The Agatha Christie Challenge – Mrs McGinty’s Dead (1952)

Mrs McGinty's DeadIn which Superintendent Spence is not satisfied that James Bentley is guilty of the murder of charwoman Mrs McGinty, and asks that owner of magnificent moustaches, Hercule Poirot, to delve into the case to see if he can discover the real culprit. Poirot accepts the challenge, and, enduring a stay at a grotty B&B all in the pursuit of justice, unearths the real murderer and saves Bentley from the gallows.  As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I promise not to reveal whodunit!

The MousetrapThe book is dedicated “To Peter Saunders, in gratitude for his kindness to authors”. Peter Saunders was the theatre impresario who produced The Mousetrap, amongst other successes. Mrs McGinty’s Dead was first published in the US in thirteen instalments in the Chicago Tribune Sunday editions from October to December 1951, under the title Blood Will Tell. The full book was first published in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company in February 1952 and in the UK by Collins Crime Club, on 3rd March 1952, almost exactly a year after the publication of They Came from Baghdad.

Margaret RutherfordThis was one of the last books by Christie that I read first time around, primarily because I had seen the Miss Marple/Margaret Rutherford film Murder Most Foul, which is (allegedly) an adaptation of Mrs McGinty’s Dead, and thought that, as I now knew whodunit, there wasn’t a lot of point reading it. How wrong I was! Whilst it is a tremendously fun film, Murder Most Foul bears as much similarity to Mrs McGinty’s Dead as does the Book of Common Prayer. So, if you find yourself in the same situation, don’t lose any sleep over it!

CrowdWhether it’s because it is so unlike that film, I’m not sure, but I always have difficulty recalling the plot, characters and identity of the murder whenever I read this book. As a result, personally, it’s an entertaining read, as it’s as though I’m coming to it new. However, I do also find this book rather ploddy at times, particularly in those early, expositional chapters. It did take me some time to complete it. There are also a quite a large number of characters, and therefore possible suspects, and it’s one of those books where you have to stop and think exactly who we’re reading about in this chapter and what association they have to the rest of the book.

ApplesNevertheless, it’s entertainingly written, with plenty of humorous episodes, enjoyable characterisations and a few tongue-in-cheek references to the ardours of writing detective fiction. Yes, Mrs Oliver is back, Christie’s thinly veiled self-creation, obsessed with apples, struggling with storylines, exasperated that she made her detective a Finn, a vegetarian and too old – exactly the same problems that Christie had created for herself with Poirot. There are some very funny moments in the scenes between Mrs Oliver and Robin Upward, the very theatrical playwright who is adapting one of her books for the stage; his vision of her characters and plot is so very different from hers, and one can indeed imagine that this could be a real source of anguish for any author whose works are highly adaptable.

CurtainThere’s an intriguing conversation between Mrs Oliver and Robin when he gets the idea that she should write a book where her detective Sven Hjerson is murdered. “No fear,” she replies, “what about the money? Any money to be made out of murders I want now”. But of course, by this time, Christie had already written and squirrelled away Curtain and Sleeping Murder, the books which end the careers of Poirot and Miss Marple, to be published after her death. And from my memory, what Robin suggests should happen to Sven happens to one of her detectives… we’ll just leave that idea hanging there.

Vegetable MarrowsMrs McGinty’s Dead is our first meet-up with Poirot for four years – we last encountered him in Taken at the Flood. Given Mrs Oliver’s petulance about Sven Hjerson, I guess we can conclude that Christie had temporarily had enough of our Belgian hero and wanted to write some different characters – hence the interim books Crooked House and They Came to Baghdad featured neither Poirot nor Marple. She re-establishes the character in the opening paragraphs of the book, fondling his moustaches, creating an art form out of eating, drinking revoltingly luminescent sweet liqueurs, missing his old pal Hastings – even though his vanity only permits him to consider him as a stooge – and not regretting giving up the cultivation of vegetable marrows, a hobby which he gamely embarked on in The Mysterious Affair at Styles but it never caught on.

Detective2We also meet Superintendent Spence again, having also become acquainted with him in Taken at the Flood. He’s a bit more of a rounded character in this book; considered, intelligent, honourable and tenacious. Christie allows Poirot to point out the major difference between her two detectives, when Poirot gets frustrated at not making quicker progress: “I get nowhere – nowhere […] There is nothing – no little gleam. I can well understand the despair of Superintendent Spence. But it should be different for me. Superintendent Spence, he is a very good and painstaking police officer, but me, I am Hercule Poirot. For me, there should be illumination!”

TheatricalsAt times the book feels almost like a travelogue, with our hero Poirot moving from residence to residence, interrogating the occupants, trying to get to the bottom of what happened. As a result, there are a multitude of characters, most of whom play a minor role, but the consequence of that is we get a surfeit of suspects. This tends to confuse and frustrate rather than make it more exciting or difficult to crack. But the book redeems itself with its comic scenes (Poirot trying to make himself at home in the Summerhayes household is very funny) and the portrayal of Robin and all his theatrical chums is cheeky and entertaining.

WarminsterAs usual, there are a few references to check out, starting with the locations. The main activity of the book takes place in Broadhinny, and the neighbouring towns and villages of Kilchester, Cullenquay, Parminster, Cullavon, and Drymouth all play a part. Of course, these are all fictional; Parminster might be based on Warminster – one tends to think of Christie-land as being the West Country – although perhaps Kilchester is based on Colchester. The book starts with Poirot emerging from the Vieille Grand’mère restaurant into Soho; there are many Vieille Grand’mère’s all around the world but I can’t identify one in Soho.

Children's gamesThe title Mrs McGinty’s Dead refers to a children’s playground game. “Question and answer all down the line,” says Spence. “Mrs McGinty’s Dead! How did she die? Down on one knee just like I! – and then the next question […] Holding her hand out just like I”. I have to say I don’t recall that game from my childhood. Do any of my gentle readers? When Mrs Oliver and Poirot meet, they recall their shared experience regarding a Mr Shaitana. He was the victim in that excellent book Cards on the Table.

Robert Browning“Beautiful Evelyn Hope is dead”, quotes Poirot in conversation with Spence. Evelyn Hope, as far as this story is concerned, was Eva Kane’s assumed name once she’d fled after being suspected in the Craig case. But the quote is from Robert Browning’s poem, Evelyn Hope. This is not the first time that Christie has named a character after someone in a poem; Enoch Arden, who is frequently referred to in Taken at the Flood, is the name of a poem by Browning’s contemporary, Tennyson.

Edith Thompson“If we hanged Edith Thompson, we certainly ought to have hanged Janice Courtland”, avers Superintendent Spence. But who was Edith Thompson? She, together with her lover Frederick Bywaters, was found guilty of the murder of her husband in 1922 – even today, the guilty verdict against her seems very harsh, based on a series of love letters but no hard evidence. “Do you know, cher ami, what is a secret de Polichinelle?” asks Poirot of Spence. He answers his own question. It “is a secret that everyone can know.” It comes from a 1903 play of the same name by French dramatist Pierre Wolff.

PoundRegular readers will know that I like to consider any significant sums of money in Christie’s books and work out what their value would be today, just to get a feel of the range of sums that we’re looking at. The cash amounts mentioned in this book aren’t particularly expensive, but they’re interesting, nonetheless. Bentley is accused of having stolen £30 from Mrs McGinty. That’s about £600 today – quite a lot to steal from an older lady. All Mrs McGinty had in the bank was £200, to be bequeathed to her niece – that’s the equivalent of about £4000 today. Bentley’s board and lodgings cost him £3 a week – that’s £60 a week today, which is very good value for what he got. Mrs McGinty used to charge 1s 10d per hour for her cleaning services – about £1.80 today, way below the minimum wage. One other interesting fact; stamps to send a letter cost one penny. That’s just 10p today. Someone in the Royal Mail is obviously raking it in at the moment, I’ll say no more than that!

Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for Mrs McGinty’s Dead:

Publication Details: 1952. My copy is a Fontana paperback, seventh impression, dated August 1974, with a price of 35p on the back cover. The cover illustration by Tom Adams shows a massive fly hovering over a tea table, in an old-fashioned parlour. And is that a shoe attached to a foot attached to a leg at the bottom of the picture?

How many pages until the first death: The first death takes place before the book starts, and is referred to on the third page. However, there’s quite a long wait before the second death – 126 pages in all.

Funny lines out of context: sadly, none spring to mind.

Memorable characters:

Quite a lot to enjoy here. There’s the hopeless but likeable Maureen Summerhayes with her wayward children, awful cooking skills and “comfortable” guest house that’s more like an assault course. There’s the gutsy Maude Williams, willing to risk her own safety in a bid to help trap the guilty party, in the best tradition of Christie gutsy young women. There’s the haughty Mrs Carpenter, who can’t believe that her word doesn’t carry more weight in law than a mere servant’s. But most fun of all is the flouncy Robin Upward with his coterie of actors, ostentatiously referring to his mother as Madre, fussing and preening wherever he goes.

Christie the Poison expert:

Again, no real references to death by poisoning in this book. All the murders are much more violent and brutal.

Class/social issues of the time:

The early 1950s were known for being a time of dismal austerity. “The war has complicated things,” laments Superintendent Spence, although he is thinking specifically of the opportunity for the unscrupulous to change wartime records, identity cards, and so on, for their own dubious gains. The only hopeful new aspect to everyday life was the National Health service – but even there, people were cynical. In the words of Mrs Sweetiman, “nowadays even if you’ve got a chilblain you run to the doctor with it so as to get your money’s worth out of the National Health. Too much of this health business we’ve got. Never did you any good thinking how bad you feel.” Come to think of it, who gets chilblains nowadays? I don’t think I’ve ever heard of anyone having them.

Most of the class/social references in the book are spiteful little comments about foreigners, the homeless and – thinking primarily about Robin Upward – the use of the word “pansy” to describe a man who’s not particularly into women. Mrs Sweetiman refers to “nasty tramps” in their area who might have broken into Mrs McGinty’s house. Deirdre Henderson is of the same mind, referring in a later conversation with Mrs Oliver that there are “horrid tramps” in the area.

Elsewhere, as has happened in the past, Poirot is considered to be a “funny little foreigner” (again by Deirdre Henderson); Mrs Sweetiman’s assistant Edna needs to inform the police of a development but feels she can’t approach Poirot – “not a foreigner, I couldn’t.” Poirot contacts Mrs Wetherby ostensibly to suggest a replacement for their cook, Frieda, and she is relieved that Maude is “no, not foreign – English, thank goodness.”

You might expect the class system to be at its most pompous in an English village, where the lowly born serve the high and mighty. Mrs McGinty had few admirers, even though many relied on her work to keep their houses clean. Even though she had worked for her, and she was now dead, Mrs Carpenter still can’t bring herself to think of Mrs McGinty as more than just “some old charwoman”. But then again, neither Mrs Carpenter nor her husband are Nice People.

Classic denouement:  Yes! And the first since Towards Zero, eight years earlier. It’s one of those occasions where Poirot gathers everyone into a room, he lays a trap to make it seem like one person is responsible for the killings when all along it is someone else in the room, who at first tries to brave it out but then snaps. The best kind of end to a Christie book.

Happy ending? In a sense yes, although it’s very low-key and under-emphasised. There is a supposition that a relationship might blossom at the end of the book, but it’s not the one you might have expected and even then it’s only in the suspicious minds of the detectives. All a bit dark and gloomy, to be honest.

Did the story ring true? Nothing is so bizarre that you read it and think, oh Mrs Christie how could you possibly think we’d believe that –  and given the fact that so many of the world’s problems today come from the unscrupulous and biased news media, for me it rings very true that the crime and solution came from a newspaper cutting.

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

They do it with MirrorsThanks for reading my blog of Mrs McGinty’s Dead and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment in the space below. Next up in the Agatha Christie Challenge is They do it with Mirrors, and the chance to reacquaint ourselves with Miss Marple. This is another book I find it hard to remember, so it will be a journey of discovery re-reading the book. As usual, I’ll blog my thoughts about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!

The Agatha Christie Challenge – They Came to Baghdad (1951)

They Came To BaghdadIn which Victoria Jones bumps into Edward in a park in London over lunchtime sandwiches and falls in love with him in an instant. He’s going to Baghdad to help open a bookshop for his boss, and, troubled that she won’t ever see him again, 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.  As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I promise not to reveal its most exciting secrets!

BaghdadThe book is dedicated “to all my friends in Baghdad”. Since the political and Islamist developments of the late 20th century it’s difficult for most westerners to imagine Baghdad being the kind of place where people could just up and visit on a whim. But Christie would have accompanied her husband Max Mallowan on many an archaeological dig out there, and her autobiography has several references to her times there and the people she worked with. They Came to Baghdad was first published in the UK in eight abridged instalments in John Bull magazine from January to March 1951, and in Canada, in an abridged version in Star Weekly Complete Novel, a magazine supplement published in Toronto, in September 1951. Unusually, there was no magazine pre-publication of this book in the US, until the full book was published by Dodd, Mead & Co in late 1951. It had previously been published in full in the UK by Collins Crime Club, on 5th March 1951.

whodunitThe first time I tried to read this book (aged about 10 probably), I couldn’t get on with it at all. I was voraciously reading all the Christies I could lay my hands on, and when I realised this wasn’t a murder mystery (as such) I completely lost interest and went to find another “proper” whodunit instead. Then when I went back to it as an older teenager I gave it another chance and got completely wrapped up in the escapism of it all; the fascination of the setting, the excitement of the adventure, and who could resist the charms of Victoria Jones?

VictoriaIf you met her in real life, she’d be a keeper, for sure. Full of daring, absolutely fearless, but prone to making a few bad judgment calls; an imperfect kind of heroine that actually would make her a very realistic creation. Victoria’s the sort of girl who would go off on a whim; she believes in taking a chance on life in the hope that it would pay off. When she’s chloroformed and held captive in some miserable hovel, on regaining consciousness her instant reaction is to celebrate the fact that she’s still alive – she’s ineffably optimistic. She doesn’t let a mere thing like incarceration hold her back; and whilst she’s not particularly learned she is enormously practical.

ArchaeologistChristie keeps a steady conversational style going through much of this book; written in the third person but almost always with Victoria as the central character. Occasionally Dakin or Edward take control of whatever scene is playing out, but nine times out of ten we’re seeing life through Victoria’s eyes. This is particularly effective in the few archaeological dig scenes, where Victoria has installed herself as an anthropologist despite knowing nothing about the subject. Christie’s writing flows vividly as she shows Victoria experiencing life on a dig, just as Christie herself had done a few years earlier. There’s a sense of wonder and excitement about the work; a respect for and interest in the dead of centuries ago whose minutiae of life is becoming apparent. The chief archaeologists themselves as portrayed as rather eccentric boffins, like Dr Pauncefoot Jones, or suspicious nit-pickers like Richard Baker. I’m sure Christie saw both on her travels.

RitzAs usual, there are a few references to check out, starting with the locations. The book starts in London; with Victoria and Edward meeting at Fitzjames Gardens, Victoria working for a firm in Graysholme Street, WC2, and another character living at Elmsleigh Gardens, “a quiet, rather dingy Kensington square”. None of them is real, sadly. Edward invites Victoria to dine on a sausage at the “SPO in Tottenham Court Road” – whilst Tottenham Court Road is of course real, I’ve no idea what the SPO was. Victoria walks past the Ritz Hotel in Green Park (real) and down Albermarle Street (also real) in search of Balderton’s Hotel (fictional – although there is a Balderton Street just south of Oxford Street.)

Rashid Street BaghdadOnce Victoria has decided to follow Edward to Baghdad, the rest of the book takes place in the area of present-day Iraq. Dakin’s office near Bank Street and Rashid Street in Baghdad, seems extremely likely; a map of modern day Baghdad shows Rashid Street and the Bank of Iraq being close by. A body is found on the Rowanduz Road – Rowanduz is a town in the north of Iraq; it’s perhaps unlikely that it’s big enough to warrant a road named after it. Victoria spends some time wandering around the Copper Bazaar in Baghdad – today it’s better known as the Coppersmith Souk but it’s still there.

Shatt al ArabElsewhere a boat paddles along the Shatt el Arab, a river made by the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates river in modern day Iran; Carmichael is said to have been born in Kashgar, an ancient city on the banks of the Tigris, but now regards Kerbela, 100 km south west of Baghdad, as “his city”; and Basrah, also mentioned, is a modern city on the Shatt el Arab. Dr Pauncefoot Jones is excavating the ancient city of Murik, which is said to be 120 miles from Baghdad, although the only Murik I can find is in Syria, well away from Baghdad; curious. When Victoria accompanies Mrs Clipp, they arrive at Castel Benito Aerodrome, an airport in Tripoli created by the Italians in Libya. Originally, it was a small military airport, but it was enlarged in the late 1930s and was later used by the British RAF after 1943. Tripolitania is the region of Libya in which Tripoli is situated. Interesting that they had to change planes here in order to get to Baghdad. And when Victoria is captured, she is held in Mandali, which today is a small town on the Iraq/Iran border. Clearly, Christie put a lot of effort into setting her story in real places in and around Baghdad.

Arabic CalligraphyThere are few Arabic words and quotations used in the book, for which it might be helpful to know the English meanings. People on the street in Baghdad call out “Balek!” at regular intervals; balek is Arabic for mind, so maybe they mean “mind out”? Victoria uses the phrase “el hamdu lillah” to her captors, which endears her to them; it’s a praise to Allah. She also works out that the word “bukra” means tomorrow; although not according to Google Translate it doesn’t. And Abdul Suleiman sang an Arab chant: “Asri bi lele ya yamali, Hadhi alek ya ibn Ali”. Google Translate gives this as: “My family, for me, O dictate, this is on you, Ibn Ali”. I think we just about get the picture.

BernadotteAnd now for some other references. Mr Morganthal tells Miss Scheele, “they got the Shah of Persia last year, didn’t they? They got Bernadotte in Palestine.” Who was Bernadotte? He was a Swedish diplomat who negotiated the release of about 31,000 prisoners from German concentration camps, including 450 Danish Jews from the Theresienstadt camp, and became United Nations Security Council mediator in the Arab–Israeli conflict of 1947–1948, until he was assassinated in Jerusalem by the paramilitary Zionist group Lehi. During Edward’s first conversation with Victoria, he thinks Jones is an unsuitable surname for a Victoria, and that Victoria Sackville-West would be better. Of course, Victoria Sackville-West did exist and was well known as a poet and lover of Virginia Woolf. And, c.1979, I attended a party in Oxford where my friend Sarah Sackville-West, who was reading English in the year below me, introduced me to her sister Victoria. So I’ve met the real Victoria Sackville-West, so there.

JumboWhen Edward says goodbye to Victoria at this first meeting, he ends with “partir, say mourir un peu”. In the correct, original French, partir c’est mourir un peu is a direct quote from the 1890 poem Rondel de l’adieu by Edmond Haraucourt. And there’s another poem quoted, that starts, “Jumbo said to Alice I love you…” Jumbo was the elephant imported into America by P T Barnum, that died whilst on tour. It was then replaced by Alice, Jumbo’s “widow”. Their transatlantic love affair was a source of some fascination in the Victorian era. Carmichael remembers travelling with his friends who were members of the Aneizeh tribe. Today better known as the Anazzah or Anizah tribe, these are a widespread people, currently mainly found in Saudi Arabia, but originally from the area in the north of modern day Syria, and they pre-date the rise of Islam.

Scheele's GreenBaghdad is said to be “in the sterling area and money therefore presented no difficulties”. I can do no better than to quote you what Wikipedia has to say on the matter: “At the outbreak of the Second World War, the sterling area was formed as an emergency measure to protect the external value of the pound sterling, mainly against the US dollar.” Iraq left the sterling area in 1959. Sir Rupert at one stage mentions “Scheele’s Green” as a coded message about Anna Scheele. It’s a cupric hydrogen arsenite, a yellowish-green pigment which in the past was used in some paints and wallpapers, but has since fallen out of use because of its toxicity. As a form of arsenic, it’s a carcinogen, and its presence in the green paint on Napoleon’s walls is said to have contributed to his death.

Gilbert a BecketVictoria reflects that she was very much like “the Saracen maid who arrived in England knowing only the name of her lover “Gilbert” and “England”. This is the tale of the capture and release of Thomas à Becket’s father while on Crusade in Palestine. A version of the tale appeared in Charles Dickens’ A Child’s History of England, where it is said that “a worthy merchant of London, named Gilbert à Becket, made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and was taken prisoner by a Saracen lord;” he is released only by the agency of the lord’s daughter, who “wanted to become a Christian, and was willing to marry him if they could fly to a Christian country”. The faithless Gilbert, however, only returned her love until he found an opportunity to escape and flee to England. Gilbert had taught the lady only two words: “London” and “Gilbert.” Armed only with this knowledge, the lady sets out to find him.

WIlliam Ernest Henley“And we are for the dark” thinks Victoria, just before she awakes from a nightmare vision. This is a line from Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, Act Five, Scene Two. She loves her quotations, does Victoria; later on, she says “When you were a King in Babylon and I was a Christian slave”, which comes from William Ernest Henley’s “Or Ever the Knightly Years”. Finally, with the literary references, Victoria wants to answer the question, “who is Lefarge?” with the reply, “he’s brother to Mrs Harris”, in an allusion to Sairey Gamp’s imaginary friend in Dickens’ Martin Chuzzlewit.

PoundRegular readers will know that I like to consider any significant sums of money in Christie’s books and work out what their value would be today, just to get a feel of the range of sums that we’re looking at. In this book, Anna Scheele is said to have bought a sapphire and diamond ring from Cartier’s for £120 – its value today would be £2635, so that’s a nice little piece of gear. The cost of getting from London to Baghdad was estimated as being between £60-£100, which would be £1300-£2200 at today’s rates, which seems quite pricey. Victoria’s total assets amount to £9, 2/-, which today equals £200 – that’s not a lot. Mrs Clipp espies someone wearing a mink coat that she estimates cost $3000; that’s a $30,000 dollar coat today. And the coat that Carmichael examines in the souk was priced at seven dinars, which he says is too much; for many years the Iraqi dinar was fixed as equal to US $3.22, so that coat would have been worth $22.54, which at today’s rate would be about $225. Very expensive for a souk.

Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for They Came to Baghdad:

Publication Details: 1951.  Hardback publication for the Thriller Book Club, 121 Charing Cross Road, London WC2. No dust jacket survives!

How many pages until the first death: 108, although another character in the book has died before then but we don’t realise it. Quite a long wait – but then, it’s not a whodunit as such, so it matters less.

Funny lines out of context: a couple, with a stretch of the imagination.

“It’s for you, Jonesey,” a colleague remarked unnecessarily, her eyes alight with the pleasure occasioned by the misfortune of others. The other typists collaborated in this sentiment by ejaculating” (the sentence goes on to add “you’re for it Jones”.)

“Lot of cock”, thought Shrivenham disrespectfully.

Memorable characters:

Victoria wipes the floor with all the other characters, for the reasons given earlier. Apart from that, you have the rather camp, over the top expressions of the hotel proprietor Marcus Tio, who brightens up the scenes he’s in; and I rather like the understated villainy of the duplicitous Catherine.

Christie the Poison expert:

You wouldn’t know it from this book. She’s been replaced by Christie the Archaeology Expert. Her fascination with the bringing the past to life is summed up in this reflection from Victoria: “as they went along the Processional Way to the Ishtar Gate, with the faint reliefs of unbelievable animals high on the walls, a sudden sense of the grandeur of the past came to her and a wish to know something about this vast proud city that now lay dead and abandoned.”

Class/social issues of the time:

Victoria’s a working-class girl trying to fit in to very middle-class settings – that of the archaeologists and the intelligence units; no wonder she has to fumble her way through to the success she achieves at the end. When Dakin first encounters Victoria, he’s extremely patronising towards her. Otherwise there aren’t many “class” observations in this book.

Other observations that set this novel firmly in the mid-20th century are the excitement of air travel – Victoria wonders how a great big aeroplane could actually get into the sky, and is alarmed at all the noises and movement – and concern about world Communism, with “Uncle Joe” (Stalin) maybe appearing at the world conference to be held in Baghdad, fear of war against (or for) Communism in many places around the world.

But the political imperative in this book isn’t simply socialism versus conservatism. There’s a New Order on offer, and attainable with sacrifices. “The bad things must destroy each other. The fat old men grasping at their profits, impeding progress. The bigoted stupid Communists, trying to establish their Marxian heaven. There must be total war – total destruction. And then – the new Heaven and the new Earth. The small chosen band of higher beings, the scientists, the agricultural experts, the administrators […] the young Siegfrieds of the New World. All young, all believing in their destiny as Supermen. When destruction had run its course, they would step in and take over […] “But think […] of all the people who will be killed first.” “You don’t understand […] that doesn’t matter.””

Classic denouement:  As this isn’t a classic whodunit, the denouement isn’t as straightforward as many of Christie’s other books. The realisation of exactly what’s gone on, and the nature of the final twists, is slowly, but excitingly drawn out, using short, mini-chapters that build towards are very rewarding finish.

Happy ending? Yes! Primarily, Victoria survives her escapades – that’s a reward in itself. But it also looks like a happy, if unexpected, relationship is about to blossom.

Did the story ring true? There’s so much fanciful adventure going on in this book that it’s very hard to believe some parts of it. The most extraordinary thing is that when Victoria is on the run, she’s picked up by Richard Baker; of all the people in all Mesopotamia, it has to be him that encounters her. And then it’s revealed that Baker has all sorts of innocent connections with Carmichael. #Yeahright.

Overall satisfaction rating: Thoroughly enjoyable escapist nonsense. Worthy of a 9/10.

Mrs McGinty's DeadThanks for reading my blog of They Came to Baghdad and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment in the space below. Next up in the Agatha Christie Challenge is Mrs McGinty’s Dead, and for some reason I can never recall the plot of this book – so I have no idea what to expect! As usual, I’ll blog my thoughts about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!

The Agatha Christie Challenge – A Murder is Announced (1950)

A Murder is AnnouncedIn which 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! The local police are mystified but fortunately Miss Marple is on hand to give valuable assistance, and the culprit is caught red-handed attempting another murder. As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I promise not to tell you whodunit!

Blackpool SandsThe book is dedicated “to Ralph and Anne Newman at whose house I first tasted “Delicious Death!” This may have been the Ralph Newman whose family owned the gardens at Blackpool Sands in South Devon, but I can’t prove it. No matter, Delicious Death was obviously the name they gave to their homemade chocolate cake. A Murder is Announced was first published in the UK in an abridged version in eleven instalments in the Daily Express in February and March 1950. In the US, it was first published in forty-nine short parts in the Chicago Tribune from April to June 1950. The full book was first published in the US by Dodd, Mead & Co and in the UK by Collins Crime Club, both in June 1950.

Classified AdsHere’s an enormously entertaining book from the Christie canon. I remember absolutely devouring it when I first read it, because I couldn’t put it down and it was so completely engaging and arresting. The whole idea of advertising in the local newspaper that a murder is going to take place is so bizarre but strangely thrilling – as indeed the inhabitants of Chipping Cleghorn prove as they all troop round to Lettie Blacklock’s house to see what happens. Even reading it this time, I was so intent at finishing the book because I wanted to check that my suspicions were correct (they were) that I had to re-read the last few chapters the day after, when I was less tired, so I could concentrate on the finer details. From the light-hearted first few moments, to the, frankly, hilarious farce of the first murder, and then right through to the final denoument this is a book that keeps you on your toes and never stops exhilarating you.

Whistler's MotherThe book reunites us with Miss Marple, whom we hadn’t encountered for seven years – her previous appearance was in 1943’s The Moving Finger. There may be a slight sense that she’s aged further; “she was far more benignant than he had imagined and a good deal older. 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.” All that wool and lace makes you think of Whistler’s Mother. Julia is partly right when she describes her as “the prying kind. And a mind like a sink, I should think. Real Victorian type.” Miss Marple certainly knows how to pry, but a mind like a sink? Surely not.

ForeignersWe also meet Inspector Craddock. Chief Constable Rydesdale thinks highly of Craddock, “he not only had brains and imagination, he had also […] the self-discipline to go slow, to check and examine each fact, and to keep an open mind until the very end of the case.” This “open mind” doesn’t seem to come naturally to Craddock; but what impresses me about him is his ability to recognise his own faults, his own prejudices. Whilst discussing Miss Blacklock’s domestic assistant, the wild-talking enigmatic Mitzi, Craddock confesses to Rydesdale, “I think the foreign girl knows more than she lets on. But that may be just prejudice on my part”. Miss Blacklock also believes that Craddock is prejudiced against Mitzi: “the whole idea’s absurd. I believe you police have an anti-foreigner complex.”

Margaret RutherfordShe’s right to suspect his clarity of thinking on this issue. Not only does he appear to be prejudiced against Mitzi, he’s prejudiced in favour of Philippa, because she shows class: “he was a little shaken in his suspicions of Mitzi. Her story about Philippa Haymes had been told with great conviction. Mitzi might be a liar (he thought she was) but fancied there might be some substratum of truth in this particular tale. He resolved to speak to Philippa on the subject. She had seemed to him when he questioned her a quiet, well-bred young woman. He had no suspicion of her.” Craddock would return in 4.50 From Paddington and The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side, and was written in to the four Margaret Rutherford/Miss Marple comedy film thrillers that were produced from 1961 – 1964.

Word change gameIt’s a crisp, plot-driven, fast-moving story, that moves from gentle comedy to light thriller, moments of farce (the first murder) to moments of sheer terror (the final murder). There’s even an element of Shakespearean comedy ending after the whodunit denouement is over! It has a rather silly and unnecessary epilogue, but that’s easily ignored. Character-wise, it’s interesting for the portrayal of what is obviously a lesbian couple, without the L word ever being mentioned, with the Misses Murgatroyd and Hinchliffe household. Christie gives a rather good account of them – I wonder if they were based on real people she knew. The only thing that very slightly lets it down for me is that Christie dollops a whopping great clue early on, if we care to notice it. I remember that it stared out at me instantly, the first time I read it; and, as a result, guessed the murderer even before a murder had taken place.

Hotel des AlpesAs usual, there are a few references to check out, starting with the locations. The setting is the village of Chipping Cleghorn, in the county of Middleshire, with Little Worsdale nearby, not far from the town of Medenham Wells. All totally fictitious of course, although there are plenty of places that begin with Chipping… and Middleshire could well refer to Middlesex. Medenham Wells suggests Medmenham, just outside High Wycombe. Milchester is another nearby town; interestingly the name features in Terence Rattigan’s play Flare Path, written in 1941. Coincidence, or was Christie influenced by Rattigan? The only other location to consider is the Hotel des Alpes, in Montreux, where Rudi Scherz is believed to have worked. This was indeed a real hotel and one with a fine reputation, active from 1855 to 1975.

NewspapersThere are many other references for us to consider. Let’s first look at all the newspapers that get delivered to the households of Chipping Cleghorn. The Times, the Daily Graphic, the Daily Worker, the Daily Telegraph, the News Chronicle, the Daily Mail and the North Benham News and Chipping Cleghorn Gazette. As you might guess, the latter is totally fictitious. However, the others are all real; the Times, Telegraph and Mail are all available today, whilst the Daily Graphic stopped publishing in 1932 – date-wise, that’s something a little off the mark for Christie there – the Daily Worker became the Morning Star in 1966, and the News Chronicle was published from 1930 to 1960, when it was absorbed into the Daily Mail.

Manchester TerrierMrs Swettenham comments that a family member used to breed Manchester Terriers. I’d never heard of this breed. Whilst the Kennel Club lists it as an endangered breed, there were, apparently, an average of 164 births per year between 2010 and 2016. So the numbers are on the up. Bunch’s husband, the Rev Julian Harmon, is obsessed with the story of Ahasuerus and Artaxerxes – which was completely lost on me. This seems to relate to a confusion over name translations; in any event, Ahasuerus was the King of Persia in the Book of Esther. I’m sure that’s all we need to know. Whilst we’re on the subject of funny names, the Harmons call their cat, Tiglath Pileser. He was a prominent king of Assyria in the eighth century BC, who introduced advanced civil, military, and political systems into the Neo-Assyrian Empire. So now you know.

Where was MosesMiss Blacklock is found reading Lane Norcott in the Daily Mail. Maurice Lane Norcott was a real journalist who wrote in the Daily Mail in the 1930s and 40s. Bunch’s favourite new book, “Death Does the Hat Trick”, is a spiffing title but totally fictitious, I’m sorry to say. “Where was Moses when the light went out”, Mrs Swettenham quotes her old Nannie when questioned by Craddock. “The answer, of course, was ‘In the Dark’”. This is an old American song from the latter part of the 19th century, written by Max Vernor. Some suggestions online are that the response should be “in the basement eating sauerkraut”. You decide.

Blair LeightonMiss Marple tells Sir Henry Clithering that although her nephew’s wife paints still life pictures, she prefers the work of Blair Leighton and Alma Tadema. Edmund Blair Leighton was an English painter of historical genre scenes who died in 1922, and Lawrence Alma-Tadema was a Dutch painter who settled in England in 1870 and spent the rest of his life there. A classical-subject painter, he became famous for his depictions of the luxury and decadence of the Roman Empire.

Maud“Inspector Craddock could never remember if it was St Martin’s or St Luke’s Summer, but he knew that it was very pleasant…” Either way, it’s what we today would call an Indian Summer. Edmund Swettenham quotes to Philippa, “Pekes in the high hall garden, when twilight was falling, Phil, Phil, Phil, Phil, they were crying and calling”. This refers to “Birds in the high hall garden” by Tennyson, from Maud – Edmund replaces Maud’s name with Philippa’s, the romantic old thing. “That old Tanqueray stuff”, so dismissively recollected by Bunch in conversation with Miss Marple, refers to The Second Mrs Tanqueray by Pinero, a late Victorian story about a “woman with a past”. And another quote: “Julia, pretty Juliar is peculiar” comes from Robert Slaney’s A Few Verses from Shropshire, published in 1846. Not surprising that no one would recognise it today.

1948 CalendarThe play that Edmund is to have produced is entitled Elephants Do Forget; it reminds us of the title of one Christie’s last books, Elephants Can Remember, published in 1972. And one slightly odd piece of misinformation; the first page of the book makes it clear that “today” is Friday, October 29th. However, October 29th in 1950 was a Sunday. It was in 1948 that October 29th was a Friday. Maybe that’s when she was writing it and never bothered to change it.

Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for A Murder is Announced:

Publication Details: 1950.  Great Pan paperback, 3rd printing, published in 1959, price 2/6.  The cover illustration by Keay shows a man checking the heartbeat of another man. I presume this is meant to represent Colonel Easterbrook checking Rudi Scherz for signs of life. However, the illustration of the dead man bears absolutely no similarity to his description in the book!

How many pages until the first death: 23. However, with the classified advertisement being discussed from page one, we’re fully expecting and waiting for it.

Funny lines out of context: sadly, none in this book.

Memorable characters:

This book is full of resounding and fascinating characters. I really like Bunch; she has no unnecessary sophistication, no pretence, but she’s kind and honest and vital. “I get up at half past six and light the boiler and rush around like a steam engine and by eight it’s all done […] I like sleeping in a big cold room – it’s so cosy to snuggle down with just the tip of our nose telling you what it’s like up above […] whatever size of house you live in, you peel the same amount of potatoes and wash up the same amount of plates and all that”. She deliberately doesn’t kill a fly whilst talking to her Aunt Jane Marple, because she loves the feeling of being alive. A lovely positive character.

I also enjoy the portrayal of the Lesbian couple, Miss Hinchliffe and Miss Murgatroyd. Hinchliffe wears corduroy slacks and battledress tunic, Murgatroyd a checked tweed skirt and a shapeless pullover. They call each other by their surname and have masculine hairstyles. Although these might be stereotypes, Christie couldn’t be clearer about her intention.

Mitzi is quite memorable; although I have to confess I find her a little irritating!

Christie the Poison expert:

Only one of the deaths in the book involves poison, an aspirin tablet being replaced by one laced with narcotics. In modern speak, we’d probably describe it today as an opioid.

Class/social issues of the time:

It’s 1950, and the after-effect of the Second World War lingers on. Mrs Swettenham, reading an advertisement for dachshunds for sale, says “I’ve never really cared for dachshunds myself – I don’t mean because they’re German, because we’ve got over all that…” I wonder if that’s truly the case. Fuel rationing continues, with the Blacklock household jokingly referring to “the precious coke” that fires the central heating; Lettie complains, “you know the Fuel Office won’t even let us have the little bit that’s due to us each week – not unless we can say definitely that we haven’t got any other means of cooking.” You used to have to get a licence from the Fuel Office in order to obtain coke. Julia reflects on how wonderful it must have been before the war when good quality coke was easily available, with no need to fill in forms. “There wasn’t any shortage? There was lots of it there?” “All kinds and qualities – and not all stones and slates like what we get nowadays”.

Food shortages also still linger; when Miss Blacklock gets Mitzi to create a Delicious Death cake for Miss Bunner’s birthday, she allows her to “use this tin of butter that was sent us from America. And some of the raisins we were keeping for Christmas”. A tin of butter? That in itself is mind-blowing today. Miss Blacklock supplies Mrs Swettenham with a supply of horse meat – our contemporary stomachs turn at this prospect. And there’s a bartering system in place to provide each other with clothing coupons: “people […] like a nice woollen dress or a winter coat that hasn’t seen too much wear and they pay for it with coupons instead of money” says Bunch. But to make up for it, households have started to acquire gramophone records. Julia thinks people are like records when they come round to the house and all say the same thing. Another after-effect of the war is the prevalence of young war widows, like Philippa. Mrs Lucas revels in treating her appallingly, giving her a smaller than usual salary, and patronising her wherever possible. And as a result Mrs Lucas can feel even more smug about her own life.

Whilst there’s still a general sense of class-based racism, it’s not as overwhelming as in some of her books. Miss Harris distrusts foreigners: “I’m always on my guard with foreigners anyway, They’e often got a way with them, but you never know, do you? Some of those Poles during the war! And even some of the Americans!” Craddock and Fletcher, his Sergeant, are both liable to mouth off about foreigners, which might make you question their ability to deliver impartial justice. “”Everyone seems to agree that this foreign girl tells whoppers,” said Fletcher. “It’s been my experience in dealing with aliens that lying comes more easy than truth telling.”” That’s some sweeping statement.

One additional subject that sets the story perfectly in its own age relates to the distrust and concern about the growing use of atomic energy. Mrs Swettenham is befuddled by the prospect. “I was just saying to Colonel Easterbrook that I thought it was really very dangerous to have an atom research station in England. It ought to be on some lonely island in case the radio activity gets loose.” An interesting line that shows both the worries and the lack of proper information or understanding about such a research station.

Classic denouement:  No, but still fascinating and exciting. We witness someone just about to be murdered but the law interrupts just in time and prevents it – and then the murderer simply falls apart. All the ins and outs of the motives and methods follow on in a subsequent chapter. There’s also an epilogue, but I don’t think it serves much purpose.

Happy ending? I guess so. There’s a wedding, and an inheritance. But a lot of people have suffered quite a bit to get to that ending!

Did the story ring true? I fear this is one of Christie’s more far-fetched stories, with an elaborate plot design that achieves an end that could have been realised in a much simpler way. There’s also one extremely hokey and unlikely moment just before the full denouement, when Miss Marple impersonates someone who has already been murdered and the shock of it tricks the murderer into letting down their guard. Is it that likely that Miss Marple is a top class mimic? Naaaaa….

Overall satisfaction rating: It’s an enormously entertaining read but I think 9/10 is fair.

They Came To BaghdadThanks for reading my blog of A Murder is Announced and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment in the space below. Next up in the Agatha Christie Challenge is another of my favourite books, They Came to Baghdad, where high-spirited Victoria Jones has a very exciting adventure in the land of the Tigris. As usual, I’ll blog my thoughts about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!

The Agatha Christie Challenge – Three Blind Mice (1950)

Three Blind MiceIn which 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? This was the short story that two years later became The Mousetrap. And, as usual, if you haven’t read the story – or indeed, seen the play – don’t worry, I promise not to tell you whodunit!

Three Blind Mice Sheet MusicThree Blind Mice was first published in the US in the May 1948 edition of Cosmopolitan magazine, and subsequently in the book Three Blind Mice and Other Stories, first published in the US by Dodd, Mead & Co in 1950. It has never been published in the UK in any format. The other short stories in the collection were all printed later in the UK, so I’ll ignore the rest of them for the moment in this relatively short blog post! Christie had decided that Three Blind Mice should not be published in the UK until the West End run of The Mousetrap had ended. The Mousetrap, of course, opened in 1952 and is still going strong to this day, and publishers have continued to respect Christie’s request. The story bears no dedication, but begins with the well-known nursery rhyme: Three Blind Mice, Three Blind Mice, See how they run, See how they run, They all ran after the farmer’s wife, She cut off their tails with a carving knife, Did you ever see such a sight in your life, As Three Blind Mice. Rather gruesome in terms of representing a murder!

The MousetrapAt 82 pages, Three Blind Mice is more of a novella than a short story, and is considerably longer than the eight other stories in the collection. However, because it’s written with approximately 90% of the text as conversation, and hardly anything in the manner of description, it’s very quick and exciting to read. There are very few differences between the substance of Three Blind Mice and that of The Mousetrap. The same characters in Three Blind Mice also appear in The Mousetrap, with the exception of Mrs Casey – Mrs Lyon’s landlady at the beginning of the story, the two witnesses who pick up the notebook in London, and Inspector Parminter who is in charge of the investigation in London. Giles and Molly’s surname changes from Davis to Ralston, and there is a character in The Mousetrap – Miss Casewell – who doesn’t appear in Three Blind Mice. There’s also a subtle (but important) change in one of the character’s back stories – but I can’t tell you what that is without giving the game away. Apart from that, they’re pretty much identical.

Crooked HousePrimarily, it’s a whirlwind whodunit, but with a few typically Christie themes thrown in for good measure. Like Crooked House before it, Molly and Giles are faced with the challenges of running a post-war house with limited means; so they stock up with emergency tinned food, she has illegally “borrowed” clothing coupons so that she could buy a coat, and the coke that they use to stoke up the fire to power the radiators is packed out with stones to bulk it up cheaply. Post-war suspicions about other people’s war record also come to light. Mrs Boyle suspects Wren is a conscientious objector (like Laurence Brown was in Crooked House), and there are discussions about desertion from the army, and the stigma attached to that, which will linger no doubt for several years.

The location of the London murder is Culver Street, and the witnesses were working on nearby Jarman Street; neither of these are genuine London addresses, nor is the village of Harpleden in Berkshire which is the nearest to Monkswell Manor Guest House. On the subject of money, Molly and Giles charge 7 guineas a week to stay at the guesthouse, which rate appears to include all food. That’s the equivalent of approximately £175 per week today. Good value, I’d say, even if you do risk getting murdered.

Not much more for me to add, except that it’s a terrifically exciting read and, if you’re one of those people who still don’t know whodunit, the denouement will knock you sideways. Has to be a 10/10 from me!

A Murder is AnnouncedThanks for reading my blog of Three Blind Mice and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment in the space below. Next up in the Agatha Christie Challenge is A Murder Is Announced, which I remember reading at school and successfully identifying the murderer because I picked up a vital clue. I was so pleased with myself! I remember it being an enjoyable read so I’m looking forward to revisiting it. As usual, I’ll blog my thoughts about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!

The Agatha Christie Challenge – Crooked House (1949)

Crooked HouseIn which Sophie Leonides decides she can’t marry Charles until the identity of her grandfather’s murderer is discovered. By chance, Charles’ father is the Assistant Commissioner of Scotland Yard, who agrees with Chief Inspector Taverner 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. The Assistant Commissioner has worked it all out before anyone else – but he doesn’t uncover the murderer. As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I promise not to tell you whodunit!

There was a crooked manThe book bears no dedication, but it begins with a foreword: “This book is one of my own special favourites. I saved it up for years, thinking about it, working it out, saying to myself: ”One day, when I’ve plenty of time, and want to really enjoy myself – I’ll begin it!” I should say that of one’s output, five books are work to one that is real pleasure. Crooked House was pure pleasure. I often wonder whether people who read a book can know if it has been hard work or a pleasure to write? Again and again someone says to me: “how you must have enjoyed writing so and so!” This about a book that obstinately refused to come out the way you wished, whose characters are sticky, the plot needlessly involved, and the dialogue stilted – or so you think yourself. But perhaps the author isn’t the best judge of his or her own work. However, practically everybody has like Crooked House, so I am justified in my own belief that it is one of my best. I don’t know what put the Leonides family into my head – they just came. Then, like Topsy, “they growed”. I feel that I myself was only their scribe.”

BravoCrooked House was first published in a condensed version in the US in the October 1948 edition of Cosmopolitan magazine, and in the UK it was first serialised in seven abridged instalments in John Bull Magazine from April to June 1949. The full book was first published in the US by Dodd, Mead & Co in March 1949, and in the UK on 23rd May of that year by Collins Crime Club. Not only was it one of Christie’s favourites to write, but it has always enjoyed excellent critical acclaim as being one of her best.

cricket grass fieldI can remember sitting on a grassy lawn at the age of about 12, when I should probably have been watching my house team bat in the weekly cricket match, but couldn’t be arsed as the saying now goes, because I was engrossed in Crooked House and I desperately wanted to finish it. I made the classic mistake of checking ahead to see how many pages were left, and, in this book, gentle reader, if you do that, it is impossible not to discover whodunit. So if you haven’t yet read it, don’t be tempted to flip to the back pages for whatever reason. You’ll only spoil it for yourself.

Old ManThe title, of course, is one of many of Christie’s works that was inspired by a nursery rhyme – there was a crooked man, who etc, etc, and they all lived together in a little crooked house. To be fair, the house itself doesn’t play that strong a part in the story, but there are other reasons why it is an extremely appropriate title. There’s no Poirot or Miss Marple in this book to come and solve the crime, and the detective team from Scotland Yard are introduced in a very casual manner. The book is narrated by Charles, so it’s all written in the first person, and Charles never actually introduces himself to us. It’s simple and stylish, broken into straightforward chapters with no chapter headings, no subdivisions, and nothing to get in the way of the flow of story-telling. Charles’ father, the Assistant Commissioner, is only ever referred to as “the Old Man”, because that’s how Charles thinks of him – we only discover his real name is “Sir Arthur” on page 73. It is Taverner who oversees the case, and a thorough, decent kind of a chap he is too. Charles describes him in the narrative as “solid, dependable, and with an air of businesslike promptitude that was somehow soothing”.

VainBut it’s to Sir Arthur that we look for a new perspective on the art of murder in this book. Time and time again we’ve read Poirot banging on about psychology and all that. Sir Arthur would no doubt agree with Poirot’s opinions, but he has some of his own, too. “What are murderers like? Some of them […] have been thoroughly nice chaps […] Murder, you see, is an amateur crime […] One feels, very often, as though these nice ordinary chaps had been overtaken, as it were, by murder, almost accidentally. They’ve been in a tight place, or they’ve wanted something very badly, money or a woman – and they’ve killed to get it. The brake that operates with most of us doesn’t operate with them […] Some people, I suspect, remain morally immature. They continue to be aware that murder is wrong, but they do not feel it. I don’t think, in my experience, that any murderer has really felt remorse… And that, perhaps, is the mark of Cain. Murderers are set apart, they are ‘different’ – murder is wrong – but not for them – for them it is necessary – the victim has ‘asked for it’, it was ‘the only way’ […] Is there a common denominator? I wonder. You know […] if there is, I should be inclined to say it is vanity […] I’ve never met a murderer who wasn’t vain… it’s their vanity that leads to their undoing, nine times out of ten. They may be frightened of being caught, but they can’t help strutting and boasting and usually they’re sure they’ve been far too clever to be caught […] and here’s another thing, a murder wants to talk […] having committed a murder puts you in a position of great loneliness. You’d like to tell somebody all about it – and you never can. And that makes you want to all the more. And so – if you can’t talk about how you did it, you can at least talk about the murder itself – discuss it, advance theories – go over it.” Very wise words there, from the Old Man. I think it as at this point in the book that he has already concluded that he knows whodunnit. If you carefully read and analyse his thoughts, you realise there are a lot of clues there.

Clothing CouponsThere are a few interesting themes in this book, mainly involving surviving everyday life in post-war Britain, which I’ll take a look at later. Otherwise, this is very much a plot-driven book, starting with the murder to be solved virtually right from the very beginning of the book, and working backwards, rather than working towards a murder – which may be chronologically more sensible but is often less fun.

IzmirAs usual, there are a few references to check out, starting with the locations. The book is set in the village/suburb of Swinly Dean, which is close enough to London to warrant a Scotland Yard investigation rather than a local constabulary. There is no such place, but there is Swinley Forest, which covers quite a large area south of Windsor into north Surrey, so that would be appropriate for a country location still close to London. When Josephine is rushed to hospital, she is taken to Market Basing General Hospital, and Market Basing is the setting for Dumb Witness, and is also where the police are based who investigate The Secret of Chimneys; Basingstoke seems the likely real-life equivalent. Not many other locations are mentioned; Aristide Leonides is often mentioned as coming from Smyrna, which since 1930 has been better known as Izmir, in Turkey.

Athene SeylerAs for the other references, there are a number of people mentioned in this book whose identity I needed to clarify. Magda’s first appearance reminds Charles of Athene Seyler, an English actress best known for playing Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest and one of the murderous spinsters in Arsenic and Old Lace. Athene Seyler would have been 60 years old when this book appeared; she lived on to the ripe old age of 101. Taverner admires a portrait of Aristide Leonides in the house that was painted by Augustus John. Another notable British artist, he was a major post-Impressionist who specialised in portraits. He died in 1961 aged 83.

Constance KentWhen Sir Arthur is waxing lyrical on the nature of murderers, he brings to mind “Constance Kent, everybody said, was very fond of the baby brother she killed.” Kent was a fascinating murderer, who, at the age of 16 murdered her 4-year-old brother – this was in 1860. Investigating was the famous Inspector Whicher but public opinion demanded that Kent be released because he was working class and she was not – such a bizarre situation. She was eventually found guilty, and went to prison until she was 41. Later she emigrated to Australia and died in Sydney at the age of 100. She was still alive when this book was published.

Brains TrustMagda describes Leonides reading out his will to the assembled family as “rather like the Voysey Inheritance”, which is a rather grand play from 1905 by Harley Granville-Barker. Even I can just about remember The Brains Trust, which Josephine says she listens to. This was a popular radio show where a panel tried to answer difficult questions from the audience. A bit like Question Time without the Gammon. Sir Arthur describes the late Mrs Leonides’ as being “the daughter of a country squire – an M. F. H.” I’d never heard of an MFH before and I think it does me credit. It’s a Master of Foxhounds.

PoundI’m sure you remember that I like to research the present-day value of any significant sums of money mentioned in Christie’s books, just to get a more realistic feel for the amounts in question. Money has a very high place in this book, and the sums that are mentioned are somewhat mind-blowing. Leonides had apparently left his wife £100,000 in his will, bestowed an allowance of £150,000 on his son Roger, and the total value of his will was £1m. The equivalent of those three sums at today’s value would be £2.5 million, £3.75 million and £25 million. We’re not talking chicken-feed here.

Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for Crooked House:

Publication Details: 1949. Fontana paperback, 14th impression, published in December 1974, price 35p. The cover illustration by Tom Adams probably gives away more of the plot and whodunit than is decent, so I’ll say no more apart from the fact that I can’t offhand particularly see the relevance of the bottle of pills.

How many pages until the first death: 4. That might be just about as immediate a death as Christie gives us in all her works. Certainly it lends an air of urgency and purpose to all the investigations that follow.

Funny lines out of context: Part of a description of where all the family members are gathered at an important meeting: “Roger was astride a big pouffe by the fireplace.”

Memorable characters:

Not certain whether he counts as memorable, but I rather like Charles the narrator. He has an elegant air about him, full of uncertainties and misgivings, thrust into some uncomfortable situations that he never sought. Magda is an amusing grande dame of the theatre; Josephine is an irksome, precocious child; and the biggest character of all, Aristide Leonides, is already dead.

Christie the Poison expert:

Two of the deaths in the book involve poison, and the first is a rather unusual choice by Christie, eserine. Today better known as physostigmine, it would have been a relatively recent commodity at the time the book was written, as it was first synthesised in 1935 and is primarily used in the treatment of glaucoma. It is the active ingredient in the West African Calabar Bean.

The other death is from the more common digitalin, which was also the fatal ingredient in Appointment with Death, derived from the common foxglove.

Class/social issues of the time:

Most of Christie’s usual themes don’t seem to surface here very much, although there is one racial slur when the elderly Edith de Haviland refers to Aristide’s wife as “a dago” and an “ugly common little foreigner”. Apart from that, the book is another that gives a good insight into how people were surviving after the war. Magda slyly acquires clothes coupons on the black market in order to continue to indulge her lavish fashion lifestyle – but it’s a struggle (and illegal). One of the reasons the family looks down on Laurence Brown is because he was a “wretched conscientious objector”, and he goes on to explain why he took that path: “what if I was afraid? Afraid I’d make a mess of it. Afraid that when I had to pull a trigger – I mightn’t be able to bring myself to do it. How can you be sure it’s a Nazi you’re going to kill? It might be some decent lad – some village boy – with no political leanings, just called up for his country’s service. I believe war is wrong, do you understand? I believe it is wrong.” I’m sure that would have been a relatively unpopular opinion at the time.

Worrying political intrigue of the day is also shown by Nannie’s opinion of who killed Leonides. “I didn’t say it was a burglar, Miss Sophia. I only said all the doors were open. Anyone could have got in. If you ask me it was the Communists […] everyone says that they’re at the bottom of everything thing that goes on. But if it wasn’t the Communists, mark my word, it was the Catholics. The Scarlet Woman of Babylon, that’s what they are.” Nannie is a prime example of the kind of person of whom one could say “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing”. Nannie, clearly, doesn’t hold with Catholicism; Charles describes her as “a good old Black Protestant”.

There’s a very good scene where the family members discover that most of them have been disinherited by the late Mr Leonides and their acceptance and/or fury at the discovery is described in a satisfying long examination of how the love of money can damage relationships. At a time when money was, generally, scarce, having such a large windfall whipped away from under your nose would be – shall we say – a trying experience. Manners are also becoming a thing of the past; the episode of The Brains Trust that Josephine listened to, concluded that “nobody’s a lady nowadays […] the said it was ob-so-lete.”

Classic denouement: No, but it’s a uniquely exciting ending, involving a car crash and the surprise revelation of exactly what’s gone on by reading a couple of written testaments that had been prepared a long time in advance.

Happy ending? Apart from the fact that the family suffers a surprise bereavement at the end, it’s a relatively happy ending in that a planned wedding can go ahead, and there’s a definite Happy Ever After sense to the last page.

Did the story ring true? It is, perhaps, a little surprising that a written confession hadn’t been discovered by some police search; but, that aside, the murderer’s M.O. seems perfectly reasonable and this isn’t one of Christie’s stories that is riddled with unlikely coincidences.

Overall satisfaction rating: Along with other popular opinion, I can see no reason not to award this book the coveted 10/10!

Three Blind MiceThanks for reading my blog of Crooked House and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment in the space below. Next up in the Agatha Christie Challenge is an oddity. I’ve been working through Christie’s oeuvre in the order in which it was published in the UK. But there was one short story that was published in the US in 1950 that was never published in the UK during Christie’s lifetime. In many ways it is one of her more significant stories, and I think now is the time to include it in this assessment of her works. It’s Three Blind Mice, which became the source for the ultra-successful play The Mousetrap. The other short stories in the collection were all printed later in the UK, so I’ll ignore the rest of them for the moment, but just concentrate on that one famous story. As usual, I’ll blog my thoughts about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!

The Agatha Christie Challenge – Taken at the Flood (1948)

Taken at the FloodIn which young widow 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? Will this cause Rosaleen and her brother David to be blackmailed? And will there be murders for Hercule Poirot to solve? As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I promise not to tell you whodunit!

Brutus - sculptureThe book bears no dedication, but it does begin with an epigraph: “There is a tide in the affairs of men, Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune; Omitted, all the voyage of their life Is bound in shallows and in miseries. On such a full sea are we now afloat, And we must take the current when it serves, Or lose our ventures.” This is a quotation from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, a line spoken by Brutus as a justification for his complicity in betrayal and plotting. Unlike most of Christie’s other books to date, Taken at the Flood was not serialised in either the UK or the US before its publication in novel format. It was first published in the US by Dodd, Mead & Co in March 1948 under the title There is a Tide, and in the UK in November of that year by Collins Crime Club, as Taken at the Flood.

Radio 4 Book at BedtimeI remember hearing a BBC radio adaptation of this book as “Book at Bedtime” on Radio 4, way back in the 1970s; I recorded it onto cassette so that I could listen to it at a more “awake” time. Oddly, although I could remember some of the character names, I couldn’t recall anything about the story and certainly not whodunit. And when I started to re-read this book, I found it strangely confusing. There are several sets of Mr and Mrs Cloade, and after a while they start to become hard to differentiate in your head. Christie also uses the convention of calling the married women both by their formal names (i.e. Mrs Lionel Cloade) and by their own names (Katherine Cloade) and by their family names (Aunt Kathie) – in that example, all three names are used to describe the same woman. If you’re not paying attention you can get horribly lost.

Wade through mudBut I don’t think it’s only the names that confuse. I never really felt that Christie provided a strong, identifiable description of many of the main characters, so that many of the introductory chapters feel ploddy, wading though mud, almost. It took me many attempts to keep reading. After about sixty pages, the mood and the style cheer up and suddenly the book becomes interesting. But it’s a distinctly slow start.

PoirotDisappointingly, although we continue our acquaintance with Hercule Poirot that we have maintained over the last few books, we really learn absolutely nothing new about him in this book. All his attributes and quirks have been seen before, so, character-wise, we’re very much treading water in this book. Similarly, we also meet Superintendent Spence for the first time, and I’m afraid he’s not very interesting, just a workaday character designed to ask questions to keep the plot ticking over rather than sparkling. We’ll meet him again in Mrs McGinty’s Dead – and I hope he’s more inspirational there! Fortunately, when it gets going, the story itself is very intricate and enjoyable, so it’s worth sticking with it.

blitzUnusually, Christie is very precise with her time-setting for this book. The opening scene, where Poirot overhears an old duffer reminisce in his gentlemen’s club, is specifically set in Autumn 1944; the rest of the book takes place in late Spring, 1946. The first part of the story recalls an episode that happened during an air-raid over London. The innocent deaths of an entire family wiped out in the Blitz was a matter of recent memory for Christie’s readers; an easily relatable tragedy that many people with which many people would be familiar.

WrensThe remainder takes place in the aftermath of the War. It’s an atmosphere of discontent; the initial relief and happiness that the War is over is now long gone, and the realities of life are sinking in. Lynn, the late Gordon Cloade’s niece, who has returned to London after being a Wren on active service, notes that hate is everywhere. “I’ve noticed it ever since I got home. It’s the aftermath war has left. Ill will. Ill feeling. It’s everywhere. On railways and buses and in shops and amongst workers and clerks and even agricultural labourers. An I suppose in mines and factories. Ill will.” In a later conversation with will-she won’t-she fiancé Rowley Cloade, she explains her absence through the daily routines everyone must now endure. “It’s all the chores – you know. Running round with a basket, waiting for fish and queueing up for a bit of quite disgusting cake.” David Hunter is a prime example of a type of character who might be well recognised by the first readers of this book – a further look at his character will follow later in this blog.

Campden HillAs usual, there are a few references to check out. Firstly, let’s look at the locations, to see how real or imaginary they are. The book opens with a scene at the Coronation Club, where Major Porter is the “club bore”. “Coronation Club” is actually a very common name for clubs of all sorts, all around the English-speaking world; but there is no such gentleman’s club in London. The air-raid on the Cloade house took place at Campden Hill, which is a real address in Holland Park, London; and Rosaleen and David’s London flat is found at Shepherds Court, Mayfair which is very nearly a real address too (there’s Shepherd Court and Shepherd Market). The rest of the story takes place at the “small old-world village” of Warmsley Vale. Despite the details of its being three miles from the golf course and 28 miles from London, there is no such village, nor, of course, is there an Oastshire – although I guess we may presume that’s Kent.

Enoch ArdenAs for the other references, I remembered the character Enoch Arden from my school days; when I heard that radio adaptation as a teenager, we had been studying Tennyson, so it clicked in my brain. Enoch Arden is the hero of Tennyson’s eponymous poem; a man who was shipwrecked for ten years but escapes home only to find that his wife has happily remarried, and he never reveals his identity to her. It’s a very appropriate nom-de-plume for the returning Underhay (Rosaleen’s first husband – if that is indeed who he is). Frances Cloade recollects that Jeremy had “all those Stanley Weymans in his bedroom”. I’d never heard of Weyman – in fact he was a very successful writer of romance novels during the late Victorian/Edwardian era. He died in 1928.

Christina RossettiThere are a couple of quotations that I thought I should investigate. When Lynn is considering whether she still loves Rowley, a line of poetry comes to mind: “Life and the world and mine own self are changed”.  This is from Christina Rossetti’s poem, Mirage, published in 1879. And Rowley quotes: “Just the man she left behind her”; however, I can find no link to what this may have been taken from. It sounds like an old Music Hall song to me. Any ideas, gentle reader?

PoundI’m sure you remember that I like to research the present-day value of any significant sums of money mentioned in Christie’s books, just to get a more realistic feel for the amounts in question. Money is an important theme in this book. We quickly learn that Gordon Cloade’s fortune amassed to more than £1 million. Taking the date for this estimate as 1944 – which is when Christie stipulates the first part of the story took place – that would be a current value of over £31 million, which sure is some inheritance. Adela Marchmont asks Rosaleen for £500 to help her out of some domestic difficulties – that’s about £15,000 at today’s rates. When Frances Cloade asks for a gift of £10,000, she gets short shrift back from David. Not surprisingly really, as that sum is worth almost £300,000 today.

Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for Taken at the Flood:

Publication Details: 1948.  Fontana paperback, 6th impression, published in March 1973, price 30p.  The vivid cover illustration by Tom Adams depicts a house bombed during the war, with the redness of fire permeating the whole design. There’s also a luscious pair of lips having red lipstick applied to them, and I’ve got no idea where that fits into the story!

How many pages until the first death: 81. One of the reasons the book seems slow and ponderous to start is that there’s no death to investigate. However, to be fair to Christie, she does make up for it later in the book with more deaths and clever plotting. Nothing is quite what it seems in this book.

Funny lines out of context: Christie recounts how Frances Cloade, as a child, had played with a visiting bailiff, which must have been awkward: “She had found the bum in question very agreeable to play with.”

Memorable characters:

For me, the Cloade family members are rather indistinguishable, apart from the Madame Arcati-like Katherine, and the country bumpkin-like Rowley. By far the most interesting character is David Hunter, who scrounges off his sister’s inheritance, and exudes arrogance wherever he goes. Superintendent Spence says he knows Hunter’s type. “It’s a type that’s done well during the war. Any amount of physical courage. Audacity and a reckless disregard of personal safety. The sort that will face any odds. It’s the kind that is likely to win the V.C. – though, mind you, it’s often a posthumous one. Yes, in wartime, a man like that is a hero. But in peace – well, in peace such men usually end up in prison. They like excitement and they can’t run straight, and they don’t give a damn for society – and finally they’ve no regard for human life.”

Christie the Poison expert:

Only one of the deaths in the book involves poison; one of the characters dies through morphine administration, called Morphia in the book. But Christie doesn’t go into any great detail on the subject.

Class/social issues of the time:

Unusually, there’s only issue I can identify – but it features in a big way – and that’s xenophobia and mistrust of foreigners. When Major Porter looks up from his reminiscences and sees the very exotic appearance of Hercule Poirot in front of him, his first thought is “foreign, of course. That explained the shoes. “Really,” thought Major Porter, “what’s the club coming to? Can’t get away from foreigners even here.””

But there’s worse to come. Christie needed a witness character for a scene later in the book and she created the redoubtable and absolutely horrible Mrs Leadbetter. ““You’re a foreigner”, she says to Poirot. “Yes,” replied Hercule Poirot. “In my opinion,” said the old lady, “you should all Go Back.” “Go back where?” inquired Poirot. “To where you came from,” said the old lady firmly. She added as a kind of rider, sotto voce: “Foreigners!” and snorted.” She’s a typical racist. She goes on to say that “that’s what we fought the war for” – how many times have you heard that old chestnut?

Later she goes on to criticise what she sees as the governmental error of “sending the mothers to work in factories. Only let ‘em off if they’ve got young children. Young children, stuff and nonsense! Anyone can look after a baby! A baby doesn’t go running round after soldiers. Girls from fourteen to eighteen, they’re the ones that need looking after!” Mrs Leadbetter clearly doesn’t have much time for the young women of her era. It gets worse; and I apologise for the use of language but when you see it written down it really does stress how out of place her words are. “It takes a mother to know just what a girl is up to. Soldiers! Airmen! That’s all they think about. Americans! Niggers! Polish riff-raff!” Sadly, the impression I got from reading this is that it’s meant to be almost an amusing interlude act, and that Mrs Leadbetter is a figure of fun for her outdated opinions. There’s nothing remotely amusing about the character, and I think the episode sours my entire interpretation of the book.

Classic denouement:  No. It’s another of these unusual denouements that creep up on you unexpectedly, where Poirot arrives just in time to prevent a murder taking place, and we discover the all the ins and outs after we know the identity of the murderer and not before – which I think is always a little disappointing. However, as I indicated earlier, the actual plotting and planning of the crime is very cleverly done, so a “classic” denouement probably wouldn’t have fitted the story as well as this surprise denouement. Whether you feel justice is seen to be done is very much up to the reader’s conscience when you realise exactly what had happened.

Happy ending? Not exactly. There may be happiness ahead for one couple – it depends on the outcome of the trial.

Did the story ring true? A side issue of the fact that this is a complicated plot is that there is one particular element that I consider to be too far-fetched to be possible. So although the background of the story is highly believable, the actual minutiae of some elements of the crime don’t hang together sufficiently for me to believe them.

Overall satisfaction rating: It’s a clever, inventive story; but slow to start, with an unbelievable element, some very unpleasant racism and a not entirely satisfactory ending. I don’t think I can give it more than 7/10.

Crooked HouseThanks for reading my blog of Taken at the Flood and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment in the space below. Next up in the Agatha Christie Challenge is Crooked House, which I remember reading on the lawn at school when I was about 12. One of Christie’s shock solutions – I instantly remember the identity of the murderer – so it will be interesting to re-read and see if everything hangs true. As usual, I’ll blog my thoughts about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!

The Agatha Christie Challenge – The Labours of Hercules (1947)

The Labours of HerculesIn which 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. Each case is written as a short story, preceded by a foreword which explains how Burton gave Poirot the idea.

The book is dedicated “to Edmund Cork of whose labours on behalf of Hercule Poirot I am deeply appreciative this book is affectionately dedicated”. Cork was Christie’s literary agent, “a young man with a slight stammer” as she described him in her autobiography, and someone who became a lifelong friend. All the stories had been previously published in the UK in the Strand Magazine in 1939 and 1940, with the exception of The Capture of Cerberus which was rejected by the magazine and was not published as part of the series. In the US, they were all published between 1939 and 1947 in either This Week magazine or Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. The collection was first published in the format The Labours of Hercules in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company in 1947 and the UK, by Collins Crime Club, in November of that year.

As with Poirot Investigates and The Listerdale Mystery, even though they’re just bite-sized stories, they still contain many of Christie’s usual themes and idiosyncrasies. I’m going to take them one by one and look at each one separately – and, as usual, don’t worry, I won’t reveal the intricacies of whodunit!

The brief, scene-setting foreword reveals Poirot entertaining his friend Dr Burton, Fellow of All Souls, chatting over a glass of Chateau Mouton Rothschild, relaxing in Poirot’s chromium, modernistic furnishings. Burton quizzes Poirot over his unusual first name – and indeed, recollects that Poirot has a brother, Achille, whom we encountered in The Big Four. Burton takes Poirot to task for never having read the Classics, and while Poirot appears to look forward to a retirement cultivating vegetable marrows (“magnificent vegetables – but they lack flavour”), secretly his curiosity is piqued. So he instructs his trusted secretary Miss Lemon to amass as much information about Hercules as possible. Disappointed to discover that Hercules is, for the most part, an unsophisticated brute, he nevertheless decides to seek out twelve cases to be his retirement swansong – and we await the arrival of the first case.

Although only six pages, this is a very entertainingly written introduction to the rest of the book, with some excellent insights into Poirot’s character, and some vague connections to other books. Long ago, in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, we read that Poirot was to retire to cultivate vegetable marrows. It looks as though he still hasn’t got around to starting that yet. In Christie’s previous book, The Hollow, we saw Poirot weekending in a country cottage – whilst still presumably having his flat up in town – and the modern description of his urban surroundings still makes it sound as though his country pursuits aren’t really suitable to his personality. We will see in the first story, The Nemean Lion, how Poirot enjoys both the warmth and the design of his “electric radiator”. There’s progress for you.

We also become reacquainted with Miss Lemon, last seen in Parker Pyne Investigates, as a secretary, “a forbidding-looking young woman with spectacles”. Whilst she had appeared in a 1935 short story, How Does Your Garden Grow, that did not appear in book format in the UK until 1974’s Poirot’s Early Cases. But more of her in the first of these cases shortly.

A couple of brief references to start with: Burton waxes lyrical with his classical quotation: “by skill again, the pilot on the wine-dark sea straightens the swift ship buffeted by the winds”. This comes from Book 2 of Homer’s Odyssey. And Poirot refers to the case of Adolphe Durand, a butcher, tried at Lyon in 1895, “a creature of ox-like strength who had killed several children.” Convincing though M. Durand is, I think this is one of Christie’s mischievous inventions.

The Nemean Lion

The Nemean LionThis first story was originally published in the November 1939 issue of the Strand Magazine in the UK and in September 1944’s edition of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine in the US, under the title, The Case of the Kidnapped Pekinese. It’s a smart little tale, deftly told, of Pekinese dogs being stolen from posh ladies – or rather from their walkers – whilst in the park, and then a heavy ransom being demanded for their return. Christie, being Christie, can’t resist a few of her usual themes, although the direction she’s taking might not quite be what you would expect.

For instance, and unusually, there’s an element of true socialism – communism almost – in the motive for the crimes and, even more unusually, Christie, speaking through the voice of Poirot, is sympathetic to the cause. Although “justice isn’t seen to be done” in this case, a natural kind of justice does take place. Nevertheless, Christie is complicit in siding with the men in the battle of the sexes that takes place with the use of language in this story. “You can’t expect a woman to behave with any sense” avers Sir Joseph, and Poirot doesn’t contradict him. “I know I’ve only got a woman’s brain” says Miss Carnaby, and she means it. Christie belittles the character of Mrs Samuelson by having her declare “men think of nothing but money”, whilst admiring her own bracelet and rings. Fortunately, Miss Lemon is there to redress the balance. When she suggests the case of the missing Pekinese to Poirot as a suitable case for his attention, he assumes the worst: “Poirot was shaken; shaken and embittered. Miss Lemon, the efficient Miss Lemon, had let him down! […] Words trembled on his lips – witty caustic words […]” But after some thought, and some reflection, he reassesses her behaviour: “as usual, Miss Lemon had been right.”

There’s a very unfortunate note of racism in one scene, when a character remarks how some dogs look like each other: “You see, to most people, one Pekinese is very much like another. (Just as we think the Chinese are.)” Oh, no, Mrs Christie, you don’t want to be thinking that.

There are a few London addresses mentioned: Bloomsbury Road Square, Clonmel Gardens, and Rosholm Mansions; all very believable, but none of them exist in real life. Reference is also made to the village of Kellington in Essex; there is a Kellington, but it’s in Yorkshire. There are also a couple of sums mentioned – £200 and £300, being two of the ransom demands made for the return of the Pekinese dogs. Given that the story was first published in 1939, that would be an equivalent of £9100 or £13,700 today. No wonder Mr Samuelson was annoyed.

There’s also a suggestion of poisoning – although I won’t spoil it for you by elaborating further. A gentle, but intriguing start to the Labours.

The Lernean Hydra

The Lernean HydraAn enjoyable little story, originally published in the December 1939 issue of the Strand Magazine in the UK and in the 3rd September 1939 edition of This Week Magazine in the US, under the title, Invisible Enemy. Rumour has it that Dr Oldfield poisoned his wife, which he strenuously denies, although it’s true that there is a romantic frisson between him and his assistant Jean. It goes without saying that it doesn’t take Poirot long to ferret out the truth of the matter.

The story takes place in the wholly believable but entirely made up town of Market Loughborough in Berkshire. We also discover that the town of Darnington is a bus ride away, and that there’s a Woolworths store there. There’s no such place of course, and, sadly, no more Woolworths stores nowadays.

Christie’s interest in poison comes to the fore in this story with the suspicion that Mrs Oldfield died by arsenic, the symptoms of gastric inflammation and arsenical poisoning being – apparently – similar. The character of Jean appears to know a lot about “vegetable alkaloid” poisons, but then again, she is a medical dispenser, which may also be cause for suspicion.

The real world does cross over into this story, with references to Crippen, Le Neve and Armstrong; Crippen, of course, murdered his wife, Ethel le Neve was his mistress; Herbert Rowse Armstrong was the only solicitor ever to have been hanged in Great Britain, for the murder of his wife.

There’s a minor xenophobic remark, when Poirot is called “an exotic little foreigner” – almost a compliment by Christie’s terms – and the sum of £30,000 is mentioned, being the amount that Mrs Oldfield left her husband in her will. That’s a whopping £1.3m in today’s money.

One unintentionally funny line: When Poirot asks Jean if she intends to marry Oldfield, she says he hasn’t asked her – “because I’ve choked him off”. Urban Dictionary attributes a meaning to that phrase that I’m sure Christie never intended.

The Arcadian Deer

The Arcadian DeerThis short and sweet little story was originally published in the January 1940 issue of the Strand Magazine, and in the US in the 19th May 1940 edition of This Week Magazine, under the title Vanishing Lady. Whilst his car is being repaired, Poirot meets the mechanic, Ted Williamson, and is struck by his handsomeness – a Greek God indeed. Knowing Poirot’s fame, Williamson asks him to trace a lady – she was a maid attending on a Russian ballerina staying at a local house – with whom he had instantly fallen in love. But she didn’t keep their second assignation and appears to have gone to ground.

In a heart-warming mission of mercy, Poirot visits many addresses and questions many possible witnesses, including in London, Switzerland and Pisa. Eventually he comes to the truth of the matter; it’s an open-ended affair, but a rather sweet and poignant denouement. It’s a nicely written short story, with plenty of brief, pithy chapters which help Poirot’s chasing down of Nita to gain pace; and at one stage you think it’s actually going to have a very sad ending, whereas, in fact, the opposite is the case.

I don’t know if Poirot was going through some kind of middle-age sexuality crisis, but he appears to be totally besotted with young Ted. “Here, he thought, was one of the handsomest specimens of humanity he had ever seen, a simple young man with the outward semblance of a Greek god […] the young man plunged eagerly into technical details. Poirot nodded his head gently, but he was not listening. Perfect physique was a thing he admired greatly.” He imagines Ted as a “young shepherd in Arcady” – in other words, Arcadia, the ancient district in the Peloponnese.

Other reference points in the story include the village of Hartly Dene, where Poirot’s Messarro Gratz had given up the ghost; both village and car are inventions of Christie. Nita’s last known address was 17 Upper Renfrew Lane, N15, and the ballerina, Madame Samoushenka, now lives in Vagray les Alpes, in Switzerland. Again, both are completely fictitious; although the dancer says her maid was from Pisa, which of course does exist.

There’s a moment of near-xenophobia when the woman who lives at Upper Renfrew Lane can only remember the dancer’s name as Madame Semolina, and describes her as “real Eyetalian”. And there’s one significant sum mentioned in the book – £5 (or maybe even £10) – that’s the amount that Ted is prepared to pay Poirot for his assistance. I rather doubt that Poirot would stoop so low as to ask for such lowly payment – between £200-£400 at today’s value.

The Erymanthian Boar

The Erymanthian BoarThis cunning and clever short story was originally published in the February 1940 issue of the Strand Magazine, and in the US in the 5th May 1940 edition of This Week Magazine, under the title Murder Mountain. Poirot has moved on to the Swiss Alps for a little sightseeing when he is contacted by the local Commissaire of Police to help track down a Parisian gangster, Marrascaud, who has holed himself up in an exclusive and remote mountain resort. There are a few shady characters up there, any one of which could be the criminal at large. By careful deduction Poirot identifies the miscreant who is satisfactorily brought to book.

With a nod to wartime sentiments, the story features a suspicious Jewish doctor who was turfed out of Austria by the Nazis, and there is an American tourist, also with a German name, who might be the target of a wartime reader’s xenophobic concerns. The locations of the story are largely real; Schwartz has visited Paris and has seen all the genuine sights; Poirot has visited Chamonix, Montreux and Aldermatt, all of which exist. As the story takes us higher in the Alps, Poirot travels through Les Avines, Caurouchet and finally Rochers Neiges, where the bulk of the action takes place. These places don’t exist, although there is Rochers-de-Naye, which is almost certainly the inspiration.

Christie refers to the Bertillon photograph of the suspect, which is a term we have heard before in The Murder on the Links; Alphonse Bertillon (1853-1914) was the French criminologist who invented the system of identification of criminals by anthropometric measurements, fingerprints, and so on. Poirot manages to contact the Swiss Police by using a heliograph – which was something we came across in And Then There Were None; it’s a form of morse code.

There’s one of those unintentionally funny moments when Christie’s turn of phrase hasn’t kept up with semantic change: “Schwartz ejaculated: “Marrascaud!””

Nothing much more to be said; a successful little tale that keeps its secret beautifully until the final pages.

The Augean Stables

The Augean StablesThis story was originally published in the March 1940 issue of the Strand Magazine, but there was no US magazine publication until the complete collection was published in 1947. From a really good story to a rather silly one! Poirot is asked for help by none other than the Prime Minister, whose father-in-law, the previous Prime Minister, is about to be revealed as a cheat and a scoundrel by a nasty daily rag. Rumours start about the Prime Minister’s wife, but to what extent are the stories true and who’s manipulating who?

The story starts with a lot of unnecessary and dull detail about the characters which doesn’t really add to our understanding of the situation. There is some talk of the People’s Party, which is clearly an invention of Christie’s, and some unsubtle references to a Herculean task and the Augean Stables, which admittedly is what decides Poirot to take the case but it does come across as very heavy-handed. The repeated phrase “People were talking” introduces some short staccato chapters but it all feels very clumsily written to me.

The village of Little Wimplington, unsurprisingly, doesn’t exist (such a far-fetched name!) and there’s also some latent racism with the use of the phrase, “Dago skunks”.

There’s one financial value mentioned, that of £500, which is the amount paid to Thelma Anderson for her work. That’s the best part of £20,000. No wonder she took the job.

I found this story rather boring, totally predictable and an hour I’ll never get back!

The Stymphalean Birds

The Stymphalian BirdsLet’s hope for better luck with this one. The Stymphalean Birds (sic, as printed in my copy, although it’s usually spelled Stymphalian) was originally published in the April 1940 issue of the Strand Magazine, and in the US in the 17th September 1939 edition of This Week Magazine, under the title The Vulture Women. Under-secretary of state Harold Waring is holidaying in Herzoslovakia, Christie’s made up all-purpose Eastern European state that represents all things non-English (and, by implication, uncivilised), where he encounters mother and daughter Mrs Rice and Elsie Clayton. Elsie is in an abusive relationship with a dreadful husband and Harold begins to feel the urge to protect her. Clayton bursts in on Elsie and Harold having an innocent conversation but suspects the worst. Elsie throws a paperweight at him – and kills him. Scandal! What will this do to Harold’s career? And all along, two ugly, mean-looking Polish sisters are moping around the resort, eavesdropping and preparing to blackmail Harold and Elsie. But all is not as it seems, and Poirot quickly sorts the wheat from the chaff and the villains are brought to justice.

It’s an enjoyable story despite a) being incredibly far-fetched and b) immured in racism. All the way through the Polish ladies are the source of suspicion and dislike, simply because of their looks, their lack of English, and their general foreign-ness. Anything English is good, anything foreign is bad. When the Polish sisters first arrive on the scene, Harold notes “I may be fanciful, but I distinctly felt that there was something evil about them […]” “We’ll find out from the concierge who they are. Not English, I presume?” “Oh no.” When the characters talk of the corruption of the officials of Herzoslovakia, and the amount that has had to be paid to the police to shut them up, Harold says, “”Thank God our police force isn’t like that”. And in a British and superior mood he went down to lunch.” “This isn’t England”, says Mrs Rice. “We’re not in England, worse luck” says Harold. It’s incredibly xenophobic.

It’s also not very forward-thinking when it comes to sexual equality. “Two women living alone are not the best judges of a man’s character,” avows Mrs Rice, and Harold agrees. But it’s rather delightfully old-fashioned in its belief that a simple scandal like the one that Harold unwittingly finds himself immersed would be enough to put an end to a political career. How times have changed!!

It’s a very moral tale; one that I quite easily saw through, primarily because Christie lays the xenophobia on so heavily that it must be a decoy! Enjoyable, despite everything.

The Cretan Bull

The Cretan BullThis curious short story was originally published in the May 1940 issue of the Strand Magazine, and in the US in the 24th September 1939 edition of This Week Magazine, under the title Midnight Madness. Diana Maberly contacts Poirot alarmed that her fiancé Hugh Chandler has broken off their engagement because he is going mad. She’s not convinced of his madness at all, but there are some strange events taking place, like Chandler waking up in the morning covered with blood and overnight someone has attacked and killed livestock, or a cat, and so on. But is there some other evil at large here? Trust Poirot to get to the truth.

Christie seems to have a problem with some of her phraseology here; the phrase “do better to keep his mouth shut” is repeated within a couple of pages and it feels clumsy and poorly thought through. Elsewhere, Poirot is once again impressed by a man’s “magnificent physique” (see The Arcadian Deer above – is he on the turn?) This story doesn’t have much time for the medical profession; Admiral Chandler describes doctors as “humbug merchants” and Poirot himself says “I am not an alienist” (an early term for a psychiatrist). Hugh Chandler mocks Poirot with the quote “Canst thou then minister to a mind diseased?”, which is Macbeth’s plea to the doctor to help his, now insane, wife.

However, Christie the poison expert does come to the fore; Colonel Frobisher mentions a common practice from his Indian days, datura poisoning. Datura is the Latin name for the devil’s trumpet plant, strongly poisonous especially in their seeds and flowers which can cause respiratory depression, arrhythmias, hallucinations, psychosis, and sometimes death. Datura were used to source atropine sulphate which was used for eye treatments. This was fairly specialised knowledge, I suspect!

An interesting story – again, though, brought down by its extremely far-fetched nature. Although you can appreciate the solution, it’s very hard to imagine how this crime worked in practice.

The Horses of Diomedes

The Horses of DiomedesThe Horses of Diomedes was originally published in the June 1940 issue of the Strand Magazine, and in the US, much later, in the January 1945 edition of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, under the title The Case of the Drug Peddler. A young friend of Poirot, Dr Michael Stoddart, is concerned about cocaine taking by a group of people including someone with whom he has amorous intentions, Sheila Grant. Is there anything he can do to help? Well, there is actually – and in doing so, he identifies and brings to justice a drugs ring.

“Drugs ruin people”, says Dr Stoddart, “body and soul. Drink’s a gentle little picnic compared to drugs.” Far be it from me to disagree with the wise doctor, but of all the works of Christie that I have read this is probably the one that has dated the worst. The notion today that a case could be brought about someone coercing someone else to take cocaine is almost sweet in its naivete. How times change. Even so, I still found this a most unlikely and unsatisfactory story.

The story is set in fictional Mertonshire, which had previously housed Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, nicely described thus: “it is practically impossible to live in Mertonshire unless you have an income that runs into four figures, and what with income-tax and one thing and another, five figures is better. At today’s rate, £1000 is the equivalent of £39,000; a five figure sum starts at £390,000. I think we understand Christie’s drift. Two other sum comparators in this story are the £10 that the homeless victim accepted as a bribe – that’s (obviously) £390 in today’s equivalent, and the £50, which is the sum that Mrs Larkin encashed for herself at the bank, which today would be just short of £2000.

The site of the wild parties is 17 Conningby Mews, which, of course, doesn’t exist. There’s a reference to the Brighton Trunk Murders; these took place in 1934 and remained unsolved until the culprit, Tony Mancini, confessed in 1976.

I did enjoy a brief passage, where General Grant describes living in the country: “I liked the country when it was the country – not all this motoring and jazz and that blasted, eternal radio.”

But all in all, this is a very poor effort from Christie.

The Girdle of Hyppolita

The Girdle of HyppolitaAnd this one’s not a lot better! It was originally published in the July 1940 issue of the Strand Magazine, and in the US in the 10th September 1939 edition of This Week Magazine, under the title The Disappearance of Winnie King. The case of a missing schoolgirl and the case of a stolen Rubens come together in this slight, far-fetched, underwhelming and instantly forgettable story. Poirot solves the case, but I can’t help but think he’s boxing below his weight with these tales. It’s unfortunate that he is so attached to his project to complete his own version of the twelve labours of Hercules that it means he has to solve such silly cases, just because they fit in with the title.

The story is written from a very snobbish perspective; with one of the characters referring to “those miserable idiots of unemployed” who had been “pursuing their tactics of lying down on street crossings”. It’s enough to coax the socialist out of anyone! Even Poirot comes out with halfwit statements like “women […] are a miraculous sex” as he considers how ugly ducklings turn into beautiful swans.

The schoolgirl Winnie comes from Cranchester, which doesn’t exist, but really sounds like it ought. Miss Pope’s establishment is in Neuilly, which certainly does exist – a western suburb of Paris.

At least we get the chance to meet Inspector Japp again, which adds a touch of life to this otherwise dull tale.

The Flock of Geryon

The Flock of GeryonThis short story was originally published in the August 1940 issue of the Strand Magazine, and in the US in the 26th May 1940 edition of This Week Magazine, under the title Weird Monster. It’s hello again to Miss Carnaby, whom we met in The Nemean Lion earlier in this book. She is concerned that a friend has been subsumed in some kind of religious sect, as she has willed all her possessions to the cult and previous women who have done that have ended up dead. After some negotiations with Inspector Japp, Miss Carnaby infiltrates the cult. Is she in danger? Will its leader, Andersen, be brought to book? Have a guess.

Not really a whodunit but certainly with elements of thriller, this isn’t a bad story by any means. Christie clearly likes Miss Carnaby, and admires her powers of dissimulation; Poirot describes her as “a woman of great courage and determination […] good histrionic powers” and she shows a lot of spirit and wit in her assistance in this case. She also gives us an amusing insight into anything other than pure English Protestantism: “though I do not approve of Roman Catholics, they are at least recognised”; xenophobia through religion, fascinating! I’m surprised that she never returns in any of Christie’s other works.

Christie the Poison Expert becomes Christie the Spliff Expert with her references to Cannabis Indica, hashish and blang, which seems to have gone completely out of the language relating to this meaning; maybe she was on something when she wrote it.

Newton Woodbury sounds a most pleasant little place; it doesn’t exist, but it really should.

The Apples of The Hesperides

The Apples of The HesperidesThis short story was originally published in the September 1940 issue of the Strand Magazine, and in the US in the 12th May 1940 edition of This Week Magazine, under the title The Poison Cup. Poirot is contacted by Emery Power, a rich antiques collector, trying to find a gold goblet that he had won at auction but which was instantly stolen and never returned. Poirot follows up all the leads in the case and eventually his investigations take him to a convent on the west coast of Ireland…

Rather a moral tale this, not bad, not riveting, but definitely hokey. I like how Christie portrays Poirot so out of place in Ireland, wearing his totally inappropriate patent leather shoes, observing that the Romans had never built a decent road; thinking of it as “a land where common sense and an orderly way of life were unknown.” There’s a little bit of latent racism from Inspector Wagstaffe, who refers to the Italian police as the “Macaronis”; he definitely deserves to be referred to as a rostbif.

Power paid £30,000 for the goblet; that’s almost £1.2 million at today’s value. No wonder he’s keen for it to be returned. Other references in the tale are a story called the “Bust of Napoleon”, which appears to be of Christie’s own invention; Hercules Bicycles, which was a successful bicycle manufacturer in the UK, launched in 1910 but sold to Raleigh in 1960, and now defunct (although the brand lives on in India); and a quote from a song: “The Apple Tree, the Singing and the Gold…” which is from Euripides’ Hippolytus. Poirot has a very eclectic musical taste.

A horse called Hercules wins the Boynan Stakes at 60-1. Now that’s a coincidence.

The Capture of Cerberus

The Capture of CerberusThis final story was first published in the US in the 16th March 1947 edition of This Week Magazine, seven years after most of the others, under the title Meet Me in Hell. It was rejected by the Strand Magazine – which must have been a bold editorial step on their part – because it was too involved in the politics of its time… read on…

Poirot encounters his beloved Countess Vera Rossakoff on the London Underground who invites him to meet her in Hell – which, as the reliable Miss Lemon points out – is a fashionable new nightclub in town. There he meets Vera’s daughter-in-law-to-be, Alice Cunningham, who’s writing a book about criminal psychology, and using the club members as her subject matter. The police, however, know the place as a front for a drugs ring. Can Poirot sort out the good guys from the bad ones, and which side is the Countess on?

This is one of the more entertaining stories in this volume, nicely written and full of lively characterisations. It’s enjoyable for us to watch Poirot become reacquainted with Vera Rossakoff, the only woman he has truly loved. “It is the misfortune of small precise men to hanker after large and flamboyant women”, maintains Christie, cheekily, in this story. Poirot last saw Vera in The Big Four, although his first encounter with her was in the short story The Double Clue, which we didn’t get to read in the UK until the appearance of Poirot’s Early Cases in 1974. Christie clearly loves writing about her, revelling in her sultry appearance, over-emphasising her Russian-ness.

So why was it rejected, on political grounds, by The Strand? Not, surely, because of the amusing observation that “nobody minds a Tory politician spending his own money – but when it’s a Labour man the public feel it’s their money he’s spending” – quite a shrewd observation, in fact. No – the original story, which only came to light when Christie’s secret notebooks were first examined a little over ten years ago, was set in Switzerland and involved the assassination of one August Hertzlein, a thinly disguised characterisation of Hitler. Remember this was 1940!

Other interesting observations include Christie’s description of Miss Lemon as “unbelievably ugly”. That’s not very nice, is it? Poirot observes at length the dowdiness of women on the Underground, and their predilection for knitting; times have changed. Corduroy wearers at the nightclub are described as “Bohemian”; and there’s reference to Peverel, the Battersea murderer, but this is not a real-life case.

Poirot spends the grand sum of £11 8/6 on flowers for the Countess; that’s £447 in today’s money. That’s one helluva bouquet.

Is it just me, or is there something outrageously naughty about the Countess’s description of discovering the emeralds? “I feel through the velvet something hard inside. I slip my hand in, I find what I know by touch to be jewels”. Oh, matron!

And that concludes, at length, (sorry about that) all twelve stories in The Labours of Hercules. At times that was fun, at others incredibly stodgy and unrewarding, not to mention laborious; and, overall, I couldn’t score this book more than 6/10. If you’ve been reading this book as well, I’d love to know your thoughts, please just write something in the comments box.

Taken at the FloodNext up in the Agatha Christie challenge is a book I remember being serialised on BBC Radio when I was about 16, Taken at the Flood, and I’m very much looking forward to re-reading it. If you’d like to read it too, we can compare notes when I give you my thoughts on it in a few weeks’ time. In the meanwhile, happy sleuthing and keep on Christie-ing!

The Agatha Christie Challenge – The Hollow (1946)

The HollowIn which devoted doctor 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. It takes Hercule Poirot, retired Belgian detective, to have the brains to sort the wheat from the chaff and identify the real murderer. As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I promise not to tell you whodunit!

Francis L SullivanThe book is dedicated “for Larry and Danae, with apologies for using their swimming pool as the scene for a murder”. Larry was better known as Francis L Sullivan, an actor who had played Hercule Poirot on the London stage in the plays Black Coffee and Peril at End House, and would go on to appear in Witness for the Prosecution on Broadway, for which he received a Tony Award. He died in 1956. The Hollow was first serialised in the US in a four-part shortened version in Collier’s Weekly in May 1946 under the title The Outraged Heart. There was no serialisation in the UK. The full book was first published in the US by Dodd, Mead & Co in 1946, and in the UK in November of that year by Collins Crime Club. A later paperback edition in the US by Dell Books in 1954 changed the title to Murder after Hours, but the book is primarily known as The Hollow in the US too.

Slow to startRe-reading this book was rather an odd experience. I found it very slow to start, and I felt little or no interest in any of the characters for several pages until the whole crime element gained traction and the story really got going. Once we’d met Poirot and he was taking an active interest in the crime alongside Inspector Grange, it became unputdownable; before then it had been the reverse! Critical opinion at the time praised this book highly, and it was largely thought to be one of Christie’s best works. However, I think much of it succeeds or fails on how endearing or otherwise you find the character of Lady Angkatell; can anyone be that daft as a brush and remain a functioning individual? Ironically, Christie herself thought she had ruined the book by including Poirot in it; my own feeling is that, on the contrary, he makes it.

SculptorStructurally, this book feels at odds with most of Christie’s output to date. It starts, with no explanatory introduction, with a relatively in-depth and confusing conversation between two characters, about whom you know nothing except their names. Christie plunges us straight into the nitty-gritty of these characters, without any background insights. The second chapter again confuses us with the account of Henrietta Savernake making a sculpture of Doris Saunders; again with no explanation as to who these characters are and why this should be happening. Knowing that Christie rarely wastes words, it’s unclear why she spent so much effort on explaining the creative process behind sculpting; and, even when you’ve finished the book, it still strikes me as unnecessary padding. True, there is an element of bookending the story – starting with an artistic creative process and ending with a complementary process, which you may consider makes a satisfying whole. But the final moments of the book are also rather weird, ending, in my humble opinion, with more than a whimper than a bang.

Pretty Country CottageThis is our first catch-up with Hercule Poirot for four years (he was last seen in 1943’s Five Little Pigs). Four years on, he’s even older (naturally) and more withdrawn from work than he was before. He has now retired to the country – for weekends at least – living at Resthaven, a neatly symmetrical little place that satisfies his need for order, with just a Belgian gardener, Victor, and his wife/cook, Françoise. You sense that Poirot decided on this move against his better judgement. There’s nothing in the English countryside, with its great variety of wildness, discomfort and lack of sophistication, that’s going to make him happy. He’d be much better off in a warm apartment in London, with all its distractions and people to stimulate his little grey cells.

PoirotNevertheless, he is delighted to receive the lunch invitation to the Angkatells because he is, as he says, “un peu snob”; he walks the long way round to their front door rather than cutting through the back shortcut because of his sense of formality and because he is a “stickler for etiquette”. The snob in Poirot is very easily flattered – even though he indeed recognises it for what it is. Consider the reasons why Henrietta comes to him, rather than Inspector Grange, to discuss the case. “”Well, M. Poirot, what does one do? Go to Inspector Grange and say – what does one say to a moustache like that? It’s such a domestic, family moustache.” Poirot’s hand crawled upwards to his own proudly borne adornment. “Whereas mine, Mademoiselle?” “Your moustache, M. Poirot, is an artistic triumph. It has no associations with anything but itself. It is, I am sure, unique.” “Absolutely.” “And it is probably the reason why I am talking to you as I am.””

private-detectiveIt’s during this conversation with Henrietta that Poirot discusses the kind of clues that he is interested in – always a good insight into his modus operandi. Poirot speaks first: “”That is one of Inspector Grange’s men. He seems to be looking for something.” “Clues, I suppose. Don’t policemen look for clues? Cigarette ash, footprints, burnt matches.” Her voice held a kind of bitter mockery. Poirot answered seriously. “Yes, they look for these things – and sometimes they find them. But the real clues, Miss Savernake, in a case like this, usually lie in the personal relationships of the people concerned.” “I don’t think I understand you.” “Little things,” said Poirot, his head thrown back, his eyes half-closed. “Not cigarette ash, or a rubber heel mark – but a gesture, a look, an unexpected action…” And with that he verbally pounces on Henrietta with a challenging and difficult question.

Down drooping moustacheAs mentioned earlier, in this book we meet Inspector Grange, a stalwart from the Wealdshire Police Force, “a large, heavily built man, with a down-drooping, pessimistic moustache”. He speaks, “without excitement, just with knowledge and quiet pessimism”. He doesn’t have time for his Chief Constable, whom he believes to be a “fussy despot”. Grange is efficient, well-meaning, courteous to Poirot, calm and (for a Christie policeman) relatively wise. His film heroine is Hedy Lamarr. Christie completely side-steps Grange when it comes to the denouement and the official police have no part in the story after the Coroner issues his verdict.

Garden swimming poolOne aspect of the case that really perplexes Poirot is how he suspects that he has been presented with a staged scene. Invited to the Angkatells, the first thing he sees after Gudgeon the butler has shown him through to the swimming pool pavilion is a frozen tableau. Indeed, he thinks the Angkatells are teasing him, presenting him with an artificial murder game for him to pretend-investigate, as it were. Poirot’s little grey cells are not to be mocked so lightly. “By the side of the pool was the body, artistically arranged with an outflung arm and even some red paint dripping gently over the edge of the concrete into the pool […] Standing over the body, revolver in hand, was a woman, a short powerfully-built middle-aged woman with a curiously blank expression […] On the far side of the pool was a tall young woman […] she had a basket in her hand full of dahlia heads. A little farther off was a man […] carrying a gun. And immediately on his left, with a basket of eggs in her hand, was his hostess, Lady Angkatell […] It was all very mathematical and artificial […] Really, the whole thing was very stupid – not spirituel at all! […] And suddenly, with a terrific shock, Hercule Poirot realised that this artificially-set scene had a point of reality. For what he was looking down at was, if not a dead, at least a dying man.” Poirot’s continued suspicion throughout the book that he was looking at an artificial scene, even though it’s known that a real murder took place, partly makes one suspect a Murder on the Orient Express type solution. I’ll say no more on that topic.

Shovel DownAs usual, there are a few references to check out. Firstly, let’s look at the locations, to see how real or imaginary they are. The route from London to The Hollow goes via Shovel Down, which sounds more like gardening terminology than a place name. Shovel Down does exist – it’s an area of Dartmoor with some standing stones and other Bronze Age monuments. If Wealdshire (which obviously doesn’t exist) is meant to represent Cornwall, then I guess it’s possible that this is where Christie intends us to think. However, the journey that John Christow proposes, from Albert Bridge, to Clapham Common, Crystal Palace, Croydon, Purley Way, (all of which are real) then Metherly Hill and Haverston Ridge (both of which aren’t), doesn’t seem to take us towards Devon. Market Depleach, convincing though it sounds, is an invention of Christie’s, and as for the much mentioned and longed-for Ainswick, that too isn’t real, although there is of course a Painswick in Gloucestershire. And, of course, John’s and Veronica’s memories take them back to their romance in San Miguel, which could be anywhere. The most significant San Miguel is in the Philippines; again, Christie probably chose it because it’s a good name.

Ulysses and NausicaaAnd now some other references, that I didn’t recognise so thought I should check. When we first meet Henrietta she’s sculpting the head of Nausicaa. In Homer’s Odyssey, she is the daughter of King Alcinous and Queen Arete of Phaeacia. Amongst other things, Nausicaa was the first person in literature to be described playing with a ball. Who knew? Dr Christow devotes his time to finding a cure for Ridgeway’s Disease; that, in itself, does not exist by that name, but commentators associate Christie’s description of it with Multiple Sclerosis. Henrietta also reflects on Peer Gynt, referring to the Button Moulder’s ladle. He’s a character in Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, who threatens to melt Peer’s soul unless he gives him a list of his sins. All very dark and complex.

DelageThere are a couple of cars that were new to me; Henrietta drives a Delage, which was a classic, luxury French car – the Delage company ceased operation in 1953. And the police trail Henrietta in a Ventnor 10, but I’m blowed if I can find any information about that model. Can you help? When playing cards Lady Angkatell suggests a round of Animal Grab. This was an early 20th century card game like snap, but you had to make the sound of the animal who’s card you laid down. For example, if you laid a dog card you had to say “bow-wow”. It must have been… hilarious. Veronica Cray is said to have appeared in the film Lady Rides on Tiger. No such film exists, however, its title comes from an old Chinese proverb which says, he who rides a tiger is afraid to dismount. No prizes for understanding why.

detectiveOne of the reasons Grange doesn’t like his Chief Constable is because he considers him to be a tuft-hunter. I’ve never heard that expression before, but it means a snob, someone who seeks association with persons of title or high social status. So now you know.

MaudChristie must have been reading her poetry anthologies when she wrote this book because there are a couple of allusions to poems. Henrietta quotes to Poirot: “The days passed slowly one by one. I fed the ducks, reproved my wife, played Handel’s Largo on the fife, and took the dog a run.” It’s from Harry Graham’s poem, Creature Comforts. He was a popular writer of comic verse in the early part of the 20th century, a kind of Edwardian Pam Ayres. Poirot himself quotes the much better known “I hate the dreadful Hollow behind the little wood”, which not only gives the book its title but is also from Tennyson’s Maud, published in 1855. As for The Clue of the Dripping Fountain, a gripping read that John Christow had been devouring, alas there is no trace. But what a sensational book it must be.

PoundI’m sure you remember that I like to research the present-day value of any significant sums of money mentioned in Christie’s books, just to get a more realistic feel for the amounts in question. There’s only one sum mentioned in this book, the very precise amount of £342, which is the cost of a certain engagement ring that a character buys for another – I won’t tell you who, because I don’t want to spoil the surprise. That’s around £10,000 in today’s value, so he must have thought a lot of her.

Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for The Hollow:

Publication Details: 1946. Fontana paperback, 14th impression, published in May 1973, price 30p. The cover illustration by Tom Adams clearly shows the gun that’s sitting in the basket of eggs, that features in the story. No confusion there.

How many pages until the first death: 64. That’s a reasonably long wait, and I must say the book gets much more interesting once there is a murder to investigate.

Funny lines out of context: None that I could see, sadly.

Memorable characters:

Christie is on better form with her characters in this book, with the decidedly batty Lady Angkatell leading the field; a woman whose conversations are a list of non-sequiturs, and who, Poirot realises, has a dangerous ability to make people remember things in a different way because of her bizarre spin on facts. Funny or irritating, you decide, but she’s definitely memorable. I also liked the description of Gerda’s hopelessness; her inability to carve a joint of meat or to drive properly, simply because she’s always under the watchful eye of her husband. I think we all know someone like that. Henrietta’s a cool customer, maybe a little too perfectly drawn to be properly memorable; and I also enjoyed David’s quiet Socialist condemnation of everyone around him.

Christie the Poison expert:

She’s both a poison expert and a general chemistry expert in this book, with John and Gerda’s son Terence keen to construct a nitro-glycerine bomb with his pal Nicholson Minor, and a deadly, unspecified substance that laces a cup of tea and turns the victim’s lips blue – so probably cyanide.

Class/social issues of the time:

A couple of Christie’s favourite themes crop up just once or twice in this book; and one another theme makes a few unwelcome appearances. First, class. There’s an early scene where John Christow, contemplating his treatment of Mrs Crabtree, is surprised to learn that she wants to fight her disease. “She was on his side, she wanted to live – though God knew why, considering the slum she lived in, with a husband who drank and a brood of unruly children, and she herself obliged to work day in day out, scrubbing endless floors of endless offices. Hard unremitting drudgery and few pleasures! […] It wasn’t the circumstances of life they enjoyed, it was life itself – the zest of existence. Curious – a thing one couldn’t explain.” With those words Christow reveals himself to be a patronising, unempathetic snob, disgusted by the lives of the working class.

There’s also another example of Christie’s inability to understand mental illness, with Lady Angkatell’s account of why they read the News of the World. “”We pretend we get it for the servants, but Gudgeon is very understanding and never takes it out until after tea. It is a most interesting paper, all about women who put their heads in gas ovens – an incredible number of them!” “What will they do in the houses of the future which are all electric?” asked Edward Angkatell with a faint smile. “I suppose they will just have to decide to make the best of things – so much more sensible.”” It’s a thoroughly unpleasant exchange, laughing at people considering suicide.

The other recurrent theme is that of xenophobia/racism. There are mild elements of it in Inspector Grange’s belief that “foreigners […] don’t know how to make tea” and the reason Miss Cray admits she didn’t call on Poirot the first time: “I just thought he was some little foreigner and I thought, you know, he might become a bore.” When Lady Angkatell is denying that she set up the death scene, she avows – picking a race out of the blue to patronise – “one can’t ask someone to be your guest and then arrange accidents. Even Arabs are most particular about hospitality.”

There’s a whole lot more unpleasant exchange about Madame Alfrege, Midge’s boss at the upmarket shop. Not only does Christie give Madame Alfrege an outrageous speech defect, she also indulges in some anti-Semitism: “Midge set her chin resolutely and picked up the receiver. It was all just as unpleasant as he had imagined it would be. The raucous voice of the vitriolic little Jewess came angrily over the wires. “What wath that, Mith Hardcathle? A death? A funeral? Do you not know very well I am short-handed? Do you think I am going to stand for these excutheth? Oh, yeth, you are having a good time, I dare thay!”” And so the conversation continues. Later, Midge describes Madame Alfrege as “a Whitechapel Jewess with dyed hair and a voice like a corncrake”.

There’s also some very unfortunate use of the N word. Mrs Crabtree, her words carefully chosen by Christie to emphasise her working class accent and language, describes what it was like to have her hair permed: “It wasn’t ‘alf a difficult business then. Looked like a n*****, I did. Couldn’t get a comb through it.” But also titled people used that word; Lady Angkatell says she hoped her cook, Mrs Medway, “would make a really rich N***** in his Shirt […] chocolate, you know, and eggs – and then covered with whipped cream. Just the sort of sweet a foreigner would like for lunch.” This wasn’t an accepted name for a dessert at the time, but purely an invention of Christie’s. All I can say is, hmmm. Sir Henry describes the problems that Lady Angkatell can cause with her foot-in-mouth language: “she’s put deadly enemies next to each other at the dinner table, and run riot over the colour question!” I bet she has. It was about this time that Christie’s American readers began to disapprove of this latent racism in her books; I believe her American publisher’s simple solution to this problem was to remove these references from her new books without her knowledge. Seems wise to me.

Classic denouement: Not classic, but unusual; Poirot arrives just in time to prevent a murder taking place, and as a result, the unfolding of the details of the crime all takes place in retrospect, and justice isn’t seen to be done.

Happy ending? Although there is a wedding ahead, there’s also an intense air of gloom, with one character’s life doomed to die through illness, and another unable to come to terms with everything that’s happened. So, no, not happy at all.

Did the story ring true? One of the strengths of this book is that although the plot is unlikely – naturally – it does ring true, and you can completely understand how the characters would act in the way that they did.

Overall satisfaction rating: It’s clever, it’s 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. So, after much reflection, I’m giving it 7/10. If you think that’s harsh, I do understand your concern.

The Labours of HerculesThanks for reading my blog of The Hollow and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment in the space below. Next up in the Agatha Christie Challenge is The Labours of Hercules, twelve short stories which were expected to be Hercule Poirot’s swansong – but of course, that didn’t happen! I can’t remember any of the stories, so this should be a lot of fun. As usual, I’ll blog my thoughts about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!

The Agatha Christie Challenge – Sparkling Cyanide (1945)

Sparkling CyanideIn which Rosemary Barton, a rather reckless young heiress, dies from cyanide poisoning whilst dining at a posh restaurant – presumably suicide. However, a year later, a very similar fate befalls another member of that dining party. It takes Colonel Race, alongside Inspector Kemp, and a third law enforcement officer, to work out exactly what happened to both victims. As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I promise not to tell you whodunit!

Yellow IrisThe book bears no dedication. Sparkling Cyanide was first serialised in the US in the Saturday Evening Post from July to September 1944 under the title Remembered Death, and in the UK in the Daily Express in a heavily abridged form in July 1945 as Sparkling Cyanide – a year later than its American serialisation. The full book was first published in the US by Dodd, Mead & Co in February 1945, and in the UK in December 1945 by Collins Crime Club. The book is an expansion of the short story Yellow Iris, that was first published in the Strand Magazine in July 1937. It also appeared in the book The Regatta Mystery and Other Stories, that was first published in the US in 1939. Yellow Iris was not published in the UK until its appearance in Problem at Pollensa Bay in 1991.

DInner Party for sixThis book is a curiosity. I found it quite hard to read at first; the characters and the reminiscences didn’t hold my attention, and I found it strangely easy to put down and leave for several days (ahem weeks) before picking it up again and rekindling my interest. It’s separated into three “books”, each with an introductory quotation. The first book lets us share the reminiscences of the six survivors of the first dinner party and I found it, in part, a little confusing and, basically, an unattractive read. Once we reached the point where the second death is being investigated it suddenly seemed to gain life and entertainment and I was keen to read more of it. In fact, I read the final two thirds of it in two days, which is pretty quick and determined for me.

Champagne Afternoon TeaHowever, there is something about it that is strangely unsatisfying. Yes, the gallop to the final post is very exciting, but it’s also (in my humble opinion) hugely far-fetched and relies on a very risky gamble; that a group of people will all act in a certain way if a certain event takes place – sorry to be vague, but I don’t want to give away the game. I’m absolutely convinced that, if I were one of that group of people, I would not have acted in the way that the murderer – or indeed the detectives – predicted. It also suffers a little from the same fate that befalls Five Little Pigs; there is a considerable amount of repetition, particularly in the first section, about things that happened in the past, and you’ve no choice but to wade through it in order to get on with the more interesting things happening in the present.

Truth versus liesThere’s one interesting aspect to this book though, and it’s very appropriate to our own times, that if you tell a lie sufficiently frequently and with sufficient conviction, it’s accepted as the truth. Just as the denouement is about to get underway, the character who has finally worked out what happened and why, gives us this clue: “Consider for yourself how much has been taken for granted on one person’s word.” At that point the reader takes up this challenge and tries to work out to whom this refers, and what facts have been taken for granted that aren’t necessarily true. When I was reading it, I couldn’t remember whodunit from my earlier readings of it; and even this clue didn’t bring me to my senses, despite my trying to solve it. But it’s true; a web of hearsay deceit has been planted under our noses and we never tumble to it. It reminded me with hideous accuracy of the politicians of our day; when no one is held accountable for the truth, preposterous lies are accepted with absolute certainty as fact.

Military colonelIt’s a welcome return to the excellent Colonel Race, whom we first saw in The Man in the Brown Suit, way back in 1924, where he was a spy, a detective, and a wealthy big game hunter, not necessarily in that order. He assists Poirot in Cards on the Table, and Death on the Nile, although his prime interest is in political espionage rather than murder. It’s by means of a letter of introduction from Colonel Race that local police chief Colonel Carbury meets Poirot in Appointment with Death.

AllahabadAs a result of those previous meetings, you get the feeling that if someone has met someone else in another part of the world, Colonel Race will nearly always be a mutual acquaintance. Race only becomes involved in the Sparkling Cyanide case because he is a friend of George Barton, whose wife Rosemary may have taken her own life. When he encounters Mary Rees-Talbot as part of his enquiries, she notes that they haven’t met “since you disappeared so mysteriously from Allahabad that time”. When Inspector Kemp meets the cantankerous General Lord Woolworth alongside Race, the general spits out an anti-police polemic until he espies the Colonel, and breaks off with,”“Seen you somewhere. Now where -?” Race’s answer was immediate and came with a smile. “Badderpore, 1923.” “By Jove,” said the general. “If it isn’t Johnnie Race! What are you doing mixed up in this show?” Race smiled.” Rather like God, Race clearly moves in mysterious ways and is omnipresent.

Good brainIn the Christie canon, Race is a good man; he gets things done, and isn’t afraid to put his head into the lion’s den, so to speak. And although he’s got a good brain, and patiently thinks things through, he’s also not afraid to get things wrong, in public, as he does a couple of times in this book. It’s a shame that this is the last we see of him; Christie never chose to feature him again. Even when we get to consider its original appearance as the short story Yellow Iris, in Problem at Pollensa Bay, which will be right at the end of this Agatha Christie Challenge, it’s a Hercule Poirot story – Christie changed it to Colonel Race for this book.

MahoganyWhat of Chief Inspector Kemp? This is the only book in which he appears. We know that, as an officer from Scotland Yard, he doesn’t usually deal with common or garden murders, but the presence of Stephen and Sandra Farraday (an MP and the daughter of a Lord) numbering among the suspects, the case requires his sensitive touch. Race (naturally) is an old friend. Here’s Christie’s description of him: “Kemp was slightly reminiscent of that grand old veteran, Battle, in type. Indeed, since he had worked under Battle for many years, he had perhaps unconsciously copied a good many of the older man’s mannerisms. He bore about him the same suggestion of being carved all in one piece – but whereas Battle had suggested some wood such as teak or oak, Chief Inspector Kemp suggested a somewhat more showy wood – mahogany, say, or good old-fashioned rosewood.” Coming from a more privileged background, and enjoying the benefits of great wealth, Race is there to smooth out any rough edges that Kemp might have, intelligent, though ploddy, policeman that he is.

Brook StreetAs usual, there are a few references to check out. First: locations. This is a very London-centric story. The Bartons and Iris live in Elvaston Square, which, sadly doesn’t exist in real life, although there is an Elvaston Mews in South Kensington, a stone’s throw from the Royal Albert Hall. Other London locations in the book are Cadogan Square, the home of the Rees-Talbot family, and Brook Street, home of the Woodworths. Both are real; in fact, Brook Street has already been used as a location in Five Little Pigs and Evil Under the Sun; Christie must have had some personal experience of this address.

fairhaven-golf-clubOutside the centre of London, Chloe West lives at 15 Merryvale Court, Maida Vale and 21 Malland Mansions, Earl’s Court, is a flat where, let’s just say, Farraday pays rent but he doesn’t live there. Both of those addresses are fictitious, albeit in real-life suburbs. Ruth meets Victor at the Rupert Hotel, off Russell Square, and the Compradour, Mille Fleurs and the Luxembourg clubs and restaurants are all mentioned; but they’re all totally made up. However, Farraday asks his wife if they could go to Fairhaven for the golf – this is actually an area near Lytham St Annes on the Fylde Coast, where there is still a fine golf club bearing its name. Finally, the little place in the country that the Bartons take for the summer months is in Marlingham, Surrey; it doesn’t exist, but there is a Warlingham – just a slip of an upside-down letter separates them.

HouriAnd now some other references, that I thought were worth investigating. Browne reflects on his meeting with Rosemary Barton, and concludes: “as beautiful as a houri – and probably just about as intelligent!” Maybe you already knew that houris are the virgin companions who await Muslim faithful in paradise, according to the holy Quran. I didn’t. I understand the notion that they would be beautiful; apparently that relieves them from the burden of being intelligent too. I wondered if this was an early example of islamophobia – I sense not, but am open to arguments on this one if you know better!

Master of the HorseAnthony Browne proudly boasts to Rosemary that there was a chamberlain to Henry VIII with the same name. It’s true; Sir Anthony Browne (1500 – 1548) was appointed Master of the Horse in 1539, having proved his loyalty to the king three years earlier when he was sent to contend with the Catholic protesters during the Pilgrimage of Grace. The king so trusted him that, at the end of his life, he gave Browne a dry stamp with which to sign letters in the king’s name. Impressive!

Cachet FaivreRosemary asks Sandra Farraday, whilst in the ladies’ toilets (even in Christie-land ladies all go to the toilets together) for a Cachet Faivre to help with her headache. This was a pain medication containing caffeine and quinine. There’s a scene in Noel Coward’s The Vortex where one of the characters asks the butler to fetch her one; and in Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies, hotel landlady Lottie remarks, “Half the young fellows as come here now don’t have anything except a cachet Faivre and some orange juice.” Sounds like the mid-20th century version of a Red Bull.

EatonsLucilla Drake remembers when Eaton’s Syrup was administered as a health tonic when she was young. At one time, Eaton’s in Winnipeg had the reputation of being the largest department store in the world and was a leader in the world of mail order sales, with a wide range of tonics and medicines, including a kidney cure mixture, a sore throat mixture and a “syrup of Eucalyptus, White Pine and Wild Cherry Compound”. It was clearly a cure-all medicine; I’ve found a 1906 account of treatment of malaria which included Eaton’s syrup during convalescence. The company was acquired by Sears Canada in 1999, and the company closed down in 2018. However, the Eaton Centre in Toronto is still a go-to shopping mall.

wedding rings Iris receives a proposal of marriage. However, she replies, “I’m not of age. I’m only eighteen.” Today, of course, Iris would be well within the legal maturity for marriage. However, back in 1945, you had to be 21 to get married without parental consent. Even today, there are some countries (China and the Central African Republic) where a man has to be 22 to get married, even with parental consent.

AgamemnonLord and Lady Kidderminster are said to look at each other “so might Agamemnon and Clytemnestra have stared at each other with the word Iphigenia on their lips”. Very classical. I’m sure you know, but Agamemnon was the King of Mycenae who commanded the Greek forces in the Trojan War. The goddess Artemis required Agamemnon to kill Iphigenia as a human sacrifice in order for his troops to reach Troy. They were tough times in those mythical days.

Rudyard KiplingColonel Race confronts one of the characters and accuses them of not being who they say they are. That person replies, “for the Colonel’s Lady and Judy O’Grady are sisters under the skin”. I’d heard that reference before but never known its derivation. It’s from a rather crude poem called The Ladies (c.1890) by Rudyard Kipling, where a chap recollects all the women he’s slept with and concludes that, despite their differences in class and race, basically, they’re all the same.

tennysonAs mentioned earlier, quotations introduce each of the three sections that make up the entire book. Part one, entitled Rosemary, begins with “what can I do to drive away remembrance from mine eyes?” which is the opening line from a poem by John Keats written in 1819. Part two, entitled All Souls’ Day, begins “that’s Rosemary, that’s for remembrance”, which even I remembered was a line by Ophelia in Hamlet. Part Three, Iris, begins “for I thought that the dead had peace, But it is not so…” which comes from section sixteen of Tennyson’s Maud, published in 1855.

PoundI’m sure you remember that I like to research the present-day value of any significant sums of money mentioned in Christie’s books, just to get a more realistic feel for the amounts in question. Despite many times alluding to the size of Iris’ inheritance when she comes of age, there’s only one sum mentioned in this book – £200, which is the amount that Victor cons out of Lucilla. That’s around £6000 in today’s value, that the little swine took.

Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for Sparkling Cyanide:

Publication Details: 1945. Fontana paperback, 16th impression, published in December 1989, price £3.25. The cover illustration simply shows a popped champagne cork and a calendar page for 2nd November that has been partially burned. Not sure of the significance of the burning.

How many pages until the first death: There are two ways to consider this. We discover that Rosemary died on page one. However, if you’re waiting for a real-time death, you have to wait until page 120. That sounds like a long wait; however, this impression has many more spaces and gaps in its printing than most earlier Christies. Page 120 is about halfway through the book.

Funny lines out of context: One can always rely on Christie’s somewhat archaic use of the “E” word.

“His satisfaction was short-lived, for another thought struck him with the force of a physical blow. He ejaculated out loud.”

“His name soon became known as that of a “coming” young man.”

Memorable characters:

Having been rather spoilt by Christie with her characterisations in her more recent books, this is one area where this book disappoints. You have the strong independence of Ruth Lessing, the devil-may-care bad-boy nature of Anthony Browne, and – perhaps – the political expediency and ambition of Stephen Farraday, but apart from that most of the characters are fairly bland.

Christie the Poison expert:

The clue is in the title! Although cyanide – cyanide of potassium as she refers to it – is the method of poisoning for both deaths in the book, Christie doesn’t go into much detail as to how it works or the effect on its victims. She just points out how it makes anyone who takes it turn blue – “the blue cyanosed face, the convulsed clutching fingers”, as Iris recollects. A third death is averted; however, that wouldn’t have been caused by cyanide poisoning.

Class/social issues of the time:

Most of Christie’s favourite themes crop up in this book, but only occasionally, and without great significance. Take, for instance, feminism and the role of women in society. Most of the women in this book have good social standing but only one, Ruth Lessing, could be described as independent and self-reliant. Rosemary relied on relationships; Sandra Farraday confirms that she couldn’t survive without her husband, no matter what he’d done; Iris demurely waits for life to come to her rather than the other way around. Feeblest of all, Lucilla Drake is depicted as a scatty windbag, powerless against the devious manipulations of her son.

Consider Lucilla’s assessment of George’s domestic lifestyle: “George is very well looked after at present. What more can he want, I should like to know? Excellent meals and his mending seen to. Very pleasant for him to have an attractive young girl like you about the house and when you marry some day I should hope I was still capable of seeing to his comfort and looking after his health. Just as well or better than a young woman out of an office could do – what does she know about housekeeping? Figures and ledgers and shorthand and typing – what good is that in a man’s home?” Clearly she feels that a woman’s role is simply to support a man.

There’s also an amusing interchange between Colonel Race and Inspector Kemp about women in society. “”Do you think she is the type to slip incriminating evidence into a girl’s handbag? A perfectly innocent girl, mind, who has never harmed her in any way? […]” Inspector Kemp squirmed uneasily in his seat and peered into his teacup. “Women don’t play cricket,” he said. “If that’s what you mean.” “Actually, a lot of them do,” said Race, smiling. “But I’m glad to see you look uncomfortable.””

The book was published at the end of the Second World War, when the nations of the world looked to their political leaders for inspiration and help to see them out of the mess of the previous six years. Whether you can tie in the character of Stephen Farraday with that inspiration, I’m not sure; but I did enjoy Christie’s gently savage description of his rise up the ranks: “At twenty-two Stephen came down from Oxford with a good degree, a reputation as a good and witty speaker, and a knack of writing articles. He had also made some useful friends. Politics were what attracted him. […] Though by predilection a Liberal, Stephen realised that, for the moment at least, the Liberal Party was dead. He joined the ranks of the Labour Party. […] But the Labour Party did not satisfy Stephen. He found it less open to new ideas, more hidebound by tradition than its great and powerful rival. The Conservatives, on the other hand, were on the look-out for promising young talent. They approved of Stephen Farraday – he was just the type they wanted. He contested a fairly solid Labour constituency and won it by a very narrow majority. It was with a feeling of triumph that Stephen took his seat in the House of Commons. […]

“Nevertheless, once the excitement of actually being in the House had subsided, he experienced swift disillusionment. The hardly fought election had put him in the limelight, now he was down in the rut, a mere insignificant unit of the rank and file, subservient to the party whips, and kept in his place. It was not easy here to rise out of obscurity. […] One needed something above ability. One needed influence. […] He considered marriage […] some handsome creature who would stand hand in hand with him sharing his life and his ambitions; who would give him children and to whom he could unburden his thoughts and perplexities. Some woman who felt as he did and who would be eager for his success and proud of him when he achieved it.” In other words, a purely self-seeking, self-interested social climber with no thought of service to the nation. It’s not difficult to see in which direction Christie’s political loyalties swung from her description of the three main parties!

There are a couple of minor moments of xenophobia and racial issues, although perhaps not as much as in some of Christie’s books. Christine Shannon explains “that’s why I don’t like Dagoes. When they’ve drunk too much they’re not a bit refined any more – a girl never knows what unpleasantness she may be let in for.” That’s an example of both using a detrimental term and stereotyping an entire range of people to one type of bad behaviour. On another occasion, George Barton tells Race about Rosemary’s death and says that the cabaret was “one of those negro shows”. With the benefit of hindsight, and remembering the popularity of the Black and White Minstrels right up into the late 1980s, that’s actually quite polite for the time.

I was interested by the suggestion that a psychiatrist – or what Christie calls “a nerve specialist […] one of these modern men” advised George that “after a shock of any kind, the trouble must be faced, not avoided” and this is – perhaps – the reason that he calls for the dinner party to be “re-run” as it were at the restaurant where Rosemary died. It’s not often that Christie expresses concern for mental health in her books; it must have been a new consideration of the time. But there’s also some very backward-looking thought processes going on, when Race attributes one of the motives for the crime to “bad blood”. A character is associated with guilt because their mother is “feeble in intellect and incapable of concentration”, their father is “weak, vicious and a drunkard” and their sister is “emotionally unstable.” “A family history of weakness, vice and instability. Predisposing causes.” Talk about judgemental! Wouldn’t go down well in a court of law today.

Classic denouement: The denouement creeps up on the reader and you find you’re at that point of the book without it having been made obvious by the writer. Granted, it’s extremely exciting, but I wouldn’t call it a classic, as the perpetrator is not present at the time and therefore cannot be accused dramatically by the detectives. And there’s also the question of the outrageously unlikely modus operandi of the crime, which I’ll discuss in the next paragraph but one….

Happy ending? Wedding bells in the offing for one couple, although there is a sense of sadness at the end of the book for those who died, which means this book definitely ends in a minor key.

Did the story ring true? NO!!!! As I mentioned earlier on, the whole set-up of the crime relies 100% on a group of people acting in one particular way – like a herd instinct – when presented with a particular set of events. And I just don’t believe it. But I can’t explain that to you without giving away the game.

Overall satisfaction rating: 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, so on balance I’m downgrading it to a 6/10.

The HollowThanks for reading my blog of Sparkling Cyanide and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment in the space below. Next up in the Agatha Christie Challenge is The Hollow, and the welcome return of Hercule Poirot. I can’t remember much about the book but I do remember that a few years back we saw a stage adaptation of the story – and it was pretty awful! So I’m hoping that the original book is much better. Only one way to find out! As usual, I’ll blog my thoughts about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!

The Agatha Christie Challenge – Death Comes as the End (1945)

Death Comes as the EndIn which 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. As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I promise not to tell you whodunit!

UCL-University-College-LondonThe book is dedicated “To Professor S. R. K. Glanville. Dear Stephen, it was you who originally suggested to me the idea of a detective story set in Ancient Egypt, and but for your active help and encouragement, this book would never have been written. I want to say here how much I have enjoyed all the interesting literature you have lent me and to thank you once more for the patience with which you have answered my questions and for the time and trouble you have expended. The pleasure and interest which the writing of the book has brought to me you already know. Your affectionate and grateful friend, Agatha Christie.” Stephen Glanville was Professor of Egyptology at University College London, and Christie had already dedicated one book to him – Five Little Pigs, in 1943. In her autobiography, Christie relates how she wanted to describe the minutiae of daily living in Ancient Egypt with as much accuracy as possible, so she would pester Stephen Glanville with endless questions of domestic practices, seemingly much to his irritation; but they survived the experience, and were still friends at the end. Death Comes as the End was first published in the US in October 1944 by Dodd, Mead and Company, and in the UK by Collins Crime Club in March the following year.

ThebesThis book is a one-off. It’s the only book by Agatha Christie not to take place in the 20th century; it contains no European characters; and has the second highest death count after And Then There Were None. Distanced from her usual trappings of the British class system, genteel old ladies with parlourmaids, wartime fallout, and without access to Poirot, Miss Marple, Tommy and Tuppence or any of her repertoire of familiar characters, Christie had to fall back on characterisation to make this book come alive. And, boy, does she succeed! This is Christie at her best; psychology, suspense, romance, humour, and a completely unguessable but totally reasonable solution to the crime.

egyptian godsI remember the first time I read it, I struggled with it at first, because there are so many unrecognisable elements. The strange-sounding first names of the characters. The chapter structure, which follows the Egyptian agricultural calendar. The ancient Egyptian gods, religious practices and superstitions, which mean nothing to the modern reader. The notion of how a concubine should be treated within a household, which is completely alien to our culture today. But once you get past these little difficulties, what you’re left with is a riveting domestic drama of jealousy, love, hate, and ambition which is bound to tickle our emotional responses.

CalendarIn her explanatory note at the beginning of the book, Christie introduces the reader to the agricultural calendar: “the dates here used as Chapter headings are stated in terms of the agricultural year of the time, i. e. Indundation – late July to late November; Winter – late November to late March; and Summer – late March to late July.” It’s true that, when reading the book, you don’t get a sense of the passage of time. In fact, the twenty-three chapters cover what we would recognise as a period of nine months, starting on roughly 6th September. Much of the early part of the book covers the time up till when Nofret, the concubine, dies, which is around 31st December. After that, there are no more deaths until about 1st April, after which they come thick and fast, over a period of five to six weeks, the story ending on approximately 8th May. It’s interesting to note that, despite the very different times in which the two novels are set, Christie largely followed the same dating structure that she did in her previous novel Towards Zero, where we see a virtual countdown over the months from the early planning stages of a crime to its conclusion.

LuxorReturning to Christie’s introduction, she tells us that “the inspiration of both characters and plot was derived from two or three Egyptian letters of the XI Dynasty, found about 20 years ago by the Egyptian Expedition of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, in a rock tomb opposite Luxor, and translated by Professor (then Mr.) Battiscombe Gunn in the Museum’s bulletin.” These letters were written by one Heqanakhte to his family, complaining about their behaviour and treatment of his concubine. Although the societal norms may change over the centuries, human emotions don’t.

egyptian widowIt’s a traditional third person narrative; however, we very much see the story unfold through Renisenb’s eyes. She is a beautifully crafted character; even though I wouldn’t have a clue how to pronounce her name, I feel I know her very well. She’s a quiet, reflective soul; very traditional, dependant on kindness from her family and friends; she’s also popular, because she doesn’t make a fuss and life has been cruel to her, despite her happiness in the past with her late husband Khay – who frequently re-enters her imagination – and her devotion to her child Teti. As time goes by, she starts to long for married happiness again, but will it be with the reliable, older scribe Hori, who guided her as a child, or the dazzling, exotic Kameni, with whom life could be very exciting. Renisenb’s personal journey, from mourning widow, resenting change, to someone who wants another bright future, is the thread that runs through the book, and I think she’s one of Christie’s great creations. More on the other characters later in this blog post!

ThebesThe story takes place in Thebes, in 2000 BC; a location of which Christie had a good understanding following her archaeological digs with her husband Max Mallowan. The ruins of Thebes are found within modern day Luxor. So Death Comes as the End benefits from a sophisticated, wealthy setting; this is a place where slaves taste your food before you do, so that if it’s poisoned, they die first. Here, it’s vital to impress other people with your wealth when it comes to financing extremely grand funerals; only the finest, brand new sheets are used for the bodies; and more than once we hear complaints about the high prices charged by the embalmers Ipi and Montu.

MemphisThe local people have a high opinion of their illustrious home and a distrust of people from elsewhere. Henet, the old family retainer, blames all the problems on the family on the arrival of the antagonistic Nofret, Imhotep’s concubine: “this house is bewitched. The work of a she-devil who came to us from the North. No good ever came from out of the North.” Nofret’s family is from Memphis, situated 20 kilometres south of Giza. She describes it as “gay and amusing […] there is music and singing and dancing.” No wonder she doesn’t like Thebes’ more stately and sedate atmosphere.

NebhepetreFollowing Nofret’s burial, Christie describes the conversations between the powerful local people: “Thebes was rapidly becoming a very powerful city […] Montu spoke with reverence and approval of the King Neb Hepet-Re. A first-class soldier and a man of piety also. The corrupt and cowardly North could hardly stand against him. A unified Egypt, that was what was needed. And it would mean, undoubtedly, great things for Thebes.” King Neb Hepet-Re, of whom Montu was such a fan, is known more easily today as Nebhepetre Mentuhotep II. He was a Pharaoh of the 11th Dynasty who reigned for 51 years from c. 2061 BC – 2010 BC. Around his 39th year on the throne he reunited Egypt, thus ending the First Intermediate Period. Consequently, he is considered the first pharaoh of the Middle Kingdom.

HeracleopolisThere’s only one other place (I think) that is mentioned in the book: when Hori reads the letter sent from Imhotep whilst he is away on business, Christie describes it thus: “the letter was couched in the ornate style of the professional letter writer of Heracleopolis.” That city, named (obviously) after Heracles, was located 15 kilometres west of the modern city of Beni Suef.

CornelianThe book is positively littered with other references. Esa quotes: “men are made fools by the gleaming limbs of women, and lo, in a minute they are become discoloured cornelians […] a trifle, a little, the likeness of a dream, and death comes as the end.” It appears that Esa is remembering a quotation from an earlier work of some sort, but if you try to search that phrase online all you come up with is this Agatha Christie book. Does anyone know if it really is a quote from an earlier work?

NomarchIn conversation with Hori, Renisenb argues a point about Satipy changing her behaviour; impressed with her skills, he replies “you should argue in the Nomarch’s courts.” Who or what was a Nomarch? They were Ancient Egyptian administration officials responsible for the provinces, or nomes, which are also mentioned in the book. Nofret tempts Imhotep with the prospect of fruit and Keda beer. Keda beer? Not quite sure what that is. I can’t see that keda is any kind of plant from which you can make beer, so maybe it’s beer that was imported from Keda; there’s a Keda in Afghanistan, and one in Georgia. I’ve no idea if either of the are famous for beer! Again, can you help, gentle reader?

HathorImhotep swears “by Hathor” how noisy his grandchildren are. Hathor is an ancient Egyptian goddess associated, who was considered the primeval goddess from whom all others were derived. She is usually depicted as a woman with the head of a cow, ears of a cow, or simply in cow form. Hathor also came to be regarded as the mother of the sun god Ra and held a prominent place in his barge as it sailed across the night sky, into the underworld, and rose again at dawn. Montu, who conducts the funeral services for the family, is a Divine Father of the Temple of Hathor. He sweeps the floor of the burial chamber with a broom of heden grass, before it is sealed up forever; this seemed to be a common practice, but I’ve been unable to discover exactly what heden grass is.

EnneadHenet, also, swears; her cry is to “the Nine Gods of the Ennead”. I didn’t know what this referred to; but the Ennead was a group of nine deities in Egyptian mythology worshipped at Heliopolis: the sun god Atum; his children Shu and Tefnut; their children Geb and Nut; and their children Osiris, Isis, Seth, and Nephthys. On another occasion, when Esa is trying to fathom out a motive for the murders, she says “we have here either enmity against the family as a whole, or else there lies behind all these things that covetousness against which the Maxims of Ptahotep warn us.” The Maxims of Ptahhotep is an ancient Egyptian literary composition based on the Vizier Ptahhotep’s wisdom and experiences, a text that was discovered in Thebes in 1847. One of the quotes from the work is: “Think of living in peace with what you possess, and whatever the Gods choose to give will come of its own accord.” Maybe that’s what Esa was remembering.

Natron“Then the Tomb was sealed, and all that remained of the embalmers’ work, pots full of natron, salt and rags that had been in contact with the body, were placed in a little chamber nearby”. Natron? I’d never heard of it. Wikipedia tells me (so it must be right) that Natron is a naturally occurring mixture of sodium carbonate decahydrate and around 17% sodium bicarbonate along with small quantities of sodium chloride and sodium sulphate. It was harvested directly as a salt mixture from dry lake beds in ancient Egypt and has been used for thousands of years as a cleaning product for both the home and body. So it must have been used to clean the dead bodies.

LuxorRenisenb challenges Nofret with an accusation of evil, adding “when you come to deny the forty-two sins at the hour of judgment you will not be able to say “I have done no evil”.” Part of their ancient beliefs was that man was subject to forty-two sins, each of which was examined by forty-two heavenly assessors, who were waiting on the edge of the lake that the dead had to cross. And another of their beliefs: Esa reminds Renisenb that her late husband Khay “sails his boat now in the Field of Offerings”. This was one of the names given to their equivalent of heaven, a place that mirror-images earth, where the dead lived happily and contented, providing they had passed the examinations to get there.

thirteenWhat really does come across in this book is how the characters all have absolute religious adherence to their beliefs; there isn’t one non-believer, nor someone who simply toes the religion line for social convenience. They all believe in it absolutely, and it is interwoven with their day to day lives to an inextricable degree. There’s a very thin line between belief and superstition.

Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for Death Comes as the End:

Publication Details: 1945. Fontana paperback, 8th impression, published in April 1972, price 25p. The cover illustration, presumably by Tom Adams, simply shows a dead, embalmed Egyptian lady – quite attractive, so presumably Nofret – surrounded by hieroglyphics, torn sheeting, and a watchful ornamental figure. It certainly covers one aspect of the book.

How many pages until the first death: 64. Given that eight people die in all, you can see how the deaths are concentrated into the second half of the book!

Funny lines out of context:

“Yahmose flushed quickly with pleasure. He drew himself a little more erect.”

Memorable characters:

One of the outstanding aspects of this book. I’ve already talked about how real and believable Renisenb is, but so many of them are. Consider the brash Sobek versus the introverted Yahmose, and the shrewish Satipy versus the distant Kait. Then you have Kameni, who woos Renisenb with his song, the vicious, catty Nofret, the lofty and pompous Imhotep, the vain braggart Ipy, and the cackling busybodies Esa and Henet. Each of them is really easy to imagine in the reader’s mind’s eye, because they are such colourful and lively characters.

Christie the Poison expert:

With so many deaths, unsurprisingly some of them are through poison! However, as this is not the 20th century, and there’s no detective to send samples off to a laboratory, we don’t have an insight into which poisons are used. The only clue given is that one of the victims is said to have drunk “the poppy juice”.

Class/social issues of the time:

I wouldn’t like to assume that Christie has taken a couple of her own usual social themes and deposited them in Ancient Thebes, or whether these two subjects were of particular interest to the Ancient Egyptians – but race and the social position of women do crop again, as usual.

It’s interesting that the slaves are frequently referred to by their colour. Satipy moans about “that hippopotamus of a black slave”; Esa possesses “two little black slave girls”, whom she scolds “in a characteristic, friendly fashion.” Esa is actually very fond of her slaves, a relationship which today feels quite unlikely. Later in the book, Christie describes one of Esa’s slaves as a “little maid”, whom she sends off on an errand. However, when she returns, Christie again describes her simply as “the black girl”. The only other use of the word “black” when describing one of the characters, is when Sobek is furious at the influence that Nofret has acquired over Imhotep: “she has bewitched him – that black, jeering serpent has put a spell on him!” Don’t know about you but this feels more than borderline racist to me.

However, there are many more references to women in this book. We’ve seen before how Christie has an uncomfortable relationship with the notion of feminism. You sense she feels that it’s generally a good idea but awfully unbecoming of a nice young lady. Yahmose’s vituperative wife Satipy is constantly complaining at his attitude. “You drive me mad, Yahmose […] you have no spirit. You’re as meek as a woman!” Touch of the Lady Macbeth’s there, maybe? The narration talks of the sequence of accidents and mishaps that befall Nofret, as a deliberate act of vengeance against her. Christie, in the form of the narrator, tells us “it was a quiet, relentless, petty persecution – nothing overt, nothing to lay hold of – it was essentially a woman’s campaign.” That doesn’t really equate women to Being Able To Do Great Things, does it?

Esa’s got worse up her sleeve. When she complains to Renisenb about Satipy’s bullying behaviour, she actually advocates violence against her. “I hoped Yahmose had come to his senses at last and given his wife a good beating. It’s what she needs – and she’s the kind of woman who would probably enjoy it.” That really makes the modern reader cringe. Even kind-hearted and level-headed Hori shows traces of misogyny; his description of Satipy is phrased: “like most bullying women, she was a coward.” If he’d said “like most bullies, she was a coward” I don’t think there’d be any objection. But this phrasing doesn’t feel quite equable. It implies that bullying men aren’t cowards (which is not true.)

Let’s give the final words on the subject to Kait, Sobek’s quiet and remote wife. Kait advises Renisenb to remarry because “you are strong and young, Renisenb, and you can have many more children.” “Is that all a woman’s life, Kait?” asks Renisenb, to which Kait replies, “it is all that matters to a woman.” And later, when Renisenb is talking to Kait about Sobek, she replies, “what are men anyway? They are necessary to breed children, that is all. But the strength of the race is in the women. It is we, Renisenb, who hand down to our children all that is ours, As for men, let them breed and die early…” So despite having what sounds to us a very backward attitude to the relevance of women in their society, Kait is adamant that their own special brand of feminism is the power of the nation. It perfectly sums up Christie’s ambivalence on the subject!

Classic denouement: Although it’s an exciting denouement, it’s not exactly classic, with only three people present – the murderer, the next intended victim, and the victim’s saviour. All the details are then back-filled afterwards. It’s interesting that Stephen Glanville persuaded Christie to change the ending, much to her annoyance with herself for letting him do so. She avowed thereafter never to let anyone interfere with her plotting ever again! Tantalisingly, we don’t know what ending she had originally proposed.

Happy ending? Yes; although there aren’t many people left to get on with their own lives, a future wedding is on the horizon.

Did the story ring true? With its foreign, distant setting, in another culture at a point much earlier in history, it’s hard to gauge exactly how realistic or credible the story is. In many respects, this is the closest Christie got to writing a pantomime, in that it’s full of vibrant characters and a somewhat over-the-top death count suggests a murderer who is much larger than life.

Overall satisfaction rating: For me it’s unhesitatingly a 10/10, because I’ve always found it riveting – and on re-reading I found I could almost verbatim remember many of the conversations; that’s how much it gets under your skin.

Sparkling CyanideThanks for reading my blog of Death Comes as the End and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment in the space below. Next up in the Agatha Christie Challenge is Sparkling Cyanide, and our final meeting with Colonel Race; I can’t remember anything else about it though, so I shall look forward to re-reading it! As usual, I’ll blog my thoughts about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!