The Agatha Christie Challenge – The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding (1960)

Adventure of the Christmas PuddingA selection of five short stories, five with Hercule Poirot and one with Miss Marple, solving a miscellany of crimes. Of course, the usual rules apply; if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I shan’t spoil the surprise of any of the six revelations!

Abney HallThe book was first published in the UK on 24th October 1960; however, this particular selection was not published in the US. The stories had all been individually published previously in magazine format, two of them re-written and expanded versions of the originals. The book doesn’t begin with the usual dedication, but rather a foreword where Christie remembers the Christmases of her childhood, staying with her brother-in-law at Abney Hall, previously the inspiration for the settings of The Secret of Chimneys and After the Funeral. At the end of the foreword she dedicates the book “to the memory of Abney Hall – its kindness and its hospitality.” And you can certainly recognise Christie’s account of her own Christmassy fun in the antics of the fictional children Colin, Michael and Bridget, in the first story, The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding, which we’ll look at first!

The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding

Christmas PuddingThis is an expanded version of the story of the same name which appeared in The Sketch magazine on 12 December 1923 – so it took 37 years to get from stage one to stage two! It would first appear in the US in 1961 in the collection Double Sin and Other Stories (this collection not published in the UK) under the title The Theft of the Royal Ruby. Poirot is invited to the grand old house Kings Lacey, ostensibly to celebrate a traditional English Christmas with a traditional English family, but it is a front for him to investigate the disappearance of a priceless ruby, stolen from an eastern prince whilst sowing one last wild oat before committing to marriage.

It’s an entertaining little tale, with some interesting characters, and sense of fun; but I felt the two separate threads of the theft and the traditional Christmas didn’t sit particularly comfortably with each other, and for a long time you’re wondering how on earth Kings Lacey could possibly hold the key to solving the crime. There’s a nice piece of double-crossing by Poirot, as well as the occasional connection with a couple of other Christie books – the murder game in Dead Man’s Folly springs to mind. Whilst we know that Abney Hall was in Cheshire, the location of Kings Lacey is not mentioned, although the fictional town of Market Ledbury is close enough to go to the pub, and Desmond suggests leaving early and going on to Scarborough.

The story succeeds strongly in evoking the memories of long gone Christmases – especially the food. Mrs Lacey revels in continuing the traditions. “All the same old things, the Christmas tree and the stockings hung up and the oyster soup and the turkey – two turkeys, one boiled and one roast – and the plum pudding with the ring and the bachelor’s button and all the rest of it in it. We can’t have sixpences nowadays because they’re  not pure silver any more. But all the old desserts, the Elvas plums and Carlsbad plums and almonds and raisins, and crystallized fruit and ginger. Dear me, I sound like a catalogue from Fortnum and Mason!” I confess I’d never heard of the tradition of the bachelor’s button; if a single man found it in his pudding, he would stay single for the following year. Similarly, the tradition of the spinster’s thimble, which is also mentioned in the book, and the ring, which indicated that you would get married during the course of the following year.

There are a few unmistakably Poirot/Christie observations and uses of language. Poirot is only convinced to go to Kings Lacey when he discovers there is central heating. Colonel Lacey gruffly disapproves of the Christmas invitation to Poirot: “can’t think why you want one of those damned foreigners here cluttering up Christmas? Why can’t we have him some other time? Can’t stick foreigners!” And twice Christie makes us smile with her use of the word “ejaculated”, as when the Colonel discovers the glass in his mouth.

The story includes one of Christie’s most famous sentences: “Mr Jesmond made a peculiar noise rather like a hen who has decided to lay an egg and then thought better of it.” I also loved the description of the old retainer Peverell; “he noticed nothing that he was not asked to notice”. And Poirot gives Mrs Ross, the cook, a five pound note as an expression of his gratitude. £5 in 1960 is worth £80 today, and at 1923, when the story was originally written, the equivalent would be over £200!

Overall, a decent little story. Not a classic, but not bad.

The Mystery of the Spanish Chest

Spanish ChestThis is an expanded version of the story The Mystery of the Baghdad Chest which appeared in the Strand Magazine in January 1932. In the US, the shorter version was published in the Ladies Home Journal in the same month and the expanded version appeared in the US in The Harlequin Tea Set (not a collection published in the UK) in 1997. Poirot’s attention is drawn to a case where a Major Rich has been accused of murdering a Mr Clayton, whose bloody body was discovered in an antique Spanish chest. Mrs Clayton is a friend of socialite Lady Chatterton who encourages Poirot to speak to her about the case, because she insists Rich is innocent. Poirot can’t resist but employ his little grey cells to get to the heart of the matter. This is a well-written, nicely crafted little tale, a detective novel in miniature, with clearly defined exposition, detection and denouement sections. On the face of it, only two people could possibly have committed the murder – neither of which is a satisfactory solution for Poirot; but, right at the end, he sees how there might be a third possibility.

The book features Poirot’s secretary Miss Lemon, a terrifying creature with no imagination but boundless efficiency. It’s interesting that this story was published out of sequence in respect of Hickory Dickory Dock, which also includes Miss Lemon – but this time making mistakes, and also Miss Lemon’s sister, Mrs Hubbard. However, in The Mystery of the Spanish Chest, Miss Lemon’s sister in an unnamed lady who once bought a Spanish chest at a sale and keeps her linen in there. You don’t get the sense at all that they are the same person.

We are reminded of Poirot’s earlier inamorata, the exotic Russian Countess Vera Rossakoff, and of Poirot’s admiration for ladies with curves – unlike Miss Lemon, who’s treated in a rather sexist way by Christie. Mrs Clayton, it emerges, lives in Cardigan Gardens, precisely the same address as Harold Crackenthorpe in 4.50 from Paddington. It was obviously an address with which Christie felt comfortable! Lady Chatterton, however, lives in Cheriton Street, which sounds like it should be a fine London street, but is in fact a Christie invention.

We meet Inspector Miller, who’s in charge of the case; he’s described as “not one of Poirot’s favourites. He was not, however, hostile on this occasion, merely contemptuous.” Mrs Spence has a nice turn of phrase to describe Mrs Clayton: “she’s one of my best friends and I wouldn’t trust her an inch”. There’s an Othello motif to the story, which puts an interesting complexion on one’s own attempts to solve the crime before Poirot, plus there is the unusual situation in a Christie story where a servant is actually one of the chief suspects in the case. All this, plus a final denouement that reveals a clever and totally unexpected detective solution. I thought this was a cracking little story.

The Under Dog

UnderdogThis entertaining story was first published in the US in The Mystery Magazine in April 1926, and in the UK in The London Magazine in October 1926. Its first appearance in book form was in the UK in 2 New Crime Stories, published by The Reader’s Library in September 1929. Again, it would be more than thirty years before it was published as part of a wholly Christie collection. Bullying, angry Sir Reuben is found dead and his nephew is arrested for his murder. Sir Reuben’s widow, Lady Astwell is convinced they have arrested the wrong person and that his secretary is to blame. She hires Hercule Poirot to discover the truth.

This murder mystery in miniature contains everything you would expect from a full length work of detective fiction: lively characters, a full-scale denouement where the emphasis shifts from a pretend guilty party to the real one, unexpected motives and false clues. There’s also a surprisingly big hint from Christie in the name of the story – so try not to dwell on that if you haven’t read it yet!

The background structure to the story reminded me very strongly of that which precedes this one in the collection – The Mystery of the Spanish Chest – where one of the suspects hires Poirot to prove that one of the other suspects isn’t guilty. Indeed, we meet Inspector Miller again too, from that same story. There’s no love lost between him and Poirot. Poirot describes him: “he is what they call the sharp man, the ferret, the weasel.” Lady Astwell simply considers him “a bumptious idiot”. As for Miller, he “was not particularly fond of M. Hercule Poirot. He did not belong to that small band of inspectors at the Yard who welcomed the little Belgian’s cooperation. He was wont to say that Hercule Poirot was much overrated.” He clearly resents Poirot being brought into the case at the whim of Lady Astwell. “Of course, it is all right for you M. Poirot […] you get your fees just the same, and naturally you have to make a pretence of examining the evidence to satisfy her ladyship. I can understand all that.”

Poirot works with George his valet more than I have seen in any other of the stories so far. George, whom Christie describes as “an extremely English-looking person. Tall, cadaverous and unemotional” allows himself to be used by Poirot as a spy or as a dummy dead body; the relationship reminded me a little of that of Bunter to Dorothy L Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey. Poirot is particularly irritating in this story to the people around him, staying on longer than required, ostensibly making overwhelmingly thorough searches everywhere – but there is a method to his madness, as you can imagine. He calls on the assistance of a Dr Cazalet to run a hypnosis session on one of the suspects, which is nicely written and a thoroughly enjoyable diversion. His practice is at 384 Harley Street – in real life, Harley Street numbers don’t go that high.

At one point, Poirot makes use of a “thumbograph”, which was a book in which you kept the thumb print of someone you admired or were friends with – a little like an autograph book, but just for thumbs. I’d never heard of that before. The story is set in the fictional town of Abbots Cross – there is an Abbots Cross, but it’s in Northern Ireland, so it can’t be that one! And there is talk of a gold mine in Mpala; this is actually a wildlife reserve in Kenya.

There’s one sum of money that’s of interest – Victor accuses Poirot of hanging around so that he can continue to charge “several guineas a day”. One guinea in 1926 is worth an impressive £45 today; even so, Poirot’s charge out rate isn’t that expensive on the whole! And Christie gives us another of her hilarious comedy lines taken out of context. When Poirot is thinking deeply about a problem, then instantly comes out of his deep thoughts, she says “he came out of his brown study with a jerk”. That’s not a nice thing to say about someone!

A very good story – I’d say the best of the selection so far.

Four and Twenty Blackbirds

BlackbirdThis little tale was first published in the US in November 1940 in Collier’s magazine and in the UK in the Strand Magazine in March 1941 under the title of Poirot and the Regular Customer. Christie describes this story as a sorbet in her introduction, but to be honest, it’s barely that; it’s a very slight tale and strikes you as a disappointment after the stronger stories that have preceded it. Poirot and a friend are dining at a restaurant, and remarking on how most diners – men at least – will always choose their same, favourite meals. But one day, an old man. who dines at the restaurant every Tuesday and Thursday, not only dines on a Monday but goes for completely different courses from his usual choice. Poirot smells a rat – and he’s right!

The London locations are all for real – the restaurant is on the Kings Road Chelsea, Mr Gascoigne lives on Kingston Hill; Dr Lorrimer lives on Dorset Road, which is in South East London rather than South West. Sadly there’s no such restaurant as the Gallant Endeavour, which is a terrific name for one. However, Augustus John dined there, and he was real enough!

Rather like The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding, this story emphasises the importance of food, in particular, the importance that Poirot places on it – he’s never one to cut a course or not give it his full attention. It’s an interest that is associated with older men; women, it is decided, tend to like variety, whereas men don’t. The trouble with this story is that it relies on an extremely unlikely event that stretches credibility to the nth degree, and when you realise how the crime balances on that fact, you simply can’t take it seriously. The solution feels rushed, too. All in all, an unsatisfactory sorbet!

The Dream

DreamThis story was first published in the UK in the Strand Magazine in February 1938. This curious tale starts a little uncertainly, then builds up to a very exciting detective section, when Poirot asks all the right questions and winkles out the truth – and then truth itself turns out to be a little disappointing, with a denouement not unlike that in the previous story, Four and Twenty Blackbirds. Poirot received a letter to visit the reclusive millionaire businessman Benedict Farley; and when he finally gets to meet the great man, Farley tells him of a recurring dream he has, where, at precisely the same time every day, he is required to take a revolver out of his desk drawer, load it, and shoot himself. Then he wakes up. Is this just a recurring nightmare, or something more sinister? Poirot does eventually get to the bottom of it all, but everything is not as it seems right from the start.

This is a difficult story to discuss without giving the whole game away; suffice to say that it is an enjoyable read, once it gets going; let down only by the fanciful ending. The case is handled by Inspector Barnett, “a discreet, soldierly-looking man” according to Christie, but his personality doesn’t shine through. Much more interesting is Dr Stillingfleet, a young doctor who looks after the Farley family, but was sidestepped when Farley appears to have consulted other doctors about his dream. Stillingfleet was mentioned in Sad Cypress, and will return in the much later Christie novel, Third Girl.

One or two interesting references; Stillingfleet wonders if Poirot would ever commit a crime. Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case was probably written a few years later; I’ll say no more. Mrs and Miss Farley apparently went to see The Little Dog Laughed at the theatre on the night in question; there is a play of that name – but it wasn’t produced until 2006. And Miss Farley says that her inheritance in the event of her father’s death would be approximately a quarter of a million pounds – the rest going to her stepmother. £250,000 in 1938 would be approximately £10.5 million today – that’s quite a tidy sum.

All in all, not a bad story. I really wanted it to have a more satisfying ending. But the getting there is good!

Greenshaw’s Folly

FollyThis Miss Marple story was first published in the UK in the Daily Mail, in December 1956; as such it is a much more recently written story than any of the others in the collection.  Miss Marple’s nephew Raymond West takes his friend Horace to view an architectural monstrosity, Greenshaw’s Folly, and in so doing bumps into Miss Greenshaw who lives there – the last of the Greenshaws. She requests that the two men witness her will; she has decided to leave all her money to her faithful housekeeper Miss Cresswell. But when Raymond’s wife’s niece Louise starts working for Miss Greenshaw a few days later, a very peculiar thing happens… And I can say no more without giving too much of the story away.

Sadly this is yet another story in this collection which relies on one particular trick – involving the use of disguise; and again, the fanciful nature of the crime truly beggars belief! There is a moment of high drama where one character sees another in distress, but, with the benefit of hindsight, how could that character not have realised the trick that was being played? It’s a shame, because it was building up to being a rather enjoyable tale, with Miss Marple dishing out the insights like a woman possessed. I did like the opening scene where Raymond West knowingly plays on his celebrity status to get what he wants, and his friend Horace is an amusing caricature of someone with an artistic bent. Interesting how the plays of J M Barrie come into the story too – all perfectly genuine, and the clue that Miss Marple gets from the mention of the play A Kiss for Cinderella is completely fair in retrospect! Lady Audley’s Secret is also a genuine novel of the Victorian era, and Paul and Virginia is an 18th century book by Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, but there is no such place as Boreham on Sea (sounds very dull).

It strikes me that the decision to group these short stories together in one volume must have largely derived from most of them sharing the same plot elements, which makes for an overall disappointing read. Whilst The Under Dog and The Mystery of the Spanish Chest have a lot of entertainment value within them, and The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding is a decent stab at a short story, the others are underwhelming in varying ways. I think my average score for the book as a whole works out as 6/10.

The Pale HorseThanks for reading my blog of The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding, 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 Pale Horse, something more of a supernatural novel with neither a Poirot nor a Marple to guide the way. I know I’ve read it, but I can’t remember a thing about it, so I’m looking forward to rediscovering it. As usual, I’ll blog my thoughts about it as soon as I can. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!

The Agatha Christie Challenge – Cat Among the Pigeons (1959)

Cat Among the PigeonsIn which murder comes to the exclusive girls’ school Meadowbank, run by the redoubtable Miss Bulstrode, and Middle Eastern espionage clashes with young ladies’ tennis practice. The police don’t seem to have much of an idea until one of the girls escapes to London to ask the help of family friend Hercule Poirot. And he sees through the lies and offers a thrilling solution. As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, as always, I promise not to reveal whodunit!

archaeologistThe book is dedicated “for Stella and Larry Kirwan”. Sir Archibald Laurence “Larry” Patrick Kirwan was an archaeologist who worked mainly in Egypt and Arabia. Although Christie doesn’t directly mention the Kirwans in her autobiography, one presumes they all knew each other from their shared interest in archaeology. The book was first published in the UK in six abridged instalments in John Bull magazine in September and October 1959, and in the US a condensed version of the novel appeared in the November 1959 issue of the Ladies Home Journal. The full book was first published in the UK by Collins Crime Club on 2nd November 1959, and in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company in March 1960.

Posh girls schoolI had looked forward to re-reading this book because I’ve always thought of it as my favourite Christie. And, despite realising a few whopping great coincidences, sighing at a few too many xenophobic remarks, and a couple of downright flaws, my opinion hasn’t changed. This is a breeze of a delight to read. Christie is on top form with her lightness of touch, some dramatic asides and confiding moments to the reader, some well-placed comedy, plenty of activity and very nicely dovetailing the posh school/Middle Eastern revolution/50s teenagers/well-meaning but ambitious teacher elements.

Ramat_GanUsing short chapters, short chapter parts, even copying us into the letters sent out by some of the characters, Christie presents all the aspects of the book early on, so our head is bombarded with lots of fascinating information right from the start. The return to Meadowbank for the summer term is seen from the points of view of the teachers, the non-teaching staff, the pupils and the parents. Then we’re whisked away to Ramat for the opening salvos of the revolution, and we see how it overlaps with the school, with one of the parents being the sister to the Prince’s pilot and best friend, taking one of the schoolchildren on an extravagant holiday before term starts. We meet the diplomatic staff left to handle the revolution and the British involvement as best they can, again returning to see the way the school is caught up in the events. As a result, when the murders start happening, the investigations become a joint operation between the local CID and Secret Service staff. And that’s before Poirot becomes involved!

PoirotAnd, unusually, Poirot doesn’t appear until 70% of the way through the book. He’s very much brought into the case so that he can employ his little grey cells (although he doesn’t mention them), and Poirot as a character doesn’t particularly develop in this book. His attributes are those which we already know, and the only time his personality really stands out is when he takes full charge of a super-powerful classic denouement, more of which later. It’s up to Inspector Kelsey to make sense of the facts of the case, alongside “Adam Goodman” (not his real name), who’s masquerading as a junior gardener at the school. To be honest, we get a greater feeling for Adam’s characteristics – “he was tall, dark, muscular, and had a gay and rather impertinent manner”. Of Kelsey, all we know is Christie’s description that he “was a perceptive man. He was always willing to deviate from the course of routine if a remark struck him as unusual or worth following up.” He also – apparently – worked with Poirot in the past, in a case when a Chief Inspector Warrender as in charge. “I was a fairly raw sergeant, knowing my place” he explained. This doesn’t appear to refer to a previous Poirot story, it’s just a bit of filler.

HotelWhilst Christie’s on great form with her style and her delivery, I can’t help but think she’s made a couple of errors. Firstly, when considering everyone’s alibi for the second murder, Kelsey mentions that Miss Rich was staying that night at the “Alton Grange Hotel, twenty miles away.” Twenty-two pages later,  he tells Poirot she was staying at the “Morton Marsh Hotel, twenty miles away.” Which is it?! There’s no suggestion that Miss Rich made an error in her alibi and has since corrected it. This is just an inconsistency error.

logicI’d also take Poirot to task for an unaccountable lapse of logic during the denouement. It’s going to be difficult for me to express this without giving too much of a game away, but I’ll try. Poirot maintains: “[A] could, of course, have killed [B] but she could not have killed [C], and would have had no motive to kill anybody, not was such a thing required of her.” However, a few paragraphs earlier he had clarified that “[A] was set down by the car in the first large town where she at once resumed her own personality.” So, in fact, she was totally at liberty in a nearby town when B was murdered! Not being watched by the police or secret service staff, I contend she certainly had the opportunity to murder B if she wished. I agree though that she had no motive. But I think Poirot had something of a lucky break there.

BrassiereBut we forgive Christie these trespasses, because the flow of the writing is exceptional. From portentous comments at the end of chapters foreboding ill, to an amusing exposé of Princess Shaista’s bra situation, to the totally convincing Julia/Jennifer conversations that really get into the mindset of that kind of jolly hockey-stick young girl, to a suspenseful scene where Julia is in bed and someone is trying to creep into her room, to absolute honesty with the clues – there’s at least a couple of scenes where Christie virtually tells us who is guilty but still we don’t pick it up – it’s just a beautifully written book.

ServantsOne thing that occurred to me during this book, and I realise has been an assumption in virtually every book of hers, is the dismissal of the possibility that domestic staff will have played a part in the crime. When Kelsey and Miss Bulstrode are considering the alibis of the staff, he adds, as an afterthought, ““As for your servants, frankly I can’t see any of them as murderers. They’re all local too…” Miss Bulstrode nodded pleasantly. “I quite agree with your reasoning.”” What reasoning?! It’s pure assumption. “I can’t see any of them as murderers” is hardly forensic detection. Yet wherever there are servants or domestic staff in one of Christie’s books, they only ever get asked basic witness questions and are never in the running to do a crime. Only perhaps in Murder on the Orient Express and And Then There Were None does this not apply. Odd that!

GardenerIt was when reading 4.50 from Paddington recently that I picked up on Christie’s rather curious antipathy towards gardeners. The usually pleasant Miss Marple really gets her teeth into criticising them for being lazy or doing generally poor quality work. In Cat Among the Pigeons, Miss Bulstrode laments the fact that they have been left “short-handed except for local labour.” Mrs Upjohn is equally critical. “Of course the trouble nowadays […] is that what one calls a gardener usually isn’t a gardener, just a milkman who wants to do something in his spare time, or an old man of eighty”. Christie allows us to see this argument from the other side, with Head Gardener Briggs moaning to Adam about Miss Bulstrode’s interference with what he sees as his domain. “Now, along this here […] we’ll put some nice asters out. She don’t like asters – but I pay no attention. Females has their whims, but if you don’t pay no attention, ten to one they never notice. Though I will say She is the noticing kind on the whole. You’d think she ‘ad enough to bother her head about, running a place like this.” Christie rather cleverly gives us a little insight into Briggs’ attitude that backs up both the gardener’s and the employer’s issue with each other. Each one always knows best.

VanNow we’ll look at some of the references in this book, starting, as usual, with the locations. This is largely a book of fictional localities; apart from Poirot’s London residence, and a ransom note that’s postmarked Portsmouth, all the other places are Christie inventions. Ramat is the most interesting; it’s a Hebrew word, meaning Heights, and there are dozens of places in Israel that have Ramat as part of its name. Christie names the main hotel there, the Ritz Savoy, which is a combination of two very separate hotel entities, but we get the flavour of the place. The local tourist site appears to be the Kalat Diwa Dam, but that is another Christie invention – in fact, Google Translate suggests that Kalat Diwa is Arabic for she called, which sounds rather unlikely. A plane wreck is discovered in the Arolez Mountains, which is also fictional; if you search on Arolez, however, you find a Turkish manufacturer of pastries and ice creams! However, Julia believes that her mother’s Anatolian bus journey will take her to Van, which is a real life city in the east of Turkey.

LittleportCloser to home, Miss Johnson’s alibi was that she was staying with her sister at Limeston on Sea, and Miss Blake’s that she was with friends in Littleport. There is of course a Littleport in real life – it’s a large village in Cambridgeshire. Limeston on Sea doesn’t exist though; and the location where the ransom money was to be handed over, Alderton Priors, is also fictional, although there is a village called Alderton near Tewkesbury, which has a road named Prior’s Hill. Unlike the majority of Christie books, you don’t get a sense of whereabouts in the country the book is set. Normally there are some clues, but in this book you draw a blank. Alderton Priors is said to be in Wallshire; where that is, is anyone’s guess.

Balenciaga dressAnd now for the other references. Miss Bulstrode butters up the difficult Mrs Hope by admiring her “Balenciaga model.” Cristobal Balenciaga was a Spanish couturier for over fifty years from 1917 – and after he died, and the brand name ceased, it was taken up again in 1986, and the brand is now owned by the French multinational holding company Kering. Mrs Sutcliffe and Jennifer return to England on board the Eastern Queen; that was a passenger/cargo ship built in Scotland; but in 1959 it was being used by the French Government. It was broken up in 1974.

Joyce GrenfellShaista admires the American tennis champion Ruth Allen, primarily for her smart sportswear; sadly she’s a concoction of Christie’s. Unlike Neil Cream, whom Mrs Sutcliffe remembers as being a multi-murderer; he was real enough, and is better known colloquially as the Lambeth Poisoner. Joyce Grenfell, whom Julia likens to Miss Vansittart, however, was certainly alive and kicking; a much loved actress and comedian who died in 1979. When Julia sees the hidden treasure, she has a vision of “Marguerite and her casket of jewels” – a scene from Gounod’s Faust – and also The Hope Diamond, a stunning blue jewel currently housed by the National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC, with an estimated value of $350 million.

Mrs McGinty's DeadJulia Upjohn uses the fact that her mother and Poirot have a mutual friend in order to gain access to meet the great man. The mutual friend is Mrs Summerhayes, in whose guest house Poirot spent an awkward but not unfriendly time whilst solving the case of Mrs McGinty’s Dead.

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. There are two sums mentioned in this book, one of which is of vital importance; the value of the property that Bob Rawlinson passes on to Mrs Sutcliffe and which Julia Upjohn eventually finds – approximately three quarters of a million pounds. That’s a lot of money even in today’s terms, but back in 1959 that was the equivalent of  £12.2 millions today. The ransom note – which rather gets forgotten about, oddly – demands the sum of £20,000 which is also no feeble sum, equalling £325,000 at today’s rate.

 

Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for Cat Among the Pigeons:

 

Publication Details: 1959. My copy is a Fontana paperback, eighth impression, dated July 1969, with no price on the covers – this may have been because it was sold in Spain (I bought it on holiday in the Costa Dorada in 1972!) The cover illustration, presumably by Tom Adams, is extremely simple considering some of his work – it just shows a tennis ball, some priceless jewels, and a pistol; all extremely relevant to the plot.

How many pages until the first death: Strictly speaking, 23 – but although this isn’t a death by natural causes, it isn’t a death that’s being examined by the British police (or indeed, Poirot). For the first “murder”, we have to wait a little longer – 59 pages. But there’s a lot to take in and be entertained by whilst we’re waiting.

Funny lines out of context: Not a classic, but a wryly amusing example of Christie’s use of the E word. ““Nom d’un nom d’un nom” ejaculated Poirot in an awe-inspired whisper.”

Miss Bulstrode is also guilty of making the understatement of the year. “”I’m very sorry about this, Miss Bulstrode, very sorry indeed,” said the Chief Constable. “I suppose it’s – well – a bad thing for you.” “Murder’s a bad thing for any school, yes,” said Miss Bulstrode. “It’s no good dwelling on that now though.”

“Miss Bulstrode had her rules, she did not accept morons.”

Memorable characters:

There are many strong personalities at work here, but they’re all cast in the shade by Miss Bulstrode herself. Bully, or The Bull by nickname, exudes inner strength and the ability to command, and hardly ever gets thrown off course. She inspires love and respect from teachers and pupils alike – and even Adam is mindblown by her abilities. Jennifer Sutcliffe takes after her mother’s prejudices and sounds like a little Brexit Party member with her scorn for foreign countries and their dishonest inhabitants. Jennifer and Julia make a very interesting partnership.

Christie the Poison expert:

No mention of poison in this book; the murders are committed either by shooting or being coshed over the head.

Class/social issues of the time:

Meadowbank is a very upmarket and high class school, so, as you might expect, class issues are discussed, but with some maturity and care. Miss Bulstrode is planning her retirement and initially considers Miss Vansittart as her most suitable successor, because she is a safe pair of hands who will run the school exactly on Miss Bulstrode’s terms. Miss Rich, on the other hand, who is clearly of a lower social standing, would have different ideas, more progressive and more challenging. Rich’s idea of the future of the school would try to minimise class differentiation, whereas Bulstrode and Vansittart would maintain the status quo.

Jennifer Sutcliffe, too, wasn’t inclined to go to Meadowbank because it was too exclusive and she didn’t feel as though she would fit in; nevertheless, she quickly does. Perhaps the biggest exposure of class difference is revealed right at the end of the book, where we find out a little more about Prince Ali Yusuf – but I can’t tell you that without spoiling a big surprise!

Otherwise there’s the usual dollop of xenophobia/racism; perhaps slightly more than usual. For some reason, the French really get it in the neck in this book. Julia Upjohn tells her mother that Mlle Blanche doesn’t keep order very well; “Jennifer says French people can’t”. Miss Chadwick, the older teacher, didn’t like Mlle Blanche, nor her predecessor, calling them sly. “Miss Bulstrode did not pay very much attention in this criticism. Chaddy always accused the French mistresses of being sly.” Kelsey picks up on this later, and considers Mlle Blanche’s slyness in her potential for being a suspect, but Miss Bulstrode interrupts him. “Miss Bulstrode waved that aside impatiently. “Miss Chadwick always finds the French Mistresses sly. She’s got a thing about them.”” Even Kelsey’s assistant, Sgt Bond, agrees, after they’ve interviewed Mlle Blanche. “”Touchy”, said Bond. “All the French are touchy.”” It makes you wonder if Christie has had an unfortunate incident with a French person.

Miss Bulstrode doesn’t hold with these xenophobic assumptions. Wondering whether one of the girls might have made an assignation to meet someone, Miss Johnson gasps. ““One of our Italian girls, perhaps. Foreigners are much more precocious than English girls.” “Don’t be so insular,” said Miss Bulstrode. “We’ve had plenty of English girls trying to make unsuitable assignations.””

Generally, there’s a little of the usual racist language of the era. Briggs refers to “Eye-ties”, and Adam refers to the Emir as “Wog Notable”, which feels particularly uncomfortable today. The systemic racism of the time is emphasised at the end of the book when we discover that Alice’s child is called Allen, and not the original name Ali. She explains: “it was the nearest name to Ali. I couldn’t call him Ali – too difficult for him, and the neighbours and all.” There’s also some of Christie’s sexism, which she often finds difficult to conceal. Inspector Kelsey’s immediate reaction to meeting Miss Rich was “ugly as sin” which does him no credit at all. Christie also has a tongue-in-cheek description of another of Miss Bulstrode’s strengths: “Miss Bulstrode had another faculty which demonstrated her superiority over most other women. She could listen.” Such strengths lead Adam to think of her as “remarkable”. Women were definitely underestimated in 1959!

Other minor themes and comments give us an indication of what life was like in those days. Kelsey says there will be as little publicity as possible, and that they’ll “let it get about that we think it was a local affair. Young thugs – or juvenile delinquents, as we have to call them nowadays – out with guns among them, trigger happy.” So Kelsey clearly disapproves of the use of what we would think of today as the more PC terminology. “I don’t know what England’s coming to”, grumbles Mr Sutcliffe like an old Colonel from the last days of the Raj, when he hears about the murders at the school. And as a forerunner of the more sexually liberated 60s that were just around the corner, Colonel Pikeaway warns Adam about his conduct when he’s working at the school. “If any oversexed teenagers make passes at you, Heaven help you if you respond.”

Classic denouement:  100% – this is up there with the absolute cream of the crop. Poirot assembles everyone, makes us think that an innocent person is the guilty party to take us down one dead end – then reveals a surprise witness and the guilty person explodes with fury. It’s very dramatic, and very exciting; one of those denouements you can read again and again. There’s another twist too – the first time that Christie ever employs this particular device, but I can’t say more if you haven’t read it!

Happy ending? A grey area – but it’s a happy ending in some respects. Christie happy endings are usually rather Shakespearean, with any number of couples getting engaged or getting married, but there’s no suggestion of any of that here. However, we do see how the prospects for Meadowbank might improve; and unexpected wealth is bestowed on two surprised recipients.

Did the story ring true? Yes and no. Yes, in that all the events that take place in Meadowbank are totally believable and make logical sense. However, there are a few extraordinary coincidences. Why would one of the other mistresses be in Ramat at the same time as the Sutciffes and the Revolution? (And the mistress in question’s response of “why shouldn’t I go to Ramat?” doesn’t quite cut it.) Worse, is the coincidence that Mrs Upjohn worked in undercover missions in Switzerland during the war, and recognises one of the “enemy” at least fifteen years later, going about their business at home. And to cap it all, Christie puts Mrs Upjohn on a bus around Anatolia for three weeks, totally uncontactable, simply to extend the length of time it takes to solve the crime. Had she stayed at home, this could all have been done and dusted over the course of a weekend. But then, of course, there would have been no novel!

Overall satisfaction rating: Despite all its flaws I am a huge fan of this book and it’s one of the most accessible, understandable and exciting of all her works.  10/10 with no hesitation.

Adventure of the Christmas PuddingThanks for reading my blog of Cat Among the Pigeons, 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 Adventure of the Christmas Pudding, a selection of six stories – three short, three not so short – five of them featuring Hercule Poirot and one with Miss Marple. As usual, I’ll blog my thoughts about it as soon as I can. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!

The Agatha Christie Challenge – Ordeal by Innocence (1958)

Ordeal by InnocenceIn which Jacko Argyle is found guilty of the murder of his mother Rachel and dies in prison before Dr Arthur Calgary can come forward and gives him a cast-iron alibi for the time the crime was committed. The other household members aren’t happy to discover that it wasn’t Jacko who killed Rachel – as it means one of them must have. Calgary takes it on himself to discover the truth. As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, as always, I promise not to reveal whodunit!

Book of JobWhereas Christie’s previous book, 4.50 from Paddington, unusually contains no dedication, Ordeal by Innocence contains both a dedication and an epigraph. The book is dedicated “to Billy Collins, with affection and gratitude”. That’s none other than William Collins himself, Christie’s publisher since the days of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, and whose company would continue to publish her books until her death in 1976 – and indeed beyond (with the unusual exception of The Hound of Death.) The epigraph reads: “If I justify myself, mine own mouth shall condemn me. I am afraid of all my sorrows. I know that Thou wilt not hold me innocent.” These are two verses taken from the book of Job, chapter 9 verses 20 and 28. The book was first published in the UK in two abridged instalments in John Bull magazine in September 1958, and in the US in thirty-six instalments in the Chicago Tribune from February to March 1959, under the title The Innocent. An abridged version of the novel was also published in the 21 February 1959 issue of the Star Weekly Complete Novel, a Toronto newspaper supplement. The full book was first published in the UK by Collins Crime Club on 3rd November 1958, and in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company later in 1959 under the British title.

sing a song of sixpenceMuch has been made of two facts regarding this book. Firstly, many commentators believe that the plotline owes a lot to Christie’s short story Sing a Song of Sixpence that was published 24 years earlier in the collection The Listerdale Mystery. Personally, whilst there might be some overlap, primarily in the which of us did it? area, I don’t really see the enormous link between the two – in fact, I think there is a greater link – certainly as regards the motive – with the novel Appointment with Death. Secondly, in Christie’s own words, this book, along with Crooked House, “satisfied me best”; after a period of reflection, she placed it as one of her few personal favourites.

Sleepy boredThis is definitely a book that splits her fandom, with many people siding with the contemporary reviews at the time, that it was below par for Christie, and others agreeing with more recent reviews that it’s one of her best. I firmly sit with the earlier viewpoint. I found this book very stodgy, very slow, and very disappointing. And, where those who like the book, criticise its ending for stacking up too much action and artifice, I find the ending (along with, to be fair, the beginning) by far its most readable and enjoyable part. Christie set about this book to be a psychological thriller rather than a murder mystery, and for me it simply doesn’t work. After its initial mysterious opening, it quickly falls into dull characterisations and strained conversations, until the arrival of Mickey. His confrontation with Calgary injects some drama into the events, and you think that it’s all going to pick up from this point – but it doesn’t. Instead, there are endless scenes of reflect and retrospection, reminiscences, and recollections, and absolutely no action. There’s a lengthy sequence, for example, where Leo Argyle drones on through what appears to be a full psychological assessment of his marriage. It’s very introverted and, frankly, not at all interesting, although you do feel it’s probably cathartic for him. But that doesn’t make a gripping read for us.

police inspectorIt’s not a question of the book missing a Poirot or a Marple, as it has the perfectly serviceable Superintendent Huish in charge of operations, but Christie makes Huish take a very back seat. I just spent hours and hours reading the thing waiting for something to happen. And on those rare occasions where something does happen, it’s in isolation and is followed by more conversations and introverted wonderings. I can appreciate that Christie might well have wanted to try her hand at a different kind of narrative, a more thoughtful, perhaps cerebral book. But the outcome is one of sheer tedium* (*with exceptions).

sunnyThe exceptions are the intensely mysterious and unnerving start, where Dr Calgary drums up the courage to visit the ironically named Sunny Point house, with no understanding of where he fits in to the unfolding drama of the household; and the final twenty pages or so which involve another murder, an attempted murder, the surprise unveiling of the murderer and the explanation of how the whole thing came about. But the morass of pages in between is, I’m afraid, hard work. The retrospective nature of the narration acts as a distancing agent, as Christie tries to make us see inside the heads of Leo, Hester, Mickey and so on, but doesn’t really achieve it. As a result, we’re just onlookers, having a story told to us from a distance but without much in the way of personal involvement or attachment.

InnocentThe second murder is, regrettably, telegraphed about 80 pages before it happens. For some reason, as I mentioned earlier, the police play a very back seat with this book so it’s incumbent on Dr Calgary (because his evidence turns the household into uproar) and Philip Durrant (because he is bored and wants some mental exercise) to do the necessary investigating. Durrant is going to go one of two ways; he’s either going to turn out to be the murderer himself, or be murdered for his meddling. You just know it’s going to happen. And it does. There’s an element of fatalism here, that comes across as rather oppressive but also easy for Christie. There’s a point where Calgary is leading all the investigation and it occurs to the reader that we actually know very little about him, and what his motivation is for getting so involved with trying to uncover the truth. To be fair, that’s never really satisfactorily dealt with; we’re told it’s because of Hester’s early statement “it’s not the guilty who matter, it’s the innocent”, but the lack of a structured investigation procedure doesn’t do this book any favours.

ClueOne thing that is very much in the book’s favour is that the reader hasn’t got a tiny clue as to who is guilty until right at the very end. Christie dumps a couple of enormous clues on us fifteen pages before it ends, that, if you stop and check back on a couple of earlier sentences and actions, indicate precisely and unequivocally who is to blame. Even though another suspect is brought into the frame at the last minute, once you’ve read the passage in question, there’s no doubt as to whodunit. And although you’ve been desperate for some action, so this last-minute excitement comes as a very welcome diversion, in a sense it is a shame that the book’s so closely guarded secret is opened up so inelegantly at the end.

MelancholyWith none of Christie’s usual sleuths taking part in this story, it is left to Superintendent Huish to lead the investigations, under the auspices of the Chief Constable, Major Finney. Christie doesn’t give Finney any characteristics at all – which is quite unusual of her – but we do at least get a small insight into the nature of Huish. “Huish was a tall, sad-looking man. His air of melancholy was so profound that no one would have believed that he could be the life and soul of a children’s party, cracking jokes and bringing pennies out of little boys’ ears, much to their delight.” So, a professionally dour man, which belies his true personality. We know he also has a “gentle West Country voice.” But beyond that, there’s very little to go on.

DartmouthNow we’ll look at some of the references in this book, starting, as usual, with the locations. Apart from a couple of obvious places, like London and Plymouth, all the locations are West Country creations of Christie but probably based on real places. Redquay, Polgarth, Ipsley; the ferry at Drymouth (maybe real-life Dartmouth?), and the cathedral city of Redmyn (maybe Truro?) The introverted nature of the book means that location as such is not important, the only relevant location is in the mind.

KiplingThere are, however, several other references, quotations and people. Most people will recognise Calgary’s early recalling of “how sharper than a serpent’s tooth” as coming from Shakespeare’s King Lear; in fact, Serpent’s Tooth was one of the possible original ideas for the title of the book. “Nothing is ever settled until it is settled right” says Leo, quoting Kipling – it’s a quote that also appears in A Pocket Full of Rye. In discussing Jacko’s trial, and commenting on his mental stability, Leo affirms “the McNaughten rules are narrow and unsatisfactory”; the McNaughten rule – and I’m quoting Wikipedia here, is “that every man is to be presumed to be sane, and … that to establish a defence on the ground of insanity, it must be clearly proved that, at the time of the committing of the act, the party accused was labouring under such a defect of reason, from disease of the mind, as not to know the nature and quality of the act he was doing; or if he did know it, that he did not know he was doing what was wrong.”

Lizzie BordenA number of old cases are quoted in this book. For instance, the case of Lizzie Borden, also mentioned in After the Funeral, who was tried and acquitted of the axe murders of her father and stepmother in Massachusetts in 1892. Huish remembers Harmon “in 1938. Long record behind him of pinched bicycles, swindled money, frauds on elderly women, and finally he does one woman in” – I’m fairly sure that’s a fictional character. Charles Bravo, is cited as a plausible murder victim; Mrs Cox and Dr Gully, also mentioned, were involved in the case. Bravo was killed in 1876 by antimony poisoning, but to this date no one has been brought to book for the murder.

We’ve all heard of the Magna Carta, but Hester is able to quote it: “to no man will we refuse justice”; which remains the basis of many extant laws around the world. Tina’s father is said to have been a Lascar seaman – a lascar was an Indian or Asian sailor or militiaman employed on European ships from the 16th to the 20th century. Micky remembers his mother, hiding in the Tube from “moaning minnies”, a slang term for German smoke mortar bombs. Hester is said to have seen an amateur performance of Waiting for Godot at the Drymouth Playhouse – that is, of course, Samuel Beckett’s famous 1953 play.

Macbeth“We shall never know the truth” says Peter, “I feel a kind of pricking in my thumbs”. By the pricking of my thumbs is a quotation from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, but also the name of an Agatha Christie book that the grande dame hadn’t written yet – a Tommy and Tuppence novel that would appear in 1968. When in London, Hester decides to stay at Curtis’ Hotel, as that’s where her mother used to stay – but it’s a figment of Christie’s imagination, I’m afraid. Philip recollects a line of French poetry – “Venus toute entire à sa prole attaché” – Venus entire latched onto her prey – a line from Racine’s play Phèdre. It’s the moment he realises he doesn’t love Mary any more.

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. Money has an important role to play in this book, so it is surprising that it’s mentioned so irregularly. Orphan Mickey is taken into Rachel and Leo’s household for the princely sum of £100 – which at today’s value would be £1,633. No wonder Mickey was upset at the bargain basement deal. Jacko demanded half that sum, £50, from Rachel – that’s £816. And the £2 that Hester borrows from Kirsten, is a surprising £32 today.

 

Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for Ordeal by Innocence:

 

Publication Details: 1958. My copy is a Fontana paperback, eighth impression, dated November 1970, with a price of 5/- on the back cover. The cover illustration, presumably by Tom Adams, shows a female figure surrounded by blue petals against the clouds across the moon, about to be swallowed up by an enormous snake. None of these symbols seem to have anything whatsoever to do with the story, although Viper’s Point was the original name for Sunny Point.

How many pages until the first death: The first death occurs before the book starts – the best part of two years before. For the second death, you have to wait an additional 170 pages – so if you’re waiting for someone else to die in order for the book to get the kick start it needs, you have to have a lot of patience. That only adds to the sense of boredom.

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

Memorable characters: Sadly, the characters are all very one-dimensional. A few of them – Gwenda, Finney, even Hester herself, have very little in the way of personality. Mickey is notable for having a spark of dynamism to him. But the rest do not stay in the mind at all.

Christie the Poison expert:

All the deaths in this book (before and after it starts) are characterised by acts of violence, and poison plays no part in it.

Class/social issues of the time:

As this book is very unlike most of Christie’s other works, unsurprisingly it doesn’t follow many of Christie’s usual themes and issues. The lesson to be learned from the book, if you like, is, as in the words of Lennon and McCartney, that money can’t buy you love. Rachel Argyle collected children with the view to adopting them as she couldn’t have children of her own. And though she showed them love, generosity and support, her relationships with her children were never as good as a those with a true blood relationship.

There’s a conversation in the book between Philip and Hester that goes quite deeply into the subject of suicide, and you feel that today the chapter could almost warrant a trigger warning. Hester confesses that she’s frequently thought of suicide, and Philip loftily discusses how prevalent suicide is in teenagers, citing a number of good reasons why this should be the case. Suicide was still illegal in 1958, and you can tell from the matter-of-fact and critical nature of their conversation that common practice was to look down on and scorn suicide rather than the more compassionate attitude we take today.

There’s a little xenophobia as usual; Mary favours a suggestion that Kirsten is the murderer as “after all, she’s a foreigner”. Tina is twice described as “half-caste”, which simply reflects the language of the day rather than being an indication of racism; however, when Philip starts to consider her as the murderer, he crosses the decency line. “Tina’s always the dark horse, to my mind […] perhaps it’s the half of her that isn’t white.”

Apart from that, there isn’t the variety of conversations with a range of people, or comments on actions that might stimulate class or social observations. Deep down, the book isn’t interesting enough to have them!

Classic denouement:  In a strange way, yes. All the suspects and interested parties are assembled by Calgary, who, guides us all to a slanging match showdown with the guilty party. The most extraordinary thing about this is that it all takes place without sight nor sound of a police officer – not even in the follow-up final chapter.

Happy ending? Yes – probably. Things are definitely looking good for one couple, whilst another might have a chance together. Others, however, are not so lucky.

Did the story ring true? One of its plus points. Yes, you can completely imagine how this story could be true, from the modus operandi to the frantic last efforts of the guilty party to eradicate proof against themselves.

Overall satisfaction rating: It has a good, mysterious start and an exciting, if frantic ending. You don’t find whodunit until the final scraps of pages, and the story does actually hang together quite convincingly. It’s such a shame, then, that the vast majority of the book is made up of tedious conversations, waiting around for something to happen. It’s not Christie’s worst, but she’s way off the mark thinking it was one of her best. I’m being generous with a 6/10.

Cat Among the PigeonsThanks for reading my blog of Ordeal by Innocence, 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 Cat Among the Pigeons, the Christie that I automatically think of when I try to assess which of all her books is my favourite. It’s a welcome return to Hercule Poirot after three years, and – if I remember rightly – the girls school setting gives a great sense of claustrophobia. So I’m really looking forward to attacking this book again. As usual, I’ll blog my thoughts about it as soon as I can. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!

The Agatha Christie Challenge – 4.50 from Paddington (1957)

4.50 From PaddingtonIn which Mrs McGillicuddy witnesses a murder from her train window as another train overtakes and she sees the back of a man strangling a woman. However, no murders or missing women have been reported. Is this the result of her overactive imagination? Her friend Miss Marple doesn’t think so, and engages the bright young cook and housekeeper Lucy Eyelesbarrow to do some snooping. With Lucy’s help, and the professional expertise of Detective Inspector Craddock, Miss Marple gets to the bottom of it all eventually! As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I promise not to reveal whodunit – although there are a few plot spoilers I’m afraid!

Agatha ChristieThis is one of Christie’s comparatively rare books that contains no dedication. It was first published in the UK in five abridged instalments in John Bull magazine in October and November 1957, and in the US in thirty-six instalments in the Chicago Tribune from October to December 1957, under the title Eyewitness to Death. With that same title, an abridged version of the novel was also published in the 28 December 1957 issue of the Star Weekly Complete Novel, a Toronto newspaper supplement. The full book was first published the US by Dodd, Mead and Company in November 1957 under the title What Mrs McGillicuddy Saw, and in the UK by Collins Crime Club on 4th November 1957 as 4.50 from Paddington, a complete year since the publication of her previous book, Dead Man’s Folly. The UK version was to be titled 4.54 from Paddington until the last minute, when the title and text references were changed to 4.50 from Paddington. This change was not communicated to Dodd Mead until after the book was being printed, so in that edition the text references to the time show 4:54 rather than 4:50.

Margaret RutherfordAs with After the Funeral, this book was the basis for one of the Margaret Rutherford Miss Marple films; the first in the series, Murder She Said. Much of the original plotline survived into the film, although Miss Marple plays a much more active part than in the book, as she basically assumes the Lucy Eyelesbarrow role.

Paddington Station4.50 from Paddington is a very enjoyable read, with some excellent aspects to it, plus a couple of downsides. It plunges straight into the main story, with Mrs McGillicuddy witnessing the murder on the third page. No faffing around with endless heavy exposition before getting to the meat, which is always a delight for the reader. Christie writes fluidly, amusingly and with some great quirky descriptions, and also creates a few terrific cameo characters. On the downside, some of the suspects aren’t very well drawn, and personally I kept on mixing up the brothers Cedric, Alfred and Harold so that I couldn’t work out what their particular personality traits are. There’s also a ridiculous coincidence set up, which, whilst thoroughly entertaining (it actually takes your breath away when you read the sentence in question) really takes preposterousness to a new dimension. Nevertheless, you forgive Christie because you’re totally enjoying the reading experience. Christie uses her short chapter structure to its fullest benefit, to build momentum and suspense, and give the impression that she’s keeping you up to date with what’s happening in every area of the story.

top-secretWith only a few pages to go, you realise that so many of the story’s secrets are still to be revealed, so you’re really kept on the edge of your seat towards the end. Primarily, we don’t discover who it was who was murdered on the 4.50 from Paddington until three pages before the end; and that’s unavoidable, because, in order for the crime to make sense, you have to know who the murderer is first. Some critics feel this is a downside, as the reader is unable to stretch their own little grey cells to any meaningful extent. Personally, however, I see it as a strength. It’s amazingly skilful that Christie manages to keep those secrets right to the very end!

Joan HicksonAlthough Miss Marple takes a very back seat in this book, by sending in Lucy to do her work for her, you nevertheless still get the sense that her presence is never too far away. She’s very active in the early stages as she encourages Mrs McGillicuddy not to give up her belief that she has genuinely seen a murder. Miss Marple achieves what she can, considering her age and infirmity, and then hands the real work over to Lucy. However, every time that Miss Marple does play a prominent part in the story, you feel you learn a little more about her. Much of the book’s energy stems from the juxtaposition of tradition versus modernity. Tradition is chiefly seen in the thoughts and characteristics of Miss Marple, and the head of the family at Rutherford Hall, Luther Crackenthorpe. I’ll touch on the modernity aspects later in this blog, but let’s think a little more about the fluffy, pink Jane Marple – a sweet little old lady with the mind of a razor.

GardenerWhen we first meet her, she’s surprisingly antagonistic and difficult. She’s always derived a great deal of joy from her garden, but not at the moment. “The garden is not looking at all as it should […] Doctor Haydock has absolutely forbidden me to do any stooping or kneeling – and really, what can you do if you don’t stoop or kneel? There’s old Edwards, of course, – but so opinionated. And all this jobbing gets them into bad habits, lots of cups of tea and so much pottering – not any real work.” She’s not only frustrated by the fact that she can’t tend the garden herself as she used to, she’s also got her claws into her own gardener – opinionated, full of bad habits, lazy. This is not a contented Miss Marple; she’s annoyed, restricted, and thoroughly critical of others. Miss Marple’s traditional stance is also emphasised at the end of the book when she and Craddock both agree that the perpetrator of the crimes deserves to be hanged. None of this mentally unstable nonsense; an eye for an eye is what’s required here.

Victorian GentlemanShe does continue to be very anti-feminist with her general outlook on woman’s place in society. It’s a respectable place, but not too ambitious. “Women have a lot of sense, you know, when it comes to money matters. Not high finance, of course. No woman can hope to understand that, my dear father said.” She’s deferential to “gentlemen”; “”so many gentlemen in the house, coming and going,” mused Miss Marple. When Miss Marple uttered the word “gentlemen” she always gave it its full Victorian flavour – an echo from an era actually before her own time. You were conscious at once of dashing full-blooded (and probably whiskered) males, sometimes wicked, but always gallant.”

PoisonThat paragraph is one of a couple where Christie’s voice comes in and speaks to the reader directly, which is a refreshing narration technique for us to enjoy. I love how, with no prompting, Christie describes Miss Marple’s current maid as “the grim Florence”. More significantly, (and slight spoiler alert!), when Lucy is explaining to Bryan about how the curry might have been poisoned, and tries to convince him that she had nothing to do with it, Christie’s voice comes in again: “Nobody could have tampered with the curry. She had made it – alone in the kitchen, and brought it to table, and the only person who could have tampered with it was one of the five people who sat down to the meal.” And that’s slightly disingenuous of her!

police inspectorSo not only do we get to know a bit more about Miss Marple’s character we also meet Inspector Bacon and Sergeant Weatherall, and get reacquainted with Inspector Craddock. Christie doesn’t spend too much time rounding out the character of Bacon; he’s the local Inspector, “a big solid man – his expression was that of one utterly disgusted with humanity.” Weatherall provides an occasionally comic presence; Christie describes him as “a man who lived in a state of dark suspicion of all and sundry” – which is probably not a bad thing for a police sergeant.

Craddock and MarpleCraddock, however, is a more complicated soul. We met him before when he led the detection in A Murder is Announced. In that book, he revealed the rather unusual characteristics of being able to recognise his own faults and prejudices. He is surprisingly self-aware; scrupulously honest, diligent in his work. In 4.50 from Paddington, he is the Inspector brought in from Scotland Yard. Christie describes him as having “a pleasant manner […] Nobody could make a better show of presenting a very small portion of the truth and implying that it was the whole truth than Inspector Craddock.” He’s delighted to be working with Miss Marple again; and she’s delighted too, and not only because he’s Sir Henry Clithering’s godson, but because she knows he’s a sensible, but also suggestable, detective. She tells Lucy about how they first met; “a case in the country. Near Medenham Spa.” That is indeed A Murder is Announced. He respects her insight, occasionally gently teasing her for having a mind unlike most other fluffy pink old ladies. Craddock’s self-awareness becomes more acute towards the end of the book, when he feels guilty about not having prevented further deaths. “The fact remains that I’ve made the most ghastly mess of things all along the line […] The Chief Constable down here calls in Scotland Yard, and what do they get? They get me making a prize ass of myself!” However, it’s this conversation with Miss Marple that finally gets his brain working in the right direction, so his self-doubt proves to be useful and constructive after all.

BracknellNow we’ll look at some of the references in this book, starting, as usual, with the locations. There’s a good mixture of real and make-believe places. Of prime importance in the early stages of the book are the stations through which the 4.50 from Paddington passes. Brackhampton, Milchester, Waverton, Carvil Junction, Roxeter, Chadmouth, Vanequay; other trains stop at Haling Broadway, Barwell Heath and Market Basing. The 5.00 Welsh Express goes to Cardiff, Newport and Swansea. Well, there’s no doubting the reality of those places. Milchester appears in A Murder is Announced, Market Basing (which one presumes is based on Basingstoke) appears in Crooked House, Dumb Witness and The Secret of Chimneys (amongst others). Brackhampton is presumably Bracknell in disguise.

Cadena CafeOtherwise, locations in London sound highly realistic; Harold has tea at Russell’s in Jermyn Street, (no such tea room, but Russell and Bromley shoe shop is in Jermyn Street), dines at Caterer’s Hall (doesn’t exist), lives at 43 Cardigan Gardens (also doesn’t exist). In Brackhampton, Emma has lunch at the Cadena Café, which was a well-established chain of cafes bought out by Tesco in 1965, shops at Greenford’s and Lyall and Swift’s, (neither of which I can identify) Boots, (obvious) and has tea at the Shamrock Tea Rooms (plenty of those around). Martine Crackenthorpe gives her address as 126 Elvers Crescent, N10. N10 is the Muswell Hill area of London, but there’s no Elvers Crescent. The compact that is found is said to have been sold by shops in the Rue de Rivoli in Paris – that’s a pretty exclusive and real address.

A Horses TaleAnd now for the other references. Miss Marple tells Craddock that her method of thought was based on Mark Twain: “the boy who found the horse. He just imagined where he would go if he were a horse and he went there and there was the horse.” I’m pretty sure that’s A Horse’s Tale, published in 1907. Harold drives a Humber Hawk; that was a Hillman style car that was manufactured from 1945 to 1967. Miss Marple raises the question of tontine; the definition of which I lift shamelessly from Wikipedia: “an investment plan for raising capital, devised in the 17th century and relatively widespread in the 18th and 19th centuries. It enables subscribers to share the risk of living a long life by combining features of a group annuity with a kind of mortality lottery. Each subscriber pays an agreed sum into the fund and thereafter receives a periodical payout. As members die, their payout entitlements devolve to the other participants, and so the value of each continuing payout increases. On the death of the last member, the scheme is wound up.”

Cowboy filmCedric advises that on the afternoon of December 20th he saw a film, Rowenna of the Range. He describes it as a corker of a western, but I’m afraid it’s fresh out of Christie’s imagination, so don’t IMDB it. I think Mrs Stanwich, the woman who poisoned and killed her own child, whose case Miss Marple recollects, is also fictional. And when Craddock asks Dr Morris about cases where people were poisoned without a doctor realising it, mentioning “the Greenbarrow case, Mrs Reney, Charles Leeds, three people in the Westbury family”, I believe these are all fictional too.

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. Most unusually, sums of money are not mentioned in this book. There’s the question of the Crackenthorpe inheritance, but no sum is actually cited. The only mention of a sum I noticed was when Mrs McGillicuddy gives a railway porter a shilling as a tip. Today that would be worth 84p. Not overly generous.

Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for 4.50 from Paddington:

Publication Details: 1957. My copy is a Fontana paperback, sixth impression, dated May 1967, with a price of 3/6 on the front cover. The cover illustration by Tom Adams shows the sarcophagus in the background, with the compact, some fur from a collar and some foliage, neatly and fairly encapsulating a few vital elements of the plot.

How many pages until the first death: 3. There are few things more rewarding than a whodunit where the crime appears so early in the book. You know there’s no waiting around, no lengthy expositions, just the opportunity to dive straight in and solve it!

Funny lines out of context: Regrettably none that I could see.

Memorable characters:

Although some of the characters aren’t very well drawn, there are plenty that are. Lucy Eyelesbarrow is one of Christie’s strong young women, full of gumption and derring-do, a trusty pair of hands into which to entrust a lot of the leg work in solving the crime. At first you get a slight sense of disappointment that Lucy is rather artificially parachuted into the story, rather than having any real organic connection to it, but that quickly passes as she gains importance in the first half of the book. The obvious attraction that Cedric and Alfred feel for her is amusingly described, and the very gentle dalliance between her and Bryan is also rather charming.

Elsewhere, Luther Crackenthorpe also stands out because of his irascibility and belligerence, but you can see the heart within the man, and his approaches to Lucy are also amusing. You can never really decide to what extent he’s shamming his ill health or if the Doctors are right and he is needs lots of rest. Mme Joliet features briefly but entertainingly; “a brisk business-like Frenchwoman with a shrewd eye, a small moustache and a good deal of adipose tissue.” And young Alexander’s fresh-faced and exceedingly proper prep school keenness is amusingly and lovingly drawn. It’s not surprising that they made more out of that role for the film Murder She Said.

Christie the Poison expert:

Dr Quimper underplays the possibility that Crackenthorpe may have been the victim of arsenic poisoning, and there are discussions about how you can introduce arsenic gradually into a diet without anyone realising. And there was arsenic in the curry. Aconite is also used in this book – the first time that Christie employs this poison in her novels. Better known as wolf’s bane, this was the poison that was used in ancient Greece, where a javelin or dart would be dipped in the substance to make it even more lethal when piercing skin. Used in Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine, and also for its attractive floral appearance, it’s extremely effective as a poison.

Class/social issues of the time:

By far and away the biggest social theme of this book is people’s concerns and suspicions about modern progress, juxtaposed with good old-fashioned practices. Take, for example, the new developments in a 1957 kitchen. When Bryan helps Lucy prepare dinner, he’s impressed by the modern oven. Different ingredients have been merrily cooking away, apparently with no human help. “Have all these things been fizzling away in here while we’ve been at the inquest? Supposing they’d been all burnt up.” “Most improbable,” replies Lucy, “there’s a regulating number on the oven.” “Kind of electric brain, eh what?” admires Bryan, whose exposure to modern cooking methods are limited to putting “a steak under the grill or open a tin of soup. I’ve got one of those little electric whatnots in my flat.”

Miss Marple, perhaps unexpectedly, recognises the benefits of modern domestic progress. She accepts her nephew Raymond describing her as having a mind like a sink, “but, as I always told him, sinks are necessary domestic equipment and actually very hygienic.” Harold’s wife, Lady Alice, is less progressive. “I read in the paper the other day […] of forty people in a hotel going down with food poisoning at the same time. All this refrigeration is dangerous, I think. People keep things too long in them.”

It’s not just kitchen developments that rear their head. Miss Marple and Craddock are both suspicious of the modern tendency towards explaining (or excusing) criminal behaviour from a mental health perspective. Old Doctor Morris, too, when asked by Craddock why Crackenthorpe dislikes his sons, replies “you’ll have to go to one of these new-fashioned psychiatrists to find that out.”

Another major bugbear amongst the characters – especially Luther Crackenthorpe – is high taxation. I’m not sure if this was a hangover from the war, or whether Christie’s own tax bill that year was preposterous, but there’s hardly an opportunity missed to criticise the high levels of taxation at the time. Emma says of her father, “he has a very large income and doesn’t actually spend a quarter of it – or used not to until these days of high income tax.” Dr Morris agrees: “it is the root, too, of his parsimony, I think. I should say that he’s managed to save a considerable sum out of his large income – mostly, of course, before taxation rose to its present giddy heights.” Even Miss Marple stirs his anger on the subject in a conversation also with Cedric; “”punctuality and economy. Those are my watchwords.” “Very necessary, I’m sure,” said Miss Marple, “especially in these times with taxation and everything.” Mr Crackenthorpe snorted. “Taxation! Don’t talk to me of those robbers. A miserable pauper – that’s what I am. And it’s going to get worse, not better. You wait, my boy,” he addressed Cedric, “when you get this place ten to one the Socialists will have it off you and turn it into a Welfare Centre or something.” High taxation is even given as one of the motives for the crime (but I don’t want to give away too much!)

A Christie wouldn’t be a Christie if it didn’t have a little gentle xenophobia, and in this book, it’s reserved for the French. Describing someone or something as French, is taken as a cue to roll your eyes, shrug your shoulders, and say, “oh, well, the French….” as if that explains everything that’s wrong with the world.

Classic denouement:  No. Even though Miss Marple sets up a revelation of who the murderer is in front of a large crowd of witnesses, it all happens so quickly and suddenly that you couldn’t possibly describe it as classic. You haven’t got the time mentally to prepare yourself for what’s about to happen. Nevertheless, it’s still very entertaining and enjoyable.

Happy ending? Yes. The final discussions between Miss Marple and Inspector Craddock are light-hearted and friendly, and they concentrate on who might engage Lucy in the matrimonial stakes. Craddock doesn’t know who might become Lucy’s significant other, but Miss Marple is certain. Interestingly, in Christie’s original notes, she made it clear that she felt it would be Cedric. But I don’t think that’s how it will work out!

Did the story ring true? As mentioned earlier, there’s one massive coincidence without which a vital piece of evidence would never have been revealed. It’s a fantastic and thoroughly enjoyable surprise too, but the reader might think the coincidence is just a step too far. Personally, I forgive Christie for it, and therefore I think that, on the whole, the story just about holds together.

Overall satisfaction rating: For me, the good sides outweigh the downsides, and the twists are entertaining enough to warrant a 9/10.

Ordeal by InnocenceThanks for reading my blog of 4.50 from Paddington, 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 Ordeal by Innocence, a mystery novel that includes neither Poirot nor Marple, nor any of Christie’s other long-term detectives. Nothing about this book springs into my mind, so it’s either totally forgettable or my brain has sprung a leak. I guess we’ll find out! As usual, I’ll blog my thoughts about it as soon as I can. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!

Happy New Year!

Happy New YearFirst, gentle reader, let me be among the last (probably) to wish you a happy new year – and, my word, we don’t half need one. I hope you’re doing as well as can be expected under these trying circumstances, Covid-dodging on a daily basis, crossing every digit available for your turn for the vaccine to come as soon as possible.

 

StageIt’s thin pickings for a theatre blogger at the moment; not only because the theatres are all closed, but also because, try as I might, I find it hard to get enthusiastic about live streaming theatre. I know, I know, my bad. I thought I would take to it like a duck to water; instead, I’ve taken to it like Boris Johnson to the truth. It tends to remind me more of what we’re all missing, rather than having something that’s worth it in itself. And I know it’s worth it, and I definitely implore you to keep downloading and streaming, because the industry needs it. Please forgive me if I simply can’t bring myself to do it too.

 

Agatha ChristieOne difference (for me) from Lockdown 1.0 to Lockdown 3.0 – I feel more fired up about reading. Last March and April I couldn’t have cared less for the written word. Today I feel it ought to play more of a part in my daily rituals. So I shall definitely be continuing with my Agatha Christie and Paul Berna Challenges, and, on a less regular basis, the James Bond Challenge (they’re a lot of work and take a long time to write!) I’ll also try to keep up with my nostalgic theatre memories and my lockdown travel reminiscences. As for going back to the theatre, I feel as though it will be unlikely for me until I’ve had both doses of my vaccine and given them the statutory three weeks to bed in. With current progress, I hope that means I’ll be in time for next Christmas’s pantos!

 

Paul BernaI knew there was something else I wanted to tell you. There’ll be no Chrisparkle Awards this January. There doesn’t seem a lot of point hiring the costumes and the television cameras etc to celebrate 10 weeks’ worth of live entertainment (not that it isn’t worth celebrating, but I’m sure you get my drift). With any luck the Awards will return this time next year. Or this time in two years’ time. Who knows.

 

James BondStay safe everyone. Look after your minds as well as your bodies. We can all feel somewhat fragile at the moment – there’s no shame in that. My appreciation for the emergency services and the NHS is off the scale; may all the people who work there safely and successfully keep us all well whilst remaining fit and healthy themselves. We’ll get through it all, I’m sure.

The Agatha Christie Challenge – Dead Man’s Folly (1956)

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

Humphrey TrevelyanThe book is dedicated “To Humphrey & Peggie Trevelyan”. Humphrey Trevelyan – also known as Baron Trevelyan, was a British diplomat and author, and, at the time of the publication of Dead Man’s Folly, was the British Ambassador to Egypt, which is doubtless how Agatha and Max Mallowan came to know him and his wife Peggie. Dead Man’s Folly was first published in the US in three abridged instalments in the Collier’s Weekly in July and August 1956, and in the UK in six abridged instalments in John Bull magazine in August and September 1956. The full book was first published the US by Dodd, Mead and Company in October 1956, and in the UK by Collins Crime Club on 5th November 1956.

FollyDead Man’s Folly is a curious book in a number of ways. At first, it strongly reminded me of The Hollow, with Lady Stubbs taking on the latter-day role of Lady Angkatell. But then the story goes in a different direction, and for many pages in the centre sections of the book, it appears to lose its way, as we wait for something specific to happen. The thing we’re waiting for never actually materialises either, which also feels a bit of a disappointment. Poirot, unforgivably, ignores a vital clue which the reader picks up on immediately; it’s not often that we outsmart Poirot, and it simply doesn’t sit well. When we finally understand the truth of the case, the plot feels overwhelmingly complex and intricate. Many of the characters, too, are just lightly sketched in, and even the return of Mrs Oliver doesn’t portray her as exciting and vivid as we remember her from before. Even the title isn’t particularly suitable; yes, there is the double meaning of the word folly but I’m blowed if I can work out who the Dead Man might be.

Toast and JamNevertheless, there are some very enjoyable sequences, and, if not well-written characters, then well-written conversations. There’s a light comic touch, for example, to Poirot’s lengthy interrogation of Miss Brewis, punctuated by him slowly looking for the breakfast toast and jam.  As I said just now, the return of Mrs Oliver is enjoyable, but not outstanding; but a few further insights are made into Hercule Poirot’s character which redress the balance somewhat on the otherwise sketchy characterisations. In fact, we probably learn more about him in this book than in any other, save, perhaps for the first couple of books where the character was first introduced. We’ve seen before his disapproval of how some young women don’t make the best of their appearance. It’s elaborated on more in this book. When he meets a couple of girls from the local youth hostel, “he was reflecting, not for the first time, that seen from the back, shorts were becoming to very few of the female sex. He shut his eyes in pain. Why, oh why, must young women array themselves thus? Those scarlet thighs were singularly unattractive!” Before you call him a sexist pig, remember he is from a different era. But sexist pig does somewhat come to mind.

Red RosePossibly Poirot’s problem is that he is an old romantic. We already know of his passion for the Countess Vera from previous books. In Dead Man’s Folly, Poirot tells Sally Legge where English husbands get it wrong, and “foreigners are more gallant”. ““We know,” said Poirot, “that it is necessary to tell a woman at least once a week, and preferably three or four times, that we love her; and that it also wise to bring her a few flowers, to pay her a few compliments, to tell her that she looks well in her new dress or her new hat.”” When Sally asks him if he practices what he preaches, he replies, “I, Madame, am not a husband […] alas! […] it is terrible all that I have missed in life.”

World War 1 EndsSome more of Poirot’s homespun philosophy: in conversation with Alec Legge, who believes that “in times of stress, when it’s a matter of life or death, one can’t think of one’s own insignificant ills or preoccupations”, Poirot takes the opposite view. “I assure you, you are quite wrong. In the late war, during a severe air-raid, I was much less preoccupied by the thought of death than of the pain from a corn on my little toe. It surprised me at the time that it should be so. “Think”, I said to myself, “at any moment now, death may come,” But I was still conscious of my corn – indeed I felt injured that I should have that to suffer as well as the fear of death. It was because I might die that every small personal matter in my life acquired increased importance. I have seen a woman knocked down in a street accident, with a broken leg, and she has burst out crying because she sees that there is a ladder in her stocking.” I guess this very much sums up Poirot’s belief that people always behave like people – and that’s how they give themselves away when it comes to matters of crime. It also surprises one that Poirot should have been actively at war during the First World War – The Mysterious Affair at Styles confirms that Poirot arrived as a refugee in England after the war and had been an active member of the Belgian Police Force – but we know of no military involvement. Maybe he was unlucky in a street somewhere.

JigsawChristie brings our attention back to Poirot’s need and desire for symmetrically ordered design. “Hercule Poirot sat in a square chair in front of the square fireplace in the square room of his London flat. In front of him were various objects that were not square: that were instead violently and almost impossibly curved. Each of them, studied separately, looked as if they could not have any conceivable function in a sane world. They appeared improbable, irresponsible, and wholly fortuitous […] Assembled in their proper place in their particular universe, they not only made sense, they made a picture. In other words, Hercule Poirot was doing a jigsaw puzzle.” Thus Christie emphasises Poirot’s obsession with neatness and regularity, and also shows that a jigsaw is the perfect metaphor for how he pieces together the individual facts of a case in order to create the whole picture.

frenchmanInspector Bland, one of a team of policemen that we meet in this book for the one and only time, is perhaps less insightful regarding his opinion of Poirot – initially, at least. PC Hoskins asks him who Poirot is; his response: “you’d describe him probably as a scream […] Kind of music hall parody of a Frenchman, but actually he’s a Belgian. But in spite of his absurdities, he’s got brains.” High praise indeed! For me, the most interesting insight into Poirot’s mentality is his disappointment not to have solved the case earlier. “He went slowly out of the boathouse, unhappy and displeased with himself. He, Hercule Poirot, had been summoned to prevent a murder – and he had not prevented it. It had happened. What was even more humiliating was that he had no real ideas even now, as to what had actually happened. It was ignominious. And tomorrow he must return to London defeated. His ego was seriously deflated – even his moustaches drooped.”

telephoneOne final thing on Poirot – we get to find out his phone number! It’s Trafalgar 8137. When those London area names became numbers, that would have changed to 872-8137; then in 1968 the codes changed and Poirot’s number would have become 01 839 8137 – and now, 0207 839 8137. Hugely disappointing to discover that the number appears to be currently unused.

ApplesEnough of Poirot! Let’s move on to Mrs Oliver, if I can put it like that. You’ll remember from her previous appearances that her trademark symbol is the apple, and once again, when we meet Mrs O for the first time in this book, “several apples fell from her lap and rolled in all directions”. She’s obsessed with the things. I can’t wait to re-read Hallowe’en Party, where Mrs Oliver discovers that apples can have a more sinister side. Poirot values Mrs Oliver’s company and instinct – it’s on her say-so that he ups and leaves the comfort of his London flat for Devon. Whilst we may feel she represents Christie herself, with her insights into writing detective novels, Poirot sees her as a replacement Hastings. Towards the end of the book she makes an innocent comment about hats being a symbol, and Poirot sees the light on one aspect of the crime that’s been bothering him. Mrs Oliver hasn’t a clue that she’s helped. “It is extraordinary,” said Poirot, and his voice was awed. “Always you give me ideas. So also did my friend Hastings whom I have not seen for many, many years. You have given me now the clue to yet another piece of my problem.” Unfortunately she fades out of the book for a long spell in the middle and only reappears right at the end, which I feel is rather unbalanced.

dead bodyLet’s look at some of Mrs Oliver’s insights into the writing process. When Poirot is impressed at her ingenuity in planning a torturously complicated story for the Murder Hunt, she replies, “it’s never difficult to think of things […] the trouble is that you think of too many, and then it all becomes too complicated, so you have to relinquish some of them and that is rather agony.” Later she admits that it’s possible to make a mistake. “”Don’t bother about me,” she said to Poirot. “I’m just remembering if there’s anything I’ve forgotten.” Sir George laughed heartily. “The fatal flaw, eh?” he remarked. “That’s just it,” said Mrs Oliver. “There always is one. Sometimes one doesn’t realise it until a book’s actually in print. And then it’s agony!” Her face reflected this emotion. She sighed. “The curious thing is that most people never notice it. I say to myself, “but of course the cook would have been bound to notice that two cutlets hadn’t been eaten,” but nobody else thinks of it at all.”” I believe Christie herself admitted that there are a few errors in her books; there are chronology discrepancies in Crooked House and Murder in Mesopotamia, I think; and the murder weapon in Death in the Clouds was the wrong size for an aeroplane!

Giving a talkWhen Mrs Oliver returns to the story towards the end of the book, she has been preparing for – or rather not preparing for – a talk she had been asked to give entitled “ How I Write My Books”. But it’s a question she can’t answer. “I mean, what can you say about how you write books? What I mean is, first you’ve got to think of something, and when you’ve thought of it you’ve got to force yourself to sit down and write it. That’s all. It would have taken me just three minutes to explain that, and then the Talk would have been ended and everyone would have been very fed up. I can’t imagine why everybody is always so keen for authors to talk about writing. I should have thought it was an author’s business to write, not talk.” I’m guessing Mrs Christie didn’t much like giving talks.

Woman in the woodOne last observation about Mrs Oliver – Christie wryly mentions that three years after the case “Hercule Poirot read The Woman in the Wood by Ariadne Oliver, and wondered whilst he read it why some of the persons and incidents seemed to him vaguely familiar.” As Pablo Picasso once said, “good artists copy, great artists steal.”

police inspectorThis book is surprisingly full of other police types. Normally Poirot solves a case either on his own or in company with the local police inspector or someone from Scotland Yard. Occasionally they also involve the Chief Constable. Dead Man’s Folly, however, features at least five other police officers. It’s almost as though Christie was trying them out for size to see if they were worth resurrecting in future books. I’ve already referred to Inspector Bland; bland by name, bland by nature. Christie primarily uses him as an all-purpose cop, programmed to ask questions of suspects, rather than an individual with his own personality. “You’re so damned respectable, Bland”, says Major Merrell, his Chief Constable. All we know of Merrell is that Christie tells us he “had irritable tufted eyebrows and looked rather like an angry terrier. But his men all liked him and respected his judgment.” There’s also Superintendent Baldwin, Bland’s immediate superior (we presume), of which we know that he is “a large comfortable-looking man”, whatever that means. We briefly meet Sergeant Cottrell, “a brisk young man with a good opinion of himself, who always managed to annoy his superior officer.” And there’s PC Hoskins, who’s not that PC after all. Hoskins is one of those lesser police officers who listen to the local gossip, and mistrust anyone who wasn’t born in the same village that he was. But we do understand that he is “a man of inquisitive mind with a great interest in everybody and everything”. If there’s a suspect, he’s bound to be a “”foreigner of some sort”, “one of those that stop up to the Hostel at Hoodown, likely as not, There’s some queer ones among them – and a lot of goings-on […] you never know with foreigners. Turn nasty, they can, all in a moment […]” Bland reflected that the local verdict seemed to be the comfortable and probably age-long one of attributing every tragic occurrence to unspecified foreigners.”

DartmouthNow we’ll look at some of the references in this book. Starting with the locations, this book is set primarily in Devon, but bookended with Poirot’s flat in London. Nasse House, the prime location for the story, is in the appropriately named Nassecombe, other local towns and villages to appear are Helm, Helmmouth, Brixwell and Gitcham. All of these place names are fictitious; however, I think it’s likely that the setting is very much inspired by Christie’s own home Greenaway near Dartmouth, and that Helmmouth is Dartmouth, Brixwell is Brixham, Gitcham is Dittisham, and Nasse House and Nassecombe are equated with Noss near Dartmouth.

painted fingernailsThere are a few other references, mostly pretty well known or guessable, with just a couple that foxed me. When Poirot observes Lady Stubbs’ immaculate fingernails, he thinks “they toil not, neither do they spin…” which is taken from the Bible, the gospel of Matthew, Chapter 6, verses 28-29: “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: and yet I say unto you, that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.” I remember having to read that at a school assembly once. When Sally tells Sir George that he reminded her of Betsy Trotwood shouting at donkeys, he doesn’t get the reference, but you and I both know that’s David Copperfield’s aunt.

George SangerMrs Folliat quotes some lines of Spenser to Poirot: “Sleep after toyle, port after stormie seas, ease after war, death after life, doth greatly please…” which are the last two lines of his poem Sleep After Toyle, from his collection of short poems entitled Complaints, published in 1591, which I confess I had never come across. Mrs Masterton tells Poirot that Sir George’s name was possibly taken from Lord George Sanger’s Circus. George Sanger was a travelling showman and circus proprietor active in the 19th century, who established his circus at an amphitheatre on Westminster Bridge Road in London.

Jacques Fath“When lovely woman stoops to folly” quotes Mrs Oliver, without knowing where she’s heard it before. It’s the title and first line of a short poem by Oliver Goldsmith – I wonder if Christie was punning on the name Oliver as a private joke? When Weyman is asked if he had seen Lady Stubbs on the afternoon of the fete, he replies “Of course I saw her, Who could miss her? Dressed up like a mannequin of Jacques Fath or Christian Dior?” Dior, of course, is very familiar. But Fath? He was a French fashion designer, whose clients included Ava Gardner, Greta Garbo and Rita Heyworth, and he even dressed Eva Peron. He died of leukaemia at the age of 42, two years before Dead Man’s Folly was published. Finally, Major Merrall concludes that Lady Stubbs was not a wealthy woman, in fact “she’s not got a stiver of her own”. I’d never come across the word stiver before. It derives from the Dutch, stuiver, which was an old coin, the equivalent of five Dutch cents, a 20th of a guilder. My OED tells me it came into use in English in the early 17th century. Who knew?

PoundWhich brings me nicely to the question of money, and regular 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. There are no grand values bandied about in this book, rather the opposite in fact. Admission to the fete cost half-a-crown (that’s 12.5p to you youngsters) – at today’s rate that would be just over £2. Bargain, I’d say. And Lady Stubbs tells Poirot that she once won sixty thousand francs at Monte Carlo on the roulette wheel. Unfortunately, she doesn’t tell us exactly when, but even in 1956 that would have been the equivalent of over £8000 today – so not a bad win at all.

 

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

 

Publication Details: 1956. My copy is a Fontana paperback, fourth impression, dated September 1974, with a price of 35p on the back cover. The cover illustration by Tom Adams shows a dead girl clutching a scarf, lying on a bed of daisies under a folly and with a yacht in the distance. That basically brings together many elements of the book although it takes liberties with what actually happened!

How many pages until the first death: 64. It feels like quite a long wait, but you do get a sense of pre-murder suspense; you know something evil is going to happen to someone but you don’t know what and you don’t know to whom.

Funny lines out of context: A classic use of the E word, in a conversation between Mrs Oliver and Hercule Poirot.

“I beg your pardon, M. Poirot, did you say something?” “It was an ejaculation only.”

Memorable characters:

Unfortunately, this is one aspect in which this book falls down badly, and is one reason why it becomes a curious re-read, in that it’s so unmemorable, it’s like you’re reading it for the first time!

Christie the Poison expert:

Again, nothing to see here. Christie’s chosen methods of murder in this book are garrotting and drowning.

Class/social issues of the time:

This book isn’t as rooted in social issues as much as many of Christie’s other works, but there are a few interesting points of note. The growth of Communism continues to vex Christie, a theme she introduced in Destination Unknown and which continued in Hickory Dickory Dock. Here it’s not so strongly alluded to, and is also conflated with Christie’s regular observations about “foreigners”. The siting of the Youth Hostel at Hoodown upsets many of the villagers with its inevitable influx of young people from abroad. Sir George is not happy at this arrangement, especially as many of the young people try to use his land as a short cut. ““Trespassers are a menace since they’ve started this Youth Hostel tomfoolery. They come out at you from everywhere wearing the most incredible shirts – boy this morning had one all covered with crawling turtles and things – made me think I’d been hitting the bottle or something. Half of them can’t speak English – just gibber at you…” He mimicked: “ ‘Oh, plees – yes, haf you – tell me – iss way to ferry?” I say no, it isn’t, roar at them, and send them back where they’ve come from, but half the time they just blink and stare and don’t understand. And the girls giggle. All kinds of nationalities, Italian, Yugoslavian, Dutch, Finnish – Eskimos I shouldn’t be surprised! Half of them Communists, I shouldn’t wonder”, he ended darkly. “Come now, George, don’t get started on communists,” said Mrs Legge.”

But there’s also the curious incident of Alec Legge and the young man in the turtle shirt. The true significance of this is never made absolutely plain, but Poirot confronts the scientist over his deduction that “some years ago you had an interest and sympathy for a certain political party. Like many other young men of a scientific bent” – which takes us straight back to the Communist “paradise” in Destination Unknown. Poirot realises that there was an assignation between Legge and this young man in the boathouse. There is some suggestion, maybe, of espionage, or blackmail; we just don’t know. But whatever the reality, it’s clear that this is another reference to what was perceived to be the growing threat from the east.

There’s also a reiteration of an idea that I’ve seen in other Christie novels, and one which Poirot often employs to his own benefit. Miss Brewis doesn’t hold back from telling Poirot what she thinks about Lady Stubbs. ““Lady Stubbs knows perfectly well exactly what she is doing. Besides being, as you said, a very decorative young woman, she is also a very shrewd one.” She had turned away and left the room before Poirot’s eyebrows had fully risen in surprise. So that was what the efficient Miss Brewis thought, was it? Or had she merely said so for some reason of her own? And why had she made such a statement to him – to a newcomer? Because he was a newcomer, perhaps? And also because he was a foreigner. As Hercule Poirot had discovered by experience, there were many English people who considered that what one said to foreigners didn’t count!” For this to be true, it implies that the English consider foreigners to be less important, or intelligent, or relevant. Whatever, it’s a sign of international disrespect. Poirot recognises latent xenophobia in conversation with Mrs Masterton too. “”By the way, you’re a friend of the Eliots, I believe?” Poirot, after his long sojourn in England, comprehended that this was an indication of social recognition. Mrs Masterton was in fact saying: “Although a foreigner, I understand you are One of Us.” She continued to chat in an intimate manner.” Apart from that, there’s the usual, minor xenophobic banter you find in a typical Christie, including Sir George referring to De Sousa as a “dago”, as well as PC Hoskins’ non-PC comments I mentioned earlier.

Even though the book was published more than ten years after the end of the war, there are still traces of its after-effects. Mrs Masterton doesn’t trust Warburton; “silly the way he sticks to calling himself “Captain”. Not a regular soldier, and never within miles of a German.” Like Christopher Wren in Three Blind Mice (and by association, The Mousetrap) and Laurence Brown in Crooked House, people are still suspicious of any man without an immaculate war record.

But time marches on, and the 1950s bring with them the first signs of creature comforts that we have come to love and appreciate over the past seventy years. Mrs Folliat reflects on how the top cottage at Nasse House has been “enlarged and modernised […] it had to be; we’ve got quite a young man now as head gardener, with a young wife – and these young women must have electric irons and modern cookers and television, and all that. One must go with the times.” I think that’s the first time that Christie has mentioned such modern inventions – although I think we may have seen Poirot blissfully warmed by central heating in an earlier book. By 1956 I would have thought it would have been commonplace to have at least one of these modern items in your household. But then again, Mrs Folliat does rather live in the past.

Trust PC Hoskins to bring up the subject of Lady Stubbs’ IQ, suggesting it might be on the low side. “The inspector looked at him with annoyance. “Don’t bring out these new-fangled terms like a parrot. I don’t care if she’s got a high IQ or a low IQ.” Bland might consider IQ to be a new-fangled idea but in fact the concept of IQ had been around for decades. Maybe at this time it was just starting to gain popular traction.

Classic denouement:  No. As in Hickory Dickory Dock before it, the identity of the murderer is revealed in a quiet private discussion purely between Poirot, Bland and Merrell; but then Christie cuts away from the scene before Poirot can explain to his colleagues How They Did It. Poirot then moves on to a discussion with a third party to seek clarification on certain points of his theories. Apart from that, we never see the culprit confronted with their crime, or see other witnesses find out what actually happened, or their reaction to the truth. Not at all satisfactory, I fear.

Happy ending? Unusually, there’s no reason to expect any happy ending here. No last-minute engagements, no rightful inheritances; in fact, there is a suspicion that one of the characters might end their own life after the end of the book. Very downbeat.

Did the story ring true? Whilst it’s not an impossible solution to the crime it’s a highly implausible one. Very complicated, very elaborate (and totally unguessable!) So, no, it doesn’t ring that true.

Overall satisfaction rating: It’s a complex plot, full of smoke and mirrors, and impossible to guess; it has a dull middle part where nothing much happens, and the characters and story aren’t particularly memorable. To its credit, it fleshes out Poirot a lot more, and there are some entertaining passages. But, overall, a slightly disappointing 7/10.

4.50 From PaddingtonThanks for reading my blog of Dead Man’s Folly 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 4.50 from Paddington, and the return of Miss Marple. The Margaret Rutherford Marple film Murder She Said is based on this book, and I’ve recently seen the film again so I can clearly remember whodunit. We’ll see if that spoils the book at all. As usual, I’ll blog my thoughts about it as soon as I can. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!

The Agatha Christie Challenge – Hickory Dickory Dock (1955)

Hickory Dickory DockIn which Hercule Poirot is brought into make sense of some strange thefts and minor acts of vandalism at a students’ hostel managed by his secretary, Miss Lemon,’s sister, Mrs Hubbard. But when the thefts turn into deaths, his job is to discover who is behind a series of very serious crimes and prevent more murders from taking place.  As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I promise not to reveal whodunit!

MouseThis is the first book written by Christie to bear no dedication since Crooked House was published in 1949. However, even that book started with a foreword. This is the first book to launch straight into the first chapter without any preamble since Sparkling Cyanide in 1945. Hickory Dickory Dock was first published in the UK in six abridged instalments in John Bull magazine, from May to July 1955. In the US, the novel was first serialised in the Collier’s Weekly in three abridged instalments between October and November 1955 under the title Hickory Dickory Death. The full book was first published in the UK by Collins Crime Club on 31st October 1955, and in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company in the following month.

detectiveI had been looking forward to re-reading Hickory Dickory Dock and for the most part it did not disappoint. In many respects, it’s the classic Christie gripping read – a sequence of deaths occurring in a closed environment, and, although there’s no reason why the murderer should not be someone from outside, you really hope that it is one of the obvious suspects and not some unexpected external influence. The characterisations are good, and you really get a feel for how they behave individually. It’s very difficult – if not impossible – for the reader to ascertain the reason for all the individual thefts and minor crimes that Poirot is initially consulted on – in fact, you don’t try, you just let Poirot’s intelligence wash all over you. As far as the identity of the murderer is concerned, it’s curiously both obvious and completely obfuscated. I remember when I first read this book as a child that I guessed who had done it and was both chuffed to have got it right and disappointed not to enjoy a big surprise.

Mouse Ran up the ClockAs with many of her other books, the title is taken from a nursery rhyme or well-known quotation. It’s a great title; but to be fair it’s lazily applied. For example, there’s no relevant mouse or clock involved in the story. Its only relevance is just the fact that the name of the street where the students live is Hickory Road. You can tell that the title came first. The book begins and ends with a couple of old characters whom we’ve met before. Poirot’s super-efficient secretary, Miss Lemon, appears in the first chapter, startling Poirot by making mistakes in her letters. This is not the Miss Lemon that he has become used to over the years, and nor do we expect her mind to be elsewhere when she is “on the job”. We first encountered her in Parker Pyne Investigates, as one of that super-sleuth’s industrious bank of general staff. By 1947, she has joined Poirot’s team, as we reacquaint ourselves with her in The Labours of Hercules. The opening scene, where Miss Lemon makes a (shock!) mistake with the typing, is written with heaps of humour and is a delightful and very funny introduction. At the end of the book, Poirot catches up with “old Mr Endicott” with whom he had worked on the Abernethy case. This refers to After the Funeral; but whether it’s by error or judgment Christie has slightly changed the details from that previous book, where the family’s name was spelt Abernethie and the solicitor in the case was old Mr Entwhistle. Those changes of name seem very curious to me.

LiegeThere are a few other callbacks to other Christie novels in this book. For example, there is the repetition of the name Mrs Hubbard, who is Miss Lemon’s sister who works at the students’ hostel, but is also one of the American guests travelling on the Orient Express in Murder on the Orient Express. When the students are expecting the arrival of Poirot to give a lecture, one of them says “there was a man who was condemned to death for the murder of a charwoman and this detective got him off at the last moment by finding the real person” – that’s the story of Mrs McGinty’s Dead. Poirot also refers to a soap manufacturer from Liège – that’s Sir Joseph Hoggin in The Nemean Lion, part of The Labours of Hercules. Inspector Sharpe remembers Poirot from a previous case – “remember that business down at Crays Hill?” This doesn’t seem to be a definite reference to any of the other works though. Poirot himself is reminded fleetingly of his beloved Countess Vera Rossakoff – being so much more splendid a woman than these drab young students. The Countess featured most heavily in The Big Four but also appears in The Labours of Hercules and will reappear in an early short story, The Double Clue, which we won’t get to read until Poirot’s Early Cases will be published in 1974.

OratorApart from his rather lacking love-life, is there anything new for us to learn about Poirot in this encounter? Not much. We last saw him two years before in After the Funeral, but of course Poirot never really ages; he started off elderly in The Mysterious Affair of Styles and appears to have been frozen in time ever since! The students in Hickory Road have heard of him, of course, when Mrs Hubbard invites him to give an address, and he displays all his well-renowned oratory skills. “Poirot rose to his feet and spoke with his usual aplomb. The sound of his own voice was always pleasant to him and he spoke for three-quarters of an hour in a light and amusing fashion, recalling those of his experiences that lent themselves to an agreeable exaggeration. If he managed to suggest, in a subtle fashion, that he was, perhaps, something of a mountebank, it was not too obviously contrived.”

Mind Your LanguageWe do also get to meet Inspector Sharpe. Personally, I don’t warm to Inspector Sharpe much. He thinks a lot of himself, on the quiet. He’s very patronising, calling Geronimo “sonny”; he’s very ham-fisted in his attempts to be racially fair (at times in Hickory Dickory Dock, you feel like you’ve been transported to that old ITV 70s sitcom Mind Your Language, in its unsubtle treatment of foreign nationals!) Sharpe prides himself on his ability to get information out of people by conversation and by his general amiability; but I think he’s just big-headed, to be honest. However, he does get the job done and is a careful and thoughtful sleuth with good insight and ability. He doesn’t reappear in any other Christie books – and I can’t say that I’m disappointed.

WriterIn Destination Unknown, Christie uses her usual tactic of writing short chapters, or short divisions within chapters, to increase a sense of speed, excitement and tension. She does this in the opening part of the book and it works extremely well. In Hickory Dickory Dock, she uses the same technique but later in the book. At times, she sets up a veritable frenzy of short scenes, which really keeps the pace driving forwards. It’s quite filmatic (is that the word?) in style, where you see a series of unconnected events one after the other and they build up to an overall picture of many people’s activities all at the same time. It’s a very exciting technique. Another successful technique is when a character is involved in a conversation with another character but Christie doesn’t tell us who that second character is – and for good reason, because that second character is just about to murder the first. That works extremely well in this book.

Dramatis PersonaeHickory Dickory Dock has a relatively high number of cast characters. Apart from Poirot and Sharpe, Miss Lemon and George, and a couple of other police/security types, all the other characters live or work at Hickory Road – and there are at least seventeen of them. So there’s a wide range of characters who have to be introduced fairly rapidly to the reader. Christie employs the device of introducing the list of petty acts of theft or vandalism early on and then having Mrs Hubbard explain which of the characters was most affected by each little crime. It’s a very clever way of introducing such a large cast of characters and associating each one directly with one aspect of the case. It also offers the reader plenty of options as to whom they think might be responsible for the crimes; however, as I mentioned earlier, although there are many possibilities, suspicion largely falls on a limited number of residents – and it’s not a hard one to guess.

LondonNow we’ll look at some of the references in this book. I would normally start with the locations, but, almost uniquely in the Christie oeuvre, there’s only one location in this book apart from Poirot’s own apartments, and that’s the student hostel in Hickory Road. No surprise that this is a completely made up address; there is a Hickory Road in London, but it’s London, Ontario! The only other Hickory Road in the UK that I can unearth is in Lincoln. So we can assume it’s purely an invention.

CortesThere are quite a few other references though, some more intractable than others. Of Miss Lemon, Christie notes that “on questions of surmise, she was lost. Not for her the state of mind of Cortez’ men upon the peak in Darien.” That one perplexed me. But that was poor, I needed look no further than my copy of Keats. “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer”: “I like some watcher of the skies/ When a new planet swims into his ken;/ Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes/ He stared at the Pacific—and all his men/ Look’d at each other with a wild surmise—/ Silent, upon a peak in Darien.” But that still doesn’t explain who Cortez was or where Darien is. I’ll hand you over to Wikipedia: “Hernán Cortés de Monroy y Pizarro Altamirano, 1st Marquess of the Valley of Oaxaca was a Spanish Conquistador who led an expedition that caused the fall of the Aztec Empire and brought large portions of what is now mainland Mexico under the rule of the King of Castile in the early 16th century.” The Darien in question is a province in Panama, at the far east of the country. To be honest, I’m not remotely surprised Miss Lemon didn’t worry about it.

Sherlock Holmes“The parsley sinking into the butter on a hot day” murmurs Poirot to himself, intrigued by Miss Lemon’s lack of concentration. He explains to her that it’s a quotation from Sherlock Holmes but he doesn’t tell us more. “You will remember, Watson, how the dreadful business of the Abernetty family was first brought to my notice by the depth which the parsley had sunk into the butter upon a hot day.” This is from the short story The Adventure of the Six Napoleons from the book The Return of Sherlock Holmes. So now you know. Although I’m still not sure what relevance butter and parsley have to anything. It’s been a long time since I’ve read any Holmes.

Girls Own BookWhen Poirot is presented with the list of items that have been either stolen or vandalised, he says it reminds him of a game he was forced to play by young friends during Christmas, called The Three Horned Lady. He explains that it’s a memory game and if you forget the items in your list you get awarded a horn. Then you become a one-horned lady. If you forget two more times you become a three-horned lady and you’re out. I’d never heard of this particular game, but Google shows that it was described in The Girl’s Own Book dated 1844 – I don’t know if that’s its first time in print, but that shows that it was at least 100 years old when Christie wrote about it.

FulbrightSally Finch is said to be studying in the UK on a Fulbrite (sic) scholarship – The Fulbright Programme is designed to improve intercultural relations, cultural diplomacy, and intercultural competence between the people of the United States and other countries through the exchange of persons, knowledge, and skills. It was started in 1946, with the first UK – US exchange taking place in 1948, and it still continues to this day. In a breakfast argument between Valerie and Nigel, she refers to The Oxford Group – again I point you towards Wikipedia: “The Oxford Group was a Christian organization first known as First Century Christian Fellowship founded by the American Lutheran Christian priest Frank Buchman in 1921. Buchman believed that the root of all problems were the personal problems of fear and selfishness.” Over the years the Oxford Group became Moral Re-Armament, and in 2001 became Initiatives of Change, which is still active today.

Annie Get Your GunValerie jokes that “you can’t get a man with a gun” – which of course I am sure you are aware is a song that comes from the 1946 musical Annie Get Your Gun. Mrs Nicoletis is described as being “cheese-paring”, a phrase that was new to me, meaning “extremely careful with money”. I guess the derivation is that if you pare the cheese, it goes further. Elizabeth Johnston strongly disapproves of the American “witch hunts, their hysterical spy mania, their obsession over Communism.” In 1955, America was just getting over the worst of McCarthyism. “I know two things about the horse and one of them is rather coarse”, quotes Sharpe, much to Poirot’s surprise. This amusing little rhyme was by Naomi Royde-Smith and was published in the Weekend Book of 1928. Patricia’s paperweight depicted a Lion of Lucerne – which is a rock relief in Lucerne, Switzerland, that commemorates the Swiss Guards who were massacred in 1792 during the French Revolution, when revolutionaries stormed the Tuileries Palace in Paris. It is one of the most famous monuments in Switzerland. But I’ve never seen or heard of it. And that completes the references for this book.

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. Len Bateson bets Nigel Chapman £5 that he couldn’t obtain three different types of poison by three different methods. Nigel wins his bet. £5 in 1955 would be worth £91 today so that’s quite a lot of money for a spontaneous bet. Superintendent Wilding confirms that “you can pack ten or twenty thousand pounds’ worth of heroin in a very small space”. I’m no expert on the street value of heroin today, but ten to twenty thousand pounds in 1955 equates to a massive £1.8m – £3.6m today. And the five or six thousand pounds’ worth of drugs that Wilding estimates could be easily imported on one simple journey is the equivalent of £91,000 to £110,000 today. Not bad pocket money.

Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for Hickory Dickory Dock:

Publication Details: 1955. My copy is a Fontana paperback, fifth impression, dated June 1972, with a price of 25p on the back cover. The cover illustration by Tom Adams shows a green-lit face with big staring eyes looking out at a mouse perched on top of a hand, with a dazzling jewelled ring on one of the fingers. Only the jewel has any relevance. It’s an atmospheric image but not overly appropriate!

How many pages until the first death: 55 – but there’s been plenty of other crime and investigation already by then.

Funny lines out of context: basically, to find these funny, you have to have a dirty mind. But I think I know my readers well enough.

“Sergeant Cobb said “Good morning Madam,” and produced his credentials.”

“…he now proceeded to take the drawers out and turn them upside down. He uttered an ejaculation of pleasure. “Here we are, my lad” he said.”

Memorable characters:

This book is very strong on all its supplementary characters. You’ve got the brash Valerie, the immature Nigel, the constantly perplexed Akibombo, the aggressive Colin, the assertive Elizabeth, and the ghastly Mrs Nicoletis. The dialogue between the students is lively and well captured, and  you get an excellent insight into many of their characters.

Christie the Poison expert:

Christie would have dug deep to bring to mind the several poisons that are cited in this book. One death is caused by morphine tartrate, which today is used as part of the active ingredients in an injection of Cyclimorph, used to relieve moderate to severe pain. A drug named Vegenin is referred to a couple of times, which is a mixture or paracetamol, codeine and caffeine; I’d never heard of it but it is still sold as a proprietary brand today. Liquor arsenicalis, or Fowler’s Solution, is mentioned; this is a pharmacopoeial preparation made by boiling arsenious acid and carbonate of potassium in water, and then adding compound tincture of lavender. It is highly poisonous, but was very useful in small doses in certain skin diseases and in some forms of dyspepsia. Originally produced by Thomas Fowler in 1786, this has been out of regular use for a very long time.

When Nigel collects his three poisons, in addition to the morphine tartrate he also obtains hyoscine tablets and a bottle of tincture of digitalin. Hyoscine is a common drug used against motion sickness, and postoperative nausea; it can also be used in cases of irritable bowel syndrome or colic. You can buy it under the brand name Kwells. Digitalin is obtained from the foxglove and has been used in medicine for almost 250 years, primarily in cardiac treatment. However, the wrong dose can be fatal. Chandra Lal uses boracic for his eyes – from borax, this is a crystalline salt; they also refer to sulphuric acid which of course is another lethal compound used mainly in cleaning products and for industrial use. Finally there is Medinal, the first commercially available barbiturate, used as sleeping aid from 1903 until the 1950s. There is probably more poison in this book than in any other Christie!

Class/social issues of the time:

One social issue that was raised in Destination Unknown continues in this next book – that of Communism. It’s introduced gently in the early stages of the book, with just some hearsay about the causes why the police were called to the hostel in the past. “”It wouldn’t be the first time,” said Mrs Hubbard, recalling various unpleasant incidents. “There was that West Indian student who was wanted for living on immoral earning and that notorious young Communist agitator who came here under a false name…”

Sally agrees with Sharpe that there is something of which she is afraid: “The whole place […] isn’t what it seems. No, no, Inspector, I don’t mean Communists. I can see that just trembling on your lips. It’s not Communists I mean. Perhaps it isn’t even criminal.” Sharpe clearly betrayed a small sense of knee-jerk suspicion about Communism, which Sally refutes. We’ve already seen that Elizabeth strongly condemns American McCarthyism. However, when it is discovered that she is a card-carrying member of the Communist party herself, Poirot, interestingly, swings to the opposite conclusion. “I should think she was a valuable recruit to the Party […] she is a young woman of quite unusual intelligence, I should say.” Sharpe continues: “It was interesting to me […] because she has never paraded those sympathies, apparently, she’s kept very quiet about it at Hickory Road. I don’t see that it has any significance […] but it’s a thing to bear in mind.”

Jean Tomlinson, however, offers the other view. ““Of course, one isn’t surprised at anything Colin McNabb does […] I’m sure he’s an atheist and a most disbelieving, mocking, unpleasant young man. He’s rude to everybody. It’s my opinion that he’s a Communist!” “Ah!” said Inspector Sharpe. “Bad!”” Communism is clearly seen as something to be feared, an intellectual but illegal and immoral activity; but one with which, maybe, Poirot has some sympathy?

Race and xenophobia often turn up in Christie’s works but perhaps not so regularly as they do here. Having a hostel full of students of all nationalities is bound to stoke some opinions that today feel extremely uncomfortable. Fortunately, the N word never appears, but the C one (as in coloured) does on a few occasions. As part of Miss Lemon’s opening anxiety about the welfare of her sister Mrs Hubbard, she tells Poirot, “She’s always been fond of young people and good with them, and having lived in the East so long she understands racial differences and people’s susceptibilities. Because these students at the hostel are of all nationalities; mostly English, but some of them actually black, I believe.” Interestingly, she goes on to observe: “half the nurses in our hospitals seem to be black nowadays […] and I understand much pleasanter and more attentive than the English ones”, which is perhaps not an opinion that one might have expected. But this book would have coincided with the growth in the NHS and the search for nursing staff from overseas. Plus ça change…

 Even Mrs Hubbard is not immune from the xenophobia. When Mrs Nicoletis accuses the Italian cook of swindling her, Mrs H steps in: “I can assure you that no foreigner is going to put anything over on me”, with an implication that foreigners are either less intelligent or less adept than the indigenous Brits and it’s a matter of honour for them to be seen as top dog. West Indian Elizabeth is given the nickname “Black Bess” by all the housemates, and it’s seen as an affectionate term – Black Bess was of course the name of Dick Turpin’s horse. Today we’d consider that potentially insensitive at the very least. Christie doesn’t help matters by giving the Italian cook and housekeeper the name Geronimo, who was originally an Apache leader, and comedy catchphrase – it’s what someone might have yelled in a 60s cartoon before jumping into the abyss. Perhaps even more extraordinary, the West African student is named Akibombo, which sounds like an onomatopoeic ridiculing of the language from that region. In his defence, at least Akibombo comes across as a relatively decent and likeable character. Christie can’t resist a little bit of fun-poking when she writes: “owing to his colour, Mr Akibombo was not able to blush, but his eyelids blinked in a discomfited manner.”

There’s a sweeping statement about the behaviour of some racial minorities; Jean again, who isn’t the most forward thinking of the students: “I think it’s much more likely to be Mr Akibombo […] Jealousy. All these coloured people are very jealous of each other and very hysterical.” Christie also puts these words in the mouth of Mr Chandra Lal: “Deliberate oppression of native races. Contempt and prejudice, colour prejudice. It is here well authenticated.” I really can’t see an Indian student of political science using the phrase “native races.” However, despite all these examples of uncomfortable use of language, I don’t think you come away from this book feeling that it’s actively racist. It’s definitely a child of its time, and Christie is exploring a number of attitudes to the coming together of people from all over the world.

One interesting little subject that rears its ugly head ever so slightly is that of pornography. Christie, with the utmost gentility, reveals that “Mr Achmed Ali has some extremely pornographic literature and postcards which explains why he went up in the air over the search”. Such postcards today would be collectors’ items. My guess is that they were probably just pin-up girls from the movies… but who knows?

The final – again minor – subject that reappears is that of inherited insanity. It’s revealed that one character has a father who is a certified patient in a Mental Hospital. Again, the detectives affirm that it probably has no bearing on the matter but that they will bear it in mind. The sins of the fathers are indeed visited upon the sons.

Classic denouement:  No, not a classic in the sense of Poirot herding everyone into a room, raising the suspicion with one person only to fox us with a j’accuse of someone completely different. It is however, a very successful denouement, and possibly unique in the Christie canon; and a long one, running over several chapters. The identity of the murderer is revealed in a discussion purely between the detectives, and is then confirmed by Poirot’s discussion with a third party, an additional revelation made about another of the characters, followed by a follow-up chapter where you see everyone else’s reactions. It’s one of those denouements where you never actually get to see the culprit get accused – which is slightly disappointing.

Happy ending? Moderately, yes. An engagement is announced between two young people and a third is delighted to be asked to be Best Man.

Did the story ring true? From the plotting, the interactions between the detectives and between the suspects, there’s something about this book that feels surprisingly very realistic. So yes, I believe this story completely!

Overall satisfaction rating: Re-reading this book alerted me to one or two areas in which it disappoints you slightly; the unusual denoument, the fact that you guess whodunit (well, I did), the uncomfortable racial language. Nevertheless, there’s just something about this story that makes it a personal favourite and I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of re-reading it. So for me, it’s a 10/10.

Dead Man's FollyThanks for reading my blog of Hickory Dickory Dock 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 Dead Man’s Folly, and the return of both Hercule Poirot and the redoubtable Mrs Oliver, no doubt festooned with apples. I don’t have much memory of it, so I’m looking forward to tackling this one over the next few weeks. As usual, I’ll blog my thoughts about it as soon as I can. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!

The Agatha Christie Challenge – Destination Unknown (1954)

Destination UnknownIn which Hilary Craven, suicidal after the loss of her child and abandoned by her husband, is offered an adventure which may prove fatal – so what has she to lose? All she has to do is impersonate the wife of a missing scientist. What could possibly go wrong? Not a whodunit as such, but more a what, why and howdunit, and, as usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I promise not to reveal its main secrets!

The MousetrapThe book is dedicated “To Anthony, who likes foreign travel as much as I do”. This Anthony is Anthony Hicks, the second husband of Christie’s daughter Rosalind. Christie was clearly very fond of her new son-in-law. In her autobiography, she writes: “I do not know what I would do without him in my life. Not only is he one of the kindest people I know – he is more remarkable and interesting character. He has ideas. He can brighten up any dinner table by suddenly producing a “problem”. In next to no time, everyone is arguing furiously.” She also reveals that Anthony came up with the title “The Mousetrap” so she clearly owed him something! Destination Unknown was first published in the UK in five abridged instalments in John Bull magazine, in October and November 1954. In the US, the novel was first serialised in the Chicago Tribune in fifty-one parts between April and June 1955 under the title Destination X. The full book was first published in the UK by Collins Crime Club on 1st November 1954, and in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company later in 1955 under the title So Many Steps to Death.

Lively girlDestination Unknown is one of those curious Christie concoctions that concentrates on espionage rather than murder. Her first attempt was a rattling good read in the form of the Man in the Brown Suit; and three years before Destination Unknown she created the sparklingly entertaining Victoria Jones in the brilliant They Came to Baghdad. In comparison with these two books – both of which contain lively and spirited female leads – Anne Bedingfield and Victoria Jones – Destination Unknown is rather a damp squib. The main problem is that Anne and Victoria are such fascinating and lively characters right from the start, full of spirit and daring and not remotely scared to take risks and be, frankly, naughty. Hilary Craven, however, is a very different kettle of fish. She starts the book as a shadow of her former self (a former self that we, obviously, never meet), and when she begins to liven up as a character, it’s only because she is pretending to be someone else. So Hilary doesn’t come across as a character in her own right until much later in the book, by which time a sense of uninterest in her has kicked in. It’s not coincidental that Destination Unknown remains one of Christie’s few books yet to be adapted into TV or film.

Hammer and SickleIt’s very much a book that relies on its themes rather than its characters or, indeed, its story. Christie takes the opportunity to fantasise about how a secret Communist “paradise” might present itself; a hidden, nearly Utopian environment that has no hope of succeeding because of the controls placed on the individuals concerned by the Big Brother bosses. Much has been made of the fact that the book clearly gained inspiration from the real-life scandal of involving the defection of Italian scientist Bruno Pontecorvo from his work at the Atomic Energy Research Establishment at Harwell, to the Soviet Union. Pontecorvo’s colleague Klaus Fuchs was also arrested for espionage, imprisoned for nine years and on his release emigrated to East Germany where he continued his work as a nuclear physicist. Christie cannot conceal her own political leanings with the invention of her hidden desert laboratory, and indeed the whole structure of the book is to send Hilary into this den of iniquity and somehow reveal its secrets to the British Secret Service in a joint act of loyalty and betrayal.

Lion's denIn many ways this is a book of two halves. The first half sets up the story, introduces us to the characters, and Christie employs much lightness of touch to keep us entertained as we delve deeper into the story. However, once the story takes us to Morocco, and Hilary – in her disguise as Olive Betterton – has to survive in the lion’s den, it’s as though Christie takes her foot off the accelerator and we just coast to a not very interesting denouement. Yes, we do find out who is in charge of the operation, and yes we do discover who is guilty of what crimes (although it’s never clear in the first half of the book that we will eventually find these things out – Destination Unknown indeed), but the surrounding characters are too under-written and/or irrelevant for us to care.

Man behind a deskThat early lightness of touch deserves a little exploration, as it’s probably the best part of the book. The first few pages introduce us to a character who Christie calls “the man behind the desk”. Obviously some form of secret agent, his identity is deliberately kept from us. Many times Christie could give us his name, but still she gives him this deliberately mysterious identity. It’s only when Mrs Betterton arrives and wants to speak to him that Christie reveals that he has a name. “Oh, Mr Jessop, I do hope – is there any news?” But even then she next refers to him as “the man called Jessop”. You’re never really sure if it’s his real name or just a nom d’espionage. It’s very nicely done.

Three ladies waitingAs the first part of the book gets underway, Christie employs her usual style of writing short chapters, or short divisions within chapters, to increase a sense of speed and urgency, of excitement and building tension – and it works extremely well. There’s an amusing sequence where we’re introduced to Mlle Jeanne Maricot, seen seated in the Hotel St Louis, alongside Miss Hetherington and Mrs Calvin Baker, both of whom have important roles to play in the story. Mlle Maricot, however, is just biding her time and planning an augmentation to her sex life. She has absolutely nothing to do with the plot, but Christie gives her her moment in the sun, shares her inner thoughts and then “with long graceful steps Mademoiselle Maricot walked out of the small salon and out of the story.” It’s a lovely, artistically detached moment where the author confides in the reader that there’s, basically, nothing to see here. We don’t entirely believe Christie and keep expecting her to pop up in surprising moments, but she doesn’t.

FontanaThere’s another stylistically self-conscious moment, where Miss Hetherington is seen “at a small table against the wall eating her dinner with a Fontana book propped up in front of her”, just as the reader might well be doing precisely the same thing. She’s teasing with us! But that lightness of touch ends with the dramatic bombshell that Hilary and her companions have arrived at the Communistic desert paradise laboratory ranch – and it’s a real shame. There’s evidence from Christie’s notebooks that she was planning They Came to Baghdad and Destination Unknown at the same time – and all the good bits went into the first book, sadly.

Depressed womanLet’s go back and examine the character of Hilary Craven. When we first meet her, she is escaping the misery of her day to day life by taking a flight to Paris. “Out of the greyness, the coldness, the dead numb misery. Escaping to the sunshine and blue skies and a new life. She would leave all this weight behind, this dead weight of misery and frustration.” But that escape is self-delusion. A few paragraphs later: “Hilary thought, “Perhaps the plane will crash… Perhaps it will never rise off the ground, then that will be the end, that will be the solution to everything.” And when she discovers that the plane to Casablanca that she should have taken from Paris – but they couldn’t get there because of fog – crashed and the passengers were killed, her first reaction is “blinding anger […] Why wasn’t I in that plan? If I had been, it would have been all over now – I should be dead, out of it all. No more heartaches, no more misery. The people in that plane wanted to live. And I – I don’t care. Why shouldn’t it have been me?” OK, we understand that Hilary has endured a huge amount of sadness and disappointment. But to present this character as the heroine of the story is very underwhelming to the reader. Rather than feeling sorry for her, or having empathy with her situation, instead you just want her to buck up her ideas and become one of Christie’s usual jovial types. It somehow just doesn’t feel right.

Palais Jamai Now we’ll look at some of the references in this book, starting with the locations. As well as using the big names of London, Paris, Casablanca and Fez, plus Heathrow and Beauvais airports, Christie bases Betterton’s workplace at Harwell, just like the real-life Pontecorvo and Fuchs. Harwell is, of course, a large village to the west of Didcot in Oxfordshire. In Casablanca, the Hotel St Louis, where Mlle Maricot pauses to regroup, appears to be a creation of Christie; but the Palais Djamai was a grand mansion in Fez that had been turned into a luxury hotel, and even today it’s still a notable member of the Sofitel chain of hotels. But otherwise there are surprisingly few locations mentioned in this book.

Niels BohrAs for other references: perhaps the most vital element of the story, the book refers to the discovery of ZE Fission. This is going to come as a shock, but I’m no nuclear scientist. But a quick Google suggests that Ze is a charge originally discussed by Bohr and Wheeler in 1939. I’m going to just leave that there. Olive Betterton’s last words, on the other hand, are a little clearer to understand: “Snow, snow, beautiful snow, you slip on a lump and over you go”. Whilst there are a couple of old songs that include the lyrics “snow snow beautiful snow”, I can’t find anything that includes going over a lump. So that’s a mystery to me, unless you know better?

Bell SongHere’s another quote: “le long des lauriers roses révant de douces choses” – an overheard snatch of French opera, as Christie puts it. This is the Bell Song, from Lakmé, written by Leo Delibes and premiered in 1883. And there’s another: “as a garden enclosed is my sister, my spouse” – a line remembered by Hilary – which is actually Chapter 4, Verse 12 of the Song of Solomon in the Bible. Hilary is asked if she has heard of “leucotomy” – “that’s a brain operation, isn’t it?” she replies. Indeed it is – it is the surgical cutting of white nerve fibres within the brain, especially prefrontal lobotomy, formerly used to treat mental illness. It’s another word for a lobotomy, now banned by most countries.

Twelfth Night“I sent Hilary Craven off on a journey to a destination unknown, but it seems to me that her journey’s end is the usual one after all” concludes Jessop at the end of the book, in an allusion to Shakespeare. In Twelfth Night, Feste the clown sings “Journeys end in lovers meeting” – so you can already guess that it has a happy ending.

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. However, this is not that kind of a book, and there are no sums of any significance mentioned – even though the desire for great richness is a key to the why and wherefore of the plot.

 

Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for Destination Unknown:

Publication Details: 1954. My copy is a Fontana paperback, sixteenth impression, dated June 1976, with a price of 60p on the back cover. The cover illustration by Tom Adams shows a surreal, Dali-esque landscape with figures in the mountainous backdrop (which could evoke the Atlas Mountains), a trail of pearls – which is significant – a figure with a deathly stare (might be Adams’ impression of a leper, unsure) and some frog/toad images which I don’t understand in the slightest.

How many pages until the first death: 37 – but it really isn’t that kind of book at all.

Funny lines out of context: just one, involving Christie’s favourite “E” word.

“”God bless my soul,” ejaculated the American Ambassador.”

Memorable characters:

Again, this is where the book severely falls down. Its characters are solidly one-dimensional, acting out their roles within the structure of the book but without ever bursting into interesting or remarkable life.

Christie the Poison expert:

Again, poison plays a very minor part in one aspect of the book but it’s fairly general and I don’t think Christie had to research much to include it.

Class/social issues of the time:

As discussed earlier, much of the book concentrates on what was seen as the growing threat of Communism and Christie’s imagination creates a Communist paradise where everything in the world looks good outwardly but actually is a façade, and a society that stifles and suppresses creativity. On the surface, the scientists have everything they need to perform amazing work, but in reality they find it hard to be inspired. Even the non-scientific Hilary can sense this: “she had felt first, when introduced into the Unit, a blinding panic, a horrible feeling of imprisonment and frustration, and the fact the imprisonment was camouflaged in circumstances of luxury had somehow made is seem all the more horrible to her.”

The book starts in the Secret Service offices, so the political element of the book is there right from the beginning. Jessop says of Betterton that he had the “usual left-wing tendencies at the period when everyone had them”, revealing a dismissive attitude to socialism that’s present throughout the book. When we start to meet the other team members who will be based in the Atlas Mountains secret paradise, their politics are highly questionable. Fräulein Needheim refers to the local Berber women as “a slave race. They are useful to serve their betters, but no more.” When questioned by Hilary as to the harshness of this judgment, she goes on “I have no patience with sentimentality. There are those that rule, the few; and there are the many that serve.”

It’s not just Needheim who repels Hilary with their views. Dr Barron affirms that he could destroy a continent with the poisonous content of one little phial. “She had said to him: “But could you ever do that? Actually really do it?” And he replied, looking at her with faint surprise: “Yes. Yes of course, if it became necessary.”” She accuses Peters of wanting to destroy an old world, as a result of his declaration that “we’ve got to have World Peace, World Discipline, World Order.” And Ericsson affirms to her “we must conquer the world. Then we can rule […], we few who count. The brains. That is all that matters.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, there are a few instances of xenophobia in this book. Miss Hetherington believes that hotels abroad should only be inhabited by the English and she gets most upset when she discovers foreigners also use them. The observations made about the members of the party flying to the Atlas Mountains are very much seen in terms of their being French, American, Norwegian, German and English. There’s also a post-war throwback regarding Miss Jennson, when Andy Peters asks “did I, or did I not, catch a hint of the Heil Hitler there?”

In what is more an observation on current social issues, I was amused that there were only six people on board the flight. It’s as though they were in their own Covid times!

It doesn’t show a great sense of empathy with mental health to suggest that going on a reckless mission where you might die is a good alternative to suicide!

Classic denouement:  No, it’s a weak fizzle. Not that there’s much to “dénoue” anyway. The brains behind the Communist camp are revealed relatively early, and the final twists in the last few pages are of comparatively low interest, and if you’re looking for an unexpected individual to be responsible for some grand deception – you’ll be disappointed.

Happy ending? I guess so – Hilary finds a reason to live, which has got to be a positive outcome. And love may be on her horizon.

Did the story ring true? From my own perspective, it’s utter balderdash and complete nonsense.

Overall satisfaction rating: Despite a pacy start and some nicely written early passages, Christie quickly gives up on the narrative and I couldn’t wait for it to end. A generous 5/10.

Hickory Dickory DockThanks for reading my blog of Destination Unknown 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 one of my all-time favourite Christie books, Hickory Dickory Dock, and I can’t wait to get back into its tale of deception and murder within a student’s hostel community. 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 – After the Funeral (1953)

After The FuneralIn which diligent family solicitor, Mr Entwhistle, enlists the help of his friend Hercule Poirot to get to the bottom of the death of one of the late Richard Abernethie’s relatives shortly after the family meet to attend Abernethie’s funeral. Who killed the relative, and was Abernethie’s death murder too? After Entwhistle does the initial groundwork it is up to Poirot to assist Inspector Morton in solving whatever crimes have been committed. As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I promise not to reveal whodunit!

AbneyThe book is dedicated “For James, in memory of happy days at Abney”. The James in question was Christie’s brother-in-law James Watts, who had married her sister Madge. Abney was the Gothic Victorian house where they lived, and on which Enderby Hall, the home of the Abernethie family in this book, is clearly based. After the Funeral was first published in the US in forty-seven parts in Chicago Tribune magazine, between January and March 1953. In the UK, the novel was first serialised in the weekly magazine John Bull in seven abridged instalments from 21 March to 2 May 1953. The full book was first published in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company in March 1953 under the title Funerals are Fatal, and in the UK by Collins Crime Club on 18th May 1953.

Margaret RutherfordLike They do it with Mirrors before it, After the Funeral was used as the basis for a Margaret Rutherford Miss Marple film, this time Murder at the Gallop, but Poirot is replaced by Marple, and although there are some similarities between the two stories, there are also a large number of differences. However, the identity of the murderer is largely the same in the film as in the book, so reading the book might spoil the film for you (and vice versa). And it would be a shame to have this book spoilt, because it’s an absolute cracker, that starts relatively quietly but builds up an incredible pace to create a genuine page-turner. Christie uses the device of short mini-chapters within longer overall chapters to build up suspense and excitement. And as for the identity of the murderer, well I hadn’t the faintest idea and the story preserves their anonymity right up to the end of the denouement. What’s frustrating – and incredibly clever – is that you know the reappearance of nuns making charitable collections is a clue – but your brain can’t quite join all the links and tell you exactly why it’s a clue, and to whom the clue directs you (or should do!)

Big mealThe character of Poirot has been pretty well established by Christie over the years, and there are few surprises in our understanding of how he operates in this book. When Entwhistle first approaches him he won’t discuss the case at all until they have demolished a splendid repast – tummy always comes first with Poirot. His vanity, as always, knows no bounds: “I am in my own line a celebrated person – I may say a most celebrated person. My gifts, in fact, are unequalled!” Perhaps one unexpected observation from the great man was his assertion that “women are never kind […] though they can sometimes be tender”. Makes me think that Poirot never met the right woman.

SolicitorThere are two other significant people in this book; Entwhistle, whose curiosity and sense of family duty encourage him to act as an amateur sleuth in the early parts of the book, and Inspector Morton of the local constabulary, brought in to solve the crime. The first chapter, to be fair, is seen from the perspective of Lanscombe, the faithful Abernethie retainer who’s seen them all come and go over the years. After a few pages he hands the perspective over to Entwhistle, who, after a nicely prompt opening murder, and after being encouraged to take an active role in sorting out the initial investigations by Morton, takes it on himself to visit all the family members. Entwhistle is very much in charge of operations for the first seventy-odd pages, and you do wonder exactly why he’s throwing himself into the investigation quite so fully. Morton himself is another relatively understated fellow. Christie describes him as “a quiet middle-aged man with a soft country burr in his voice. His manner was quiet and unhurried, but his eyes were shrewd”. To be fair he never really becomes interesting.

private detectiveThis was also the second appearance of the private detective Mr Goby, whom we met in The Mystery of the Blue Train and who will come back in Third Girl. Christie says of Goby that he was “small and spare and shrunken. He had always been refreshingly nondescript in appearance and he was now so nondescript as practically not to be there at all.” Poirot has a lot of time for Goby’s skills, and he’s not known for prizing others’ achievements and abilities, so we can assume that he’s very good at his job.

Clement_AttleeAs well as unravelling a fascinating crime story, Christie also adds many moments of social commentary. As always, she weighs up the good old days with today’s post-war weariness and finds in favour of the past. She admires tradition, distrusts the labour party, has little time for either the lower classes or people with mental health problems, and as for the modern police, well…! I’ll look a bit closer at all of those later in this post. But you do get a big sense of regret for the old days passing. This will turn out to be the last time Christie creates a splendidly old-fashioned butler, for example. Grand old family estates are being broken up, modern houses are featureless and ugly, and life isn’t what it should be. The character of Miss Gilchrist embodies this, with her hankering after the good old times of running a tea shop; her attitude reminded me very much of Chekhov’s Three Sisters, for whom life could be great again if only they could get back to Moscow. You sense many people involved in this story have their own private Moscows.

BrixhamLet’s have our usual look at some of the references in this book, starting with the locations. Usually Christie weaves an elaborate web of fictitious places that clearly, or maybe not quite so clearly, relate to real-life equivalents. However, in After the Funeral, this policy seems to have gone out of the window. Cora Lansquenet is seen in the buffet at Swindon, Miss Gilchrist takes the bus to Reading, George Crossfield goes betting at Hurst Park Racecourse (in West Molesey, Surrey, which closed in 1962), and Miss Gilchrist’s gallery of pictures are of Brixham, Cockington Forge, Anstey’s Cove, Kynance Cove, and Babbacombe – although Polflexan is made up, I think. Poirot sends Entwhistle by train to Bury St Edmunds, and Miss Gilchrist dreams of opening up a teashop in Rye or Chichester. Only the central location of Lytchett St Mary, which Christie asserts is in Berkshire, is fictitious – even then, it takes its name from St Mary’s Church in Lytchett Matravers, the Dorset village –  and the made-up neighbouring town of Market Keynes, which nicely combines the original village location of Milton Keynes with Maynard Keynes’ philosophies of the Economy.

Lizzie BordenThere are only a handful or other references to mention. Entwhistle makes an ironic mention – quoting the infamous rhyme of the time – of Lizzie Borden, who was tried and acquitted of the axe murders of her father and stepmother in Massachusetts in 1892. In a paragraph where he reflects on other famous murderers, Christie refers to Seddon, Smith and Rowse, Armstrong, Edith Thompson and Nurse Waddington. Frederick Seddon was hanged in 1912 for the arsenic poisoning murder of his lodger Eliza Mary Barrow, Rowse Armstrong was a solicitor who murdered his wife and attempted to murder a professional rival (hanged 1922) – and also quoted in Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?, Edith Thompson was also discussed in Mrs McGinty’s Dead, Nurse Dorothea Waddington was hanged in 1938 for the poisoning by morphine of nursing home patients for the inheritance, and Smith was probably George Joseph Smith, also mentioned in Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?, hanged in 1915. What a gruesome lot!

CortonI’m familiar with a Pouilly Fuisse such as imbibed by Poirot and Entwhistle on their gorgeous feast before discussing the case, but they also drank a Corton which was new to me. My ignorance! It’s a Cote de Beaune from the Burgundy district of France. My bad. The other interesting reference is to the fact that George Crossfield was a member of OUDS. In fact, so was I. It’s the Oxford University Dramatic Society. But you knew that already. There’s also a reference to Lord Edgware Dies – Poirot admits to having been “nearly defeated” – and a Pangbourne case, but I’m not sure to what Inspector Morton is referring there.

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. There are a few sums mentioned in this book, mostly of (relatively) low value for a Christie. Cora is delighted to discover that she will have an income of £3000-4000 a year, which today would be the equivalent of £58,000 – £78,000, which is perfectly reasonable; considering she is said to have just £500 in the bank, which is £9760 at today’s rate. Crossfield won £50 at the races – the equivalent of £976. According to the nun collecting for charity, most people gave between 2/6 and 5/-, which today would be roughly £2.50-£4.50, and the lavish £1 tip that Poirot gives the telegram boy would be worth about £20 today. No wonder he was dumbfounded!

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

Publication Details: 1953. My copy is a Fontana paperback, eighth impression, dated November 1969, with a price of 4/- (20p) on the back cover. The cover illustration by Tom Adams shows a concerned-looking nun and a bloody axe beneath a glass dome, with an illustration of a harbour in the background. That covers a number of clues!

How many pages until the first death: 19 – unless you count Richard Abernethie who dies before the book starts. Thus you don’t have to wait too long before your home-sleuthing act has to get into gear.

Funny lines out of context: two, both of which play on a more modern meaning of an otherwise straightforward word.

Wondering whether George Crossfield has a criminal streak in him: “Had he felt instinctively, as Mr Entwhistle felt, that George was not straight?”

And Timothy puts it to him more bluntly: “he suspected you of not being straight, didn’t he?”

Memorable characters:

The characterisations are, again, perhaps not the strong point of this book. There are a couple of exceptions: I did like the polite interferences of Entwhistle, who’s a well-drawn and interesting character in his own right. And the gruff grumpiness of the hypochondriac and hypocritical Timothy also makes for an entertaining read. Christie starts the book with a family tree and it’s very useful for reference as the book develops because I found it hard to distinguish some of the less interesting characters.

Christie the Poison expert:

Entwhistle gets involved in quite a complicated discussion with Dr Larraby regarding the possible causes for Abernethie’s death, where Larraby affirms that if it wasn’t due to natural causes, “some kind of narcotic would be indicated. There was no sign of cyanosis” – which is the bluish tint to the skin that can be caused by a drug overdose, like heroin, but for sure the condition is also associated with cyanide. Abernethie’s vitamin supplements contained adexoline – today normally referred to as adexolin – but this is not considered in any way a dangerous drug.

There is a dose of arsenic that laces a slice of wedding cake, but I’ll say no more of that incident as I don’t want to spoil any surprises for you!

Class/social issues of the time:

There’s quite a lot of social unhappiness going on in this book, as I suggested earlier. Britain is still getting its act together after the war; Miss Gilchrist complains about the scarcity of eggs, and the fact that they’re foreign – more on the general xenophobic elements of this book shortly. Poirot adopts a pretend character – M. Pontarlier, whose job is to assist refugees. And the reaction to that? “Rosamund, however, had only said vaguely, “Oh! Refugees all over again, I’m so tired of refugees.” Thus voicing the unspoken reaction of many, who were usually too conventional to express themselves so frankly.”

This lack of kindness, of selfishness even, can be seen in other ways. There’s a continued lack of tolerance for mental health issues. There’s condescension towards Greg for having been a voluntary patient at a mental home, even from his wife who stops herself just in time from calling him “batty”. Poirot extends the kindness as far as it can be with his description of Greg as “unbalanced”. Earlier in the book, when guessing who might have committed the murder, Susan affirms “it’s got to be a certain kind of person […] a brutal, perhaps slightly half-witted type – a discharged soldier or a gaol bird […] one has to have a motive for murder – unless one is half-witted”. There’s no kindness in Susan;s comments, but it is interesting, however, that she perceives that ex-soldiers or ex-prisoners can suffer with what we now realise to be PTSD.

There are other societal pressures. Timothy blames “that damned Labour government” under Attlee from 1945-1951, and even under Churchill he still perceives the government to be “mealy-mouthed, milk-and-water socialists”. They can’t get servants, because they now ask for too much money; the daily woman went home at the end of her working day much to Timothy’s despair: “does that class of woman care? Not she? With any decent feelings she’d have come back that evening and looked after me properly. No loyalty any more in the lower classes.” Timothy is universally disgruntled with life.

The police are not exempt from the criticism. There are many suggestions that they’re no longer up to the task, despite Entwhistle’s stoic defence of them. Susan again: “you remember that woman who was murdered in Yorkshire last year? Nobody was ever arrested. And the old woman in the sweet shop who was killed with a crowbar. They detained some man, and then they let him go! […] it shows that there must be a lot of these sorts of people going round the countryside, breaking into places and attacking lonely women – and the police just don’t bother!” Timothy is the same: “I’ve no faith in the police nowadays – the Chief Constables aren’t the right type.” For these characters, progress is a backward step.

There is, of course, the usual dollop of xenophobia. One of our first insights into the old butler Lanscombe is his regret that Cora married a Frenchman “and no good ever came of marrying one of them!” Janet, the kitchenmaid, tars foreigners with the same brush. After Poirot had asked her some questions, her reactions are: “these foreigners! The questions they asked. Their impertinence! […] what business was it of some foreign doctor coming along and nosing around?” Later in the same conversation: “Lanscombe was courteous but distant. Less resentful than Janet, he nevertheless regarded this upstart foreigner as the materialisation of the Writing on the Wall. This was What We Are Coming to!” Lanscombe implies in the conversation that if foreign refugees were to live at Enderby then he wouldn’t be able to stay. He doesn’t warm up to Poirot later in his stay either. ““Foreigners!” thought Lanscombe bitterly. “Foreigners in the house! […] I don’t know what we’re coming to.””

Miss Gilchrist has a different kind of prejudice against foreigners. She feels she doesn’t have to maintain a polite or well-behaved character in their presence. In conversation with Poirot: ““You see, I listened!” “You mean you happened to overhear a conversation? “ “No.” Miss Gilchrist shook her head with an air of heroic determination, “I’d rather speak the truth. And it’s not so bad telling you because you’re not English.” Hercule Poirot understood her without taking offence.” There’s also an unfortunate use of the N word, in connection with the woodpile simile, spoken by Crossfield.

One final interesting example of a tradition that plays a significant part in the story; that of placing a piece of wedding cake under your pillow as a sure hope that you will find the man of your dreams. It could save your life!

Classic denouement:  Yes! This one’s a thriller. It’s in two parts – Poirot assembles everyone in the library and you think it’s going to be the big showdown but in fact he is just gathering further information. Ten pages later he assembles everyone again, but this time in the drawing room – including the murderer – who inevitably gives themselves away.

Happy ending? Yes, although you get a slight sense of it being an appendix rather than an organic conclusion. One person is going to have a baby, another is going to follow their heart and their dreams.

Did the story ring true? As always, there are a few far-fetched moments, but on the whole it fits together nicely and you can absolutely believe that what is said to have happened, has happened.

Overall satisfaction rating: I thought this was a terrific read and see no reason not to give it a 10/10!

image(1218)Thanks for reading my blog of After the Funeral and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment in the space below. Christie’s next book in her whodunit canon was A Pocket Full of Rye, which I’ve already written about – as it was the first of hers that I ever read. Therefore, the next book in this Agatha Christie Challenge is her next book after that, which is Destination Unknown, one of those Christies that feature none of her usual sleuths. I can’t remember anything about this book, so I’m looking forward to catching up with 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!

So How’s it Going?

The Real ChrisparkleHow’s Lockdown treating you, gentle reader? I hope you and yours are safe and sound, exercising “common sense” (whatever that is) and minimising risks wherever possible. There’s a whole beautiful world out there, where all your friends and relatives are waiting, The Arts are waiting for a kick-start, comics are preparing a barrage of new jokes for us (or they’d better be) and there are exciting places to discover – once it’s safe again. Until then, pull up the drawbridge, log into Zoom, and catch up with your DVDs and books.

Agatha ChristieI say “books” – as though that was a thing. I don’t know about you, but since Lockdown I have not been able to concentrate on reading AT ALL. I’m too easily distracted, I read a paragraph and instantly forget what I read. So for the moment, my Agatha Christie Challenge and Paul Berna Challenge are on hold until my reading Mojo comes back.

Just a little wine for the eventMrs Chrisparkle has discovered cooking! Who knew that there were other items of kitchen equipment apart from the microwave? So that’s great news. And fortunately, fine food always deserves a fine wine – that’s a bonus. As a downside, The Real Chrisparkle’s Facebook page has fallen foul of some odd computer hiccup and I can’t access it at all. So if you check that page every so often – I wouldn’t bother, nothing’s going to be happening there for some time, I fear.

Typical Eurovision Mayhem

Now that the Eurovision that never was is over, I need to find something else to write about. What I’m proposing, gentle reader, are alternate blog posts where I share some holiday snaps from the great places we’ve been to over the last [redacted] years, and retro theatre posts where I go back over all the shows I’ve seen in [also redacted] years of theatregoing. Not promising anything truly exciting or revealing; we’ll just see how it goes.

So, see you tomorrow with some holiday snaps from Buenos Aires. Take care!