The Agatha Christie Challenge – While the Light Lasts and Other Stories (1997)

While the Light LastsNine short stories, never previously published in book form in the UK, including two featuring Hercule Poirot. Additionally, the volume contains accompanying notes by Christie scholar and detective story writer, Tony Medawar. While the Light Lasts was first published in the UK by Harper Collins in August 1997. Eight of the stories had been published in the US collection The Harlequin Tea Set, in April 1997. I’ll take them all individually, and, as always, I promise not to reveal whodunit!

The House of Dreams

dreamsThis spooky little story was originally published in issue 74 of the Sovereign Magazine in January 1926. John Segrave dreams of a beautiful house, and the next day he meets Allegra Kerr with whom he falls head over heels in love. But she vows that she will never marry, and refuses to tell him why. However, recurrent dreams of the beautiful house reveal a secret that explains her silence…

This is a revised version of a story that Christie wrote when she was very young, The Dream of Beauty, which was never published, but which she considered to be the first thing that she had written that had any merit. It’s an introduction to one of the themes that would often play a major part in Christie’s works, that of the anxiety that insanity can be inherited and run riot within a family.

Reading the story with the benefit of hindsight, you can see Christie’s feel for the supernatural, which also frequently cropped up in some of her earlier works. However, you can also see that it is the product of an immature voice, trying too hard to make her points, lacking subtlety throughout. It’s littered with over-the-top, flowery language and often feels repetitious.

For example, her description of Beethoven’s Pathétique is just too much: “that expression of a grief that is infinite, a sorrow that is endless and vast as the ages, but in which from end to end breathes the sprit that will not accept defeat. In the solemnity of undying woe, it moves with the rhythm of the conqueror to its final doom.” And there are paragraphs upon paragraphs describing the same elements of the dream which definitely required some editing.

It is interesting to see how acceptable language has changed over the 100 odd years since this was written; Christie describes one of Allegra’s aunts as a “hopeless imbecile”, which today might just about be acceptable as an informal description of a mate who always gets things wrong, but here was used to describe someone with mental illness.

Allegra quotes: “ill luck thou canst not bring where ill luck has its home”; “the words used by Sieglinde in the Walküre when Sigmund offers to leave the house.” Not saying this is incorrect, but if you Google the quotation, the only reference is its appearance in this story.

Interesting to read the early Christie finding her feet – but not a lot more than that.

The Actress

stageThis entertaining little story was originally published in issue 218 of The Novel Magazine in May 1923 under the title of A Trap for the Unwary. Ne’er-do-well Jake Levitt recognises that the new acting sensation, Olga Stormer, is in fact none other than little Nancy Taylor whom he knew in the past and has an eminently blackmailable history. He sends her a letter intimating that he has recognised her and inviting her to respond. But her response was perhaps a little more than he bargained for…

This is a very enjoyable, quick and punchy story with some entertaining characterisations and nice turns of phrase. Maybe I have read too many Christies, but I did find the twist of the tale very easy to predict – but that doesn’t detract from the pleasure of the tale.

Olga Stormer is said to be playing the part of Cora in The Avenging Angel. The only Avenging Angel I’ve come across is a Western movie made in 1995, so I’m presuming this play comes straight from Christie’s imagination.

A well-written, tightly constructed little tale; great fun.

The Edge

EdgeThis devilishly entertaining little tale was originally published in issue 374 of Pearson’s Magazine in February 1927. Villager Clare Halliwell’s heart is broken when her childhood sweetheart Gerald marries the younger, prettier Vivien, but still hopes one day he might realise the error of his ways. When lunching in a nearby town she sees in the register that Vivien has stayed overnight with another man – and not for the first time. Armed with that knowledge, should she confront them and use the information to her own advantage, or should she stay silent?

This is a cracking little read and, in my opinion, one of Christie’s best short stories. It hides not one, but two stings in its tale with its rather creepy surprise ending which I certainly did not see coming! But, psychologically, it all makes sense. Even so, there is a sad reliance on a massive coincidence – that Clare should be lunching at the same hotel that Vivien had stayed in – but I guess coincidences do sometimes happen.

Set in the fictional village of Daymer’s End, and in the town of Skippington, forty miles away, there is some suggestion that they are not too far from Bournemouth. The other “real” place mentioned in the story is Algiers, where Gerald and Vivien propose to live. At the time, it would have been a rather glamorous French outpost; I don’t think many people would have it on their bucket list today, but maybe I’m wrong.

I discovered a new word: “Many of the wiseacres shook their heads and wondered how it would end.” Wiseacres? Never heard that word before. Oxford Dictionaries define it: “a person with an affectation of wisdom or knowledge, regarded with scorn or irritation by others; a know-all.” You live and learn.

In his notes, Tony Medawar makes much of the fact that this story was written shortly before Agatha Christie’s famous disappearance, and makes some allusions between that and the plot of this story. He may have a point, he may not; personally, I’m not convinced.

Terrifically entertaining story! And with a clever play on words with the title too, which you only appreciate right at the end.

Christmas Adventure

Christmas on Carnaby StreetThis amusing short story was originally published in issue 1611 of The Sketch Magazine on 11 December 1923. The story was later expanded into novella form and was printed as the title story in the 1960 UK collection The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding. Poirot is a guest at a Christmas House Party, but on Christmas morning receives a note warning him not to eat any of the plum pudding. Is his life in danger, or is it a prank? And how did the Christmas Cracker jewel get inside the pudding?

It’s curious, but I enjoyed Christmas Adventure more than The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding. Being shorter and sparer, it quickly gets to the heart of the mystery without losing any of its fun and spirit. I understand why Christie thought to expand the story – because it’s a good one! But I prefer it in its pithier, briefer form.

There are some good characterisations – the group of young people who attempt to tease Poirot by staging a mock murder come across as a decent bunch, and the lovelorn Evelyn is a very credible character. I also liked how Emily Endicott longed for the “Good Old Days” when people enjoyed listened to their elders and betters!

Poor old Poirot was missing his pal Captain Hastings, who emigrated to Argentina at the end of The Murder on the Links He needn’t have worried – Hastings would return for many UK return trips over the years, and they will still have many more adventures together!

The Lonely God

Lonely GodThis rather charming and simple romance was originally published in issue 333 of the Royal Magazine in July 1926, under Christie’s original title, The Little Lonely God. Every day, Frank Oliver visits the British Museum, entranced by a minor figure of a nondescript God. He sees a “lonely lady” who also appears to be affected by the statue. Eventually he plucks up courage to speak to her – but will anything develop from their shared interest in this lonely God?

There’s not very much to say about this story. It’s pure romantic fiction, quite elegant and entertaining, and it’s easy to identify with its two lonely protagonists. Tony Medawar sees in this story a reflection of Christie’s interest in archaeology, but this was published a couple of years before she went on her first trip to Baghdad, so I’m not sure I would link the two that much.

I did like Frank’s encouragement to the lady that they should have buns for tea at an ABC Shop. “I know you must love buns! […] There is something […] infinitely comforting about a bun!”

Undemanding, but thoroughly pleasant!

Manx Gold

Isle of ManI’m taking this description directly from Wikipedia: “Manx Gold was one of the most unusual commissions undertaken by Christie in her career […] The idea of a treasure hunting story was prompted by a wish on the part of Manx politicians to promote tourism to the Isle of Man. Christie wrote a short story which was serialised in the Daily Dispatch in five instalments on 23, 24, 26, 27 and 28 May 1930. The story gave the clues to the location of four snuffboxes hidden on the island, each of which contained a voucher for £100 – a considerable sum in 1930. Island residents were barred from taking part. To further promote the hunt, the story was then published in a promotional booklet entitled June in Douglas which was distributed at guesthouses and other tourist spots. Although a quarter of a million copies of this booklet were printed, only one is known to have survived.” And indeed, £100 in 1930 would be the equivalent of more than £4,500.

If you haven’t already read this story, give yourself an hour, log on to your Map App and Google, and see if you can beat Fenella and Juan as they race around the Isle of Man solving the clues. I was pretty happy with myself for getting clues 1 and 2 half right – but I expect few people would solve the last two. If you’re a Brit and of a certain age, like myself, you might remember the clues on Ted Rogers’ 3-2-1 TV programme; these are even more hard to crack. Also: I couldn’t find Kirkhill on any map.

But it remains a lively and thoroughly entertaining read; Medawar likens Juan and Fenella to the young heroes of Christie’s earlier books, and indeed to Tommy and Tuppence and I think they bear a fair resemblance. He also takes us painstakingly through the clue solutions, which is extremely helpful, and gives us all the background to the Manx tourism scheme. I found this a delightful, and indeed, unique tale!

Within a Wall

wallThis ambiguous romantic tale with a bit of a twist was originally published in issue 324 of the Royal Magazine in October 1925. Gifted painter Alan Everard is married to the dynamic Isobel Loring, but his friend Jane Howarth is also in love with him – which manifests itself in a strange manner.

Romantic, yes, but also strangely unpleasant. Isobel’s abuse of Jane’s generosity almost feels like a prostitution of her friendship. And, as Medawar points out in his notes, the ending is very ambiguous. There are all sorts of interpretations you could adopt in your own personal understanding of the story.

Christie gives one of the characters the unusual surname of Lemprière – she must have enjoyed the force of that name because she would also give it to Joyce Lemprière of The Thirteen Problems fame. That Joyce was also a painter; and would eventually marry Miss Marple’s nephew Raymond West.

There’s an uncomfortable moment of antisemitism with the mention of “a small Jew with cunning eyes”, but otherwise the narration of this story is beautifully done – it’s an interesting voice that doesn’t sound like Christie’s own normal narrative style. And the £100 that Jane gives to support Alan and Isobel’s daughter Winnie would be the equivalent of £4250 today. Generous indeed.

The Mystery of the Baghdad Chest

ChestThis entertaining little story was first published in issue 493 of the Strand Magazine in January 1932. The story was later expanded into novella form and was printed as The Mystery of the Spanish Chest in the 1960 UK collection The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding. Poirot’s attention is drawn to a case where a Major Rich has been accused of murdering a Mr Clayton, whose bloody body was discovered in an antique chest. Mrs Clayton is a friend of socialite Lady Chatterton who encourages Poirot to speak to her about the case, because she insists Rich is innocent. Poirot can’t resist but employ his little grey cells to get to the heart of the matter.

I’ve lifted that precis of the story from my blogpost about The Mystery of the Spanish Chest, because the two stories are identical in plot, just a couple of characters have undergone a change of name. In the Spanish Chest, Hastings becomes Miss Lemon – more appropriate for the passing of the years, and Inspector Japp becomes Inspector Miller. Apart from that, there is precious little to choose between the two accounts, merely a lengthening and a greater attention to detail in the investigation. But several of the conversations in the first tale are reproduced faithfully in the updated tale.

Hastings does, however, take the opportunity to describe Poirot’s vanity, both in behaviour and appearance, in terrific detail. “The talents that I possess – I would salute them in another, As it happens, in my own particular line, there is no one to touch me. C’est dommage! As it is, I admit freely and without hypocrisy that I am a great man. I have the order, the method and the psychology in an unusual degree. I am, in fact, Hercule Poirot! Why should I turn read and stammer and mutter into my chin that really I am very stupid? It would not be true.”

“To see Poirot at a party was a great sight. His faultless evening clothes, the exquisite set of his white tie, the exact symmetry of his hair parting, the sheen of pomade on his hair, and the tortured splendour of his famous moustaches – all combined to paint the perfect picture of an inveterate dandy. It was hard, at these moments, to take the little man seriously.”

Just like The Mystery of the Spanish Chest, this is an excellent read.

While the Light Lasts

enoch ardenThis was originally published in issue 229 of The Novel Magazine in April 1924; the plot of this short story is similar to that of her novel Giant’s Bread, published in 1930 under the pen name of Mary Westmacott. George and Deirdre Crozier visit a tobacco plantation in Rhodesia, where George works, and where Deirdre’s first husband Tim, who died in the war, wanted to live. But when Deirdre suffers a spot of heatstroke, she is taken back to the main house by a Mr Arden, who has his own secret to share…

In comparison with the other stories, this is really little more than a fragment, but nevertheless it tells an age-old story, and it tells it rather well. The character of Enoch Arden appears in Tennyson’s poem of the same name, but also would appear in Christie’s Taken at the Flood in 1948. Moody, tragic and with a sense of guilt, this is an interesting and memorable little piece of writing.

And that concludes all nine stories in While the Light Lasts and Other Stories. A couple of rather lightweight stories are balanced with some meaty good reads, so on balance I would give this selection 7/10. Poirot and Greenshore FollyIf you’ve been reading this book as well, I’d love to know your thoughts, please just write something in the comments box.

Next up in the Agatha Christie challenge is a short novel written in 1954 to raise money for a church – Hercule Poirot and the Greenshore Folly. This was published in 2014, but Christie would rework the story and create Dead Man’s Folly from it. If you’d like to read it too, we can compare notes when I give you my thoughts on it in a few weeks’ time. In the meanwhile, happy sleuthing and keep on Christie-ing!

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