he chased down a villain or something of the sort. But Deaver seems like he’s incapable of doing that. He keeps hiding information from you, going through a scene, throws a twist at you, and then goes back in time and revisits events with the new information added in. The end result? You keep going through the same events over and over again, which kills the pacing. There are so many twists that half of them just aren’t needed, and they get distracting and annoying. (At times, Deaver’s love of twists seems almost like a fetish.) And Bond is never in any serious danger – if cornered in the villain’s lair without a weapon, he’ll just pull a weapon out of nowhere, shoot up the bad guys, and then reveal in a flashback that he had a weapon the whole time. I didn’t enjoy myself very much at all, and it’s funny to re-read my review. My reception of the book was relatively lukewarm at the time, but the more time passes by, the more dissatisfied I find myself with the book. It’s quite possible I’d enjoy one of Deaver’s novels with his own characters in them, but his style just doesn’t work with 007.

4. “Two things are infinite: the universe and human stupidity; and I'm not sure about the universe…” or, Who Censored Roger Rabbit? By Gary K. Wolf
I am genuinely shocked that this book has made it this high on the list, because out of all the works of fiction I read in 2013, Who Censored Roger Rabbit? is without a doubt the stupidest of them all. In fact, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say this book is the stupidest mystery I’ve ever read. Yes, the solution to this book is even dumber than the solution to The Act of Roger Murgatroyd. It makes less sense than City of Glass (a remarkable achievement) and even Harry Stephen Keeler might have raised an objection or two. Basically, the problem with this book is that it never establishes the rules of the game with you. It plays things one way and never lets on that the solution is a possibility. Only when the plot says so does the curtain fall and – ta-da! – it turns out that something positively outlandish is possible in the author’s universe, and wouldn’t you know, it happens to be the solution! Wasn’t that clever? (No, it was a grade-A cheat.) The solution was merely the final nail in the coffin, though: the entire book is full of very poorly-done details. Eddie Valiant, the main character, constantly tries to look and sound tough, and fails to do so, sounding more like a teenager who fancies himself as the next Bogart. There’s tons of social commentary which feels like a series of sermons by the author. The book is full of parallels to segregation in the American South: there are human-only and Toon-only bars, for instance, and plenty of instances of casual racism (or is it species-ism?). Yet all the author does is moan about the problem, never offering any deeper insight into it. Look how cruel and unnecessary racism is! the author cries, about twenty-thirty years too late. But here’s the big problem with this thematic approach: who actually hates cartoons? What little kid out there isn’t delighted by the exploits of Bugs Bunny or Donald Duck or Sylvester’s constant attempts to eat Tweety Bird? How come people in this universe can hate all Toons, but treat Dick Tracy (who is a Toon) as a god? Oh, wait: because the plot (and by extension, the author) says so. This was just a bad, bad book, and I bitterly regret reading it.

3. This book was great. But more importantly, visit my website! I write books too! or, Books to Die For
Books to Die For is a terrible, terrible, terrible reference book. Some of the individual contributions are positively brilliant, but for the most part, it’s a bunch of authors gathered together to grab some free publicity. Very few contributors seem to know what they’re talking about. Often, people feel the need to put down the work of Agatha Christie because that apparently shows just how literary they are. Not only that, the book’s approach is highly biased: noir and the hardboiled is given preference, and very few other types of books are discussed. The 1920s are represented by two novels, neither of them representative of the detective novels that were popular at the time. Meanwhile, the 1990s are represented by a staggering twenty-eight novels. Twenty-eight!!! The 1990s get more coverage than the entire genre up to the year 1947!!! How on earth can you justify such bias to modernity and styles popular in modern times, especially since most of these books have not yet had the chance to stand the test of time??? And why are so many of these “books to die for” mediocre at best? Maybe I’m sounding a bit harsh, but you’re getting the Coles Notes version of my review; if you want the full version of this rant, complete with one or two nice things I said, I encourage you to read my review.

2. Of Shoes and Ships and Cereal… or, how Matthew Prichard plans to fund his next vacation.
If you haven’t already heard, Matthew Prichard has commissioned a new Hercule Poirot novel to be written by Sophie Hannah. Do I need to tell you just what a stupid idea this is all over again? Poirot has been resting since the 70s: why do a continuation now, after all these years? Oh yes, because the Christie fanbase is devoted and will buy anything with her name stamped on the cover, and because the David Suchet TV series is now over, so that source of income just dried up. Apparently, Sophie Hannah was chosen to write the continuation even before she submitted a story outline – which means, no matter what Matthew Prichard might say, this is being done for the money. This can’t possibly be a case where Sophie Hannah had such a brilliant plot idea that he couldn’t resist approving a continuation. Prichard has proudly supported the project, saying that Agatha would certainly have approved. Matthew, you’re embarrassing yourself. If you know anything about Christie, you should know that she got to hate Poirot by the end of her lifetime! (I believe it’s one of the reasons she killed off Poirot in Curtain, a fate not shared by Miss Marple in Sleeping Murder.) Christie would probably be horrified at the thought of Poirot rising from his literary grave, and all the prequels in the world will not change the fact that Sophie Hannah’s Poirot will be a literary zombie.

1. The Scandal of Father Browni.e. Season 1 of the BBC’s Father Brown
This show is terrible. Apparently, nobody at the BBC bothered to phone a Catholic to see if maybe, just maybe, they weren’t quite getting Catholicism right. And as a result, we get some of the most atrocious stuff I’ve ever seen. I have never (and I mean never) seen an adaptation that gets the source material so consistently and thoroughly wrong. Even ITV’s Marple does a better job of capturing the spirit of Agatha Christie, even though the series’ name annoys me (surely it should be Miss Marple?). What kind of horrors lie in wait (aside from the most annoying Irish housekeeper character whose presence I've ever endured)? Well, Father Brown endorsing moral relativism. Father Brown being unusually modern in his attitudes, even using modern buzzwords like “intolerant”, “ignorant”, and “judgemental”. Father Brown encouraging his parishioners to “keep an open mind” about a cult that moves into the village (!!!). Stories so drastically rewritten from Chesterton’s own stories that I swear this show must have been inspired by the Wikipedia entry for Father Brown. This show is an insult to Chestertonians everywhere, and I can’t say season 2 will be something I look forward to. So why is this my #1 worst moment of 2013? The work of an author I admire and a character I adore have been hijacked in order to promote modern views that are the antithesis of what G. K. Chesterton stands for. It patronizingly lectures to you about how simplistic the work of Agatha Christie is, yet it has all the ethical complexity of a typical episode of The Magic Schoolbus. And the show shows such sheer ignorance of Catholicism that it isn’t even entertaining in a trashy sort of way.

20 comments:

  1. This is great– I had a pretty good idea of what might be on the list, and I was right.

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    1. I must say the only thing the really surprised me about this list was how high WHO CENSORED ROGER RABBIT? scored. It came up at the same spot as STRANGERS ON A TRAIN did last year, and at least STRANGERS ON A TRAIN started excellently.

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  2. I've never gotten The Daughter of Time fuss and I used to be fascinated with the Wars of the Roses period. I can see why it struck people at the time, but it seems old hat to me now.

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    1. Yes, I think when it first showed up, the idea was new and revolutionary enough for critics to ignore its shortcomings as a detective story. But it hasn't quite stood the test of time as well as you'd think from its most vocal fans.

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  3. I especially find myself in sympathy with your #1. I'm by no means a Chestertonian but can easily see how the recent FATHER BROWN adaptation was treated and written by people who seemingly have no concept about the literary property they're building their newfound success upon. That this version was well enough received to have scored a second series is indicative not of the merits of the show itself but of the desire for this type of (seemingly) old-school mystery programming on the part of audiences.

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    1. In my full review of the series, I pointed out that it was doing a second-rate impression of MARPLE. In doing so, the series has become the antithesis of what Chesterton stands for.

      The irony is that Mark Williams is absolutely brilliant in the role of Father Brown. He keeps bringing me back. He really captures the essence of Father Brown most beautifully, his simplicity, his common-sense, his good nature... It's wonderful. A pity it's wasted in such a terribly-scripted series.

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  4. This post about the Father Brown tv show has earned you epic status in my pantheon of truth-speakers!

    Sadly this is the general state of broadcasting. These are times when every TV show with a priest in it has him A) dealing with a child molestation incident, or B) being confronted by a gay priest/parishioner/relative , in spite of the fact that the lives of priests, to the greatest extent, have very little to do with either...except in the minds of the haters.

    I think the days in which character get to be more than fodder for political extremists are long gone...so sad. Imagine what we'd get if father Brown were Muslim!

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    1. I'm glad that you enjoyed the post. It was, if I'm to be honest, the most difficult post I ever had to write. I just couldn't get coherent about the series, and it was only when I hit on the idea of collecting my initial Facebook reactions (which had the benefit of spontaneity) that I was able to post anything at all about the series.

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  5. This really made me chortle - never let anyone separate you from your bile duct Patrick! I actually liked Bloch's Psycho II a lot more than you did (but then I also thought the first two movie sequels weren't bad either) and was only a few years younger than you when I read it when it came out, but still remember being rocked by the twist ending and the jaundiced view of the film industry. Hope 2014 is a better reading year though I would hate to miss as entertaining a roundup of the worst of the year!!

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    1. Sergio, I think our opinions on the Psycho sequels are completely reversed! I remember heavily disliking PSYCHO II and PSYCHO III, but being surprisingly pleased with PSYCHO IV.

      As for the book PSYCHO II, I'd agree with much of what you say. The twist is phenomenal, I agree, and the commentary on the film industry is excellent. I'd call it a good book overall, and it hasn't spoiled my picture of the original novel. But the reason I placed it on here is because I feel that if it had removed things like the graphic nun-rape, or Vizzini's graphic memories and attempted rape, maybe doing them in more subtle terms like the original novel did, you'd get a really worthy sequel that could stand proudly side-by-side with the original. (I wouldn't have minded an extra murder or two in the middle section of the book -- as it is, all the violence occurs in a gigantic burst at the very start and at the very end. I would have liked to get it a bit more spread out.) It got so close to pulling it off that I was genuinely sad to see it stumble by the end.

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  6. You really do work well in this rant mode of yours. Though I've read a lot of this before and skipped over much of it what I did read that was new to me was quite funny at times.

    RE #2: Have you ever seen MURDER BY THE BOOK (1986), a UK TV movie where Poirot literally does rise from his grave and visits Agatha Christie played by Peggy Ashcorft? I just stumbled across it on YouTube last month. I have yet to watch the whole thing yet. The beginning is INCREDIBLY dull and I lost interest. But I went hunting for reviews of it that same night and I've read that the scenes between Christie and Poirot are fun and often witty.

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    1. John, thank you for the compliment. When I enter my rant mode (or my Patricia Highsmith mode, as I sometimes like to call it), I try to throw in the occasional joke, to lighten things up. I'm glad to hear that some of them worked.

      MURDER BY THE BOOK is an odd situation for me. I've got a bit of a sore spot about it. Years ago, I recorded it onto our DVR from a VHS tape, right before my local library axed its entire VHS collection. Before I got the chance to watch it, though, my dad deleted the recording in order to record a movie he was watching on TV... even though he stayed in front of the TV and finished watching the movie!!! I was quite upset about that, and I have yet to track down a copy of the movie. If it's still on YouTube, though... well, Watson, you know my methods!

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  7. I agree about Dust and Shadow - really wanted to love it but couldn't - and Father Brown. I watched three times thinking it would grow on me and am glad to see I'm not alone.

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    1. I watched three times, and my opinion went from "flawed but harmless" to "I really am not enjoying this show at all". Episode 4 was the tipping point where I went from passive unenjoyment to aggressive dislike.

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  8. As to be expected, you compiled a varied and expatiated worst-of list.

    Anyway, the only title on this list I'll probably read somewhere in the not-so-distant future is Tey's The Daughter of Time, just to have something to rant about. The premise of a modern police inspector asserting the innocence of a long dead king by staring at a piece of cloth with an artists impression of the man in dried placards of paint struck me as ridiculous the first time I heard about the book. No matter how well written the story is or how convincing the contemporary characters are drawn, if the solution hinges on the innocent, cherubic face of Richard III it can't be good in terms of a detective story. Logic forbids it.

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    1. To be perfectly fair to Tey, the painting is not the only reason she suggests Richard was innocent. However, some of her evidence is inadmissible after more facts was unearthed by historians that contradicts much of her case. However, Grant keeps returning to the painting, not content to leave well enough alone. As a plot device to get him interested in the case, the painting would work fine. As a piece of evidence (like Tey insists), it's absurd.

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  9. I'd be really interested to learn how Father Brown got made. I can imagine it progressing by degrees: someone vaguely thought it would be a good idea, it got commissioned, and then someone else was lumbered with the job of adapting it and no way to back out. Not that the BBC series isn't terrible, but I don't think anyone could adapt Father Brown successfully. They work because of their philosophical and dreamlike nature - there's no way to take it off the page without solidifying them somehow, which will ruin them.

    I really don't understand the decision to write a new Poirot. I don't think it's an inherently bad idea to write new books in a series after an author's death, and I don't see Christie's opinions about the character as being sacrosanct. After all, the book isn't for her. But there are SO MANY Poirot stories. Too many. There's plenty of classics but also a lot of rubbish. And Poirot is so implausible a character that I don't see how a modern writer can do anything sensible with him.

    Why not write a new Marple? There are hardly any of those, and most of them are underbaked and dripping with Christie's misplaced nostalgia. But the character is enduring, beloved, and there are plenty of plausible directions to take her in without being lurid or mawkish about it (I liked the first series of the ITV reimagining - I pretend there were only four episodes - but that would be a bit much for the books).

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    1. One thing I find especially interesting about your tormented experience with Father Brown is your impression of Inspector Valentine. I agree that it's stupid that he doesn't seem to remember that Father Brown has solved several dozen murders. (I think it's almost always a serious mistake for shows to analyze their own implausibilities too hard, like Sherlock and Reichenbach Fall, but that doesn't mean the main characters should be amnesiacs.)

      But...

      Is this treatment of the character really any different or less infuriating than the treatment of Inspector Slack in the Joan Hickson adaptations of Marple? He also stays aggressive and dismissive week after week, in the service of cliche and limited humour.

      And that's not all. Is the addition of endless cups of tea and trite platitudes to Father Brown any worse than the things the writers made Hickson's Marple say? Is the shortcircuiting of logic in the solutions any worse than the curtailed versions of Christie's reasoning (they don't change the answers, admittedly, but they do change the explanations)?

      My thesis (only partly designed to make people's heads explode):

      "Father Brown is certainly terrible, but the original Miss Marple series was terrible IN ALMOST EXACTLY THE SAME WAYS. It's only nostalgia that makes people think any different."

      I'll just go and hide in my bunker now...

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    2. Rich, this might shock you... but I kind of agree with you. I've never been too fond of the Hickson Marple adaptations, which just haven't aged well. From a modern perspective, the production values don't always seem great and the Inspector Slack bits annoy me in much the same way as Inspector Valentine. (Interestingly, in Season 2 of Father Brown, they get rid of Valentine and replace him with a young hotshot, a by-the-book professional whose antagonism towards Father Brown is at least *understandable*, whereas Valentine was just an incompetent buffoon.) Inspector Japp's intrusions in the Poirot series sometimes produce the same effect. Had they done the Orient Express back then, Japp would have popped out of a suitcase and frowned at Poirot, saying "Poirot? What the devil are *you* doing here???"

      BUT... and here's the key difference -- the nostalgia factor that you throw at the Hickson series is very much in the spirit of the Miss Marple books as Christie wrote them. In that respect, it captures the spirit of Christie's originals to a tee. They don't have Miss Marple, say, lecturing a young interracial couple on how the world will one day accept couples like them in some sort of banal attempt to whitewash the past.

      I totally understand why write a new Poirot. Because the Suchet TV series is done, so we need a new stream of revenue, because Matthew Prichard is trying to construct a submarine lair from which he can plot a takeover of the world. Also, because the Suchet TV series has always been more of a draw than the "Marple" TV series (geez, that name is annoying). Therefore, the analysts deduce that Poirot is more popular than Miss Marple. Therefore, a new Poirot will sell better than a new Miss Marple. And if it does well enough, then next year the analysts will expand the operation to include other characters. This is what you get when you hand over the creative property of an author to the analysts and the men of business.

      Why not write a new Marple?, you ask. Because they'll screw it up. Father Brown is supposedly set in the 1950s, but I'm convinced it's a show set in a modern-day lunatic asylum, told from the perspective of an unnamed narrator who shares a communal delusion that the asylum is a 1950s Catholic village in England.

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  10. Oh come on! why do i end up getting spoilers?/ lol but you ruined my "Curtain" experience by telling that poirot was dead in it..but i hope there is gonna be lot more than that..
    i would also like to state that i was browsing through the guardian.co.uk website where top 10 Agatha books were given.. and what the heck they did! they clearly stated the Murder of Roger Ackroyd twist ending in a line!
    well they hv corrected their mistake now..but that book too is spoiled...
    And on Goodreads i accidentaly read the spoiler of Murder on Orient Express. damn,
    And on top of that last but not the least My friend deliberately told me the concept of Peril at the End House.
    Haha. So since you are much experienced in reading mysteries than me (i hv read 7 Agatha books, 1 Dickson Carr's and 1 Edgar Wallace) could you recommend me any books that would compensate for the damage :)

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