The Agatha Christie Challenge – The Clocks (1963)

The ClocksIn which young Colin Lamb (not his real surname) is tasked to unearth an espionage hub, at the same time that he accompanies his pal Inspector Hardcastle in solving the mystery of the murder of an unidentified man found in someone else’s house, surrounded by clocks! Colin decides to enlist the help of his old friend Hercule Poirot – as a challenge to the revered (but elderly) detective to solve the crime from afar without meeting the suspects. And without his help, Hardcastle would have been lost. As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, as always, I promise not to reveal whodunit!

CapriceThe book is dedicated “to my old friend Mario with happy memories of delicious food at the Caprice”. The Caprice was a much-loved restaurant in St James’s London, opened in 1947 by Mario Gallati, who was formerly a Maitre D’ at the Ivy. A haven for celebrities and superstars, it was one of Diana, Princess of Wales’ favourite restaurants, along with Mick Jagger and Elizabeth Taylor. Mario Gallati ran the restaurant until 1975, and it closed in 2020 due to the Coronavirus pandemic. The Clocks was published in the UK in six abridged instalments in Woman’s Own magazine in November and December 1963, and in the US a condensed version of the novel appeared in the January 1964 issue of Cosmopolitan. The Woman’s Own publication coincided with the full book being first published in the UK by Collins Crime Club on 7th November 1963, and in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company in 1964.

ClocksThe book had unorthodox origins. In 1949, Christie set a competition where she wrote the start of a short story, and competitors were invited to complete it. Her start involved a typist named Nancy who let herself into the front room of a house, to discover a dead man, a blind woman and a collection of clocks. The competition was to work this up into a tale and a solution. Whilst there are a number of differences between what she wrote for the competition and what appears in The Clocks, clearly she went back to this idea to start her new novel. Maybe the fact that she originally thought of the presence of the clocks in the room as a jumping-board for others to come up with an interesting story accounts for the fact that Christie herself didn’t really know what to make of all those clocks herself, as is revealed in the ending to the book.

Cuppa teaThis is an unusual read in many respects. I’m sure I’m not alone in that I’ve read this book several times over my life and each time I cannot remember a thing about it apart from its riveting opening scene, one of Christie’s paciest and most rewarding starts. Once the crime has been established, and we understand that Colin is working on two projects side by side, the first part of the book becomes a rather friendly, popping round for tea at the neighbours’ sequence of conversations, as Colin and Hardcastle try to identify what’s gone on. As we slowly realise that we’re being introduced to all the potential suspects in the book, we gain a sense of claustrophobia, as the world of The Clocks is firmly rooted in Wilbraham Crescent and its off-shoot streets.

DiminuendoIt’s a tremendously engaging book, and one of her more difficult-to-put-down works, and the excitement and suspense continues to rise as it proceeds, and you feel whatever external powers of evil there are, close in on our detective heroes. Yet at the end it all seems to peter out; the solution is relatively hard to follow and comprehend, there’s a jump of logic/intelligence that I think I understand – but it’s weak, and one of the book’s most intriguing aspects – that of the clocks themselves – at the end comes to absolutely nothing. Thus a crescendo of interest soars as the book progresses, all to become a last minute diminuendo in the final analysis.

police inspectorThe narrative approach to the book is a mix of Colin Lamb’s own account of his activity and Christie’s narrative voice. It’s not obvious why Christie has structured it in this way; indeed, at one point I wondered whether Colin’s involvement was going to have something of the Roger Ackroyd’s about it. Unfortunately, Colin isn’t that well drawn a character to make his narration stand out beside Christie’s; but as the two are telling precisely the same story, within precisely the same timescale, it doesn’t add or detract either way. In Christie’s universe, Colin is one of Superintendent Battle’s children; she confirmed it as such in a 1967 interview. This explains why he conceals his real surname and why such a young man might be such good friends with such an old one – Poirot. Detection running through his veins may also explain why he has such an incredible but fanciful insight into the parentage of Sheila.

BrailleBut it’s Colin’s friend Inspector Dick Hardcastle, whose job it is, to detect who the dead man is, and by whom he was killed. Hardcastle doesn’t have Colin’s flashes of inspiration; in fact, he comes across as rather cumbersome and slow of mind. Christie describes him as “a tall, poker-faced man with expressive eyebrows”, who appears on the scene “godlike, to see that all he had put in motion was being done, and done properly.” When he realises that Miss Pebmarsh is blind, he is clumsy and unintentionally offensive with his language, challenging her ability “to see those clocks”. “”See?”  Hardcastle was quick to query the word. “Examine would be a better word, “  said Miss Pebmarsh, “but even blind people, Inspector, use conventional modes of speech that do not exactly apply to their own powers.”” Nevertheless, when he realises that if he had reacted differently in another scene then he might have averted another death, he blames no one but himself; “left alone he made an effort to subdue his rising anger and self-condemnation.”

PoirotAnd what of Poirot? It’s been three years since we’ve seen him – four, if you exclude his presence in The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding, where the stories were actually written decades before that publication. His servant George advises Colin that “sometimes he gets a little depressed”, and we first see him seated in front of an electric bar heater, surrounded by books that he reads to keep his little grey cells active. He is desperate to be captivated by an intellectual challenge, and reels off classic whodunit after classic, admiring the methods of their famous detectives. It feels a little as though old age has relegated Poirot to sleuthing from a distance, second-guessing detective fiction, rather than being allowed to become actively involved in any cases – and it’s a rather sad feeling. Christie has Poirot going on at length about these writers, which, although has a relevance later on in the book, comes across as rather obsessive and, frankly, dull.

Agatha ChristieIt is, however, amusing when Poirot criticises the works of his friend and ours, Ariadne Oliver, because, by doing so, we know that it’s actually Christie criticising herself – as Mrs Oliver is how Christie portrayed herself in some of her later novels. Whilst she doesn’t actually appear in this story, she is referred to a number of times. Miss Martindale has her signed photograph on her office wall. Colin likens some of the more fanciful aspects of the case to a typical Oliver book (very tongue in cheek). And Poirot hates the way she over-uses the convention of coincidence, and scorns the fact that she doesn’t know the first thing about the foreign country from whence her detective hails. Sounds familiar! Miss Lemon is still Poirot’s secretary, writing the letters that he instructs; and he also refers to two of his previous cases, the tale of the kidnapped Pekinese dog that was The Nemean Lion from The Labours of Hercules, and “the Girl Guide murder case” that was Dead Man’s Folly.

HumanAt the end of the book Poirot loses his temper with Colin, as the latter presses him for a reason why he decides to come to Crowdean and explain his solution to the crime there, rather than staying in London. “Since you are too stupid to guess […] I am human, am I not? I can be the machine if it is necessary. I can lie back and think. I can solve the problems so. But I am human, I tell you. And the problems concern human beings […] I came out of human curiosity.” Poirot misses his old life more than he is prepared to say.

Residential CrescentAs just mentioned, we’re in Crowdean, a seaside town of moderate size and holiday interest, and the pages of the book are set in a warren of suburban anonymity. Wilbraham Crescent features so much in the book that it’s almost a character of its own. Given Christie’s earlier propensity for adding maps and plans to some of her books, I think she missed an opportunity to provide a helpful street plan of the area in its early chapters, which would explain more clearly why people get lost on that street trying to locate some of the numbers.

Tower blockI very much enjoyed the way Christie has all the locals talking about the case and inventing wild assumptions about it that have absolutely no grounds in truth – rather like Rumour in an old Greek tragedy. However, the discovery of the child Geraldine, observing everything going on in the neighbourhood from her tower block window, and the easy way that Colin pumps her for information and evidence, feels too convenient for words, and is obviously not one of Christie’s best devices. Nevertheless, despite a few failings in the structure and the logic of its deductions, it’s a cracking read, and, rather like The Pale Horse, you’ve still got no idea whodunit with less than 20 pages to go.

Curry RivelNow for the references, starting with the locations. The book is almost entirely set within the confines of Crowdean, Sussex; a fictional place with fictional roads, but whose names might suggest that Crowdean is an amalgam of Brighton, Newhaven and other small seaside towns. It is ten miles from another fictional town, Portlebury. The only other places mentioned are the fictional Shipton Bois, a one-horse market town in Suffolk, and some obviously real locations in London near Beck’s office. Sheila Webb’s London address – 17 Carrington Grove – is made up. Miss Pebmarsh works at the Aaronberg Institute, which sounds like a splendid organisation, but it’s purely the result of Christie’s fevered brain. With a nod to the writer’s tendency to make up names based on geographical locations, Poirot draws our attention to the fact that the dead man had a card in the name of Mr Curry and the person who identified the body was Mrs Rival – and that Curry Rival is the name of a village in Somerset. Actually he’s wrong – it’s Curry Rivel – but we get the picture.

Tea GownIn other references, Mrs Hemming emerges at her front door wearing a tea gown. I’ve never heard of one of those before, and by 1963 they would have been very out of date. Popular in the mid-19th century, they were designed to be worn whilst entertaining informally (maybe at dinner) indoors. It was wrong to be seen wearing a tea gown outside. According to Wikipedia, they were characterised “by unstructured lines and light fabrics”.

Sherlock HolmesPoirot makes the same reference to Sherlock Holmes’ Adventure of the Six Napoleons, (“the depth at which the parsley has sunk into the butter”) as Dr Haydock in The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side. He also cites the Charles Bravo and Lizzie Borden cases, both of which Christie referred to in Ordeal by Innocence. Colin refers to Adelaide Bartlett, who may have murdered her husband in the Pimlico Poisoning case of 1886, and Poirot mentions the child murderer Constance Kent, who is also mentioned in Crooked House.

Gaston LerouxIn further literary references, Poirot has a range of books that he is enjoying, some of which are real, and some are fictional. He’s sharpening his little grey cells on The Leavenworth Case, an American detective novel and the first novel by Anna Katharine Green, dated 1878. He loves The Adventures of Arsene Lupin, Maurice Leblanc’s turn of the century French equivalent of Sherlock Holmes. He finds The Mystery of the Yellow Room a classic, Gaston Leroux’s 1908 locked-room mystery. He admires Cyril Quain as the master of the alibi – commentators identify Quain as Freeman Willis Crofts; Florence Elks and Louisa O’Malley are also cited, and various opinions abound as to whom they could refer. Garry Gregson, whose writing plays a slightly more important role in the book than everyone else’s, is pure invention. Dickson Carr, G K Chesterton and Conan Doyle also get the odd look-in.

walrus-and-the-carpenterFew readers wouldn’t recognise Poirot quoting The Walrus and the Carpenter in Chapter XIV, but his quote “dilly dilly dilly – come and be killed” is not so recognisable to a modern readership. This is from Samuel Foote’s two-act farce The Mayor of Garret (1763), and became both a nursery rhyme and a music hall song. The dilly in the quote is a duck, with a Mrs Bond going out into the farmyard to catch herself a duck for dinner. “Dilly, dilly, dilly, dilly, come to be killed, / For you must be stuffed and my customers filled!”

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’s only one in this book – the sum of £7 10/- is found on the dead man’s body. That’s the equivalent of about £110 today. Just about the amount of money you might take out with you to cover you for most needs on a day out.

 

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

 

Publication Details: 1963. My copy is the Crime Club hardback first edition, but lacking the dust jacket. I bought it for 25p at a fete in about 1970 – about £2.50 at today’s rates. Not bad for a Christie first edition. It’s probably held its value!

How many pages until the first death: 5. One of the paciest and most entertaining starts to a Christie novel, and that early death really lets you get on with the important business of solving the crime.

Funny lines out of context: Some funny lines, both in and out of context.

“Its painstaking eroticism left her uninterested – as indeed it did most of Mr Levine’s readers, in spite of his efforts. He was a notable example of the fact that nothing can be duller than dull pornography.” (Not a line one would normally associate with Christie!)

“”Edna sighed and put in a fresh sheet of paper: “Desire had him in its grasp. With frenzied fingers he tore the fragile chiffon from her breasts and forced her down on the soap.” “Damn,” said Edna and reached for the eraser.””

(Imagine you’re at a Julian Clary pantomime) “It was just after two o’clock that I walked into the station and asked for Dick.”

Memorable characters:

The major characters aren’t that memorable, regrettably, with neither Colin nor Hardcastle being particularly interesting. I liked the portrayal of the mad cat woman Mrs Hemming, and Miss Pebmarsh is well drawn, with her crystal clear thought processes and no-nonsense attitude. The dopey Edna and the inebriated Mrs Rival are also entertainingly written. Curiously, one of the most interesting characters is that of Wilbraham Crescent itself, a constant presence in the book and one that takes on human force from time to time, such as when Colin wished the stones of the street could speak. “Wilbraham Crescent remained silently itself. Old-fashioned, aloof, rather shabby, and not given to conversation. Disapproving, I was sure, of itinerant prowlers who didn’t even know that they were looking for.”

Christie the Poison expert:

Knifing and strangling are the favoured methods of murder in this book, but chloral hydrate is also used as part of the story. At the time of writing it was often used as a sedative before minor medical or dental treatment, or to treat insomnia, but is currently unlicensed within either the UK, the EU or the USA.

Class/social issues of the time:

Following on from the in-depth look at modern living that strongly characterised Christie’s previous book, The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side, it’s perhaps surprising that it isn’t developed more in this book. There are, however, a couple of references to modern housing about which, despite the comfort they bring, Christie still manages to cast aspersions. She describes the quirkiness of Wilbraham Crescent with a kind regard, calling it a Victorian fantasy; “the houses were neat, prim, artistically balconied and eminently respectable. Modernisation has as yet barely touched them – on the outside, that is to say, kitchens and bathrooms were the first to feel the wind of change.”

It’s when Colin is walking through Wilbraham Crescent that he notes “in one or two houses I could see through the uncurtained windows a group of one or two people round a dining table, but even that was exceedingly rare. Either the windows were discreetly screened with nylon netting, as opposed to the once popular Nottingham lace, or – which was far more probable – anyone who was at home was eating in the “modern” kitchen, according to the custom of the 1960s.” Remember Colin is a young man in his early 20s. This is not the kind of observation one would expect him to make. Rather, it’s Christie’s disapproval of abandoning the dining room for the kitchen that is being voiced.

It’s notable that the residents were being pestered by the Press. Hardcastle defends the Press, saying they have their job to do; but Mrs Lawton, who has clearly been pestered already, has no sympathy. “It’s a shame to worry private people as they do […] saying they have to have news for the public. The only thing I’ve ever noticed about the news that they print is that it’s a tissue of lies from beginning to end. They’ll cook up anything so far as I can see.” I don’t know if Christie had an unfortunate relationship with the Press – maybe they pestered her at the time of her disappearance and her divorce. She featured the busybodying journalist Charles Enderby in The Sittaford Mystery. Anyway, it looks like there’s no love lost there – and the concerns she raises about the freedoms of the Press are definitely as valid today as they were then.

That also applies to another political hot potato that rears its ugly head in this book – Europe! The Common Market (aka the EEC) had started in 1957, and by the time of The Clocks was a familiar framework in Europe, if not the UK. Hardcastle’s interview with Miss Pebmarsh’s cleaning lady, Mrs Curtin, reveals her to be very suspicious of it. When he questions her about the cuckoo clock, she leaps to some assumptions: “Must have been foreign […] Me and my old man went on a coach trip to Switzerland and Italy once and it was a whole hour further on there. Must be something to do with the Common Market. I don’t hold with the Common Market and nor does Mr Curtin. England’s good enough for me.” Mrs Curtin there, revealing how a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.

Apart from Mrs Curtin’s European prejudices, there aren’t too many examples of the usual Christie xenophobia in this book. Mrs Bland avows that she wouldn’t “care at all for a foreign doctor. I wouldn’t have any confidence in him” – and at her husband’s suggestion they go on a Greek island cruise, she worries “there’d be a proper English doctor on board, I suppose”. Similarly, Mrs Ramsay rejects Colin’s idea that “ one of those foreign girls” would help her domestically; “au pair, don’t they call it , come and do chores here in return for learning English”. ““I suppose I might try something of that kind,” said Mrs Ramsay, considering, “though I always feel that foreigners may be difficult.”” Elsewhere there is an example of that occasional Christie theme that the police aren’t really quality people. Mrs Head tells Miss Waterhouse, “a couple of gentlemen want to see you […] leastways […] they aren’t really gentlemen – it’s the police.” She further explains that she didn’t take them to the drawing room, but the dining room. “I’d cleared away breakfast and I thought that that would be more proper a place. I mean, they’re only the police after all.”

Classic denouement:  There are elements of a classic denouement, but it doesn’t quite make it. For one thing, it’s a highly complicated solution – even though Poirot maintains it is simplicity itself. Secondly, the suspects are not there – just Poirot, Colin and Hardcastle. However, Poirot still unveils his solution stage by stage, piece by piece, revelation by revelation, and it’s an incredibly exciting reveal. Some of the drama is lost by there being a further chapter that ties up Colin’s espionage case, and also two letters from Hardcastle to Poirot, informing him of additional discoveries and confessions after the event. Whilst we need that information for completeness, it does detract from the grand denouement.

Happy ending? There is a marriage – so we wish the happy couple well. Apart from that, and the fact that the guilty parties are dealt with, one senses that nothing will change in Wilbraham Crescent, which may, or may not, be a happy outcome.

Did the story ring true? There’s a surprising ordinariness to the environment that makes a strong contrast with the fanciful nature of the crime, and that, for the most part, helps to make the story pretty believable on the whole.

Overall satisfaction rating: It’s an excellent read, and was certainly heading for a 10/10 all the way through, but the final solution is both a little overcomplicated and under-delivering, so it drops to a 9 in the final analysis. But it’s a very enjoyable book.

A Caribbean MysteryThanks for reading my blog of The Clocks, and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment in the space below. Next up in the Agatha Christie Challenge is A Caribbean Mystery, and Miss Marple on holiday in the West Indies – but of course, she’s never far away from crime. I can’t remember anything about it, so I’m looking forward to re-reading it and, 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 George Orwell Challenge – Common Lodging Houses (1932)

George OrwellBy 1932, Orwell was teaching at a boys’ school in West London but was also writing articles for submission to magazines and journals. With this article, Common Lodging Houses, published in the New Statesman on 3rd September 1932, and signed Eric Blair, Orwell recalls his regular experiences over the previous couple of years when he chose to live as a tramp, to find out what it was like to endure the hardships of life with no money, job, or home, as a form of journalistic research.  Common Lodging Houses is a factual account of what it’s like to rely on such places, “night-shelters specially licensed by the LCC” – that was the old London County Council.

In 1931 his essay The Spike had been published, which told his experience of staying in a casual ward of a workhouse, the slang term for which was a spike. That essay is a grim depiction of filth and squalor, and the indignities suffered by those who slept there. However, in Common Lodging Houses, Orwell finds they’re not much better than spikes, and in some respects, considerably worse, noting “considering that they house so many people and that most of them are in an extraordinarily bad state common lodging houses do not get the attention they deserve.”

Spike cell roomsTo be specific: “the dormitories are horrible fetid dens, packing with anything up to a hundred men, and furnished with beds a good deal inferior to those in a London casual ward.” He points out that the beds are small and hard, with thin, dirty bedclothes, and with access to neither baths nor privacy; but Orwell goes on to emphasise the horror of the filth. “As often as not the beds are verminous, and the kitchens invariably swarm with cockroaches or black beetles.” Casual wards, or spikes were free; in fact, it was a condition of entry that you were forbidden to bring any money in with you. But Orwell reveals that the charges for a night in a common lodging house vary between 7d and 1s 1d per night; and because so many people use them, “the average common lodging house brings in something like £40 net profit a week to its owner.” That’s the equivalent of around £2000 per week today.

This is Orwell’s main source of despair in this essay. By licensing these lodgings, proprietors could profiteer from the men who stay there, whilst offering a service that is in many ways worse than the (unlicensed) spikes. In addition, Orwell describes the rules and regulations for staying in a house as “exceedingly tyrannical”; “gambling, drunkenness, or even the introduction of liquor, swearing, spitting on the floor, keeping tame animals, fighting – in short, the shole social life of these places – are all forbidden.”

Men outside a Common Lodging HouseHe gives an example of how the legislation effectively works against the lodgers, rather than in their favour. When lodging house owners were required to comply with an LCC regulation that the beds in a dormitory had to be at least 3ft apart, thereby reducing the numbers of beds, and therefore the number of paying customers, they simply increased the prices, without providing any further upgrade to the living conditions. With lodging there was no scope for men and women to be in the same house; nor was there any remedy for the lodgers to prevent the constant appearance of slumming parties – 1930s style slum tourism, people “who march into the kitchen uninvited and hold lengthy religious services”. Orwell criticises the reasoning behind what he calls the “interference-legislation” that governs the common lodging houses: “their emphasis is on hygiene and morals, and the question of comfort is left to the lodging house proprietor”.

The essay is not written simply to alert the reader to what life in a lodging house is like, nor is it simply to bemoan the fate of the unfortunate people who have no choice but to live there. He also offers constructive suggestions to improve the houses. “The LCC would be doing an immense service if they compelled lodging house keepers to divide their dormitories into cubicles and, above all, to provide comfortable beds”; even the casual wards had their cells. “The houses should be licensed for both sexes alike […] and the lodgers should be protected by law against various swindles which the proprietors and managers are now able to practice on them.” Orwell also displays a resentment towards this kind of exploitation in his essay on Hop Picking. He asks the question: “Can anyone imagine such things being tolerated in a hotel? And yet a common lodging house is only a hotel at which one pays 8d a night instead of 10s 6d. This kind of petty tyranny can, in fact, only be defended on the theory that a man poor enough to live in a common lodging house thereby forfeits some of his rights as a citizen.” Highlighting this social injustice is the core of this essay.

Rowton HouseThere is an alternative to the lodging house, which Orwell briefly touches on; the hostels provided by the Salvation Army and the Rowton Houses – a chain of hostels built by the philanthropist Lord Rowton, who had been Disraeli’s private secretary. According to Orwell, these are “clean and decent. Unfortunately, all of these places set off their advantages by a discipline so rigid and tiresome that to stay in them is rather like being in jail.” Orwell calls not only for decent conditions for poor people, but also respect for them to live their own lives, and not to have to comply with lifestyles imposed on them by their “betters”. His final summing up in the article reveals that harsh alternative on offer. “Tens of thousands of unemployed and partially employed men have literally no other place in which they can live. It is absurd that they should be compelled to choose, as they are at present, between an easy-going pigsty and a hygienic prison.”

Down and out in Paris and LondonLike his essay on hop picking, this is a fact-filled piece of journalistic reporting, also serving as an opinion piece on how low cost lodging could be improved. Orwell’s deep understanding and despising of the horrors that these men must endure is clear in every sentence. He rarely needs to spell it out for the reader to know his precise feelings. Describing the dormitories as “horrible fetid dens” and the kitchens as “murky, troglodytic caves” is enough for us to get an insight into the conditions for ourselves; and his inevitable hatred of those who seek to make money out of the misery of others is obvious throughout. If the reader has any sense of socialism in their soul, this is bound to bring it out! I’m expecting much more of these insights and observations in his next published work, the full-length non-fiction Down and Out in Paris and London, which would appear a few months later, and which I’m looking forward to reading for the first time since I was a teenager.

The Paul Berna Challenge – Gaby and the New Money Fraud (1961)

Gaby and the New Money FraudIn which we return to the world of Gaby, Marion, Zidore and the other members of the Hundred Million Francs gang, where Gaby and Zidore are now grown up and working, and Gaby can’t see himself in the role of gang leader anymore. But when the gang put pressure on him to stay by chipping in to buy him a car, all looks rosy until counterfeit money follows them wherever they go!

Gaby and the New Money Fraud was first published in 1961 by G. P. Rouge et Or under its original French title Le Bout du Monde, which translates literally as The End of the World, with a jacket illustration by Barry Wilkinson, but, unusually, no further illustrations inside. As “Gaby and the New Money Fraud”, the book was first published in the UK by The Bodley Head in 1971, and translated, as usual, by John Buchanan-Brown. My own copy of the book is the Bodley Head first edition, bearing the price 90p. A quick check online suggests there aren’t any copies of this book available to buy at the moment, sadly. It had been two years since Berna’s last book for children, Le Champion (never translated into English), was published, but he hadn’t been sitting on his laurels; in fact, during that time he’d written at least another four novels under the pseudonym Paul Gerrard, including the award winning thriller, Deuil en rouge. But, two years on, Berna was back in the saddle for this entertaining story of Gaby and his gang acting as unwitting couriers for a counterfeit money scam!

A Hundred Million FrancsIt was at the end of A Hundred Million Francs that Gaby was in tears because, having reached the grand old age of 12, he thought he was too old to be a gang member. Six years later, and Gaby still has the same doubts, although he deals with it in a slightly more adult way. He doesn’t burst into tears, but he’s frustrated by his own lack of maturity, which would allow him to move on with good grace and friendship. As a result, he’s angry and grumpy instead. “”Here’s my bomb! From this moment on you can call yourselves the Eight. You can have my resignation here and now – and Zidore’s too, if you want it.” Deathly silence greeted the news. Marion was still half-grinning, but the others seemed both shocked and upset. Fair-haired Mélie began to snivel. “No, Gaby, you wouldn’t dare do that…” “Oh yes I would!” the leader of the Ten bellowed. I’m telling you, it’s all over and done with now […] Zidore and me are too old for kids’ games now!””

One of the great things about this book is that we observe Gaby growing from a boy to a man. We actually find out Gaby’s date of birth – 29/4/52 – which was presumably brought forward a decade for the English translation and publication, otherwise, he’d only be 9! He seems to have great anger management issues, not only with the others in the gang, but also with the police, which suggests he might get himself into serious problems in the future. But we care about Gaby. When Patrice and Pedro trap Gaby and Zidore in the shed, you really feel the injustice of the action! You’re surprised how much you care about them, and how you resent the fact that they’ve been caught in danger. Gaby has been a hero to us and to his friends for a few years now, so it’s surprisingly alarming and off-putting to discover this internal anger that you sense will haunt him in years to come. This book isn’t the last time we meet Gaby – let’s hope he’s calmed down by the time he makes his final appearance.

We also follow Marion growing from a girl to a woman. She retains a much stronger grasp of common sense and obeying the law, which will stand her in good stead in the future. She deliberately allows Patrice to think she’s stupid, but it’s in order to get her own way. But it’s disappointing to see Gaby and Zidore not treating her with the respect that she deserves. There’s a particularly difficult scene where Zidore manhandles her into the van when she’s making the point that they should not go away until the police have made their enquiries. Berna notes the difficulty she has keeping her public face as part of the gang and her injured private emotions. “Marion laughed with the others to avoid upsetting anyone, but her abduction rankled and she kept a discreet eye on the road.” It’s also regrettable to see Fernand playing so small a part in this book – he doesn’t appear to step in and protect her as you feel he should.

As always, Berna is at his best when conveying what it’s like to be a member of a gang. And, as the gang members get older, there’s an art to maintaining that gang mentality. In this book, Zidore seems to have made a closer friend with Juan, who’s a lot younger and poorer. Maybe this is because Gaby seems to get annoyed at the turn of a hat, finding it difficult to turn off his unease at being the oldest. Everyone still firmly adheres to their gang roles, which makes it easier to stick together. When Gaby allocates the jobs that everyone will do on their holiday trip, the younger girls get given first-aid and all the housework, and Marion isn’t given a role at all: “just watch the countryside go by”. She’s quite angry about this. He’s so sexist!

The Knights of King MidasOnce again, Berna depicts a gang concentrating their interest in scheming to make money to achieve a particular aim. As in The Knights of King Midas, where Charloun and his gang raise money for the local homeless, in this book Gaby and his gang put in so much effort, not only to raise the money to buy the van, but also to insure it, maintain it and fill it with petrol. And when the opportunity to earn something comes their way, they never refuse it!

Even though we’re a few years on, Louvigny remains a highly urban yet poor environment. Both Gaby and Zidore have taken a very traditional route into the world of work – Gaby following his father by working on the railways, and Zidore following his natural ability with engines by working at the local garage. It’s interesting, from today’s perspective, that, despite the poverty of their environment, they obviously faced no difficulty in getting jobs; sadly that would be unlikely today.

The English title of the book, which has a very different emphasis from the original French title, maybe doesn’t reflect the content of the book too well. Like the previous book, The Mystery of the Cross Eyed Man, the English title takes one aspect of the story and gives you an expectation that perhaps is not met in the story as a whole. The original French title, The End of the World, is first alluded to when Gaby and the gang are sitting in Marion’s mother’s garden at the beginning of the book, remembering their old adventures. ““Sometimes,” [Gaby] grumbled as he looked round, “you hardly know the place. Remember the old days? The Clos Pecqueux was the end of the world so far as we were concerned.” “Some people still think it is,” Marion said. We’re too old for it now. We’ll have to look somewhere else.”” The Clos Pecqueux was a ruined enclosure, full of bomb craters, which constituted the gang’s playground and which we first came across in A Hundred Million Francs. They thought of it as the end of the world, Le Bout du Monde. That was as far as their imagination and experience could take them in those early, poverty-stricken days. Six years on, the Clos Pecqueux is home to a brand-new estate of bungalows, and, similarly, the youngsters also have their sights set much farther. Itchy feet tell Gaby and Zidore (at least) that it’s time to move on. Marion returns to the idea of the end of the world as their adventure culminates in a night in prison cells – a very ironic reflection of how their dream holiday ended up. So it’s a clever title – something of a double-edged sword.

But the link established between new Franc and the new Penny, with the title Gaby and the New Money Fraud is very tenuous. My memory is that in 1971 people were primarily concerned about not understanding the new currency, and that it would be an opportunity for unscrupulous people to make a lot of money by putting a higher price on an item than it bore before the changeover. I don’t think anyone was that concerned about forgeries, or the coins breaking in two! It seems odd that the publishers took the opportunity to have this otherwise untranslated book available to an English-speaking market just on the strength of that. I don’t understand why it wasn’t translated before – as it follows Berna’s most successful characters on their journey into young adulthood. There is also a later book involving Gaby’s gang – The Mystery of Saint Salgue – which was published in English in 1963, which means that Gaby and the New Money Fraud was published out of sequence. So, indeed, the title does not reflect the story that well, and puts a different emphasis on its content, that of the criminal activity of Patrice and his pals, rather than the growing-up of the gang members.

Mystery of the Cross Eyed ManLike The Mystery of the Cross Eyed Man, this is another book full of real locations, and you can largely track the routes that the gang members take as they travel around Paris and head south towards their holiday destination. Zidore and Juan take the search for a car as far away as the Forest of Senart, a real area to the south east of Orly Airport. The Carrefour de l’Alouette, where Patrice’s garage is situated, doesn’t exist in Montgeron (which does), although there is one in Brebières, in northern France. Patrice says the smelting plants are based at Villejuif, Maisons-Alfort, Brunoy or at Saint-Maur, all of which are real places, south and south-east of central Paris. Apart from those, the only exception is that the Rue des Petits-Pauvres is now renamed the rue Zavatta, but I still can’t see one on a map of Paris!

It’s a matter of the era when this was written that there are a few times when the racial descriptions are outmoded. It’s not remotely racist – in fact, quite the opposite, Gaby’s gang is incredibly inclusive. But when you read it, there’s something not entirely comfortable about Berna often referring to Juan as “the gypsy”, and Criquet Lariqué as the “little coloured boy”.

Despite this, there are, as usual, some tremendously thought-provoking and beautifully created passages. I really liked Berna’s description of Marion sizing up whether she should sell more dogs. “When the argument raged the loudest, she turned her back on the gang and stared at her hounds with the cold calculation of the farmer’s wife coming into the fowl-yard with a carving-knife behind her back. Her four-footed guests seemed to understand and stood still, their heads cocked and their eyes watching her.” Still with the dogs, there’s a wonderful sequence where we follow Marion’s dogs Dick and Bébert as they follow the scent of the boys, the van and the villains. It’s all seen from their point of view, with their names for the characters, and their canine conversations. It’s very inventive and creative, and makes you realise that the dogs are just as important as the humans!

I was very amused by how the gang rearrange the configuration of the van, so that they can create a square seating area in the back, with sofas, chairs, windows, and so on, to create a convivial living space. This could never happen with today’s regulations, and it was clearly written long before the value of seat belts was recognised!

Here’s my chapter by chapter synopsis of the book. If you haven’t read the book yet and don’t want to see any spoilers, here’s where you have to stop reading!

 

Chapter One – A Marvellous Idea. During a meeting of the gang, they are surprised by a thunderous roar from a vehicle – and are shocked to discover Old Zigon, the rag and bone man from previous books, driving a van bearing the legend “The Junk Palace”. He must have come into some money, they think; and someone says “everybody’s got a car these days: why don’t we get one?” All the gang members go into a reverie of what their dream car would be like, and their ideas reflect their personalities. Gaby and Zidore want flashy sports cars. Tatave relishes the comfort of a Rolls-Royce. Minimalist and practical Fernand hopes for a 2CV. Juan wants a Berliet truck, Bonbon would be satisfied with a toy car, and Criquet Lariqué misunderstands the game and wants a fire engine. Mélie, Babin and Berthe all want an ambulance so they could help people after an accident. Only Marion doesn’t play along; as the gang’s treasurer she knows that a car would be unaffordable. They’ve only got three francs in the kitty, and one of those is a dud – a counterfeit coin that keeps on coming back to them in small change. Tatave agrees to try and palm it off when he buys bread the next day, but Gaby, enraged at their poverty, and the fact that a third of their wealth is a dud, insists he tries now.

Later on, the gang are sitting in Mme Fabert’s front garden – that’s Marion’s mother – remembering old times. The Clos Pecqueux was their old, ruined playground, but the wilderness has now been built on, with brand new bungalows. Gaby and Zidore get the sense that it’s time for them to move on too. Now that Gaby is working on the railways and Zidore is working at the Metropole garage, they don’t have the time to commit to their old friends. Gaby drops his “bomb”, to the effect that he and Zidore are now too old for all of this and want to resign from the gang. Whilst the others are surprised and upset, Marion could see this coming. But she’s still annoyed for the rest of them, calling the boys selfish, and accusing Gaby of saving money to buy a motorbike – money that he would normally have spent on gang activities. Everyone starts mocking the two senior boys, much to their fury and embarrassment. But Marion has a solution: “you’d be safer on four wheels than two, and your mates could join in the fun […] a car, of course. Let’s go and buy one. We’ll move mountains to raise enough money. And we could do it, too. We’ve plenty of ideas.”

The offer stops Gaby and Zidore in their tracks. At that moment Tatave returns empty-handed; the baker spotted the fake franc and sent him away with a flea in his ear and a sore cheek. They decide that Tatave can keep the coin as a present. And as they all decide what kind of car they would like, the meeting descends into knockabout farce. Zigon and his van career back into view; Gaby isn’t impressed, and is determined they won’t have a vehicle like his. Zidore recommends “an old-fashioned saloon car”, and Gaby agrees that Zidore should source the perfect vehicle at the best price. Their resignations from the gang duly withdrawn, all that remains is to tell Gaby’s father about their plan. “First pass your driving-test: then we’ll see.”

 

Chapter Two – The Poor Man’s Rolls. A week later, Zidore and Juan chance upon M. Patrice’s garage in Montgeron, full of broken-down old wrecks – but they ask their question anyway. “I work at the Metropole Garage in Louvigny”, said Zidore; “I heard a whisper that you’d got a second-hand saloon in good running order… Could we have a look at it?” Patrice shows them his Peugeot 602. In excellent condition, but 25 years old and looks like a tank. It wasn’t what Zidore and Juan had in mind, however… “five hundred francs! And we haven’t a penny of it so far…” Instead, Patrice shows them round the old crocks outside; cheaper, but all of them unsuitable. He has warmed to the boys and makes them a great offer for the 602. Three hundred francs down, and six months to pay the balance. Zidore knows he has to spin a good story to get the agreement of Gaby and Marion.

The gang’s coffers are actually quite healthy. Berthe, Mélie and Fernand are all very generous and chip in 185 francs between the three of them. Tatave gives fifty francs – eventually – and Juan donates a five franc coin every day. Marion’s contribution remains unknown – but she sold two of her dogs to raise the funds. Criquet Lariqué proudly donates ten francs, but he’s wretchedly poor, so this represents a very generous contribution. Still, that all comes to 525 francs – not quite enough to buy the car outright, because they also have to pay for Gaby’s driving lessons.

Enter Zidore and Juan, their cups spilling over with enthusiasm for the car they’d seen. They’re all ready to part with the three hundred francs in an instant, until Fernand reminds them of something they’ve overlooked. “We want our heads tested […] nobody’s thought of the insurance […] the policy’s going to cost almost as much as the car.” His suggestion is to raise more cash and buy a cheaper car. Not a popular idea. Marion suggests a compromise – pay for Gaby’s test, hopefully he passes, and then wait one month longer to buy the car. Gaby’s reaction is one of petulant selfishness. “I’ll get my licence next Saturday, but I won’t get my car. It really makes me weep! In a month’s time, I’ll have lost the knack!”

Now it’s Tatave’s turn to explode. “What about Bonbon and me? For the last week we’ve been scrounging every penny we can lay hands on […] all so that Big-Head can have his driving lessons and complain if he can’t have a car by return of post […] Want to know what I’m going to do? I’m packing it all in and I want my fifty francs back, so just hand over the cash!” As a result, all the money gets returned to their original donors. Nearly all; “the two eldest moved angrily and shamefacedly away. They had not the nerve to ask for their money back.” And one more… “”Do you want your money back, too?” Marion murmured after a minute or two, and looked at her best friend. Fernand shook his head […] “You know them better than I do. They’ll be back in a day or two – every single one of them.””

 

Chapter Three – A Knight of the Wheel. Zidore sends Juan off to Patrice’s garage to tell him that the deal is off. Patrice is in secret conversation with three other men – and they look annoyed that Juan has disturbed them. The tall man looks strangely familiar to Juan, but he thinks no more about it. Patrice thanks him for the message and promises to keep a lookout for a cheaper car for them. Much to his surprise, Zidore recognises the 602 at his garage that afternoon as its proud new owner pulls up at the Metropole’s petrol pumps. He’s sick with disappointment.

There are no gang meetings for a couple of days, as the members sulk and nurse their mental wounds at home in private. But then things change, and slowly, one by one, they all return to Marion’s mum’s garden, each clutching their donations – plus a bit more. Zidore is the last to put in an appearance. Normally, Gaby would be with him, but there’s no sign of him. That’s because his driving test is tomorrow, and he’s steadying his nerves.

Not exactly bristling with confidence, when Gaby arrives for his test, his driving instructor informs him that the examiners for the day “aren’t examiners, they’re executioners”. Gaby will get M. Jacquot, “a little man with greying ginger hair under his black hat, an unhealthy complexion and a bristling moustache.” He has a vocal tic that confuses his victims, “he makes a himmf when he breathes in and a hunnf when he breathes out.” On his test, Jacquot tricks Gaby into parking in a no-parking zone so that he can fail him. However, Gaby refuses to accept he’s beaten because Jacquot had also told him to pretend he was taking his wife and kids to the hospital urgently – in which case he’d park wherever he liked. And like all bullies, Jacquot ends up giving in, and Gaby is the lucky recipient of one new drivers licence. The gang are all there to greet him like a hero. Marion announces they have six hundred francs – now to find a car!

 

Chapter Four – The Uphill Struggle. Zidore and Juan continue the hunt for a car, but the problem is finding one that will seat ten. Gaby is pleased as punch, and offers to drive delivery vans just to keep his hand in. Fernand has sourced an insurance policy that should not exceed three hundred francs – leaving not much more than three hundred to buy the car. Marion considers whether she should sell more of her dogs. She restores them to health only to reveal that no one wants to buy a healthy, but ugly, mutt. She considers them all in order, ending up with her favourite, Dick, the kalbican, who would be worth a lot of money due to his rarity; but Marion decides to keep them all.

Shortly before Zidore has finished his day’s work, Patrice rings the garage and says he has the perfect vehicle for him – going for a song. Excited, Zidore contacts Gaby, and together they cycle to Patrice’s garage. Patrice is convinced they are going to “fall for the old bus.” “It’s that lovely Citroen C6 with the van-body. Fit for a king, you take my word for it!” – but it turns out to be Old Zigon’s van, with “The Junk Palace” emblazoned on its side. Zidore and Gaby are horrified, but Patrice continues with his sales patter undeterred. Ugly old hippopotamus of a van it may be, but its engine purrs contentedly and the lads begin to see its benefits. Patrice wants three hundred for it, but during its test drive, the price drops by a hundred.

As they drive back, they notice a yellow truck backing up to a shed, and a mechanic coming out of his workshop to meet it. Patrice says the man is Pedro, his foreman, a genius with the paint spray. Convinced by the test drive, they do the deal. What’s more, Patrice tells them they can garage it for free at his place for the first six months. Delighted, they drive away. And Patrice and Pedro look delighted too.

The rest of the gang are waiting patiently to greet them. When Zigon’s van pulls into sight, Bonbon recognises the driver, but they cannot believe the vehicle. Of course they all laugh scornfully, and Gaby gets annoyed again, but he quickly sees the joke and joins in with the laughter. They all pour into the van, and Gaby sets off on an adventure through the nearby countryside, overtaking trucks and trains as they go. They needed to give the van a name; and it was when Marion said that struggling with their savings had become an uphill struggle, that the vehicle inherited its name – The Uphill Struggle.

 

Chapter Five – A Ten-Seater Minibus.  Over the next two weeks, Gaby, Zidore, Fernand and Juan set about converting the Uphill Struggle into a ten-seater minibus – including cutting some windows in the side panels – no glass, but to be fitted with hinged shutters. The girls want it to be painted pale blue, but they can’t afford the paint – and the couple of tins that Patrice gives them is red, so red it remains. Inside they put up wallpaper with forget me nots, and create barn doors at the back for safety and a view.

Marion sneaks in to catch up on progress. As they discuss how they’re going to fund the petrol for their next escapade, Patrice arrives and patronises Marion – why would a girl be interested in a vehicle? Unimpressed, she is cold in her response. “He thought the girl somewhat stupid, which was just what she wanted him to think”. After she has left, Patrice asks who she is. “She was a good friend when I was at school” replies Gaby, keen to downplay her importance.

Patrice offers to buy the van back from them for 400 francs, but the gang are too delighted with it to part with it so soon. But they do need some money to keep it on the road. Patrice makes them an offer to use the van to transport some scrap metal for them to a smelting plant, and for each delivery they make, they will earn 20 francs. Bonbon and Tatave note that only Gaby’s name appears on the documentation, whereas in fact the van belongs to all of them. Marion promises to draw up a contract of joint-ownership that evening.

The next night, Gaby and Zidore, with Bonbon and Tatave in tow, do the first delivery of scrap metal, to a man called Popoff in Maisons-Alfort. When they get back, there are another ten boxes for a M. Grosnier in Brunoy. Forty francs for one evening’s work. Sunday’s trip to Fontainebleau proved expensive, but Patrice keeps the jobs coming – and increases the payment. It’s not long before the gang have amassed nine hundred francs.

As luck would have it, Popoff also has some work for them – and in return he gives each gang member who helped a shiny new five-franc piece. Tatave and Bonbon are particularly excited to receive these newly minted coins. But when Tatave goes to pay for some ice-lollies for everyone, the coin breaks in two. Fernand and Tatave are dismayed and confused, and agree that Marion is the best person to sort out what’s going on.

Chapter Six – Something Suspicious.  Marion meets Zigon and asks him why he sold his van. What had been a pleasant early morning conversation turns aggressive. Zigon replies that it was heavy on the petrol, and that it ate up all his profit. But Marion wants to dig deeper. She tells him that Gaby is driving out on evening trips and Zigon instantly guesses “so that means your mates have gone into the scrap-metal business!” He won’t say any more, but has advice for them. “Tell them to make whatever excuse they like, but get out of the business quick. If Monsieur Patrice runs after them, they’ll have to run a lot faster or else they’d better look out!!” Berna nicely points out: “The old man was under the oath of silence which binds the criminal and the poor in the swarming slums outside Paris.”

It’s almost time for the gang to go on holiday but none of them yet knows where they’re going. Tatave prompts Marion into sorting out the deed of joint-ownership, and reserves a window seat for himself. Allocating the roles for the holiday, Gaby appoints himself driver, Zidore engineer, Fernand navigator, and so on. Marion tells Gaby that she believes Patrice’s work is shady, and that the boys are accomplices to the work. Gaby protests, but Juan and Fernand are not so sure. They think Patrice and Pedro’s behaviour is sometimes rather suspicious. Marion is super-cautious and insists that Gaby and Zidore stop working for Patrice. They can keep the Uphill Struggle behind gates at Marion’s mum’s garden.

Then Marion reveals the awful truth that the coins that the gang have been given in payment are counterfeit, and that they break if you drop them. Zidore, in particular, is furious, and wants to confront Popoff over the scandal. Marion has a better idea; they all head off in the direction of M. Patrice’s garage. They fill up with petrol – and then pay Pedro with the coins they know to be dud.

Last minute preparations for the holiday are made, checking the engine, adding some carpet, poring over maps. Excitement and anticipation are at fever-pitch. But where will they go? Fernand has a plan, but it’s a surprise.

 

Chapter Seven – The Night in the Shed. While Gaby and Zidore check the oil and tyre pressures at a service station, just before the holiday gets underway, Patrice arrives at the same service station and spots the boys. He gently challenges them about why they left him “in a jam” but they dodge his questions. However, he reverses his car in front of their van and insists that he does an urgent job for him now. They find it hard to say no. But it’s while they’re having a quick beer with Patrice that Pedro jumps into the Uphill Struggle saying he’s going to put it in the shade. But what is he really up to?

Patrice announces that he’s selling up and retiring to the Yonne. This will be the last time they meet. The boys are now getting very suspicious. And with good reason. Patrice and Pedro have trapped them. The heavy doors of the shed shut down and they are literally caught in the dark. Patrice explains: “you’re stupid idiots. You be good and stay where you are. I’m keeping you locked up for the night and then well decide what to do with you […] you’re rather in my way, that’s all, and that’s where you shouldn’t be […] don’t try to set fire to it […] the first suspicious sign of smoke and I’ll drown the pair of you like rats in a trap.”

Meanwhile, the rest of the gang are getting worried. Juan goes to find out what’s happened and returns with a story about the boys giving the van one last long check. However, once the younger gang members have gone, he tells Marion and Fernand that he believes the boys are at Patrice’s compound – because Fritz, his dog, had some material in his mouth – the same colour and pattern as Gaby’s cap. But what to do? After dinner Marion, Fernand and Juan go out again to investigate.

Gaby and Zidore, stuck in the shed, hear a frequent coming and going of voices. They get the idea of escaping through the roof, and by pushing a lever between the corrugated iron panels they make a hole that they can jump through. Outside, the gates are shut, but as the boys are carefully working out what to do next Fritz starts to bark, alerting Pedro and Patrice. But they can’t see the boys and assume they’re “snoring in their van.”

Nevertheless Pedro makes a patrol of the yard, and closes in on Gaby and Zidore. Finding a great hiding place, the boys observe Patrice talking to Popoff, Grosnier and Kalowski, three of the men to whom they had made scrap metal deliveries. It appears the police were going to set up an ambush and the boys would have spilled the beans, thereby ruining the men’s nefarious plans. Kalowski suggests Pedro should slit their throats which alarms Gaby and Zidore! They discuss how the counterfeit currency that they have been distributing is of very poor quality – it breaks easily, which – obviously – renders it useless.

 

Chapter Eight – Dog’s Delight. And now we see what’s going on from the point of view of two of Marion’s dogs, Dick and Bébert. They’re confused by their late-night walk, but Dick is sure the van is nearby – his nose doesn’t lie. They squeeze through a hedge, and meet Fritz, who’s not prepared to give way. Dick lands on Fritz from behind and they have a big three-way fight. Old Fritz is no match for the joint efforts of the others, and eventually confirms that Big Curly and Tall Skinny (their names for Gaby and Zidore) are in the area. The dogs go back for the others, and it’s big Plouc who smashes through the hedge, enabling his canine colleagues to get through – as indeed do Marion, Fernand and Juan.

They realise that Gaby and Zidore have escaped, and follow the dogs to a workshop, where, peering through the grimy windows, they are joined by the two escapees, and together watch Patrice and his accomplices working a cottage industry of creating counterfeit coins. It’s Pedro who is the master engineer when it comes to making the coins, but he’s not happy with the prospect of continuing the business in Marseilles as Patrice favours.

Rather than making an escape, Gaby and Zidore opt to stay and watch what took place. However, after a while, a dull thud hits the front door, and, alarmed, the whole procedure is halted. When Pedro eventually opens the door, in fly all Marion’s dogs on the warpath, attacking, biting, scratching the men, and, when Popoff falls, he knocks over one of the tubs containing the coins that were being dyed silver. All the silver liquid goes everywhere. The boys choose this time to make their escape. Deciding to dump Kalowski’s “scrap metal”, they go back to their original plan of starting their holiday tomorrow. Gaby feels they ought to act on what they have seen, but Marion convinces him that it’s none of their business.

And what of Fritz, “curled up, pretending to be asleep on the steps outside the office”? Rather than be beaten by Patrice for not stopping the canine attack, he bares his teeth and runs off to follow the others. “He would rather take pot luck with Marion, her crazy friends and the dogs who were his brothers.”

 

Chapter Nine – The World’s End.  Commissioner Sinet is on the case! He is informed that the clues to solving the counterfeit money case all lead to Louvigny – and he is told to look out for a van that looks like a hippopotamus! But when he goes to the Café Parisien for his usual coffee, he discovers the coin he was going to pay for it with had broken in two on the table. Even the police are not immune from the scam!

He learns that some of the coins were given in change at a service station, so demands to speak to the attendant, who turns out to be M. Grosnier. He said he obtained them from “a gang of skinheads in a red van” – and Sinet realises it’s the same van. Mme Macherel, the baker, tells Sinet it’s Gaby who’s in charge of the criminals, and Tatave is palming off the cash. Once he’s pacified the locals who have all suffered from accepting the dud money, Sinet realises he has to talk to Gaby and the gang.

Just as the gang are about to set off on their holiday, Fernand discovers that the police are after them. Gaby insists that they all drive off, but Marion insists they stay and help the police. In the end, Zidore drags her into the van, and, because she hadn’t closed the garden gate, all her dogs follow her in. Marion has a very bad feeling about this.

It’s a slow drive once they’re on the road. There’s traffic everywhere. Gaby is getting more and more angry, so turns off the main road at Melun, even though that’s not the route they planned. Suspecting they might be followed, they pull off in a forest clearing and the green car that had been tailing them sails past. But other vehicles are following too. Juan noticed that all the cars following them had the same slender aerial at the back – but he decides not to mention it. Nevertheless, Gaby, still in a rage, confronts one of the drivers that are following him, and sends him off with a flea in his ear.

They stop to have a meal outside Malesherbes. All is very jolly, until they hear a news announcement on a radio – to the effect that police are following their van and expect to make arrests very soon. Gaby thinks they should run for it, Zidore thinks they should hide. It starts to rain heavily; Gaby accidentally loses his way and drives in a complete circle; and finally the Uphill Struggle starts to drive erratically. All the fun has gone. The van runs out of petrol, and they pitch up for the night.

Then two police officers – who haven’t been alerted to the search for the van – come to their assistance. One points out that the van will have an emergency tank. Despite Zidore’s plea not to open it, they do, and a zinc container the size of a shoe box falls to the ground. And when they open it, “two thousand coins flowed in a glittering silver stream across the pine needles.”

They’re taken to the police station at Ingrannes. The gang bicker amongst themselves about the hidden stash – Gaby blaming Zidore, Juan laughing his head off. The police are rather kindly and can’t see the gang as hardened criminals. But they have to be locked up overnight. Marion was proved right. “”We set out this morning for the world’s end,” she murmured. “Well, we’ve found it tonight, sixty miles from Louvigny and behind prison bars.””

 

Chapter Ten – A Fine Start.  The gang – and the Uphill Struggle – are slowly driven back to Commissioner Sinet’s office, where he’s waiting for them, full of anger. It’s a shameful journey, with a hostile crowd shouting and pelting rotten tomatoes. Sinet’s office is also full of angry policemen, parents and traders. But Gaby isn’t contrite. And when some of the gang members treat it all as joke, some of the police don’t know how to react. And that’s because the gang members had already written to Sinet revealing their innocence. Unfortunately, Sinet hadn’t read it, as it arrived the day he was promoted from Inspector to Commissioner. When the truth is revealed, the gang are dismissed, and the police have found Patrice’s delivery book which was in the front compartment. All his clients’ details were there.

One last action before they finally get to go on their holiday – Tatave confronts Mme Macherel and buys cakes and bread – with a dud coin. “The fat boy’s victory lasted only a second. As he turned to go he saw his nine friends in a row, staring silently at Madame Macherel through the shop window, on their faces an icy, almost aloof expression which was more frightening than anger.” Finally, they’re ready to go. Marion wonders if Gaby still wants to drive. “But the knight of the wheel just shook his curly head as he gently let in the clutch and the Uphill Struggle pulled smoothly away.”

 

Mystery of Saint SalgueTo sum up; this is a very entertaining and frequently funny story, which develops the well known characters further into their young adulthood. It brings out a number of emotional reactions from the reader – the sense of injustice when the boys are duped and held against their will; the fear that Gaby’s temper gets the better of him and he can’t always exercise good judgment as a result. The book has a rather sudden and easy resolution which feels a little disappointing. But it’s still got plenty to recommend it. If you’ve read the book – or are re-reading it now, I’d love to know what you think about it, so please add a comment below. Paul Berna’s next book was La Piste du Souvenir, translated into English as The Mystery of Saint Salgue. This is the final book that features Gaby and his gang, and I’m looking forward to re-reading it and sharing my thoughts about it in a few weeks.

The Agatha Christie Challenge – The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side (1962)

The Mirror Crack'dIn which garrulous busybody Heather Badcock corners movie star Marina Gregg at a reception party, boring her to tears; and the next minute, she’s dead! But did the murderer intend the harmless Heather as the victim, or the wealthy and influential Marina? Fortunately for Miss Marple the murder takes place at Gossington Hall in St Mary Mead, and her friend Chief Inspector Craddock is brought in from Scotland Yard to investigate the crime; so Miss Marple has all the necessary access to the facts to crack the case. As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, as always, I promise not to reveal whodunit!

Margaret Rutherford as Miss MarpleThe book is dedicated “to Margaret Rutherford in admiration”. Margaret Rutherford was a seasoned actress, known for many great dramatic and comic film appearances following her first big hit as Madame Arcati in the film of Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit in 1945. By 1962, she had already appeared as Miss Marple in the film Murder She Said, with three more Marple adaptations to follow in the next couple of years. This was Christie’s first book not to have been serialised in advance of its full publication in either the US or the UK, although an abridged version was serialised in two parts in the Toronto Star Weekly Novel in March 1963, with the shortened title The Mirror Crack’d. Otherwise, the full book was first published in the UK by Collins Crime Club on 12th November 1962, and in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company in September 1963, also with the shortened title The Mirror Crack’d. The title is a quotation from Tennyson’s The Lady of Shalott, which is quoted as an epigraph.

The Mirror Crack'd movieThis is a thoroughly entertaining read, where the old and the new collide, and sparks fly as a result. The clash of traditional and modern is evidenced not only in Miss Marple’s day-to-day life,  but also with the old ladies of the village being confronted by modern day America, by having a film studio on their doorstep. You can also see it in people like Cherry, who has moved into the Development but doesn’t like the new types of people, preferring the gentility of the traditional village residents. You can sense Christie reaching conclusions as she writes the book, uncertain as to how the old and the new will live together until she actually explores it in the narrative. She writes some pacey conversation scenes – those between the Misses Marple and Knight, Miss Marple and Dr Haydock, Miss Marple and Dolly Bantry, for example, come to mind, plus – if you already know whodunit (as I sadly did – I find the 1980 film adaptation really sticks in the mind) – you can see how adeptly she deliberately leads the innocent reader up the garden path, with a wilful narrative deceit that’s a complete joy to identify!

CarerWe’re back in good old St Mary Mead, where Miss Marple seems to have aged considerably since the last time we met her. Although she’s still grumbling about gardeners, she’s not keeping up with the changes that have happened to her beloved village, and it puts her out of sorts. Even worse, she now has to suffer the indignities of what today we would call a live-in carer. Miss Knight fusses around, talks down to Miss Marple as if her brains were slowing down (which they’re undoubtedly not), makes her milky tea, insists on her having an afternoon nap; and, although she does understand the kindness behind the actions, and she appreciates the advice that she does require a certain level of “looking-after”, Miss Marple resents every minute of it. Even though Dr Haydock, whom we first met in The Murder at the Vicarage, encourages her to keep her brain alive, Miss Knight does everything she can to prevent Miss Marple from catching the local gossip or discovering the details of the local murder, because it will tire her out. But Miss Marple is too used to getting her own way, and detection is oxygen to her, so she does, of course, work alongside the police to discover who killed Heather Badcock.

CookAlthough she doesn’t want to be cared for, she does still value a decent housekeeper and cook – so, enter Cherry who becomes Miss Marple’s long-term companion. Cherry and her husband Jim have a house on the New Development, where modern living starts to encroach on the traditionalism of the village. But Cherry doesn’t fit in with the new estates; yes, she likes the gadgets and the convenience, but she doesn’t feel at home there. So when she suggests to Miss Marple that she and Jim could occupy part of the house that never gets used, it’s the perfect solution to Miss Marple’s needs. Miss Knight will be out the door without a moment’s thought!

Modern 60s developmentOther characters from previous novels appear in the book, including Mrs Dolly Bantry, now widowed as her husband Arthur died some time before; they used to live in Gossington Hall, and would host some of the Tuesday Night Club meetings as retold in The Thirteen Problems, and it was on their library floor that The Body in the Library would be found. Miss Hartnell, whom we also first met in The Murder at the Vicarage, is still alive, “fighting progress to the last gasp”. But progress always wins, as evidenced by the Development. And it’s while going for a sneaky walk in the new estate (taking advantage of Miss Knight’s shopping trip) that Miss Marple not only ends up having an unexpected argument with some new residents, but she also trips on the footpath, which is how she meets Heather Badcock, who takes her indoors and looks after her injury. Miss Marple is now definitely of the age where she doesn’t fall, she has a fall.

police inspectorThe other significant person we meet again is Craddock. He’s come a long way since he led the investigation in A Murder is Announced, he’s now a Chief Inspector, but to Miss Marple, and indeed Christie, he’s usually just plain Dermot. I don’t think Christie is ever this familiar with any of her other detectives. Maybe it’s that informality that makes Craddock come across as more of a family friend than a law enforcer. He is brought in to help when it appears that local man, Detective Inspector Frank Cornish, is out of his depth. To be fair, Cornish isn’t given much opportunity to tackle the case before Craddock is called in, and we’re not given much insight into the kind of guy he is.

CoincidenceIt’s an enjoyable, brisk read, with some nice observations and conversations, and a clever solution. It does, unfortunately, employ the device of having at least one whopping great coincidence, which is a little disappointing when you consider the book dispassionately. But it’s very well written, and with a remarkably memorable storyline.

Jerome K JeromeLooking at the references, there are, unusually, few locations for us to consider – by far the majority of the story takes place in and around St Mary Mead, which could be a village in Kent or Hampshire, depending on your own interpretation of distance and direction from real places! Apart from that, there is just the occasional London-based conversation. As for the other references, Christie likens the gardener Laycock’s excuses to those of Captain George in Three Men in a Boat, one of the daring chaps who takes the two week river cruise in Jerome K Jerome’s hilarious and still fresh 1889 novel. Marina Gregg is said to have been great in the films, Carmenella, The Price of Love and Mary of Scotland; the first two of these are fancies of Christie’s imagination – unlike Charlie Chaplin, who was said to be coming to the local Hellingforth studios. But Mary of Scotland was a real film, starring Katherine Hepburn, from 1936 – and a flop. I wonder if Christie simply didn’t do her research or wanted to tantalise us with the possibility that Marina Gregg took a leading part in it?

Sherlock HolmesDr Haydock, encouraging Miss Marple to keep her brain active, suggests she could “always make do with the depth the parsley sank into the butter on a summer’s day […] Good old Holmes. A period piece, nowadays, I suppose. But he’ll never be forgotten.” This is a reference to a vital clue in the Sherlock Holmes story, The Adventure of the Six Napoleons. Interestingly, Christie would use this quote again, in her next book, The Clocks, and in her 1972 novel Elephants Can Remember. It’s also interesting that Haydock, and/or Christie, speculated that the Sherlock Holmes stories might go out of fashion. I don’t think there’s any evidence of that, Holmes remains probably equally as famous in the annals of fictional detectives as Poirot!

PanglossIn further literary references, Hailey Preston is likened to Dr Pangloss, for his belief “that all was for the best in the best of all possible worlds”. Britannica describes him as “the pedantic and unfailingly optimistic tutor of Candide,” from Voltaire’s novel of 1759. Cherry suspects that Arthur Badcock must have murdered his wife Heather, even though he is a very meek chap: “still, the worm will turn or so they say. I’ve always heard that Crippen was ever so nice a man and that man, Haigh, who pickled them all in acid – they say he couldn’t have been more charming”. Crippen, of course, was hanged for the murder of his wife in 1910, and Haigh, the Acid Bath Murderer, killed somewhere between six and nine people for their money. A nice man, indeed.

A High Wind in Jamaica“Othello’s occupation’s gone”, says Mrs Bantry to herself after her conversation with Ella Zielinsky. This is from Act 3 Scene 3 of the play, where Othello is in conversation with Iago and he has fed him the lie about Desdemona’s disloyalty. Later Ella herself quotes, “fly, all is discovered” which, it is alleged, Conan Doyle sent in a telegram for no apparent reason, and the recipient did indeed fly. She also remembers the phrase, “the pitcher goes to the well once too often”, which is a variation on a 14th century proverb which means you can push your luck once too far, or that you shouldn’t repeat a risky action too often. And continuing the literary vein, Miss Marple recalls a book “written by that brilliant writer Mr Richard Hughes […] about some children who had been through a hurricane”. She’s referring to A High Wind in Jamaica, dated 1929, and considered one of the best English language novels of the 20th century.

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 aren’t many in this book – the chief sum mentioned is that of £500 which was deposited into Giuseppe’s bank account, which today would be around £7500. Almost more interesting, although much smaller, is the admission fee to the Gossington Hall fete, which was a shilling. That’s 75p at today’s rate. Pretty cheap, really.

 

Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side:

 

Publication Details: 1962. My copy is a Harper Collins paperback, the twelfth impression of the 2002 Agatha Christie Signature Edition, nineteenth impression, dated 2007, bearing the price of £7.99 on the back cover. The cover illustration merely shows a cracked mirror. That’s not very inventive. I could have done that.

How many pages until the first death: 76, but that’s misleading as this edition has 351 pages, which is a little under twice the normal page count in the Fontana paperbacks. So it’s not a long time to wait before things start getting bloody.

Funny lines out of context: Disappointingly none.

Memorable characters: Most of the characters aren’t particularly memorable with the exception of Marina Gregg, the Hollywood star, who brings glamour and exoticism to the otherwise staid confines of an English village.

Christie the Poison expert:

Heather Badcock is killed by the administration of what Christie, in a rare comic aside moment, describes as “hy-ethyl-dexyl-barbo-quinde-lorytate, or, let us be frank, some such name”. It’s a piece of marketing irony that it’s better known as Calmo. Christie is obviously taking the mickey out of some overly complicated chemical terminology – basically, Heather died of an overdose.

There is also some talk of the effects of poison by arsenic; and another person is killed by cyanide spray. When the deaths eventually come in this book, they come thick and fast!

Class/social issues of the time:

We return to the charming world of St Mary Mead to discover that it’s perhaps not as charming as it used to be. Christie uses this book to explore the effect of “the new development” as a blot on the English landscape, inhabited by some decent people of course, but also those that don’t really deserve to live in a village. At least, that’s the sense you get from this book. Perhaps the most interesting characterisation here is Cherry, who has moved in to the Development, where she has a modern home with modern conveniences, all of which she appreciates, but she identifies much more with the old-style village – to the extent of giving up her own modern home to live in an annex at Miss Marple’s. The divisions between the two levels of living are emphasised much more strongly than any similarities between the two.

Christie and Miss Marple both make a play about the phrase, “coming in Inch”, by which they mean taking the local taxi service. Mr Inch hasn’t run the business for years now, but convention requires that they still call it and the driver by the old name. This highlights the desire of the older members of the community – and those who serve them – to keep with the old practices and terminology. Nothing new would really work for them.

But progress is enforced on St Mary Mead, not only by The Development, but also by the appearance of the Hellingforth Film Studios, dragging the community into the twentieth century to a mixture of curiosity and distaste. The likes of Dolly Bantry and Miss Marple rubbing shoulders with Marina Gregg and Jason Rudd is one of the amusing sideshows of this book, and which help give it a little extra flavour.

Christie uses a few words that we wouldn’t use today, and you sense they were used deliberately to push the envelope of acceptable language to see what would be considered funny, or telling, or, indeed offensive. In a fit of xenophobia more than racism, Cherry refers to Giuseppe dismissively as “you know what these wops are like”. Frank Cornish refers to Margot Bence’s assistant as her “pansy partner” with all its pejorative force. And Dr Haydock and Miss Marple talk in terms of people who aren’t overly intelligent as morons. This use of language really stands out today.

It’s left to Craddock to satisfy Christie’s occasional need to knock feminism, in a conversation he has with Miss Marple about the Good Old Days. He remarks that in Miss Marple’s time, women would have been what he calls, “wonderful wives”.  “I’m sure, my dear boy, [she replies] you would find the young lady of the type you refer to as a very inadequate helpmeet nowadays. Young ladies were not encouraged to be intellectual and very few of them had university degrees or any kind of academic distinction.” “There are things that are preferable to academic distinctions,” said Dermot. “One of them is knowing when a man wants whisky and soda and giving it to him.” You can sense the crackle of old and new values clashing uncomfortably as they speak.

Classic denouement:  Not at all. In fact, it’s not until Miss Marple finally appears at the scene of the crime that she is completely convinced of all aspects of the case, and its solution. There’s no confrontation of the murderer, as that person isn’t present; just a clarification and final understanding of all the details between the investigating team and one of the suspects. There’s no real alternative for Christie than to stage it this way, but you do sense a little potential drama is lost as a result.

Happy ending? The only glint of happiness at the end is that Miss Marple will be rid of Miss Knight and that Cherry will take her place. Apart from that, only sadness remains.

Did the story ring true? There’s one sucker punch of a coincidence, and you get the feeling that if only Miss Marple had visited the scene of the crime earlier, it could have been solved much more quickly. But both the modus operandi of the murder, and the motive struck me as extremely believable.

Overall satisfaction rating: A very enjoyable book, with a good story, and I really like the way Christie uses it to reassess the character of Miss Marple with her passing years, and how old and new lifestyles can (or cannot) co-exist. It’s probably worth more than an 8/10, so I’ll give it the benefit of a 9. Just.

The ClocksThanks for reading my blog of The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side, 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 Clocks, one of the first Christies I ever read, and I remember as a child being thoroughly confused by it – I remember my mother asking me if I understood whodunit and I also remember lying to her that I did! As a result I’ve never quite come to terms with this book and certainly can’t remember anything about it. Therefore I’m very much looking forward to re-reading it and, 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 George Orwell Challenge – Hop Picking (1931)

George Orwell typingDespite his middle class background and apparent financial security (or maybe because of it?) Orwell spent several periods of his life deliberately homeless, to find out for himself what it actually felt like to be destitute – and so he could write about it afterwards. His equivalent today would be one of those undercover journalists who hide a microphone somewhere discreet about their person and then infiltrate an organisation under an alias to reveal the truth about what they get up to. His diaries show that for three weeks in September 1931 he journeyed down to Kent to work in the hop fields, getting to know the type of people involved in this activity, and in particular befriending a chap called Ginger. Orwell describes him in his diary as “a strong, athletic youth of twenty six, almost illiterate and quite brainless, but daring enough for anything. Except when in prison, he has probably broken the law every day for the last five years.”

Accompanied by other characters populating his diaries, he and Ginger travel, work, sleep and generally survive side by side throughout the whole exhausting adventure. Never averse to using pseudonyms, Orwell (Blair) adopted the name P S Burton when roaming around the country, assuming a cockney accent, and seemingly fitting in very well with his new-found companions, although he never shies away from judging these people – he often weighs them in the balance and finds them wanting.

Hop pickersFollowing these experiences he wrote up the essay Hop Picking which was published in the New Statesman & Nation on 17th October 1931, under his real name of Eric Blair. For the most part, it’s a piece of factual reporting, explaining what the work entails, how much people earn from it, what kind of people work there, and the reality of their day to day existence/survival. But Orwell never attempts to conceal his natural concern for and disgust at the conditions and exploitation faced by the working man (and woman, and child).

Just as in his diaries, he’s quick to cast judgment where he feels it’s appropriate. The essay starts with quotes from two experienced hop-pickers, “a holiday with pay” and “keep yourself all the time you’re down there, pay your fares both ways and come back five quid in pocket” – and instantly Blair remarks that these experienced workers “ought to have known better”. He then sets out his basic tenet about hop picking: “hop-picking is far from being a holiday, and, as far as wages go, no worse employment exists.”

HopsHe explains that the work entails long hours, but is basically a simple process. He accepts that it’s “healthy, outdoor work” but quickly points out how painful the inevitable cuts to your hands are, as a result of the plant’s spiny stems, and the revulsion you feel as plant-lice crawl down your neck. He also explains the system of payment; piece-work, with the usual rate being six bushels of picked hops for a shilling – in other words 2d per bushel. At today’s rate, that shilling is now the equivalent of about £2.40, so a bushel would have earned you 40p. But it’s not that straightforward; depending on who was accepting and measuring the bushels, it was perfectly easy for the hops to be crushed down low into the bushel, so that what one man might measure as a bushel another would measure as only half a bushel – so if you were unlucky – or victimised, or exploited – you could end up having to work twice as hard for the same income. Blair estimates that he and Ginger earned about nine shillings a week each (£21.60). Even the best pickers in their gang earned only an average of 13/4 each – today’s equivalent being £32. The manipulation of the language used to describe the payment system is not lost on Blair: “six bushels a shilling sounds much more than “fifteen shillings a week””.

bushel of hopsAs well as being tricked into working twice as hard, there were other ways in which the employers’ rules could reduce the hop-picker “practically to a slave. One rule, for instance, empowers a farmer to sack his employees on any pretext whatever, and in doing so to confiscate a quarter of their earnings; and the picker’s earnings are also docked if he resigns his job.” Then there were the sleeping conditions: “My friend and I, with two others, slept in a tin hut ten feet across, with two unglazed windows and half a dozen other apertures to let in the wind and rain, and no furniture save a heap of straw; the latrine was two hundred yards away, and the water tap the same distance. Some of these huts had to be shared by eight men – but that, at any rate, mitigated the cold.”

But Blair being Orwell – or vice versa – this is no turgid piece of dry journalism. Using that same appreciation for the sensuousness of language that he used in A Hanging, he is able to transport the reader into experiencing the same hardships – or indeed pleasures – with his words. With the phrase “the spiny stems cut the palms of one’s hands to pieces” you can feel the sharp stem digging into you, just as you can feel the uncomfortable irritation of “the plant-lice which […] crawl down one’s neck”. You can sense the slow dull progress of “trying to coax a fire out of wet sticks”. But you can also smell the scene and sense the welcome cool with the sentence “on hot days there is no pleasanter place than the shady lane of hops, with their bitter scent – an unutterably refreshing scent, like a wind blowing from oceans of cool beer”. Who couldn’t resist breathing deeply to enjoy the wind from oceans of cool beer!

With good journalistic balance, he notes that hop pickers come back year after year, so despite the hardship they have to endure, “the Cockneys rather enjoy the trip to the country” and it still “figures in the pickers’ mind as a holiday.” Part of his conclusion is that “whatever the cause, there is no difficulty in getting people to do the work, so perhaps one ought not to complain too loudly about the conditions in the hop fields”.

new hop picking machineryFrom my own experience, I know that in the late 20s and early 30s my mother and her brother worked on the hop fields with their parents, and I don’t recall her saying how terrible an experience it was. This is a fascinating, personal piece of journalism, written directly from the writer’s current experience, balancing the rigours and hardship of the activity with its unexpected popularity and the cheerfulness with which it was endured. It’s also a description of a now historical activity that has thankfully been taken over by machinery. Orwell got it right when he says “hop-picking is in the category of things that are great fun when they are over.”

The Agatha Christie Challenge – The Pale Horse (1961)

The Pale HorseIn which historian and writer Mark Easterbrook witnesses a fight between two girls in a coffee bar – which leads him into a mystic underworld of seances, black magic and the surprise deaths of unwanted relatives. And what connection can an old converted pub, The Pale Horse, have with these deaths? With occasional support from his old friend Mrs Oliver, and encouragement from the resourceful and charming young Ginger, he’s able to assist Inspector Lejeune to work out exactly what’s happening – although the final revelation is just as much a surprise to Easterbrook as it is to the reader. As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, as always, I promise not to reveal whodunit!

FleteThe book is dedicated “to John and Helen Mildmay White with many thanks for the opportunity given me to see justice done”. Helen Mildmay was the heiress to Flete Manor, in Devon, who set about creating beautiful gardens on the estate which she inherited following the death of her brother. She married Lt-Cdr John White, and their son Anthony is the current owner of the Flete estate. Christie doesn’t mention the couple in her autobiography, and I don’t know to which “justice” she refers! The book was first published in the UK in eight abridged instalments in Woman’s Mirror magazine in September and October 1961, and in the US a condensed version of the novel appeared in the April 1962 issue of the Ladies Home Journal. The full book was first published in the UK by Collins Crime Club on 6th November 1961, and in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company in 1962.

Dennis WheatleyMuch has been made of the fact that Christie wrote this book as a response to the popularity at the time of the works of Dennis Wheatley. However, I can’t particularly find any reference to Christie appreciating Wheatley’s works, and indeed Wheatley had been writing for thirty years or more before The Pale Horse was published. So whilst there might indeed be a nod of homage from Christie to Wheatley, it might also be coincidental.

The ABC MurdersThe structure of this book is a little different from the norm. There’s no Poirot or Marple, and the “hero” of the book is historian and writer Mark Easterbrook. He has obviously tasked himself with writing the story of The Pale Horse, as Christie starts the book with a foreword that has been written by him, rather than her. Most of the chapters begin with the words “Mark Easterbrook’s Narrative”; those that don’t, are written in Christie’s third person style and describe the death of Father Gorman and Inspector Lejeune’s early investigations, until Easterbrook himself becomes more involved in asking questions and working alongside the police. I can’t recall seeing the narration swop between one character and another like this since the days of The ABC Murders.

SeanceEasterbrook is a reasonably genial companion to take us through this case. Despite his faults, he’s quite charming, witty and urbane; he shows gumption and bravery, but like most of us, also reveals his fears, such as during the séance or his meeting with Bradley. He’s also inclined to be impatient, and doesn’t suffer fools gladly. He’s quick to point out the presence of an airhead – as in his dealings with the sweet bimbo Poppy – which explains his attraction to the feisty Ginger, one in the long line of Christie women full of get-up-and-go spirit, and much more fun to be with than the dry and careful Hermia. We can pretty much identify with Easterbrook.

police inspectorDetective Inspector Lejeune is one of Christie’s decent police creations, a man with a good sense of dramatic timing, as we see in the denouement; something of a loner, highly intelligent and practical. Christie describes him thus: “he was a sturdy man, dark haired and grey eyed. He had a misleadingly quiet manner, but his gestures were sometimes surprisingly graphic and betrayed his French Huguenot ancestry.” Easterbrook hits it off with him instantly. In his words, “I liked […] Lejeune at first sight. He had an air of quiet ability. I thought, too, that he was an imaginative man – the kind of man who would be willing to consider possibilities that were not orthodox.”

Mogul ArchitectureAnd we also get to meet Ariadne Oliver again, the first time in five years since Dead Man’s Folly, and, perhaps of note, the only novel in which she appears where the crime isn’t investigated by Hercule Poirot. Appearing alongside Easterbrook, Christie now has two writers through whom to express her frustrations and anxieties about writing. The first thing that Easterbrook does, when we first meet him at the beginning of the book, is complain about the problems of being a writer. “Mogul architecture, Mogul Emperors, the Mogul way of life – and all the fascinating problems it raised, became suddenly as dust and ashes. What did they matter? Why did I want to write about them?”

Agatha ChristieBut of course it is through Mrs Oliver that we get – as always – Christie’s autobiographical feelings about the writer’s life. “I’m too busy writing or rather worrying because I can’t write. That’s really the most tiresome thing about writing – though everything is tiresome really, except the one moment when you get what you think is going to be a wonderful idea, and can hardly wait to begin.” She’s completely opposed to opening fêtes, which is unsurprising given her experience in Dead Man’s Folly, or giving an interview, because of “all those embarrassing questions which are always the same every time. What made you first think of taking up writing? How many books have you written? How much money do you make? […] I never know the answers to any of them and it makes me look such a fool.” Mrs Oliver says that she has actually written 55 detective novels to date; by comparison, The Pale Horse was Christie’s 52nd novel, although she had also written ten collections of short stories. `

Plain CookingThere’s an amusing interchange between Mrs Oliver and Thyrza Grey, the “leader” of the three “witches” who live at The Pale Horse, when Miss Grey tells Mrs Oliver ““you should write one of your books about a murder by black magic. I can give you a lot of dope about it.” Mrs Oliver blinked and looked embarrassed. “I only write very plain murders”, she said apologetically. Her tone was of one who says, “I only do plain cooking.””

Cards on the TableMrs Oliver isn’t the only character whom we’ve met before in earlier Christie books. In fact, Mrs Christie is on a positively vigorous nostalgia trip in this book. Mark Easterbrook’s cousin is Rhoda Dawes, whom we met in Cards on the Table, which ends with the prospect of romance between her and Major Despard. Rhoda and Despard are now married; he’s now a colonel, and comes across as a more reasonable and wise chap than he was in those earlier days. We also get to meet again the Reverend Dane Calthorp and his wife, whom we first met in The Moving Finger. He’s still very intellectual and clerical; she’s perhaps less bossy and interfering than she was.

Black MagicEasterbrook is a man set very much in the here and now, and has no time for ridiculous theories of the occult or black magic; how on earth can you kill someone like that using just the power of thought and dark arts? However, Christie very nicely creates an uncomfortable mystic atmosphere in the scene where Miss Grey takes him around The Pale Horse, and they have a private conversation about the kind of mind games that just might be possible. Against his better judgment, Easterbrook finds himself swayed by these mystic theories and possibilities, and that sense of mental or imaginary power or insight pervades much of the book. The reader gets drawn into this too, and quickly concludes that the witch ladies must be responsible for the crimes although we don’t quite know how they do it. This leads the reader on to believing that they’ve absolutely cracked the case early on – how can this story be developed so that there is a genuine whodunit element to it? Christie manipulates us in this way right up to the very last moments when we’re suddenly confronted with an alternative surprise solution which, basically, knocks our socks off. Very often in a Christie, one’s reading pleasure might be eroded by the over-use of coincidence, which can sometimes appear to be really heavy-handed and ridiculous. In this book, there are what appear to be highly unlikely coincidences; but this time Christie uses them as clues rather than as just another coincidence. It’s very cleverly written indeed.

BournemouthNow we’ll look at some of the references in this book, starting, as usual, with the locations. The events of this book either take place in the small town of Much Deeping, said to be 15 miles north of Bournemouth, or in London. It is of course a fictional location – maybe based on Blandford Forum, or Brockenhurst. In London, Mrs Coppins lives in Benthall Street, Lady Hesketh-Dubois in Ellesmere Square; Easterbrook and Corrigan dine in Lowndes Square, and Ginger lives in Calgary Place. In reality, there is a Benthal Road in Stoke Newington, and an Ellesmere Road in Bow; there’s no such place as Calgary Place. But Lowndes Square does exist, in Belgravia. Easterbrook also dines at the Atheneum, a luxury Mayfair hotel, so he doesn’t stint himself. Mr Osborne is said to have retired to Glendower Close, Bournemouth; there are several Glendower Closes in the UK, but none in Bournemouth.

Coupe NesselrodeAnd now for the other references. The title itself – The Pale Horse – is a reference from the Bible.  Death rides a pale horse in the Book of Revelation, chapter six, verse eight. “History is bunk” sighs Easterbrook, bemoaning his lot at the beginning of the book – and he wonders if it was Henry Ford who originally said it; yes, it was. Whenever Dr Corrigan arrives anywhere, he’s always whistling “Father O’Flynn” – that’s an old Irish ballad set in Donegal. And when Poppy gets anxious at the mention of The Pale Horse, David calms her down with a Coupe Nesselrode. That’s a Swiss ice-cream sundae made with vanilla ice cream, whipped cream, meringue and a chestnut puree.

Rutland BoughtonThe erudite Easterbrook refers to Lu and Aengus, and says they come from The Immortal Hour. That is an opera written by English composer Rutland Boughton, which premiered at the first Glastonbury Festival in 1914; it seems to have been long forgotten today. The spirit that emerges when Sybil goes into a trance is named Macandal – that’s the name of a Haitian voodoo priest whose name is still associated with black magic today and who was killed in 1758 and is seen as an important leader in the fight for Haitian independence. Madame de Montespan, whom, allegedly, Sybil is definitely not, was the chief Royal Mistress to King Louis XIV of France.

madelaine-smithMr Osborne draws Easterbrook’s attention to Jean Paul Marigot, whom he says “poisoned his English wife”. This appears to be an invention of Christie’s. Madeleine Smith, whom Easterbrook mentions in the same conversation, was real – a 19th century Glasgow socialite who was accused of the murder of her lover L’Angelier. It was not proven.

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. Thomasina Tuckerton is said to have inherited an estate worth at least £100,000, which at today’s rate would equal at least £1.5 million. Lady Hesketh-Dubois left half that amount in her will, £50,000 net – so that’s £750,000 today. And the other interesting sum mentioned is the five shillings that Easterbrook is forced to part with to buy a rose from Poppy at her flower salon; today that would be worth about £3.90. That’s not that expensive really!

 

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

 

Publication Details: 1961. My copy is a Fontana paperback, nineteenth impression, dated September 1983, bearing the price of £1.50 on the back cover. The cover illustration, (not by Tom Adams) simply shows Death riding a what looks like a fairground merry-go-round horse. Not overly imaginative.

How many pages until the first death: 5. Lots of deaths occur very early in this book, but then they stop. But it’s good to get going with the sense of detection right from the start!

Funny lines out of context: A few.

Mrs Dane Calthrop has an unfortunate turn of phrase when she gives an example of the kind of event at which a village witch might take revenge: “Billy teased my pussy last Tuesday week.”

A white cockerel is sacrificed in the witchcraft scene in Easterbrook’s presence, leading to Rhoda inquiring: “any white cocks?” And later Easterbrook is remembering the scene and imagines “Bella, chanting her evil spells, held up a struggling white cock”.

Memorable characters:

This book does quite well on the memorable characters count. Mark Easterbrook himself is a strong lead, non-police, investigator. And Ginger, his partner in detection, is a feisty and forthright young woman whom you can easily visualise. The three witch-types at The Pale Horse, Thyrza, Sybil and Bella, are all very well drawn, with distinct characteristics and very easily imaginable in your mind’s eye. And Mr Bradley is memorable in his own way, for being a rather unctuous weaselly type of chap.

Christie the Poison expert: SPOILER ALERT (you might wish to move on to class/social issues!)

Christie writes in her autobiography about being introduced to the workings of a pharmacy and how this gave her her insights into the world of poison. There she met a character whose influence stayed with her all her life and on whom she drew very strongly when writing this book. It’s from this memory that she employed the use of thallium poisoning in this book; a chemical element that was usually used as a rat poison or an insecticide. One of its main side-effects is that it induces hair loss, which is how Easterbrook put two and two together and realised this must be the way that the murders were committed.

As a sidenote, it’s fascinating that reading The Pale Horse alerted a few members of the public to the existence of thallium poisoning in their own lives; the book is credited with having saved the lives of at least two people after readers recognised the symptoms of thallium poisoning. And in 1971, a serial killer, Graham Frederick Young, who had poisoned several people, was caught thanks to this book. A doctor conferring with Scotland Yard had read it and realised that the mysterious “Bovingdon bug” that was erroneously being blamed for the deaths was in fact thallium poisoning.

On the other side of the equation, however, the book is also believed to have inspired “The Mensa Murder”. In 1988, George Trepal, a member of Mensa, poisoned his neighbours, Pye and Peggy Carr and their children, with thallium introduced in Coca-Cola bottles.

Class/social issues of the time:

There are very few of the usual Christie themes and issues in this book. There are one or two references to high taxation, and Mrs Coppins has a bee in her bonnet about how disappointed she is in the new National Health Service. There’s none of the usual xenophobia/racism; apart from the default observation that black magic and occult influence don’t work on Europeans – by which Christie doesn’t mean the French or the Germans, she means white Caucasians as opposed to people living in Africa or the West Indies; the supposition being, I presume, that the West is too intelligent to believe it.

The other aspect of the book that I found interesting from a historical point of view was Christie’s description of Mr Osborne’s traditional pharmacy. It’s so very unrecognisable from the kind of place we would go to today to get our prescriptions filled. ““We’ve always kept good solid stuff. Old-fashioned. But quality. But nowadays” – he shook his head sadly – “disappointing for a pharmaceutist. All this toilet stuff. You’ve got to keep it. Half the profits come from all that much. Powder and lipstick and face creams. And hair shampoos and fancy sponge bags. I don’t touch the stuff myself. I have a young lady behind the counter who attends to all that.”” When Lejeune first arrives at the pharmacy, he “passed behind and through a dispensing alcove where a young man in a white overall was making up bottles of medicine with the swiftness of a professional conjurer”. Today one thinks of all our medicines as being pre-prepared and pre-packed. It’s fascinating to consider the changes in the industry over what is barely more than half a century.

Classic denouement:  It’s a twist on the idea of a Classic Christie denouement. It’s not the traditional gathering together of all the suspects in a drawing room before the detective reveals whodunit. However, all the individual elements are there, with suspicion being heavily placed on Character A before it is revealed that Character B is the guilty party; and we ourselves can witness how the guilty party reacts to being unveiled, which is very satisfactory. On a number of occasions with Christie, the guilty party isn’t present when we find out whodunit, and it’s especially rewarding to see if they’re contrite, in denial, in flight or whichever of a number of possible reactions. And what this denouement has, above all else, is the terrific hidden punch of complete surprise.

Happy ending? Absolutely. There’ll be no more suspicious deaths, and Easterbrook and Ginger look forward to theatre trips together – and more.

Did the story ring true? Despite the high level of spiritualism, occult and black magic, I find this a very believable story. Once you have discovered the modus operandi of the crimes, it all fits into place and makes perfect sense. You can also see how the crime might occasionally fail, which also goes along with our understanding of what happens. I have just two or three quibbles with the story; we might expect to have revealed to us the exact process that caused Ginger to fall ill – that’s omitted from the narrative. Also it’s a little unsatisfactory that some people from the list of names that Father Gorman writes out are not included in the investigations. There are two Corrigans in the story – the Doctor and Ginger – and we never really discover whether the Corrigan on the list is one of those people, or if it’s just a coincidence (which wouldn’t really be very stylish). Or is Christie just being impish?

Overall satisfaction rating: It’s an excellent book, extremely well-written and one of Christie’s more un-put-downable works. Given the tiny quibbles I’ve just mentioned, I’m giving it a 9/10. But it’s a fantastic read.

The Mirror Crack'dThanks for reading my blog of The Pale Horse, 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 Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side, and a return to Miss Marple. I’m pretty sure I can remember a lot of this book, including the identities of the murderer and at least one victim. Nevertheless I’m looking forward to re-reading it and, 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 George Orwell Challenge – A Hanging (1931)

George OrwellSo here I go with my first blog-dip into the world of George Orwell, and we start with an essay entitled A Hanging, first published in The Adelphi magazine, and also in the 1950 volume Shooting an Elephant. I have it as one of the essays in the Penguin 1975 collection, Decline of the English Murder and other Essays.

Orwell at EtonI think, to appreciate his work better, a little background information would be useful. Eric Blair (for that was his real name, he used George Orwell as a nom de plume, but never actually changed his name as such) was born in India in 1903 into what he described as a “lower-upper-middle class family.” His mother wanted him to have a public school education, but they could not afford the fees. So he went to St Cyprian’s, a prep school in Eastbourne, on a scholarship. He was never told that he was there on reduced fees, but he soon realised that he was from a poorer background from most of his cohort. He gained a scholarship to Wellington School, which he hated, and whilst there gained a King’s Scholarship to Eton, which he enjoyed, remaining there until 1921.

He didn’t show great academic promise at Eton, so bypassed the prospect of university and joined the Imperial Police, the forerunner of the Indian Police service. He was stationed in Burma, where his maternal grandmother lived, and he worked in the police service there for five years from 1922. After returning to England on leave, he resigned from the Indian Police to become a full-time writer. Orwell drew on his experiences in Burma to write not only A Hanging, but also the essay Shooting an Elephant and the novel Burmese Days.

Orwell Burma PassportIt’s not known whether the event described in A Hanging was real, fictional, or a combination of the two. It is known that attending hangings was considered a rite of passage for young police officers – and indeed it was a legal requirement that there should be a police presence for every such event. It appears that Orwell didn’t care to talk about this essay in future years, which may suggest that it had a truly shocking affect on the young man.

It’s a short, calm, unemotional and reserved description of the hanging of an unnamed man for an unnamed crime. The language is measured but descriptive, occasionally sensuous, as with the description of the warders crowding around the prisoner, “their hands always on him in a careful caressing grip […] it was like men handling a fish which is still alive and may jump back into the water.” And when he describes how, just before the moment of death, “everyone had changed colour. The Indians had gone grey like bad coffee” – that’s a great simile that you can both see and smell in your mind’s eye.

Although he’s going through the motions of what his job requires, the young Blair cannot contain his feeling for both the “unspeakable wrongness” of taking a life, and for the unintentional ludicrous humour that can arise from it. He is moved by the natural act of the prisoner to avoid a puddle whilst being marched to the gallows – it’s this automatic reaction that reveals the humanity of the condemned man, the fact that his brain and body functions are completely normal, that shocks the writer into recognising the awful truth, that “we were a party of men walking together, seeing, hearing, feeling, understanding the same world; and in two minutes, with a sudden snap, one of us would be gone.”

Orwell relies on the evidence of his eyes and ears to relay the situation to us. He takes everything in, and mentally processes it, without hysteria or endorsement, purely as a witness to what is clearly a routine event. He observes that the prisoner is “a puny wisp of a man”, with “a thick sprouting moustache, absurdly too big for his body”. He “watched the bare brown back of the prisoner […] he walked clumsily with his bound arms, but quite steadily, with that bobbing gait of the Indian who never straightens his knees”. The prisoner never reacts or resists, and only when the noose is around his neck does he cry out to his god. “It was a high, reiterated cry of Ram! Ram! Ram! Ram!, not urgent and fearful like a prayer or cry for help, but steady, rhythmical, almost like the tolling of a bell.” Through his writing, we can hear that slow, mantra-like cry to God for ourselves, as Orwell’s simple words become a conduit from the prisoner to the reader.

Juxtaposed with the ritual solemnity of the procedure, are two humorous events. The first involves a stray dog, unexpectedly breaking into the procession and barking gleefully, even jumping up at the prisoner and licking his face, much to the fury of the superintendent in charge. It reminded me of Emily Dickinson’s poem 465, where just as the narrator is laid out on a bed ready to die, “and then it was there interposed a fly….” and all attention is diverted away from the sombre “main event” by a trivial irritant.

The second comes after the body has been hanged, and the hangman starts regaling the officers with a story about a condemned prisoner who wouldn’t let go of the cage bars when they went to take him out. ““It took six warders to dislodge him, three pulling at each leg. We all reasoned with him, “my dear fellow,” we said, “think of all the pain and trouble you are causing to us! But no, he would not listen! Ach, he was very troublesome!” I found that I was laughing quite loudly. Everyone was laughing. Even the superintendent grinned in a tolerant way.” As the piece ends, the Burmese magistrate starts laughing again at the thought of “pulling at his legs”. The final sentences are: ”We all had a drink together, native and European alike, quite amicably. The dead man was a hundred yards away.”

It’s this mix of the mundane and the extraordinary, as well as the extinct and the living, that gives this piece tremendous power. From the intensity of the death, we go straight to the chattiness of the breakfast. I also admire how we get a strong impression of the characters involved in the process, even though they say and do little. We know the superintendent is an impatient, authoritative man, but with the supportive kindness to share out his whisky, and to allow the prisoner to say his prayer. We know that Francis is a garrulous type, who wins favour by spinning a few stories to break the tension. The Eurasian boy is only there to try to impress Blair with his generosity with cigarettes and his “classy European style” silver cigarette case, probably to gain some preferment. We learn that Blair himself, whilst trying to hold in all his emotions and reactions to the event, can’t resist bursting into laughter like everyone else as a nervous reaction to what he’s endured. Even the dog backs away from the gallows, “sobered and conscious of having misbehaved itself”. And we never forget that the prisoner is a human being too, side-stepping puddles and spontaneously urinating through fear at the news that his appeal had been dismissed.

So many thoughts packed into six short pages, without the writer ever having to over-emphasise or sensationalise. It’s a challenge for the reader to wish to read an account of a hanging for pleasure, but its power and insight is very enjoyable to read. A very impressive short piece.

After A Hanging, he wrote two more essays, Hop-Picking in October 1931 and Common Lodging Houses in September 1932. I’ll take the first of those two next, hopefully in the next couple of weeks.

The George Orwell Challenge

George OrwellYou know me. I enjoy a challenge as much as the next man. But is this a challenge too far? After all, I still have many of Agatha Christies and Paul Bernas to read, and James Bond films to watch, let alone keeping up with old travel and theatre memories. And George Orwell? Really? Is this wise?

Animal FarmI had no idea this was going to happen until a few weeks ago when a friend said he had ordered Animal Farm and 1984 from Audible and was looking forward, finally, to getting to know these famous stories. My instant reaction was to feel oh you lucky thing, getting your first taste of Orwell’s best known and probably best-loved books. I also wondered if they were his best-written books; then it occurred to me that it had been ages since I read them myself, let alone Wigan Pier, Catalonia, Down and Out and so on. In fact, there are plenty of his works I’ve never read. I’ve not read Burmese Days or A Clergyman’s Daughter; and I have no memories of Coming Up for Air or Keep the Aspidistra Flying, even if I have read them. I’m convinced that I was too young and certainly too green and immature to appreciate much of what he was trying to say, so I think the time is right to revisit them. However, a quick glimpse at his bibliography on Wikipedia reveals a mass of essays, reviews, articles, pamphlets and so on. There’s no way I can read all those. I’ll be doing it when I’m 100.

1984But I am very tempted by the prospect of taking Orwell in chronological order, reading his works and then putting virtual pen to paper to record my thoughts. This will be a very different kind of challenge from the others, because there are already reams of learned and insightful critical appreciations of his books written by people far more academic and brighter than I could ever dare to be. So there’s no point in my adding unoriginal and slight insights into a well-established canon of critiques. I also don’t have to provide synopses, like I do with Berna (because no one else has done that) or thrill assessments and marks out of ten like I do with Christie (because it just wouldn’t be appropriate). So instead I will just read, absorb and record my emotional responses and personal reflections on what Orwell is telling me. It could be as dull as ditchwater – in which case, I’ll stop.

Decline of the English MurderOrwell wrote six novels, three non-fiction books and endless other essays and articles. I’m going to read all the books, and a good number of the essays. Taking them in chronological order, he wrote a few essays in French for Le Progrès Civique publication, but I’m not going to tackle those because a) I’m too lazy to translate them and b) I feel reading someone else’s translation would create a barrier between me and him. His first published essay in English appears to be The Spike, but this is later reworked into Down and Out in Paris and London, so I’m also going to ignore that. Instead, the first piece I will read will be A Hanging, an essay written in 1931, published in The Adelphi magazine, and also in the 1950 volume Shooting an Elephant. I have it as one of the essays in the Penguin 1975 collection, Decline of the English Murder. I’ll let you know how I get on! Wish me luck!

The Paul Berna Challenge – Flood Warning (1960)

Flood WarningIn which the intellectual but ineffectual schoolteacher Monsieur Sala switches from zero to hero as he takes on a terrible flood and leads his boys on to safety!

Flood Warning was first published in 1960 by G. P. Rouge et Or under its original French title La Grande Alerte, which translates literally as The Great Alert, with a cover design by Peter Barrett, and further illustrations inside by Charles Keeping. Born in 1935, Peter Barrett would go on to illustrate many children’s books over a long career – this job, designing the cover for Flood Warning, must have been one of his first! Charles Keeping was mainly associated with illustrating the children’s books of Rosemary Sutcliff, but he also illustrated Folio Society books and Oxford University Press books, and enjoyed a long and successful career. He died in 1988 and there is a blue plaque outside his house.

As “Flood Warning”, the book was first published in the UK by The Bodley Head in 1962, and translated, as usual, by John Buchanan-Brown. My own copy of the book is an undated Puffin edition, bearing the price 3/6. A quick check online suggests there are quite a few second-hand copies for sale at varying prices, so if you haven’t got a copy there shouldn’t be much difficulty getting hold of one. Incidentally, Berna thought the title “La Grande Alerte” was, frankly, silly. He had proposed the much more obvious and accurate “Le collège englouti” (The Engulfed College). Flood Warning isn’t a bad name for it though. Along with One Hundred Million Francs and The Clue of the Black Cat, Berna named this book as one of his three favourite children’s novels.

We’ve seen Berna write about gangs like Gaby’s and Charloun’s (in The Knights of King Midas), loners like Frederick in Magpie Corner, and middle-class children like Daniel and Manou in The Mystery of the Cross-Eyed Man. In Flood Warning he goes back to middle-class – and indeed upper-class – children, this time those who attend the exclusive Château-Milon boarding school. Of course, dormitory pranks can be seen as an equivalent to the kind of fun and games a gang gets up to, and you can see how this book reflects very similar gang structure to Berna’s earlier books – although there isn’t one obvious leader. The boys – and they are all boys, which might well be a disincentive for girls reading the book – are all referred to by their surnames, which is a first for Berna, who normally uses his children’s first names or indeed nicknames. The school was based on a Mariste college (run by a religious order dedicated to the Virgin Mary) in Fribourg, Switzerland, which the young Berna (or rather the young Sabran, as he hadn’t yet acquired this nom-de-plume) attended after his father was killed in the First World War in 1914. Much like Château-Milon, the college had one building for the older pupils, one for the middle and one for the youngest.

LoireThis is a complete page-turner of a book; once the fear of the oncoming storm turns into a flood, and the flood becomes real, and threatening, Berna never lets up the action-packed narration, gaining suspense and excitement from the intense detail of every stage of fighting the rising tide, and from all the main characters’ viewpoints. The book shows how, when danger is imminent, petty arguments and jealousies are cast aside in the more important issue of survival. Boys and adults work hand in hand as a team to combat the flood waters, each relying on the other to be brave, make innovative decisions and to go beyond whatever they’ve experienced before. The disaster is a great leveller, and as the book progresses, the status difference between masters and pupils becomes less relevant and less noticeable. It’s only when there is a return to some kind of status quo at the end, that the old structure begins to come back.

Flood Warning gives us Berna’s most interesting adult yet. He’s not a parent, he’s not a policeman and he’s not a villain. He is a teacher, whom we first meet truly struggling with his job. Monsieur Sala is an intellectual, and does not possess the ruthless skills to keep order in class, a weakness of which the naughtier and more reckless boys take great advantage. Brossay, the headmaster, is having to fire him for being truly useless at the job; and Sala looks bitterly on the ringleader of the bad boys, Chomel, as a truly evil influence – not only is he making his life a misery, he’s making him lose his job and his accommodation. As schoolkids, the emotional harassment that playing-up and misbehaving can have on a teacher who lacks that hard edge simply never occurs to us. It’s just a laugh, an excuse to play around. However, Berna openly reveals the extent to which Sala is upset and disturbed by the way he is treated. Nevertheless, cometh the hour, cometh the man; Sala blossoms into a hero, rising to the challenges of survival against the floods.

His ascendancy is matched by that of the senior boy Vignoles, a Frederick-type character (see above) who has been a fish out of water for many years but finally finds a role for himself. Five years before the story starts, Vignoles had been deposited at the school by his father, who was too busy with business to look after his son. The boy was taken in by the Brossay family and looked after. But he never felt like he was at home, and he resented the abandonment, constantly dreaming up ways to escape. Like Frederick, he lacks a guiding father figure, and has to make his own way as best he can.

It’s not until he starts volunteering to help protect the school against the rains that he finally starts to feel an affection for his surroundings. “”The seniors are itching to help,” Vignoles answered. Monsieur Brossay was struck by the feeling behind the boy’s words. “I thought you didn’t like Château-Milon,” he said gently. “I’ve changed my mind since last night,” Vignoles retorted in his most icy tones. Monsieur Brossay did not press him. Despite the fact that he had been treated as one of the headmaster’s family during the long time he had been there, Vignoles had remained almost a stranger to him, enclosed in a wall of introspection which resisted all approaches.”

When the floods are worsening, and their situation becomes more desperate, Vignoles opens up to Sala, who is now, also, beginning to find his feet. “It’s taken me six years to realise what the school means to each one of us; safety, order, a breathing-space before we go out into the world, a place where we can be happy, study and learn how to live with other people. When I came, I had the bad luck to play up to the wrong set and win the disapproval of the decent sorts. But that’s all over and done with and I need my friends around me as much as the air I breathe.”

It’s fascinating to read how differently the senior boys are treated (and indeed look after themselves) at a French school as opposed to a British equivalent at the time. For example, the senior boys drink cider with dinner – can you imagine that in Enid Blyton?! Charpenne smokes in bed. Nor do you get the impression that these are moments of “naughty” behaviour; they are merely symptomatic of how much more adult French boys were treated than British. As a curious aside, Charpenne has to reuse old drawings to create new ones – because “paper was scarce” – was this a continued post-war shortage?

Like The Mystery of the Cross Eyed Man, this is another book full of real locations. The actions of the book are all centred on the area around Angers on the Loire, and the river Authion, a tributary, on the broad plains of Anjou. The Day Boys go home to La Bohalle. The nearest explosives factory is said to be “fifty or sixty miles away, near Châtellerault.” Local areas under water include Belle-Noue and La Ménitré. The airfield, to which some of the boys are eventually evacuated, is at Avrillé. You can plot virtually all of the locations mentioned in the book easily against a map.

As always with Berna, the book is littered with beautiful language and evocative passages. For example: after that first, ominous, puff of wind: “Vignoles looked up. The last dead leaves were raining down from the tall plane trees, revolving slowly like a swarm of butterflies as they were caught in the light which streamed in bars of gold from the windows.” When the flood reaches its most dangerous height, “a muddy sea billowed down the drive, poured through the gate like a millrace, foamed against walls and trees, shivered windows and made matchwood of doors, and flooded gurgling into buildings.” When the wind causes the school bell to ring all by itself, it’s “mournfully ringing like the bell of a fogbound schooner.” Not only is the story full of exciting narrative, but there are constant opportunities to let Berna’s words – as deftly translated by Buchanan-Brown – wash over you.

Here’s my in-depth chapter by chapter synopsis of the book. If you haven’t read the book yet and don’t want to see any more spoilers, here’s where you have to stop reading! By the way – this is Paul Berna’s first children’s novel where the chapters don’t have individual titles.

Chapter One. It seems like a normal day at Château-Milon school. Headmaster M. Brossay is delivering his lesson, and the sixth form students are ignoring him. Muret is organising the school football team for their match against Cunault. Vignoles, the dreamer, stares out of the window, lost in the countryside and his thoughts of how to escape. Boisson de Chazelles, the Vicomte, is planning how he could get expelled, as he had done from all his previous schools. Guillon and Montaigu appear to be working but are in fact passing notes with the shock news “Rabbits’ Eggs has got the sack!” That’s their nickname for the kindly but ineffectual M. Sala. Apparently the rumour goes that the lout Chomel, together with the class clown Sardine, shut Mme Juillet (the cook)’s cats in his desk, and when he opened the desk they flew out much to his shock. Twenty-five children laughed their head off and Sala was driven to tears.

Meanwhile, Charpenne is drawing a picture of Brossay with a pimple on his nose. Charpenne is accustomed to writing love poems to Brossay’s daughter Edith, or rather adapting other writer’s poetry. However, Edith has been passing the poems on to Mme Juiliet – also an Edith! Next door, M. Lacour is teaching Maths to the Upper Fifth, one of whom, Jeantet, has the job of ringing the bell, Cunégonde, to signal the end of the lesson.

Muret and his friend Lalande go off for football practice. Guillon and Montaigu try to work out if there is anything they can do about Sala. Vignoles talks to M. Juillet, who warns that rain is coming from Biarritz. Meanwhile, a mix up means that Edith Brossay gets to see Charpenne’s portrait of her father than his love poetry. Although he sees the joke, Brossay writes on the portrait “my congratulations to the artist […] take 8 hours detention.”

Later Brossay confirms to Sala that his inability to hold discipline can no longer continue. He is to leave the school in a couple of days’ time. It will be a blessing for the awkward Sala. Brossay tells him “”none of the boys is really bad at heart and even the worst, I’m sure, are already sorry for the harm they have done you.” Monsieur Sala nodded politely. He thought otherwise, To him, Chomel was evil personified. Nothing he could do had been able to soften the boy’s natural unpleasantness or remove his ridiculous grudge against the timid little schoolmaster imprisoned in his own shyness.”

But it’s as the children are teasing him one last time that evening, that the noise from the howling wind picks up and blows open and breaks one of the windows. “Incisively Monsieur Sala rose from his desk. He could not explain it, but the wildness of the night had sparked in him, for the first time in his life, a terrible courage. He banged the window shut and turned to the astonished boys. “Back to work all of you! Anyone how moves or makes a sound will be in trouble!” Chomel challenges him by not moving. Sala has the last word of the chapter: “Monsieur Chomel […] you are very big, and very nasty, and your nastiness seems to have attracted the worst elements in the form. But there is many a slip between cup and lip, and so do not be too sure that I shall leave this school before you do.”

Chapter Two. When Jeantet sounds Cunégonde at 7 pm, and all the external lights go on, they realise just how the wind has torn all the leaves from the branches. Over dinner, the extraordinary wind is the talk on everyone’s lips, both boys and masters. It doesn’t prevent the hungry Picard from enjoying his “cannon-balls” (one of Mme Juillet’s heartiest dishes) – finishing off everyone’s left-overs, he eats 16 of them!

Chomel and Sardine plan to let off a few more “thunder-flashes” that evening to scare M. Sala. But in the meantime, Messieurs Boris and Sala decide to work together to round up the juniors before bedtime. Boris is sad that Sala will be leaving. Sala tells him of his plans, to return to his parents’ house in Savoy for two weeks’ rest and recuperation, after which he’ll attempt some coaching, maybe at the University of Grenoble.

With the boys safely all in bed, Sala turns his attention to his books and his card indexes. He doesn’t hear the whispering Chomel and Sardine, placing the thunderflashes outside his door, with a fuse leading to Chomel’s bed. However, unknown to them, Kiki Dubourg and little Jozas have their own plans to protect Sala, without spoiling the fun of the explosion – they reposition the flashes under Chomel’s bed! He still has the fuse, but has no idea that it will be his posterior that will be attacked. Meanwhile, in La Vallière, the senior house, Vignoles, Charpenne and Boisson de Chazelles all go up to the bedroom they share. Vignoles cannot sleep, worried about the weather. At the same time that he gets up to look out of the window, M. Sala puts out his light, which is Chomel’s cue to start timing the fuse. Sala, meanwhile, has a nightmare involving angry animals, one of which looks like Chomel. But in reality, one of the juniors’ dormitory windows had blown in. “Outside the gale burst its bonds. Its first shock fell upon Château-Milon with a noise like thunder. Driven before it, a hail of flying débris battered the walls and roofs with a ceaseless rattle.”

Sala goes to check, but at the same time another gust blows against Kiki’s bed, covering it with pieces of broken glass. The boy isn’t hurt, just terrified. He, Jozas, and another boy are moved to empty beds at the other end of the dormitory. However, on the first floor, a branch crashes through a window, “the wind howled through the hole, blowing in a rain of dead leaves, bits of straw and other garden refuse and filling the room with a choking cloud of dust.” Sala tells Martin and Desbois to watch guard. Outside, the wind had started Cunégonde the bell to sound all by itself, “mournfully ringing like the bell of a fogbound schooner.” Boris and Lacour make their way outside but the wind is perilously dangerous, picking up bits of fencing and hurling it everywhere. They’re joined by Brossay, Juillet and the Trévidic brothers. The men all tried to board up the windows with planks and nails, whilst the wind continues to hiss and bring down trees. With the damage mitigated, the order is to go back to bed and they’ll assess the ruins in the morning.

Chomel, meanwhile, is terrified about his thunderflashes. He prays that somehow the fuse had burned out. But at that very moment…. Bang! “A shattering explosion lifted his mattress and deposited him on the floor, gasping like a fish out of water. The gale which raged outside was drowned in a roar of laughter. Chomel was a pitiable sight as in his crumpled pyjamas he got unsteadily to his feet and gaped, green with fright, at Monsieur Brossay, Monsieur Sala, Monsieur Boris and Monsieur Lacour, who were ranged like judges behind the partition.” And for that, Chomel gets six whacks of the slipper, much to Sala’s vengeful delight.

At 1 am comes the first power cut. The wind has started to die down, only to be replaced by rain, “unbroken heavy, steady, filling the countryside with the dull roar of a waterfall.” The next morning they could all see what had happened out there. The boys get soaked, just getting to breakfast. At least Charpenne doesn’t have to spend his detention alone. Never have so many attended one of Father Fabien’s Sunday masses. But it carries on raining, until just before supper, when the gale starts up again. Sala, meanwhile, spends Sunday packing his cases for his Monday departure.

On Monday morning there is another power cut, but life has to carry on. Sala wonders if Brossay might relent and withdraw his dismissal, but Juillet’s car is there waiting to take him to the station. He leaves with minimum farewells and off they drive. But shortly they return, as the road is completely under water! As everyone else gets on with their day, Sala stands “at the foot of the steps, like a piece of jetsam, firmly holding a suitcase in each hand. His thin face and enormous glasses were lost below his rain-soaked hat. “What shall I do?” he asked bewilderedly.” “Stay, of course! That’s all you can do,“ Monsieur Brossay went on impatiently. “We’ll see later…””

Chapter Three. Sala returns to his desk but with new-found confidence, “and the conviction that crises can sometimes be to the advantage of the weak and the despised.” The masters listening to the radio weather forecasts are annoyed that the announcer concentrates on Nantes and ignores the low-lying countryside. The announcement does confirm, however, difficulties in communication in the environs of the school. The day boys are not able to get in, nor can Edith return to her boarding school in Nantes. “At seventeen, it was fun to be thrown into something that smacked of adventure with plenty of males to share it.”

Vignoles reports that the Authion has flooded over the football pitch. He offers to help as much as he can – also promising the help of the other seniors – and Brossay is impressed at how the boy seems to be finally feeling at home. First job is to dig up the basketball pitch in order to fill sandbags to dam the breach of the garden gate. A watch is organised to keep an eye on the water level. Over lunch, everyone talks animatedly – and Sala confirms that the juniors – confined to the house – are behaving themselves, all reading The Three Musketeers together; even Chomel! Sala confesses he’d sooner be helping with the practical work; M. Boris assures him he soon will. At that point comes the third power cut – and the last; there would be no restitution of electricity to Château-Milon.

Vignoles tells M. Brossay that the dam will need to be raised by three feet to stop the water flooding up to the back door by the morning. Juniors and seniors work together to get the job done. But everyone is quietly worried for their safety. M. Juillet fears that they’re in for a repeat of the great floods of 1820, where the top of the Mérovée Tower was the only man-made structure visible. “If Monsieur Brossay let you boys inside the ruin I could show you a funny sort of calendar cut into one of the roof beams. Mérovée, his wife and his man were cut off by the floods and spent a week perched up among the beams and cog-wheels with only a pair of owls and a dozen rats for company.” Meanwhile, Charpenne dreams that life at Château-Milon had turned into a scene from Morte d’Arthur – he was Lancelot and he writes a poem to Edith, who, as Guinevere, was busily helping out with even the most unpleasant tasks.

Vignoles advises that the Authion has only risen an inch or two in the last three hours; but Brossay informs everyone what he has heard on the news, that thousands of homes in the area are in danger, and the Civil Defence volunteers are overwhelmed by calls for help. Further plans are drawn up to keep guard over all the buildings. This includes partnering up two people of balanced strength, usually one master with one student. Once the pairs have been selected, Vignoles is left without a partner. Would M. Sala step up to the challenge? Of course he will. Vignoles and Sala have the 2am – 4am watch, and Vignoles advises Sala that he is certain something is going to happen tonight. “I know I’ve never seen a flood before, but when you’ve watched every detail of a disaster there are some signs which are unmistakable. One thing alone could have saved this corner of the valley, if the weather had cleared at lunchtime and the rain had stopped. It’s too late now. Nothing can hold back the floods.”

Chapter Four. That evening the senior boys speculate as to how the water levels might change overnight – interspersed with laughs about Father Fabien’s stories, and Hubert Boisson de Chazelles’ prissy behaviour. Just before midnight the sky is lit up with red flashes. “The troops are blowing a quarter-mile gap in the embankment. The floods from the Authion are threatening Angers.”

It’s time for Vignoles and M. Sala to go on watch. The diminutive Sala is almost completely hidden by his oilskin raincoat. Brossay, Juillet and Father Fabien discuss the conditions – Brossay notes that his telephone line to the town hall at Longué went dead at the end of their conversation. Sala and Vignoles go off with their instructions. They meet M. Boris at the top of a ladder who informs them that Muret is patrolling the walls, as cracks have been appearing. Boris warns Vignoles that he must stay away from the flood waters, no matter what.

As Vignoles and Sala talk, both of them open up about their feelings – especially Vignoles, who explains that the flood has been a shot in the arm to make him come to his senses. When they realise that the battle against the water is lost, Sala goes to tell Brossay whilst Vignoles keeps further watch. Brossay tells Sala that everyone should go back into their houses – no one is to remain outside. But just as Sala approaches Vignoles to tell him to leave, “there was a dull crash and then the drumming of the rain was drowned by a roaring which increased in volume and came from behind the trees.” Going off to investigate, the water cascades over the garden wall, and Sala throws himself against the sandbags, trying to hold back the flood. Vignoles manages to grab Sala from the sandbags as they both flee for their lives, whilst a wave, ten feet high, pursues them. But they manage to escape to their houses, and in a moment of surprising calm, Boisson de Chazelles takes Sala a cocoa – and they end up playing chess all night long.

A brief respite the following morning allows for a council of war. Fabien and Juillet are in favour of an evacuation; Boris rejects this because of its impracticality. Brossay considers both arguments, but Fabien insists: “there should be one motive behind your decision: we have been entrusted with forty children and we are responsible for their safety. No one will blame you if you have been overscrupulous of that. We must go, and go as soon as we can!” Brossay asks Sala’s advice. Sala agrees with Fabien – his experience of the previous night has convinced him of the danger they are in.

So everyone is bustled into Brossay’s vehicles and driven towards the Arcy Woods – taking several perilous journeys. But the last car doesn’t return. “A muddy sea billowed down the drive, poured through the gate like a millrace, foamed against walls and trees, shivered windows and made matchwood of doors, and flooded gurgling into buildings.” With no knowledge of what has happened, Sala gets everyone left behind to go upstairs – Vignoles, Picard, Charpenne, Boisson de Chazelles, Job Trévidic, Sala himself and… the pathetic Chomel, who cried that no one wanted him to go with them. Meanwhile, the water laps against the foot of the staircase.

Chapter Five. The seven look after themselves the best they can. Yes, they are cold, but they have food, and no concern that the building could collapse. Vignoles and Sala exercise their influence to calm down arguments. Vignoles’ chief fear is that the disaster of 1820 is about to recur. Sala quietly proposes to Vignoles and Charpenne that they should build rafts and sail towards the high land behind Longué. They use bed frames, chair seats, planks and such like to build the first raft. For the second, they adapt the hot water tanks in the bathroom. Vignoles and Sala propose waiting until morning to make their escape, but the others call it cowardice.

However, they also discover two strong ladders, and it occurs to them to use them to cross the virtual bay outside and reach the mill, where they’ll be much safer. Disagreements over what to do turn into a fight, with Charpenne attacking Chomel and Boisson de Chazelles disowning Vignoles as a friend. Nevertheless, the ladder bridge is constructed, and one by one they cross over into the mill – until it’s Chomel’s turn. The bully is nowhere to be seen until he is found hiding under a bed. Vignoles and Chomel get across just in time before the flood engulfs the dormitory. In the mill, they discover the calendar that M. Juillet had mentioned.

They are all able, finally, to sleep. Vignoles awakes from his dream hearing a knocking sensation. It’s the rising water level. They have to ascend another ten feet. Once again they rest, but Chomel can’t stop crying. VIgnoles tells him to forget his past, “you’re a different person now.” With relief, they notice the rain stops; the levels start to fall. “Boisson de Chazelles saw the red canoe first. It floated along on a slight current, upside down, and straight for Mérovée’s Tower.

Chapter Six. Using plaited sheets, Boisson de Chazelles climbs down to the water level, stops the canoe in its tracks, upends it, tests its sturdiness, and proves he’s a natural when it comes to manoeuvring canoes! After a discussion as to who should be the first to be evacuated, Chomel also gets on board and the two of them set off for the Arcy Woods, where they can make contact with M. Brossay. The others, unexpectedly think they’re going to be rescued when a launch appears noisily out of the fog; but it’s packed with other survivors and drives off past them, apparently not noticing their frantic shouts for attention.

Meanwhile Boisson de Chazelles and Chomel are heading towards the wood, when they discover a helpful signpost peeping out above the water level, proving they’re on the right course. Eventually they see a number of cars parked, including those from the school – but not a soul in sight. Eventually they spot Brossay and creep up on him, startling him with delight. Relieved that everyone is accounted for, Brossay explains their treacherous journey.

Brossay is horrified that Boisson de Chazelles intends to turn back and get the others – threatening him with expulsion if he refuses to stay. But he sets off anyway, and gets back to the Tower without too much difficulty. This time Sala insists that the canoe hero stays in the tower, but instead he takes Trévidic and Charpenne on board and heads back to the woods. However, something is wrong. Somehow they get caught in the mainstream of the Loire, and they miss the woods completely. As the canoe heads for a cross current with tree trunks and brushwood, they paddle furiously to escape the danger. They survive this disaster, but Boisson de Chazelles is exhausted. The others take control as he drifts off into oblivion. And next thing they know – they’ve arrived in the outskirts of Angers!

Rescued by the police, Boisson de Chazelles tells them as best he can of the numbers and location of the people bivouacked in the Arcy Woods, plus those remaining at the Mérovée Tower. The weather is expected to clear in half an hour!

Chapter Seven. Meanwhile, Sala is concerned that the canoe didn’t return, but satisfies himself with the thought that they must have stayed with Brossay. Vignoles is not so certain. When “the Vicomte” first arrived at the school he kept on finding ways to escape. He’s not the kind of person who would stay in the woods. They comfort themselves with opening a tin of sardines, and sleep eventually takes over.

They awaken to the beautiful sight of the fog clearing and their new water-filled environment surrounding them. Many more vessels are now driving past; they hope that their rescue will come soon. Helicopters appear, picking up and dropping down the rescued, creating beautiful patterns in the sky. But none of them comes to the Tower. Sala has the great idea to use the discarded sardine tins as mirrors, flashing the reflected sunlight into the sky, so that the pilots can see them.

And it works! Eventually a helicopter hovers over the tower, lets a nylon ladder down, and Picard is the first to depart. Sala insists that when the helicopter returns, Vignoles will be next to be evacuated. Sala has a moment of pure self-discovery. “Monsieur Sala was quite bewildered. Kant now seemed an old driveller and his Critique of Pure Reason a mass of nonsense. “Good gracious, that’s right, my thesis is a monumental blunder!” the little man thought frankly to himself. “There’s plenty of other things for a keen observant brain: all you need do is keep your eyes open to the world around.” At this very moment, he thought, men overwhelmed by a great disaster had not been left to perish. In one night their suffering had awakened the sympathy of an entire nation, a sympathy expressed alike in the smallest as in the most heroic service. This fight to the death against the misfortunes of others was indeed the only war worth waging nowadays.”

Vignoles is rescued and taken to the airfield at Avrillé. There he is given a number, to find a bus that will take him to join the rest of his schoolmates, in Château-Gontier. Picard is waiting for him. The helicopter returns for Sala, but the bus cannot wait for him – there will be more buses later that Sala can catch. Brossay is there to meet the buses, and his thoughts are a mixture of relief and how he can best describe the bravery of his boys and staff as a future marketing ploy!

Picard and Vignoles reflect on how the experience of the past few days has changed people. Brossay couldn’t wait to get rid of Sala, but now is waiting to welcome him back as a hero. Vignoles himself admits “a couple of days ago I couldn’t have cared less about Chomel, and yet when we had to get out of La Vallière in a hurry, I was more worried about saving the idiot’s life than I was about my own.”

At the makeshift school, everything quickly goes back to normal. Only one thing – person – is missing. Sala wasn’t there when the helicopter returned for him. There’s no trace of him having been rescued by anyone else. What can have happened?

Chapter Eight. A few hours later, the Loire starts behaving again; after three days, the Authion returns to its normal course. Brossay arranges for all his pupils to be sent home. His wife and daughter go off to Nantes, leaving just the Juillets, the Trévidics, and Vignoles, who is determined to see in the return to Château-Milon. It would be six days before that was possible. And there is still no news of Sala.

When Brossay finally reaches the old school, all he could see was wreckage. Until he sees a figure leaning out of a skylight. It’s Sala! He’d been locked in the Tower all this time, and he didn’t want to try to break the door down, because “the school’s suffered enough damage as it is.” Sala confesses he wasn’t picked up by the helicopter because – he had lost his glasses! He’d had an accident with the cogwheel, and when he came to, his glasses were missing – and without them on, he couldn’t find them! He knew he would be a danger to himself and others if he attempted the evacuation without them, so he pretended to be dead. But all’s well that ends well!

Exploring the wreckage, Brossay determines that the school will reopen for the summer term. One by one, the masters return over the next fortnight; whilst Sala takes up the manuscripts for his thesis, Modern Survivals of Kantian thought, and throws them on the bonfire burning all the other wreckage. He also sacrifices his copy of Critique of Pure Reason.

Come February, it’s Vignoles who’s accompanying Edith around the estate, showing her the work in progress. She confides that only thirty pupils have committed to returning, but Vignoles is convinced more will follow. As they walk, they realise how they have both changed – particularly Vignoles. ““You’ve been here six years,” the girl went on, “and I can remember times when we didn’t say a word to one another for months on end. And yet you were one of the family; Father told you that often enough.” “I know,” Vignoles answered, “but I had to go through all this to realise what he meant.” They walked off hand in hand to see how the kitchen garden was doing. “I’ll end up cutting my best friend out,” thought Vignoles when they came back from their stroll. He appreciated the irony of the situation.”

The first day of the summer term finally dawns. Masters are dressed in their Sunday Best; vehicles await at the local stations to pick boys up to take them to the school. Vignoles feels more at home than ever before. Sala greets the juniors and takes them to the dormitory – and confronts the returning Chomel. “Are you proposing to go on ragging me this term? […] If it’s something you can’t help, if it’s vital to your physical wellbeing, you’ve only to tell me now and we’ll come to some arrangement.” “Oh no, sir! Never, sir!”

Eventually Vignoles’ closest friends arrive; first Picard and Charpenne, and then finally, out of the blue, Hubert Boisson de Chazelles, still full of arrogant cheek. Everyone who was expected to return, has returned, plus a few more. Brossay reflects: “the peril which they had surmounted together had changed them all. It had revealed unexpected strength of character, it had dissolved foolish enmities, it had strengthened the ties of friendship, it had cured the selfish and stirred the sluggards.”

The book ends by considering the future for all the major characters. “In a matter of hours Vignoles had learned to love a school where he had so long rejected the family life that had been offered to him. The butterfly Charpenne had realised that real feeling is expressed not in plagiarised sonnets but in the anxiety felt for someone dear to you. The appalling Chomel had in one night of peril cast off his old stupid and mischief-making self. That rolling stone Hubert Boisson de Chazelles had at last realised that team spirit counted for more than rank or wealth and that one unselfish action did more to inspire true comradeship than weeks of showing off. In short, every one of the boys, from tiny Kiki Dubourg to gigantic Picard, had come in his own way through the ordeal. Not one had failed. Through them and for them their school had survived the floods and recovered its physical and spiritual being.

And this was just as true of the amazing Monsieur Sala. That night, as he crossed from La Vallière to Mérovée’s Tower on two shaky ladders, he had shed his shyness and made sure that, despite his disastrous beginning, he would find in Château-Milon the haven of sympathetic security best suited to his unpretentious, scholarly way of life.”

Gaby and the New Money FraudTo sum up; this is a thrilling adventure mixed in with some enlightening personal development journeys. The fearful rise up and take command, and the bullies cower (as they always do when threatened.) This should be a much better known book than it is – because it’s definitely one of Berna’s best. If you’ve read the book – or are re-reading it now, I’d love to know what you think about it, so please add a comment below. Paul Berna’s next book was Le Bout du monde, which wasn’t translated until ten years later in 1971, as Gaby and the New Money Fraud, but as we’re taking Berna’s books in the order he wrote them, rather than the year they were published in English, we’ll take that book next. I look forward to re-reading it and sharing my thoughts about it in a few weeks.

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!