Review – Strictly Ballroom, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 27th February 2023

Strictly BallroomThey say good things are worth waiting for – well, Strictly Ballroom has been a very long time in the coming! Scheduled to start touring in 2020, its visit to Northampton is a mere two years delayed… that cotton-pickin’ Covid ruins everything! However, it’s finally arrived, but is in a blaze of glory? Based on the 1992 Baz Luhrmann film, which I’ve never seen, I was happy not to know anything about the show before seeing it. From what I gather, I’m not sure I’m really Baz Luhrmann’s target demographic; I started to watch his Romeo + Juliet once and couldn’t take more than ten minutes.

Scott and FranOf course the film lent its name to that great TV show that makes people stay in on a Saturday night – Strictly Come Dancing, and there’s a big overlap between the two enterprises. Not only is TV judge Craig Revel Horwood the director of the show, he’s also co-choreographer with Jason Gilkison, one of Strictly Come Dancing’s big number choreographers. The lead role of Scott Hastings is played by Kevin Clifton, one of the show’s favourite professional dancers, and the role of Fran is being played by Eastenders’ Maisie Smith, who reached the show’s 2020 Grand Final. You could say that Strictly Ballroom has Strictly Come Dancing written all the way through it like a stick of rock.

ScottHowever, that magical Strictly Zest was lacking in last night’s performance; primarily due to Kevin Clifton being replaced by his understudy, Edwin Ray. Of course, we all understand that no performer can ever be guaranteed; that’s one of the rules of theatregoing, and sometimes an understudy can throw the audience a sensational curveball with a performance that rewrites the show and their own subsequent careers. But it wouldn’t really matter how good Mr Ray was in the role, I’d say that at least 90% of the audience were there to see Kevin from Grimsby, and that initial disappointment can become a hard nut to crack.

DancingEven more important then, that the show should captivate you from the kick-off. Instead we got a rather cringe-inducing vocal welcome from Craig Revel Horwood indulging in an almost parody Australian accent which went on for too long and made my toes curl. This lead into a directorially confusing opening scene with ballroom dancers all vying with each other for prominence in a competition – but I found it very hard to hear their arguments and resentments over the top of the music, quickly realising I was missing out on important characterisation-establishment, which was frustrating. Nor could I understand why it appeared to be Donald Trump who was chair of the judges – as the show progressed I realised that it was just a coincidence that the nasty head of the Dancing Federation, Barry Fife looks like Trump. Or maybe it isn’t a coincidence?

DancersThis is a proficient production rather than an outstanding one, but the downsides do considerable harm to the upsides. The band, under the direction of Dustin Conrad, are great; they probably got the best reception of the night when they joined the rest of the cast at curtain call. The costumes work well; the set itself verges on the tawdry, although I admit that might be a deliberate ploy to portray the rather desperate and down-at-heel environment in which the story takes place. I believe the show is pretty faithful to the original film, so I’m doing my best to forgive the horrendous Aussie/smug dancer stereotypes; but I was surprised how generally unlikeable nearly every character in the show is, even those who you would classify on the side of being the good guys. The book is unimaginative and occasionally lame. There’s one scene where the male dancers are all dressed in their underpants for no reason other than a cheap laugh. And the staging seems cramped, even on a huge space like the Derngate stage.

CompetitionI found myself out of kilter with what appears to be at least one of the messages of the show, namely that in order to succeed, you have to disregard your own personal dreams and obey your parents and authoritarian figures. Our hero Scott Hastings has been learning Ballroom and Latin since he was six, but is now bored of the prescribed steps and moves that are intrinsic to all the dances. He wants to go off-piste dance-wise, and throw in some flourishes and extra pizzazz moves that are not Strictly Ballroom; but that’s his dream and he gets angry when he is thwarted. Everyone tells him that he’s throwing away his talent, and he’ll never win the Pan-Pacific Grand Prix that way. Now, to be fair, the world of Professional Competitive Dancing is strewn with rules and regulations, and the scope for going off-piste is fairly limited; so maybe Scott’s plight isn’t that surprising. But it did strike me as delivering a negative message. Those dreams of yours, that creative spark inside you, that thing that makes you special – well, you’d better shelve them if you want to get on.

FranI also found it hard to accept that young Fran, the infatuated beginner-level dancer who makes all sorts of mistakes when she’s first trying to dance with Scott, comes from a family who are so expert in the Paso Doble, and with whom she holds her own in the big dance scene at the end of the first Act. Yes, it’s musical theatre, and you always have to suspend your disbelief to a certain extent, but when Maisie Smith was clapping and stomping along with all the other Paso experts, I could no longer believe that she was still at her Ugly Duckling stage and wasn’t already the Beautiful Swan. Why would you pass up the opportunity to dance with her but pair with Tina Sparkle (no relation) instead?

PasoHowever, I can’t just dismiss that Paso scene. It was by far the highlight of the show and is a stunning sequence, with amazing choreography and music, largely due to the sensational contribution by Jose Agudo as Rico. There were times when it had an almost Riverdance effect, overwhelming you with the movement, the music, the atmosphere. It’s the only time the show soars. To be fair, the choreography and performance that accompanies the curtain call is also tremendous; rousing and exciting but never quite lifting many of the audience out of their seats.

Scott and FranCraig Revel Horwood has a fondness for cramming the stage with too much going on, which often gets in the way of the storytelling. I remember his direction of Chess in 2011 which was frankly poor. It’s not as bad here, but there was one scene that had my head in my hands with fury and frustration at the ill-judged staging. The final scene shows Scott and Fran at the Pan-Pacific Championships. Will they win? Or will it go to the alcoholic Ken and his partner Liz? What will Fife’s decision be? Nail-biting moment. Well, we heard it; but couldn’t see it, because one of the other dancing couples stood right at the front of the stage, blocking our view of the three most important people in the scene. I have no idea what their facial expressions were, or how they reacted to his judgment. Not. A. Clue. I think you would only see that important scene if you were sitting dead centre in the middle of the audience. Talk about an anti-climax.

More DancersThere were some entertaining moments. I enjoyed the sequence that had Fife, Doug and Les all showing us their ballroom moves at the top of their career (despite the awful stereotyping). Maisie Smith is a charming, self-effacing Fran, and you do feel a sympathy for her when she’s side-lined in favour of her more established rival. Edwin Ray has a great singing voice, which perhaps showed how Ms Smith’s is a little underdeveloped; it also took me a long time to realise that when she was singing Beautiful Surprise, it wasn’t (as my ears heard) Pitiful Surprise.

If you’re an aficionado of the film, then I’m sure there will be a lot here that will entertain you; for me, a lot of it just fell flat. You can’t like everything; and I’m not the demographic. Loved the Paso Doble though. Give that man a pay rise. The tour is currently running through till July, but with more dates expected soon.

Production photos by Ellie Kurtz.

3-starsThree-sy Does It!

Review – Screaming Blue Murder, Underground at the Derngate, Northampton, 24th February 2023

Dan EvansAnother massive night of comedy with yet another full house at the Screaming Blue Murder club at the Royal and Derngate, with daredevil host Dan Evans on top form coping with another unlikely bunch of customers. Every other person in the two front rows appeared to be a police officer, which made for a curious dynamic. Or, if they weren’t police, they were charity workers. Fortunately they all had good senses of humour!

Otiz CannelloniOur first act – and the only one we’d seen before – was Otiz Cannelloni, whose act has a rather old-fashioned music hall/variety feel to it, but it’s none the worse for that – in fact, there’s probably too little of that around nowadays. He has a cunning blend of comedy and magic – and a charming rabbit to assist him with some of his tricks – and lots of silly comic throwaway lines. He’s a great example of if ain’t broke, don’t fix it, as his act was pretty much the same as before, but the material works really well, so why not?

Kat GeborysNext up was Kat Geborys – who, probably quite wisely, shortens it to Kat to make it simpler for the rest of us. I was going to call her Proudly Polish, but in fact she doesn’t seem to have much complimentary to say about her native country – perhaps doing the slightly xenophobic material so that we don’t have to think it for ourselves; Poland is a country that she maintains (allegedly) can’t distinguish between being gay from being a paedophile, for instance. A lot of her act centres on her being – shall we say – sexually frank and direct, and there’s a lot of good material there. She has excellent timing, a fun stage presence and went down well with the audience.

Adam BloomOur headliner was Adam Bloom, a comic who’s been around for some time and it’s criminal that we haven’t seen him before – and we’ve missed a lot. Cleverly self-deprecating about his appearance, he delivers his excellent material with sure fire confidence; a mixture of traditional kids/marriage/divorce type observations and some more daring stuff – I really enjoyed his sequence about virtual reality sex. Great use of callbacks, and he ends his act with a very successful round of you give me a subject and I’ll give you a joke about it. A great end to a terrific evening.

Next Screaming Blue Murder is on 24th March and – guess what – it’s sold out again!

The Points of View Challenge – Bad Characters – Jean Stafford

Jean StaffordJean Stafford (1915 – 1979)

American novelist and short-story writer, and winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1970 for The Collected Stories of Jean Stafford.

Bad Characters, first published in the New Yorker Magazine, December 4th 1954

Sadly I can’t find a copy of it free to read online.

This is the last of four stories in the volume Points of View to be given the style classification by Moffett and McElheny of Detached Autobiography. Here’s how their introduction sums up this story: “The amount of focus on people other than the narrator varies in these stories, but always there is some […] “Bad Characters” is about the narrator’s friend as much as about herself, so closely are we asked to associate them.”

Spoiler alert – if you haven’t read the story yet and want to before you read the summary of it below, stop now!


Bad Characters


Bad CharactersEmily Vanderpool has very few friends – Muff the cat shows her the most affection. Bullied and teased, she has a strange idiosyncrasy, whereby she gets a kind of panic attack, and needs to be on her own. Life is drab until she meets Lottie Jump. Lottie is different from the other kids; she has charisma, she has attitude, and she seems happy to share her time with Emily. Emily’s first experience with her was seeing her steal a chocolate cake; this is shocking to Emily, who had been brought up to know the difference between right and wrong. But it’s also strangely exciting: “I was deeply impressed by this bold, sassy girl from Oklahoma and greatly admired the poise with which she aired her prejudices.”

Lottie is prepared to be friends with Emily, on the understanding that she is prepared to do her fair share of stealing. The demand is a hammer blow to Emily’s conscience: “I was thrilled to death and shocked to pieces […] I was torn between agitation […] and excitement over the daring invitation to misconduct myself in so perilous a way.” She also turns a blind eye to the fact that Lottie has stolen Emily’s mother’s perfume flask from her drawer and doesn’t tell her the truth when she assumes she has mislaid it somewhere.

On Saturday, the two girls go into town and spend time in Woolworths. Lottie suggests Emily undertakes some distraction techniques with the shop staff, whilst she shoplifts a number of items and secretes them under her enormous hat. All goes well at first, until Emily has one of her panic attack moments whilst she is engaging with a sales clerk. She makes a cruel remark to Lottie, who at that moment is palming a string of pearls under her hat. The assistant sees it; cries out “Floorwalker! Mr Bellamy! I’ve caught a thief!” And with that, the game is up. But it backfires on Emily, as the experienced Lottie simply plays deaf and dumb and passes the blame back on to Emily, who is unprepared to defend herself. It’s a hard lesson for Emily – and she never sees Lottie again.

It’s a beautifully written little story; the characterisations of Lottie and Emily are very well drawn and you really feel you know them well. There’s some delightful use of language; Emily’s father is friends with the local Judge, and she describes his appearance as “a giant in intimidating haberdashery”. It also builds pace nicely, as you get closer and closer to the Saturday “shopping” day; the anticipation of what’s about to happen gets quite exciting.

Of course, it’s a thoroughly moral story, reflecting Emily’s falling for the glamour of the villain, with the allure of the forbidden activity. It’s inevitable that the wrongdoer will get off scot-free, and the more innocent of the two will take all the blame. One of the longer stories in this volume, the reader can comfortably lose themselves in its gradual progress, and appreciate the characterisations and developments. A thoroughly entertaining read.

The next story in the anthology is the first of four classified by Moffett and McElheny as memoir, or observer narration, the well-known The Fall of the House of Usher by Edgar Allan Poe.

The Agatha Christie Challenge – The Final Analysis!

Agatha ChristieSo there we have it, gentle reader, the Agatha Christie Challenge is all but over! But we need to have some final thoughts about her themes, her characters, and also which are the best and which are the worst of her works – my opinion only, of course! So let’s start with…

Regular themes:

Looking back over her works, these are the themes and bugbears that Christie frequently gets her teeth into.

Primarily, questions of class. Almost every book is seen from a middle-class perspective, with the opportunity to both look up to the upper classes and aristocracy, and down on the working classes, servants and general layabouts.

There’s a considerable mistrust of foreigners; this can certainly be related to both World Wars, but you also sense it’s ingrained. There are lots of instances of xenophobia and some (perhaps not as many as one would expect) instances of downright racism. It’s difficult to criticise the use of language when words and phrases that we would never use today were commonplace throughout Christie’s career.

Politics: Christie is naturally conservative (small C) in outlook; most of her characters dislike “progress” – whether it be in housing, social awareness, fashion or political thought. She hates high taxation, and many characters take to the page to complain about how much the state is taking off them. There is a lot of distrust of Socialism and Communism; and Christie has a love/hate relationship with the idea of feminism – mainly she hates it, but occasionally she voices in its favour (possibly because she just thinks she should!)

Mental Illness and The Criminal Mind: there’s much adherence to the thought that to be a murderer, you must be insane. There’s also the notion that insanity is hereditary, which damns people before they have a chance to prove themselves.

She’s definitely anti-divorce, which must be a throwback to her experience with Archie.

From the mid-1940s on, there are many reflections of wartime and post-war austerity, and in her later years, the inevitable concerns about how older people will be looked after – either by the state or by their families.

And she’s always fascinated by both archaeology and archaeologists!

Now, just for a bit of fun…

Kings of the Cops

We all know all about Poirot, Miss Marple and the rest, but what about the happy band of Police Inspectors, without whom there’d be no justice? Each of these detectives appeared at least twice in Christie novels and stories – let’s appreciate them!

Inspector Neele in A Pocket Full of Rye, promoted to Chief Inspector Neele in Third Girl. Typical Neele: (on David Baker) “he’s one of the usual mob. Riff-raff – go about in gangs and break up night clubs. Live on purple hearts – heroin – coke – girls go mad about them.”

Chief Constable Colonel Weston in Peril at End House, and Evil Under the Sun. Typical Weston: “If Vyse is the chap, well, we’ll have our work cut out. He’s a cautious man and a sound lawyer. He’ll not give himself away. The woman – well, there would be more hope there. Ten to one she’ll try again. Women have no patience.”

Chief Constable Colonel Melrose and Inspector Raglan, both in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and The Seven Dials Mystery. Typical Raglan (on Poirot) : “Then a grin overspread [Raglan’s] weaselly countenance and he tapped his forehead gently. “Bit gone here,” he said.”

Chief Constable Colonel Melchett and Inspector Slack, both in The Murder at the Vicarage and The Body in the Library; Melchett also in the short story, Death by Drowning (The Thirteen Problems) and Slack also in the short stories Tape Measure Murder, and The Case of the Perfect Maid (Miss Marple’s Final Cases). Typical Melchett (talking to Lawrence Redding) : “”We want to ask you a few questions – here, on the spot,” he said. Lawrence sneered slightly. “Isn’t that a French idea? Reconstruction of the crime?” “My dear boy,” said Colonel Melchett, “don’t take that tone with us.” Typical Slack: “She’s a woman, and women act in that silly way. I’m not saying she did it for a moment. She heard he was accused and she trumped up a story. I’m used to that sort of game. You wouldn’t believe the fool things I’ve known women do.”

Inspector Craddock in A Murder is Announced, promoted to Detective Inspector Craddock in 4.50 from Paddington and to Chief Inspector Craddock in The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side (although he’ll always be just Dermot to Miss Marple!) Typical Craddock: (about Mitzi) “I think the foreign girl knows more than she lets on. But that may be just prejudice on my part”.

Superintendent Spence in Taken at the Flood, Mrs McGinty’s Dead, and retired in both Hallowe’en Party and Elephants Can Remember. Typical Spence: “I should never think of myself as a distinguished man”, but Poirot corrects him, “I think of you as such.”

Superintendent Battle in The Secret of Chimneys, The Seven Dials Mystery, Cards on the Table, Murder is Easy and Towards Zero. Typical Battle: ““Detective stories are mostly bunkum,” said Battle unemotionally. “But they amuse people.””

And the BIG DADDY of them all, Inspector Japp in The Mysterious Affair at Styles, and The Big Four; then promoted to Chief Inspector in Peril at End House, Lord Edgware Dies, Death in the Clouds, The ABC Murders and One Two Buckle My Shoe. He also appears in three stories in Poirot Investigates, three in The Labours of Hercules, four in Poirot’s Early Cases, and one in While the Light Lasts. Truly a credit to the police profession! Typical Japp (on Poirot’s mental dexterity) : “”When we got back here I started to question him. He waved his arms, seized his hat and rushed out again.” We looked at it each other. Japp tapped his forehead significantly. “Must be”, he said.”

Five Christie novels that break all the rules (but, of course, I’m not going to tell you why)!

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

Murder on the Orient Express

And Then There Were None

Crooked House

Endless Night

Now let’s look at her characters – starting with the main man himself!

Hercule Poirot

Poirot in his own words. Here are some of Poirot’s finest comments – about himself, about crime, about life:

“I am like the prima donna!” (The ABC Murders)

“Alas, I suffer the penalties of greatness!” (The Million Dollar Bond Robbery, Poirot Investigates)

“”And his mistake?” I asked, although I suspected the answer. “Mon ami, he overlooked the little grey cells of Hercule Poirot.” Poirot has his virtues, but modesty is not one of them.”” (The Big Four)

“My name is Hercule Poirot […] and I am probably the greatest detective in the world.” (The Mystery of the Blue Train)

“You have seen the gentle, the calm Hercule Poirot; but there is another Hercule Poirot. I go now to bully, to threaten, to strike terror into the hearts of those who listen to me.” (The Mystery of the Blue Train)

“They say of me: “That is Hercule Poirot! – The great – the unique! – There was never any one like him, there never will be!” Eh bien – I am satisfied. I ask no more. I am modest.” (Peril at End House)

“As a boy, I was poor. There were many of us. We had to get on in the world I entered the Police Force. I worked hard. Slowly I rose in that Force. I began to make a name for myself. I made a name for myself. I began to acquire an international reputation. At last, I was due to retire. There came the War. I was injured. I came, a sad and weary refugee, to England.” (Three Act Tragedy)

“We know the kind of murder that has been committed, the way it was committed. If we have a person who from the psychological point of view could not have committed that particular type of murder, then we can dismiss that person from our calculations.” (Cards on the Table)

“Until you know exactly what sort of a person the victim was, you cannot begin to see the circumstances of a crime clearly.” (Five Little Pigs)

“I am in my own line a celebrated person – I may say a most celebrated person. My gifts, in fact, are unequalled!” (After the Funeral)

“It is necessary to tell a woman at least once a week, and preferably three or four times, that we love her; and that it also wise to bring her a few flowers, to pay her a few compliments, to tell her that she looks well in her new dress or her new hat.” (Dead Man’s Folly)

“If I mistake not, there is on my new grey suit the spot of grease – only the unique spot, but it is sufficient to trouble me.” (The Adventure of the Clapham Cook, Poirot’s Early Cases)

Poirot in the words of others:

“A very famous detective…a marvellous little fellow…a funny little man, a great dandy, but wonderfully clever” (Capt. Hastings in The Mysterious Affair at Styles)

“He was hardly more than five feet, four inches, but carried himself with great dignity. His head was exactly the shape of an egg, and he always perched it a little on one side. His moustache was very stiff and military. The neatness of his attire was almost incredible. I believe a speck of dust would have caused him more pain than a bullet wound.” (Capt. Hastings in The Mysterious Affair at Styles)

“I had learned, with Poirot, that the less dangerous he looked, the more dangerous he was.” (Capt. Hastings in The Murder on the Links)

“”You have made a hit, Poirot. The fair Lady Edgware can hardly take her eyes off you.” “Doubtless she has been informed of my identity,“ said Poirot, trying to look modest and failing. “I think it is the famous moustaches,” I said. “She is carried away by their beauty.” Poirot caressed them surreptitiously. “It is true that they are unique,” he admitted.” (Capt. Hastings in Lord Edgware Dies)

“A ridiculous-looking little man. The sort of little man one could never take seriously.” (Miss Debenham in Murder on the Orient Express)

“Mr Satterthwaite had recalled himself to M. Hercule Poirot’s memory. The little man had been very affable. Mr Satterthwaite suspected him of deliberately exaggerating his foreign mannerisms. His small twinkly eyes seemed to say, “You expect me to be the buffoon? To play the comedy for you? Bien – it shall be as you wish!”” (Three Act Tragedy)

“I found later that there wasn’t anything – no small scrap of insignificant gossip – in which he wasn’t interested. Men aren’t usually so gossipy.” (Amy Leatheran in Murder in Mesopotamia)

“Of course, I knew he was a foreigner, but I hadn’t expected him to be quite as foreign as he was, if you know what I mean.” (Amy Leatheran in Murder in Mesopotamia)

“That old mountebank? He won’t find out anything. He’s all talk and moustaches.” (Tim Allerton in Death on the Nile)

“About as dangerous as a black mamba and a she-leopard” (Superintendent Battle in Towards Zero)

“You’d describe him probably as a scream […] Kind of music hall parody of a Frenchman, but actually he’s a Belgian. But in spite of his absurdities, he’s got brains.” (Inspector Bland in Dead Man’s Folly)

“You’re too old. Nobody told me you were so old.  I really don’t want to be rude but – there it is. You’re too old. I’m really very sorry.” (Norma Restarick in Third Girl)

““The trouble with you is,“ said Mrs Oliver […] “that you insist on being smart. You mind more about your clothes and your moustaches and how you look and what you wear than comfort. Now comfort is really the great thing. Once you’ve passed, say, fifty, comfort is the only thing that matters […] if not, you will suffer a great deal and it will be worse year after year.”” (Mrs Oliver in Hallowe’en Party)

“Order and Method are his gods. He goes so far as to attribute all his success to them.” (Capt. Hastings in The King of Clubs, Poirot’s Early Cases)

Poirot, according to Christie:

“Hercule Poirot shrugged his shoulders. He was at his most foreign today. He was out to be despised but patronised.” (Five Little Pigs)

“Hercule Poirot sat in a square chair in front of the square fireplace in the square room of his London flat. In front of him were various objects that were not square: that were instead violently and almost impossibly curved. Each of them, studied separately, looked as if they could not have any conceivable function in a sane world. They appeared improbable, irresponsible, and wholly fortuitous […] Assembled in their proper place in their particular universe, they not only made sense, they made a picture. In other words, Hercule Poirot was doing a jigsaw puzzle.” (Dead Man’s Folly)

“Poirot had the capacity to attract confidences. It was as though when people were talking to him they hardly realised who it was they were talking to.” (Third Girl)

“His mind, magnificent as it was (for he had never doubted that fact) required stimulation from outside sources. He had never been of a philosophic cast of mind. There were times when he almost regretted that he had not taken to the study of theology instead of going into the police force in his early days. The number of angels who could dance on the point of a needle; it would be interesting to feel that that mattered and to argue passionately on the point with one’s colleagues.” (Hallowe’en Party)

“He was a man who thought first always of justice. He was suspicious, had always been suspicious, of mercy – too much mercy, that is to say. Too much mercy, as he knew from former experience both in Belgium and this country, often resulted in further crimes which were fatal to innocent victims who need not have been victims if justice had been put first and mercy second.” (Hallowe’en Party)

Miss Marple

Miss Marple in her own words:

“I’m afraid that observing human nature for as long as I have done, one gets not to expect very much from it. I dare say the idle tittle-tattle is very wrong and unkind, but it is so often true, isn’t it?” (The Murder at the Vicarage)

“Living alone, as I do, in a rather out-of-the-way part of the world, one has to have a hobby […] my hobby is – and always has been – Human Nature. So varied, and so very fascinating. And, of course, in a small village, with nothing to distract one, one has such ample opportunity for becoming what I might call proficient in one’s study.” (The Murder at the Vicarage)

“There is a great deal of wickedness in village life.” (The Bloodstained Pavement, The Thirteen Problems)

“I’ve no patience with modern humanitarian scruples about capital punishment.” (A Christmas Tragedy, The Thirteen Problems)

“Women have a lot of sense, you know, when it comes to money matters. Not high finance, of course. No woman can hope to understand that, my dear father said.” (4.50 from Paddington)

“Modern novels” – “so difficult – all about such unpleasant people, doing such very odd things and not, apparently, enjoying them.” (A Caribbean Mystery)

“The depravity of human nature is unbelievable” (Strange Jest, Miss Marple’s Final Cases)

Miss Marple in the words of others:

“Specialised knowledge is her claim”, he says; “we use it in police work. We get a burglary and we usually know pretty well who did it – of the regular crowd, that is. We know the sort of burglar who acts in a particular sort of way. Miss Marple has an interesting, though occasionally trivial, series of parallels from village life.” (Sir Henry Clithering in The Body in the Library)

“That woman knows more about the different kinds of human wickedness than anyone I’ve ever known.” (Mrs Dane Calthrop in The Moving Finger)

Miss Marple, according to Christie:

“Miss Marple wore a black brocade dress, very much pinched in round the waist. Mechlin lace was arranged in a cascade down the front of the bodice. She had on black lace mittens, and a black lace cap surmounted the piled-up masses of her snowy hair.” (The Tuesday Night Club, The Thirteen Problems)

“She seemed indeed very old. She had snow white hair and a pink crinkled face and very soft innocent blue eyes, and she was heavily enmeshed in fleecy wool. Wool round her shoulders in the form of a lacy cape and wool that she was knitting and which turned out to be a baby’s shawl.” (A Murder is Announced)

Captain Hastings

According to Poirot: “Yesterday it was Mademoiselle Daubreuil, today it is Mademoiselle – Cinderella! Decidedly you have the heart of a Turk, Hastings! You should establish a harem!” (The Murder on the Links)

“”Your judgments of character are always profound, my friend…that is to say, when there is no question of a beautiful woman!” I looked at him coldly.” (The Tragedy at Marsdon Manor, Poirot Investigates)

“You are that wholly admirable type of man, honest, credulous, honourable, who is invariably taken in by any scoundrel. You are the type of man who invests in doubtful oil fields, and non-existent gold mines. From hundreds like you, the swindler makes his daily bread.” (Peril at End House)

“Poirot smiled affectionately across the table at me. “My good friend,” he said. “I depend upon you more than you know.” I was confused and delighted by these unexpected words. He had never said anything of the kind to me before.”” (Lord Edgware Dies)

“Go away. You are obstinate and extremely stupid and I wish that there were someone else whom I could trust, but I suppose I shall have to put up with you and your absurd ideas of fair play.” (Curtain)

According to himself: “Now I am old fashioned. A woman, I consider, should be womanly. I have no patience with the modern neurotic girl who jazzes from morning to night, smokes like a chimney, and uses language which would make a Billingsgate fishwoman blush!” (The Murder on the Links)

“It had always seemed to me extraordinary that a woman should go so far in the scientific world. I should have thought a purely masculine brain was needed for such work.” (The Big Four)

“I’m not much of a fellow. You’ve said I’m stupid – well, in a way it’s true. And I’m only half the man I was.” (Curtain)

According to others: “Rather the case of the cart without the horse, your being here without him, isn’t it?” (Inspector Japp in The Mystery of Hunter’s Lodge, Poirot Investigates)

Tommy and Tuppence

Tuppence on Tommy: ““Oh, Tommy, Tommy,” she cried, “I do love you so—and I may never see you again….” At the end of five minutes Tuppence sat up, blew her nose, and pushed back her hair. “That’s that,” she observed sternly. “Let’s look facts in the face. I seem to have fallen in love—with an idiot of a boy who probably doesn’t care two straws about me.”” (The Secret Adversary)

Tommy on Tuppence: “I LOVED her. I’d have given the soul out of my body to save her from harm […] Tuppence is my girl! I’ve always loved her, from the time we played together as kids. We grew up and it was just the same. I shall never forget when I was in hospital, and she came in in that ridiculous cap and apron! It was like a miracle to see the girl I loved turn up in a nurse’s kit——” (The Secret Adversary)

Tommy ““worried about Tuppence. Tuppence was one of those people you had to worry about. If you left the house, you gave her last words of wisdom and she gave you last promises of doing exactly what you counselled her to do: No, she would not be going out except just to buy half a pound of butter, and after all you couldn’t call that dangerous, could you?” “It could be dangerous if you went out to buy half a pound of butter,” said Tommy.”” (Postern of Fate)

Tuppence on herself: “I don’t mind lying in the least. To be quite honest, I get a lot of artistic pleasure out of my lies.” (N or M?)

Ariadne Oliver

A writer of “forty-six successful works of fiction, all best sellers in England and America, and freely translated into French, German, Italian, Hungarian, Finnish, Japanese and Abyssinian.” (The Case of the Middle Aged Wife, Parker Pyne Investigates)

“I mean, what can you say about how you write books? What I mean is, first you’ve got to think of something, and when you’ve thought of it you’ve got to force yourself to sit down and write it. That’s all. It would have taken me just three minutes to explain that, and then the Talk would have been ended and everyone would have been very fed up. I can’t imagine why everybody is always so keen for authors to talk about writing. I should have thought it was an author’s business to write, not talk.” (Dead Man’s Folly)

“I’m too busy writing or rather worrying because I can’t write. That’s really the most tiresome thing about writing – though everything is tiresome really, except the one moment when you get what you think is going to be a wonderful idea, and can hardly wait to begin.” (The Pale Horse)

““It is a pity,” he murmured to himself, “that she is so scatty. And yet, she has originality of mind. It could be that I am going to enjoy what she is coming to tell me. It could be – “ he reflected a minute “- that it may take a great deal of the evening and that it will all be excessively foolish. Eh bien, one must take one’s risks in life.”” (Poirot in Hallowe’en Party)

Mr Satterthwaite

“Mr Satterthwaite is a dried-up elderly little man who has never known romance or adventure himself.” (The Coming of Mr Quin, The Mysterious Mr Quin)

Satterthwaite “knew far more of feminine secrets than it is good for any man to know”. (The Soul of the Croupier, The Mysterious Mr Quin)

“He felt suddenly rather old and out of things, a little dried-up wizened old fogey of a man.” (Harlequin’s Lane, The Mysterious Mr Quin)

Parker Pyne

“He was large, not to say fat; he had a bald head of noble proportions, strong glasses and little twinkling eyes.” (The Case of the Middle Aged Wife, Parker Pyne Investigates)

Miss Lemon

“A forbidding-looking young woman with spectacles” (The Case of the Middle Aged Wife, Parker Pyne Investigates)

“Unbelievably ugly” (The Capture of Cerberus, The Labours of Hercules)

“On questions of surmise, she was lost.” (Hickory Dickory Dock)

“She asked no questions and she displayed no curiosity. She did not tell Poirot how she would occupy her time whilst he was away. She did not need to tell him. She always knew what she was going to do and she was always right in what she did.” (Third Girl)

Let’s also pay tribute to the quirky narrators, cameo appearances, dubious witnesses, amateur sleuths and wicked criminals who make Christie’s books the fun to read that they are.

Here are a few to recollect with fondness:

Julius P Hersheimmer (The Secret Adversary)

Monsieur Giraud of the Sureté (The Murder on the Links)

Anne Beddingfield and Sir Eustace Pedler (The Man in the Brown Suit)

Anthony Cade (The Secret of Chimneys)

Philip and Caroline Sheppard (The Murder of Roger Ackroyd)

Bundle Brent (The Seven Dials Mystery)

Mrs Belling (The Sittaford Mystery)

Nick Buckley (Peril at End House)

Princess Dragomiroff, Mrs Hubbard, Colonel Arbuthnot and everyone on board (Murder on the Orient Express)

Bobby Jones and Frankie Derwent (Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?)

Amy Leatheran (Murder in Mesopotamia)

Emily Arundell and Miss Peabody (Dumb Witness)

Mrs Otterbourne (Death on the Nile)

Mrs Boynton and Lady Westholme (Appointment with Death)

Lavinia Pinkerton, Major Horton and Luke Fitzwilliam (Murder is Easy)

Mr Pye and Partridge the maid (The Moving Finger)

Renisenb, Nofret, Esa, and Henet (Death Comes as the End)

Lady Angkatell (The Hollow)

Victoria Jones (They Came to Baghdad)

Lucy Eyelesbarrow and Luther Crackenthorpe (4.50 from Paddington)

Mark Easterbrook and Ginger (The Pale Horse)

Marina Gregg (The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side)

Jason Rafiel (A Caribbean Mystery)

Michael Rogers (Endless Night)

and finally…

Big Charlotte (Passenger to Frankfurt)

Congratulations, celebrations and jubilations to you all for the joy you have brought me and millions of others!

And it would be remiss of me not to give a big up to the one and only Colonel Race, who played a vital part in The Man in the Brown Suit, Cards on the Table, Death on the Nile and Sparkling Cyanide!

And now…

As a finale, here’s my assessment of her works, in order of their excellence, starting with what I think is her worst book…..

In 81st placePostern of Fate Postern of Fate

While Tuppence is sorting through some old books, she discovers a code in one of them that she deciphers as the message: “Mary Jordan did not die naturally. It was one of us. I think I know which one.” But who was Mary Jordan, and who killed her?

It’s very unsatisfactory. It’s a toss-up between whether this is better or worse than Passenger to Frankfurt; there’s not a lot in it. That book is more preposterous and ridiculous, but at least has quite an exciting ending. This book is just blancmange. 1/10.

In 80th placePassenger to Frankfurt Passenger to Frankfurt

Sir Stafford Nye is approached at Frankfurt Airport by a woman who asks him to lend her his passport, his cloak and his flight ticket, as her life is in danger. Feeling like he could do with some excitement in his life, he agrees. What happens next?

Pure conspiracy theory fantasy that infuriates the reader with its ridiculousness. 2/10.

In 79th placeN or M N or M?

Tommy and Tuppence are frustrated by the fact that no one wants them to help with the war effort, until a trusted contact comes along and offers Tommy a position he can’t resist. Tuppence isn’t to know about it, but of course she finds out and accompanies him. Can they identify the Fifth Columnist working undercover in an English seaside town?

Despite a few positive aspects, I generally did not enjoy this book at all, and if it had been the first Christie I ever picked up, I doubt I would have ever read another. 3/10.

In 78th placeThe Mystery of the Blue Train The Mystery of the Blue Train

Katherine Grey, the recent recipient of a fine inheritance, seeks a change from her modest life in St Mary Mead by taking the Blue Train to stay with well-to-do cousins in France; but en route becomes entangled with a plot to steal rubies and murder an heiress.

It takes a long time to get started, and the characters just go nowhere at the end. Definitely a book that ends with a whimper rather than a bang. 4/10.

In 77th placeDestination Unknown Destination Unknown

Hilary Craven, suicidal after the loss of her child and abandoned by her husband, is offered an adventure which may prove fatal – so what has she to lose? All she has to do is impersonate the wife of a missing scientist. What could possibly go wrong?

Despite a pacy start and some nicely written early passages, Christie quickly gives up on the narrative and I couldn’t wait for it to end. Utter balderdash and complete nonsense. 5/10.

In 76th placeSeven Dials Mystery The Seven Dials Mystery

A return to the grand country mansion of Chimneys, with “Bundle” Brent, that typical Christie bold adventuress who, with her friends, helps to expose the activities of the secret “Seven Dials” society, uncover the identity of its head, the mysterious No. 7, and in so doing discovers a murderer.

Not all bad by any means – with some exciting passages, a good surprise ending and some enjoyable characterisation. It’s just a bit boring. 5/10.

In 75th placeThe Big Four The Big Four

Hastings returns to England to be reunited with his old pal Hercule Poirot, and together they uncover the identities and crimes of an international group of four evil megalomaniacs aiming for world domination, and eventually put a stop to their wicked ways.

It’s entertaining tosh, but nonsense. 5/10.

In 74th placeThe Hound of Death The Hound of Death

Twelve short stories, all apparently unrelated, that aren’t murder mysteries but tales of the supernatural. It is notable for the fact that it contains one of Christie’s best known short stories, Witness for the Prosecution.

Whilst there are a few excellent and memorable stories – for example Witness for the Prosecution and The Gipsy – there are also more than enough that really bring it down. 5/10.

In 73rd placeThe Mysterious Affair at Styles The Mysterious Affair at Styles

Hercule Poirot solves the murder of a wealthy re-married widow by strychnine poisoning, wading through an inordinate number of clues and red herrings before finally coming to the truth.

A clever book, and a challenging book, but I think it’s one of the least satisfying to read as a piece of detective escapism. 5/10.

In 72nd placeOrdeal by Innocence Ordeal by Innocence

Jacko Argyle is found guilty of the murder of his mother Rachel and dies in prison before Dr Arthur Calgary can come forward and gives him a cast-iron alibi for the time the crime was committed. The other household members aren’t happy to discover that it wasn’t Jacko who killed Rachel – as it means one of them must have!

A good, mysterious start and an exciting, if frantic ending. You don’t find whodunit until the final pages, and the story does actually hang together quite convincingly. It’s such a shame, then, that the vast majority of the book is made up of tedious conversations, waiting around for something to happen. 6/10.

In 71st placeElephants Can Remember Elephants Can Remember

Ariadne Oliver is contacted by the prospective mother-in-law of her goddaughter Celia Ravenscroft, to ask if she knew anything of the circumstances of the apparent double suicide of Celia’s parents. Curious, she shares the information with Poirot, and they decide to see what people remember about their tragic death. Will the testimony of these “elephants” explain the deaths?

It’s not that well written, most of the solution is telegraphed a mile off, and it’s rather repetitive. Yet it does retain a certain charm. 6/10.

In 70th placeProblem at Pollensa Bay Problem at Pollensa Bay

Eight short stories, comprising two with Hercule Poirot, two with Parker Pyne, two with Harley Quin and two other tales. None of the stories had been published in book form in the UK before.

Despite a couple of stronger stories, they’re overall rather disappointing and slight. 6/10.

In 69th placeAdventure of the Christmas Pudding The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding

Six short stories, five with Hercule Poirot and one with Miss Marple, solving a miscellany of crimes.

The decision to group these short stories together in one volume must have largely derived from most of them sharing the same plot elements, which makes for an overall disappointing read. 6/10.

In 68th placeThe Labours of Hercules The Labours of Hercules

Poirot, following an idea planted in his brain by his friend Dr Burton, decides to sniff out and solve twelve cases that mirror the ancient classical labours of Hercules.

At times fun, at others incredibly stodgy and unrewarding, not to mention laborious. 6/10.

In 67th placePartners in Crime Partners in Crime

Tommy and Tuppence, now six years into their happy ever after marriage, are installed by their old friend Mr Carter in Blunt’s Brilliant Detectives Detective Agency, where they solve a number of varied crimes.

It starts well, but I got bored. Still, it’s a clever concept. 6/10.

In 66th placeSparkling Cyanide Sparkling Cyanide

Rosemary Barton, a rather reckless young heiress, dies from cyanide poisoning whilst dining at a posh restaurant. A year later, a very similar fate befalls another member of that same dining party. It takes Colonel Race to work out exactly what happened to both victims.

There are a few passages where the writing is highly entertaining, and the detective investigations are highly readable. But it’s also very slow to start and is spoiled by its stupid resolution. 6/10.

In 65th placeThird Girl Third Girl

Poirot’s breakfast is disturbed by the arrival of a young lady who confesses that she might have committed a murder – but, then again, she might not! Poirot decides to find out more about this strange confession – but when the girl goes to ground, what can he usefully find out? Mrs Oliver knows the family, and she assists by trailing suspects around London, but will Poirot discover whether a murder has been committed, and if so, by whom?

The book starts promisingly, with an intriguing character presenting an intriguing case, but then it quickly turns into a Hunt the Lady game, which kind of goes nowhere, and gets quite dull in parts. 6/10.

In 64th placeMurder in Mesopotamia Murder in Mesopotamia

Poirot encounters an archaeological dig in Iraq, only to discover that the wife of the leader of the dig has been murdered in a seemingly impossible manner. There’s a motley crew of archaeologists and assistants working there – and one of them must have done it!

Interesting to see Poirot operating in a different environment. but this isn’t an overly successful book. 7/10.

In 63rd placeThe Mysterious Mr Quin The Mysterious Mr Quin

Mr Harley Quin, enigmatic representative of the Commedia dell’Arte, drifts in and out of Mr Satterthwaite’s life, as a catalyst for solving crimes and saving lives, the responsibility for which he hands over to Mr Satterthwaite, giving the old man a final purpose in life.

It’s very enjoyable, but the short story format doesn’t work as well for me as the “proper novel”. And there’s a supernatural element and a number of untied loose ends that don’t really work. But the characterisation is fascinating! 7/10.

In 62nd placeSad Cypress Sad Cypress

Elinor Carlisle is on trial for the murder of Mary Gerrard. All the evidence is stacked up against her, but is Hercule Poirot convinced?

A curate’s egg. Slow to start, few if any Poirotisms, and a drippy and irritating character in the form of Roddy. That said, it’s a strong surprise revelation, and the courtroom scenes have their own buzzy life about them. 7/10.

In 61st placeSleeping Murder Sleeping Murder

Gwenda Reed has a vision that she witnessed a murder when she was a child, and Miss Marple helps her and her husband Giles to investigate if she really did see the crime – and if so, who was the murderer?

It’s not bad and it’s not great. An entertaining enough read, but it’s a shame the identity of the murderer is so obvious. 7/10.

In 60th placeA Caribbean Mystery A Caribbean Mystery

On a rest holiday to the Caribbean island of St Honoré, Miss Marple is cornered by an old bore named Major Palgrave, who tells her a story about a murder and offers to show her a photo of the murderer; however, at the last minute he thinks better of it. Nevertheless, murders follow, and Miss Marple is up for the challenge to find out the culprit is and prevent more deaths.

A good start and a good end but it sags in the middle; and you also feel Miss Marple isn’t depicted in quite the same way that she has been before, which feels disappointing. 7/10.

In 59th placeTaken at the Flood Taken at the Flood

Young Rosaleen Cloade becomes a very wealthy widow a second time, much to the annoyance of the rest of her late husband Gordon’s family, who were counting on his generosity to keep them in the manner to which they have been accustomed. If only they could prove that her late first husband Underhay is still alive, once again they would be rich. But is he alive?

A clever, inventive story; but slow to start, with an unbelievable element, some very unpleasant racism and a not entirely satisfactory ending. 7/10,

In 58th placeListerdale Mystery The Listerdale Mystery

Twelve short tales of intrigue, a comparatively light confection of fun rather than a big detective work-out.

Three excellent stories and another three that aren’t half bad; that’s not a bad hit rate for a selection of Christie short stories. It’s a quick and easy read, and not remotely challenging. 7/10.

In 57th placeDead Man's Folly Dead Man’s Folly

Mrs Oliver is called in to organise a Murder Hunt at a village fete but she suspects all is not as it should be and so asks Hercule Poirot to make sense of her suspicions. All seems well at first until an unexpected murder takes place in the boathouse!

A complex plot, full of smoke and mirrors, and impossible to guess; it has a dull middle part where nothing much happens, and the characters and story aren’t particularly memorable. 7/10.

In 56th placeThe Secret Adversary The Secret Adversary

Tommy and Tuppence form The Young Adventurers Ltd and through a combination of hard work and good luck prevent the evil Mr Brown from capturing secret documents that could cause a world war.

I miss the traditional “murder mystery/whodunit” aspect in this book and find it a little over-frantic. But there’s much to enjoy and the characterisations of Tommy and Tuppence themselves make it worth reading alone. 7/10.

In 55th placeThe Thirteen Problems The Thirteen Problems

Miss Marple, her detective-fiction writing nephew Raymond West and four friends set up the Tuesday Night Club where each one would tell a story of an unsolved crime and the companions would have a think and come up with the identity of the criminal. Naturally, Miss Marple always works out what happened and whodunit.

The portentous loose ends of a few of the stories never get resolved, which is rather disappointing, and you very much get the feeling that this is a combination of previously published magazine stories rather than a whole, individual work. That said, a number of the stories are very enjoyable, and I think I only solved the case before Miss Marple on one occasion – so that makes it quite exciting. 7/10.

In 54th placePoirot's Early Cases Poirot’s Early Cases

Eighteen early cases solved by Hercule Poirot, in many of which he is helped or hindered by his old pal Hastings.

Many of these stories are not bad at all, and the good ones outweigh the bad ones considerably. 7/10.

In 53rd placeThe Hollow The Hollow

John Christow is found dead by the swimming pool, with his wife Gerda holding a gun in her hand. An open and shut case, surely? But as investigations start to take shape, it’s a much murkier affair than first thought.

Clever, believable, and once it gets going it’s very exciting. However, it is dull to start, and the latent racism is unpleasant. Structurally, it also feels strangely anti-climactic. 7/10.

In 52nd placeWhile the Light Lasts While the Light Lasts

Nine short stories, never previously published in book form in the UK, including two featuring Hercule Poirot.

A couple of rather lightweight stories are balanced with some meaty good reads. 7/10.

In 51st placeWhy Didn’t They Ask Evans? Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?

Bobby Jones discovers a man who has fallen from a cliff and who asks Why didn’t they ask Evans? before he promptly dies; a tragic accident perhaps, but when someone tries to poison Jones and he almost dies, he reckons there’s more to this than meets the eye. Who is the dead man, and who is Evans?

It’s fun but it’s foolish; it’s pacey but it’s problematic. 7/10.

In 50th placeA Pocket Full of Rye A Pocket Full of Rye

Miss Marple solves the murders of a rather hectoring boss and father, and other members of his family and domestic household. A goldmine, a prodigal son, a nursery rhyme, a vengeful family and an unseen boyfriend all play a part.

The crime and the Sing-a-song-of-sixpence theme dovetail nicely. 7/10.

In 49th placeDumb Witness Dumb Witness

Poirot receives a commission from a Miss Emily Arundell, only to discover she had died a couple of months earlier. He and Hastings examine the circumstances of her death and conclude it was not as natural as the doctor had presumed. Miss Arundell had recently changed her will but had her scheming relatives known this?

An enjoyable story that lacks a certain je ne sais quoi. 7/10.

In 48th place

Miss Marple's Final Cases Miss Marple’s Final Cases

Six short stories featuring Miss Marple, plus two other supernatural stories, none of which had been published in the UK before in book form.

On the whole, they’re very high quality! 8/10.

In 47th placeFive Little Pigs Five Little Pigs

Poirot is asked to consider a case that took place sixteen years earlier, where Caroline Crale was found guilty of the murder of her husband Amyas. But her daughter is convinced that her mother was innocent, and wants to reassure her fiancé of that fact. Poirot exercises his little grey cells and proves that you can solve a murder just by thinking.

Very clever plotting, an unusual structure, and a good ending. On the other hand, it’s very repetitive. 8/10.

In 46th placeBy the Pricking of my Thumbs By the Pricking of my Thumbs

Tommy and Tuppence are on the hunt for a missing old lady, Mrs Lancaster, who lived in the same old people’s home as Tommy’s Aunt Ada, and had given her a painting of an attractive old house. But when Aunt Ada dies, T & T are at a loss as to how to get the picture back to Mrs Lancaster. Cue a search by Tuppence which ends up getting her deep in trouble.

A very suspenseful and surprising ending, but there are a lot of coincidences and untied up loose ends. 8/10.

In 45th placeEvil under the Sun Evil Under the Sun

Poirot is enjoying a quiet holiday in a discreet island off the coast of Devon, when one of his fellow holidaymakers is found strangled on a beach. Naturally the local police ask Poirot to assist – and just before they call in Scotland Yard his little grey cells come to the rescue.

A very good read, and the crime is very satisfactory, from the reader’s point of view; but some of the characters are rather boring, and the ending is disappointing. 8/10.

In 44th placeNemesis Nemesis

Miss Marple is contacted via a solicitor’s letter by the late Mr Rafiel, who asks her to investigate a crime but gives no other indication of what it is or how she should do it. This results in Miss Marple taking a coach tour of Famous Houses and Gardens of Great Britain. But are all the other passengers genuine, and what crime will Miss Marple stumble upon?

Not without its faults but it’s a pretty satisfying book overall and I enjoyed reading it enormously! 8/10.

In 43rd placeMurder at the Vicarage The Murder at the Vicarage

Miss Jane Marple, busybody spinster of St Mary Mead, and close neighbour of the Reverend Leonard Clement, works out a solution for who committed a murder in the Reverend’s study.

A very enjoyable read but the ending could be just a little more riveting. 8/10.

In 42nd placeOne Two Buckle My Shoe One Two Buckle My Shoe

Poirot unwillingly attends an appointment at the dentists, only to find out that a murder takes place at the dental surgery later on the same day. Soon Poirot is immersed in a web of political intrigue and activists – but is it a crime of passion or of politics?

A cracking yarn; very pacey, full of surprises and a tough one for the little grey cells. However, for some reason, it’s not particularly memorable. 8/10.

In 41st placeThe Man in the Brown Suit The Man in the Brown Suit

Anne Beddingfeld, orphaned and inquisitive adventuress, witnesses the death of a man at Hyde Park Corner tube station and subsequently gets caught up in a realm of intrigue which takes her from London to Marlow to South Africa, on the hunt for the mystery man named “the Colonel”.

Despite its ridiculous coincidences, tendency to stray into travelogue, and an awful lot of romantic nonsense, it has some extremely good characters, rather witty conversations and creates an old-fashioned “rattling good read”. 8/10.

In 40th placePoirot Investigates Poirot Investigates

Poirot and Hastings set about solving eleven cases, from Egypt to Brighton, through the medium of the short story.

Entertaining selection. 8/10.

In 39th placeSecret of Chimneys The Secret of Chimneys

Chancer and adventurer Anthony Cade helps Scotland Yard solve the mysteries of identifying both jewel thief “King Victor” and a royal assassin.

A very exciting read, and with some great characterisation, and full of twisty turns in the plot. 8/10.

In 38th placeParker Pyne Investigates Parker Pyne Investigates

Parker Pyne places advertisements in newspapers seeking clients who are unhappy, in the promise of making them happy again. In the first six stories we see him at work in London; in the second he’s on holiday in Europe and the Middle East but clients keep throwing themselves at him.

A very enjoyable read, written so that you can almost take it as a novel. 8/10.

In 37th placeHercule Poirot's Christmas Hercule Poirot’s Christmas

Poirot’s plans for a cosy Christmas Eve as guest of Colonel Johnson, Chief Constable of Middleshire, go awry when local bigwig Simeon Lee is found murdered in his locked bedroom that evening. Poirot joins Johnson and local Superintendent Sugden to work out which of the Lee family Christmas visitors did the heinous deed.

On the plus side, it’s an exciting read, with an excellent denouement and a suitably surprising solution to the crime. On the negative side, Poirot isn’t himself; there are no references to little grey cells, no moments of breathtaking vanity. 8/10.

In 36th placeMrs McGinty's Dead Mrs McGinty’s Dead

Superintendent Spence is not satisfied that James Bentley is guilty of the murder of charwoman Mrs McGinty, and asks Poirot to discover the real culprit. Poirot unearths the real murderer and saves Bentley from the gallows.

A little chewy occasionally, but with a very exciting second half and a banger of a denouement. 8/10.

In 35th placeHalloween Party Hallowe’en Party

Mrs Oliver is present at a children’s Hallowe’en party that ends in a grotesque death involving apples, which puts her off her favourite fruit for life. Poirot speaks to everyone involved with setting up the party, but it’s not until another tragedy takes place that he’s able to identify the murderer.

A very enjoyable and entertaining read – a few untied loose ends. 8/10.

In 34th placeThe Sittaford Mystery The Sittaford Mystery

Young Emily Trefusis is determined to prove the innocence of her fiancé Jim for the murder of Captain Trevelyan. With the help of the busybodying news reporter Charles Enderby and the thoroughly decent Inspector Narracott, she does a fine job!

A very easy and fast read, one that you don’t want to put down because you’re thoroughly involved in the plot and investigation. 8/10.

In 33rd placeAppointment with Death Appointment with Death

The Boynton family suffer under the malign and cruel tyranny of their matriarch, so that it comes as no surprise that one afternoon the wretched woman is found dead as a dodo. Poirot promises the local military chief in charge of police that he will solve the crime in a mere twenty-four hours, simply by interviewing the suspects and employing the little grey cells.

Almost a Classic Christie – but not quite. 8/10.

In 32nd placeAt Bertram's Hotel At Bertram’s Hotel

Miss Marple assists the police in solving the assault of a forgetful cleric, discovering the mastermind of a sequence of high value robberies and identifying the true identity of the murderer of a hotel employee, all in a seemingly respectable and old-fashioned London hotel.

A complete flight of fantasy; eccentric, unlikely and rather weird. However, the characters are largely believable and it’s a very good read. 8/10.

In 31st placeThe Mirror Crack'd The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side

Garrulous busybody Heather Badcock corners movie star Marina Gregg at a reception party, boring her to tears; and the next minute, she’s dead! But did the murderer intend the harmless Heather as the victim, or the wealthy and influential Marina? Miss Marple has all the necessary access to the facts to crack the case.

A very enjoyable book, with a good story, and I really like the way Christie uses it to reassess the character of Miss Marple with her passing years, and how old and new lifestyles can (or cannot) co-exist. 9/10.

In 30th placeThe Clocks The Clocks

Colin Lamb is tasked to unearth an espionage hub, at the same time that he accompanies his pal Inspector Hardcastle in solving the mystery of the murder of an unidentified man found in someone else’s house, surrounded by clocks! Colin enlists the help of his old friend Hercule Poirot – and without his help, Hardcastle would have been lost.

An excellent read, but the final solution is both a little overcomplicated and under-delivering. 9/10.

In 29th placeThey do it with Mirrors They Do It With Mirrors

Miss Marple visits her old friend Carrie-Louise at her home Stonygates, which is also used as an educational institution for delinquent youths, to prepare them for an honest life in the world outside. Carrie-Louise’s sister Ruth knows that something is wrong at Stonygates, but can’t put her finger on what. Will Miss Marple see through the trick of mirrors?

Despite its faults – the lapses in characterisation, and a lack of classic denouement, it’s an incredibly entertaining read and a very intriguing crime. 9/10.

In 28th placeLord Edgware Dies Lord Edgware Dies

The talented, beautiful but spoilt actress Jane Wilkinson, aka Lady Edgware, challenges Poirot to help her “get rid of my husband”, shortly after which Lord Edgware Dies.

A strong exciting story, with fascinating characters, very nicely written and with a solution that ticks all the boxes. 9/10.

In 27th placeThe Murder on the Links The Murder on the Links

Poirot receives a desperate plea for help from M. Paul Renauld in France, but by the time he and Hastings rush to his aid, he has been murdered. Poirot works with the local magistrate to discover precisely what happened whilst engaging in duels of wit with the local officer of the Sûreté.

The constant twists and turns lead you up and down garden paths and everywhere but the truth, and are really entertaining. An undervalued little gem of a book. 9/10.

In 26th placeThree Act Tragedy Three Act Tragedy

Dashing actor Sir Charles Cartwright falls for the lovely young Miss Hermione Lytton Gore and together they amateur sleuth their way through a series of deaths, aided by the redoubtable Mr Satterthwaite and one Hercule Poirot.

Despite a few ragged edges, a very entertaining and exciting read, and I found the second half of it un-put-downable. 9/10.

In 25th place4.50 From Paddington 4.50 From Paddington

Mrs McGillicuddy witnesses a murder from her train window as another train overtakes and she sees the back of a man strangling a woman. However, no murders or missing women have been reported. Is this the result of her overactive imagination? Miss Marple doesn’t think so.

The good sides outweigh the downsides, and the twists are very entertaining. 9/10.

In 24th placeThey Came to Baghdad They Came to Baghdad

Victoria Jones bumps into Edward in a park in London and falls in love with him in an instant. He’s going to Baghdad to help open a bookshop for his boss and she decides to chuck everything in and follow him to Baghdad. But many other important political and influential people are also travelling to Baghdad, and Victoria gets caught up in a spot of espionage because she’s that kind of girl.

Thoroughly enjoyable escapist nonsense. 9/10.

In 23rd placeThe Body in the Library The Body in the Library

The body of an unknown young woman is found in the library of Arthur and Dolly Bantry’s home, so, naturally, Mrs Bantry doesn’t hesitate to tell her old friend Miss Jane Marple who, as always, follows her unique suspicions to get to the truth.

Good characters, good story-telling, a believable (albeit contorted) plotline and a humdinger of an ending. 9/10.

In 22nd placeThe Pale Horse The Pale Horse

Historian and writer Mark Easterbrook witnesses a fight between two girls in a coffee bar – which leads him into a mystic underworld of seances, black magic and the surprise deaths of unwanted relatives. And what connection can an old converted pub, The Pale Horse, have with these deaths?

An excellent book, extremely well-written and one of Christie’s more un-put-downable works. 9/10.

In 21st placeA Murder is Announced A Murder is Announced

Lettie Blacklock discovers that a murder has been announced in the classified ads of the local paper, and it would take place at her house on Friday October 29th. Unsurprisingly all the local gossips drop in to see what will happen… and a murder does indeed take place! Fortunately Miss Marple is on hand to give valuable assistance.

An enormously entertaining read. 9/10.

In 20th placeDeath on the Nile Death on the Nile

Wealthy socialite Linnet Ridgeway marries Simon Doyle, the fiancé of her best friend Jacqueline de Bellefort, much to the latter’s fury. Miss de Bellefort stalks the newly married couple all round Egypt on holiday, but Hercule Poirot refuses a commission from the new Mrs Doyle to “do something about it”. However, when one member of the love triangle is found murdered, it is up to Poirot to solve the case.

Very nearly a Classic, but not quite. 9/10.

In 19th placePeril at End House Peril at End House

Poirot and Hastings are reunited on holiday at the Cornish coast and meet Miss Nick Buckley, who has survived several accidents, any or all of which could have been fatal. Whilst Poirot is in conversation with her a bullet whizzes past and makes a hole in her hat!

A brilliant read – very exciting, and very hard to guess whodunit. 9/10.

In 18th placeMurder is Easy Murder is Easy

Ex-Police Officer Luke Fitzwilliam finds himself at the heart of a village where a number of people have recently died – and maybe not by natural causes. He goes undercover researching for a make-believe book and, as murder becomes more and more obvious, he eventually stumbles into discovering who really killed all these people.

An extremely enjoyable read; pure whodunit escapism, with quite a lot of humour and some memorable characters. And a lot of deaths often lifts a whodunit, in a ghoulish sort of way! 9/10.

In 17th placeThree Blind Mice Three Blind Mice (short story)

A murderous plot in London, where the murderer whistles Three Blind Mice as his signature tune, resumes at Molly and Giles’ remote country guesthouse, Monkswell Manor, whilst they are cut off due to an immense snowfall. Will the police prevent a second death?

The forerunner to The Mousetrap, this is a terrifically exciting read and, if you’re one of those people who still don’t know whodunit, the denouement will knock you sideways. 10/10.

In 16th placeTowards Zero Towards Zero

Tennis star Nevile Strange takes his new wife Kay to stay with his late guardian’s widow, Lady Tressilian, when his first wife, Audrey, is also visiting. Tempers flare, old flames are kindled, and old scores are settled. Two deaths later, Superintendent Battle questions the suspects and gets to the bottom of what actually happened.

The tension grows deliciously! 10/10.

In 15th placeMurder in the Mews Murder in the Mews

Hercule Poirot takes us on four cases, novella length, where he solves a range of crimes from an apparent suicide to a deathly love triangle.

Each of the four stories is excellently written, full of characterisation, with surprising storylines and unguessable denouements. 10/10.

In 14th placeCurtain Curtain

Poirot and Hastings are reunited for one final time – back at Styles, which is now a guest house, where Poirot is a resident. Poirot confides to Hastings that one of the guests is a serial murderer; but there’s just one main problem. Poirot won’t tell Hastings who the murderer is!

One of Christie’s undoubted best – no wonder she kept it in a drawer for when it was needed! 10/10

In 13th placeCrooked House Crooked House

Sophie Leonides decides she can’t marry Charles until the identity of her grandfather’s murderer is discovered. Charles’ father is the Assistant Commissioner of Scotland Yard, who agrees that Charles can sit in on the investigations as his unique position of trust, bridging the gap between the family and the police, could be useful.

Excellent on all counts! 10/10.

In 12th placeAfter The Funeral After the Funeral

Solicitor Mr Entwhistle enlists the help of his friend Poirot to get to the bottom of the death of one of the late Richard Abernethie’s relatives shortly after the family meet to attend Abernethie’s funeral. Who killed the relative, and was Abernethie’s death murder too?

A terrific read. 10/10.

In 11th placeHickory Dickory Dock Hickory Dickory Dock

Poirot is brought into make sense of some strange thefts and minor acts of vandalism at a students’ hostel managed by his secretary, Miss Lemon,’s sister, Mrs Hubbard. But when the thefts turn into deaths, his job is to discover who is behind a series of very serious crimes and prevent more murders from taking place.

Despite the unusual denouement and the uncomfortable language, this is a pure favourite! 10/10.

In 10th placeThe Moving Finger The Moving Finger

Brother and sister Jerry and Joanna Burton move to the tranquil country town of Lymstock to help with his recovery after a flying accident. But instead of quiet rural life they become embroiled in a hunt for a poison-pen letter writer who appears to have driven one poor resident to suicide. But then another body is discovered.

Despite a couple of tiny rankles this is such a good read. 10/10.

In 9th placeDeath in the Clouds Death in the Clouds

Poirot travels on board an aeroplane, where one of his fellow passengers is murdered in plain sight of everyone else. With the help of Inspector Japp and contributions from fellow passengers Jane Grey and Norman Gale, Poirot uncovers the truth of this extremely bold murder.

Christie achieves a truly fluid and entertaining writing style in this book, and Poirot has never been so manipulative. 10/10.

In 8th placeCards on the Table Cards on the Table

Four detectives including Hercule Poirot play bridge in one room of Mr Shaitana’s house whilst four other guests play bridge in another, where Mr Shaitana sits by the fire and watches; and when they get up to go home at the end of the evening, one of the four has murdered their host. No one else is implicated in the crime; and Poirot identifies the murderer through psychological examination of the characters involved.

An excellent read. 10/10.

In 7th placeEndless Night Endless Night

Michael Rogers narrates his own tale of acquiring a property at Gipsy’s Acre, despite the warnings of local people that the property and land is cursed; and how he meets the girl of his dreams. They build a fabulous architect-designed house on the land; but do they live happy ever after, or does the gipsy curse ruin their lives ahead?

Absolutely gripping. 10/10.

In 6th placeAnd then there were None And Then There Were None

Ten strangers receive a summon to visit a rocky island off the coast of Devon, expecting either a holiday, a reunion or an offer of work; and then one by one each of them is murdered by the mysterious U. N. Owen.

A brilliant read. Fast, exciting, suspenseful, and totally impossible to solve. 10/10.

In 5th placeDeath Comes as the End Death Comes as the End

Renisenb, a young widow from an ancient Egyptian family of 4,000 years ago, returns to her home, having buried her young husband, and hoping everything will be as it once was. However, she finds herself at the heart of a family torn apart by bitter jealousy, rivalry, tyranny, and, eventually, murder.

A riveting read that gets under your skin. 10/10.

In 4th placeCat Among the Pigeons Cat Among the Pigeons

Murder comes to the exclusive girls’ school Meadowbank, run by the redoubtable Miss Bulstrode, and Middle Eastern espionage clashes with young ladies’ tennis practice. The police don’t seem to have much of an idea until one of the girls escapes to London to ask the help of family friend Hercule Poirot.

Despite all its flaws I am a huge fan of this book and it’s one of the most accessible, understandable and exciting of all her works. 10/10.

In 3rd placeThe ABC Murders The ABC Murders

Poirot is challenged by a serial murderer to solve apparently random killings in an alphabetical sequence, the only clue being that an ABC railway guide is always found near the body.

A true Christie Classic! 10/10.

In 2nd placeMurder on the Orient Express Murder on the Orient Express

Poirot travels on the Simplon-Orient Express from Istanbul to Paris but the train is caught in a snowdrift near Vincovci, and when Poirot wakes the next morning, he discovers that one of his fellow passengers has been murdered. Who is he, and who has killed him?

An absolute gem of a classic! 10/10.

In 1st placeThe Murder of Roger Ackroyd The Murder of Roger Ackroyd

Let’s keep it simple. Poirot solves the murder of Roger Ackroyd, as narrated by Dr Sheppard.

Everything fits very believably into place, and although it’s a bold and ambitious crime, Christie fairly presents us with all the clues. The Classic Classic! 10/10.

Agree or disagree with my rankings? Please let me know!

Thanks again for sticking with me over the last eight years of this Labour of Love. I’m grateful for all the comments, suggestions, questions and opinions about these terrific books – and just because I’ve reached the end of my personal challenge, doesn’t mean to say you should stop too! So keep the comments coming!

Now that I have finished my Agatha Christie Challenge, it will give me more time to turn my attention to my other challenges currently “on the go” – and start to make better progress with them. If you haven’t already checked them out, I’m working my way through all George Orwell’s essays and books (The George Orwell Challenge), all the children’s novels by French writer Paul Berna (The Paul Berna Challenge), all the short stories in a fascinating anthology entitled Points of View (The Points of View Challenge) and all the James Bond films (The James Bond Challenge). These have taken a back seat whilst I have been trying to complete the Christie challenge – but now it’s time for me to look at those again. And, knowing me, I wouldn’t be surprised if I start a couple more challenges soon!

Having said all that, it has been suggested to me that I might like to add Agatha Christie’s plays to my Challenge. It wasn’t something I had intended to do, but I can see that there could be merit in it! I don’t think there would be a lot of point in reading and writing about those plays that are directly adapted from her own books, but that does still leave a number (14, I think) of stage and radio plays written over the years. Let’s just say I’m thinking about it!



Review – Comedy Crate at the Charles Bradlaugh, Northampton, 9th February 2023

Another sell-out crowd upstairs at the Bradlaugh to see the latest serving of comedy from those nice people at the Comedy Crate. Our host for the evening was Will Duggan, an amiable chap who sets up a great rapport with the audience, mining the audience for golden nuggets that can be used later; and, as an audience we didn’t disappoint. There were Ed and San-D, who couldn’t remember how many times they’d got married; Will Dugganthere was Mark with the dashing moustache who looked like he’d floated in on the nearest gondola; and peppered around the room were more administrators than you can shake a stick at. Will kept the action going splendidly and prepared us all for a great night.

Michael FabbriFirst up, and someone who we’ve seen once before and really enjoyed, was Michael Fabbri, who wastes no time getting straight in with the funny, class-based observations, like to what extent do you trust a pilot with a working-class accent, or how do you react to overheard conversations in a campsite. He did his routine about not being able to find the door in a hotel room, which we’d heard before but is always worth a re-run. He has a very funny sequence about watching a guy at night at his bedroom window, and what happens when you have to resort to pretending to sneeze. Absolutely brilliant material, all told with disarming charm and wicked timing. Superb!

Sam NicorestiOur second act, and someone new to us, was Sam Nicoresti, who takes us on his journey of sexual- and gender-identity discovery which is intriguing and enlightening if not always laugh-a-minute. I enjoyed their conclusion that they’re gender queer even though they’re not sure what that means, and I loved their material about scattering ashes at Cleethorpes (not to be recommended, by the sound of it). They also have a great solution for how to overcome the current indifference towards the Royal Family. Entertaining and enjoyable, I reckon the belly laughs will come in due course with increased confidence.

Colin HoultOur headliner, and a fairly late replacement to the advertised programme, was Colin Hoult in his persona as… Colin Hoult, having only known him before as the amazing Anna Mann, winner of last year’s Chrisparkle Award for Best of the Rest in Edinburgh. Colin is returning to old-fashioned stand up, and judging by last night’s performance it’s going to be a winner. From his opening gambit that all men should call each other babe (I might try it this weekend) through an examination of his family background and the characteristics of that multi-faceted bunch of people, he has brilliant comic observations about class and behaviour which he weaves into a constant conversation with the audience. He has this amazing ability to connect with each of us individually, so that it feels like a private meeting; I guess it’s that sense of genuine sincerity in everything he says. He has a terrific sequence about using Ouija boards – and I was truly surprised at how many members of the audience have done it! If you enjoy Anna, you’ll recognise her lurking not too far beneath Colin’s surface, but it’s none the worse for that! A terrific end to the evening.

Our next meetup with the Comedy Crate at the Bradlaugh is on March 9th – you ought to come along!

Review – Mother Goose, Festival Theatre, Chichester, 7th February 2023

Mother GooseI think we can all agree that a dog is not just for Christmas; the second part of that saying could well be that a panto is not just for Christmas, but for the whole year round. And why wouldn’t you want the fun that this show offers for twelve months of the year?! I remember as a kid the London Palladium panto would have a run that started in December and went on till March; continuing that fine tradition, this production of Mother Goose started in Brighton in December and is touring until the middle of April. An Easter panto in Salford anyone?

EnsembleOne of the less performed pantomimes (I’ve only ever seen two other productions), Mother Goose is a funny old tale about Caroline and Vic Goose whose lives are turned around by the arrival of a young goose – Cilla – who lays golden eggs and consequently gets them out of their financial troubles. However, Caroline’s head is turned when the bad fairy Malignia tempts her with promises of fame and fortune in return for Cilla…. Well let’s just say she lives to regret her decision. Very moral tale, this one.

Jack, Caroline and VicJust considering the bare bones of the story, it sounds a bit stiff and starchy. However, with writer Jonathan Harvey (a script stuffed with jokes) and director Cal McCrystal at the helm, this is anything but. And with a fantastic cast headed by Ian McKellen, John Bishop and Anna-Jane Casey, this is a laugh-a-second, musical extravaganza of a panto which delivers more pleasure per pound than is remotely decent.

Caroline and VicIan McKellen is no stranger to pantomime; we saw his Twankey at the Old Vic in 2006 (ooh Matron!) and I’ve often wished he’d turn his hand towards more comedic roles rather than all that Elizabethan drama nonsense (I jest, obvs). He revels in all the pantomime dame costumes and double entendres, as well as delighting in sending himself up with the inevitable Gandalf and Shakespeare references.

Vic and CarolineHe’s matched by the inimitable John Bishop and they’re a perfect partnership. Between them they cover everything you could possibly want from a show; where Sir Ian can go all declamatory and tragic, Mr B delivers his killer lines with fabulous laconic Scouseness. Do you remember the London Olympics, and how we all loved the kind, good-humoured omnipresence of the Games Makers? Those happy people who helped us to enjoy every element of the Olympic experience? John Bishop is like the Games Maker of Pantomime – a constant, benign, warm presence, whom you would really miss if he wasn’t there. I think every panto needs a John Bishop.

CillaThe casting of Anna-Jane Casey as Cilla is a mark of genius – there’s nothing in the musical theatre genre she can’t do, and she steals the show in several scenes – including a fantastic and unexpected A Chorus Line tribute which had me aching with pleasure; I particularly loved the strong connection to the original Michael Bennett choreography! Oscar Conlon-Morrey is brilliant as Jack, with a great connection with the audience; his Jill is played by Simbi Akande who is also superb. And Sharon Ballard as Encanta and Karen Mavundukure as Malignia were a terrific pair of fairies – incredible voices, and with a great secret for the end of the show.

Encanta and MaligniaThere’s also an amazing ensemble taking on the roles of the animals in the Goose Family’s Animal Sanctuary; I particularly loved Genevieve Nicole’s Perfect Panto Puss, and Adam Brown’s hilarious King of Gooseland, who reminded us strongly of Rob Madge (which is A Good Thing). We’re strongly contemplating going again later in the tour. Can’t recommend this fantastic show enough!

Production photos by Manuel Harlan

Five Alive, Let Theatre Thrive!

Review – The Tempest, RSC at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, 2nd February 2023

The TempestNews of the shipwreck of the Sea Venture off the coast of Bermuda in 1609 is thought to have been the major impetus for Shakespeare’s The Tempest, one of only a couple of his plays that appear to be completely original. A few years before its first performance in 1611, there had been major floods in Wales, and those early audiences would have been well aware of the dangers that water – in all its forms – could create.

Rain Sky EarthElizabeth Freestone’s new production takes our new understanding of the problems of climate change as its impetus, and it’s an alignment that makes a lot of sense. Not only is there an admirable use of green sustainability in the construction of Tom Piper’s set, his costume design (with Natasha Ward) evokes all those worrying statistics about the amount of plastics in the sea, with the spirits of Rain, Sky and Earth partially clad in old carrier bags and plastic containers. Ferdinand litter picks the rubbish on the beach (he did kindly ask our section of the audience if we had any empties) – and this litter was genuinely collected from the beach at Weston-super-mare; you’ve got to respect the fact that the RSC are walking the walk on this one.

CastI’ve always had a bit of a problem with The Tempest. It’s one of those plays where you’re familiar with the major characters, and the quotable lines, and even the main plot (there’s a tempest, an island, lots of shipwrecked people and a whole shebang of sorcery) but for me it always feels stodgy. There are a number of long speeches and protracted conversations that can make the whole thing get bogged down, and, considering it’s Shakespeare’s second shortest text (after Comedy of Errors), it can feel rather long. Above all, there is little of the usual expectation for some Shakespearean conflict, or suspense, or dramatic tension. So it’s vital to accentuate the magic to give the play its necessary dynamism.

ProsperoThere are two occasions when magic rules the Stratford stage. The first is in the extraordinary first scene – the shipwreck that Prospero has caused – where the unlucky passengers and crew are tossed, turned and terrorised at sea. It’s a truly exciting start to the show, stunningly realised and beautifully performed by everyone. The second is Ariel’s Act Three Scene Three appearance as a harpy, to frighten the living daylights out of Alonso, Sebastian and the others. The costume is fantastic – and I really liked the comic touch with Ariel’s next appearance still wearing the harpy’s claw, as though it was a quick change routine that didn’t change quickly enough. A tiny attention to detail, but it subtly reveals the artifice of the magic – very nicely done. So, is this production the stuff that dreams are made on?

Trinculo and StephanoNot entirely. Unfortunately, the problems of climate change detract from the magic. Magic is all about illusion, creating the appearance that the impossible is possible; it’s delight and wonderment, and, for want of a better word, pizzazz. Climate change is the opposite. It’s reality, it’s hardship, it’s a step towards oblivion. Magic takes something of a back seat in this production; and even when magical things happen, they’re brought back to earth by the harshness of real life – like the detritus in the spirits’ costumes.

Prospero and MirandaConsequently, the success of this production comes strongly from the incredible cast, each of whom bring the magic that might otherwise be lacking. You’ve got to start with Alex Kingston as Prospero. This is the first time I’ve seen Ms Kingston live and she is a truly charismatic stage performer. The whole show lights up whenever she’s on stage, and she brings true humanity to the role. Prospero is the one controlling force in The Tempest; everything and everyone is in his/her thrall, and Alex Kingston shows how that is completely possible. Her reading and understanding of the text is superb, and she makes the most intractable of Shakespeare’s language readily comprehensible.

FerdinandJessica Rhodes is steadily working her way towards being one of our brightest young actors – she was superb in Chichester’s Doubt last year, and her performance as Miranda here is even better. She conveys the character’s young innocence and total amazement at the presence of other people superbly well. Having Prospero as her mother, rather than her father, creates perhaps less of a “hero-worship” for the parent and more of a true devoted affection; an enviable mother/daughter relationship indeed. She is perfectly matched by Joseph Payne’s Ferdinand, an innocent abroad with an instant attraction to Miranda, and, even though we know his father is a villain, you’d be hard pressed not to be moved by his heart warming reaction to discovering Alonso is still alive.

CalibanHeledd Gwynn is superb as Ariel; she has a naturally ethereal quality that makes the character’s flighty tricksiness even more believable. This was the first time I’ve seen an Ariel who really made me believe that their true goal was to attain their freedom. This is no Puck, who’s happy to do whatever Oberon wants unquestioningly; this is a character who constantly expects this is the last time they will have to do their master’s bidding, yet is thwarted time and again. Tommy Sim’aan’s Caliban, by contrast, is no savage and deformed slave, as Shakespeare would have had it – there’s nothing remotely inhuman about him, which brings him more on a par with his co-conspirators Stephano and Trinculo, but at the same time maybe brings us further away from the idea of magic. Nevertheless it’s a very strong and clear performance.

Antonio Alonso and SebastianSimon Startin and Cath Whitefield have (for me, at least) an enormous uphill struggle to make Stephano and Trinculo watchable, as I personally find those characters’ scenes rather tedious. Mr Startin’s Stephano is a clearly a distant relation to Barry Humphries’ Sir Les Patterson; Ms Whitefield’s Trinculo is entertainingly quirky and clownish. Peter de Jersey is excellent as Alonso, as is Jamie Ballard’s Antonio; but in fact all the cast are superb – there isn’t a weak link in the chain.

All in all, a thought-provoking new production, with excellent performances. Rooted in our climate crisis as it is, the magic never really soars; but its environmental message is received loud and clear.

Production photos by Ikin Yum

4-starsFour They’re Jolly Good Fellows!

The Agatha Christie Challenge – Five Unpublished Short Stories

Five individual short stories – four of which were reworked into other works, and which were published in the John Curran books Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks, Agatha Christie – Murder in the Making, and Tony Medawar’s Bodies in the Library. I’ll take them all individually, and, as always, I promise not to reveal whodunit!

The Man Who Knew

Question MarkBelieved to have been written shortly after the end of the First World War, but before the publication of The Mysterious Affair at Styles. Never published in Christie’s lifetime, but she reworked it into The Red Signal, which was first published in issue 232 of The Grand Magazine in June 1924, and subsequently as part of The Hound of Death collection in the UK in 1933. You can find the story in John Curran’s Agatha Christie – Murder in the Making.

Derek Lawson returns from a theatre trip with friends to discover a revolver has been planted in one of his drawers, and a note has been scrawled on his theatre programme, don’t go home. With the news that his uncle, the Harley Street specialist Sir James Lawson has been shot, he puts two and two together, and resolves to take action to prevent himself from being accused of the crime.

Atmospheric and engaging, this (very) short story has all the hallmarks of a young writer finding her feet, establishing for herself what works and what doesn’t. It’s very limited to the bare bones of its own story, with hardly any embellishments – Christie would put that right when she created The Red Signal, which is a far, far more expansive and gripping piece of writing.

As John Curran points out, it’s extraordinary that this manuscript has survived; most haven’t. Whilst taken on its own, it’s not earth-shattering, but it is an interesting insight into Christie’s early imagination.

The Wife of the Kenite

Wife of the KeniteUnlike the other stories in this selection, The Wife of the Kenite had been published before, in The Home Magazine, in Sydney, Australia, in 1922. Since then it had gone to ground and wasn’t available in print again until its appearance in Tony Medawar’s Bodies in the Library in 2018.

Soldier for hire, Herr Schaefer has escaped Johannesberg and is on the run – on the lookout for a contact, Mr Henschel. He discovers Henschel’s farmhouse; he isn’t there, but his wife is. She recognises him – but doesn’t tell him; and he doesn’t recognise her. He admires a woman who reads her Bible, but can’t quite remember the significance of Chapter Four of the Book of Judges…

Starkly and powerfully written, this is an eerie tale of revenge being served best cold. Christie plays nicely on our imaginations, and we can almost see the sparse South African landscape (she had visited South Africa with Archie Christie) and sense the grit and Germanic forcefulness of Herr Schaefer and the grimness of Henschel’s wife. The final act of the story is also left to our imagination, and that works very well.

Field Marshal Jan Smuts gets mentioned twice – at the time this was written, he was Prime Minister of South Africa; and mealies is a South African term for maize plants. Voogplaat, the Belgian village that used to be where the woman lived, sounds very credible but is in fact a name made up by Christie.

As for Judges 4, verses 17 – 21: “Sisera, meanwhile, fled on foot to the tent of Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite, because there was an alliance between Jabin king of Hazor and the family of Heber the Kenite. Jael went out to meet Sisera and said to him, “Come, my lord, come right in. Don’t be afraid.” So he entered her tent, and she covered him with a blanket. “I’m thirsty,” he said. “Please give me some water.” She opened a skin of milk, gave him a drink, and covered him up. “Stand in the doorway of the tent,” he told her. “If someone comes by and asks you, ‘Is anyone in there?’ say ‘No.’ ” But Jael, Heber’s wife, picked up a tent peg and a hammer and went quietly to him while he lay fast asleep, exhausted. She drove the peg through his temple into the ground, and he died.”

War crimes are never forgotten.

The Incident of the Dog’s Ball

happy_cartoon_dogThis is one of two unpublished short stories that were discovered by Christie’s daughter Rosalind Hicks in 2004 in an attic. John Curran suggests it was written around 1933, but never saw the light of day as Christie decided to rework and expand it into her novel Dumb Witness, published in 1937. However, it may have been written earlier than this as the majority of short stories that feature both Poirot and Hastings date from the 1920s. You can find the story in John Curran’s Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks.

Poirot receives an intriguing letter from Miss Matilda Wheeler asking for his help in a very unspecific sort of way; something was wrong, ever since “the incident of the dog’s ball”. But the letter has inexplicably taken a number of months to reach him. His curiosity piqued, he decides to see Miss Wheeler; however, on arrival at her house, they discover that she has died. Poirot’s not going to let that mystery go unexplained!

Although never published and clearly regarded by Christie as a stepping stone to writing Dumb Witness, The Incident of the Dog’s Ball stands up pretty well as a short story on its own. There are a couple of errors, that would no doubt have been picked up if it had been properly proof-read, but apart from that it’s an entertaining and pacey read. It’s set in the village of Little Hemel; there really ought to be a place near Hemel Hempstead that shares this name, but alas no. In any case, Christie decides to locate Little Hemel in Kent, just to confound us. And Hastings has been awarded the O.B.E.! I wonder if it was for services to detection?!

Curiously, the story has a different murderer and explanation of the crime from Dumb Witness, so even if you have read the longer novel, there’s no reason to miss out on this little gem. There are some passages of the short story that have been transported straight into the novel; and Curran points out that there is a very similar letter to Miss Wheeler’s in Christie’s short story How Does Your Garden Grow? which was featured in the collection Poirot’s Early Cases.

I think this little tale is somewhat underestimated!

The Capture of Cerberus

The Capture of CerberusThis is the other story that Rosalind Hicks found in an attic in 2004, and you can also read this one in John Curran’s Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks. It is the original twelfth story in the collection The Labours of Hercules, published in 1947. The first eleven stories were originally published in The Strand Magazine, but this one was rejected. And, considering its subject matter, and the time that it was written, it’s no surprise that it was rejected. The story The Capture of Cerberus that was included in The Labours of Hercules is a completely different story, although both tales included Poirot getting reacquainted with the only love of his life, Countess Vera Rossakoff. So, again, if you’ve read The Labours of Hercules in full, that’s no reason not to read this original Cerberus story.

During a chance meeting in Geneva, Vera Rossakoff introduces Poirot to a Dr Keiserbach. Vera tells Keiserbach of Poirot’s extraordinary abilities – “he can even bring the dead back to life”. Impressed by this, Keiserbach privately later reveals to Poirot his true identity, Lutzmann; his son has famously shot the “dictator of all dictators”, August Hertzlein – but was torn to pieces by the baying mob and died on the spot. But Lutzmann is convinced that it wasn’t his son who killed Hertzlein: “he loved that man. He worshipped him […] he was a Nazi through and through.” So who did kill Hertzlein?

Given this was probably written in 1939 before the outbreak of war, it’s no surprise that the Strand magazine would have wanted this story suppressed. August Hertzlein is a clear reference to Adolf Hitler, and this story is almost unique in Christie’s works as being so obviously overtly political. Consequently, it’s a very entertaining and engrossing read, with Poirot on fine form, employing the most devious tactics to get to the truth.

It’s also superbly written, with a much more mature and adept use of language and some terrific turns of phrase, such as you would expect from the author pretty much at the height of her powers. There are some excellent new insights into Poirot’s character and beliefs. “To arouse enthusiasm was not his gift and never had been. Brains, he thought with his usual lack of modesty, were his speciality. And men with great brains were seldom great leaders or great orators. Possibly because they were too astute to be taken in by themselves.”

There’s a fascinating description of why Poirot is so attracted by Rossakoff, even though she is now older and heavily made up: “the original woman underneath the makeup had long been hidden from sight, Nevertheless, to Hercule Poirot, she still represented the sumptuous, the alluring. The bourgeois in him was thrilled by the aristocrat.”

And I was very much amused by Vera’s enthusiastic over-the-top praising of Poirot to Keiserbach: “He knows everything! He can do anything! Murderers hang themselves to save time when they know he is on their track.”

The Case of the Caretaker’s Wife

CaretakerThis unpublished story is approximately 80% identical to The Case of the Caretaker, that appears in the collection Miss Marple’s Final Cases, with very much the same story and the same solution. John Curran speculates that it was written in 1940, given its appearance in Christie’s notebooks, and you can find it in his book Agatha Christie – Murder in the Making.

Here’s how I précised the story as it appears in Miss Marple’s Final Cases: “Previously a ne’er-do-well, Harry Laxton brings his wealthy new bride back to his home village. The locals are keen to meet her and are pleased to see Harry has made good – except for Mrs Murgatroyd, the evicted caretaker of the old house that Harry has renovated. When she curses young Louise Laxton, the young bride thinks twice about living in the house and in the area. But who is murdered, and by whom?” And there’s no reason to change that for this version of the story!

There are three main differences between the two versions. The Case of the Caretaker’s Wife is more openly set in St Mary Mead, with its usual cast of characters – Mrs Price-Ridley, Miss Hartnell and Miss Wetherby, rather than Mrs Price, Miss Harmon and Miss Brent. This story is told in a straightforward narrative, rather than being bookended by Dr Haydock giving Miss Marple a written-out mystery to solve to keep her spirits up whilst she’s getting over flu. And this story is expanded a little to include an interview between Miss Marple and Mrs Murgatroyd, and removes the clumsy and unlikely scene in The Case of the Caretaker where a hypodermic syringe falls out of a miscreant’s pocket.

John Curran points out – which I hadn’t recognised when I read Miss Marple’s Final Cases – that this is a precursor to Christie’s excellent 1967 novel, Endless Night.

All in all, Caretaker’s Wife is probably a better story than Caretaker, but if you’ve already read the one, there’s no real need to read the other!

And not only does that conclude my look at these five unpublished stories – and I’ll award this little selection with an overall mark of 7/10 – it also concludes my re-reading of all of Christie’s detective fiction! Thanks for sticking with me over the past eight years on this one. I can’t let this end here, so I will be back with one last summing-up of Christie’s works. What do we know of Poirot, Marple, and all the other major characters in her works? What themes and ideas did she deal with most prominently throughout her long career? And which are the best and which are the worst? I’ll be back with my final thoughts in the not too distant future – and, in the meanwhile, happy sleuthing and keep on Christie-ing!

The Agatha Christie Challenge – Hercule Poirot and the Greenshore Folly (2014)

Poirot and Greenshore FollyIn which that eccentric detective novelist Mrs Oliver is called in to organise a Murder Hunt at a village fete but she suspects all is not as it should be and so asks Hercule Poirot to make sense of her suspicions. All seems well at first until an unexpected murder takes place in the boathouse! Even though the victim provides Poirot a huge clue at first hand before their death, Poirot can’t see the wood for trees until the final few chapters, when all is explained. As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I promise not to reveal whodunit!

And if that sounds like the plot to Dead Man’s Folly, that’s because it is! Hercule Poirot and the Greenshore Folly was originally written to pay for a church window in the chancel of St Mary the Virgin in Churston Ferrers, the church where Christie worshipped. However, as John Curran explains in his excellent notes that accompany the book, Christie’s agents found it impossible to sell the manuscript! That was because it was neither short story nor novel, and didn’t fit into the market at the time. Undeterred, Christie wrote a new short story for the church window, the similarly named but completely different Greenshaw’s Folly, that was published in the UK in the collection The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding.

Writing Hercule Poirot and the Greenshore Folly was not wasted however, as Christie realised she could expand it into a full length novel, and that’s how Dead Man’s Folly was born. This “junior version” of the later novel wasn’t published in the UK until 2014, by Harper Collins, and with an introduction by the man with whom everyone associates Christie paperback covers, the artist Tom Adams, who died in 2019.

Dead Man's FollyIf you have already read Dead Man’s Folly, then there is no reason (other than the purely academic exercise of comparing the two texts) to read Greenshore Folly. They tell precisely the same tale, with precisely the same clues, twists and surprises, and with precisely the same murderer. If you haven’t read either, jump straight to Dead Man’s Folly and don’t bother with the earlier version. Not that there’s anything wrong with it, it’s just the whole description of the detective investigation is much more sparse and less involving. If, in the unlikely event that you’ve read Greenshore Folly but not Dead Man’s Folly, wait a few years until you’ve completely forgotten the plot and the characters, and then read Dead Man’s Folly; it will come as a pleasant surprise.

Apart from a few extended conversations and some name/place name changes, both books are virtually identical up until the first murder. At that point, Dead Man’s Folly goes into much more rewarding detail about the detective procedure, whereas Greenshore Folly performs a short-cut and more or less jumps to the end.

Thematically, then, the book is on exactly the same lines as Dead Man’s Folly – so if you want to read more, please refer to my blog about it! The link is above. Like the fuller version, I think this deserves a 7/10.

We’re so very near the end of the Agatha Christie Challenge, gentle reader! All that remains is to consider five more short stories that have come to light in recent years. Four of them were printed in John Curran’s two excellent books; The Capture of Cerberus and The Incident of the Dog’s Ball in Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks, and Miss Marple and the Case of the Caretaker’s Wife and The Man Who Knew in Agatha Christie – Murder in the Making. Additionally, The Wife of the Kenite has been published in the collection Bodies from the Library, edited by Tony Medawar.

I’ll give them all a read shortly, and, as usual, I’ll blog my thoughts about them soon. In the meantime, please read them too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!