The Agatha Christie Challenge – Postern of Fate (1973)

Postern of FateIn which we meet for Tommy and Tuppence for the final time, as they have retired to the coastal resort of Hollowquay and set up home in an old house called The Laurels, accompanied by their faithful old retainer Albert and a mischievous Manchester Terrier called Hannibal. The old house still has a number of old books left by the previous owners, and as Tuppence is sorting through them, she discovers a code in one of the books that she deciphers as the message: “Mary Jordan did not die naturally. It was one of us. I think I know which one.” But who was Mary Jordan, and who killed her?  As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, as always, I promise not to reveal what happens and whodunit!

HannibalThe book is dedicated “for Hannibal and his master”. Agatha Christie kept Manchester Terriers, among one of which was Bingo, and it is believed that the fictional doggie Hannibal is based on him. Presumably, his master was Max Mallowan! Postern of Fate was first published in the UK by Collins Crime Club in October 1973, and in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company later the same year. Unlike most of her other books, it doesn’t appear to have been serialised in any periodicals or magazines.

Agatha ChristieThere are two possible approaches to reading this book. The first is to be charitable. Christie was 83 when this was published, and held in the highest regard by both her editors and her loyal fanbase. One can well imagine that any suggestions or reservations the editors might privately have held would have been suppressed in order not to offend the Grande Dame; and her loyal readers would buy it by the bucketful anyway. This was to be the last book she would write; her powers were waning and, by all likelihood, early signs of dementia were setting in. It was never going to be a masterpiece.

repetitionThe alternative approach is to compare it in the cold light of day with her other works – and it fails dismally. As in all her later year books, it kicks off with a very inventive opening, but the follow-through just isn’t there. As with Elephants Can Remember, the book is littered with endless repetitions, only this time there are also swathes of unnecessary characters, irrelevant discussions and themes; and there are many nostalgic passages where Tommy and Tuppence recollect their former glories and best detective work of the past. When we finally come to the crunch, there’s no real denouement. As T S Eliot said in The Hollow Men, “This is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a whimper”.

Old coupleThat’s not to say that it’s unreasonable for Tommy and Tuppence to live in the past so much. To be fair, that’s a perfectly legitimate characterisation for the couple, who are now retired and have time on their hands to look back. The trouble is, you can accept it the first time they do it, but when they do it time and time again it’s very boring for the reader. On Christie’s part, it’s fairly unforgiveable of her to include in their recollections of the N or M? case the fact that she actually gives away the identity of the criminal in that book – so you definitely don’t want to read Postern of Fate before reading N or M? (not that I rate that book highly anyway!)

SealyhamThe book clearly required much more heavy editing than it received. There are so many extraneous conversations about irrelevant subjects, like James the Sealyham, or Great-Aunt Maria’s purse of sovereigns, wrongly marked price tags in shops, or the interminable references back to the books of their childhoods. It’s full of Tommy and Tuppence’s domestic banter about a wide range of personal matters that clearly amused Christie (and maybe does for T&T’s most loyal fans) but for most readers it simply drags the narrative down.

OxbridgeI feel this would have worked better as a snappy short story rather than a rather long novel. Clues are written in, very obviously, and the reader works them out much earlier than Tommy and Tuppence do. One clue – that of Oxford and Cambridge (I won’t say what its relevance is) is discussed once and then they come back to it later as if it was a brand new idea. There’s also a lack of continuity from earlier books; for example, Deborah Beresford is said to be the mother of twins but those twins turn out to be aged 15, 11 and 7 – three twins, that’s interesting! There’s a villager named Miss Price-Ridley, but in previous books the Price-Ridleys featured in Miss Marple cases such as The Body in the Library and The Murder at the Vicarage – a completely different world from that of the Beresfords. Christie also gives Hannibal, the dog, a voice, and pretends that it speaks to its owners, in a rather self-indulgent and nauseously babyish way. All in all, not my cup of tea.

ButterHaving said all that, there’s one aspect of the relationship between Tommy and Tuppence which hadn’t really been spelled out in the previous books but is very clear here – and it concerns worrying about the other’s wellbeing. Tommy has always been the solid, reliable type, and Tuppence has always been the more unpredictable, flighty partner. With increasing old age, this difference becomes a little more serious. Tommy ““worried about Tuppence. Tuppence was one of those people you had to worry about. If you left the house, you gave her last words of wisdom and she gave you last promises of doing exactly what you counselled her to do: No, she would not be going out except just to buy half a pound of butter, and after all you couldn’t call that dangerous, could you?” “It could be dangerous if you went out to buy half a pound of butter,” said Tommy.”

butlerAlbert still lives with them; now widowed, he’s their general housekeeper, cook, and general all-round factotum. He also worries about Tuppence, on Tommy’s behalf, and also for his own peace of mind. Other recognisable names are Colonel Pikeaway and Mr Robinson, both of whom we first encountered in Cat Among the Pigeons, and Mr Horsham who was also a character in Passenger to Frankfurt. In their recollections, Tommy and Tuppence remember the characters from their earlier cases, such as Jane Finn and Mr Brown, as well as (of course) their adopted daughter Betty who appeared in N or M?

TorquayThere are only really two locations mentioned in the book. One is London – where Tommy regularly attends business and other meetings; the other is the completely fictional Hollowquay, home to The Laurels. Putting two and two together, Hollowquay is clearly based on Torquay.

Andrew LangNow for the references and quotations in this book. Many of them refer to old children’s books. The first story that Tuppence remembers reading as a child is Androcles and the Lion, told by Andrew Lang, who wrote collections of folk- and fairy-tales, the majority of which were published in the late Victorian and Edwardian eras.

Here are the other books and authors mentioned in the book:

Mrs Molesworth (1839 – 1921), who wrote The Cuckoo Clock (1877), The Tapestry Room (1879) and Four Winds Farm (1887).

Stanley Weyman (1855 – 1928) writer of Under the Red Robe (1894) – about Cardinal Richelieu, and The Red Cockade (1895).

L T Meade (1844 – 1918) writer of girls’ stories

Winnie the Pooh by A A Milne (1882 – 1956)

Alice Through the Looking Glass and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll (1832 – 1898)

Charlotte Yonge (1823 – 1901), writer of Unknown to History (1881) and The Daisy Chain (1856)

E Nesbit (1858 – 1924) writer of The Story of the Amulet (1906), Five Children and It (1902) and The New Treasure Seekers (1904)

The Prisoner of Zenda by Anthony Hope Hopkins (1894)

Robert Louis Stevenson (1850 – 1894), writer of The Black Arrow: A Tale of the Two Roses (1888), Treasure Island (1883), Kidnapped (1886) and Catriona (1893).

G A Henty (1832 – 1902)

I haven’t yet been able to identify the writer or date of The Little Grey Hen.

ErardOne of the chapter titles is Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast. That’s a quote from Alice in Wonderland. Tommy and Tuppence have possession of an Erard Piano, named after Sébastien Érard, a piano maker from Strasbourg, considered to be amongst the finest in the world. When Tuppence is playing it, she recollects a song: “Where has my true love gone a-roaming?” but I can’t find it online anywhere – does anyone recognise the song?

holy BibleTuppence quotes “new sins have old shadows” – but she’s in error. The correct phrase is old sins cast old shadows; and it’s an old proverb. Talking of Proverbs, Colonel Pikeaway refers to the daughters of the Horse Leech, which was a phrase I’d never heard before; it comes from the Old Testament, Book of Proverbs, Chapter 30, Verse 15. At the sight of Hannibal, he also quotes “dogs delight to bark and bite” which is from a hymn by Isaac Watts: “Let dogs delight to bark and bite, For God has made them so: Let bears and lions growl and fight, For ‘tis their nature, too.” Colonel Pikeaway refers to the Frankfurt Ring business, which I can only presume is a nod to Christie’s very own Passenger to Frankfurt.

PoundRegular readers will know that I like to consider any significant sums of money in Christie’s books and work out what their value would be today, just to get a feel of the range of sums that we’re looking at. There are only a couple of low value sums mentioned. Beatrice’s coat, that was double-priced at both £3.70 and £6, today would be priced at £31 and £50. Still very reasonable. And there’s a suggestion that someone might have offered a fiver to tamper with some wheels. A fiver then would be worth £42 today. That’s not enough to endanger a life, I wouldn’t have thought.

Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for Postern of Fate:

Publication Details: 1973. My copy is a HarperCollins Paperback, published in 2015, bearing the price on the back cover of £7.99. I know I had an earlier copy, but it has vanished in the seas of time. The cover illustration shows a rocking horse, casting a shadow of a man in a top hat riding that very same riding horse.

How many pages until the first death: This edition has 325 pages – it’s much more spaced out and paper-greedy than the old Fontana paperbacks. The first death which is reported comes on page 46; the first (only) death that takes place during the course of the book’s narrative comes on page 213 – so that’s quite a long wait.

Funny lines out of context:

Tommy, in conversation with Mr Robinson. ““And now,” said Tommy, “now you’re the tops.” “Now who told you that?” said Mr Robinson. “All nonsense.” “I don’t think it is,” said Tommy. “Well,” said Mr Robinson, “some get to the tops and some have the tops forced upon them.” That’s one for my gay friends.

Memorable characters: Sadly none. Most of the villagers are stereotypical country bumpkins; all the characters are bland.

Christie the Poison expert: The historical death takes place as a result of foxglove leaves being mixed up with spinach leaves in the kitchen to create a rather lethal meal.

Class/social issues of the time:

One of the accidental side effects of Christie’s writing style having lost its drive and its sense of narrative, is that there are plenty of conversations where characters ramble on about things inconsequential to the story, but not their day-to-day lives. As a result, Christie provides us with something of a running commentary on the events and news of the time.

For example, regular chilly weather in the afternoons is seen as a possible side-effect of “all the natural gas they’re taking out of the North Sea.” People are exploring science, which results in them flying to the moon, or researching oxygen being supplied by the sea not the forests. Pikeaway is suspicious of Europe: “Got to keep in with the Common Market nowadays, haven’t we? Funny stuff going on there, by the way. You now, behind things. Not what you see on the surface.” He later goes on to lament “there’s always trouble. There’s trouble in every country. There’s trouble all over the world now and not for the first time.” Conspiracy theories abound: “Do we know anything about germ warfare? Do we know everything about gases, about means of inducing pollution?”

The boy Clarence attributes the shooting in Tommy and Tuppence’s garden to the Irish Republican Army.  ““I expect it’s them Irish,” said Clarence hopefully. “The IRA. You know. They’ve been trying to blow this place up.”” Miss Mullins puts such events down to the rise in general lawlessness. “Sad he had to get himself done in by some of this violent guerrilla material that’s always gong about bashing someone […] Go about in little groups they  do, and mug people. Nasty lot. Very often the younger they are, the nastier they are.”

In other matters, Tommy and Tuppence remark on the fact that they recently had had a census – and you sense that Christie disapproved at the state’s nosiness. There’s early 70s inflation, and the dissatisfaction with the current government; Albert observes “you wouldn’t believe it – eggs have gone up, again. Never vote for this Government again, I won’t. I’ll give the Liberals a go.” Things one used to take for granted are on their way out; “Children nowadays how are four, or five, or six, don’t seem to be able to read when they get to ten or eleven. I can’t think why it was so easy for all of us.” People don’t buy birthday cards much anymore; and even fruit isn’t what it was: “there were such wonderful gooseberries in the garden. And greengage trees too. Now that’s a thing you practically never see nowadays, not real greengages. Something else called gage plums or something, but they’re not a bit the same to taste.”

Tuppence is very proud of her handbag. “Very nice present, this was,” she said. “Real crocodile, I think. Bit difficult to stuff things in sometimes.” Anyone today who still regularly uses a real crocodile handbag would definitely suppress the fact!

Classic denouement:  No – in fact there’s barely a denouement at all. We do discover some of the solutions to some of the issues, including the identity of the murderer; but it’s all written so lacking in urgency or any sense of occasion, and it’s all revealed second- or third-hand. You keep expecting a final twist, and it never happens.

Happy ending? It looks as though Tommy and Tuppence may – or may not – continue living at The Laurels, but wherever they live they’ll always be the same bantering couple who love each other’s company but probably irritate the hell out of everyone else. So I guess it’s happy for them!

Did the story ring true? In part. The code in the book and the concealment of clues in the house is something that you can just about accept. The most extraordinary coincidence is that Tommy and Tuppence happen to retire, of all places, to this particular house of secrets. It’s also surprising that its contents were not cleared before they moved in, or that the local people who know so much about what went on there haven’t done anything to publicise it. Why did no one mention the Pensioners Palace Club earlier? Why did the kids not tell their parents the things they knew?

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

Poirot's Early CasesThanks for reading my blog of Postern of Fate, 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 return to the short story format, with Poirot’s Early Cases, eighteen tales published in periodicals between 1923 and 1935 and which had never (with a couple of exceptions) been published in book form in the UK before. So it will be odd but enjoyable to go back in time and revisit the early days of Poirot and Hastings. 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 Points of View Challenge – The Use of Force – William Carlos Williams

William Carlos WilliamsWilliam Carlos Williams (1883 – 1963)

American poet (The Red Wheelbarrow), writer, and physician.

The Use of Force, first published in the collection Life Along the Passaic River, in 1938

Available to read online here

This is the third of four stories in the volume Points of View to be given the style classification by Moffett and McElheny of Detached Autobiography. Here’s how their introduction continues: “Two of the stories are about the narrator’s childhood, told many years later. The other two are about adult experiences. One of them might have happened the day before it is told, but after strong feelings have cooled, the narrator’s maturity enables him to talk about them with an outsider’s detachment.”

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

 

The Use of Force

 

Life Along the Passaic RiverDoctor has called on the Olson family because daughter Mathilda is very sick. Although she seems “strong as a heifer”, she’s had a fever for three days. There have been cases of diphtheria at the local school so it’s important she’s checked out. Doctor asks if she has a sore throat. Apparently not, say the parents, but Doctor decides he should inspect her throat to make sure.

But Mathilda has other ideas. She refuses to engage with Doctor in any way, won’t open her mouth, and when he tries to get near, she flings her arm out and nearly breaks his glasses. At first Doctor rather admires her tenacity and independence, especially in the face of her parents’ embarrassment and annoyance at her behaviour. But as she grows more and more unreasonable, he gets progressively angrier, and, despite his better judgment decides that the use of force will be the only way he can check her throat.

Even though she’s bleeding, and shrieking in agony, Doctor continues to pin her down and “overpowered the child’s neck and jaws. I forced the heavy silver spoon back of her teeth and down her throat till she gagged.” Surprise, surprise, he discovers she’s been hiding the fact that her tonsils are covered with a membrane that tells him that she’s had a sore throat for three days. Her final fury at being found out is worse than the pain of the throat.

William Carlos Williams was a physician all his life and so presumably this incident is based on a real event, or at least suggested by one. In the grand scheme of things this is a very minor incident, but it reveals to Doctor just how personally he became involved with the case – that it became war between him and his patient, and that he allowed his reactions to get out of control. “I could have torn the child apart in my own fury and enjoyed it. It was a pleasure to attack her. My face was burning with it.”

As for Mathilda, she didn’t take defeat lying down. The last lines of the story are: “ Now truly she was furious. She had been on the defensive before but now she attacked. Tried to get off her father’s lap and fly at me while tears of defeat blinded her eyes.”

What started off as a simple home visit to a patient escalated to battle of wits and strength. A minor incident perhaps, but Doctor learned a lot about himself as a result. Maybe next time he would react differently? Was the use of force justified in this case? Could it potentially have saved the girl’s life? Were the parents acting in her best interests? There are a number of questions you can ask yourself – and no obvious answers.

The next story in the anthology is the fourth and final of the detached autobiography stories, Bad Characters by Jean Stafford, of whom I have never heard!

The Agatha Christie Challenge – Elephants Can Remember (1972)

Elephants Can RememberIn which celebrated author Ariadne Oliver is contacted by the prospective mother-in-law of her goddaughter Celia Ravenscroft, to ask if she knew anything of the circumstances of the apparent double suicide of Celia’s parents. Suspicious of the woman’s motives, but curious about the case, she shares the information with Hercule Poirot, and they decide to see what those involved with the Ravenscrofts remember about their tragic death. Will the testimony of these “elephants” explain the deaths?  As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, as always, I promise not to reveal what happens and whodunit!

Question MarkThe book is dedicated “to Molly Myers, in return for many kindnesses”. My research so far hasn’t been able to uncover a Molly Myers in Christie’s circle – perhaps you know who she is, in which case, please tell me! Elephants Can Remember was first published in the UK by Collins Crime Club in November 1972, and in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company in the same year. It was also published in two abridged instalments in the Star Weekly Novel, the Toronto newspaper supplement, in February 1973.

Sherlock HolmesElephants Can Remember continues Christie’s gradual decline in inventiveness, writing style and thematic topics. As she got older, she seems to have become fonder of nostalgically revisiting her old books, with the stories of Five Little Pigs, Mrs McGinty’s Dead and Hallowe’en Party all being quoted and recalled by Poirot and Spence. Indeed, she even occasionally adds explanatory footnotes as an aide-memoire, clarifying which old case it is that they are recalling. Some of her references were clearly old favourites, such as the case of Lizzie Borden or the Sherlock Holmes story where the parsley sank into the butter and the dog did nothing, as she has quoted them more than once before in other books. The Lizzie Borden case was cited in After the Funeral, Ordeal by Innocence and The Clocks, and the Sherlock Holmes parsley story in Partners in Crime, Hickory Dickory Dock, The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side and The Clocks again. The dog reference was also mentioned in Cards on the Table. It’s almost as though her thinking days are over; if it worked once, it will work again – if she actually remembered that she had referred to these cases before. She also runs out of steam early; you can measure this simply by means of the word/page count. A typical Christie in a Fontana paperback will run to approximately 192 pages. This book, same publisher and font, only gets to 160 pages.

Indian elephantOne aspect of the book that gets done to death by repetition is the notion of elephants. If the book is about one thing, it’s memory – perhaps not surprising, given it’s written by an 82-year-old author. Poirot and Mrs Oliver are trying to solve a case that happened many years in the past, so it all depends on what people remember. An elephant never forgets, goes the saying, so they need to find as many elephants as possible. However, the adherence to this metaphor just gets dragged out endlessly throughout the book. It’s as though Christie had to write an essay where the title was How Many Times can you Substitute the word Elephant for Witness, and she diligently constantly referred to the title of the essay like a good school student. What starts out as a light-hearted notion quickly becomes repetitive and tiresome.

HonestyNevertheless, despite the repetitiveness, the lack of inventiveness and the occasional lapse of continuity, it’s still quite an entertaining book. Admittedly, the basis of the solution is telegraphed strongly early on, so one aspect of the conclusion is easy to guess; but not the whole story, so there are still some surprises left at denouement-time. The characters are probably not as well-drawn or interesting as they ought to be, but there are some entertainingly written scenes, and it also poses a dilemma about whether honesty is always the best policy and how far you can or should take blind acceptance of the flaws of those whom you love.

PoirotAs Nemesis would be the last book that Christie wrote about Miss Marple (although not the last book published that included her), Elephants Can Remember would be the last she wrote featuring Poirot – although Curtain was still to be posthumously published and the short story collection Poirot’s Early Cases which featured his 1920s cases that had only been published in the US was still to come. Unlike Mrs Oliver, who is still full of beans and is happy to traverse the length and breadth of the country in search of elephants (sigh), Poirot remains content to stay seated and thoughtful, and thus susceptible to Mrs O’s constant criticism that he does nothing. “”Have you done anything?” said Mrs Oliver. “I beg your pardon – have I done what?“ “Anything,” said Mrs Oliver. “What I asked you about yesterday.” “Yes, certainly, I have put things in motion. I have arranged to make certain enquiries.” “But you haven’t made them yet, “ said Mrs Oliver, who had a poor view of what the male view was of doing something.” He does, however, grandly plan a flight to Geneva – amusingly refusing Mrs Oliver’s offer to accompany him. So there is life and independence in the old dog yet.

ChurchyardAge may, however, be a reason why he’s no longer quite so well known as he used to be. When Mrs Oliver introduces Celia to Poirot her reaction isn’t what he normally would expect. “”Oh,” said Celia. She looked very doubtfully at the egg-shaped head, the monstrous moustaches and the small stature. “I think,” she said, rather doubtfully, “that I have heard of him.” Hercule Poirot stopped himself with a slight effort from saying firmly “Most people have heard of me.” It was not quite as true as it used to be because many people who had heard of Hercule Poirot and known him, were now reposing with suitable memorial stones over them, in churchyards.”

repetitionJust as a side note, you can see here in those two recent quotes from the book how Christie had become bogged down in repetition. Consider the dual use of the word “view” in the conversation with Mrs Oliver, and that of the word “doubtfully” in the conversation with Celia. Here’s a fascinating quote from the Wikipedia page about the book: “Elephants Can Remember was cited in a study done in 2009 using computer science to compare Christie’s earlier works to her later ones. The sharp drops in size of vocabulary and the increases in repeated phrases and indefinite nouns suggested that Christie may have been suffering from some form of late-onset dementia, perhaps Alzheimer’s disease.”

private detectiveThere are a few other names from the past that we catch up on in this book, primarily Superintendent Spence, who featured prominently in other Poirot stories, Taken at the Flood, Mrs McGinty’s Dead and Hallowe’en Party. Spence is solid, reliable, thoughtful and helpful; he was the original investigating officer for the case. Spence provides a good function in the story without ever being a really interesting character. Another recurring chap is Mr Goby, that odd private investigator to whom Poirot subcontracts the task of finding out about the backgrounds of various suspects over the years. Goby still cannot look anyone in the face, which is an amusing observation of an essentially shifty character. But it’s hard not to consider Goby as an easy device for providing the reader with information without having to imagine how you’d go about getting it yourself. Perfect for a Christie whose powers of imagination are beginning to wane.

BournemouthAs usual, the book contains a mixture of real and fictional locations. Poirot and Celia both live in London, Poirot, as ever, at Whitefriars Mansions (which doesn’t exist) and Celia having lived at addresses in Chelsea and off the Fulham Road, neither of which are real. The Ravenscrofts had lived at Bournemouth – undoubtedly real – but the other locations in the book, Little Saltern Minor, Chipping Bartram and Hatters Green are all fictional.

Lizzie BordenNow for the references and quotations in this book. As I mentioned earlier, Garroway refers to the case of Lizzie Borden, did she “really kill her father and mother with an axe?” She was an American woman, tried and acquitted of the murder of her parents with an axe in August 1892. Garroway also asks “who killed Charles Bravo and why?” Bravo was a British lawyer, fatally poisoned with antimony in 1876, and to this day the case remains unsolved. And Superintendent Spence refers to the Sherlock Holmes case where the parsley sank in the butter. That refers to “The Adventure of the Six Napoleons”, published in The Return of Sherlock Holmes in 1904.

Teresa of AvilaIn her recollections, Mrs Carstairs refers to St Teresa of Avila. She was a 16th century Spanish noblewoman who became a Carmelite nun. Poirot and Mrs Oliver share a quote, “qui va a la chasse perd sa place” – which basically means that when you leave a spot, a place, an object or anything you possessed at the time to do something else, you might lose it when you come back. It’s an old French saying.

KiplingPoirot says he is “like the animal or the child in one of your stores by Mr Kipling. I suffer from Insatiable Curiosity”. This is the story of the Elephant’s Child, in Kipling’s Just So Stories, published in 1902. And in conversation with Poirot, Celia quotes “and in death they were not divided”, thinking that it might come from Shakespeare. She’s wrong; normally if it’s not Shakespeare, it’s the Bible; and it’s the description of Saul and Jonathan in the first chapter of the Second Book of Samuel, verse 23. And finally, “the dog it was that died”, says Garroway, quoting from Oliver Goldsmith’s Elegy on the Death of a Mad Dog.

Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for Elephants Can Remember:

Publication Details: 1972. My copy is a Fontana Paperback, the first impression of “this continental edition”, proudly boasting the words first in paperback, published in 1973, bearing the price on the back cover of 35p. As a “continental edition” my guess is that I bought it on holiday in Spain! I’m afraid I can’t remember. The cover illustration very simply has an elephant stomping all over a revolver. Not terribly inventive!

How many pages until the first death: It’s only 9 pages until we discover the deaths that Poirot and Mrs O investigate, but there are no other deaths during the course of the narration.

Funny lines out of context:

““Nom d’un petit bonhomme!” said Hercule Poirot. “I beg your pardon, sir?” said George. “A mere ejaculation,” said Hercule Poirot.”

Memorable characters: The “elephants” that Mrs Oliver visits tend to merge into one and are not as memorable as they should be. Mrs Burton-Cox is frequently referred to as unpleasant and bossy, but Christie’s writing doesn’t really present her like that to us. Celia and Desmond are worthy more than interesting, but I did like Zelie, the old governess.

Christie the Poison expert: Nothing to see here.

Class/social issues of the time:

As Christie was writing much nearer to the present day – certainly in my lifetime (I was 12 when this book was published) perhaps any class or social issues of the time seem less distinct from our perspective. One significant use of language comes with the use of the N word in connection with the word brown to describe the colour of Mrs Oliver’s hat. It stands out today as an appalling choice of words, but fifty years ago it was much more acceptable.

Poirot still plays upon the general xenophobia/racism of the time and allows himself to “play the foreigner” to help get information. “Everyone tells everything to me sooner or later. I’m only a foreigner, you see, so it does not matter. It is easy because I am a foreigner.”

Apart from that, the strongest theme or concept in the book is that of memory; how reliable one’s memory is, particularly as one gets older – although people often find they remember stuff from their childhood very clearly but can’t remember why they walked into a room. Mrs Oliver confesses to Poirot that she can’t remember how long they have been friends: “Oh I don’t know. I can never remember what years are, what dates are. You know, I get mixed up.” Christie gives Mrs Oliver’s housekeeper Maria the same affliction: “…these here literary luncheons. That’s what you’re going to, isn’t it? Famous writers of 1973 – or whichever year it is we’ve got to now.”

It isn’t, however, credible when Christie does the same for the much younger Celia. Celia was at school when her parents died – which is a catastrophic thing to happen to a young person’s life. Yet when Mrs Oliver asks her what she remembers about her parents’ deaths, she replies: “nothing […] I wasn’t there at the time. I mean, I wasn’t in the house at the time. I can’t remember now quite where I was. I think I was at school in Switzerland, or else I was staying with a school friend during the school holidays.  You see, it’s all rather mixed up in my mind by now.” This is nonsense! I lost my father when I was 11 and I can remember every aspect of it – it’s imprinted in my brain. There’s no way Celia would be this vague, unless she was deliberately trying to be secretive (which she isn’t.)

A knock-on effect of memory loss and, indeed, ageing – such as Christie herself was facing – is a preoccupation with how one might be looked after in one’s old age. Time was when larger families would always have space and time to look after ageing family members – but that was becoming a thing of the past. Julia Carstairs is living in a “Home for the Privileged” – what we would now describe as sheltered housing. “Not quite all it’s written up to be, you know. But it has many advantages. One brings one’s own furniture and things like that, and there is a central restaurant where you can have a meal, or you can have your own things, of course.“

Mrs Matcham had a different experience. “When I was in that Home – silly name it had, Sunset House of Happiness for the Aged, something like that it was called, a year and a quarter I lived there till I couldn’t stand it no more, a nasty lot they were, saying you couldn’t have any of your own things with you. You know, everything had to belong to the Home, I don’t say as it wasn’t comfortable, but you know, I like me own things around me. My photos and my furniture. And then there was ever so nice a lady, came from a Council she did, some society or other, and she told me there was another place where they had homes of their own or something and you could take what you liked with you. And there’s ever such a nice helper as comes in every day to see if you’re all right.”

Classic denouement:  No – it’s not the kind of book to have one. However, I think Christie gives us the solution in a very charming scene, where a somewhat Deus ex Machina character arrives unexpectedly and confirms Poirot’s suspicions by telling everyone exactly what happened.

Happy ending? Certainly – the young lovers are determined to press ahead with their marriage and there’s nothing that can stop them. They’re also reunited with an old friend, with whom they can presumably now keep in contact. The old friend is also delighted to see them; but she may have ongoing concerns about whether or not she did the right thing.

Did the story ring true? You can conceivably believe that the way the double deaths occurred is credible – just about. I still think Celia’s lack of recollection is highly unlikely. What is undoubtedly believable is that those people who did remember the event all those years ago remember different – and indeed contrasting – things.

Overall satisfaction rating: It’s not that well written, most of the solution is telegraphed a mile off, and it’s rather repetitive. Yet it does retain a certain charm – I think 6/10 is fair.

Postern of FateThanks for reading my blog of Elephants Can Remember, 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 Postern of Fate, which is the last new work by Christie to feature Tommy and Tuppence, and indeed, the last new work she was to write. Again, I can remember nothing about this book, but I understand that I shouldn’t have high hopes! 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 Paul Berna Challenge – The Mule on the Motorway (1967)

Mule on the MotorwayIn which we make a welcome reacquaintance with young Bobby Thiriet, his family and friends, and the student journalists who work on the P. S. N. – the Puisay Students News. At the end of The Clue of the Black Cat, it was reported that a mule had been found running along a motorway. How did it get there, and what was it running from? Did it survive the experience? Charlie Baron of the P. S. N. thinks there could be a story in this – and he is right! What is the story of the mule who was found dodging the traffic, and if there are criminals involved, will Bobby and the gang get to the bottom of it?

The Mule on the Motorway was first published in 1967 by G. P. Rouge et Or under its original French title Le Commissaire Sinet et le mystère de l’autoroute du sud, which translates literally as Commissioner Sinet and the mystery of the southern highway, with illustrations by Gareth Floyd, a prolific children’s illustrator best known for his illustrations on BBC TV’s Jackanory programme. As “The Mule on the Motorway”, the book was first published in the UK by The Bodley Head in 1967, and translated, as usual, by John Buchanan-Brown. My own copy of the book is the first edition. It was published in the US under the more appropriate title The Mule on the Expressway. Currently I can only see one second hand copy for sale online, in Australia.

Once again we’re in the company of Bobby Thiriet and his friends, whom we met in The Clue of the Black Cat. Commissioner Sinet is still in charge of the local Puisay police, and the students at Bobby’s school still run the P. S. N. – the Puisay Students’ News. The story of the Mule on the Motorway was set up at the end of the previous book, so it’s quite a surprise that it took four years for the book to come to fruition – in the meantime Berna had been writing other books (for adults) under his pseudonym Paul Gerrard. The first chapter makes it clear that the activity of The Clue of the Black Cat wasn’t very long ago – those missing years have vanished into thin air!

As always, Berna gives a great insight into what it’s like being a member of a gang. In the previous book, it was Bobby who, although he’s the youngest in the group, is definitely the hero of the story. In this book, Bobby sits at one end of the story, with his preoccupation with looking after Quicksilver, the mule, and providing his voice in the back column of the newspaper. But at the business end of the story, Charlie Baron plays a much more prominent role as the editor of the P. S. N., generally masterminding everyone’s activities and bringing the story together under one narrative roof, so to speak. The gang mentality is always there in the background, but isn’t forced to the forefront of the story as it sometimes is with Berna. In the previous book, it was Sinet who revealed himself a little jealous no longer to be a gang member; in this book it’s Bobby’s father George. He continues to admire his sons’ activities, with just a tinge of remorse: “George Thiriet was once more discussing the activities of the boys with a sarcasm and a bitterness which cloaked his jealousy, and, no doubt, his regret at having grown too old to join in.”

Now that the Thiriets live in the Belloy Estate, there isn’t such a distinction to be made between the wealth or poverty of the characters, as there was in The Clue of the Black Cat. In fact, classes mix seamlessly in this story, with the obviously wealthy and well-to-do Colonel Brousse exercising his largesse and allowing Quicksilver to live in his stables. With Bobby almost exclusively at the stables while he’s not at school, there’s no real difference between the haves and the have-nots in this story.

Commissioner Sinet is once more in charge, initially disappointed not to have had any communication from Bobby and the guys, but the story soon makes up for that. We also meet the Gendarme Patard, whom Bobby first thinks might be a character they could poke fun at, but later plays a small but very significant part in the investigations. Later we also discover Sinet’s colleague Commissioner Charrel, an avuncular, pipe-smoking, decent sort of chap whom Sinet has briefed well about the capabilities of the gang.

It’s an excellent companion piece to The Clue of the Black Cat, which remains my favourite Berna book and in fact my favourite children’s book of all time. I like how the characters have developed from how we met them in the first book; Bobby’s love of animals continues to play a focal role in the stories, and it’s essentially another exciting thriller/whodunit, with a genuinely surprising secret that gets revealed towards the end. Plus there’s the fun of the student journos; and once again Berna sets up his next book A Truckload of Rice from a throwaway line by Charlie towards the end. With the Black Cat up front and the Truck of Rice at the back, the three books more or less make a mule sandwich!

PuisayAs with the previous story, the setting for this book is the fictional Parisien suburb of Puisay. This time, Berna has furnished us with a detailed map of the town, showing the location of the police station, the Belloy Estate and more. We can locate the riding club, M Broquin’s nursery, Patard’s home in the Rue Gaboriau, even the premises of Ariméca. He shows us the areas that are old Puisay, new Puisay and those areas scheduled for redevelopment. The district of Puisay does not stand still. However, of course, just outside Puisay Berna brings real locations into the story. Verrières-le-Buisson, for example, where Poussard discovers M. Lantoine, does exist; it’s the next-door town to Antony. Wissous, site of the Carbonato car lot, is also a real town, adjacent to Orly Airport.

I had noted that the one thing the previous book lacks is a strong female presence. Again, this book very much has the same cast of characters, and it’s still an issue. The only active female presence is Lily, and she is still rather put upon and her brother Charlie only allows her to do the typing –  very misogynistic in its approach. She’s sent out to see Broquin because he sells flowers and “flowers are girls’ things” says Belmont. Charlie is very dismissive of his sister: “Run a comb through your hair and get your make-up on!… Look at her! She looks as though she’s been pulled through a hedge backwards.” However, her role does develop during the course of the book. When she comes up trumps with suggestions for pushing the investigation forward, Charlie comments: “We’ve been making a big mistake in shutting you up in the news-room all the evening. You’re as good as Flatfoot or the three Thiriets on an outside job.” High praise indeed, he says, sarcastically.

Naturally, Berna’s writing is a joy throughout the book, but the short paragraph I enjoyed the most is when he describes the crushing procedure of the scrap metal at the site in Wissous. “The burnt-out or shattered wrecks were laid out in some sort of order, depending on their state of damage. Tractors were continually moving up and down the lines to tow away he better samples to the salvage depot which formed one end of this mournful motor show-room. Men in asbestos gloves and fibre-glass masks cut the wrecks up with blow-lamps, removing the last scrap of alloy or special steel, and leaving merely a shapeless mass of chassis or coach-work. This was then picked up by a mobile crane and dropped into the jaws of a gigantic hydraulic press, mounted on rails and dominating the landscape […] The jaws of this mechanical ogre crushed the metal with a sinister snapping sound. The mass, now reduced to two-thirds of its original size, was passed on to be squeezed still smaller in the angry hiss of the steam-press, to become first a cube, then a rectangle and finally, at the end of the process, to be thrown out like a parcel. All that remained of what had once been a gleaming, speeding car was reduced to the ridiculous dimensions of a suitcase.” There’s a sense of innocent excitement, and an admiration for the skill and ingenuity involved, at this industrial procedure that otherwise might simply be a commonplace observation. Berna can wring delight out of the simplest thing.

The other aspect of the book which strikes you so strongly today is the prevalence of smoking amongst the young people. As in Magpie Corner, it’s so alien to our minds that a children’s book should have anything involving smoking. But this is France in the 1960s, which was a very different society. In one scene, played for laughs, Sinet offers Quicksilver some Gitanes cigarettes, and the mule obliges by chomping and chewing them. In another scene Charlie offers the Gendarme Patard his last cigarette. Can you imagine today a boy offering a policeman a cigarette?

Here’s my chapter by chapter synopsis of the book. By the way, this is only the third Berna title (after Magpie Corner and Flood Warning) where the chapters don’t have individual titles. 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. Bobby Sinet and PatardBobby Thiriet arrives at the police station wanting to meet Commissioner Sinet. New policeman Patard wonders why the boy is so familiar with Sinet and the station, and Malin, “the Commissioner’s right-hand man”, explains the con trick that the Thiriets endured a few weeks before – the plot of The Clue of the Black Cat. Surprised, Patard is given a copy of the Puisay Students’ News where he reads how the case of the black cat had now come to an end. But now there is a new problem to solve – the stray mule who was “run over one December night on the motorway between Arcueil and Rungis. Where had he come from, and where was he going?”

PatardPatard is unimpressed. But Malin recommends he keeps reading future editions of the P. S. N. – and if he rubs Bobby up the wrong way, he’ll end up appearing in the paper “under a false name, but everyone in Puisay will be able to recognise Patard the policeman.” Meanwhile Sinet is disappointed that Bobby hasn’t kept in touch much recently. Sinet has a bombshell for Bobby – the mule didn’t die in the accident. However, it has been sent to the abattoir at Vaugirard, to be auctioned in a few days’ time. That’s one slaughtered mule and one story less for the P. S. N. Is there anything that can be done about it? Bobby and Sinet go into secret discussion.

The scene changes to the offices of the P. S. N. Charlie Baron is in charge; his ace investigators are Bobby’s brothers, Jacques and Laurent; Belmont is the best at doorstep interviews, Patureau – better known as Flatfoot – is the cartoonist and photographer, and Charlie’s sister Lily is the typist. Bobby arrives and tells them what Sinet said – including that, if they could get the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals to back them, they might be able to buy the mule from the slaughterhouse. Charlie’s thoughts turn to how to re-write the P. S. N. headlines – including a subscription for the rescue of the mule.

IvanhoeMeanwhile, back at the Thiriets’ apartment, George, Bobby’s father, doesn’t see how the “flimsy story” of the mule is going to be of any interest to anyone. Bobby plays with Ivanhoe, the black cat that Sinet gave him at the end of the previous book; he doesn’t agree with his father. “That mule didn’t get into the rush hour traffic from Paris all by himself. So one of two things must have happened: either someone must have wanted to get rid of him so badly that they pushed him on to the motorway and they’d have to be pretty good swine to do that, or else the mule was being ill-treated and chased by some toughs and this was the only way to escape his pursuers.” Not only that, but the mule was pulling a cart – and there’s no sign of that anywhere – where is it? Thiriet is certain that the boys shouldn’t interfere with the police and should take no further part in the investigation. But the Thiriet boys have other ideas…

Chapter Two. On the roadOn Friday morning the P. S. N. was on sale as usual. Flatfoot had come up with an excellent photo of a mule – albeit not the one in question, but who was to know? Charlie has written some purple prose to accompany the image, referring to the “beseeching, almost a reproachful, look in his dim eyes”. It’s accompanied by a demand for the readers to donate money to save “the poor orphan”. Some students planned to be generous with their contributions; others saw it as just a joke. Flatfoot does some investigating and concludes that 39% of the school are behind them all the way.

At the P. S. N. offices, Lily is in charge of receiving the cash. But the initial response is not as good as they had hoped. ““Ninety-five francs fifty,” Lily announced. “That’s not a very bright start.”” No one is waiting to make a donation. “Perhaps the chaps thought this mule on the motorway was an April Fool joke,” suggests Belmont. Charlie rounds on Flatfoot for his poor quality research. Just then, one of Bobby’s friends, Poussard, Broussepopped in with two francs, apologising for not being able to give more. This gives the others hope that they might be on the right track after all.

Just then, an unexpected visitor arrives in the form of Colonel Brousse, who runs the local stables and riding club. He makes an offer to stable the mule for free, in return for its doing some odd jobs. Charlie is overwhelmed. Brousse criticises the write-up though – the mule needs a name, and the photograph is of a Picardy donkey! He donates fifty francs and leaves. The boys suggest a number of names but in the end it is Laurent’s suggestion that wins favour – they decide to call the mule Quicksilver.

Chapter Three. QuicksilverSinet has taken responsibility for buying the mule from the auction, but the prices are rising. ““By Wednesday evening mule-on-the-hoof had risen to a thousand francs, and they were very far from having that amount of money. “Got it?” Monsieur Sinet asked the youngster, with deliberate coldness. “Only eight hundred,” Bobby answered with a tremor in his voice. “And even that’s the result of a terrific effort on our part.”” Bobby and Sinet realise there might be something suspicious in the fact that so much money is being offered for the beast. They’re 250 francs short – but a Madame Gilardoni, who runs The Society for the Welfare of Slaughter House Animals, has donated 150 francs, and Sinet himself is prepared to give a hundred “in memory of all the excitement the Black Cat gave us.” Sinet also reveals that it was he who advised Brousse about the mule, so the offer of the stabling is genuine. Sinet says they should pick a name for the mule – and when he finds out what they’re calling him, he buries his head in his hands.

The Thiriet brothers arrive at the Saint Just riding club, and meet Joel Brousse, the stable lad. He shows them the stable that’s been prepared for Quicksilver. Flatfoot arrives on his Vespa, accompanied by the Colonel, Sinet and the mule, who is distinctly skittish. “What do you think of him”, asks the Colonel. “At first Charlie and the others could not speak. They were amazed and appalled by the sheer ugliness of the beast, for it was still in its winter coat, a tangle of coarse, dull black with a coppery sheen in places. The scar from his accident had left a broad strip of bare, black skin running along his right side from shoulder to haunch. To add to it all, his groom at the slaughterhouse had shaved his mane and docked his tail, as they do to all horses before they are killed. “What a ghastly sight!” Lily sighed. “To think we took all this trouble to save that old door-mat from the knackers…””

From his teeth, two stable lads estimate the mule is nearer twenty-five years old than twenty. But he has good hoofs and shoes, and Charlie is convinced they’ll drag the mule’s secret out of him – or Bobby will, with his way with animals. In fact, Bobby spends some time with Quicksilver, giving him food, helping him settle in to his new stable. He tells the others that he and Quicksilver have had a private chat. “He doesn’t want to meet those shady characters in Puisay again; the ones who hung around offering three times what we paid for him.” This chance remark fills Charlie with optimism for good material for the P. S. N. and arouses Sinet’s suspicion that All Is Not Quite Right.

Chapter Four.Lantoine Friday’s P. S. N. is dominated by news about Quicksilver. News, opinion, maps and a back page piece by Bobby written as though by the mule himself. He confesses he has lost his memory, but guesses he was mistreated by his former master and wonders where he is hiding now. He also refers to the large sums that were surprisingly being offered for him. Quicksilver challenges the reader to solve the problem and work out what happened to him and who was his master. He also reveals that he can be visited – for free if you had contributed to his fund, or for one franc if you hadn’t.

MarkovitchQuicksilver receives twenty or thirty regular visitors, much to the delight of Colonel Brousse who expects to increase his membership as a result. Lily is also delighted at the additional income. But the investigations quickly come to a standstill. Belmont suggests they widen their search area. But then Poussard arrives with news from Verrières-le-Buisson; it might belong to M. Lantoine, the market-gardener. Lantoine told Poussard that his mule Dynamo wasn’t missing and was well-behaved; but Poussard didn’t believe him. Flatfoot leads a group of them to Lantoine’s farm on the pretence that they have to take a photograph of a mule. Lantoine lets them visit Dynamo’s stable, but warns them he can be grumpy. But true enough, there’s a mule there, who got very grumpy when they photographed him.

Meanwhile at the riding club, Brousse gets an unexpected visitor in the form of Vlado Markovitch of the Brandenburg Circus in Rotterdam, resplendent in a Tyrolean hat, looking for a mule to join the Bengal Tigers in their circus act. It sounds very unlikely – but Brousse directs him to where Quicksilver is stabled.

Chapter Five. Inspecting QuicksilverBobby has been spending all his spare time looking after Quicksilver, and already the mule is in better condition. Bobby was just chatting to him and preparing to leave for the evening when Markovitch approached him. He repeats his unlikely offer (which includes five thousand francs for the owner) which has Bobby in fits of laughter. Bobby tells Markovitch to tell Quicksilver the plan, at which “the mule suddenly shot out its neck. Its teeth snapped so close to Vlado’s ear that the Tyrolean hat flew up into the air.”

The offer obviously rejected by both boy and mule, Markovitch goes off, muttering angrily. The Colonel asks how much he offered Bobby, and deduces “I’m beginning to think that the animal’s been involved in something pretty murky.” Bobby agrees – but anything that Quicksilver has told him is staying a secret for the moment. Sinet arrives, and goes up to the stall. The Thiriet brothers are there, talking with Joel Brousse and Poussard. Meanwhile, Quicksilver enjoys chewing on Sinet’s Gitanes cigarettes.

They are all perplexed as to why people are willing to part with so much money for the mule, when he’s not worth anything like that much on the market. Sinet’s suspicion is that he was “used in some criminal activity, and that he might be recognised by someone who witnessed what happened, and that this would give the police a lead to the crooks who used him.” He thinks further: when the crooks thought the mule had died, they thought they were in the clear. But when they discover that he survived, and has been bought from the slaughterhouse, they have to do something to get him back. And Sinet’s not convinced that Lantoine has no connection with the crime either; although there’s no need to question him further at the moment. “Just leave it all to Quicksilver, or rather to Bobby.”

Chapter SixQuicksilver and the cartBrousse secures his copy of the latest P. S. N. It tells how a character (now named Igor Popovitch) has appeared at the stable wanting to buy the mule. Quicksilver’s own reminiscences are also in print (courtesy of Bobby). He says he remembers being led away by Popovitch and then being knocked down by more than one car and left to die – and when Popovitch returned to collect him, he refused to go along with his story. “I’d rather have died in the slaughterhouse than trot round the ring in front of five thousand people with a Bengal tiger perched on my back.”

That afternoon at the stable, an older boy named Langlais – one of Charlie’s enemies – comes to see Quicksilver. It turns out he knows Lantoine and Dynamo. Dynamo has a tendency to escape and cause damage, so Lantoine decided to get rid of him. Langlais is convinced Quicksilver is Dynamo. Bobby tells him to go to the P. S. N. offices, tell Charlie, and go off with Belmont to confront Lantoine.

Langlais and Belmont help the market-gardener with some work and Langlais goes to see Dynamo. He realises it’s a different mule – and Lantoine confirms this. “Every mule I’ve had for the last twenty years has been called Dynamo. This one’s the fourth in the line.” Lantoine goes on to tell the boys what happened to the previous Dynamo. “About the middle of December, some idiot came round and gave me two thousand francs for that lump of dogs’ meat. I managed to replace that horror and still have a bit over as well – this mule only cost me half that.” But who was it who bought the mule? Broquin, an ugly nurseryman from Puisay, accompanied by “a fat little man, as dark as an Indian, with a little moustache. Very well dressed, he was.” Could that be Markovitch, thinks Belmont? Lantoine agrees that Broquin paid too much for Dynamo: “[he] didn’t know the prices and he didn’t bargain for more than a few minutes. He wanted a mule and a cart in a hurry for some sort of job. I don’t know what it was. He paid me in cash and off he went. What he did next is none of my business.”

It’s agreed that Lily and Langlais should go to see Broquin.

Chapter Seven. The two investigators walk around the nursery as though they’re lovey-dovey in love. Eventually Broquin introduces himself to them and asks how he can help. They respond by asking about plants they can put on the balcony, but inside they are shocked that the man they are talking to is Broquin as he is not ugly, and nothing like the description that Lantoine gave. Broquin sadly tells them that he’s retiring soon – against his will, but there was no future in his business. But he doesn’t believe the two and asks for the real purpose of their visit. “A mule”, replies Langlais. Broquin introduces them to his mule – a little yellow tractor, that does the work far better. But when Langlais explains exactly why they are there, Broquin is offended. He denies any knowledge of the animal and escorts the pair off his property. But as they are ready to leave, Langlais spots hoof-marks on the edge of the path. The penny drops, and Langlais offers to help find out if he sold goods to someone with a mule on the day in question. “Your fellow seems to have been here with his mule and cart on the sixteenth of December last. He made four trips during the course of the afternoon to remove six tons of compost and twenty bags of fertiliser. He paid cash.” His name? Lantoine. So it’s a double bluff.

And that’s not all. The day before, another man was looking for a big load of compost. A well dressed, middle-aged gentleman. It doesn’t add up. Why “he should have considered it essential to buy a mule and cart especially for the job […] when a tipper-truck would have finished it all in one go.” They tell Broquin to start buying the P. S. N. to find out more. Broquin’s final suggestion is that “now you’ve got hold of the mule, why don’t you try to get hold of the cart?”

Chapter Eight. CartThe first decision of the day at the P. S. N. is to give a name to the mystery man who has duped by Broquin and Lantoine. Laurent suggests Slewjaw because both men said his jaw was lopsided. Then Lily comes up with the idea that the cart might have been left on a car-dump. Belmont agrees to check out the site at La Croix-de-Berny, and Jacques the place at Wissous.  When Belmont returns, he has no news – the site is a free for all, and anyone could help themselves to anything there. And there was no sign of the cart.

Jacques, however, has more luck. He’s entranced by watching the hydraulic press that crushes the metal of all the old vehicles that have been dumped there. But then he spies a little cart – “painted dark green, it had rubber tyres with wavy treads and it seemed in first-rate order.” There’s a sticky black mess at the bottom, which Jacques believes is the remains of the compost after rain. The foreman offers it to him for a hundred francs, but Jacques tells him he only has fifty. The offer is accepted, and the business concluded.

Chapter Nine. QuicksilverJacques hurtles at full speed to the stable to tell Bobby that he has found Lantoine’s cart. Bobby instantly asks him if he completely sure and Jacques feels slightly worried but is satisfied he did the right thing. They tell the Colonel, who suggests Bobby leads the mule to Wissous. Bobby is very alarmed at this – happy that he’s got the confession from Bobby that he isn’t 100% in tune with the animal, Brousse agrees to send one of his lads, Candau, with him. On the way, Candau, whose nickname is Tom Thumb, tells Bobby he thinks Quicksilver is a difficult animal, hard to predict or understand. Bobby thinks the mule is frightened taking this journey. Nevertheless, when they get to Wissous, Quicksilver seems to recognise the cart and Candau hitches it to the mule, whilst Bobby goes for a walkabout.

Bobby is shocked when he recognises someone in the office, through the window. The manager’s name is advertised as Carbonato, but it’s Markovitch! Bobby panics and tells Candau they have to get out quick. But at the exit, the foreman asks to see Bobby’s receipt again. They realise the men working there had stopped their work and were starting to surround them. “But Quicksilver had other ideas. He suddenly took the bit between his teeth, swung round in the opposite direction and tried to make his escape down a side-path beyond which nothing was to be seen. A workman sprang up in his path, waving an oxy-acetylene cutter that spat a long blue flame. Quicksilver gave a heart-rending bray and swung off, galloping still faster. The cart rocked crazily over the rutted ground. It was then Bobby realised that the mule was going through the same nightmare sequence of events as before, in the same surroundings and with the same tormentors.” When Bobby looks round and sees the workman push up his mask, he sees he has a lopsided face – it’s Slewjaw!

Meanwhile Candau is terrified because Quicksilver is out of control. Heading once again for the motorway, the mule manages to stay on his feet “and still he galloped on, twisting and turning among the speeding vehicles” but they get to the Wissous fly-over, Quicksilver slows to a walk and somehow they make their escape on the quiet road to Puisay.

Back at the stables, Candau confirms to the others that Carbonato’s men were like a bunch of rustlers and that they all had it in for the mule. Meanwhile Charlie and the gang were investigating the cart and discovered hidden away at the bottom five plastic bags containing what they think is artificial fertiliser. Later Sinet comes along and confirms that Carbonato-Markovitch and Slewjaw both have police records. And another surprise: “Among the men who scared you so badly was one of our plain-clothes squad. It was Quicksilver who wrecked everything […] We let the little fish swim around until we can catch fifty or a hundred at once. In other words there’s someone behind Markovitch and Slewjaw – the big fish. And until we can get our hands on him, we’ll never be able to solve the mystery.”

Chapter Ten. The headline on the next P. S. N. read Mule on the Motorway Again! and had a print run of 5,000 copies sold at double the usual price – fifty centimes. Flatfoot sent a copy to Carbonato Carwreckers, just for good measure. Brousse and Sinet buy their copies at exactly the same time and start reading. The Colonel asks Sinet more about their undercover officer. He deals with “industrial offences”. Puisay “has grown far more important than its neighbours from the point of view of research and technical equipment. Inevitably this modernisation has attracted a certain type of criminal to the town. Their activities are unpublicised, they work in the shadows and they seldom use violence, but they do as much damage to the economy of the country as a whole wave of recessions… Do I have to tell you who they are?” “Industrial spies?” murmured the Colonel […] “The cream of the joke,“ Sinet added, “is that our budding detectives haven’t guessed what the whole business is about, yet. The only thing that seems to matter to them is to expose the cruelty inflicted on that beast of burden they’ve taken under their wing.”

Charlie asks, through his newspaper column, for witnesses to the unloading of the compost from the cart to help trace Quicksilver’s steps; and Bobby has written another eloquent article by the mule. To the Colonel’s surprise, Sinet thinks that by following the evidence of the cart and the compost the boys are getting closer to the truth. And the first person to arrive at the P. S. N. offices as a witness is Madame Deuzy, who still gets a free copy of the paper after her help in solving the case of the Black Cat. She reports having seen the mule, with cart and man walking alongside, several times on the same day, a damp and foggy afternoon sometime in December. The boys try to work out Quicksilver’s route from a map based on what Madame Deuzy has told them. They conclude that the most likely route was along the Rue Pincevent. Other witnesses confirm this – but the trail vanishes somewhere down the Boulevard de Rungis. Charlie and Jacques get into an argument about what to do next, with Charlie caring more about his circulation and Jacques caring more about Quicksilver.

The argument is interrupted by the arrival of Patard, Sinet’s colleague. He has information for them. He lives in the Rue Gaboriau, off the Boulevard de Rungis, and saw Quicksilver trot by with his cart several times on the 16th December. Charlie offers him his last cigarette, and Patard remembers that it wasn’t more than ten minutes between seeing the mule going in one direction and coming back in the other – so the delivery point for the compost can’t be far from the Rue Gaboriau. It’s late, but Charlie needs the copy for the P. S. N. Flatfoot agrees to play the part of Quicksilver and time a journey from outside Patard’s house and see where he arrives five minutes later.

Chapter Eleven. ArimecaFlatfoot gets into character at the Rue Gaboriau as he pretends to be Quicksilver, emulating his “heavy and regular tread”. As bemused onlookers watch on, he heads towards the Boulevard, uncertain which direction he would take from there. He turns right – Charlie yells stop at the moment his stopwatch reached five minutes – and Flatfoot/Quicksilver had reached the premises of a company called Ariméca. This doesn’t seem a likely place for Quicksilver to have brought four deliveries of compost. A van approaches the building and is subjected to an intense automatic security check before being allowed in.

The boys (and Lily) have never seen such a contraption before, so Flatfoot plucks up courage to ask the security guards what it was for. They say it’s an ultra-sensitive radiation detector. And anyone or anything going in or out is subjected to the same scrutiny. Even a mule and a cart. Stunned by this comment, the guard continues: “A few months ago our Assistant Works Manager was raising a roof for some compost to go on the flower-beds round the office block. Then some nurseryman from Puisay offered him four cart-loads which were duly delivered one afternoon. This was the occasion when the portcullises at Ariméca were raised for a mule.”

The guard offers to give Flatfoot an exhibition of how Oscar, the machine, works. But once all seven of them have walked through to watch, the portcullis comes down and they are trapped. “It’s our job to hold any inquisitive people we find hanging around the gates”. “Bring them to me!” says a snarling voice via the intercom.

Chapter Twelve. However, when the gang met the two men who were waiting for them inside, the first thing Charlie notices is that they have copies of the P. S. N. on a table. The first man introduces himself to them as Commissioner Charrel; the other man is Monsieur Steven who’s in charge of security at Ariméca. They know all about the gang from conversations with Sinet. Charrel asks them what they hope to achieve with their investigations, and Jacques replies that they don’t know – and it depends on what is being manufactured at Ariméca. Steven explains: “Ariméca is a research centre financed by a dozen major organisations specialising in the production of heat-resistant metals. A few months ago a sample of tetrital was stolen from our laboratories. This is a revolutionary alloy designed for use in the manufacture of space-capsules and capable of standing up to temperatures in the region of 3000°C. Our directors were at their wits’ end. They were in danger of losing all profit from the discovery should it be prematurely revealed.”

Charrel goes on to say that the company contacted Interpol, who put Charrel on to the case. They’re satisfied that the secret hasn’t left the country, but what they are looking for is a bar, eighteen inches long, weighing about two pounds. It was stolen and replaced by a different bar, but they think the original sample may still well be hidden in the building. The date the theft was discovered? December 17th. Charrel agrees that the men at the car-dump in Wissous are under suspicion. He thinks the boss there must have been tempted when he discovered how much foreign firms would pay for the secret of a new process. But the company hasn’t acted so far because they are waiting for the big fish to show up – whoever it is who would be willing to pay a lot for the bar. Lily suggests the bar could be hidden in the earth of some hydrangeas – an idea that Steven rejects. Charlie asks if he can name Ariméca in his articles – but Steven says if he tries that, he’ll bring an injunction on the printing works.

Chapter Thirteen. Langlais and the Colonel come to meet Bobby at the stable. He tells Bobby of the developments in light of the visit to Ariméca. Bobby listens quietly and impassively. In the end he says that nothing “won’t stop me believing that Quicksilver really did get out of the factory with the sample of that wonderful metal.” So why are Carbonato and Slewjaw so intent on getting the mule back? Maybe there’s something still in the cart? A thorough inspection reveals nothing. What about the bags of fertiliser? The club gardener took them. Bobby and Langlais inspect them closely and one bag is heavier – but it only reveals four horseshoes. Old ones of Quicksilver, maybe? So what shoes is he wearing now? The penny drops. Quicksilver is wearing shoes made of tetrital! Slewjaw must have substituted the shoes, and when the mule was outside the premises of Ariméca, they tried to get them off him, but frightened the mule so he did a bolt.

Langlais has another surprise. He remembers the description Broquin gave of the well-dressed man who asked him if he had compost for sale. He recognised that description in someone he’d seen very recently – Monsieur Steven! There’s no proof that Steven is wrapped up in this; but they decide to tell Sinet, who’ll tell Charrel. And Brousse has a plan, to lay a trap “with Quicksilver playing the part of the tethered goat.”

Chapter Fourteen. Who owns this muleThe next P. S. N. sells out rapidly. Charlie has written a great spread which includes a reconstruction of Quicksilver’s journey, the evidence of Mme Deuzy and Gendarme Patard (here renamed Tapard) and also the fact that a major part of the story remains censored. And Bobby’s column for Quicksilver shows that the mule wants to move on and leave his sorry past behind him. He recounts the way he passes his time every day, and adds that Bobby is going to get him a new set of shoes. Carbonato is not going to receive a free copy of this edition! Tom Thumb wonders how much Quicksilver’s shoes might be worth – Bobby suggests ten or fifteen million, making the mule more valuable than any Derby winner.

They put the bridle on Quicksilver and begin a walk into Puisay to visit the blacksmith, Monsieur Taupin. If Carbonato and his men want to kidnap him, Charrel’s watchdogs will be there to prevent it. Quicksilver started to get anxious as he sensed the motorway was near, but they reach the blacksmith’s yard and M Taupin starts work. The blacksmith is not impressed with Quicksilver’s old shoes – “it’s not even iron! Why,  your mule could have broken his neck twenty times over on his way here. You try running barefoot on gravel and you’ll discover what it feels like.”

Whilst Candau and Taupin have a beer together in the forge, Bobby and Quicksilver wait outside. Then four men come into the yard. Carbonato and Slewjaw, and two others. “Who owns this mule?” asks one. “I’ve never seen you before,” said Bobby with a nasty smile, “but someone was talking about you only yesterday evening. You’re Monsieur Steven, and you’ve come to grab the precious fragments of tetrital stolen from Ariméca… For your private account?” Steven is furious, but at that point Taupin appears. Carbonato offers to buy the shoes that have been removed from Quicksilver but Taupin says they are already sold. “Who to?” And Commissioner Charrel appears, with the four horseshoes tied together. Steven and the other men try to make their escape and walk straight into the hands of Sinet.

Sinet has a plan for Quicksilver’s retirement, working at a Wild West Club in Chantilly “where anyone from Paris who wants to play at cowboys can let off steam.” The last P. S. N. to wrap up the story of the mule on the motorway has to be written quickly so a new issue can be printed the next day. Sinet tells Bobby that his success in solving this case means he’ll almost certainly get promotion, and Bobby is delighted for him.

And what next for Bobby and the gang, the P. S. N. and the local police? A story concerning a goldfish? “The new chemist in the Avenue de Paris has been giving one away to all his customers.” There must be a story in that!

 

A Truckload of RiceTo sum up; A very satisfying, amusing and readable book with entertaining characters and a surprisingly inventive story with a great surprise ending. And, again, the story sets another book up featuring Bobby and the gang, this time involving the goldfish. 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. Next up in the Paul Berna Challenge is the book that results from Charlie’s suggestion that next time Bobby becomes involved in an intrigue surrounding a goldfish, Le Commissaire Sinet et le mystère des poissons rouges, translated into English as A Truckload of Rice. I look forward to re-reading it and sharing my thoughts about it in a few weeks.

The Points of View Challenge – Warm River – Erskine Caldwell

Erskine CaldwellErskine Caldwell (1903 – 1987)

American novelist (Tobacco Road, God’s Little Acre) and short story writer.

Warm River, first published in the collection We are the Living, in 1933

Available to read online here

This is the second of four stories in the volume Points of View to be given the style classification by Moffett and McElheny of Detached Autobiography. Here’s the part of their introduction that specifically refers to this story: “The other story, which is about a change in emotional perspective, is told from the newly learned point of view. By one means or another, but ultimately always by the passage of time, the speaker has arrived at the understanding of his experience he must have in order to discuss it with a neutral, watchful audience.”

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

 

Warm River

 

We Are The LivingOur narrator, Richard, crosses a rickety bridge over a warm river to reach the house of Gretchen, her father and her two sisters. At this point we don’t know why he’s visiting them. They’re obviously both very excited to be seeing each other, and his visit was clearly expected. Richard and Gretchen spend a long time looking at each other, not finding the right words to say. Later, Richard asks her father why it is that he has settled in this romantic location in the mountains. He says he and his late wife were born there, and lived there for twenty years, and by living there he still feels close to her and can still carry on loving her, even though she’s no longer there.

Stunned by this simple revelation of true love, Richard finds himself questioning his own reason for being there. Does he love Gretchen? He admits to himself that he can’t really say that he does, although he understands that she loves him ardently. She tries to get him to say he loves her, at least just a little – but he cannot.

They sleep separately, Gretchen promising to wake Richard in good time to get his morning train. But Richard cannot sleep. He smokes and frets. Eventually he opens his bedroom door and looks towards hers, only to find that she too is not asleep, but kneeling on her rug, crying. He is struck by how beautiful she is. Come morning, she is rushing around to get his breakfast before he leaves; but he has a fresh understanding of his emotions. “Gretchen […] don’t hurry to get me off – I’m not going back this morning – I don’t know what was the matter with me last night – I know now that I love you”. The story ends with his asking her to show him the way down to the river; “I have got to go down there right away and feel the water with my hands.”

This is a deceptively soft, slight, gentle tale which reveals much more on a second reading. At first it appears to be the story of a rather naïve and tentative chap who’s been invited in by a prospective girlfriend to meet the family, uncertain of his emotions towards the young lady, but which grow stronger and more certain as he sees more of her. However, you can also read it as though he knows exactly what he wants from that naughty night away – in fact both of them do, and it’s only when Richard can spend his time alone no more that he gets up, “stiff and erect” (Caldwell’s words, not mine) and voyeuristically spies on Gretchen. And it’s only then that he realises she’s worth more than just a one night stand.

The sensuality of everything to do with the warm river, that Richard initially fears to cross but later desperately wants to wash over his hands, reeks of sexual symbolism. Caldwell’s writing feels a little heavy-handed to me, with its constant references to the countryside, the mountains, the river, deliberately daubing the romanticism onto the canvass. I think it’s a clever tale, but I didn’t like it that much. It’s a well-regarded short story but I don’t think it would attract me to reading more of his works.

The next story in the anthology is the third of the detached autobiography stories, The Use of Force by William Carlos Williams, an author whom I think of more as a poet than a short story writer. I will be interested to see what his short story skills are like!

The George Orwell Challenge – Bookshop Memories (1936)

Bookshop MemoriesI rather wish I had read this essay Bookshop Memories, which first appeared in the November 1936 issue of Fortnightly magazine, before I had read and written about Orwell’s novel Keep the Aspidistra Flying. As usual, he used his own experiences to help him write both novels and essays, and his time working in the Booklover’s Corner bookshop in Hampstead in 1934 really informed his characterisation of Aspidistra’s anti-hero Gordon Comstock. I felt, as I was reading that novel, that Comstock really was Orwell himself, only vaguely hidden. And now that I have read his own personal account of working in a second-hand bookshop, I have no doubt that’s the case.

It’s a short and simple account of his observations about what it is like to work in a second-hand bookshop. He offers us all sorts of opinions, regarding the clientele, what sells well (and what doesn’t), the sensory overload of being surrounded by tens of thousands of books, to how it changes your own opinion about books. Having myself been a second-hand book trader (although online, not in a shop) I can recognise some truths in his writing that are as accurate today as they were in the 1930s.

Old BooksThat overwhelming sense, for instance, of being surrounded by centuries of writing, of decaying paper and musty dust. “Books give off more and nastier dust than any other class of objects yet invented, and the top of a book is the place where every bluebottle prefers to die.” How true. Orwell claims that he would never have wanted to be a full-time bookseller because “while I was in it I lost my love of books. A bookseller has to tell lies about books, and that gives him a distaste for them; still worse is the fact that he is constantly dusting them and hauling them to and fro.” I also think there’s a lot of truth in that; and whilst I hope I never lied about the books I had for sale, I did have to dissect them scientifically in my descriptions, highlighting all the faults within a particular copy – there’s nothing worse than a disappointed book-buyer – and by doing so you miss out on conveying the magic of the thing. Certainly when I was a bookseller I was not a book-reader.

But I was still shocked by Orwell’s criticisms and sheer judginess of the customers in the shop – and it’s exactly the same snobbery and cynicism that colours the character of Gordon Comstock, which makes him so thoroughly unlikeable. It’s the first topic that Orwell takes in this essay – the kind of people who, you suspect, made every day in the shop a misery for him. If it’s not “first edition snobs”, it’s “oriental students haggling over cheap textbooks”, “the decayed person smelling of old breadcrusts”, “unmistakable paranoiacs”, “certifiable lunatics”, or “wistful spinsters and the fat wives of tobacconists”. He is so judgmental about the customers! To him they are nothing but “pests”. He definitely wasn’t created for retail work.

Ethel M Dell The Way of an EagleRather like Comstock, he is dismayed that the number one author with the library subscribers was neither Priestley, Hemingway, Walpole nor Wodehouse, but Ethel M Dell, a fairly prolific writer of romances whom the critics hated but her readers loved. The snob in Orwell gets no pleasure out of giving the people what they want, because it’s not what he thinks they should want. He’s very certain about what he thinks people should read: “Modern books for children are rather horrible things, especially when you see them in the mass. Personally I would sooner give a child a copy of Petronius Arbiter than Peter Pan, but even Barrie seems manly and wholesome compared with some of his later imitators.” The use of the phrase “manly and wholesome” seems very revealing to me – particularly when you consider how Comstock despised the artistic young man to whom he referred as Nancy in Keep the Aspidistra Flying.

old-swedish-stampsThere are some general observations about life in the bookshop that, whilst still being judgmental, are perhaps not quite so offensive. He notes that they sold used stamps to stamp collectors, whom he describes as “a strange, silent, fish-like breed, of all ages, but only of the male sex; women, apparently, fail to see the peculiar charm of gumming bits of coloured paper into albums.” Whilst personally I wouldn’t call all stamp collectors strange, silent and fish-like, I have to say I’ve never met a female stamp collector, but I’m sure there must be some! I think it’s something that gets introduced to boys whilst girls are happily doing something else, and time never catches up with them.

Old Christmas CardIt’s also interesting to see that the shop made good business from the sale of Christmas Cards, although they only spent “a feverish ten days” on sale, whereas today they’d be there for at least two months. “It used to interest me to see the brutal cynicism with which Christian sentiment is exploited.” Some things never change, but just get worse. There’s also the very interesting observation that “in a lending library you see people’s real tastes, not their pretended ones” – and the authors that one borrows are very different from the authors that one buys.

“It is simply useless to put Dickens, Thackeray, Jane Austen, Trollope, etc into the ordinary lending library; nobody takes them out. At the mere sight of a nineteenth-century novel people say. “Oh but that’s old!” and shy away immediately. Yet it is always fairly easy to sell Dickens, just as it is always easy to sell Shakespeare. Dickens is one of those authors whom people are “always meaning to” read, and, like the Bible, he is widely known at second hand.”

Charles DickensI’m not sure that Dickens has stayed that popular 85 years later; although, yes, there are a number of Dickens that I haven’t read, and I’ve always meant to! He notes the growing unpopularity of American books – that’s a trend that’s certainly changed over the years; and the unpopularity of short stories. I’m no expert, but I sense that might still be the case.

So this a curious essay in some respects. Very personal, and one presumes Orwell is being scrupulously honest with his reader. His bookshop snobbery is quite jarring, but his factual observations about what sells and what doesn’t are fascinating. It’s written in a chatty, conversational style, that’s perhaps different from any of his previous essays which were more detached and serious in both style and content. George OrwellA very interesting accompanying piece to Keep the Aspidistra Flying!

Next in my George Orwell Challenge, and still with the essay format, is In Defence of the Novel, first published in the New English Weekly in two instalments November 1936. I look forward to reading it soon and I hope you read it too!

The Points of View Challenge – First Confession – Frank O’Connor

Frank O'ConnorFrank O’Connor (1903 – 1966)

Irish Republican Army soldier, teacher, theatre director, librarian writer of over 150 short stories (Guests of the Nation, The Majesty of Law, My Oedipus Complex).

First Confession, first published in the collection Traveller’s Samples, in 1951

Available to read online here

This is the first of four stories in the volume Points of View to be given the style classification by Moffett and McElheny of Detached Autobiography. Here’s how their introduction starts: “Each speaker in the next stories tells about what happened to him in the past. Now he is in a frame of mind that has changed greatly since the time he underwent the experience he describes, a frame of mind that may even be a result of what he has learned from the experience.”

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

 

First Confession

 

Traveller's SamplesYoung Jackie tells us about how embarrassed he was when his grandmother came to live with the family, eating her potatoes with her hands, sneaking a jug of porter into the house, and not knowing what she’d say in front of his friends. She used to give his older sister Nora a penny from her weekly pension, but he got nothing – not that he would take it from her anyway. If she cooked dinner for the family he’d refuse to eat it.

It was coming up for the time for Jackie’s first confession and he was dreading it – mainly because of the terrifying tales of Mrs Ryan who prepared the children for their first confession and communion. She told him about people who made a bad confession and who started to burn in hell on the spot. His mother couldn’t accompany him for confession so Nora did instead – and she did everything she could to make him feel bad; his sins were so extraordinarily severe that he’d be lucky to come out of it alive.

When he finally gets inside the confessional box, he’s confused as to where she should sit or stand – and decides to climb up onto a moulding high up in the box, much to the priest’s annoyance. As a result, “I lost my grip, tumbled, and hit the door an unmerciful wallop before I found myself flat on my back in the middle of the aisle.” Nora lands him a clip around the ear in fury at his behaviour – but the priest’s reaction shocks them both.

He tells Nora off for being so cruel, and takes Jackie aside and kindly welcomes him to take his first confession, pretending to be horrified at the awful things Jackie has been keeping inside, but in reality finding it all very funny. The priest is the epitome of kindness – and when Nora finds out he has only been given Three Hail Marys (the same as her) she’s mad. “Some people have all the luck! Tis no advantage to anybody trying to be good. I might just as well be a sinner like you.”

It’s a delightful little tale – O’Connor really gets under the skin of this earnest little scamp and plays with his fears only for him to be rewarded with kindness. You know that Jackie will never be scared of going to confession again! There’s clearly a lot of love – critical love maybe, but love all the same – for old Irish traditions of food and drink, family relationships, sibling rivalry and everyone’s relationship with the Church. O’Connor’s writing has a lively lightness of touch that finds the humour in unlikely places and provides the reader – whether they be Irish Catholic or not – a lot to recognise from their own childhood. I really wasn’t expecting the priest to be so kindly and friendly – perhaps that’s a lesson for me not to prejudge the characteristics of people before you’ve met them!

The next story in the anthology is the second of the detached autobiography stories, Warm River by Erskine Caldwell. This is yet another author of whom I of course have heard but never read, so I will be fascinated to see what his style and content is like!

The Points of View Challenge – A & P – John Updike

John UpdikeJohn Updike (1932 – 2009)

American novelist (Rabbit series of novels, The Witches of Eastwick), poet, short-story writer, art critic, and literary critic.

A & P, first published in the New Yorker magazine, July 22 1961, and then in the collection Pigeon Feathers, in 1962

Available to read online here

This is the fifth and final story in the volume Points of View to be given the style classification by Moffett and McElheny of Subjective Narration.

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

 

A & P

 

Pigeon Feathers19-year-old Sammy operates one of the checkouts at A & P Supermarket. One day, he’s just ringing up some groceries for a customer when three girls walk in, all dressed in swimsuits – an unexpected delight for Sammy, who accidentally then rings up the same item twice, much to the annoyance of his customer.

His eyes follow the girls admiringly around the store; one of them, whom he calls Queenie, is particularly attractive, and it’s his lucky day when she ends up with her friends at his checkout till wanting to buy a 49c Herring snack. She offers a dollar bill from her cleavage to pay for it, when Lengel, the manager, sees the girls and marches over to them, reminding them that this is not the beach, and next time they come in, they should have their shoulders covered.

At first, Queenie blushes apologetically, but Lengel continues to make his point and she starts defending herself, saying that she’s perfectly respectably dressed. Lengel disagrees and, upset at the treatment he has dealt out to the girls, Sammy quits his job on the spot. Lengel suggests he shouldn’t act so rashly; he’s been a friend of Sammy’s parents for many years and this will be an embarrassment for everyone. But Sammy is determined, ceremoniously removing his A & P apron and bow tie, and leaving Lengel to work at the cash register.

Coming out of the store, Sammy realises the girls have gone. And the regret starts to kick in…

Short and sweet, this wry little tale is amusingly told, with excellent attention to character, particularly Sammy, Lengel and Sammy’s colleague Stokesie. Updike can produce excellent turns of phrase; I particularly enjoyed the description of Queenie’s dollar bill emerging from her costume as “having come from between the two smoothest scoops of vanilla I had ever known were there”.

I’ve seen analyses online that suggest the story is symbolic of anti-commercialism and that Sammy represents a voice of reason making a stand against encroaching capitalism. My own view is that this is one of those little stories that just take a slice of life at one particular moment and explores it to the full. There’s no doubt that the unexpected appearance of three girls in swimsuits in a supermarket a long way from the beach is going to cause a young man to let his mind wonder.

His surprise but real repercussion of finding himself out of a job because he did what he thought was The Right Thing will no doubt come as a shock, but as he says, “it seems to me that once you begin a gesture it’s fatal not to go through with it.” I have no doubt that young Sammy will move on to bigger and better things, so I don’t think anyone needs worry about him.

The next story in the anthology is the first of four detached autobiography stories, First Confession by Frank O’Connor, yet another author about whom I know absolutely nothing!

The Agatha Christie Challenge – Nemesis (1971)

NemesisIn which Miss Marple is contacted “from beyond the grave” (via a solicitor’s letter, not a Ouija board) by the late Mr Rafiel with whom she worked in A Caribbean Mystery. He asks her to investigate a crime but gives no other indication of what it is or how she should do it. Piqued with curiosity, Miss Marple accepts his challenge, which results in her taking a coach tour of Famous Houses and Gardens of Great Britain. But are all the other passengers genuine, and what crime will Miss Marple stumble upon?  As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, as always, I promise not to reveal what happens and whodunit!

Max and AgathaThe book is dedicated to Daphne Honeybone, who was Agatha Christie’s private secretary; after Christie’s death in 1976, she continued working for Max Mallowan.  Nemesis was first published in the UK in seven abridged instalments in Woman’s Realm magazine from September to November 1971, and in Canada in two abridged instalments in the Star Weekly Novel, a Toronto newspaper supplement, in October 1971. The full book was first published in the UK by Collins Crime Club in November 1971, and in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company later that year.

Dilapidated greenhouseAfter the massive disappointment of Passenger to Frankfurt, one might have thought that Christie had run out of good stories and her usual slick storytelling style. But whilst Nemesis is far from her best work, it’s even further from her worst. With similarities to other works where a crime from the past is investigated in the present, there are some extremely good passages of writing, and some difficult subject matter is treated with delicacy and sensitivity. There are a number of hark-backs to previous books, both thematically and in the re-use of characters; but it succeeds in being a good story, with a central plot puzzle that unfolds organically and ends with an eerie, exciting denouement. There are a few moments that rather require a suspension of credibility – but it’s not as bad as some, from that perspective. A couple of the vital clues are telegraphed heavily – much as happened with Hallowe’en Party two years earlier – and as a result it’s quite easy to work out not only whodunit but their modus operandi. Nevertheless it’s an enjoyable read, and never feels like the chore that the previous book did.

GardenerIn what would be the last book that Christie wrote featuring Miss Marple (although not the last book published that included her), our redoubtable inhabitant of St Mary Mead is still living relatively independently, with housekeeper Cherry acting slightly more in the role of carer, which, at 81, is something Christie would herself have been sensitive to. She still has a bee in her bonnet about the difficulty of finding reliable gardeners, although it’s the new neighbour Miss Bartlett, who moans about these “elderly chaps who say they know all about gardening […] they come and have a lot of cups of tea and do a little very mild weeding.”

Red Black PulloverOne of the great things about Christie’s characterisation of Miss Marple is that we never stop learning more about her. Often in Miss Marple books, she’s sitting quietly on the sidelines, listening to conversations, gathering her thoughts together and coming to a wise conclusion, before hitting us with a big reveal. With Poirot, on the other hand, we tend to see him going over the evidence, exercising his little grey cells, and watching and listening to him putting two and two together. In this book however, we get to see Miss Marple’s thought processes, and it’s a rare insight; for example discussing the evidence of the red and black check pullover with Professor Wanstead.

CVAt the end of the first day of the coach tour, Miss Marple decides to write down her thoughts and opinions about what Rafiel had expected of her. Although I don’t think she ever goes back to writing this daily journal, it provides an excellent insight into her qualities and detective abilities. In fact, in part it reads like a CV. “Murders as reported in the press have never claimed my attention. I have never read books on criminology as a subject or really been interested in such a thing. No, it has just happened that I have found myself in the vicinity of murder rather more often that would seem normal. My attention has been directed to murders involving friends or acquaintances. These curious coincidences of connections with special subjects seem to happen to people in life.” As such, she defines herself as the opposite of Poirot, who often seeks out murder to solve, providing it’s of a sufficient degree of interest for him. He loves to read of murders in the press and never stops learning more about it through books both fiction and non-fiction.

evilProfessor Wanstead reports that Rafiel had told him that Miss Marple has “a very fine sense of evil.” “Would you say that was true?” he asks her. She replies: “Yes, perhaps. I have at several different times in my life been apprehensive, have recognized that there was evil in the neighbourhood, the surroundings, that the environment of someone who was evil was near me, connected with what was happening […] it’s rather […] like being born with a very keen sense of smell […] I had an aunt once […] who said she could smell when people told a lie. She said there was quite a distinctive odour came to her. Their noses twitched, she said, and then the smell came.”

Joan Hickson as Miss MarpleHowever, I’m not entirely certain that Miss Marple’s final reaction in the book – which is how she’s going to spend the £20,000 that Rafiel gives her – is entirely true to her character as we have previously known it. It is quite an amusing surprise though. I think it’s more likely to have been the kind of thing Poirot would have done. It confirms my feelings that, whilst writing this, Christie rather merged the personalities of her two most famous characters, and that this Miss Marple is something of a blended detective!

Miss Marple FencingHowever, I’d like to point you in the direction of that initial conversation in Chapter 11 between Miss Marple and Professor Wanstead, when both are tiptoeing around their subject, trying to find out how much the other one knows without revealing their own hand. Given that Christie was now 81 years old, it’s as fine a piece of conversation as she had ever written, like a gentle fencing match between two elderly guarded opponents, with very polite lunges met by a parry and a riposte. It’s a joy to read.

CaribbeanContinuing the trend that Christie had started in both Hallowe’en Party and Passenger to Frankfurt, there are a few characters whom we have met in previous books. I don’t know if this was a sign that Christie had basically run out of new characters to play with, or whether it was simply easier for her to re-use work that she’d already done. Despite being obviously absent from the book, the character of Jason Rafiel from A Caribbean Mystery is ever-present, with Miss Marple constantly trying to second-guess what it is that he wants her to do. It works really well as a story device because it provides Miss M with the double challenge of finding her way towards a crime of the past as well as then having to solve it. As part of her early investigations she meets up with his old secretary Esther Walters, for whom Rafiel has provided handsomely with a very generous inheritance – but she feels it doesn’t get her very far in working out what it was that he wanted from her.

Craddock and MarpleMiss Marple also calls on the services of taxi driver Inch, even though Inch has long retired, as she had done in The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side. Elizabeth Temple reveals that she and Miss Marple had a mutual old friend in the figure of Sir Henry Clithering, the former Scotland Yard Commissioner, whom we first met as one of the Tuesday Club Members in The Thirteen Problems, way back in 1932, but who also reappeared in A Murder is Announced, and she worked alongside his godson, Inspector Craddock, in 4.50 from Paddington and the aforementioned Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side. Clithering also appears in The Body in the Library, which Miss Marple recalls in this book, when she’s passing the time of day with Miss Cooke and Miss Barrow. Thus Nemesis integrates nicely into the rest of the Marple oeuvre.

Berkeley StreetAs usual, the book contains a mixture of real and fictional locations. The offices of solicitors Broadribb and Schuster are in Berkeley Street, Mayfair, a very elegant location near Green Park. The Old Manor House, where the Bradbury-Scotts live is in the charmingly named Jocelyn St Mary, which really ought to exist but is one of Christie’s rural inventions. Mrs Glynne lived thirty miles away in Little Herdsley with her late husband – also invented – and I was amused by Mrs Merrypit remembering she’d once seen the treasures at Luton Loo. I reckon she means Sutton Hoo – which although is in the east of the country as she recollects, is nowhere near Luton.

LongfellowLet’s check out the references and quotations in this book. As Christie gets older she finds the need to provide us with more and more literary quotations. At the beginning of the book Miss Marple thinks of her friendship with the late Mr Rafiel as being ships that pass in the night. That’s a saying that has won a firm place in everyone’s language. I always thought it was a proverb, but it’s actually a quote from Longfellow, from Tales of a Wayside Inn: “Ships that pass in the night, and speak each other in passing, Only a signal shown and a distant voice in the darkness; So on the ocean of life we pass and speak one another, Only a look and a voice, then darkness again and a silence.”

Solon“Call no man happy until he is dead” murmurs Miss Marple in her conversation with Esther. According to Herodotus (so it must be true) these were the wise words of Ancient Greek statesman Solon. The gist of the full quotation is “Call no man happy until he is dead, but only lucky.” Elizabeth Temple quotes T S Eliot: “The moment of the rose and the moment of the yew tree are of equal duration”. This is from the final section of Eliot’s fourth Quartet, Little Gidding. Chapter Ten is titled “Oh! Fond, Oh! Fair, The Days that Were” – this must be a quote, but I’m blowed if I can find what it’s from. Anyone out there know?

Thomas-ChattertonWhen Miss Marple sees a newspaper placard saying that a second girl’s body had been found in the Epsom Downs Murder case, “some lines of forgotten verse came haltingly into her brain: Rose white youth, passionate, pale, A singing stream in a silent vale, A fairy prince in a prosy tale, Oh there’s nothing life so finely frail As Rose White Youth.” This is a short poem by Thomas Chatterton.

Whatever Happened to Baby JaneMiss Marple catches sight of a book in a shop – Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, and says “oh dear, it’s a sad world one lives in.” That was a 1960 book by Henry Farrell that famously was made into a film starring Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. And there’s a final quote that Miss Marple cites regarding Mr Rafiel’s sense of Justice: “Let Justice roll down like waters And Righteousness like an everlasting stream.” It is from the Bible; it’s Chapter 5, Verse 24 of the Book of Amos.

PoundRegular readers will know that I like to consider any significant sums of money in Christie’s books and work out what their value would be today, just to get a feel of the range of sums that we’re looking at. There are two sums mentioned in the book – both fairly significant sums; the £20,000 that Rafiel promises Miss Marple if she completes his task, and the £50,000 that Esther Walters inherited from him. In today’s money, Miss Marple gets the equivalent of just under £200,000 and Esther got £500,000!

 

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

 

Publication Details: 1971. My copy is a Fontana Paperback, the first impression, proudly boasting the words first time in paperback, published in 1974, bearing the price on the back cover of 35p. The young me also wrote my name in the front and dated it August 1974! The cover illustration by Tom Adams shows a young woman’s face obscured by a flower, and a ruined greenhouse covered by foliage. All pretty appropriate!

How many pages until the first death: 68 pages until the first reported death, 107 until the first death that happens during the course of the current story. That’s quite a long time to wait for a Christie death, but it doesn’t feel like it.

Funny lines out of context:

Sadly none.

Memorable characters: Perhaps the most memorable are the two unmarried Bradbury-Scott sisters, the scatty Anthea and the strong Clotilde. But for the most part this book is dominated by Miss Marple, with the second big influence being Rafiel from beyond the grave.

Christie the Poison expert: There is an unconfirmed suggestion that Hemlock might have been administered as part of a crime – but it’s only lightly touched upon. That’s only the second time it’s mentioned in all Christie’s works to date – the first time being in Five Little Pigs.

Class/social issues of the time:

One doesn’t tend to think of Miss Marple having latent racism or xenophobia, because she needs to keep an open mind in order to solve a crime. However, in this book she occasionally recognises it in herself. When she first joins the coach trip, she looks around her fellow passengers to see who arouses her suspicions – and none of them does, except Mr Caspar, who is described as an “excitable foreigner”. “Nobody appeared to Miss Marple likely to be a murderer except Mr Caspar, and that was probably foreign prejudice.” She recognises it for what it is.

After a conversation with him and the Misses Cooke and Barrow, her suspicions have not been allayed. “Mr Caspar, now, it would have been much easier to imagine that he might be dangerous. Did he understand more English than he pretended to? She began to wonder about Mr Caspar. Miss Marple had never quite succeeded in abandoning her Victorian view of foreigners. One never knew with foreigners. Quite absurd, or course, to feel like that – she had many friends from various foreign countries. All the same…?” And of course, there are Mr and Mrs Butler, of whom she says “such nice Americans – but perhaps – too good to be true?” Americans are also foreigners, although not on the same level of suspicion as Europeans.

I did like Christie’s description of the Bradbury-Scotts’ garden. “It had the elements of an ordinary Victorian garden”. Once more Miss Marple is reflecting back to the good old days of the Victorian era. But if this was an ordinary Victorian garden, one can only imagine an extraordinary one! “A shrubbery, a drive of speckled laurels, no doubt there had once been a well kept lawn and paths, a kitchen garden of about an acre and a half, too big evidently for the three sisters who lived here now.”

Part of Christie’s unhappiness with the world today which was seen very strongly in her previous book Passenger to Frankfurt, stems from a disapproval of the way the young people of today behave and dress. This started being most evident in Third Girl. When Dr Stokes is questioning Miss Crawford at the inquest, she is uncertain whether the figure she saw near the boulders was a man or a woman. “”There was longish hair at the back of a kind of beret, rather like a woman’s hair, but then it might just as well have been a man’s.” “It certainly might,” said Dr Stokes, rather drily. “Identifying a male or female figure by their hair is certainly not easy these days.””

There’s also a continuation of the rather uncomfortable theme today of the promiscuity of youngsters, and the sexualisation of children. The character of Nora Broad is pretty much assassinated throughout the whole of the book with the villagers’ comments about and attitudes towards her general behaviour, bearing in mind she was a schoolgirl. For example, Mrs Blackett’s view: “it was something terrible the way she went on with all the boys. Anyone could pick her up. Real sad it is. I’d say she’ll go on the streets in the end”. Or the unnamed neighbour: “She was boy mad, she was […] I told her she’d do herself no good going off with every Tom, Dick or Harry that offered her a lift in a car or took her along to a pub where she told lies about her age.”

Wanstead is guilty of uttering a terrible line about the girls of today, that would be pretty much unthinkable nowadays. “He had assaulted a girl. He had conceivably raped her, but he had not attempted to strangle her and in my opinion – I have seen a great many cases which come before the Assizes – it seemed to me highly unlikely that there was a very definite case of rape. Girls, you must remember, are far more ready to be raped nowadays than they used to be. Their mothers insist, very often, that they should call it rape. The girl in question had had several boy-friends who had gone further than friendship. I did not think it counted very greatly as evidence against him.”

Solicitor Broadribb is not much better. “Suspected of having done away with perhaps three other girls during the past year, Michael was. But evidence wasn’t so good in the other deaths – so the police went all out on this one – plenty of evidence – bad record. Earlier cases of assault and rape. Well, we all know what rape is nowadays. Mum tells the girl she’s got to accuse the young man of rape even if the young man hasn’t had much chance, with the girl at him all the time to come to the house while mum’s away at work, or dad’s gone on holiday. Doesn’t stop badgering him until she’s forced him to sleep with her. Then, as I say, mum tells the girl to call it rape.”

One other theme, that I can only touch on very lightly without issuing a major spoiler, is that one of the characters is gay and that plays a vital role in the crime. It’s never explicitly said, but it makes sense that that’s the case. I can say no more!

Classic denouement:  Reading the book, it occurred to me that the denoument might have been heavily influenced by the 1960s Miss Marple films, because Miss M gets herself into a near-death scrape that is just like the kind of thing Margaret Rutherford would have escaped from in the final reel. It’s not a classic denouement, but it is a very exciting one, where actions reveal the truth of about the crime more than words. Having said that, there are some extremely wordy passages in the post-denouement chapter, where all the explanations are made; that could have been written a little more animatedly, I feel.

Happy ending? You’d have to say yes. Justice is seen to be done, and an innocent party is released from prison – although there’s no suggestion that the innocent party is now going to live a life of law-abiding decency; quite the reverse. There’s also the happy ending of Miss Marple becoming £20,000 the richer. But I’m still not remotely convinced that what she says she’s going to do with the money is credible in the slightest.

Did the story ring true? Despite its ornate and unusual set-up, there are plenty of Christies that are more incredible than this one! Suspend your sense of disbeliefs and you can completely accept this book on face value.

Overall satisfaction rating: 8/10. It has its faults but it’s a pretty satisfying book overall and I enjoyed reading it enormously!

Elephants Can RememberThanks for reading my blog of Nemesis, 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 Elephants Can Remember, which is the last new work by Christie to feature Hercule Poirot, although the master detective would still appear a couple more times. I can remember nothing about this book, so I go into it with no preconceived ideas! 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 Points of View Challenge – On Saturday Afternoon – Alan Sillitoe

Alan SillitoeAlan Sillitoe (1928 – 2010)

English novelist (Saturday Night and Sunday Morning), short story writer (The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner), poet and essayist.

On Saturday Afternoon, first published in the collection The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, in 1959

Available to read online here (search for the title, about two thirds of the way through the document)

This is the fourth of five stories in the volume Points of View to be given the style classification by Moffett and McElheny of Subjective Narration. Here’s how their introduction continues: “First-person fiction, especially today, abounds in stories narrated by persons whose perspective and values are questionable for the reader. Is the speaker missing something? Can we accept his judgments? If we are not sure, we may wish the author had been “clearer” so that we would not be reminded of our own uncertainties about what we see and what we ought to make of what we see. Even after his travels, does Gulliver have the proper perspective?”

Spoiler alert – if you haven’t read the story yet and want to before you read the summary of it below, stop now! Also, a trigger warning, as the story deals with suicide.

 

On Saturday Afternoon

 

TheLonelinessOfTheLongDistanceRunnerOur 16-year-old narrator, whose name we never learn, remembers a time when he “once saw a bloke try to kill himself”. It happened one Saturday afternoon when he was ten, and he’d left the house because his dad was in a black mood and the best thing he could do if his dad was in one of his moods was to escape the house.

He saw the bloke in the yard – he hadn’t been living in the neighbourhood long. He had a rope with him. When the boy asked him what he was going to do with the rope, he replied, “I’m going ter ‘ang messen, lad”. Why? “Because I’m fed up […] and because I want to. My missus left me, and I’m out o’ work.” The man gets the boy to agree to kick the chair away from under his feet when he shows signs of struggling. The boy tells him that the rope around the light fitting wouldn’t be strong enough for the job, but the man won’t hear of it.

True enough, just when the man is dangling there and the boy has kicked the chair away, “he fell down with such a horrible thump on the floor that I thought he’d broke every bone he’d got.” When the policeman comes to cut him free, he tells him he’ll get six years for that, as taking your own life was illegal in those days. Taken to hospital, he gets a bed on the top floor. It doesn’t take long  for him to throw himself from a window on the top floor and kill himself that way.

For the boy it’s a memorable moment; he’s confident he will never be in a position where he wants to kill himself. He’ll never be that black. But he also finds it a thrilling memory – and much more exciting than watching Saturday morning shows at the pictures. He also realises his dad will never have that dark look in his eyes; so, for the boy, it’s quite an optimistic story.

Though relatively short, this is a delicately and finely written piece, which gets under the skin of both the boy and the man – and to a lesser extent, the boy’s father. You can hear the voice of the boy very clearly in the writing, with the use of Sillitoe’s local Nottingham dialect and speech structure.

I take two things away from this story. One is the simple, matter-of-fact determination of the man to take his own life; quietly, unsensationally, calmly. It’s not only the public school alumni who espoused the stiff-upper-lip where it comes to men’s emotions; the man’s inability to say much about his plight shows that it’s a problem that transcends the class system. The other is the undisguised thrill that the boy feels to be witnessing real life drama like this, getting an almost voyeuristic pleasure from what promises to be the man’s last act on earth. He’s not particularly interested in the man’s reasons – although he feels it’s only polite to ask; he just wants to see the final action. The man is also perfectly happy for the boy to witness it; indeed, to participate in it, by kicking the chair away. When he fails to make a clean job of it, the boy is rather disgusted with the man’s inadequacy. When he hears how the man later threw himself out of the hospital window he feels both glad and sad about it. Finally, he also realises that if he’d witnessed the act now, at the age of sixteen, he would have found it a much more horrific and stressful experience. But for a 10-year-old, it was something new to brighten up an otherwise dull Saturday.

It’s an interesting little tale; the reader has a rather curious sense of detachment to it all, partly because the narrator is so emotionless about the whole experience, partly because it took place six years ago, and partly because we learn very little about the victim himself. It’s just one of life’s little tragedies. Life moves on.

The next story in the anthology is the fifth and final of the subjective narration stories, A & P by John Updike. This is another author of whom I of course have heard but never read, so I will be fascinated to see what his style and content is like!