09 April 2011

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

Summary: In the village of King's Abbot, a widow's sudden suicide sparks rumors that she murdered her first husband, was being blackmailed, and was carrying on a secret affair with the wealthy Roger Ackroyd. The following evening, Ackroyd is murdered in his locked study, but not before receiving a letter identifying the widow's blackmailer. King's Abbot is crawling with suspects, including a nervous butler, Ackroyd's wayward stepson, and his sister-in-law, Mrs. Cecil Ackroyd, who has taken up residence in the victim's home. It's now up to the famous detective Hercule Poirot, who has retied to King's Abbot to garden, to solve the case of who killed Roger Ackroyd - a task in which he is aided by the village doctor and narrator, James Sheppard and by Sheppard's ingenious sister, Caroline. (source: book jacket)

Comments: My saga of reading Agatha Christie's mysteries in order continues with The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. I have to admit, I have read this before, it has been some years, and I still remember who was the murderer because it was such a shock the first time. That said, I did not remember any of the circumstances surrounding the murder or the plots twists. This gave me a very good opportunity to look at the clues against the murderer while reading the story. How were they inserted into the plot and what would I remember once Poirot put it all together in the end. Ms. Christie is subtle when it comes to adding clues and really nothing is as it seems often times. If the book jacket is to be believed, this book is the mystery that made Ms. Christie a household name. I can believe that considering how shocked I was by the murderer.
Ms. Christie created, to my mind, two of the most annoying women in this story; Caroline Sheppard, the nosy, insinuating, gossip and Mrs. Cecil Ackroyd, the money grubbing, constantly complaining sister-in-law of the deceased. While both are annoying, reminding me somewhat of Mrs. Bennett in Pride and Prejudice, at least Caroline was useful to Poirot and in her own way rather intuitive about the other characters in the story. 

Some of Caroline's running commentary directed at her maligned brother James regarding their new neighbor M. Poirot:
"I can't make it out at all," she said in an aggrieved voice. "I borrowed some garden tools the other day, and he was most polite, but I couldn't get anything out of him. I asked him point blank at last whether he was a Frenchman, and he said he wasn't - and somehow I didn't like to ask him anymore." 
I began to be more interested in our mysterious neighbor. A man who is capable of shutting up Caroline and sending her, like the Queen of Sheba, away empty must be something of a personality.
Here's a typical example of Mrs. Ackroyd when she is talking about one of the servants, "No more I do. She's - odd. There's something different about her from the other. Too well educated, that's my opinion. You can't tell who are ladies and who aren't anymore."* 
Sheppard himself was a country physician with a level of tact and diplomacy that his sister greatly lacks. He was, as he stated himself, "I played Watson to his Sherlock,"* but more correctly he played the role of Captain Hastings in this mystery. 
David Suchet as Hercule Poirot

Hercule Poirot is one of my favorite characters in literature. I really enjoy his persnickety character and his little grey cells. He's always dapper and charming. I do wonder what made Ms. Christie create a Belgian detective because one of my favorite parts of this book is the beginning when his name is mispronounced as Porrott. And someone always thinking him French (see above) and his disgusted reaction to it - funny. It does seem odd to me that Poirot has "retired" and lives at King's Abbot to tend his vegetable garden this early in the series of books (the book was published in 1926) , but we'll see how this progresses. I'm greatly looking forward to my next Christie Mystery - another Poirot story - The Big Four.

*p. 170
**p. 163

Coming this Sunday to a PBS station near you

Upstairs, Downstairs
A new version. I cannot wait. With all the success and interest in Downton Abbey this year, to have another period series to follow is a real treat. I never watched the original. I must have been too young, but am greatly looking forward to this. Keeley Hawes is a great talent and takes the role of Lady Agnes Holland. Ms. Hawes was wonderful in one of my favorite British shows Spooks (MI-5) as Zoe Reynolds. She was also in one of the funniest movies I've seen in a long time, Death at a Funeral (British original) where she played opposite her husband Matthew Macfadyen. Sir Hallam Holland is played by Ed Stoppard who was in the recently aired, Any Human Heart. Interestingly, Jean March who played Rose Buck the housekeeper in the original Up/Down, will return in this version to help staff the house through her Buck of Belgravia staffing agency.
Check out the PBS site.

Watch the full episode. See more Masterpiece.

08 April 2011

As if you had never read it before

Wouldn't it be cool if you didn't already know all of Miss Austen's books by heart? You could read everything like it was the first time you ever read it. 
You wouldn't know that Darcy would come back to Pemberley a day early and by chance meet Elizabeth again. 
Just lovely

You wouldn't know that Mr. Knightley would issue one of the most garbled offers of marriage ever to his lovely friend. It was sweet, but not terribly articulate. But you know, we'll manage. He's just too lovely.

I can listen no longer in silence.
You wouldn't know that Wentworth was still violently in love with Anne after all those years or anything about the hastily penned letter. Is there anything more romantic that that letter? - I think not. 

Just so perfect
You wouldn't know the excitement of Elinor when she realizes that Edward is unmarried. It's so damn happy and heart breaking and wonderful at the same time. Jeez. Miss Austen loves to torture us, but in a romantic satisfyingly way. 

Sometimes it takes a while
You wouldn't know how resolute Fanny Price could be or what a correct judge of character she had. How she believed in her true love for Edmund. How his father came to realize what a wonderful thing he had done and what a exceptional "daughter" he had. What a true joy for them all  

What a hero!
You wouldn't know that Henry Tilney is uniformly charming either. He has to be one of the best of Miss Austen's characters. He's beyond charming and just adorable and, yes, I would love to have a brother like that, especially if I were picking fabric for new gowns. He may sound shallow, but he is not and he falls for the young girl that innocently falls for him first - how can he not. Simple story - love, at almost, first sight. He also has dogs - a good quality in any man. 

Wouldn't it just be something to read them again for the first time, without seeing certain  actors in your head and the parts they played. Or of hearing certain music associated with the films? You would have to create your own image of Mansfield Park or Longbourn or Pemberley as you read what little information you are given about them. 
Mrs. Allen

Jane Bennet - yes, an angel
You would have to decide how etheral was Jane Bennet or Emma Woodhouse or how dour was Lady Catherine and how silly was Mrs. Allen.
Wouldn't it be great? Indeed, it would.

I wish I could do it again. 
Emma - pretty, but ... 

07 April 2011

Soft Polenta with Asparagus, Prosciutto, Garlic and Scallions

Okay, sad but true, I've never made polenta before. If I have, I don't remember it. I had no idea how easy it was. This recipe and variations of it will be on my menu rotation. The original recipe was from Mario Batalia, but I made changes to it - I just can't help myself. He called for 5 cups of water, but all the other recipes for firm polenta said 3.5 cups of liquid for 1 cup of polenta. I went in the middle and did 4 cups of water and that worked well, the polenta was soft, but not runny. I also cut my asparagus. This doesn't seem like a knife-needed recipe so I cut them. I used more garlic that 3 cloves, but that's just because the cloves were small. I doubled the prosciutto and halved the spring onions. The lemon, to me, is absolutely required. It makes all the difference in the dish.

Soft Polenta with Asparagus, Prosciutto, Garlic and Scallions
4 cups water
1 pound asparagus, trimmed, and cut into bite-sized pieces
1 cup yellow cornmeal
1 cup mascarpone cheese
6 Tbs butter, divided
3 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
6 slices of prosciutto, julienne
1 bunch scallions or spring onions, slices
juice and zest of one lemon

Bring water to boil in a saucepan. Add asparagus and cook until tender, about 30 seconds to one minute. Remove from water and hold in a bowl until needed. Return water to a boil and whisking constantly, add the cornmeal. Stir until thick. Remove from heat, stir in
mascarpone cheese, cover and sit aside.

In a saute pan, heat 4 Tbs of butter until foaming over medium heat. Add garlic, onion, and prosciutto and saute until the onions are wilted. Add asparagus and lemon juice and zest. Add remaining butter to make a sauce. Taste and season with salt. To serve, place polenta in a soup plate, top with onion/asparagus mixture. Serve with grated Parmesan on the side.

Evaluation: The consistency of the polenta was just what I wanted. I think the Parmesan was helpful as I didn't salt the polenta very much not knowing how much salt the prosciutto would bring to the party. Lemon - absolutely necessary. I might cut back on the amount of the asparagus to balance it a bit more with everything and likely double the amount of prosciutto. I think this presents lots of opportunities to change ingredients, such as half some cherry tomatoes or some sliced mushrooms with garlic, use some spinach - changing the sauteed ingredients as different vegetables come into season.

Guinness Brownies

We were talking about brownies at work the other day and I mentioned my Guinness Brownies. The Boy loves these and the MotH enjoys them as well, I think. They are based on Grace Neill's Chocolate and Guinness Brownies (from The New Irish Table), but I've changed the chocolate ratio and the amount of Guinness. I don't care much for chocolate, so I really make these for others to enjoy, but I will always have at least one. The are rich and chocolate flavored without being super sweet, which we all enjoy. Will you like them if you don't like Guinness, um, yes. I, on the other hand, happen to think that Guinness is one of the most sublime things on this lovely little planet. That, I'm sure, stems from the fact that I started drinking beer in England and had many (many) Guinness drafts at many (many) pubs across the Midlands and in London. They always say, "the alcohol cooks out," and in this case that is true (as opposed to rum cake - yuck), so no worries there. Just a rich, chocolate, coffee-ish, flavor and and excellent smooth texture for a simple (really) brownie.
Notes: there are a few sips of Guinness more than a cup in a bottle - enjoy.
Also, based on today, it is not easy to sift anything with the windows
My favorite!
open and the winds blowing. I'm covered in cocoa. ugh.

Flour and chocolate - sigh.
Here 'tis:
4 eggs
3/4 cup superfine sugar (take the same amount of granulated sugar and whir it up in the food processor, or not as you prefer)
4 oz. bittersweet chocolate
4 oz. semisweet chocolate
6 tablespoons unsalted butter
3/4 cup all-purpose flour
3/4 cup cocoa
1 cup Guinness Extra Stout (not Guinness draught - my preference anyway)

Preheat oven to 375˚F. In a mixer, blend eggs and sugar until light and fluffy. In a medium sauce over low heat, melt chocolates and butter (you can chop if you want, but it pretty much melts all the same anyway) stirring until smooth. Remove from heat and add to egg mixture. Mixing to combine.
Sift flour and cocoa together and mix into chocolate mixture. Whisk in Guinness a little at a time, until incorporated. Pour into prepared 8" x 8" pan (coat w/cooking spray or butter, either works). Bake for 25-30 minutes or until a toothpick comes out of the center almost clean (key word there, almost). Remove from oven and cool on wire rack.
You can dust with confectioners' sugar, but I usually prefer not to. Your call.

06 April 2011

04 April 2011

Bookish pet peeves

This post about bookish pet peeves got me thinking. What are my pet peeves about books?

Library books - I would love to be able to check out and read books at the library, but try as I might, I can't. So many people who check out books smoke that, because of my allergies, I can't read them. I can bring them home, but can't get them read because as soon as I open them it's impossible to breathe without sneezing. That just irritates me, literally and figuratively.
Books in a series - I inevitably get a book that's part of a series, but is not the first book in the series. I hate that. I like to read stories in the order in which they are written, so finding myself in the middle is rather annoying because I then put that book off until I can start the series in the proper way.
Mysteries that can't be solved - A mystery should be able to be solved by the reader if they pay close enough attention to the clues provided. There shouldn't be some unknown clue that you find out about  as the mystery is revealed. That's cheating.
People that think you're a snob because you read classics - What's wrong with reading Austen, Bronte, Dickens, or whoever? That does not make me some kind of elitist. I just like reading different things and the classics are high on my list.
People who don't use a bookmark, but leave the book open upside down - That's just not good for the book and it never closes properly again. It makes me slightly nuts when I see it. Use a sticky note or a piece of paper or something.

03 April 2011

First of the Month - April

Wisteria - 1 April 2011
The changes that take place between March 1 and April 1 are always impressive. It now truly looks like spring and I for one say, yipee! The blooms are almost gone from the wisteria, which is sad, but worth it for the few weeks it is covered in purple flowers. The bald cypress now has leaves, so it no longer looks quite so sad and the river birches have new lime green leaves. The oak has done its typical shedding of leaves for spring, odd I realize, but true none the less. It looks a little forlorn, but is starting to get new lime green leaves as well. The weather is wonderful, hardly an humidity and temps in the mid to high seventies. Not too shabby. Here's to April. 

Oak - 1 April 2011

River Birch - 1 April 2011
Bald Cypress - 1 April 2011
River Birch #2 - 1 April 2011

Camellia - 1 April 2011