“The House of Silk: A Sherlock Holmes Novel” by Anthony Horowitz

The House of Silk.jpg

I picked up The House of Silk thanks to a comment that was posted in response to my take on Anthony Horowitz’s book, Magpie Murders, a few months ago. While Magpie Murders was a classic whodunit in the style of Agatha Christie — whose books I find thoroughly entertaining, even today, and even after multiple re-readings — The House of Silk is directly based on the style of Arthur Conan Doyle best known for his Sherlock Holmes detective books. In fact, The House of Silk is not just inspired by Sherlock Holmes, it is, as the title states, an actual Sherlock Holmes book. This means that it is written from the point of view of Dr. Watson, as the original books were, and features the same characters in the same setting. It’s almost as if Arthur Conan Doyle rose from the ashes and gave us another Sherlock Holmes book, or if there was another book in his canon that was lost and was discovered only now. In fact, that is the premise of The House of Silk — that it was written over a hundred years ago by Dr. Watson but was sealed until now because the “case” that was solved in the book was too shocking and too controversial for those times.

I found the premise very successful in its execution — the book is indistinguishable from the original Sherlock Holmes books and transports you back to 221B Baker Street, the London address where Sherlock Holmes lives and which forms the base setting for all his cases. At the time of this book, Dr. Watson is already married but his wife is away visiting friends, so he returns to live at 221B Baker Street as he used to and continues to be Holmes’s trusted right-hand man and chronicler of this case. Their intrepid landlady, Mrs. Hudson, plays only a small role in this book, but the loyal Inspector Lestrade has a large part to play. The case starts off being a relatively straightforward one of an art theft and a murder threat, but soon balloons into something a lot more sinister — the brutal murder of a young boy, an underground opium den, another murder that Sherlock Holmes himself seems to have committed and is arrested for, an orphanage for boys that does not quite seem to be what it purports to be, and a conspiracy that seems to go so high up in government levels that even Sherlock Holmes’ well-connected brother, Mycroft Holmes, cannot help.

As with all Sherlock Holmes books, The House of Silk is a thrilling ride that takes you back to the familiar setting of Victorian England, and the case that Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson have to solve gets increasingly darker, complicated, and dangerous. Fans of the original books will revel in the resurrection of their favorite detective, and there is no doubt that Anthony Horowitz is an extremely talented writer who has shown that he can match the writing styles of Agatha Christie as well as Arthur Conan Doyle to a tee. The only problem I found with the book was with the intent of the premise — it pointed to something “so monstrous” and “so shocking” that the book had to be locked up for a hundred years. However, when the finale came, I did not find it to be as big a deal. While I can appreciate that Horowitz needed to find a way to explain why a new Sherlock Holmes book was being published now, the explanation he chose was not very compelling.

But despite the problem I found with the intent of the premise, its execution, as I mentioned earlier, was spot on, making The House of Silk a terrific read.

The House of Silk: A Sherlock Holmes Novel
Author: Anthony Horowitz
Publisher: Mulholland Books
Publication Date: November 2011

Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.

“Misery” by Stephen King

Misery1

This was one of the few “page turners” that I’ve read. I got pulled into Misery the moment I read the plot summary. Technically, it is something that could happen to anyone, any unlucky celebrity to be precise.

It starts with a back-breaking accident to a famous novelist and thankfully he gets rescued by his number one fan. Hold on. It’s a Stephen King novel. The man who is famous for his thrillers and killers. I’ll have to take that “thankfully” back… I won’t spoil anything here, but I guarantee you that it’s not a horror story (but a scary one).

There are books that can give us surprises, good scares, heart breaks, adrenaline rush and so forth. For this book, courtesy the title, I was expecting a miserable time for our lead character and was prepared to sympathize with him even before I started reading. But I got a surprise right away when I learned that “Misery” was, in fact, a character’s name in the book (Misery Chastain is a beautiful name). And our lead did not have a miserable time. He had something worse!

Here’s some more leverage to get you start reading. The book was adapted into a movie in 1990 and Anne Wilkes (the female lead character) was portrayed by Kathy Bates. Ms. Bates won the Best Actress Oscar and the Golden Globe for the role.

Then again, if you have already read the book then you might be a tad disappointed with the way the film turned out. I can’t say it was totally bad but it could have been much better. I’m not sure how to put it. Let’s just say that there’s a big difference in using an axe to hack someone versus using a hammer for the same thing.

Ouch. Gruesome! I know. But it’s Stephen King. Not me. So the example demands gruesomeness… 🙂

You can expect some heart-thumping moments in the book. And it beautifully (or should I say, rather casually) portrays a writer’s agony and thought process in creating something new.

With Halloween around the corner, you could get your share of thrills by reading Misery or by watching the movie. I won’t suggest both.

Misery
Author: Stephen King
Publisher: Viking Press
Publication Date: June 1987

Contributor: Anoop Mukundan is a casual reader and a cyber wanderer.

“Magpie Murders” by Anthony Horowitz

Magpie Murders

For those who love mysteries—and I very much belong in this category— Magpie Murders is a double treat. It is a mystery within a mystery, a classic whodunit (short for “Who [has] done it?”) within a whodunit. Agatha Christie was the undisputed queen of this genre, and I find her books absolutely riveting and impossible to put down until the end, when the detective finally reveals the murderer. I have always wished she was still alive and writing, so I wouldn’t have to make do by re-reading her books over and over again.

This is why I was delighted to come across Magpie Murders. Not only did it provide twice the thrill by being a book within a book, it had also one of the most innovative plot lines I have come across so far. A book editor of a publishing company, Susan Ryeland, is given the manuscript of the latest book by their most successful author, Alan Conway. The name of the book is Magpie Murders, and it is the ninth book in his widely popular crime series that is modeled almost entirely on Agatha Christie books—they also feature a Poirot-like detective and are set in small English villages in the 1950s. While Susan dislikes Alan Conway as a person, she loves his books and starts reading the manuscript. It is reproduced in full, and we are reading it with her. This is the “inside” book, and it is every bit as riveting as any Agatha Christie mystery, just as well-written, just as suspenseful, just as impossible to put down.

Therefore imagine her agony, as well as ours, when she comes to the end of the manuscript and finds that it is not complete! This is just before the big reveal when the detective gathers all the suspects and presents the solution to the mystery with a flourish. Needless to say, she can’t wait to get hold of Alan Conway to find out what happens. But then it turns out that he has died, ostensibly from suicide, going by the letter he sent to her boss, the head of the publishing company. In a quest to find the missing chapters of the manuscript, not just for her company but also to get the solution to the mystery in the book, Susan dig deeper and becomes increasingly convinced that Alan may have been died of murder rather than suicide.

This is the “outer” mystery, and while it is set in contemporary times and therefore easier to relate too, I have to admit that I didn’t find as gripping as the inner Agatha Christie-like mystery in the fictional book that Alan Conway wrote. Thankfully, Susan finds the missing end chapters of the inside book, so we find the answer to that mystery. And of course, by the end of the book, we get to know the mystery behind Alan Conway’s death as well.

The fictional Alan Convoy’s fictional book was so good, and such a terrific stand-in for Agatha Christie fans, that I wish Anthony Horowitz would keep writing these books in addition to the other books he writes.

Magpie Murders
Author: Anthony Horowitz
Publisher: Harper
Publication Date: June 2017

 Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.

“Into the Water” by Paula Hawkins

Into the Water

Into the Water is the new book by Paula Hawkins, whose debut novel, The Girl on the Train, was such a huge success, not just commercially but also critically — it was on the New York Times Bestseller list for over four months following its release in 2015, which surely has to be a record, at least for a first book. I absolutely loved that book and wrote about it shortly after I reread it last summer and found that I enjoyed it as much as the first time I read it. Naturally, my expectations were really high from Into the Water, although I was also afraid that it wouldn’t be as brilliant as The Girl on the Train. After all, wasn’t it possible that the resounding success of her debut novel had blunted the artistic sensibilities of the author as well as her drive and motivation? Could Paula Hawkins really come up with something that would be as good as The Girl on the Train?

As it turns out, I needn’t have worried about not enjoying Into the Water as much as I did The Girl on the Train. It is as brilliantly written and as much of a taut, suspenseful thriller as The Girl on the Train – I couldn’t put it down and read it in the course of an evening, staying up till the early hours of the morning to finish it. I simply had to know what happens.

Into the Water is set in a small town in England that has a river running through it, one part of which happens to be a treacherous spot where people can drown – either by jumping into the water or by being thrown off. This spot, known to locals as “the Drowning Pool,” has a troubled history, with many women losing their lives there – hundreds of years ago, when people believed in witchcraft, women thought to be witches were thrown into the water, and more recently, it has become somewhat of a suicide spot for troubled women to end their lives. The book begins with the death of a woman, Nel, in the drowning pool. Did she jump into the water or was she pushed? Nel’s death seems to be connected to the death of Katie, a teenage girl, in the same spot about six months ago, which was believed to be a suicide. It’s also possible that the connection actually began with the death of another woman, Lauren, in that spot thirty years ago.

The story is told from the points of view of several characters: Nel’s long estranged sister, Jules, who is forced to come back to the town she and Nel grew up in; Nel’s teenage daughter, Lena, who also happened to be Katie’s best friend; Katie’s mother, Louise; the local detective to whom the case is assigned, Sean, who is also Lauren’s son; and several other characters including Katie’s brother, Sean’s wife, Sean’s father, the high school teacher with whom Katie was having an affair, and last but not least, a local psychic who everyone thinks is crazy but who actually has some important insights into what actually happened. Nel, who was a single mother, had always been obsessed with the Drowning Pool, and her research on it was not appreciated by the others in the community, particularly those whose lives had been affected by it, such as Katie’s mother, Louise. Katie’s brother was just a young boy, but he had seen his mother go out the night Nel died – had she something to do with Nel dying in the water? And why exactly had Katie committed suicide? Why was Jules estranged from her sister all these years? If Nel had indeed killed herself, maybe if Jules had responded when Nel had reached to her, she wouldn’t have been so troubled as to commute suicide? Why was Lena so difficult? Was it normal teenage rebelliousness compounded by the irrevocable loss of her mother, or was she hiding something? Why did Sean seem disturbed so often in the course of the investigation?

By the end of the book, you, of course, get the answers to these questions and things make sense. I was gratified to find the quality of the writing to be as good as The Girl on the Train, and it was just as suspenseful and thrilling, making it impossible to put the book down.

That said, while I thoroughly enjoyed reading Into the Water, I don’t see myself re-reading it with the same level of enjoyment as The Girl on the Train. For one, there are many more characters here, and not only is it initially confusing to the reader, I think it is also more difficult for the author to “get inside” the heads of so many characters, leaving us with a little more than a cursory understanding of many of them, even though they narrate their parts of the story in first person. Also, the reason behind Jules’s estranged relationship with Nel did not seem very convincing. And finally, I felt that the book does not sufficiently clarify every single question — and it could be because there were too many interconnected threads in the plot.

In short, I found Into the Water a great read, but not the kind of book I would go out and buy a copy of for my personal library, as I did for The Girl on the Train.

Into the Water
Author: Paula Hawkins
Publisher: Riverhead Books
Publication Date: May 2017

Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.

“Defending Jacob” by William Landay

Defending Jacob

Of late, it has been difficult for me to find books that hold my interest. I regularly listen to the New York Times Book Review podcast and also subscribe to Bookmarks magazine, so I am up to date with which are the hottest books being published – what critics are saying about them, as well as their authors in the course of the many interviews they do as part of their book promotion tours. I borrow these books from the library with great enthusiasm, but very often, I just don’t find them interesting enough to stick with them beyond the first few chapters – they don’t hold my attention or make me care enough about the characters to make reading them a pleasure rather than a chore.

Therefore, I decided to take a break from “heavy-duty” reading and go back to that genre which, when well done, is impossible for me to put down – a good old-fashioned murder mystery. I grew up on hundreds of Enid Blyton mystery books as a kid in India and I subsequently graduated to Agatha Christie – my all-time favorite mystery writer — whose books I can still read again and again and enjoy them even when I know whodunit (“Who [has] done it?”). Along the way, I also discovered that I like courtroom dramas, a great example of which are books by Jodi Picoult (see my review of Small Great Things). This is why when I came across Defending Jacob, it seemed to me like a no-brainer to give it a try and end my long dry run of finding something to read that I could actually finish. I’m happy to say that it worked. I was riveted by the book and finished it in the course of a day.

Defending Jacob tells the story of a regular family that is suddenly thrown in turmoil when the son, Jacob, is charged with the murder of a boy, Ben, from the same school, who is found stabbed to death in the neighborhood park. Jacob is the only son of Andy, who is actually the Assistant DA (District Attorney) of the small town near Boston where the murder happens and is given charge of the case. It is a real shock to the community, which has been crime-free until now — all the kids go to the local school and most of the parents have known each other since their kids started school in kindergarten. Andy and his wife, Laurie, are well liked and highly respected members of this community, and they remain so even after the murdered boy is found until it turns out that their son, Jacob, may have done it. They are then, of course, immediately ostracized. To his parents, Jacob seems just like any other high school adolescent boy – sullen, introverted, and uncommunicative — and it’s impossible for them to tell if these are normal or the signs of a killer. Complicating the fact is that Andy is descended from a family with a history of violence, with at least three generations of men prior to him convicted of murder and his father still in prison because of it. Andy has successfully disassociated himself from this aspect of his family’s history – even Laurie does not know about it – but now the issue comes up when the case goes to court. Is there such a thing as a “murder gene,” and if so, has Jacob inherited it?

Andy is removed from the case as soon as Jacob comes under suspicion and the book tells the harrowing story of the family’s long ordeal in the days leading up to the trial and the trial itself. The story is extremely well told without resorting to melodrama or clichés, making it extremely believable. And of course, it is a mystery that leaves you guessing – did Jacob do it, or someone else, such as the convicted pedophile who was often in the park where Ben was murdered? The fact that Ben bullied Jacob and that Jacob owned a knife that he had bought earlier naturally throws suspicion on him, along with the discovery of a single fingerprint found on Ben’s jacket that matches Jacob. Then there is the whole online world that Jacob inhabits — all the Facebooks posts among the school kids some of which openly accuse him of the murder, and the “cutter porn” chat rooms (focused on violence and torture) that he frequents and occasionally even contributes to. All of these are pretty incriminating, but are they sufficient for the jury to pronounce Jacob guilty without a reasonable doubt?

There is the proverbial twist at the end of this book, as with many books of this genre, but it is not something related to this crime itself – in fact, it is so believable that you do not feel for a minute that you have been cheated or that some information was withheld from you deliberately to throw you off the track. It ends on a solid conclusion rather than a shaky one, unexpected for sure, but not at all contrived. All in all, it was a very good read.

Defending Jacob
Author: William Landay
Publisher: Bantam
Publication Date: September 2013

Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.

“The Widow” by Fiona Barton

the-widow

Contrary to what you would expect this book to be from its title – a tragedy or at least a drama – The Widow is actually a crime thriller. And a really good one at that – I couldn’t put it down until I had got to the end, to the “bottom of the mystery,” as they would say in our much-beloved Five Find-Outers mystery series by Enid Blyton that we grew up with in India.

Set in England, The Widow is a debut novel by Fiona Barton, who, I wasn’t surprised to learn, is a journalist, given the fluency and quality of the writing. The “widow” in the story is Jean, whose husband has just died in an accident. But there’s an entire back story to their marriage that gradually unfolds in the course of the book. Her husband, Glen, turns out to be a pedophile who may have abducted a two year girl, Bella, from her house. It takes a lot of digging and investigation to hone in on Glen as the probable suspect. The detective in charge of the case is convinced that he is the man. But there is no conclusive proof, and even though Glen is charged and brought to trial, there is not enough evidence to convict him. In the meantime, Jean is obsessed with kids but for a different reason — Glen is infertile so she cannot have kids of her own. Did Glen kidnap Bella? And if so, was Jean complicit in the kidnapping? Did she want Bella to be her child? And was Glen’s death really accidental or did Jean actually cause it? We don’t really get to know the answers to these questions until the end of the book.

The book’s structure adds to the drama. The story unfold over a span of four years, starting from the time of Bella’s kidnapping to a few weeks after Glen’s death. Not only does it keep alternating between different times instead of being chronological – a fairly common literary device adopted in novels these days – it is also narrated from the points of view of a few key people: Jean, the widow; Bob, the detective who becomes very emotionally invested in the case; Dawn, Bella’s mother, who is single and has a few skeletons in the closet of her own; and finally, Kate, a reporter who is the only one able to get through to Jean, past the media circus plaguing her life for four years since Bella disappeared.

Most crime thrillers have almost an obligatory surprise twist towards the end — they lead you down a certain path almost intentionally and then knock you off the sails with a big reveal. And in the most successful books of this genre like Gone Girl, their sheer brilliance make you forget and forgive the fact that they practically cheated into believing something that wasn’t true. The Widow is not like that. There are no surprise plot twists thrown in like a curve ball; yet, it still has a very satisfying conclusion in which you are assured that justice has been done. It’s far from being the next Gone Girl or The Girl on the Train, but I found it a very well written, engrossing, and page turning thriller.

The Widow
Author: Fiona Barton
Publisher: Penguin
Publication Date: February 2016

Contributor: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.

“The Girl on the Train” by Paula Hawkins

The Girl on the Train

The Girl on the Train has had one of longest runs as a New York Times bestseller. Released last year, it topped the list for 16 weeks in 2015, has been on it for 78 weeks so far, and is still on the list at #6. That is a remarkable achievement for any book, let alone a debut novel. It literally came out of nowhere and became an instant success, drawing comparisons with the 2014 crime thriller, Gone Girl, which was also a runaway hit. However, unlike Gone Girl, whose author, Gillian Flynn had published books before which you could read to get a better idea of her earlier work and her path to literary success, the author, Paula Hawkins, of The Girl on the Train was a totally unknown entity in the publishing world, so you can’t go back to read any of her other books, as most of us would do for authors whose books we love. And while I don’t always find New York Times bestsellers terrific reads (such as the book, The Girls, that I wrote about recently), The Girl on the Train was one book that I unequivocally loved.

Set in London in contemporary times, The Girl on the Train is a psychological thriller and murder mystery rolled in one. The mystery at its core is the disappearance of a woman, and the story is told entirely in the form of the narrations of three different characters: Rachel, the main protagonist, who is “the girl on the train” who sees something suspicious related to the missing woman from the train one morning, and whose life, by the way, is falling apart, making her a very unreliable witness; Anna, Rachel’s ex-husband’s current wife, thanks to whom Rachel’s psychological problems and drunkenness are compounded; and finally, Megan, the woman who goes missing. We learn how their lives intersect early on in the book, but not the whole truth. Unlike books like Gone Girl in which a large part of the narration was deliberately misleading to throw readers off the track, the “twist” in The Girl on the Train comes not from an unreliable narration, but from holding something back instead and not divulging the whole truth. The book keeps you on tenterhooks throughout and rather than feeling cheated at the end, it has a very satisfying conclusion that does not make you feel stupid for not having “guessed” the mystery.

Crime thrillers are generally not known for their writing quality, but I found The Girl on the Train not only very clever but also extremely well written. Not only was it thrilling and entertaining the first time I read it last year, I re-read it again recently and I found it just as engaging as the first time—impossible to put down, and having finished it, needing to read it again right away to better understand the clues leading to the resolution of the mystery. For me, the impetus to read it again came from hearing that it was being made into a movie. While I think that The Girl on the Train has an excellent plot and would make for a terrific movie, there is a certain enjoyment of a good book that comes from your own images of the characters before they are overwritten by the images of the actors playing those parts in a movie, and I wanted to experience this again before the movie comes out.

In conclusion, I would say that The Girl on the Train is a terrific book that deserves every bit of its success, and I find it very gratifying that books like this even find a place in—let alone rule—the New York Times bestseller list, where you typically find more “serious” literary fare. The only question now is whether Paula Hawkins will be a one-book wonder, or we will continue to see more from this prodigiously talented author? While it would be hard to match the success of The Girl on the Train, I, for one, am eagerly awaiting her next book.

The Girl on the Train
Author: Paula Hawkins
Publisher: Penguin Group
Publication Date: January 2015

Reviewer: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.

“I Let You Go” by Clare Mackintosh

I let you go-small

I had never heard of this book before seeing it while browsing through the “New” books display at my local library. What prompted me to pick this up and not put it back was a quote on the cover by Paula Hawkins, the author of the best-selling, The Girl on the Train, which was a book that I had loved. I Let You Go seemed to be in the same “crime fiction” genre as The Girl on the Train and Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl, another book that I had loved (but which was somewhat ruined for me after the movie version), and what seemed to give it instant credibility was the fact that the author had spent twelve years on the police force in England. Also, the book jacket blurb promised a “twist” — another aspect common to both Gone Girl and The Girl on the Train — which is irresistible to die-hard fans of crime thrillers like me and accounts for the enduring popularity of Agatha Christie novels and detectives like Sherlock Homes.

The hallmark of a good crime novel is that it is almost impossible to put down once you start reading it, and from that perspective, I Let You Go definitely makes the cut. The “crime” at the center of the book is a hit-and-run car accident that kills a small boy, and the book focuses primarily on its aftermath, both on the people involved in it as well as the detectives investigating it. It is well written, fast-paced, and keeps you engaged right up to the end. While the promised plot “twist” was a bit too convoluted and the story was eventually resolved a bit too neatly in my opinion, it was still a thrilling and enjoyable read. At times, you just want to be entertained with a good “whodunit” mystery and while Agatha Christie was the master of this genre, she’s not around anymore and it’s great to have books like this coming from other talented writers.

While I found I Let You Go a good thriller that was definitely worth reading, I doubt I would be interested in re-reading it again at some point. It’s the kind of book that captivates you the first time, but once the suspense is over and you know how it ends, it’s done. It’s not the kind of book you re-read to enjoy the way it’s written and how it was cleverly crafted to keep you guessing. So while I bought copies of The Girl on the Train and Gone Girl to have in my collection after reading them (along with Gillian Flynn’s earlier Dark Places — and don’t even get me started on the Cormoran Strike novels by Robert Galbraith, aka J.K. Rowling!), I don’t see myself wanting to re-read I Let You Go. I was glad to have read it, but I have no regrets about returned my borrowed copy back to the library for someone else to enjoy.

I Let You Go
Author: Clare Mackintosh
Publisher: Berkley
Publication Date: May 2016

Reviewer: Lachmi Khemlani runs a technology publication in the San Francisco Bay Area.