The Paul Berna Challenge – Magpie Corner (1957)

In which we meet Frederick, whose father runs the new petrol station at Magpie Corner. One day a stranger enters their midst; who is he, and what is his interest in the station and in Frederick’s father? And why is his father always so surly to his devoted son? All will be revealed in this engrossing and heartfelt tale of contraband and family relationships.

Magpie Corner was first published in 1957 by G. P. Rouge et Or under its original French title Le Carrefour de la Pie, which translates literally as Magpie Crossroads, with illustrations by G. de Sainte-Croix. As Magpie Corner, it was first published in the UK by Hamish Hamilton in 1966, a full nine years after its original French edition. Unlike the previous Puffin editions, which were translated by John Buchanan-Brown, this book was translated by Helen Woodyatt and apart from the frontispiece and dust jacket, contains no other illustrations. My own copy of the book is the second hardback impression, printed in 1967, bearing the price 18/-. Helen Woodyatt’s only other translation in print, as far as I can see, is a 1964 translation of Marguerite Thiebold’s Pascal and the Tramp.

Leaving behind Gaby and his gang from the first two books, in their rundown suburb of Louvigny, we’re now in the peaceful village of La Rua, which actually exists in the eastern region of France, Bourgogne-Franche-Comté, approximately 70 km north of the provincial capital, Besançon. The book begins with an account of how the children have to keep the cows from straying on to the busy main road nearby; that would be the D1, which links the communes of Vitrey-sur-Mance and Membrey. However, Berna also tells us that a by-pass connects La Rua with Rouvray, via the grasslands of Chamarande, in the direction of Mâcon, which places the story to the south of Paris. Furthermore, Berna points out that Madame Paulin no longer has to travel to Tournus or Pont de Vaux to trade, both of which are very close to Mâcon, further complicating the issue! I think this is one of the situations where Berna has chosen real places but has nevertheless created a mystery and fantasy about them.

The book centres on Frederick; and it’s a very powerful, moving portrait of a kind-hearted, resilient boy, who’s a bit of a loner. He’s ignored and unloved by his father, and, as a result, all-consumed by suspicion as his life lacks reassurance. In his other works we’ve seen so far, Berna excels at showing the strength that can be gained from being a member of a gang. Frederick is as far away from having a gang to be a member of as you can possibly get. He seems to be a fish out of water; friends with the two girls, but estranged from the company of other boys. At the age of fifteen, Frederick is much older than the average age of Gaby’s gang. Whilst they’re looking for escapades to pass their spare time, Frederick is much more focussed on what he’s trying to achieve. He’s like a Rottweiler on the track of a criminal, and he’s not going to let him escape. Gaby’s gang spend the whole time laughing; but there’s not much laughter in Frederick’s life. There’s no sense of early romance between him and either Colette or Fanny, unlike the charming developing relationship between the much younger Marion and Fernand.

Rather than playing, Frederick now turns to work for a release from his worries. Vehicles have become his friend: he can tell a six cylinder diesel from its thundery rumble, and Berna makes this association stronger by his sensuous description of petrol fumes; “the all-pervading smell of petrol obliterated the natural scent of the newly mown hay. But the children liked it.” He’s never more at home when tinkering with engines and watching a master at work; and the more he works on the petrol station, and the more exposure he has to the other drivers, the more his confidence grows. You sense it’s a very different boy who closes the book than the one who opens it.

This is an exciting, devious, complicated little tale, with double-crossing villains and double-crossing heroes. Today, it would probably not be acceptable to have a book, ostensibly written for children, where smoking featured so heavily. But this was France in 1957; Langlais doesn’t flinch an inch when his son starts smoking in front of him. There’s not one word of criticism or negativity connected with the cigarettes; no asides about health issues, it’s just a mundane, 100% acceptable, routine. In fact, when Frederick teases Morden towards the end of the book, sniffing at the cigarette smoke, he says “it smells good, doesn’t it?” As well as all that smoking, there are plenty of trips to the café to enjoy some of Uncle Armand’s rosé. Pushing bad habits on children? Perhaps that’s how we would see it from the 21st century. Little surprise, perhaps, that this book has been largely forgotten – which is a shame, because it’s a superb tale, beautifully written.

The Street MusicianLike The Street Musician, Magpie Corner is a reflective, atmospheric book, with some superb writing and intense examination of the hero’s motives and emotions. Berna – through his translator – can sometimes come up with some beautiful lines. Towards the end of the book, when Jeremy and Frederick have set a trap of which Langlais is unaware, but will benefit from, he expresses the father’s anxiety: “Monsieur Langlais was the most vulnerable. He was rather like a tethered goat put out unawares to tempt the tiger, and ignorant of the body of men ready to help him.”

Unlike the previous books, this is a much more male-oriented story. All the significant players – Frederick, his father, Jeremy, the speed-cops, the postman, Morden, and the two people in the 4CV, are all men. Colette and Fanny play a lesser role in Frederick’s life as the book progresses. And Mme Paulin and Frederick’s mother barely feature at all. I feel this increases the book’s sense of maturity and seriousness; definitely a book written for fifteen-year-old boys.

A Hundred Million FrancsI’ve noticed how Berna likes to give nicknames to some of his characters – not always affectionately. In A Hundred Million Francs, one of the henchmen gets called “Ugly”. In The Street Musician, the tramp is called Spare-A-Copper, the nutseller is Monkeynuts, and they call the accordionist, M. Anatole, “The Phantom”. In Magpie Corner, the nicknames are becoming a little more unkind; right from the start Frederick refers to Jeremy as “The Hunchback”, and Colette calls the two 4 CV men, “Duckbeak” and “Clownface”. Maybe it’s true that children, particularly in those days, gave uncomplimentary nicknames to adults they didn’t like, but looking back on it from our viewpoint, it feels not only childish, but rather unpleasant. I’ll keep a watch on Berna’s use of nicknames in future books.

In Berna’s other books so far, poverty had always played a tangible role in the stories and in the day to day lives of the gang. In Magpie Corner, there is no such poverty. The Petrol Station and the Café Restaurant are both doing extremely good business and there is no shortage of money to provide the characters a comfortable life. The poverty is of a different kind; the poor quality of the relationship between Frederick and his father, and the lack of communication and support that the father should provide. However, it’s also interesting the extent to which people will put themselves out for free cigarettes – thronging the roads with their cars on the look-out. Although today cigarettes are taxed so highly that they are a luxury item, back in 1957 I would have thought they would have been relatively cheap; so maybe there isn’t as much money in circulation in the wider society of this book.

As in Berna’s previous books, the memory of the Second World War still lingers on in the environment. When Jeremy asks Frederick about the abandoned quarry at Senozan, Frederick describes it as the “cemetery for scrap iron […] there are something like two thousand wrecks there. Vans, private cars, tractors, as well as all the German and American military machines from 1944, tanks and even armoured cars. It’s an enormous pile and the council can’t get rid of it.” The treasure of the Lost Legion goes on to play a significant role in the book.

A couple of the plot twists are written a little heavy-handedly. The book suffers from one awfully heavy moment of obvious exposition, when Frederick overhears the conversation of the men from the 4 CV; almost farcical in the way it gave telegraphed the plot. The big surprise that’s kept right to the very end should also, I feel, have been written with a little more sophistication, so that it emerged naturally from conversation. The big surprise is also, I can’t help but think, very far-fetched and unlikely; but it does allow the book to finish on a high.

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

FrederickChapter One introduces us to the Paulin family; Mme Paulin runs The Magpie Inn on Magpie Corner; a renovated barn which she turned into an eight-bedroomed café, restaurant and mini-hotel. Aunt Guitte is head chef, Uncle Armand runs the bar, and her two daughters, Colette and Fanny, do their best to keep an eye on the cows, as the family still ran a small farm too. On the other side of the road, a new SICA petrol station had been built, and the Langlais family moved in to run it. Fifteen-year-old Frederick Langlais quickly became friends with the Paulin girls: “he was very friendly and they liked him at once. He was different from the village boys of La Rua and Rouvray, who were mostly pretty rough and rowdy.”

Whilst watching the cars, Frederick, Colette and Fanny get talking to Claud and Poulard, a couple of speed cops (“we’re not cops, we’re guardians of the highway”), taking a break. Claud notices M. Langlais working at the petrol station and mutters to himself, “I’m sure I’ve seen that chap somewhere before,” which intrigues and slightly disturbs Frederick, the only person to hear him. Frederick is always concerned about his father’s wellbeing. “You’ve only got to look at him. He seems to be obsessed by some awful dread. And it’s only since we came here. I’ve got the impression that he’s expecting something terrible to happen.” Where the girls are curious about all the people that go by, Frederick just watches and worries about his father – “the man who had become a stranger to him”.

Policeman Claud asks Frederick about his father: “he used to be a long-distance lorry driver […] he had his left shoulder badly smashed in an accident. For six months he had to have some marvellous electric treatment which works miracles. His shoulder is quite all right now, but he can’t drive any more. So someone found him this job, which is far less tiring.” When Frederick goes back to the petrol station at the end of the afternoon, his father isn’t welcoming, but simply gives him jobs to do. “Monsieur Langlais avoided his son as much as possible. Frederick’s blind admiration and devotion embarrassed him. The child had an unusually sympathetic nature which he longed to show to his father, but he was too young to know how to express himself and only succeeded in irritating him.”

We learn that Frederick doesn’t believe that his father was away for six months in an American hospital. “Frederick’s vague suspicions were strengthened after his father came back. He suddenly appeared without any warning at the little villa they had taken in Choisy le Roi. He insisted on leaving again that very day. He pulled down their suitcases from the top of the wardrobe and told them to pack quickly and be ready to go as soon as darkness fell. He said he must go into the country to convalesce. The whole affair seemed suspiciously like a flight from something or someone.”

“One morning by chance he happened to see his father taking a shower. The ex-lorry driver had two perfectly good shoulder blades and no trace of a scar anywhere.” Not driving; but not injured; and away for six months… what could it be?

LanglaisChapter Two sees a ramshackled old Citroen lorry pull up for petrol just as Frederick and the girls are returning home from school. The lorry looks like a hearse, held together with wire. Its owner, whom Frederick christens “the hunchback” because of a swelling on his back, tells M. Langlais that he’s looking for a job; he’s a mechanic, and he could help Langlais provide a breakdown service. They go to the Magpie Inn to discuss it, whilst leaving the petrol pumps to Frederick. When they emerge, slightly worse for wear after the consumption of plenty of rosé, it’s agreed; M. Jeremy is to have the spare room and will give Langlais 40% of everything he makes.

Jeremy certainly brings Langlais out of his shell; there had never been so much laughter in the house, and between them they set up the new workshop in under an hour. “Frederick turned back clenching his fists. For the last six months he had been trying to be a friend and companion to his father. And now this wretched hunchback had stepped into his place with no difficulty at all. An hour later they all met for dinner; father, mother, son and the irrepressible visitor. Monsieur Jeremy was very polite and talkative; he told some funny stories and when he raised his glass to his lips he crooked his little finger in the grandest possible manner. Both Monsieur Langlais and his wife were much impressed by so much elegance […] but the boy kept his head down and concentrated on his food. He felt deeply suspicious and offended.”

The worst moment for Frederick is when Jeremy remarks to Langlais, “your boy doesn’t talk much” and Langlais replies “he’s fifteen years old, and children of that age are all more or less idiots.” Frederick is furious. But he’s also determined that Jeremy shouldn’t do anything to make his father’s life worse.

JeremyChapter Three, and Jeremy is already making his first sale to an old farmer from Uchizy with a clapped-out old truck, whom he convinces to part with two hundred francs in exchange for a valve overhaul and a general check-over. Even Frederick, watching at a distance, admires his sales technique.

Frederick’s suspicions about Jeremy are raised again with the news that Colette saw him sitting outside and smoking at 2am. (You’re not allowed to smoke on petrol forecourts nowadays!) But, true enough, Jeremy does the repairs on the truck, and he and Langlais get on like a house on fire; although Frederick still regrets: “it won’t make any difference to me […] whatever he’s like with other people, he never seems to care for me.”

Just as Frederick is about to go sit by the river with the girls, his father tells him he wants him to help Jeremy with his work. Frederick sees it as an opportunity to find out what Jeremy is really like, so he changes into overalls , goes into the workshop, and receives his first lesson in vehicle mechanics. Against his better judgment, Frederick is impressed, and actually enjoys the work. Jeremy says he can come back any time for more jobs – and he’d get paid at the proper rate. But the mood sours when Jeremy asks Frederick more detailed questions about his father and the business; Frederick determines not to give anything away.

However, going back to the job in hand, Frederick feels more at ease: “Frederick had forgotten all about Colette and Fanny and the arrangements for a swim in the cool water of the Saône. His thoughts were concentrated on helping to put together the pieces of this jig-saw puzzle as he listened enthralled to the mechanic’s professional talk. He was able to be quite useful and he felt entirely happy and engrossed. No one had ever before talked to him in such a friendly way or allowed him to take part in such serious work. For the first time in his life he was experiencing the pleasure of working in harmony with a man of professional ability. His father had never given him that satisfaction.” A few hours later and Frederick and Jeremy are laughing away together. They take the repaired truck out of the workshop, and Langlais watches them. “Jeremy gave the thumbs-up sign and accelerated the engine. Monsieur Langlais came up to them to speak to the mechanic but did not pay the slightest attention to his son, whose beaming oil-covered face was leaning out of the door longing for some sign of recognition.”

Frederick feels he may come to terms with Jeremy’s presence “in a way no longer possible with his own father.” At dinner, Jeremy compliments Frederick on his work, but his father gives him no praise, only saying that he was to assist Jeremy for two hours every morning – which Frederick felt was going to eat into the fun of the holidays too much. When he tells Colette and Fanny, they’re disappointed. But Frederick has a thought about why Jeremy has suddenly turned up. “I wonder if he could have come here because of the cemetery […] the one at Senozan, the car scrapheap.” People had been visiting it recently, because of a newspaper article, “about the treasure of the Lost Legion. This had been a pathetic army formed by a rabble of Asiatics who had trailed pitifully after the routed Wehrmacht. In September 1944 one battalion of this comic opera army had vanished completely, apparently wiped out somewhere between Mâcon and Tournus”. Maybe Jeremy is hunting for this treasure?

Meanwhile, Langlais decides to stay open in the evenings, to see if the trade is worthwhile. Late at night, Frederick watches through his window to see his father working on the pumps, with Jeremy watching him in the shadows; “I’m watching over my father, who is letting himself be dominated by a horrible stranger.”

At 2am, the rumble of a lorry awakens Frederick. “The hunchback emerged suddenly into the light from the pumps. The driver leaned over again, and Frederick heard him say, “That’s good! You got the place all right? […] “Don’t talk here!” [Jeremy] said in a low voice. “The kid’s bedroom’s just there. Come over here! […] their low murmurs were unintelligible”. Jeremy filled the lorry with fifty litres of petrol and then it drove off. But Frederick is absolutely convinced that something is not right. All he knows is the name on the side of a lorry – SOBITO International Road Transport.

Claud and PoulardChapter Four The next morning Frederick simply doesn’t know what to do. Fanny explains that SOBITO is a new company with four lorries working regular routes, and they are next due to drive past Magpie Corner on Monday night. Should they watch out for it? Maybe there’s enmity between SOBITO and other hauliers over the monopoly of routes.

Langlois notes with excitement how many litres of heavy were sold overnight from pump five. ““That SOBITO lorry alone took fifty litres,” said Frederick in a gently but very clear voice.” Frederick explains how he watched the transaction; Jeremy is obviously shocked. Whilst the two men enjoy a drink and a laugh at the Café opposite, Frederick beseeches his mother to tell the truth about what really happened to his father. “Your father killed someone with his lorry […] it wasn’t his fault, I’m certain, but he was sent to prison for six months for that one wretched stroke of bad luck, which cost the life of an unknown man. A thing like that leaves its mark on a man, and your father is very sensitive. Don’t mention it to him – ever!”

After this revelation, Frederick feels he understands his father better; no longer frightened of him, but sympathetic. But he can’t resist quickly telling his father not to trust Jeremy – and his father calls him out for his words: “I’m not going to take any advice from a child like you. You are far too young to criticise grown-up people!”

Later, chatting with Traffic Cop Claud, Frederick admits he’s concerned about the presence of Jeremy in their lives. He goes on to tell Claud about what he’s just discovered about his father’s accident, and Claud tells him of an accident involving a cyclist the previous year, where a lorry driver took the blame for the dead cyclist’s bad road behaviour. Was it the same accident?

Magpie CafeChapter Five Life is busy at Magpie Corner. Jeremy has lots of customers and appreciates it when Frederick lends a hand – and, despite himself, Frederick always enjoys working alongside an expert. But when pushed, he has a full-on argument with Jeremy, accusing him of wanting to know where the family money is kept. Frederick discovers that Jeremy has been told about his father’s accident. Jeremy says he wants to be friends with Frederick but the boy is having none of it. Jeremy flies into a rage: “””I dare you to repeat to your father everything you have said to me!” he shouted, stamping his foot. He hates the sight of you, you silly little ass, and well you know it!””

Meanwhile, two sinister men had left their 4CV for repair, and were returning back to the café. One asks Uncle Arnaud for “cheaper” cigarettes. “”I do occasionally have a chance of getting a few packets free of duty for my regular customers,” he said peaceably. “But I don’t manage to keep them long, I don’t ask where they come from.” Are they Customs officers? Whatever, they convince Mme Paulin to let them have a room for a couple of nights. Frederick’s suspicions are even further aroused. He sees them in an argument with Jeremy, but he’s not taken in – he thinks it’s a charade for his benefit.

On a whim, Frederick decides to go and hide at the quarry at Senozan, to keep a watch out for anything suspicious. And who does he spy? None other than the two men with the 4CV. Frederick overhears their conversation: “If the stuff really was here everyone would know about it. There are plenty of nosy parkers around. It’s not so easy to hide ten tons of cargo. Besides, no lorry could get along that track.” Then the other man: “Listen, Louis, do you know what I think? I think the boss is worried stiff. The must know he’ll never get his fifty million cigarettes back again.” Worst of all for Frederick, the men mention Langlais in respect of this crime. “Packets of Diamond and Princess have been in circulation the whole way along this main road. It’s pretty obvious, especially as Langlais is hiding himself so near here.”

Frederick decides it’s time for action. He searches all the tunnels and eventually finds a chamber which hides a second chamber – and at the end of it, he feels the wheel of a lorry…

SmokersChapter Six sees Frederick speak directly to his father: “I know I’m only a kid, and probably not much good at anything. But I do want us to be friends again. Whatever it is that you have done doesn’t make any difference to me. After all, you are my father and I don’t want anyone to harm you, and they shan’t if I can stop them.” He can’t see his father’s reaction behind his dark glasses, but he hopes his message has hit home. Frederick also tells the girls about his adventure at the quarry – well, some of the details at least.

Later that night, Frederick comes down to talk to his father again. “Please listen! That hunchback is one of Monsieur Morden’s spies! […] We must go away at once Dad, We can find somewhere to go, it doesn’t matter where…” Langlais replies: “Yes, Frederick, I’ve known all along. I guessed it from the first moment when he was so keen to come and work here. But it was too late then to do anything about it. The moment they located me here I couldn’t move without involving us all, you, your mother and me, in a tragedy. So I tried to deceive him by playing his game. I let him spy into my private affairs so that he could see that I was only an ordinary sort of chap like thousands of others.”

At last Frederick and his father can talk freely between each other. Langlais understands and knows that his son is fully supportive of him, and Frederick is desperate to know more. Langlais doesn’t want to keep running and hiding for the rest of his life. He’s happy enough in their new position and wants to fight to keep it. But he confesses to his son that for years he drove Morden’s lorries knowing full well he was carrying contraband; but what could he do? His pregnant wife was delicate, his son was about to be born. He wanted to be able to provide for them as best he could. “As a matter of fact I never enjoyed one single moment of that ill-gotten comfort. It was poisoned by my sense of guilt, and my fear of being found out. When you were a little boy you used to ask innocent questions about my job – what sort of loads I carried, that sort of thing. And when I answered I found I was lying, lying to an innocent little boy. My life seemed to have become one big lie. I gradually became so ashamed that after a while I found myself avoiding you. It is natural for children to trust their parents and when you were about six you had a way of looking a me which made ashamed to think that I could deceive my wife and child so terribly.”

More revelations from Langlais. When he caused the death of the cyclist, he was accelerating away from rival smuggling gangs who would have stopped his lorry and taken control of his load. Langlais felt that if he accepted the blame and went to prison it would rid him of Morden and his illegal work for ever – but no. The contraband he was carrying at the time of the accident never came to light. Clearly, Jeremy and the 4CV men are working for Morden and trying to locate the stolen lorry and its goodies. So Langlais wants Frederick to keep an eye on Jeremy, and maybe take his mind off trying to find the contraband; Frederick suggests the girls will keep the 4 CV men out of harm’s way; which just leaves the SOBITO men.

So why, when Langlais finally goes to bed at 2am, is Frederick missing from his bedroom?

CalasChapter Seven Calas the postman arrives for a morning rosé at the Café and starts to brag about smoking both Diamond and Princess cigarettes – which just so happen to be the brands that were in Langlais’ lorry. He tells the 4CV men that they were just lying on the ground on the road from Chamarande that morning. Then two other men come in, also smoking the same brands. The 4CV men, whom Colette has nicknamed Duckbeak and Clownface, grow more unsettled and ask Uncle Armand for local countryside tips; Armand offers the services of the two girls to walk with the two men in the countryside (that wouldn’t happen today!!)

Frederick (who tells his father he just went for a walk the previous night) cheekily offers Jeremy a cigarette from his new packet of Diamonds. Jeremy is thunderstruck and is desperate to know where Frederick got them – and he tells the same story as the postman. Jeremy says: “I know people who would pay the earth to get their hands on a stock of these”, to which Frederick replies, “would they pay enough to let my father live in peace?”

Frederick asks Jeremy if he would like to live in the area for good. Jeremy concedes that it’s a good place, and that he was lucky to get on so well with his father. Later that day, Frederick spots Duckbeak and Clownface hiding in a taxi. Something’s going to happen soon, and, for once, it’s Jeremy who seems the most nervous.

4CV MenChapter Eight sees Frederick on a late-night rendezvous with Calas – down at the abandoned lorry in the quarry at Senozan. This is where Calas gets his endless supply of cigarettes, of course; and the only other person who knows about it is the driver, Young Charley, who won’t be happy until the whole stash has gone, and now never goes near the place. He unwittingly got involved in Morden’s contraband scam, and hadn’t a clue what to do with the lorry. It was Calas’ idea to hide it in Senozan.

Together they worked to fill two big sacks with cigarettes, but at this stage, what they did with them is a mystery. Frederick walks home at about 2am only to be discovered by his father. The two of them watch as a long-distance lorry accelerates towards the filling-station and knocks down all the pumps, and, without stopping, hurtles on to rejoin the main road and disappear. Langlais does his best to make the site safe, although Jeremy is reticent to help. When the police come, Frederick is able to give the number plate of the lorry – although he doesn’t mention it was the same lorry that called the previous week. Frederick also takes the opportunity to needle Jeremy once more, and he’s not happy about it.

Chapter Nine And we straightaway know what Frederick and Calas have done; as loads of people descend on the quarry to pick up hundreds of packets of cigarettes that are just lying on the ground. And, good news: SICA repaired the petrol pumps at 6am the next morning, so there was hardly any loss of trade. After some closer questioning by Frederick, he discovers that the lorry that is hidden in the quarry was not his father’s but another run by the same company – he confirms that the driver’s name was Charley.

Two men dressed in black check in to the Café for an overnight stay – and Uncle Armand is convinced they are customs officers. Over lunch Frederick realises that Jeremy has his own argument with the 4CV men – but he won’t say what it is. Perhaps, thinks Frederick, Jeremy can finally be trusted… However, Jeremy has devised a plan, and asks Frederick to provide him with one complete carton of cigarettes, containing five hundred packets of twenty. He won’t say why; but Frederick agrees. And then Jeremy drops a bombshell – Morden is coming to Magpie Corner tomorrow.

Another surprise – in conversation with traffic cop Claud, it emerges that they knew all along about the abandoned lorry and the plentiful supply of cigarettes, as Frederick watches him puffing away at a fresh pack of Diamonds. Claud invites Frederick to confess to the liberal scattering of packets a few days earlier – but he stays quiet. Nevertheless, Claud informs Frederick that he knows full well where the missing lorry is – safely parked out of harm’s way.

At night, Frederick has been true to his word and Jeremy divides up the cigarettes and stashes them all over the red 4CV; in the boot, behind the cushions, under the seats, in the door pockets. That done, Jeremy, Frederick and Calas drive around the village, dispensing cigarette packets everywhere.

Chapter Ten The by-pass is choked with motorists on the hunt for free cigarettes, some to smoke themselves, some to set up stalls to make a profit. Langlais is asked to see the police about a trivial matter, which leaves Frederick and Jeremy in charge of the big final scene. They were just serving some customers when a royal blue Jaguar pulls up at Pump Number One; Morden, his chauffeur and two other men. Morden wishes to see Langlais but Frederick explains he is with the police but will be back soon, maybe with some officers. Unimpressed with the sight of “his” cigarettes being shared out all over the place, they get out of the car and wait for Langlais to return, while Jeremy works on the Jaguar. Meanwhile the locals continue to smoke their hearts out.

Langlais tells Morden that he ought to leave whilst he can, but Morden is not in the mood to change his mind. Then Frederick bursts in and tells Morden it’s his Cherbourg lorry that is stuck locally and that, as no one came to claim it, for the last three days it’s been the property of Calas, the Postman. “”As for my father’s lorry,” went on Frederick, still perfectly calm, “I can’t say yet, because it’s in the hands of the traffic police and the Special Branch for suppression of smuggling.” Claud and Poulard arrive and confirm that the lorry Langlais was driving is currently being stored in Lille “in a shed behind the Customs Office!” Morden denies ownership of the vehicle; Claud confirms “for a cargo of that nature and tonnage […] counting the expenses, taxes, surcharges, compensation, damages and other indemnities claimed by the Customs, the Treasury and the State (all in algebraic progression, mind you), I should say our man would get a bill for about eight hundred million francs.”

On the road out to Rouvray, Morden and his men are stopped by Customs Officers – and five hundred cartons of Diamond cigarettes are found in the boot – the contraband that Jeremy had planted on them, when he was attending to the Jaguar.

Frederick confronts Jeremy with his suspicion that “it was you who planned that robbery of the two lorries in league with the drivers’ mates, wasn’t it? […] But it all went wrong because of my father and his accident. Klaus tried to rob you in his turn, and then young Charley lost his head. Monsieur Morden looked for his lorries all over France, and you were looking for them too on your own account. For a short while you hoped you could recover the Senozan one, but it was impossible for one man alone, and I got in your way.” Jeremy denies it, but we know Frederick is right.

One final revelation: the cyclist who died as a result of the accident, and the guilt for which Langlais has had to deal with for so long, had been dead six hours when the police arrived. So Langlais has been living with that guilt unnecessarily! It wasn’t him!

The Knights of King MidasTo sum up; Magpie Corner wasn’t translated until nine years after it was written, so, in the sequence of British publications of Berna’s works, it appears later and out of place, and I think has long been overlooked as a result. To my mind it’s a book of great atmosphere, considerable sadness; not a typical childhood funtime romp, but an examination of some of the darker sides of life. I really like it! If you’ve read the book – or are re-reading it now, I’d love to know what you think about it, so please add a comment below. Paul Berna’s next book was Le Kangourou Volant, which was never translated into English. So we’ll skip that one so that the next in the Paul Berna Challenge is The Knights of King Midas, and once more we’re in the world of gangs; not Gaby and his friends, but Charloun and his gang, so there’s a whole new bunch of French youngsters to meet. I can’t remember much about it, so I look forward to re-reading it and sharing my thoughts about it in a few weeks.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Memorable characters:

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

Christie the Poison expert:

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

Class/social issues of the time:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They Came To BaghdadIn which Victoria Jones bumps into Edward in a park in London over lunchtime sandwiches and falls in love with him in an instant. He’s going to Baghdad to help open a bookshop for his boss, and, troubled that she won’t ever see him again, she decides to chuck everything in and follow him to Baghdad. But many other important political and influential people are also travelling to Baghdad, and Victoria gets caught up in a spot of espionage because she’s that kind of girl.  As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I promise not to reveal its most exciting secrets!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Lot of cock”, thought Shrivenham disrespectfully.

Memorable characters:

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

Christie the Poison expert:

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

Class/social issues of the time:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Murder is AnnouncedIn which Lettie Blacklock discovers that a murder has been announced in the classified ads of the local paper, and it would take place at her house on Friday October 29th. Unsurprisingly all the local gossips drop in to see what will happen… and a murder does indeed take place! The local police are mystified but fortunately Miss Marple is on hand to give valuable assistance, and the culprit is caught red-handed attempting another murder. As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I promise not to tell you whodunit!

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

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

Whistler's MotherThe book reunites us with Miss Marple, whom we hadn’t encountered for seven years – her previous appearance was in 1943’s The Moving Finger. There may be a slight sense that she’s aged further; “she was far more benignant than he had imagined and a good deal older. She seemed indeed very old. She had snow white hair and a pink crinkled face and very soft innocent blue eyes, and she was heavily enmeshed in fleecy wool. Wool round her shoulders in the form of a lacy cape and wool that she was knitting and which turned out to be a baby’s shawl.” All that wool and lace makes you think of Whistler’s Mother. Julia is partly right when she describes her as “the prying kind. And a mind like a sink, I should think. Real Victorian type.” Miss Marple certainly knows how to pry, but a mind like a sink? Surely not.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Memorable characters:

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

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

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

Christie the Poison expert:

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

Class/social issues of the time:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Agatha Christie Challenge – Three Blind Mice (1950)

Three Blind MiceIn which a murderous plot in London, where the murderer whistles Three Blind Mice as his signature tune, resumes at Molly and Giles’ remote country guesthouse, Monkswell Manor, whilst they are cut off due to an immense snowfall. Will the police prevent a second death? This was the short story that two years later became The Mousetrap. And, as usual, if you haven’t read the story – or indeed, seen the play – don’t worry, I promise not to tell you whodunit!

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Agatha Christie Challenge – Crooked House (1949)

Crooked HouseIn which Sophie Leonides decides she can’t marry Charles until the identity of her grandfather’s murderer is discovered. By chance, Charles’ father is the Assistant Commissioner of Scotland Yard, who agrees with Chief Inspector Taverner that Charles can sit in on the investigations as his unique position of trust, bridging the gap between the family and the police, could be useful. The Assistant Commissioner has worked it all out before anyone else – but he doesn’t uncover the murderer. As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I promise not to tell you whodunit!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Memorable characters:

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

Christie the Poison expert:

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

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

Class/social issues of the time:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Paul Berna Challenge – The Street Musician (1956)

The Street MusicianIn which we meet Gaby and his gang again; whilst the toy horse from A Hundred Million Francs is out of action, they need to find a new adventure. One day Marion is asked to give one of her dogs to a blind man who plays the accordion on the street corner, and she gives him the beautiful Nanar, a dog with a bright yellow coat. However, when they next see the dog with the accordionist, it has changed colour – it is now a beautiful black dog. Why should that be? Gaby and the gang have to uncover the truth and it leads to much deeper things…

Le Piano à bretelleThe Street Musician was first published in 1956 by G. P. Rouge et Or under its original French title Le Piano à bretelle, which translates as The Accordion, with illustrations by Pierre Dehay. As The Street Musician, it was first published in the UK by The Bodley Head in 1960. As in the previous book, it was translated by John Buchanan-Brown, and illustrated by Richard Kennedy. My own copy of the book is the first Puffin edition, printed in 1961, bearing the price 3/-.

Once again we’re in Louvigny, that very workaday railway town just outside Paris, with its grim industrial atmosphere and air of poverty. The same streets, the same cafés that featured in A Hundred Million Francs are all back in the story, as is Gaby’s gang, happy to leave their “gloomy school” every day at four. Also making a reappearance is Inspector Sinet, although with a markedly less important role in this book.

It strikes me that The Street Musician is a much more reflective, and much less action-packed, story than its predecessor. Although Gaby is still in charge, the growing maturity of the characters of Marion and Fernand is the one most significant development within the gang members. They have an awareness that they are the outsiders in the gang, and are occasionally made to feel insecure by the actions of the others. “I’ve noticed for some time that we aren’t exactly everybody’s favourites” Fernand tells Marion. Later, he buys her a brooch for a shilling at a fair, which she proudly wears – until she loses it, much to her annoyance. It’s a symbol of their special friendship; too young to be a romance, but it does set them apart from the rest of the group.

povertyPoverty is still a tangible aspect to the story and to the gang. Considering they have so little, the purchase of the brooch is even more significant. But it creeps through in other parts of their lives. Gaby’s firework display at the end of the book amounts to nothing because he could only afford to buy cheap out-of-date stock. Most people throw toys or balls to their dog for them to play catch, but Berna points out that Marion throws stones for Fifi, because they are free.

1956 still wasn’t long after the end of the Second World War and its legacy still scars this townscape. The gang’s new headquarters is close to a commemorative plaque that remembers twelve Resistance men who had fallen before a firing squad; the wall still bears the marks of the bullets. The hidden street, Rue du Bout de l’An, that is an integral part of the solution in the story, was created by setting up checkpoints by the Germans at the entrances to their depots during the Occupation. A hole in a wall, through which Juan spied the Bollaerts’ place, was caused by a wartime bomb that had never been restored.

There are some further indications about the hostility and loneliness of the environment; the Rue des Estaffiers is described: “harridans with their hair in curlers turned to stare in hostility as they went on their way. An urchin accompanied them to the crossroads, heaping them with choice epithets that were not current in the Rue des Petits-Pauvres.” The local kids adopt a gang rivalry against Gaby’s gang, but they have the decency to respect Zidore’s scars – a hard reputation can often be helpful. And the loneliness of the environment is beautifully encapsulated by these following sentences after Marion has been moved by the sad sweetness of the accordion playing: “The throbbing air of the gipsy love song spent its enchantment despairingly on an empty landscape from which the very birds seemed to have flown. The last notes fell away into the silence around them.”

Paul BernaBerna – and by necessity, with his translator Buchanan-Brown – certainly had a way with words. Whilst there are few words and phrases that one would today certainly associate with the latent racism of the age, I don’t believe there is any cruelty or discrimination intended in the emotions of the book – far from it. I loved his description of when Tatave revives, after his accident at the beginning of the book, “groaning like a cow with stomach ache”. There’s a very funny description of Criquet’s mother: “Though Madame Lariqué was built on formidable lines she was as nippy as a centre forward”. And there’s a charming summation of the message of this book through the words of M. Douin: “don’t forget the one thing in life that really matters is the trouble we give ourselves in order to help other people”.

I loved the accounts of the younger kids and their relationship with insects and birds; Juan with his tame sparrow Picolo, Tatve and Zidore releasing may-bugs into the classroom for general disruption; it’s such an innocent era away from our modern times of social media and knife crime. And you have to admire Gaby’s sneaky way of shortening lessons by tampering with the clock! The children are not goody-two-shoes at all, they’re right little scamps – which only makes you want to be part of their gang even more. Berna’s gift of expressing children’s emotions – from hilarity to loneliness – is again the driving force behind the book.

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

Waiting in the SquareChapter One – The Red Lorry. Once again we meet Gaby’s gang, all ten of them crammed onto a bench in Théodore-Branque Square, with Tatave, the fattest, hanging off the end. Tatave has his arm in a home-made sling, showing off his noble wound; but the gang are having none of that, and they all swayed on the bench to knock him sideways onto the ground.

Tatave is not the only one to bear a wound. Mélie has a black eye and facial scratches; Berthe’s head was wrapped up in a turban bandage; Zidore has a swollen nose and legs covered with antiseptic. This is all because Tatave lost control of the headless horse toy as it thundered down the Rue des Petits-Pauvres and flew straight into the limbs of his friends. However, the horse fared worse, disintegrating into a hundred different pieces. So now they need something new to get their teeth into. Marion comes up with the wise words: “adventures only happen to people who take the trouble to look for them”. She suggests they roam the streets of Petit-Louvigny in an orderly fashion in an attempt to sniff out a new adventure. Gaby agrees, so it’s a plan.

Fernand Douin, quietly but sensibly, realises that the Théodore-Branque Square is the perfect place for people watching. He also realises that a big red lorry, with the name Bollaert written on the side, had come up the same road at the same time for the last three days. It was the fact that the driver stared at him when he braked at the crossroads that really made Fernand suspicious.

The driver’s name is Paul Pierce; he’s English and works with his brother James at Bollaert’s. Berna’s description of them is very entertaining: “they had the same long horsey jaw, the same florid complexion and they kept their neighbours at a truly British distance”. After he’s brought his lorry back to Bollaert’s yard, he has a word with the boss about the children hanging around in the Square. He knows they’re the kids who solved the Paris-Ventimiglia case, and suspects they might cause their operations a problem. Bollaert isn’t worried. But now our curiosity is piqued – what are they up to?

Spare-A-CopperChapter Two – Criquet and the Small Ad. Following Marion’s suggestion that they look for adventures, little Bonbon decides to follow the tramp, Spare-a-Copper. He watches him get money off people in the street, then dive into the Café Parisien for some refreshment, then emerge again, “much more peculiar” than before. The tramp confronts Bonbon, demanding to know why he’s following him; and when Bonbon tells him it’s to see if he gets into a Cadillac, Spare-a-Copper is dumbfounded and runs off. Maybe he is hiding some secret?

Over the WaterWhen the gang meet up to report back on their findings, no one has discovered anything remotely adventurous. Even following Inspector Sinet, as Tatave did, only led to observing the Inspector play cards with some friends. Criquet, however, has found an advert in the paper, by a disabled man looking for a dog. Marion thinks her dog Nanar would be perfect for the man, so she promises to take him round the next day.

James PierceWalking home, Fernand tells Marion about a strange experience he had earlier. He had investigated the (allegedly busy) offices of Bollaert’s to find it was as silent as the grave. No one around. So he crept around a little more – and found himself captured by Paul Pierce and Bollaert. They send him on his way with a boot up the backside, and Fernand flees. He and Marion decide to keep it to themselves, and, later on, at home, Fernand decides not to tell his father the details, even though he’s curious to know what his son has been up to.

Meeting TheoChapter Three – The Mysterious Monsieur Théo. Next day, Marion, accompanied by Zidore, Juan and Fernand, takes Nanar to the address in the advert, 58 rue des Estaffiers, to hand him over to the disabled man. However, someone very different from what they expected opens the door. Monsieur Théo isn’t disabled, and according to Zidore, looks like “a retired wrestler”. Uncertain whether to give him Nanar, Marion is won over by the man stating the dog is for a blind man. Once the children leave, Théo, together with his henchman Sacco, dye the dog black – and at the sound of a man playing the accordion, Nanar leaps to his feet and goes to join his new master.

Chapter Four – A Useful Lead. The gang decide that Nanar can be their spy in the enemy camp, and work out the best way to keep an eye on him – and the Bollaert employees at the same time. Gaby organises the watch on all exits of the Rue des Estaffiers like a military exercise. Sinet nearly catches them planning, but they fob him off with an excuse.

The gang man their stations, but because they’re not expecting a black dog, they don’t notice a man coming out of No 58 with Nanar. Bonbon even goes to stroke the dog, not realising it’s Nanar. When Monsieur Théo does emerge, without a dog; they track him nevertheless, and if Théo does notice them, he doesn’t acknowledge it. Then, most unexpectedly, he turns straight into the Louvigny Police Station. Not wishing to attract Sinet’s attention again, they give up their quest for the day, but even more suspicious about what Théo is getting up to.

AccordionistChapter Five – A Tune on the Accordion. Théo leaves the police station with a couple of men and leads them back to the rue des Estaffiers. Sacco returns with Nanar, and two other men, Popaul and Lofty, show up. Théo obviously has plans for them all but we don’t know what they are yet. The two men from the police station promise Théo that they’re not afraid of hard work, which pleases him enormously.

The gang agree to try again the next evening, but Marion and Fernand note that they can hear some distant music. It’s the accordionist, black dog by his side, mournfully playing his music for the housewives of the rue des Petits-Pauvres. Marion, of course, instantly recognises Nanar, although she doesn’t say anything at first. The accordionist pauses; then plays one last song, Pour deux sous d’amour, then packs his instrument away and just sits on his campstool. After a while, the peanut-seller, Monkeynuts, makes a surprise appearance; he walks up to the accordionist, and they (and Nanar) walk off towards the station. The mystery thickens.

Chapter Six – Monsieur Bollaert Takes Flight. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the accordionist was last seen (by Juan and Criquet) walking into 58 rue des Estaffiers. At school the next afternoon, whilst the boys are trying to come to terms with the vagaries of the hypotenuse, they could hear the accordionist in the street outside, which made them itch to finish school early and follow him.

Keeping a sensible distance, they trail him to the rue de Paris, where Marion and Fernand, seated on a bench, pretend to do homework. At around 5pm, Monkeynuts appears, tries rather unsuccessfully to sell some nuts, then sits on the bench next to the children and complains about trade. They obediently sample his nuts. Then Amédée, the newspaper seller, appears, talks to the accordionist, who nods sagely and carries on playing. A delivery driver shows up with newspapers for Amédée to sell, Monkeynuts joins him and the driver for a brief conversation, and then, at Monkeynuts’ signal, the accordionist starts his walk with Nanar, back to No 58. All very mysterious.

Fernand’s shadowing takes him among the children of the neighbouring district, and he tries to ingratiate himself with them by playing football. When the game’s over, he’s still following the accordionist, who he realises has renamed Nanar as Toby – although Nanar seems perfectly happy with that. Fernand also begins to realise that the tunes the blind man plays have a certain pattern. He’d play the same selection, then pause a few minutes motionlessly; then play Pour deux sous d’amour. Fernand wonders if it’s some kind of code. Then he sees Paul Pierce driving one of the Bollaert vehicles down the rue Ponceau, his brakes screeching to a halt when he caught sight of the accordionist. Pierce doesn’t see Fernand; he just watches the blind man intently without noticing anything else. Then he starts up his lorry again and drives towards the station.

Whilst the other members of the gang pool their information, Pierce confronts Bollaert with the news that the blind man “is back”. Bollaert receives this news as though it were a punch to the stomach. He plans to move his family to a safe house that no one knows about.

DetectivesChapter Seven – The Detectives’ Club. Over the next fortnight, the gang members shadow the blind man, reporting back each evening to the other members of the Detectives’ Club at their new Headquarters by the gasworks wall – a location, which only ten years earlier, had been the site of the deaths of twelve Resistance men who had been shot by firing squad. Bonbon establishes that the blind man is called Monsieur Anatole, but everyone refers to him as The Phantom – which name the gang decide to adopt. From their observations, they conclude that Monkeynuts guides the Phantom out of Monsieur Théo’s every morning and returns him there every evening; he spends the mornings at the Place du Marché, and the afternoons at the bus depot, when he receives orders which would take him to some other seemingly random places. Zidore worked out that he earned just 95 francs for four hours’ playing.

PhantomOne day Juan observes the Phantom start to play outside the Bollaert premises, with Paul Pierce and M. Bollaert watching the accordionist intently. Another man was also watching – a “gorilla of a man in a striped seamen’s sweatshirt” – presumed working for Théo. He too starts to shadow the Phantom. Spare-a-Copper also turns up, and Bonbon, as ever, takes the opportunity to taunt him. The Phantom plays Pour deux sous d’amour as usual.

The Phantom’s rapid reaction to receiving a fifty cents piece – swiped into his hand in a second – convinces Gaby and Zidore that he is only pretending to be blind, and can see perfectly well. With Théo’s new henchman at loose, the gang decide that they need to be in twos so that they can cover each other; but Marion decides she wants to see the blind man herself, alone.

Marion gets too closeChapter Eight – Marion and the Blind Man. After attending to her appearance and making herself look very respectable, Marion goes out, telling her mother she has a date with the blind man. Gaby and the gang reported that the Phantom had gone in a different direction from usual, and Marion was straight away on his trail; keeping as quiet and hidden as possible, even telling the dog not to give the game away. At one stage, the Phantom takes off his dark glasses and Marion can see his face properly for the first time; “the empty pits that once had been his eyes” suggested to her that he genuinely was sightless.

But Marion gets too close. And, through whatever sensations the blind man felt, he grips her hand and demands to know why she had been following him. Quick as a flash she says it was so she could ask him to play Pour deux sous d’amour again. But as soon as he had let go of her, then the rough guy, in the seaman’s shirt, Sacco, appeared and also grips her by the neck.

Sacco tries to get information out of the Phantom about what Marion wanted but he doesn’t really give him any help; and with that, the two men start to head back to their headquarters. When Marion reports back, and confirms that the Phantom is indeed blind, and, in a sudden rush of emotion, she finds it hard to conceal her tears at the suspicions of the others about him. Gaby tries to smooth the waters with a joke along the lines that you can’t believe everything you see. Agreeing that in future they shouldn’t all jump to conclusions, they go for a swim and a bathe. And on the way home, Marion is disappointed to discover that she lost the brooch that Fernand had given her.

with the mapChapter Nine – A Dangerous Game. As the heat of June frustrates the children in school, they continue to spend their spare time checking up on where the Phantom wanders. He’d started to go down the loneliest lane in the town, where he couldn’t possibly make any money. It just doesn’t make sense to Gaby and the gang.

One evening he stops outside 104 rue Cécile, with Zidore trailing him. Fernand asks him in, and they pore over their street map, much to the amusement of M. Douin, puffing away on his pipe. The map gives Fernand a clue as to the reason for the blind man’s wanderings. “Where we went wrong was right at the start when we thought the blind man acted as a messenger or a sort of secret agent for those people […] But if we accept the fact that, on the contrary, Monsieur Théo and his men are helping the Phantom, then it’s as plain as plain! […] The blind man has been really exploring this town for his own purposes.” Convinced that every time he plays Pour deux sous d’amour, he is in fact signalling to someone he can’t find, Fernand and Marion expect he will continue to play that song twenty times a day until he finds who or whatever it is he is seeking.

On this particular occasion, the blind man walks off, trailed by James Pierce, who himself was trailed by gang member Juan. M. Douin warns them all of the dangers of their undertaking but – of course – young people like that are frightened of nothing.

Chapter Ten – The Trap is Set. Juan continues his trail of James Pierce, and reports back as usual. Gaby splits the gang into two groups for the next day’s observations. On this particular Thursday all the town characters were out and about – Monkeynuts, Spare-a-Copper, even Inspector Sinet. Monkeynuts takes the Phantom by the shoulder and leads him on his round. It appears that what the children suspected was correct – that he will continue to do his rounds until he finds who or whatever it is responds to his playing.

Again it’s Juan who comes up trumps. He’s been observing Bollaert’s regular activity. Every evening Bollaert drives towards Petit-Louvigny and doesn’t come back. Juan scrambles through an overgrown neighbouring garden to discover that there is a hole in the wall, left by a bomb during the war, and through it he could see that the Bollaerts’ house is empty and it looks like it hasn’t been used for ages. So where does he go? Gaby sets up an elaborate observation schedule so that one of the group MUST see what happens.

RobbersChapter Eleven – The Street They All Forgot. All eyes on M. Bollaert, then, as he finishes his working day, gets into his Renault, and drives off. But somewhere between the Rue de l’Aubépine and the Rue des Estaffiers, he goes missing. Gaby blames Bonbon for taking his eye off the ball and following Spare-a-Copper instead. But Bonbon has discovered the tramp’s hideout on Rue du Bout de l’An, and what do they find there? Bollaert’s Renault. It’s a quiet, gentle, green place to live and the children are entranced. Is that the mystery solved then? “No,” says Marion, “I’ll go and see Monsieur Théo tomorrow morning and I’ll tell him his blind man left one street out.”

NanarChapter Twelve – Marion in the Robbers’ Den. Using the excuse of asking how Nanar is getting on, Marion confronts Théo at his garden gate. She also starts to tell him about the blind man, when he invites her inside – and, confidently, she joins him. Explaining about all their trailing and discoveries, Théo is impressed and promises to tell all; starting with who is the “ogre” of this story – the blind man. Théo makes her promise she won’t tell any of the others about this yet, in case they accidentally ruin his plans. Théo describes his place as a kind of convalescent home for ex-prisoners. “Poverty and bad luck make more criminals than the desire for easy money” he says. The other men start to chip in with aspects of their stories; does the reader believe them? They agree that all the children will come back at 6pm that evening and help the blind man to leave his murky past behind him.

Chapter Thirteen – The Boy in the Garden. Six o’clock, and the gang watch Bollaert drive up. Then, when the blind man arrives, the children all go up to him. “You’ve found the right spot” says Marion, and the blind man simply nods in silence. Then, to the tune of Pour deux sous d’amour, they are amazed to see a little boy, maybe ten years old, emerge from behind the bushes and go right up to the gate. After a short period of tender quietness, Bollaert storms out of the house, rushes up to the boy, grabs him and gives him to his wife, who had also come out to see what was going on, and she takes the boy indoors. Bollaert then threatens the blind man with the police if he doesn’t go away. Gaby defends the blind man, but Bollaert goes on to talk about his criminal past, and one by one the children leave the Phantom’s side – all except Marion and Fernand. But, after due thought, they return to the blind man, to which Marion says, “I don’t hold it against you […] but if you hadn’t come back, Fernand and I would have left the gang.”

Marion also invites herself into Spare-a-Copper’s lair; he’d lived there for many years until the Bollaerts moved in a few months earlier. And he does confirm that the boy in the garden is the blind man’s son.

Chapter Fourteen – The Kidnapper. The blind man walks on, and it’s not long until Marion and Fernand realise that he is in great trouble. He had dropped the dog’s lead and was walking out into the traffic in what seems like an attempt to take his own life. Fortunately the children get to him in time and are able to walk him safely back to Monsieur Théo’s. But there they find out the truth about the blind man’s past. He used to kidnap children. And when he was finally found guilty, the court chose to deprive him of access to his own child. The boy’s mother died, and so he was adopted. One day in prison, the blind man (before he lost his sight) saw a newspaper that showed his son somewhere in Louvigny, and that’s how he knew to come back there to search for the boy. In a further act of divine retribution, the kidnapper actually went blind as a result of a chemical accident in prison – but he had always pretended to be blind as part of his kidnapping method. That’s bad karma for him.

It’s further revealed that the Pierce brothers were two lorry drivers who cornered the kidnapper on the run; and that the boy was very fond of his black dog, Toby, whom Nanar has been impersonating all this time. No wonder the Bollaerts were concerned when Pierce recognised the blind man in Louvigny. Théo requests that Marion and Fernand are discreet with this information, as there would be many people out there who would wish harm on the blind man. And the gang prevaricate and try to confuse Inspector Sinet when he questions them about the newspaper photo of the boy.

CelebrationsChapter Fifteen – The Fourteenth of July. The case more or less solved, the blind man wasn’t seen on the streets anymore and the gang members miss him. Marion suggests to Théo that he should encourage the blind man to go back out and play his accordion in the best places, and raise the money to at least help pay for the dog’s enormous appetite.

DancingAs the summer grew warmer, those inhabitants of Louvigny who could afford to, went on their seaside holidays. Not the gang members, who had to make do with staying at home. Nostalgically promenading the route that the blind man used to take, Juan and Fernand notice that the Bollaert lorry garage is all shut up – presumably the Bollaerts and the Pierces had moved away for good. There was a big lottery win in the town, and Gaby and the gang took it upon themselves to try to work out who the winner was – but they are unsuccessful.

PlayingThe gang pool their resources and buy fireworks to celebrate Bastille Day. Gaby’s plans of a big display in the Douins’ front garden come to nothing as the fireworks turn out to be cheap old stock. But just then, at 11pm, come the familiar accordion sounds…. And the children all danced to their friend’s instrument. Someone bought beer and lemonade and it grows into a street party, and it was very late when everyone disbanded.

And then Marion tells the blind man a big, but kindly lie – that his son was joining their gang. That seems to put his mind at ease. And last revelation of all – Spare-a-Copper is the big lottery winner; Bonbon sees him getting into that Cadillac that he had always suspected!

Magpie CornerTo sum up; it would have been a feat indeed if The Street Musician surpassed A Hundred Million Francs in either its quality or its sales, and I think it’s fair to say, it doesn’t. It’s slower, and more repetitive, and its moments of peril are briefer and less exciting than in its predecessor. That said, when the denouement starts to unfurl it’s still a very exciting and emotional read, and there is a very dark moment when Marion and Fernand prevent a suicide. 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. I think it’s a while now before we next meet Gaby and his gang. Next in the Paul Berna Challenge is a book that is usually omitted from the list of his works translated into English, probably because it wasn’t translated until nearly ten years later – Magpie Corner, published in France in 1958. I remember this being a very strong and moving story, so I look forward to re-reading it and sharing my thoughts about it in a few weeks.

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

Taken at the FloodIn which young widow Rosaleen Cloade becomes a very wealthy widow a second time, much to the annoyance of the rest of her late husband Gordon’s family, who were counting on his generosity to keep them in the manner to which they have been accustomed. If only they could prove that her late first husband Underhay is still alive, once again they would be rich. But is he alive? Will this cause Rosaleen and her brother David to be blackmailed? And will there be murders for Hercule Poirot to solve? As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I promise not to tell you whodunit!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Memorable characters:

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

Christie the Poison expert:

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

Class/social issues of the time:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Paul Berna Challenge – A Hundred Million Francs (1955)

A Hundred Million FrancsIn which Gaby and his gang enjoy playing with a broken toy horse, recklessly careering down the streets of Louvigny until one day it is stolen. They seek the help of Police Inspector Sinet to try to retrieve it. But the horse is stolen around the same time as a hundred million francs go missing from the Paris – Ventimiglia Express. A coincidence? Sinet and the gang get to the bottom of both crimes and find they are surprisingly linked….Be warned, there are spoilers, especially in the second part of this blog post where I offer you my chapter-by-chapter synopsis of the book.

Cheval sans teteA Hundred Million Francs was first published in 1955 by G. P. Rouge et Or under its original French title Le Cheval sans Tête, with illustrations by Pierre Dehay. As A Hundred Million Francs, it was first published in the UK by The Bodley Head in 1957. The literal translation, The Horse Without a Head, was its original title in the first American edition, published by Pantheon in 1958. It was translated by John Buchanan-Brown, who translated nearly all of Paul Berna’s books; and it featured illustrations by Richard Kennedy (1910-1989), who illustrated many notable children’s books and gained his apprenticeship at The Hogarth Press under Leonard and Virginia Woolf.

My own copy of the book, which you can see at the top of this page, is a Puffin edition, reprinted in 1970. As at the time Britain was nearing the change to decimal currency, the price on the back cover is shown as both 20p and 4/-. This is the only Paul Berna book in my possession that was bought new from a bookshop. I also had a new copy of The Clue of the Black Cat, but that was lost in the seas of time. All my other Bernas are second-hand (but largely in very good condition, I’m pleased to say!) The pages have gone a little brown, but pleasantly so; there’s no foxing, tears or other marks. I’ve looked after it well for the last 49 years!

Disney horseThis is the only book by Paul Berna to have been adapted for film; Disney made The Horse Without a Head: The 100,000,000 Franc Train Robbery in 1963, with a cast including Jean-Pierre Aumont, Herbert Lom, Leo McKern, Peter Butterworth, Lee Montague, Peter Vaughan and many other well-known actors. The script was by T. E. B. Clarke, who was responsible for many of the famous Ealing Comedies, such as Passport to Pimlico and The Lavender Hill Mob. Paul Berna hated the film! In an interview with him dated around 1984, by Roger Martin, he said (as translated by me) “I have only one regret about Le Cheval sans Tête, and that’s that it was brought to the cinema by Walt Disney. They made it into a gangster film, distorting it right from the opening scene where we see the mobsters preparing their hold-up of the train.”

The inspiration for the story came from two different sources. Firstly: Berna’s childhood. He grew up as part of a large family and he too had a headless horse that he used to play with as a child. Back to Monsieur Berna to tell us more: “There were seven of us. The three eldest were boys, the Big ones. Then came a girl and the three Little ones, including me. The Big ones used to try to steal our “headless horse” […] I was very familiar with this horse well since it was my favourite toy. I had to hide it from the cellar to prevent them from grabbing it!”

He went on to say that being part of a large family, where there were loads of arguments but nevertheless loads of fun, had a major impact on him, both personally and as a writer for young people. And you can really see the influence of having lots of people around him in his books. No one (that I’ve come across) conveys the thrills, tensions and that sense of belonging and loyalty that you get from being a member of a gang like Paul Berna does. And this is shown to superb effect in A Hundred Million Francs. But he also derived inspiration for writing the book having seen the film of Emil and the detectives, the original one, made in 1935. Although he had not read the novel, he said to himself: “Why not write crime novels for young people?”

map-of-french-regionsThe setting. Berna was notable for establishing very precise locations for his books. He would use places that he knew very well personally, such as Aix, Bordeaux, Marseille and Brittany, to give that personal touch, Other than that, he would pore over the most detailed maps he could find, extracting the names of tiny villages, or even street names to stimulate the imagination. Sometimes he would mix these detailed real locations with places that he made up from pure fantasy.

The setting for this book is the town of Louvigny, which exists as a suburb of Caen, in Normandy. However this Louvigny-Triage is a railway town on the route between Paris and Ventimiglia, on the northern Italian coast. We can assume that it is a suburb in to the south-west of Paris. Berna locates the story in and around the rue des Petits-Pauvres, the rue de la Vache Noire, the rue Cécile, and a ruined enclosure called the Clos Pecqueux. The roads and their connections are so intricately described that you could well imagine that this was a real location. But he confirmed in interview, “Louvigny-triage does not exist. It is not Villeneuve St Georges, as was believed, but an imaginary place that seems more real because of its disparate elements of typical working-class suburbs.”

Style. The book won the Salon de l’enfance Award for 1955. However, it also received some criticism at the time for its tone, and the use of slang. Berna defended himself against those criticisms, not believing the slang to be excessive. Personally, I think the tone is just right. Of course, there are a few slight anachronisms and moments where the book surprises you with its use of language, but much of that may be from John Buchanan-Brown’s translation. I understand that Paul Berna’s style in the original French (which I haven’t read) is actually quite adult and mature; and you never get the feeling that he is in any way talking down to his readers – this is a strength that makes it stand out against, say, the children’s crime stories of Enid Blyton, which were from a similar period.

Industrial GloomIndustrial gloom. It struck me how unsentimental Berna’s description of the railway town is, with its discarded ironwork, trucks, rails, sleepers, and so on. This is not a comfortable, middle-class setting. This is a bleak, industrial wasteland, where you have to pick your way through the machinery of the past to find a place to play. Berna recreates this harsh landscape with superb grit. When Roublot brings Fernand the toy train, the boy rejects it because “if we want trains, we’ve real ones on the tracks at the other side of the road”.

It’s not just the railway industry that has impacted the town. Marion explores Lilac Lane, near a coal-yard. “True, the coal-dust had killed off the original lilacs years ago, but their memory was preserved by the lane, a cut winding between high walls until it brought you to the disused saw-mill, whose empty and crumbling buildings backed on to the rue Cécile.” When the gang members walk home from the shed, we read that “they stumbled in the bomb-craters that five or six Allied air-raids had left in the Clos Pecqueux during the war.”

Even crime in this town is unglamorous. When Sinet is reflecting where the horse might have been hidden, he imagines it’s in “an old shed […] twenty bags of mouldy flour, a cask of rough wine, a roll of shoddy cloth, all sorts of wretched little things taken on the sly”.

But, as if to make up for all this gloom and poverty, there is humour. The slapstick comedy of the woeful crooks breaking into the building. The larking around of the gang members dressed in carnival outfits. The joking behaviour in the Magistrates’ Court. Once the crime has been solved, Inspector Sinet is frequently seen laughing along with the children. And even if those moments of comedy don’t actually make the reader laugh, we appreciate the fact that the characters are basically happy – and that makes us happy too.

povertyPoverty. Berna was attracted to write about people in poverty. Again, from that 1980s interview, he observed: “I like these circles. When I was in military service, I discovered amazing people, peasants, workers, especially chtimis (people from the Nord – Pas de Calais areas of France), people relying on Assistance, desperately alone, who had to borrow six sous to buy tobacco. What they were looking for was a presence to break their inhuman isolation. Since then I have always had a great attraction for the poor.”

It’s obvious that the gang members themselves are from poor families. When they bring food for the gang to eat at the sawmill, it consists of eight potatoes and a stock cube; Criquet sneaks in one cigarette for the entire gang to share. When Marion invites the gang to her house for hot chocolate, before going out on an adventure, we find out that her mother “took these brigands’ visit very well, considering that she found they had eaten up her supply of bread for the weekend during the five minutes they had been there.” And Criquet cannot empty his pockets in front of the reporters, because “his mother had stitched them up to make his trousers last longer.”

Father Brissard says there are eleven in the gang – ten, plus “a boy from Nazareth”. I’m not sure to what extent that’s deadly serious or tongue in cheek. Certainly today I think it’s unlikely you’d share some religious message under those circumstances to a gang of ragamuffins. And one other totally anachronistic moment in the book comes when Marion organises the purchase of some cigars as a present for Sinet. Children allowed to purchase cigars? Only in France!

Gang mentalityGang mentality. What I love most about the book is its depiction of what it’s like to be a member of a gang, its subtle rules and etiquette, and the interdependent relationship between the gang members. As a rather isolated child, reading this book really made me crave being a member of a gang like Gaby’s. It’s sad how Marion and Fernand fear that the loss of the horse could lead to the break-up of the gang. They realise they need an additional purpose to meeting out of school, and not just the general reason of being friends or gang members. They have to be united through a separate reason – and playing with the horse is the perfect reason.

Berna shows several aspects of the gang mentality. The selflessness of individuals, bringing in a potato or a cigarette for everyone to share. There’s the loyalty shown by and to each individual member; for instance, when they all stand silently, intimidating Roublot at the market. They have the ability to all make each other laugh, such as when they dress up in the silly costumes and entertain each other with their inventive charades. They even take it in turns to look after the rusty key.

The gang members all have their own little qualities and traits, but the two stand-out characters are Marion, because of her incredible understanding of dogs, her calmness and practicality under pressure, and her kindness, as well as her daring; and Gaby, who, although is the leader of the gang (because he is the oldest) is only one of two children (the other being Fernand) to express his emotions through crying. So in their way both are surprisingly forward-looking role models for the two sexes – it’s ok for girls to be strong, and it’s ok for boys to be emotional. Another vital element of this particular gang is their over-riding honesty, as shown when they empty their pockets in front of the reporters.

Although the girls are just as daring as the boys – and given Marion’s special position within the gang as treasurer – the times are still traditional enough for it to be expected that the girls will do the gang’s domestic chores, like preparing food and tidying up, whilst Gaby and the boys make plans. It is perhaps a criticism that the younger female members of the gang are its least well described and least interesting characters.

At the end, they’re almost prepared to make Sinet a member of the gang; they always show generosity towards those who have been generous to them. But they don’t trust outsiders as a whole; which is why they make up silly answers to the journalists’ and reporters’ questions that they fear will expose them and give them publicity they don’t want.

Other thoughts that came to mind whilst reading this book were surprise at the genuine moment of peril when the crooks start shooting at the children through the slats in the barricade. The gang members treat the attack with contempt, but, seriously, this could have killed someone! And the sequence where Berna joyfully describes Marion’s gradual summoning of the dogs to come help fight the crooks reminded me of the twilight bark in One Hundred and One Dalmatians, written in 1956. If there’s any sense of copycat about the two scenes, note that A Hundred Million Francs came first!

Given these are all decent people, I was quite surprised at this brief exchange:

Sinet (of Roublot): Did you know he’d already been to prison?
Fernand: No, but you can tell what he’s like by his face.

Talk about judgemental!

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

Careering down the roadChapter One – Half Holiday. We’re instantly introduced to Gaby and the rest of his gang; ten children careering down the hill between the rue des Petits-Pauvres at the top and the rue de la Vache Noire at the bottom, on the famous Headless Horse toy. It had been bought for Fernand Douin by his father from a rag and bone man (or rather exchanged for three packets of black tobacco) but its head and legs didn’t last long – and it never even had a tail.

Other gang members we meet are Marion, the gang’s treasurer, who rescues and returns abandoned dogs to health; little Bonbon, whose job it is to stand on corners and warn passers-by that the headless horse might be racing through; Tatave, Bonbon’s older and more corpulent brother, who always brakes at the wrong moment; Juan, “the little Spanish boy”; Zidore Loche; Mélie; Berthe Gédéon; Amélie Babin, “the gang’s first-aid expert”; and Criquet Lariqué, “the little darky from the Faubourg-Bacchus”. These were different times, and I’m sure that was not meant to be offensive.

ZigonYou can tell that Gaby is the leader of the gang by the heroic way in which it’s described that he holds the record for lasting longest on the horse; 35 seconds without once putting on the brakes. Gaby insists on having no one older than twelve in his gang, because “once you’re over twelve, you become a complete fool and you’re lucky if you don’t stay like that for the rest of your life.” Like any generous despot, he plans to extend the age limit to fourteen, so that he himself doesn’t fall foul of his own rules.

We’re in the town of Louvigny-Triage. Clearly a railway town, “all the men were on the tracks, in the sidings, the signal boxes, or the railway workshops, and the women were either shopping in the Quartier-Neuf or were strolling round the Thursday Market.” When Fernand thinks the horse is broken for ever, he thinks “there was nothing like it from Louvigny to Villeneuve-Saint-Georges” (a small commune in the south-eastern suburbs of Paris).

Other local residents whom we meet, largely as a result of their accidental clashes with the horse, are M. Gédéon, Berthe’s father; M. Mazurier, the coalman; César Aravant, the scrap merchant; “Old Zigon”, who gets money for old bottles; Mme Macharel, who has a bakery in the Market; Roublot, another market trader – “a nasty-looking specimen, with a heavy, sallow face that mirrored his petty dishonesty”; Inspector Sinet (of whom more later); M Joye, Gaby’s 17-stone, mechanic father; Mme Louvrier, Bonbon and Tatave’s mother; and Mme Fabert, Marion’s mother.

Walking the horse backWhile the gang are at the market, observing Roublot spouting his selling patter, all eyes turn to the subtle figure of Inspector Sinet, who seems to be following a man in a blue boiler-suit through the market. Roublot appears particularly ill-at-ease seeing this, and before long he’s left all his stock and market stall equipment where it was and fled. On his way back home, Fernand notices the headless horse lying in the middle of the road, far from the safe place he had left it for his father to repair. At that point, Roublot appears, silent and menacing; but Marion, who’s with Fernand, lets out a piercing whistle; three of her biggest doggy friends came to the call, and once more Roublot flees.

Sadly, M. Douin takes a good look at the broken horse and realises he can’t fix it. The problem is a broken fork. Tears fall from Fernand’s eyes. But M. Douin has a plan – the next morning they will visit M. Rossi at the car factory who will be able to forge a new fork for them with ease. The chapter ends with father and son, happily mending other parts of the horse, whilst Mme Douin watches with amusement.

An offer to buy the horseChapter Two – Goodbye to the Horse. Not a very optimistic chapter title – is this the end of the horse? We’ll find out! But first, an explanation of the Black Cow, as in rue de la Vache Noire. Marion thinks it refers to an abandoned engine – continuing with the emphasis on this being a railway town – with Berna’s lovely phrase describing its out-of-place presence, “as unexpected as a hippopotamus in a field of daisies”. Gaby, Marion and some of the lads keep their promise to Old Zigon to replace the bottles they broke the previous day, emphasising that they’re honest and decent types. They consider going to the pictures, but it’s too expensive, especially as they have to pay for the two poorest members of the gang. Tatave suggests selling the bottles to Old Zigon, but Marion points out that they’re not theirs to sell, and that it would look bad trying to make money out of an old man. Again, that underlines both their decency and how hard-up this environment is. In the end, Marion gets the money from a lady, whose Pekinese Dog Marion had nursed back to health.

Beware of the dogsMeanwhile, at the Café Parisien, Roublot is seen deep in conversation with some other “toughs” – “deep in conversation, leaning across the table, their hats nearly touching”. Inspector Sinet also turns up at the café, a sticking plaster on his cheek, which gives the gang members something to laugh at. And on Saturday night, M. Douin comes home with the horse. M. Rossi had given it a coat of paint, greased the hubs, put back the wheels and straightened the bent spokes. It’s while the children are testing the horse to see how well it’s running that M. Douin tells his strange tale; that someone at the Café Parisien had offered him five thousand francs for the horse. When Douin refuses, he offers him ten thousand. Ten thousand!!

Grim locationWhilst the gang members are playing with the horse they notice two men in fur-lined lumber jackets watching them. Somewhat spooked by this, they return home. When M. Douin looks through his window he confirms that the two men are the same two who made the ridiculously expensive offer to buy the horse. A couple of days later, the same two men try to grab the horse off some of the younger members of the gang. Things escalate as the gang continue to refuse to sell, and then the men start to get violent. “Wait till the toe of my boot gets you, my lad” says the one called Pépé; “I bet it doesn’t,” snorted Gaby, “My dad’s the only one who can lay a finger on me, and he has to catch me first.” And just as it seems like there’s going to be a big fight between them all, Marion whistles for her doggy friends, and Hugo, the boar-hound, Fritz and César all come at her command and attack the men. As soon as the one called Ugly cries for help, Marion calls them off; and the two men limp away, defeated, and with their coats ruined. But just why are they so interested in the horse?

At playM Douin decides to do a bit of investigating himself. He calls on Blache, the rag and bone man, from whom he originally obtained the horse. Blache remembers the unusual circumstances in which he came across the horse – clearing bomb damage in Petit-Louvigny. Whilst he was looking at it, someone told him that the horse had belonged to him before the bomb damage destroyed the house. When Blache tried to identify this man – as he knew the people who had lived in the area – the man told him to beat it, and take the horse with him. But Blache finally remembered the man’s name – Mallart – and had discovered that Inspector Sinet had arrested him last week. And – good news – Blache still owned the head that went with the body.

The horse stolenWhen Douin gets home, he discovers that Fernand hasn’t arrived home yet, and Mme Douin begins to get concerned. So he goes out to look for him, and thinks he should find Gaby’s dad to ask if he knows where his son is. M. Joye informs him that the horse had been stolen!

Father BrissardChapter Three – Inspector Sinet. Next day, it’s back out with the gang on the horse, riding high through the neighbourhood. However, on his turn, Fernand loses control of the horse and is flung from the saddle, whilst the horse continues on its merry way, straight into the path of some burly men in a van – including Pépé and Ugly, who take hold of it and speed off with the gang’s prize possession. Hurt and outraged, they decide to report the theft to the police; on the way meeting Father Brissard, who sympathises with their plight.

MarionInspector Sinet and his colleague Lamy lament how uselessly they spend their days, never grappling with any proper criminals. They long to be allowed to work on an exciting case, like the recent robbery of a hundred million francs from the Paris-Ventimiglia Express. Nevertheless, they listen to the gang tell their story, and in return, Sinet and Lamy promise to help. Sinet is just about to screw up his notes and chuck them in the bin when he remembers that the horse had indirectly helped him to capture Mallart the other evening – so he felt more inclined to help. Then Messieurs Joye and Douin show up, apologising for the kids but explaining that the horse is really all they have. Sinet is now determined to do his best to help.

Roublot and FernandChapter Four – A Rusty Key. Going home from school, Marion and Fernand agree they must find a replacement for the horse, or else the gang risks falling apart. Marion suggests training one of her dogs as a gift for Fernand, but he refuses because his mother doesn’t like animals. Fernand lets himself into his house but carelessly fails to close the door properly. He’s soon joined by the intimidating Roublot, foot in the door, holding a large square parcel. Inside is a brand-new train set, which he says the market folk had clubbed together to buy for the gang as a way of saying sorry that the horse had been stolen. Fernand is unimpressed. Furious, Roublot takes it back, and then does his best to search the kitchen cupboards, wardrobes and other hiding places. But Fernand threatens Roublot with the fire poker and he soon flees the scene. Shortly afterwards, Inspector Sinet arrives, wanting to know why Roublot was there. Somewhat improperly, Sinet asks if he could search the house and Fernand assents – but it is to be their secret.

Roublot at the MarketThe next day, Roublot sets up his stall as usual. He demonstrates his amazing potato chipper to the crowds and sells a couple. Then he realises there are ten young people still watching him – the gang. All on their best behaviour, quietly intimidating him back. At first he tries to laugh it off, but then he loses his temper and threatens to give them a “cuff around the ears”. But none of the gang breaks rank, and it’s Roublot who packs up his stall and flees.

WatchedFernand and Marion start to set up the abandoned sawmill shed as the new gang HQ. After their meagre meal and one shared cigarette, they start to talk about the stolen horse; specifically, when and why it suddenly created such an interest. Realising that it happened on the night of the big accident, eventually they conclude it must have been something that Fernand and his father removed from inside the horse when they were working on it. Fernand remembers that, amongst the removed items was an old key. Gaby’s convinced that it’s also the key to the mystery and insists they abandon their meal and try to find the key at Fernand’s house. They find it, take it back to the shed and read that it has a label attached: “Billette Works, 224 Ponceau Road”.

Carnival masksChapter Five – The Abandoned Factory. Inspector Sinet has spent some time trying to follow up the horse-theft but is currently drawing a blank. Roublot is hard to catch, no one has heard of Ugly or Pépé, and he notes that even the children go missing. But he is convinced that the children have accidentally got themselves caught up in some crime or other.

Le TriageFollowing a tip-off from an old woman who had seen a fire burning at the gang’s shed every evening, Sinet discovers its whereabouts; and is surprised to be met by the ten children, wearing masks they had found elsewhere in the Billette factory, kicking a cardboard chicken about in some kind of frenzied football game. He doesn’t disclose that he has seen them; it’s useful to him to know where to find them if needed. For several days the gang continue to explore the old factory. It seemed to have stopped, mid-production, with partly made fancy dress clothes and accessories, shortly after the war; and the gang frequently parade around in silly wigs and costumes, making each other laugh with their inventive games.

Scary shadowsWalking home one evening, Marion stops and insists on looking inside the Black Cow, to make sure no one is hiding in there. Everyone thinks she’s joking, but she goes in. And, although she keeps it a secret for a short while, she later reports that there were two men hiding inside. The chapter ends with Marion doing her evening walk with her dogs – and noting that they are unusually restless that night.

More masksChapter Six – All the Dogs in the World. After school on Saturday, all the gang members meet at Marion’s house and then go on into the Clos Pecqueux, ostensibly for a run. But Marion is keeping a look-out; and notices two men get out of the Black Cow once they have walked past. One heads back into the town, the other follows the children. In hiding, Marion and Fernand observe a car drive up in the darkness; then five men emerge and enter the Billette building where the rest of the gang were encamped. Gaby and Fernand attempt to barricade themselves in by shoving old work benches up against the door, whilst Marion remains at the entrance hall, and the younger gang members are still playing with the carnival masks – the barricade looked like the remains of a party, with all the broken boxes of festive items. Room by room, the older gang members make it as difficult as possible for the men to progress, but gradually the men power their way through, somehow or other. When they finally stumble in to the end room, one trips over a pig’s head mask and clatters through some old paint cans. When he gets up the gang all laugh at the fact that he has acquired a false black beard.

MayhemFernand and Gaby can identify three of the men as Ugly, Pépé and Roublot; the other two are masked by the collars of their heavy overcoats. Refusing to respond to the threats of Ugly and Pépé, or the hundred francs bribe offered by one of the other men, Zidore and Juan throw some detonator bangers over the top of the boxes so that it sounds like the men are being attacked by gunshot. The arising confusion allows Gaby and Fernand to rejoin the others. But then the men really do let loose with their pistols and start shooting at the children through the slats. And whilst the gang pelt back with their bangers, Ugly and Roublot drag the bench back from the previous room and use it as a battering ram.

All the dogs in the worldMeanwhile, what was Marion doing? She had whistled and called with all her might, and summoned the presence of no fewer than sixty dogs from all around the neighbourhood! They all run back to the Billette building and lay siege on the helpless crooks from behind.

Railway tracksChapter Seven – A Hundred Million Francs. It’s M. Douin who first notices the noises and lights coming from the disused factory and rings the station-master’s office to warn him. As a result, Sinet and Lamy are sent to find out what’s going on. They discover Marion, with all the dogs holding guard over the crooks; on her command, the dogs all let go of the bedraggled men, leaving them for Sinet to deal with. The other gang members slowly come to light – although Bonbon keeps his hiding place just a little while longer, thereby causing a few worries – and Sinet tasks them with emptying all the cupboards on the look out for… what?

Time to countBut there was no need. “There was the Inspector, standing in the middle of the room with his mouth agape and his arms dangling at this sides, up to his ankles in a carpet of banknotes that shimmered in the flickering light of the torches.” Wads of notes were falling from big grey sacks – Lamy counted eleven sacks of banknotes in all. Sinet, Lamy and the children had located the hundred million francs that had gone missing from the Paris – Ventimiglia Express. And then the bombshell – Sinet rounds on Gaby and asks if they’d not gone into the room where all the money had been stashed, and his reply is: “of course we’ve seen them”; and Marion adds “but Inspector […] there’s so much of it! We thought it was false like all the rest.” Sinet gets the children to pick up all the loose notes and pack them back into a sack whilst he watches them, which really offends Gaby. “Thieves? Us? Not likely”.

Don't mess with usFernand loses his temper with Ugly as he was being taken out by the policemen, “and began to pummel his face with both fists, crying at the top of his voice, “where’s the horse?” Sinet is moved by his frustration, but Fernand confirms that “without the horse we wouldn’t have been here tonight and you’d still be looking for your millions!” “How so?” asked Sinet, astonished. “The key was in the horse,” Fernand proclaimed […] “Dad and I had emptied the horse out a few days before, and Dad put the key aside without thinking.”

In courtChapter Eight – The Sixth Man. In the days that followed, the children were required to accompany Sinet to be questioned by the Examining Magistrate; but they were frustrated by the fact that none of the questions related to the theft of the horse. His prime concern was the identity of the sixth man. Five of the crooks have been accounted for – but who is the sixth? Little Bonbon accuses Sinet, much to the Court’s amusement and Sinet’s embarrassment. The inspector admits he was watching the children – and it was all because of the horse. But as a thank-you, the children give the Inspector five fat gold cigars. And all that matters after that is laughing about what a mockery their Court appearance was.

The MagistrateSinet and the children reconstruct the time when they watched Roublot at the market a fortnight earlier, trying to work out who the man in the blue boiler-suit was. Eventually it tumbles to Sinet – it was the petty thief he’d arrested that evening, Mallart. He’s the sixth man. He had the key – and because Sinet was on his tail, he dropped into the headless horse. And Mallart was already in jail!

Taunt the reportersThen the town is besieged by reporters, trying to build up a story to get maximum newspaper sales. The children are happy to put their side of the story, but didn’t trust the reporters not to make it into something sensational. The chief reporter asks Bonbon how much of the money he took. One by one, each gang member empties his or her pockets in front of the reporter, showing how little they had. And then Gaby reports the news that the bank cashiers had counted all the money and the full hundred million francs was still intact – plus one sou, that Tatave had added in as a joke. Not to be defeated, the reporters asked if the children would pose for a photo for the newspaper with all the dogs. They set the photograph up, and when Marion calls for the dogs – they all chase the reporters and photographers who were never seen in Louvigny again.

ZigonChapter Nine – The Horse with a Head. It’s mid-January, and the gang have met up in the club for a slap-up meal of potatoes and hot chocolate. An unexpected guest surprises them – it’s Inspector Sinet wanting to tell them the story behind the whole adventure. The gang can’t wait to hear it.

It had been a well-planned raid on the Paris-Ventimiglia Express, but the problem was that someone had fenced off the end of the road where Mallart was due to take delivery of the money. This meant that the job would take much longer than expected, which is why Mallart decided to dump the money at the Billette Factory and wait for Roublot to join him at a little house rented nearby for the purpose.

BlacheBut Roublot didn’t come, because he too had had some bad luck. He thought he had received a police summons, and fled to Paris to provide himself an alibi. When he got there, he realised it was only a renewal of his street-trading licence, so he returned to Louvigny but couldn’t find Mallart. Roublot decided to go to the market as usual, and Mallart telephoned him via the local café to arrange a meeting time and place. But Sinet was hot on Mallart’s tail, so he dropped the keys into the horse which had just tripped him up – and the rest is history. However, it looks like there won’t be a reward. The bank never promised one, and the people to whom the money belonged weren’t keen to come to an agreement. The gang members look on the bright side, realising the complications of receiving a lot of money.

But there’s one last surprise. One morning, M. Douin answers the door to discover the horse has been returned. It was old Blache who had found it, miles away, on a rubbish dump. The children are, of course, delighted, and Fernand reunites it with its head. Gaby is chosen to give it its first ride. But as he’s heading down la rue de la Vache Noire, out of control, he collides with Old Zigon and his bottle cart. Sixty bottles smashed – but, good news, there are five hundred down in the Billette Factory that he can take.

However, Gaby is in tears, as he confesses he is twelve years old now and too old to be a gang member. He’s furious with himself that he’s too old even to ride the horse safely. He tells the others they will have to find a replacement for him. But, of course, none of them accepts that. Marion says: “sooner or later we’ll all be twelve, but that’s no reason why we should break away from each other. We’ll grow up together, that’s all.” Old Zigon agrees: “the world’s all right if you’ve got good friends.” The book ends with all the gang members laughing and Sinet watching them – and declining an offer to have a ride on the horse!

To sum up; Paul Berna’s first, and most successful book in terms of his reputation and sales, was and still is an escapist delight. The camaraderie between the youngsters and their willingness to be brave and do the right thing comes across as aspirational – I know that’s how I felt when I read this as a child. It’s no surprise that this is the only Paul Berna book that has never been out of print. 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 in the Paul Berna Challenge is the book he published the following year – The Street Musician. I look forward to re-reading it and sharing my thoughts about it in a few weeks.

The Paul Berna Challenge

Paul BernaI’ve been humming and hahhing about this for a long time, gentle reader; do I want to give myself yet another challenge alongside the Agatha Christies, the James Bonds, plus all the usual theatre, reviewing and travel stuff? And do I really want to do it about Paul Berna, of whom I expect most of my readers won’t have a clue who he is?

A Hundred Million FrancsBut I came back to the two main reasons why I’m tempted to do this challenge. Firstly, he’s a writer who represents a small, but very happy part of my childhood memories. At the age of somewhere under ten, I read both A Hundred Million Francs and The Clue of the Black Cat and loved them both – in fact, I think The Clue of the Black Cat is still my favourite children’s book. I wanted to read more, but the school library where I borrowed those books didn’t have any other of his work; and then Agatha Christie took over my interests, and Paul Berna got slightly forgotten about. So I want to right that wrong by re-reading all his books and recording my thoughts about them.

The Clue of the Black CatSecondly, although A Hundred Million Francs is relatively well-known, and has only recently come back into print, there’s very little critical opinion online about his books as a whole. Many of them are listed on Goodreads but have never even received just one reader’s comment! Google his name and a random book title and, like as not, 99% plus of the hits will be a link to where you can buy second-hand copies of it. There’s the occasional reference to his works in a few random blog posts; one French reviewer has written a few words (very few) about a handful of his books. But no one has gone into any kind of detail about him. I sense that my time has come! And if I can interest just one person into discovering his books for the first time, or re-reading some childhood favourites, then I’ll be a very happy chap.

In case you don’t know, Paul Berna was a pseudonym used by Jean-Marie-Edmond Sabran. He was French, and lived from 1908 to 1994. He also used the noms-de-plume Bernard Deleuze, Paul Gerrard and Joel Audrenn, as well as writing under his own name, Jean Sabran. He used the name Paul Berna for his books for children, and that’s where he realised his greatest success; Paul was his father’s name, and Berna was the surname of his German great-grandmother. As Berna, he wrote 26 children’s novels, including a few for very young children, two science-fiction oriented (although still featuring young people) and three that were never translated into English. The other 16 I have hunted down in second-hand bookshops over the years, and more recently online. I probably should buy the two science-fiction books too!

The Street MusicianSo here’s the deal. I’m going to re-read A Hundred Million Francs, as that was not only his biggest seller, but also the first of his books that really took off – published in 1955. And then I’ll write an appreciation of it. It may be, gentle reader, that this is the one book of his that you too have read; if so, I’d love you to re-read it too, and then we can compare notes. All being well, I’ll then move on to his next book, The Street Musician, and so on. Maybe I’ll even go back to those earlier science fiction books – we’ll see. For years, all his books were out of print; so if you want to join me in this quest, you may have to spend some time in second-hand bookshops or on Amazon or Ebay. In the meantime, A Hundred Million Francs is only 170 or so pages of paperback and if I remember rightly, it’s a cracking read, so we should get through it quite quickly. Let’s give Paul Berna the online acclaim and attention he deserves!