The Agatha Christie Challenge – Five Unpublished Short Stories

Five individual short stories – four of which were reworked into other works, and which were published in the John Curran books Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks, Agatha Christie – Murder in the Making, and Tony Medawar’s Bodies in the Library. I’ll take them all individually, and, as always, I promise not to reveal whodunit!

The Man Who Knew

Question MarkBelieved to have been written shortly after the end of the First World War, but before the publication of The Mysterious Affair at Styles. Never published in Christie’s lifetime, but she reworked it into The Red Signal, which was first published in issue 232 of The Grand Magazine in June 1924, and subsequently as part of The Hound of Death collection in the UK in 1933. You can find the story in John Curran’s Agatha Christie – Murder in the Making.

Derek Lawson returns from a theatre trip with friends to discover a revolver has been planted in one of his drawers, and a note has been scrawled on his theatre programme, don’t go home. With the news that his uncle, the Harley Street specialist Sir James Lawson has been shot, he puts two and two together, and resolves to take action to prevent himself from being accused of the crime.

Atmospheric and engaging, this (very) short story has all the hallmarks of a young writer finding her feet, establishing for herself what works and what doesn’t. It’s very limited to the bare bones of its own story, with hardly any embellishments – Christie would put that right when she created The Red Signal, which is a far, far more expansive and gripping piece of writing.

As John Curran points out, it’s extraordinary that this manuscript has survived; most haven’t. Whilst taken on its own, it’s not earth-shattering, but it is an interesting insight into Christie’s early imagination.

The Wife of the Kenite

Wife of the KeniteUnlike the other stories in this selection, The Wife of the Kenite had been published before, in The Home Magazine, in Sydney, Australia, in 1922. Since then it had gone to ground and wasn’t available in print again until its appearance in Tony Medawar’s Bodies in the Library in 2018.

Soldier for hire, Herr Schaefer has escaped Johannesberg and is on the run – on the lookout for a contact, Mr Henschel. He discovers Henschel’s farmhouse; he isn’t there, but his wife is. She recognises him – but doesn’t tell him; and he doesn’t recognise her. He admires a woman who reads her Bible, but can’t quite remember the significance of Chapter Four of the Book of Judges…

Starkly and powerfully written, this is an eerie tale of revenge being served best cold. Christie plays nicely on our imaginations, and we can almost see the sparse South African landscape (she had visited South Africa with Archie Christie) and sense the grit and Germanic forcefulness of Herr Schaefer and the grimness of Henschel’s wife. The final act of the story is also left to our imagination, and that works very well.

Field Marshal Jan Smuts gets mentioned twice – at the time this was written, he was Prime Minister of South Africa; and mealies is a South African term for maize plants. Voogplaat, the Belgian village that used to be where the woman lived, sounds very credible but is in fact a name made up by Christie.

As for Judges 4, verses 17 – 21: “Sisera, meanwhile, fled on foot to the tent of Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite, because there was an alliance between Jabin king of Hazor and the family of Heber the Kenite. Jael went out to meet Sisera and said to him, “Come, my lord, come right in. Don’t be afraid.” So he entered her tent, and she covered him with a blanket. “I’m thirsty,” he said. “Please give me some water.” She opened a skin of milk, gave him a drink, and covered him up. “Stand in the doorway of the tent,” he told her. “If someone comes by and asks you, ‘Is anyone in there?’ say ‘No.’ ” But Jael, Heber’s wife, picked up a tent peg and a hammer and went quietly to him while he lay fast asleep, exhausted. She drove the peg through his temple into the ground, and he died.”

War crimes are never forgotten.

The Incident of the Dog’s Ball

happy_cartoon_dogThis is one of two unpublished short stories that were discovered by Christie’s daughter Rosalind Hicks in 2004 in an attic. John Curran suggests it was written around 1933, but never saw the light of day as Christie decided to rework and expand it into her novel Dumb Witness, published in 1937. However, it may have been written earlier than this as the majority of short stories that feature both Poirot and Hastings date from the 1920s. You can find the story in John Curran’s Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks.

Poirot receives an intriguing letter from Miss Matilda Wheeler asking for his help in a very unspecific sort of way; something was wrong, ever since “the incident of the dog’s ball”. But the letter has inexplicably taken a number of months to reach him. His curiosity piqued, he decides to see Miss Wheeler; however, on arrival at her house, they discover that she has died. Poirot’s not going to let that mystery go unexplained!

Although never published and clearly regarded by Christie as a stepping stone to writing Dumb Witness, The Incident of the Dog’s Ball stands up pretty well as a short story on its own. There are a couple of errors, that would no doubt have been picked up if it had been properly proof-read, but apart from that it’s an entertaining and pacey read. It’s set in the village of Little Hemel; there really ought to be a place near Hemel Hempstead that shares this name, but alas no. In any case, Christie decides to locate Little Hemel in Kent, just to confound us. And Hastings has been awarded the O.B.E.! I wonder if it was for services to detection?!

Curiously, the story has a different murderer and explanation of the crime from Dumb Witness, so even if you have read the longer novel, there’s no reason to miss out on this little gem. There are some passages of the short story that have been transported straight into the novel; and Curran points out that there is a very similar letter to Miss Wheeler’s in Christie’s short story How Does Your Garden Grow? which was featured in the collection Poirot’s Early Cases.

I think this little tale is somewhat underestimated!

The Capture of Cerberus

The Capture of CerberusThis is the other story that Rosalind Hicks found in an attic in 2004, and you can also read this one in John Curran’s Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks. It is the original twelfth story in the collection The Labours of Hercules, published in 1947. The first eleven stories were originally published in The Strand Magazine, but this one was rejected. And, considering its subject matter, and the time that it was written, it’s no surprise that it was rejected. The story The Capture of Cerberus that was included in The Labours of Hercules is a completely different story, although both tales included Poirot getting reacquainted with the only love of his life, Countess Vera Rossakoff. So, again, if you’ve read The Labours of Hercules in full, that’s no reason not to read this original Cerberus story.

During a chance meeting in Geneva, Vera Rossakoff introduces Poirot to a Dr Keiserbach. Vera tells Keiserbach of Poirot’s extraordinary abilities – “he can even bring the dead back to life”. Impressed by this, Keiserbach privately later reveals to Poirot his true identity, Lutzmann; his son has famously shot the “dictator of all dictators”, August Hertzlein – but was torn to pieces by the baying mob and died on the spot. But Lutzmann is convinced that it wasn’t his son who killed Hertzlein: “he loved that man. He worshipped him […] he was a Nazi through and through.” So who did kill Hertzlein?

Given this was probably written in 1939 before the outbreak of war, it’s no surprise that the Strand magazine would have wanted this story suppressed. August Hertzlein is a clear reference to Adolf Hitler, and this story is almost unique in Christie’s works as being so obviously overtly political. Consequently, it’s a very entertaining and engrossing read, with Poirot on fine form, employing the most devious tactics to get to the truth.

It’s also superbly written, with a much more mature and adept use of language and some terrific turns of phrase, such as you would expect from the author pretty much at the height of her powers. There are some excellent new insights into Poirot’s character and beliefs. “To arouse enthusiasm was not his gift and never had been. Brains, he thought with his usual lack of modesty, were his speciality. And men with great brains were seldom great leaders or great orators. Possibly because they were too astute to be taken in by themselves.”

There’s a fascinating description of why Poirot is so attracted by Rossakoff, even though she is now older and heavily made up: “the original woman underneath the makeup had long been hidden from sight, Nevertheless, to Hercule Poirot, she still represented the sumptuous, the alluring. The bourgeois in him was thrilled by the aristocrat.”

And I was very much amused by Vera’s enthusiastic over-the-top praising of Poirot to Keiserbach: “He knows everything! He can do anything! Murderers hang themselves to save time when they know he is on their track.”

The Case of the Caretaker’s Wife

CaretakerThis unpublished story is approximately 80% identical to The Case of the Caretaker, that appears in the collection Miss Marple’s Final Cases, with very much the same story and the same solution. John Curran speculates that it was written in 1940, given its appearance in Christie’s notebooks, and you can find it in his book Agatha Christie – Murder in the Making.

Here’s how I précised the story as it appears in Miss Marple’s Final Cases: “Previously a ne’er-do-well, Harry Laxton brings his wealthy new bride back to his home village. The locals are keen to meet her and are pleased to see Harry has made good – except for Mrs Murgatroyd, the evicted caretaker of the old house that Harry has renovated. When she curses young Louise Laxton, the young bride thinks twice about living in the house and in the area. But who is murdered, and by whom?” And there’s no reason to change that for this version of the story!

There are three main differences between the two versions. The Case of the Caretaker’s Wife is more openly set in St Mary Mead, with its usual cast of characters – Mrs Price-Ridley, Miss Hartnell and Miss Wetherby, rather than Mrs Price, Miss Harmon and Miss Brent. This story is told in a straightforward narrative, rather than being bookended by Dr Haydock giving Miss Marple a written-out mystery to solve to keep her spirits up whilst she’s getting over flu. And this story is expanded a little to include an interview between Miss Marple and Mrs Murgatroyd, and removes the clumsy and unlikely scene in The Case of the Caretaker where a hypodermic syringe falls out of a miscreant’s pocket.

John Curran points out – which I hadn’t recognised when I read Miss Marple’s Final Cases – that this is a precursor to Christie’s excellent 1967 novel, Endless Night.

All in all, Caretaker’s Wife is probably a better story than Caretaker, but if you’ve already read the one, there’s no real need to read the other!

And not only does that conclude my look at these five unpublished stories – and I’ll award this little selection with an overall mark of 7/10 – it also concludes my re-reading of all of Christie’s detective fiction! Thanks for sticking with me over the past eight years on this one. I can’t let this end here, so I will be back with one last summing-up of Christie’s works. What do we know of Poirot, Marple, and all the other major characters in her works? What themes and ideas did she deal with most prominently throughout her long career? And which are the best and which are the worst? I’ll be back with my final thoughts in the not too distant future – and, in the meanwhile, happy sleuthing and keep on Christie-ing!

The Agatha Christie Challenge – Hercule Poirot and the Greenshore Folly (2014)

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

And if that sounds like the plot to Dead Man’s Folly, that’s because it is! Hercule Poirot and the Greenshore Folly was originally written to pay for a church window in the chancel of St Mary the Virgin in Churston Ferrers, the church where Christie worshipped. However, as John Curran explains in his excellent notes that accompany the book, Christie’s agents found it impossible to sell the manuscript! That was because it was neither short story nor novel, and didn’t fit into the market at the time. Undeterred, Christie wrote a new short story for the church window, the similarly named but completely different Greenshaw’s Folly, that was published in the UK in the collection The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding.

Writing Hercule Poirot and the Greenshore Folly was not wasted however, as Christie realised she could expand it into a full length novel, and that’s how Dead Man’s Folly was born. This “junior version” of the later novel wasn’t published in the UK until 2014, by Harper Collins, and with an introduction by the man with whom everyone associates Christie paperback covers, the artist Tom Adams, who died in 2019.

Dead Man's FollyIf you have already read Dead Man’s Folly, then there is no reason (other than the purely academic exercise of comparing the two texts) to read Greenshore Folly. They tell precisely the same tale, with precisely the same clues, twists and surprises, and with precisely the same murderer. If you haven’t read either, jump straight to Dead Man’s Folly and don’t bother with the earlier version. Not that there’s anything wrong with it, it’s just the whole description of the detective investigation is much more sparse and less involving. If, in the unlikely event that you’ve read Greenshore Folly but not Dead Man’s Folly, wait a few years until you’ve completely forgotten the plot and the characters, and then read Dead Man’s Folly; it will come as a pleasant surprise.

Apart from a few extended conversations and some name/place name changes, both books are virtually identical up until the first murder. At that point, Dead Man’s Folly goes into much more rewarding detail about the detective procedure, whereas Greenshore Folly performs a short-cut and more or less jumps to the end.

Thematically, then, the book is on exactly the same lines as Dead Man’s Folly – so if you want to read more, please refer to my blog about it! The link is above. Like the fuller version, I think this deserves a 7/10.

We’re so very near the end of the Agatha Christie Challenge, gentle reader! All that remains is to consider five more short stories that have come to light in recent years. Four of them were printed in John Curran’s two excellent books; The Capture of Cerberus and The Incident of the Dog’s Ball in Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks, and Miss Marple and the Case of the Caretaker’s Wife and The Man Who Knew in Agatha Christie – Murder in the Making. Additionally, The Wife of the Kenite has been published in the collection Bodies from the Library, edited by Tony Medawar.

I’ll give them all a read shortly, and, as usual, I’ll blog my thoughts about them soon. In the meantime, please read them too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!

The Agatha Christie Challenge – While the Light Lasts and Other Stories (1997)

While the Light LastsNine short stories, never previously published in book form in the UK, including two featuring Hercule Poirot. Additionally, the volume contains accompanying notes by Christie scholar and detective story writer, Tony Medawar. While the Light Lasts was first published in the UK by Harper Collins in August 1997. Eight of the stories had been published in the US collection The Harlequin Tea Set, in April 1997. I’ll take them all individually, and, as always, I promise not to reveal whodunit!

The House of Dreams

dreamsThis spooky little story was originally published in issue 74 of the Sovereign Magazine in January 1926. John Segrave dreams of a beautiful house, and the next day he meets Allegra Kerr with whom he falls head over heels in love. But she vows that she will never marry, and refuses to tell him why. However, recurrent dreams of the beautiful house reveal a secret that explains her silence…

This is a revised version of a story that Christie wrote when she was very young, The Dream of Beauty, which was never published, but which she considered to be the first thing that she had written that had any merit. It’s an introduction to one of the themes that would often play a major part in Christie’s works, that of the anxiety that insanity can be inherited and run riot within a family.

Reading the story with the benefit of hindsight, you can see Christie’s feel for the supernatural, which also frequently cropped up in some of her earlier works. However, you can also see that it is the product of an immature voice, trying too hard to make her points, lacking subtlety throughout. It’s littered with over-the-top, flowery language and often feels repetitious.

For example, her description of Beethoven’s Pathétique is just too much: “that expression of a grief that is infinite, a sorrow that is endless and vast as the ages, but in which from end to end breathes the sprit that will not accept defeat. In the solemnity of undying woe, it moves with the rhythm of the conqueror to its final doom.” And there are paragraphs upon paragraphs describing the same elements of the dream which definitely required some editing.

It is interesting to see how acceptable language has changed over the 100 odd years since this was written; Christie describes one of Allegra’s aunts as a “hopeless imbecile”, which today might just about be acceptable as an informal description of a mate who always gets things wrong, but here was used to describe someone with mental illness.

Allegra quotes: “ill luck thou canst not bring where ill luck has its home”; “the words used by Sieglinde in the Walküre when Sigmund offers to leave the house.” Not saying this is incorrect, but if you Google the quotation, the only reference is its appearance in this story.

Interesting to read the early Christie finding her feet – but not a lot more than that.

The Actress

stageThis entertaining little story was originally published in issue 218 of The Novel Magazine in May 1923 under the title of A Trap for the Unwary. Ne’er-do-well Jake Levitt recognises that the new acting sensation, Olga Stormer, is in fact none other than little Nancy Taylor whom he knew in the past and has an eminently blackmailable history. He sends her a letter intimating that he has recognised her and inviting her to respond. But her response was perhaps a little more than he bargained for…

This is a very enjoyable, quick and punchy story with some entertaining characterisations and nice turns of phrase. Maybe I have read too many Christies, but I did find the twist of the tale very easy to predict – but that doesn’t detract from the pleasure of the tale.

Olga Stormer is said to be playing the part of Cora in The Avenging Angel. The only Avenging Angel I’ve come across is a Western movie made in 1995, so I’m presuming this play comes straight from Christie’s imagination.

A well-written, tightly constructed little tale; great fun.

The Edge

EdgeThis devilishly entertaining little tale was originally published in issue 374 of Pearson’s Magazine in February 1927. Villager Clare Halliwell’s heart is broken when her childhood sweetheart Gerald marries the younger, prettier Vivien, but still hopes one day he might realise the error of his ways. When lunching in a nearby town she sees in the register that Vivien has stayed overnight with another man – and not for the first time. Armed with that knowledge, should she confront them and use the information to her own advantage, or should she stay silent?

This is a cracking little read and, in my opinion, one of Christie’s best short stories. It hides not one, but two stings in its tale with its rather creepy surprise ending which I certainly did not see coming! But, psychologically, it all makes sense. Even so, there is a sad reliance on a massive coincidence – that Clare should be lunching at the same hotel that Vivien had stayed in – but I guess coincidences do sometimes happen.

Set in the fictional village of Daymer’s End, and in the town of Skippington, forty miles away, there is some suggestion that they are not too far from Bournemouth. The other “real” place mentioned in the story is Algiers, where Gerald and Vivien propose to live. At the time, it would have been a rather glamorous French outpost; I don’t think many people would have it on their bucket list today, but maybe I’m wrong.

I discovered a new word: “Many of the wiseacres shook their heads and wondered how it would end.” Wiseacres? Never heard that word before. Oxford Dictionaries define it: “a person with an affectation of wisdom or knowledge, regarded with scorn or irritation by others; a know-all.” You live and learn.

In his notes, Tony Medawar makes much of the fact that this story was written shortly before Agatha Christie’s famous disappearance, and makes some allusions between that and the plot of this story. He may have a point, he may not; personally, I’m not convinced.

Terrifically entertaining story! And with a clever play on words with the title too, which you only appreciate right at the end.

Christmas Adventure

Christmas on Carnaby StreetThis amusing short story was originally published in issue 1611 of The Sketch Magazine on 11 December 1923. The story was later expanded into novella form and was printed as the title story in the 1960 UK collection The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding. Poirot is a guest at a Christmas House Party, but on Christmas morning receives a note warning him not to eat any of the plum pudding. Is his life in danger, or is it a prank? And how did the Christmas Cracker jewel get inside the pudding?

It’s curious, but I enjoyed Christmas Adventure more than The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding. Being shorter and sparer, it quickly gets to the heart of the mystery without losing any of its fun and spirit. I understand why Christie thought to expand the story – because it’s a good one! But I prefer it in its pithier, briefer form.

There are some good characterisations – the group of young people who attempt to tease Poirot by staging a mock murder come across as a decent bunch, and the lovelorn Evelyn is a very credible character. I also liked how Emily Endicott longed for the “Good Old Days” when people enjoyed listened to their elders and betters!

Poor old Poirot was missing his pal Captain Hastings, who emigrated to Argentina at the end of The Murder on the Links He needn’t have worried – Hastings would return for many UK return trips over the years, and they will still have many more adventures together!

The Lonely God

Lonely GodThis rather charming and simple romance was originally published in issue 333 of the Royal Magazine in July 1926, under Christie’s original title, The Little Lonely God. Every day, Frank Oliver visits the British Museum, entranced by a minor figure of a nondescript God. He sees a “lonely lady” who also appears to be affected by the statue. Eventually he plucks up courage to speak to her – but will anything develop from their shared interest in this lonely God?

There’s not very much to say about this story. It’s pure romantic fiction, quite elegant and entertaining, and it’s easy to identify with its two lonely protagonists. Tony Medawar sees in this story a reflection of Christie’s interest in archaeology, but this was published a couple of years before she went on her first trip to Baghdad, so I’m not sure I would link the two that much.

I did like Frank’s encouragement to the lady that they should have buns for tea at an ABC Shop. “I know you must love buns! […] There is something […] infinitely comforting about a bun!”

Undemanding, but thoroughly pleasant!

Manx Gold

Isle of ManI’m taking this description directly from Wikipedia: “Manx Gold was one of the most unusual commissions undertaken by Christie in her career […] The idea of a treasure hunting story was prompted by a wish on the part of Manx politicians to promote tourism to the Isle of Man. Christie wrote a short story which was serialised in the Daily Dispatch in five instalments on 23, 24, 26, 27 and 28 May 1930. The story gave the clues to the location of four snuffboxes hidden on the island, each of which contained a voucher for £100 – a considerable sum in 1930. Island residents were barred from taking part. To further promote the hunt, the story was then published in a promotional booklet entitled June in Douglas which was distributed at guesthouses and other tourist spots. Although a quarter of a million copies of this booklet were printed, only one is known to have survived.” And indeed, £100 in 1930 would be the equivalent of more than £4,500.

If you haven’t already read this story, give yourself an hour, log on to your Map App and Google, and see if you can beat Fenella and Juan as they race around the Isle of Man solving the clues. I was pretty happy with myself for getting clues 1 and 2 half right – but I expect few people would solve the last two. If you’re a Brit and of a certain age, like myself, you might remember the clues on Ted Rogers’ 3-2-1 TV programme; these are even more hard to crack. Also: I couldn’t find Kirkhill on any map.

But it remains a lively and thoroughly entertaining read; Medawar likens Juan and Fenella to the young heroes of Christie’s earlier books, and indeed to Tommy and Tuppence and I think they bear a fair resemblance. He also takes us painstakingly through the clue solutions, which is extremely helpful, and gives us all the background to the Manx tourism scheme. I found this a delightful, and indeed, unique tale!

Within a Wall

wallThis ambiguous romantic tale with a bit of a twist was originally published in issue 324 of the Royal Magazine in October 1925. Gifted painter Alan Everard is married to the dynamic Isobel Loring, but his friend Jane Howarth is also in love with him – which manifests itself in a strange manner.

Romantic, yes, but also strangely unpleasant. Isobel’s abuse of Jane’s generosity almost feels like a prostitution of her friendship. And, as Medawar points out in his notes, the ending is very ambiguous. There are all sorts of interpretations you could adopt in your own personal understanding of the story.

Christie gives one of the characters the unusual surname of Lemprière – she must have enjoyed the force of that name because she would also give it to Joyce Lemprière of The Thirteen Problems fame. That Joyce was also a painter; and would eventually marry Miss Marple’s nephew Raymond West.

There’s an uncomfortable moment of antisemitism with the mention of “a small Jew with cunning eyes”, but otherwise the narration of this story is beautifully done – it’s an interesting voice that doesn’t sound like Christie’s own normal narrative style. And the £100 that Jane gives to support Alan and Isobel’s daughter Winnie would be the equivalent of £4250 today. Generous indeed.

The Mystery of the Baghdad Chest

ChestThis entertaining little story was first published in issue 493 of the Strand Magazine in January 1932. The story was later expanded into novella form and was printed as The Mystery of the Spanish Chest in the 1960 UK collection The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding. Poirot’s attention is drawn to a case where a Major Rich has been accused of murdering a Mr Clayton, whose bloody body was discovered in an antique chest. Mrs Clayton is a friend of socialite Lady Chatterton who encourages Poirot to speak to her about the case, because she insists Rich is innocent. Poirot can’t resist but employ his little grey cells to get to the heart of the matter.

I’ve lifted that precis of the story from my blogpost about The Mystery of the Spanish Chest, because the two stories are identical in plot, just a couple of characters have undergone a change of name. In the Spanish Chest, Hastings becomes Miss Lemon – more appropriate for the passing of the years, and Inspector Japp becomes Inspector Miller. Apart from that, there is precious little to choose between the two accounts, merely a lengthening and a greater attention to detail in the investigation. But several of the conversations in the first tale are reproduced faithfully in the updated tale.

Hastings does, however, take the opportunity to describe Poirot’s vanity, both in behaviour and appearance, in terrific detail. “The talents that I possess – I would salute them in another, As it happens, in my own particular line, there is no one to touch me. C’est dommage! As it is, I admit freely and without hypocrisy that I am a great man. I have the order, the method and the psychology in an unusual degree. I am, in fact, Hercule Poirot! Why should I turn read and stammer and mutter into my chin that really I am very stupid? It would not be true.”

“To see Poirot at a party was a great sight. His faultless evening clothes, the exquisite set of his white tie, the exact symmetry of his hair parting, the sheen of pomade on his hair, and the tortured splendour of his famous moustaches – all combined to paint the perfect picture of an inveterate dandy. It was hard, at these moments, to take the little man seriously.”

Just like The Mystery of the Spanish Chest, this is an excellent read.

While the Light Lasts

enoch ardenThis was originally published in issue 229 of The Novel Magazine in April 1924; the plot of this short story is similar to that of her novel Giant’s Bread, published in 1930 under the pen name of Mary Westmacott. George and Deirdre Crozier visit a tobacco plantation in Rhodesia, where George works, and where Deirdre’s first husband Tim, who died in the war, wanted to live. But when Deirdre suffers a spot of heatstroke, she is taken back to the main house by a Mr Arden, who has his own secret to share…

In comparison with the other stories, this is really little more than a fragment, but nevertheless it tells an age-old story, and it tells it rather well. The character of Enoch Arden appears in Tennyson’s poem of the same name, but also would appear in Christie’s Taken at the Flood in 1948. Moody, tragic and with a sense of guilt, this is an interesting and memorable little piece of writing.

And that concludes all nine stories in While the Light Lasts and Other Stories. A couple of rather lightweight stories are balanced with some meaty good reads, so on balance I would give this selection 7/10. Poirot and Greenshore FollyIf you’ve been reading this book as well, I’d love to know your thoughts, please just write something in the comments box.

Next up in the Agatha Christie challenge is a short novel written in 1954 to raise money for a church – Hercule Poirot and the Greenshore Folly. This was published in 2014, but Christie would rework the story and create Dead Man’s Folly from it. If you’d like to read it too, we can compare notes when I give you my thoughts on it in a few weeks’ time. In the meanwhile, happy sleuthing and keep on Christie-ing!

The Agatha Christie Challenge – Problem at Pollensa Bay and Other Stories (1991)

Problem at Pollensa BayIn which Christie gives us eight short stories, comprising two with Hercule Poirot, two with Parker Pyne, two with Harley Quin and two other tales. None of the stories had been published in book form in the UK before. Problem at Pollensa Bay was first published in the UK by Harper Collins in November 1991, and this collection was not published in the US as the stories had all been published in magazines there before. I’ll take them all individually, and, as always, I promise not to reveal whodunit!

Problem at Pollensa Bay

Pollensa BayThis modest little story was originally published in the November 1935 issue of the Strand Magazine, and on 5th September 1936 in the US in Liberty Magazine, under the title Siren Business. Mr Parker Pyne is holidaying in Majorca when he is asked by English woman tourist for his help in stopping her son marrying someone she feels is unsuitable for him.

Six of the stories in Parker Pyne Investigates involve Mr P trying to avoid working with people whilst he’s on holiday, and Problem at Pollensa Bay fits perfectly into that category. Published a couple of years after the other Parker Pyne stories, we don’t learn very much extra about the unwilling detective, although he’s very forthright telling Mrs Chester to stop meddling in her son’s affairs.

The plot is very straightforward and simple, and totally compatible with Parker Pyne’s modus operandi in his previous stories. The situation is set up entertainingly and simply, Parker Pyne’s solution to the problem arrives discreetly and totally under our radar, and when you realise the garden path down which you’ve been lead, you realise how superbly Christie has misled you.

Pollensa is introduced as a very arty environment; you can feel it in her description: “Girls strolled about in trousers with brightly coloured handkerchiefs tied round the upper halves of their bodies. Young men in berets with rather long hair held forth in “Mac’s Bar” on such subjects as plastic values and abstraction in art.” All very self-indulgent, but rather charmingly so. It makes a nice juxtaposition with the conversations between the Chesters and Parker Pyne, which are a model of middle class politeness: “they talked about flowers and the growing of them, of the lamentable state of the English pound and of how expensive France had become, and of the difficulty of getting good afternoon tea.”

There is also a beautiful moment between the over-reacting Mrs Chester and the more laid back Parker Pyne: ““You must do something! You must do something! My boy’s life will be ruined.” Mr Parker Pyne was getting a little tired of Basil Chester’s life being ruined.”

However, the story is definitely damaged by a whopping coincidence that makes Christie’s life easy but makes us doubt the veracity of her yarn, when the gushing Nina Wycherley, who just happens to be staying at a nearby hotel and who just happens to know both Mrs Chester and Mr Pyne separately, just happens to meet those two people in a teashop. Sorry, I’m not buying it.

There’s also the unfortunate use of the D word, which was one of Christie’s favourite derogatory terms in the 1930s and 1940s: “the creature’s a dago. She’s impossible.”

Christie gives us loads of Majorcan locations to accentuate the realism of the story – not only Pollensa, but Palma, Soller, Alcudia, and the always hideously expensive (it was then, and is still now) Formentor. The hotels Pino D’Oro and Mariposa don’t exist, sadly, but were probably based on the Illa D’Or and the Mar i Cel, which did (and still do.)

Nothing too mentally strenuous, and no crime; but pleasant enough.

The Second Gong

J Arthur Rank GongPoirot goes out full throttle in this entertaining little story, originally published in the UK in issue 499 of the Strand Magazine in July 1932, and in  Ladies Home Journal in June 1932 in the US. It was also the basis for the novella Dead Man’s Mirror, first published in the UK as part of the 1935 collection Murder in the Mews. Poirot has been invited to meet Hubert Lytcham Roche, but when he arrives it appears that his host has taken his own life, a bullet through the head that also shattered a mirror in the room. The room is fully locked, and Inspector Reeves is sure it is suicide. But Poirot suspects foul play…

This is a pacy, no-nonsense full-on detective story in miniature, that whizzes along with an imaginative plot and ends with a classic denouement of the type that Christie fans love. There are many similarities with Dead Man’s Mirror, but Christie developed the characters more into a fuller story. But the basic structure of both stories, including the manner of the murder and the identity of the murder, is pretty much the same. It also ends with the same twist, which is here given away rather by the title The Second Gong – a little bit of Christie magic, an unexpected event that brings a smile to your face but is perfectly credible.

“I’m modern, you know, M. Poirot. I don’t indulge in sob stuff” avers Diana Cleves, the adopted daughter of the dead man. That’s an interesting character point for this decidedly tough cookie who knows her own mind and is most definitely a product of her own times.

Mrs Lytcham Roche informs Poirot that the terms of her husband’s will allows her an annual income of £3000. From today’s perspective that’s the equivalent of £150,000. I mean, she’d be comfortable, but it’s not enough to murder someone – is it?

An easy, exciting read that gets your imagination going and gives you a nice surprise ending.

Yellow Iris

Yellow IrisThis slightly odd little tale was originally published in issue 559 of the Strand Magazine in July 1937, and in the 10 October 1937 edition of the Hartford Courant newspaper under the title “The Case of the Yellow Iris” in the US. Christie would later reuse the basis of this story to expand into the full-length novel, Sparkling Cyanide. Poirot is phoned late at night with the request to attend a table at a restaurant where yellow irises are the floral centrepiece. The mysterious caller believes she is in great danger. But from what? And can Poirot get there in time to prevent foul play?

I found this story slightly odd because it sets up an apparent crime, which is then revealed to have been averted but which makes another previous non-suspicious death now a murder (perhaps) but the murderer wanders off scot-free and then the story continues for four more pages of indifferently interesting resolution. Structurally, I didn’t care for this story at all.

I was also uncertain of the timeline of the story; Poirot is telephoned at 11:30pm but then goes out to a restaurant where the Maître D’ enquires whether he would like a table for dinner – and clearly the restaurant is full of people mid-meal, mid-dance, mid-enjoying themselves. Either in those days people ate very late in London (not really a British way of doing things) or Christie didn’t really think that through.

Nevertheless, there are some entertaining moments. It starts with a pure piece of Poirotism, with his appreciation of the electric bar heater because of its symmetry rather than a “shapeless and haphazard” coal fire. We discover, through an unusual moment of embarrassment for Poirot, that he dyes his hair: ““Señora, I would not date to ask you to dance with me. I am too much of the antique.” Lola Valdez said: “Ah, it ees nonsense that  you talk there! You are steel young. Your hair, eet is still black.” Poirot winced slightly.”” And I really enjoyed this understatement: ““at once… it’s life or death…” […] There was a pause – a queer kind of gasp – the line went dead. Hercule Poirot hung up. His face was puzzled. He murmured between his teeth: “There is something here very curious.””

Poirot meets up with an old friend, Tony Chappell, at the restaurant. Christie writes their initial encounter as if Chappell were someone who might have featured regularly in her books; but I believe this is his only appearance in her works. Christie the Poison Expert comes to the fore with the use of potassium cyanide as the weapon of choice. And the song with which the cabaret singer stuns the restaurant into silence appears to be an invention of Christie’s – which is a shame really, sounds like it could be rather good!

Not the best Poirot story, if truth be told.

The Harlequin Tea Set

Harlequin Tea SetIt is not thought that this fascinating, mystic short story ever received magazine publication in either the UK or US. In book form, its first appearance was in Macmillan’s Winter’s Crimes No 3, published in 1971; and in the US it was first published in a short story collection – The Harlequin Tea Set and Other Stories – by Putnams in April 1997. This collection contained the short stories that would be published in the UK in 1997 in the collection While the Light Lasts.

Mr Satterthwaite’s car breaks down en route to stay with an old friend and his family, and whilst he is waiting for the mechanic to fix the problem, he goes in to the Harlequin Café that he noticed as he was driving by. He wondered if his old friend Mr Quin might turn up – and sure enough, he does. Satterthwaite tells Quin about the friend whom he is going to stay with – and invites Quin to come too, but Quin refuses, trusting Satterthwaite entirely to do something “for someone else […] I have the utmost faith in you.” When he reaches his destination, he becomes engrossed in his friend’s family and their comings and goings. But somehow, he knows something is going to happen – and then something that Quin said before they parted finally makes sense. And Mr Satterthwaite definitely does do the right thing.

This is a curious short story without question. As a whole, you come away from it feeling very satisfied, your mystic curiosity piqued by the extraordinary symbiotic relationship between Quin and Satterthwaite. More than ever, you’re sure that Quin is Satterthwaite’s alter ego, a side of himself that he’s never allowed to express, a side that wants to come out and enable himself to do extraordinary things. At the same time, you also feel that quite a lot of this story is mere filler. Satterthwaite dithers and fusses and achieves nothing over several pages and I confess he was trying my patience severely during the first half of this tale; although I did enjoy the amusing car-based introduction to the story.

Satterthwaite refers to the last time that he saw Quin – “a very tragic occasion” he calls it. The last story in the volume The Mysterious Mr Quin is Harlequin’s Lane; however, the last to have been originally published in magazine format is The Man from the Sea. However, I do believe it is Harlequin’s Lane to which they refer. The lack of earlier magazine publication makes it more difficult to date the writing of this story. An awareness that smoking gives you cancer and a reference to smoking “pot” might suggest that this was written in the 1960s. Characters have lived in but returned from Kenya because, “well you know what happened in Kenya”. This could refer to the Mau Mau Uprising of the 1950s or the declaration of independence in 1963.

A key clue to the solution of this particular story is “daltonism”, which was a term used for colour-blindness named after John Dalton (1766 – 1844) who was one of the first researchers into the condition. The story takes place in the villages of Doverton Kingsbourne and Kingsbourne Ducis, both of which sound tremendous but neither of which is real.

Unsettling, intriguing – but occasionally dithery and slow.

The Regatta Mystery

RegattaThis simple and perhaps predictable story originally featured Hercule Poirot, but was rewritten by Christie to feature Parker Pyne instead, originally appearing in May 3, 1936 edition of the Hartford Courant in the US, and in the Strand Magazine, in the UK, later that year. Hatton Garden diamond trader Isaac Pointz entertains a group of people in Dartmouth, and all goes well until 15 year old schoolgirl Eve tells him she has discovered the perfect way to steal his priceless jewel, the Morning Star. Everyone humours the child with her imaginings, until she fumbles the diamond whilst handling it – and no one can find where it landed!

Probably the most entertaining aspect of this story is the speed and ease with which Mr Parker Pyne solves the mystery. No detailed investigation or visit to the scene of the crime for him; merely listening and running the facts of the case through his computer of a brain is all it takes. At the same time that’s a weakness, because there’s no sense of investigation, no first hand interrogation of the suspects, which is what makes most crime thrillers enjoyable. The story is all build up and no denouement.

It all takes place in Dartmouth, at the Royal George Hotel – in real life, the Royal Castle Hotel, where Christie was but one of several notable guests. Very little more needs to be said about this story – except that, perhaps, the Morning Star diamond, that Pointz carries around with him, which is valued at £30,000 in 1936, would today have an equivalent value of around £1.5 million. No wonder it was desirable to unscrupulous souls.

The Love Detectives

private detectiveThis underwhelming little tale was first published in issue 236 of The Story-Teller magazine in the UK in December 1926 under the title of At the Crossroads. This was the first of a series of six stories in consecutive issues of the magazine titled The Magic of Mr. Quin. The remaining five would later form part of the book, The Mysterious Mr. Quin in 1930. The plot has similarities to 1930 Miss Marple novel The Murder at the Vicarage. The story was first published in the US in Flynn’s Weekly in October 1926, with the title The Love Detectives.

Whilst visiting his friend Colonel Melrose, who also happens to be the local Chief Constable, Mr Satterthwaite and he are called out to the scene of a murder – and, on the way, their car has a minor altercation with another vehicle driven, apparently, by none other than Mr Harley Quin. Quin accompanies them to the scene of the crime and encourages Satterthwaite to play an active role in the investigation. Sir James has been killed, and both his wife and her friend confess to the crime, in an attempt to protect the other. But they are both wrong as to the method with which Sir James was dispatched. So it must have been his valet or his butler?

The story starts well and even with the hugely coincidental meeting between Satterthwaite and Quin, which is always par for the course, the set up of the crime is intriguing and enjoyable. But the investigation comes across as slight and hurried, and I didn’t really enjoy it much.

There are several Colonel Melroses in Agatha Christie’s works, and they are all Chief Constables, but it’s generally felt that they’re not all the same person. I rather liked the characterisation of this Colonel Melrose; a no-nonsense, sporty type. When Lady Dwighton and Delangua are comforting each other, Christie writes of him: “Colonel Melrose cleared his throat. He was a man who disliked emotion and had a horror of anything approaching a “scene”.” He’s rather the opposite of Satterthwaite, who’s at home with emotions, and regarded the fact that the murdered man was killed by a statue of Venus as “food for poetic meditation.”

Satterthwaite introduces Quin to Melrose by reminding the latter of the Derek Capel case. This is the first story in The Mysterious Mr Quin collection – The Coming of Mr Quin.

Not a lot to entertain the reader here, I don’t think.

Next to a Dog

happy_cartoon_dogThis very slight tale was first published in The Grand Magazine in the UK in September 1929 and in the compilation The Golden Ball and Other Stories in the USA in 1971.

Widow Joyce Lambert seeks a job as a governess but won’t give up her dog, Terry, who was given to her by her late husband. Her only option appears to be to marry the rich but horrible Arthur Halliday. She agrees to do so, provided she can bring Terry with her. But Terry has an accident and is badly injured…

A very nondescript story, to be honest. It shows the unconditional love between loyal dog and loyal owner, but that’s about it!

Magnolia Blossom

Magnolia blossomThis interesting little story was first published in the UK in issue 329 of the Royal Magazine in March 1926. The story first appeared in book form in the UK in the 1982 collection The Agatha Christie Hour, to tie in with a dramatisation of the story in the television series of the same name. It was first published in the US, like Next to a Dog, in the compilation The Golden Ball and Other Stories in the USA in 1971.

Vincent Easton is hoping that Theodora Darrell will leave her husband and run away with him to a new life in the Transvaal. She keeps her appointment to meet him at Victoria Station, and all seems to be going Vincent’s way until she sees a newspaper headline reporting that her husband’s business was facing a financial crisis – sudden crash – serious revelations – and she tells Vincent she must go back to him. But what happens when she does return to her husband?

This story is a little more promising than Next to a Dog, but not much. It sets up a very interesting dilemma for Theodora, and you think it’s just going to be a woman having to choose between her husband and her lover. But it goes in a darker direction than that; betrayal can work in more than one direction. But the resolution of the story is sadly underdeveloped and hits you with all the force of a damp lettuce.

And that concludes all eight stories in Problem at Pollensa Bay and Other Stories. In comparison with the previous volume, Miss Marple’s Final Cases, despite a couple of stronger stories, they’re overall rather disappointing and slight, and I cannot give this selection more than a 6/10 rating. If you’ve been reading this book as well, I’d love to know your thoughts, please just write something in the comments box.

Next up in the Agatha Christie challenge is the final collection of nine short stories that were never published in book form in the UK – While the Light Lasts and Other Stories. The stories were originally published in magazine format between 1923 and 1932. If you’d like to read it too, we can compare notes when I give you my thoughts on it in a few weeks’ time. In the meanwhile, happy sleuthing and keep on Christie-ing!

The Agatha Christie Challenge – Miss Marple’s Final Cases and Two Other Stories (1979)

Miss Marple's Final CasesIn which Christie gives us six short stories featuring Miss Marple, plus two other supernatural stories, none of which had been published in the UK before in book form.  Miss Marple’s Final Cases was first published in the UK by Collins Crime Club in October 1979, and this collection was not published in the US as the stories had all been published in magazines there before. I’ll take them all individually, and, as always, I promise not to reveal whodunit!

Sanctuary

sanctuaryThis first story was originally published in the October 1954 issue of Woman’s Journal, and in the US in Double Sin and Other Stories, in 1961. The way it was written and published is an interesting curiosity; it was written to raise money for the Westminster Abbey restoration appeal, and was sold to the highest bidder, the aforementioned Woman’s Journal, who never revealed how much they paid – but it is believed to be a substantial amount.

Vicar’s wife Diana Harmon comes upon a dying man in the local church; he must have been there all night clutching a wad to a bullet wound in his chest. When he sees Diana, he just says the one word “sanctuary”. Despite the efforts of the doctor, the man dies shortly afterwards. But Diana is suspicious of the man’s relatives, Mr and Mrs Eccles, who want to know all about his death and what happened to the man’s coat. That’s when Diana calls upon the assistance of her godmother, Miss Jane Marple, and together, with of course the help of the police, they solve the mystery of the man’s death.

This excellent little story, that sets up a neat and intriguing plot, is simply but effectively told, although the solution to it is perhaps a little hurried. We’ve met Diana and Julian Harmon of Chipping Cleghorn, together with their pompously named cat, Tiglath Pileser, before – they feature in A Murder is Announced which had been published a few years earlier in 1950. Inspector Craddock, who leads the police detection in that book, also appears in Sanctuary.

Christie explains that Diana had been called “Bunch at an early age for somewhat obvious reasons and the name had stuck to her ever since.” I’m not sure if one would instantly work out those obvious reasons, but I went back to A Murder is Announced and found this helpful description: “Mrs Harmon, the roundness of whose form and face had early led to the soubriquet of “Bunch” being substituted for her baptismal name of Diana…” Still not quite sure why plumpness would suggest “Bunch”, but there you go.

There are some easy clues to working out who the criminal(s) is/are, but the reason why the dying man also says “Julian” is quite satisfying, and I like the fact that Miss Marple enjoyed the “pre-war” quality of her face towel.

One slightly odd matter: the dead man had on him half a return railway ticket, but the police constable says he must have come to Chipping Cleghorn by bus. I think we can forgive this discrepancy as it was all written for charity!

A really enjoyable start to the book.

Strange Jest

Treasure HuntMiss Marple exercises her brain in this charming little story, originally published in issue 643 in July 1944 of the Stand Magazine in the UK under the name The Case of the Buried Treasure, and in This Week magazine on 2nd November 1941 in the US. Young Charmian and Edward were hoping to use their expected inheritance from their Uncle Mathew in order to set up home together. However, he’s hidden his riches somewhere and they don’t know how to go about finding them!

Not only does this Miss Marple short story NOT contain a murder, it doesn’t even contain a crime! Instead Miss M and her two young friends go on a treasure hunt trying to find how and where Mathew has left them an inheritance. The fact that there is no crime makes the whole story stand out and feel very clean and wholesome! There’s also a very clever solution to the mystery.

This story shows Miss Marple at her kindest and most indulgent. She can’t wait to help the nice young couple solve their conundrum – and you get the feeling it’s partly because she wants them to find the inheritance but also she’s really interested in revealing the solution, almost from an academic point of view. She makes the rather damning observation, “the depravity of human nature is unbelievable”; maybe it’s Charmian and Edward’s youthful spirit and delight that attracts her to them so much. Interestingly, if this was originally published in 1941, it was probably written around ten years after Miss Marple first appeared in her books, and a couple of years before her second appearance, in The Body in the Library.

There are quite a few interesting references to follow up. Edward says “it made me think of an Arsene Lupin story wither there was something hidden in a man’s glass eye.” Lupin, of course, was a gentleman thief in the fiction of French writer Maurice Leblanc; he first appeared in print in The Arrest of Arsene Lupin in 1905. The story that includes the glass eye is The Crystal Stopper, first published in 1912.

Miss Marple refers to the recipes of Mrs Beaton in her rather unusual route to get to the truth. ““First catch your hare – “ as Mrs Beaton says in her cookery book – a wonderful book but terribly expensive, most of the recipes begin, “Take a quart of cream and dozen eggs.”” Mrs Isabella Beaton – really Beeton – was probably the first published expert about cooking (and indeed, all domestic science), most notably in her Book of Household Management, first published in 1861.

There are a couple of old-fashioned sayings in this story. Describing something as gammon and spinach, to mean nonsense, was a phrase I’d never come across before. Actually I had… as I knew the old rhyme A Frog he Would a-Wooing go, but I didn’t realise the phrase was in the refrain. I believe the Spinach part was originally Spinnage, as in spinning a tale. But it’s an odd one really.

There’s also the phrase All My Eye and Betty Martin, which I didn’t know until I came across it in another Christie book, One Two Buckle My Shoe. This was published just a year before Strange Jest first appeared in print, so it must have been a phrase that was firmly embedded in Christie’s mind at the time!

There are a couple of financial sums mentioned in this story, but the important one is the big individual item to be inherited, which was estimated to have a value of $25,000, which today would be equivalent to about £450,000. Charmian and Edward are going to be VERY rich.

Very entertaining, undemanding, pure little story.

Tape Measure Murder

Tape MeasureThis jaunty little tale was originally published in the February 1942 issue of the Strand Magazine, under the title The Case of the Retired Jeweller, and in the November 16th 1941 edition of This Week magazine in the US. Dressmaker Miss Politt calls on Mrs Spenlow to make alterations to a dress but doesn’t answer the door – because she’s dead. Did Mr Spenlow kill his wife to inherit her money?

One wonders why anyone might commit murder in St Mary Mead, when it is inevitable that Miss Marple will get involved and guide the police to the correct deduction. In many ways, plot-wise this is a classic early Christie story in miniature, with dropped clues and red herring suspects; but she revels in an unusually massive dose of fun in the invigoratingly dramatic and humorous way in which she tells the tale. Consider, for example, how she announces that Mrs Spenlow has died: ““Nonsense,” said Miss Hartnell firmly. “She can’t have gone out. I’d have had met her. I’ll just take a look through the windows and see if I can find any signs of life” […] Miss Hartnell, it is true, saw no signs of life. On the contrary, she saw, through the window, Mrs Spenlow lying on the hearthrug – dead.”

The story enjoys reuniting us with the usual St Mary Mead suspects as well as Miss Marple – Chief Constable Colonel Melchett, Inspector Slack, Constable Palk and Miss Hartnell had all appeared in The Body in the Library. Miss Hartnell, Slack and Melchett were also in The Murder at the Vicarage, and Melchett also crops up again in The Thirteen Problems. The continuity of characters is almost comforting as you read what they get up to next.

Christie tells us that some people call Miss Marple “vinegar-tongued” – but that’s not a description of her that I recognise. Yes, of course, she is comfortable telling difficult truths when the time is right, but there’s not normally any vinegar to her style. There’s certainly none in this short story. Melchett describes Ted Gerard as an “Oxford Grouper”; the Oxford Group was a Christian organisation founded in 1921, which became very popular in the 1930s and led to the formation of Alcoholics Anonymous. And this is another tale in which Christie refers to Dr Crippen, hanged for the murder of his wife in 1910.

It’s a very entertaining tale written with a lightness of touch and an almost indecent sense of fun and mischief, stylistically quite unlike most of Christie’s other work.

The Case of the Caretaker

CaretakerThis odd little short story was originally published in the January 1942 issue of the Strand Magazine, and in the July 5, 1942 edition of the Chicago Sunday Tribune in the US. A gloomy, bed-ridden Miss Marple is slowly recovering from flu, so Dr Haydock gives her a puzzle to solve – a murder mystery that he has written out – apparently a work of fiction, but Miss Marple soon sees through that. She also works out the identity of the murderer. Previously a ne’er-do-well, Harry Laxton brings his wealthy new bride back to his home village. The locals are keen to meet her and are pleased to see Harry has made good – except for Mrs Murgatroyd, the evicted caretaker of the old house that Harry has renovated. When she curses young Louise Laxton, the young bride thinks twice about living in the house and in the area. But who is murdered, and by whom?

Structurally, this is something of a curiosity, as most of the story comprises of Dr Haydock’s narrative, simply topped and tailed by an introduction and Miss Marple’s conclusions. It’s a new way to express a familiar plot, and it works fine, with Miss Marple solving the mystery on the sidelines, relying only on what she’s told by someone else. The only problem with the story is that the solution to Dr Haydock’s puzzle is rather easy to guess.

One of the characters is a Miss Harmon – might she be a relative of Bunch, who appeared earlier in this collection in the story Sanctuary, as well as in A Murder is Announced? Both stories are set within the Miss Marple landscape. Christie the Poison Expert comes to the fore with strophanthin discovered in a syringe – this was used by native African tribes used as an arrow poison, and today is often used in euthanasia.

Christie described Haydock’s challenge to Miss Marple to solve the puzzle as a “Parthian shot” – originally a hit-and-run tactic employed by the Parthian cavalry, but nicely subsumed into the English language because of its similarity to the phrase “parting shot”, which is basically what is meant here. And Harry Laxton is described as a scapegrace – I’ve heard of scapegoat, of course, but never a scapegrace. They’re not the same thing; according to my OED, a scapegrace is a young scamp or rascal, someone who escapes the grace of God. So now you know.

Guessable, but enjoyable.

The Case of the Perfect Maid

MaidThis clever and imaginative story was originally published in the April 1942 issue of the Strand Magazine under the title The Perfect Maid, and in the September 13, 1942 edition of the Chicago Sunday Tribune in the US. Gladys Holmes is dismissed from her position as maid to Misses Lavinia and Emily Skinner and replaced with an apparently perfect maid, Mary Higgins, who comes with excellent references. But is Mary Higgins as perfect as she seems?

This is a terrific little tale that draws you in and leaves you truly surprised by Miss Marple’s extraordinary but totally believable solution. She tricks the criminal – even before a crime has been committed – into revealing themselves with undeniable evidence. All the St Mary Mead crew are there – Haydock, Hartnell, Miss Wetherby, Inspector Slack, and even Mrs Price-Ridley gets a mention. Some new characters are introduced, living at Old Hall, a big house that has been converted into flats, including an Indian judge who insists on having a “chota hazri” – basically an early morning cup of tea and a biscuit.

The story is beautifully written too, with a lightness of touch and deftly humorous turns of phrase. Gladys is a described as “bouncing, self-opinionated” which gives us a perfect insight into what she’s like. Miss Emily’s hairstyle is “untidily wound around her head and erupting into curls, the whole thing looking like a bird’s nest of which no self-respecting bird could be proud.”

Short, sweet, and great fun.

Miss Marple Tells a Story

Miss Marple FencingThis unusual but rather clever little tale was originally published in the 25th May 1935 issue of Home Journal, under the title Behind Closed Doors, although it had been previously broadcast on the BBC in May 1934, read by Christie herself, as a special commission for a radio series called Short Story. It was originally published in the US in the collection The Regatta Mystery and Other Stories in 1939. Miss Marple solves a classic “locked room” murder mystery, and saves a husband from going to the gallows.

The story is unusual in that it is narrated by Miss Marple rather than Christie telling us her story. This was written quite early in Miss Marple’s career, so to speak, coming after The Murder in the Vicarage and The Thirteen Problems, but before the majority of the Marple novels. As narrated by herself, here Miss Marple comes across as a little more dithering and self-effacing than one is used to; easily distracted and wittering on about unimportant things. It’s not how I see Miss Marple; it’s almost like a development stage for Christie to get her characterisation right.

Other aspects that don’t fit in with the usual Marple landscape include the fact that she has yet another maid at this time – Gwen, and that there is a town twenty miles away called Barnchester; I believe this is the only story featuring that fictional location. However, her nephew Raymond and his wife Joan, to whom she tells her story, are consistent characters in all the Marple stories. And she does admit to preferring the art of Alma-Tadema and Leighton, as she had already explained in A Murder is Announced.

There’s one theme which fits in with many other Christie stories and novels, which is that a murderer is a murderer because of “insanity in the family”.

Curious, but entertaining.

The Dressmaker’s Doll

DollThis is the first of two stories that were not published in my original copy of Miss Marple’s Final Cases but were added to a later edition. It was first published in the December 1958 issue of Woman’s Journal, and in the US in the June 1959 issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. The story had previously appeared in Canada in the 25 October 1958 issue of the Star Weekly magazine.

A doll appears at a Dressmaker’s workshop. No one seems to remember how it got there, or if someone gave it to someone as a gift. The floppy doll has a habit of moving from room to room, but no one admits moving it. In the end, the people who work there become so anxious about the doll that they throw it out of a window. But will it be gone forever?

Not a crime story, more an attempt at a ghost story or supernatural tale. It’s rather repetitive, heavy-handed in its construction and conversations, and with a somewhat disappointing ending. Clearly Christie was trying to turn her hand to the supernatural – but really, this story doesn’t work well at all. However, according to John Curran in Agatha Christie: Murder in the Making, she described The Dressmaker’s Doll as “a very favourite story.”

In a Glass Darkly

spooky mirrorThis spooky little tale was originally published in the US, in the 28 July 1934 issue of Collier’s Weekly. It hadn’t been published in the UK until it appeared in this volume. However, its first public appearance was when Agatha Christie read the story on BBC Radio on 6th April 1934. Sadly, no recording of the broadcast has survived.

When changing for dinner the narrator sees a vision in a mirror behind him of a man with a scar strangling a beautiful girl; of course, when he turns around, the vision is gone and all that is was there was a wardrobe. But then he goes down for dinner and sees that the beautiful girl is in fact his best friend’s sister, and that the man with the scar is her fiancé. Has he seen her future in a dream? Can he stop the man from killing her some time in the future?

This is another supernatural tale, considerably better, I would say, than The Dressmaker’s Doll, but still lacking a truly decent twist that would make it a good short story. But it nicely plays with the psychology of relationships, and is decently written.

Problem at Pollensa BayAnd that concludes all eight stories in Miss Marple’s Final Cases and Two Other Stories. On the whole, they’re very high quality – especially if you ignore the two supernatural stories at the end! Fully worthy of an 8/10, rating I would say. If you’ve been reading this book as well, I’d love to know your thoughts, please just write something in the comments box. Next up in the Agatha Christie challenge is another collection of eight short stories that were never published in book form in the UK – Problem at Pollensa Bay and Other Stories. If you’d like to read it too, we can compare notes when I give you my thoughts on it in a few weeks’ time. In the meanwhile, happy sleuthing and keep on Christie-ing!

The Agatha Christie Challenge – Sleeping Murder (1976)

Sleeping MurderIn which young Gwenda Reed has a vision that she witnessed a murder when she was a child, and Miss Marple helps her and her husband Giles to investigate if she really did see the crime – and if so, who was the murderer! As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, as always, I promise not to reveal what happens and whodunit!

VaultThis was the last novel to feature Miss Marple and, like Curtain, was written at some point in the 1940s, then locked away in a vault until such time that Christie wanted it to be published. As it turned out, she died in January 1976, before it was published. Also like Curtain, Christie didn’t dedicate this book to anyone. Sleeping Murder was first published in the UK by Collins Crime Club in October 1976, and in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company shortly afterwards, although it had been previously serialised in the US in two abridged instalments in Ladies Home Journal in July and August 1976.

Cover Her FaceThere are some conflicting opinions as to exactly when the book was written. Originally it was thought to have been around 1940, but other evidence suggests it could be almost a decade later. I note that when the characters all go to the theatre in the early part of the book they go to His Majesty’s Theatre, which obviously dates it as pre-1952. Christie had a number of possible titles for the book; the one she preferred and intended was Cover Her Face – but unfortunately for her, P D James got in there first with her first Inspector Dalgliesh novel published in 1962. Apparently, Christie had to get the manuscript out of the vault in order to change the title.

private-detectiveAfter the success of Curtain, written when Christie’s creative skills were at their height, the book-buyers of 1976 expected something equally sensational from Miss Marple’s last case, as it had also been written many years before. Alas, this hope was rather misplaced. Much of Sleeping Murder is taken up by Gwenda and Giles painstakingly working their way around the country as amateur sleuths on the track of something they don’t quite understand, with Miss Marple acting as an emotional and cerebral  associate, dispensing advice and warnings from a safe distance. Of course, one of the most exciting things about reading a whodunit – Christie or otherwise – is hoping for a big surprise at the final denouement. Unfortunately, that doesn’t happen in this book; the person who (I felt, at least) was the most likely to have done the crime was indeed the murderer. And although it’s nice to pat oneself on the back and bask in the glory of one’s success, one also gets to feel a little cheated out of a final surprise. So you come away from the book not only slightly disappointed by the journey to the big revelation, but also by the revelation itself.

Duchess of MalfiThe plot also suffers from being based on a massive coincidence, namely that Gwenda bought the same house for her and Giles to live in that she had briefly lived in as a child. It isn’t as though she’d always lived in the same village, Dillmouth; she didn’t even realise she’d lived in England. Of all the houses in all the towns…. she had to buy the one she already knew (without knowing). Personally, I also find it hard to believe that Gwenda would overreact quite so astonishingly at watching the play The Duchess of Malfi – the line “Cover her face. Mine eyes dazzle, she died young…” sends her into apoplectics. For a young woman who is otherwise firmly in charge of her life, I find that pretty hard to believe.

Joan Hickson as Miss MarpleNevertheless, it’s very nicely written and acts as a decent swansong and nostalgia trip, celebrating the great lady’s status as a much loved amateur detective. Perhaps oddly, Miss Marple doesn’t seem to have aged in the same way that Poirot has. Whereas Hastings was upset at the sight of his old friend’s failing health, Miss Marple is described much as she always has been: “an attractive old lady, tall and thin, with pink cheeks and blue eyes, and a gentle, rather fussy manner, Her blue eyes often had a little twinkle in them.” Not only unchanged in appearance, but also in behaviour; she is still as independent and wily as ever, popping around all the old-fashioned shops ostensibly to buy wool and suchlike, but really trying to get as much gossip about the past as possible. No one would suspect her cunning ulterior motives.

His Majesty's TheatreShe’s still socially active too; when we first come across her in the book, she is part of the party going to the London theatre, going out for a meal, and still socialising with her nephew Raymond West, still messing about in her garden, complaining about the unreliability of gardeners, and keeping up to date with her old friend Dolly Bantry. You wouldn’t know that the years have come and gone. It’s quite comforting to see that age has not withered her (well, not more than she was already withered!) Raymond West, however, who in some of the earlier book comes across as an insufferable prig, seems to be a little less annoying now – just generally intimidating, if you’re not used to moving in his circles, as Gwenda wasn’t. Miss Marple’s maid is Evelyn; that’s an anomaly, as in her later years she was looked after by her super-kindly Cherry.

Imperial TorquayThere’s not much more to say about the book at this stage, so let’s take a look at the locations. Most of the book takes place in the Devon town of Dillmouth. You might be forgiven for thinking that this is Christie’s name for Dartmouth, but Aunt Alison’s letter makes it clear elsewhere that Dartmouth is a separate town. It’s a curious blend of fact and fiction; Dr Kennedy lives in Woodleigh Bolton, a fictional location, but there is a village called Woodleigh near Kingsbridge in Devon. Local train stops include Helchester, Lonsbury Bay, Newton Langford and Matchings Halt, all of which are completely charming names and totally fictional. The sanatorium in Norfolk is said to be near the town of South Benham; again, that’s fictional but there is a Banham halfway between Norwich and Thetford that might be the inspiration. Apart from that, Christie uses real-life locations, such as Exeter, Northumberland, and indeed the final chapter takes place in the well-known Imperial Hotel, Torquay.

John GielgudNow for the references and quotations in this book. I’m sure you’ll realise that the esteemed actor they had the pleasure of seeing starring in Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi was Sir John Gielgud – in real life he performed in this play at the Theatre Royal Haymarket in the 1944/5 season, which again can help to identify when the book might have been written. The murderers Madeleine Smith, Lizzie Borden and Dr Crippen all get a mention – Christie has mentioned these people several times before, in The Mystery of the Blue Train, The Labours of Hercules, After the Funeral, Ordeal by Innocence, The Pale Horse, The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side,  The Clocks, and Elephants Can Remember.

stork leg wool“Calcutta Lodge was surrounded by a neat trim garden, and the sitting-room into which they were shown was also neat if slightly overcrowded. It smelt of beeswax and Ronuk.” Ronuk? This was a brand of sanitary polish, manufactured in Portland, Dorset, until the 1950s. Miss Marple, meanwhile, in a wool shop remarks: “I always find Storkleg so reliable. It really doesn’t shrink. I think I’ll take an extra two ounces.” I believe this is a type of wool that gives an extra grip to the body, so is suitable for socks. But I could be wrong. Please tell me if I am!

Emily BronteGiles quotes: “I know a hundred ways of love, and each one makes the loved one rue”. This is a slight misquote from Emily Bronte – the original is “I know a hundred ways of love, All made the loved one rue” – it’s from her untitled poem LVII that begins “Were they shepherds who sat all day on that brown mountain’s side”. And, of course, there is a quick gallop through some of Miss Marple’s earlier cases in conversation with Inspector Primer, including a reference to “a little poison pen trouble” (The Moving Finger) and a churchwarden shot in the Vicar’s study (The Murder at the Vicarage.) There’s also a slightly bizarre forward reference, with an old lady at the home in Norfolk asking Gwenda “is it your poor child, my dear?” which had been previously used in By the Pricking of my Thumbs – but which wouldn’t be written for at least another twenty years!

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

 

Publication Details: 1976. My copy is a Fontana Paperback, first Australian paperback edition published in 1978, bearing the price on the back cover of $2.50. I know I had an earlier copy – the original hardback first edition, no less – but it has vanished in the seas of time. The cover illustration by Tom Adams shows a dead woman’s face against an attractive sea- and skyscape, plus a bundle of wool with two knitting needles – which I presume is in homage to Miss Marple.

How many pages until the first death: 150. It’s a long wait, but the reader isn’t frustrated by the delay. You can sense this death coming quite a long way off.

Funny lines out of context: Sadly none.

Memorable characters: Really disappointing on this front.

Christie the Poison expert: Not much here either. There is some mention of the Indian practice of “wives driving their husbands insane by datura poisoning” in the Indian courts, but that’s it. Datura is a form of Deadly Nightshade.

Class/social issues of the time: Once again we have to think of the “time” as being sometime in the 1940s rather than 1976. But there are very few issues of note in this book anyway. There’s the usual sense of xenophobia, with a number of characters repeating the thought that Leonie, the Swiss nanny, was a bit stupid because she was a foreigner; that distrust is also repeated with Mrs Fane’s scorn that her son Robert had married a Roman Catholic.

There’s also the old gardener who deplores change: “Changes all the time. People takes a house nowadays and lives in it ten or twelve years and then off they goes. Restless. What’s the good of that?” And there’s also the common theme of total distrust of anything to do with mental illness, and the sneaking suspicion that it could be inherited.

And I do have to draw your attention to the unfortunate use of the N word in a conversation with Galbraith, the old estate agent, who remembered Major Halliday. I think there was a big difference in the word’s acceptability between the 40s and 70s, so maybe it was odd that it wasn’t amended by the editors.

Classic denouement:  No – instead it’s one of those occasions when the murderer reveals themselves by their own activity, attempting to kill another person, which in this particular case is thwarted by a rather comic intervention by Miss Marple.

Happy ending? Yes – in that Gwenda and Giles get to live happy ever after in their chosen home; and Miss Marple is left to carry on carrying on, undeterred by age or infirmity.

Did the story ring true? Most of the plot feels believable. The only thing I find extraordinary is that Gwenda returned unwittingly to the scene of the crime and wanted to buy it for her home.

Overall satisfaction rating: It’s not bad and it’s not great. An entertaining enough read, but it’s a shame the identity of the murderer is so obvious. 7/10

Miss Marple's Final CasesThanks for reading my blog of Sleeping Murder, and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment in the space below. That was Christie’s last novel to be published, but the Agatha Christie Challenge continues with a posthumous book of short stories, Miss Marple’s Final Cases and Two Other Stories. These had never been published in the UK before, so I’m looking forward to reading them – possibly for the first time! 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 – Curtain (1975)

CurtainIn which Hercule Poirot and Arthur Hastings are reunited for one final time – back at the scene of their first case, The Mysterious Affair at Styles. The old mansion is now a guest house, where Poirot is a resident, accompanied by a new valet, Curtiss. But Poirot has a surprise up his sleeve – he confides in Hastings that one of the guests is a serial murderer, and he wants Hastings to be his eyes and ears so that they can prevent another murder from taking place. There’s just one main problem: Poirot won’t tell Hastings who the murderer is! Is Hastings perceptive enough to pick up all the vital clues? Can he prevent another murder? And how will Poirot end his distinguished detective career? As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, as always, I promise not to reveal what happens and whodunit!

1940s calendarAs the book was written at some point in the early 1940s, when Christie was at her inventive best, but without the future knowledge of exactly when it would be published, it’s perhaps appropriate that, unusually, she didn’t dedicate this book to anyone. Curtain was first published in the UK by Collins Crime Club in September 1975, and in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company shortly afterwards, although it has been previously serialised in the US in two abridged instalments in Ladies Home Journal in July and August 1975.

Red HerringFor the contemporary reader in 1975, Curtain was a breath of fresh air, after the disappointments of Christie’s more recent publications. Much research has taken place to try to establish exactly when it was written, but it’s hard to be more specific other than early in the 1940s. To end Hercule Poirot’s career on a highlight – for the reader, if not for Poirot himself, arguably – must have been Christie’s chief goal, and so she set about writing a superbly plotted, intricate story, full of red herrings and manipulative mind-games, and a classic Christie cast of old soldiers, young whippersnappers, hen-pecked husbands and research-crazed scientists. The result is a riveting read and a denouement finale that’s very different from a traditional Christie but has you on your seat with twists and surprises.

The Mysterious Affair at StylesSetting the story back in Styles, where Poirot and Hastings had cemented their friendship back in 1916, provides a very satisfactory circular structure to their detective days together – indeed to Christie’s works as a whole. Of course, the timings mean there are all sorts of inconsistencies regarding their ages, respective health conditions and life experiences. 55 years had elapsed between the publication of The Mysterious Affair at Styles and Curtain, and Poirot was already an old man way back then. Hastings tells us at the beginning of this book, “I had not seen my old friend for nearly a year”; whereas the last book that Hastings narrates is Dumb Witness, published in 1937 – so there’s some inconsistency there. Hastings is now widowed, his late wife buried back in The Argentine where they lived. His daughter Judith, who plays a significant role in Curtain, is only 21, which again requires the reader to have some elasticity of understanding! Hastings is, in his own words, not “Heaven help me, a clever man. I blundered – made mistakes.” Christie paints Hastings as not only a bit of a chump when it comes to helping Poirot solve the case, but also rather Neanderthal in his reaction to his belief that Judith is spending too much time with Allerton, a man whom Hastings instinctively dislikes. We know that fathers can get very possessive of their daughters, but Christie took Hastings down some very torturous paths of personal discovery! Fortunately, All’s Well that Ends Well on that front, although there is a darker aspect to Hastings’ over-the-top reaction, but that’s for further discussion after you’ve read the book!

PoirotAnd what of our much-loved and respected hero, Poirot? Of course, we see him through Hastings’ eyes, as this “limping figure with the large moustache”. But on closer inspection, “crippled with arthritis, he propelled himself about in a wheeled chair. His once plump frame had fallen in. He was a thin little man now. His face was lined and wrinkled. His moustache and hair, it is true, were still of a jet black colour […] only his eyes were the same as ever, shrewd and twinkling”. And of course, age hasn’t taken its toll on Poirot’s vanity: “mercifully, though the outside decays, the core is still sound […] the brain, mon cher, is what I mean by the core, My brain, I still functions magnificently.” Good to see that some things never change. What is occasionally a little distressing is to read how Poirot rounds upon Hastings with frustration and fury at the latter’s denseness. “Go away. You are obstinate and extremely stupid and I wish that there were someone else whom I could trust, but I suppose I shall have to put up with you and your absurd ideas of fair play.” Harsh words, Hercule; particularly as Hastings is still coming to terms with his new widowed status: “I’m not much of a fellow. You’ve said I’m stupid – well, in a way it’s true. And I’m only half the man I was. Since Cinders’ death…” Still, I suppose we can extend Poirot a hand of sympathy as he gets older and more infirm; as Hastings notes, “now, when he was indeed a sick man, he feared, perhaps, admitting the reality of his illness. He made light of it because he was afraid.”

CookTimes may have moved on, but some of Poirot’s views are still firmly in the past (unsurprising, as that’s when the book was written!) In conversation with Judith, he criticises her keenness on working for Dr Franklin at the expense of finding a husband. ““Your middle finger is stained with methyliine blue. It is not a good thing for your husband if you take no interest in his stomach.” “I dare say I shan’t have a husband.” “Certainly you will have a husband. What did the bon Dieu create you for?” “Many things, I hope,” said Judith. “Le marriage first of all.””

private detectiveThere’s one curious inconsistency of Poirot’s philosophy that is at odds with his stated views in other books. Faced with the task of preventing a murder, he asserts that it is impossible to stop a murderer from carrying out their intentions; and he goes into great detail about the only possible methods one can use, and how they are all likely to fail. However, in Poirot’s Early Cases, which was published only a year earlier (albeit the tales were written much earlier), that is more or less exactly what he achieves in the story Wasps’ Nest.

scaredThis is a beautifully written book, with an extremely clever set up and tight plotting. Christie manages to achieve a sense of unease at many key moments in the story, which almost lend it a supernatural element; there is much debate, for example, to what extent the previous death that occurred at Styles has left its mark on the fabric of the building. ““The atmosphere of the place […] something wrong, if you know what I mean?” I was silent a moment considering […] Did the fact that death by violence – by malice aforethought – had taken place in a certain spot leave its impression on that spot so strongly that it was perceptible after many years? Psychic people said so. Did Styles definitely bear traces of that event that had occurred so long ago? Here, within these walls, in these gardens, thoughts of murder had lingered and grown stronger and had at last come to fruition in the final act. Did they still taint the air?”

BinocularsThere’s also the scene where Norton fumbles with his binoculars, is embarrassed about what he has accidentally seen and refuses to elucidate further; it’s a very uneasy moment and you feel that something extremely significant has happened – but you’re not quite certain why. It’s all very cunningly written, and when you discover exactly what has happened at the end of the book, all these significant moments make sense. There was a time when Christie would enjoy including what I call a “presaging moment” in her books, which always create tension and nervousness, and Curtain includes a fine example: “How little we realized then that Norton’s hobby might have an important part to play in the events that were to come.” There’s another scene when Franklin upsets a box of chocolates and they spill out on to the floor; as a Christie fan you read much more into such an event than it might necessarily warrant – will this be an opportunity for a murderer to swap a chocolate for a poisoned one, for example? As I said earlier, the book is littered with delightful red herrings.

TadcasterThere are just three locations in the book. It almost exclusively takes place at Styles House, in the village of Styles St Mary, which we know is reached by crossing “flat Essex landscape”. There’s also the setting for the Coroner’s Enquiry, and Boyd Carrington’s house. The only other location mentioned is the Yorkshire town of Tadcaster, where Franklin and Judith drove to get some laboratory supplies. Tadcaster? That’s hardly convenient for Essex! I think the proof-readers didn’t do their job properly there.

AsquithNow for the references and quotations in this book. Has tings asks if there were any similarity between this case and the case of Evelyn Carlisle. This is the book Sad Cypress, published in 1940, which perhaps gives us a closer clue as to when Curtain was written. Again, I wonder if the proof-readers took the afternoon off as the character’s name is actually Elinor Carlisle. Poirot also refers to “your Mr Asquith in the last war”. Herbert Asquith was the Prime Minister from 1908 to 1916 – so you wouldn’t think of him as being from the time of “the last war” in 1975!

CowperHastings wonders who it was who wrote “the darkest day, lived till tomorrow, will have passed away”. This is a slight misquote; the original is “the darkest day, if you live till tomorrow, will have passed away” and is by William Cowper, from The Needless Alarm, 1790. There are more quotes, from Shakespeare; O, beware, my lord, of jealousy… and Not poppy, nor mandragora, nor all the drowsy syrups of the world…, both of which are spoken by Iago in Act Three, Scene Three of Othello. There is also a reference to Judith cutting off the head of Holofernes; he was an invading Assyrian general, and she was a Hebrew widow who beheaded him when he was drunk.

St John ErvineMrs Franklin wore a negligee of pale eau-de-Nil; this is a pale yellowish-green colour, said to be coined by Flaubert in the mid-19th century when France was obsessed by Egypt. And of the two clues that Poirot leaves to Hastings, one is a copy of John Ferguson by St John Ervine – this is a 1915 play by (according to Wikipedia, so it must be true) the most prominent Ulster writer of the early twentieth century and a major Irish dramatist whose work influenced the plays of W. B. Yeats and Sean O’Casey. So there you go.

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

Publication Details: 1975. My copy is a Fontana Paperback, first paperback edition published in 1977, bearing the price on the back cover of 70p. I know I had an earlier copy – the original hardback first edition, no less – but it has vanished in the seas of time. The cover illustration simply shows a bowler hat placed atop a walking cane. Classy.

How many pages until the first death: 127. That’s a good two thirds of the way into the book, but it’s such a good read that you’re not remotely impatient for a death to investigate.

Funny lines out of context: Sadly none.

Memorable characters: The book is much more interested in presenting a deeply woven plot rather than memorable characters, so there’s not much meat here. However, Hastings’ daughter Judith is an interesting character, largely because she presents herself as a highly unpleasant person, and not at all what you might expect coming from the kindly loins of Hastings. Consider this little opinion piece: “I don’t hold life as sacred as all you people do. Unfit lives, useless lives – they should be got out of the way. There’s so much mess about. Only people who can make a decent contribution to the community ought to be allowed to live. The others ought to be put painlessly away.” Nice lady.

Christie the Poison expert: A veritable cornucopia of poisons and chemical treatments litter this book – Christie must have had a field day. Arsenic, morphine, cyanide, strychnine; plus the alkaloids of the physostigmine family, and the sleeping draughts veronal and the fictional slumberyl, all play a small or not so small part.

Class/social issues of the time: Bearing in mind that the “time” in question is probably during the Second World War, it’s fascinating to read Hastings’ description of the period – specifically in terms of no longer producing men of the standard of Colonel Luttrell – as “these degenerate days”. You’d say that was an opinion that didn’t bear much optimism for the future.

Hastings has a very tricky relationship with Judith; perhaps that has always been the way for fathers and daughters, but his possessiveness towards her becomes quite aggressive, as does her resistance to his protection. Poirot admits that “the mauvais sujet – always women are attracted to him”. As women were making their way in the workplace with much greater strides than in previous eras, it would be inevitable that they would have to learn the ways to deal with bad boys independently, and not just rush to the protection of Daddy. But all this takes a very hard toll on Hastings.

One of Christie’s traditional bugbears gets a good airing with some major discussions about divorce. There is a passage where Hastings lists and comments on the individual attitudes to divorce of many of the residents at Styles. Hastings describes himself as “essentially an old-fashioned person, yet I was on the side of divorce – of cutting one’s losses and starting afresh.” Boyd Carrington, who had had an unhappy marriage, was nevertheless against divorce. “He had, he said, the utmost reverence for the institution of marriage. It was the foundation of the state. Norton, with no ties and no personal angle, was of my way of thinking, Franklin, the modern scientific thinker, was, strangely enough, resolutely opposed to divorce. It offended, apparently, his ideal of clear-cut thinking and action.” By listing these opposing and perhaps unpredictable attitudes, Christie shows what a state of indecision society was in at the time in respect of divorce.

I did think it was an extraordinary state of affairs that someone who is convinced they have had a heart attack – Poirot, no less – would refuse to see a doctor. Perhaps there was a mistrust of the medical profession at the time? But, on the other hand, this refusal might be a clue as to the final “whodunit” aspect of the book – so I won’t say any more on the subject!

Classic denouement:  No – but it’s an absolute humdinger, where Christie reserves one of her very finest solutions till the final moment.

Happy ending? That’s a hard one to call. One couple appear to be looking forward to a happy relationship together, which is a positive result. However, there can be absolutely no doubt at all that this is the end of Hercule Poirot, and you may find that sad!

Did the story ring true? This is one of Christie’s ultimate plotting successes, so  yes, it rings absolutely true.

Overall satisfaction rating: It’s one of her undoubted best – no wonder she kept it in a drawer for when it was needed! 10/10

Sleeping MurderThanks for reading my blog of Curtain, and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment in the space below. That was the last book to be published in Christie’s lifetime, but that doesn’t mean it’s the end of the Agatha Christie Challenge. Next up is another book that she wrote at an earlier time and is the swansong for Miss Marple – Sleeping Murder. I can remember one vital aspect of this story – but the rest of it is a blank, so I’m looking forward to giving it a re-read. 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 – Poirot’s Early Cases (1974)

Poirot's Early CasesIn which Christie takes us back in time and gives us eighteen early cases solved by Hercule Poirot, in many of which he is helped or hindered by his old pal Hastings. All the stories had been previously published in the UK in journals and magazines between 1923 and 1935; and in the US, they were all published between 1924 and 1961 in book collections. Poirot’s Early Cases was first published in the UK by Collins Crime Club in September 1974, and this collection was first published in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company later in 1974 under the slightly different title Hercule Poirot’s Early Cases. There’s no additional scene-setting or framework, so I’ll take them all individually, and, as always, I promise not to reveal whodunit!

The Affair at the Victory Ball

1920s ballThis first story was originally published in the 7th March 1923 issue of the Sketch Magazine in the UK, and in the book The Underdog and other Stories in 1951 in the US. It was Agatha Christie’s first published short story. At the Victory Ball, a party of six wear the costumes of the Commedia dell’Arte. But a double tragedy ensues when Harlequin is found murdered, and, back at her flat, Columbine dies of an overdose of cocaine.

A simple structure to this story, Poirot and Hastings are idling their time when Inspector Japp arrives with a request for help. We had already met Japp in The Mysterious Affair at Styles, and he will return in three of the other short stories in this collection. He would also go on to feature in six more Christie novels, and the short story Murder in the Mews. As he would do on a few occasions, Poirot solves the puzzle without needing to visit the scene of the crime.

You can see that Christie is still introducing her audience to Poirot, going back to the basics of the man; his egg-shaped head and what Hastings calls his “harmless vanity”; the account of his time in the Belgian police force and how he solved the mystery at Styles. At this stage of his time in England, Poirot still shows some shakiness in his command of the English language: “his dossier […] I should say his bioscope – no, how do you call it – biograph?” He also asks what would always become a vital question in any Christie murder “Who benefits by his death?” and he expressly asks Japp if he will be able to “play out the denouement my own way” – again, another of Poirot’s trademarks. Of Hastings we learn little, except that he is a faithful acolyte, of whom Poirot grieves he has “no method.”

Other aspects that come up in this story: cocaine use plays an important role in this story, which no only would have interested Christie the pharmacist/poison expert, but also points to a very contemporary feel, as that was definitely the drug de choix of the day. The use of the Harlequin character may point to an interest that was to develop into Christie’s short-lived detective Harley Quin. The Colossus Hall, where the Victory Ball took place, appears to be one of Christie’s early inventions.

Christie gives us an honest and massive clue, which certainly led me to guess who the perpetrator was – although I didn’t guess any of the details as to How It Was Done. And that denouement, that Poirot was so keen to keep for himself, is certainly a very theatrical affair and thoroughly entertaining to read.

An enjoyable, clear, and undemanding start to the book.

The Adventure of the Clapham Cook

ClaphamA preposterous and highly contrived little story, originally published in the 14th November 1923 issue of the Sketch Magazine in the UK and in the book The Underdog and other Stories in 1951 in the US. Mrs Todd arrives unannounced and demands that Poirot investigate the disappearance of her cook; such cases are not normally his purview, but it isn’t long until he proves the connection with the disappearance with a crime reported in that day’s Daily Blare.

The story is of interest as it is one of the rare occasions that Poirot concerns himself with solving a “lower class” crime. At first, he is not inclined to assist, telling Mrs Todd that he “does not touch this particular kind of business”, which infuriates his visitor with his snobbishness. When he changes his mind, his patronising attitude is still unpleasant to read: “This case will be a novelty. Never yet have I hunted a missing domestic.”

However, another of Poirot’s traits comes to the fore in this story; the fact that, once his interest is piqued, nothing will stop him from discovering the truth. He ignores the fact that Mr Todd sends him a guinea for his trouble when he is dismissed from the case. He simply carries on. As Hastings notes, “his eagerness over this uninteresting matter of a defaulting cook was extraordinary, but I realised that he considered it a point of honour to persevere until he finally succeeded.”

Mrs Todd gives us an interesting insight into the world of an upper middle-class woman trying to keep servants in her employ. “It’s all this wicked dole […] putting ideas into servants’ heads, wanting to be typists and what nots. Stop the dole, that’s what I say.”

Christie still reports Poirot’s power of English as uncertain; “if I mistake not, there is on my new grey suit the spot of grease – only the unique spot, but it is sufficient to trouble me. Then there is my winter overcoat – I must lay him aside in the powder of Keatings.” Keating’s Powder, by the way, was a treatment for killing bugs, fleas, beetles and moths in clothing.

Apart from Poirot’s flat, there’s one location mentioned in the story – 88 Prince Albert Road, Clapham, the Todd residence. There are a couple of Prince Albert Roads in London, but neither is in Clapham.

There are a few financial sums mentioned in this story; an income of £300 per year, which today would be worth about £12,500; and the guinea, that the Todds thought would be enough to pay off Poirot for dropping the investigation would be worth about £45 today. No wonder he was insulted. The £50,000 that the newspaper says the bank clerk has taken, would be the equivalent of about £2.1 million today. Now that’s not a bad haul.

I didn’t care for this story; the solution is extremely unlikely and Poirot solves it with a level of vanity that is rather unattractive.

The Cornish Mystery

CornwallThis enjoyable and surprising little story was originally published in the 28th November 1923 issue of the Sketch Magazine, and in the book The Underdog and other Stories in 1951 in the US. Poirot and Hastings travel to Cornwall to investigate Mrs Pengelley’s suggestion that her husband has been poisoning her. Poirot arrives too late to avert a tragedy but isn’t convinced that the husband is guilty.

It’s Poirot’s idea that he should travel to Cornwall pretending to be Hastings’ “eccentric foreign friend”, playing up his image of eccentricity and unpredictability. He doesn’t hold back when he discovers that he has arrived too late to save Mrs Pengelley: “An imbecile, a criminal imbecile, that is what I have been, Hastings. I have boasted of my little grey cells, and now I have lost a human life, a life that came to me to be saved.” He takes his responsibilities very seriously, but also doesn’t like to show any imperfection or misjudgement. Everything must be perfect in Poirot’s world, including the impeccability of his record at solving cases.

The solution to the case allows Poirot and/or Christie, depending on how you read it, to be judge and jury with the murderer, bluffing them into confession and atonement whilst concealing the fact that he has no proof. Consequently it feels like a very moral ending.

The story moves from Poirot’s London flat to the Cornish village of Polgarwith, where the Pengelleys live. It’s a convincingly sounding Cornish name, but it doesn’t exist. Christie utilises her interest in poison, with the news that a large amount of arsenic was discovered in the corpse. There’s another of those unintentionally funny moments when Christie’s turn of phrase hasn’t kept up with semantic change: ““God bless my soul!” he ejaculated.”

Freda is reported to live on £50 per year, which today would be somewhere in the region of is only a little over £2,100. It’s not a lot.

Concise and diverting.

The Adventure of Johnnie Waverly

adventureThis neat and believable short story was originally published in the 10th October 1923 issue of the Sketch Magazine, under the title The Kidnapping of Johnnie Waverly, and in the book Three Blind Mice and Other Stories in the US in 1950. Three-year-old Johnnie Waverly has been kidnapped from his home; his father had received a number of warnings that it would happen but didn’t take them seriously. His parents have sought advice from Poirot, who agrees to take on the case. Waverly Court is home to a priests hole, and Poirot finds unusual footprints inside it; and works forward from that clue to identify what has happened to Johnnie and how he can be safely returned.

Poirot continues to reveal little aspects of his personality; he betrays his rather fiddly prissiness when he complains to Hastings about, of all things, his tie pin. “If you must wear a tie pin, Hastings, at least let it be in the exact centre of your tie. At present it is at least a sixteenth of an inch too much to the right.”

One aspect of this story reveals a great difference between society in the 1920s and today, a hundred years later. The story contains a description of a man and a small boy in a car together, driving through villages. “The man was an ardent motorist, fond of children, who had picked up a small child playing in the streets of Edenswell […] and was kindly giving him a ride.” Kindly giving him a ride? There is no way this would happen today; any man who did that would face instant accusations of being a paedophile; at the very least he would be considered to have abducted the child and would have broken the law. Times change!

The only address other than Waverly Court in the story is the home of Johnnie’s nurse, 149 Netherall Road Hammersmith. Whilst there are a number of Netherall Roads in the country, there are none in London.

The sum demanded for the return of Johnnie was originally £25,000 and then rose to £50,000. The equivalent today would be just over £1 million, rising to just over £2 million. Quite some sum. At the other end of the scale, the ten shillings that were paid to the tramp who delivered the note and parcel to Waverly Court would today just be £20. Not bad payment for a simple courier job!

The Double Clue

ClueThis short, slight and rather easily solved story was originally published in the 5th December 1923 issue of the Sketch Magazine, and in the book Double Sin and Other Stories in the US in 1961. Society antiques collector Marcus Hardman consults Poirot over the theft of valuable jewels from his safe during a tea party when only four people who were present could be the thief. A little investigation from Poirot and Hastings and the culprit is very quickly discovered.

This story is of primary interest because it is the first time Poirot (and we, the readers) meet the Countess Vera Rossakoff, the extravagant and alluring Russian refugee, with whom Poirot becomes pretty much instantly entranced. At the end of the story Poirot believes he will meet her again somehow, sometime; and indeed we do. We meet her again in The Big Four, and in The Capture of Cerberus, the final story of The Labours of Hercules. Otherwise, the plot is slight and, once you understand the relevance of the Russian Dictionary consulted by Poirot, very easy to solve. It contains a big clue identical to one of those that litter Murder on the Orient Express.

There’s a suggestion in the story that you can inherit kleptomania from your parents; a theme that recurred a few times in Christie’s work is the idea that mental illness can be passed down between the generations. I always feel that rather dates her work, as I’m not sure it holds any scientific value today. Unless you know different?

The South African millionaire Mr Johnston lives on Park Lane, in London, which is obviously real. Hardman’s assistant and rather dubious friend Parker lives on Bury Street, which is just around the corner, in St James’s – so unusually, Christie chooses to use two real-life locations. If Johnston was a genuine millionaire, £1 million in 1923 equates to over £42 million today, so he really is a rich so-and-so.

Not one of her best works; mildly amusing but nothing to dwell on.

The King of Clubs

King of ClubsThis relatively simple and slightly infuriating little tale was originally published in the 21st March 1923 issue of the Sketch Magazine – her second published short story – under the full title The Adventure of the King of Clubs,  and in the book The Underdog and Other Stories in the US in 1951. Poirot is called in by Prince Paul of Maurania to solve the case of the murder of a theatrical impresario, Henry Reedburn. The prince’s fiancée, dancer Valerie Saintclair, had burst into the impresario’s neighbours’ house, belonging to the Oglander family, with blood on her dress, shouted “Murder!”, and then collapsed. Meanwhile Reedburn’s body was discovered in his own house. But did she do it? The Prince and Valerie had earlier consulted a clairvoyant who had turned over the King of Clubs card and said it was a warning. Had Valerie interpreted Reedburn as being the King of Clubs? And what is the significance of the fact that the King of Clubs is missing from the pack of cards with which the Oglanders were playing bridge?

The story is significant for two reasons. One is that the resolution is one of those rare occasions were Poirot does not press for the guilty party to be charged, even when murder has been committed. The other is that it is marred by a very hard-to-swallow coincidence involving the card the King of Clubs. I can’t say more, lest I give the game away.

Hastings says of Poirot: “That is the worst of Poirot. Order and Method are his gods. He goes so far as to attribute all his success to them.” Poirot loathes the way that Hastings just casts his read newspaper on the floor, unlike Poirot, who “folded it anew symmetrically.” That little observation goes a long way to illustrate the difference between the two characters.

The story is set in Streatham, which of course exists; Prince Paul is from Maurania, which doesn’t. The name could be a mixture of Mauretania and Ruritania. No other references need explaining!

The Lemesurier Inheritance

John LeMesurierThis entertaining but slightly dubious short story was originally published in the 18th December 1923 issue of the Sketch Magazine, and in The Under Dog and other Stories in the US in 1951. Years earlier, Poirot and Hastings had met three members of the same family over dinner: Vincent, Hugo and Roger Lemesurier. There was a curse, that the first born of each generation dies, handing over the inheritance to the second born. The next day, Vincent is killed falling off a train. Several years later, Mrs Hugo Lemesurier tracks Poirot down to tell him that their eldest son has had a number of unusual near-death accidents; she feels sure there can be no such thing as the family curse, but Hugo is convinced it is true. So Poirot and Hastings head up to Northumberland to the Lemesurier estate to make some sense of it all. Is there a curse? Or is there a more old-fashioned murderer? An exciting little denouement reveals all!

This is a good early example of a Christie story where supernatural fears and superstitions actually conceal a simple crime. Take away the deliberately misleading framework and you have quite a straightforward crime – or series of crimes. It’s of additional interest as the opening passage is set during the First World War, and is just about the most historical that we get to see Poirot and Hastings together. Mind you, it was very early on in Christie’s career (and indeed Poirot’s and Hastings’) for the latter to describe this crime as an “extraordinary series of events which held our interest over a period of many years, and which culminated in the ultimate problem brought to Poirot to solve.” Big claim, indeed.

Christie the poison expert is in full swing with this story, with mentions being made of ptomaine, atropine and formic acid poisoning. It must have tickled her to be able to distil so much expert information into so short a story.

Christie is sometimes criticised for not making some of her supplementary characters more interesting, and for not giving them their own characterisation to inhabit. She’s certainly guilty of that in this story, where she has Hastings describe the children’s governess, Miss Saunders, as “a nondescript female”. Really, neither Hastings not Christie bothered to try to make her interesting!

Not a bad story, but perhaps a little easy. Christie doesn’t really examine the origins of the Lemesurier curse, but only how it affects the current generations. There again, it is only ten pages or so!

The Lost Mine

MineThis nostalgic little memoir by Poirot was originally published in the 21st November 1923 issue of the Sketch Magazine, and in the US, in the 1924 volume Poirot Investigates – it only appeared in the US edition of this book and not in the British version. Poirot reminisces on how he gained ownership of the only shares he owns – those of the Burma Mines Ltd. With Hastings as his captive audience he tells the tale of one Wu Ling, head of the family who had paperwork referring to a lost, but lucrative mine, and who travelled to London with the papers to sell them. But Wu Ling went missing after leaving his hotel, and the next day his body was found in the Thames. Misadventure or murder? Poirot wouldn’t be telling the story unless it was the latter, would he?!

Christie’s device of having Poirot tell his own story, virtually uninterrupted, is a clever way of obscuring what is, in effect, a very slight story. But it is an entertaining little tale, marred by some mock-Chinese-style language that really makes the modern reader cringe, and with a moral slant against the degradation of one’s mind and body by visits to opium dens.

Poirot teases Hastings for his admiration of ladies with auburn hair – hardly any of Christie’s books featuring Hastings omitted a mention of the latter’s penchant for auburn ladies. As for Poirot himself, his biggest feeling of outrage is when it is suggested, as part of his investigations, that he shaves off his moustache. As if the great man would ever undergo such self-sacrifice!

The story is set in real-life locations around London, with Wu Ling staying at the Russell Hotel in Russell Square (now the Kimpton Fitzroy hotel), and characters being traced to what Poirot describes as “the evil-smelling streets of Limehouse” – an area of London which is now much more gentrified than it was in Poirot’s time.

In an attempt to emphasise Poirot’s affinity with everything symmetrical, he informs us that his bank balance stands at £444, 4 shillings and 4 pence. “It must be tact on the part of your bank manager” sneers Hastings. Today that sum would be worth £18,780. Not so symmetrical, and not so impressive – you’d expect the great man to have amassed a much bigger figure than that!

Another minor piece of writing; moderately entertaining, nothing more.

The Plymouth Express

1920s plymouthA rather complicated and contrived story, it was originally published in the 4th April 1923 issue of the Sketch Magazine, under the enhanced title The Mystery of the Plymouth Express, and in The Underdog and Other Stories in the US in 1951.  It would become the basis of Christie’s 1928 novel The Mystery of the Blue Train. When the dead body of a woman is found on the Plymouth Express train, her father asks Poirot to investigate. She was due to travel for a house party, but surprises her maid with the instruction to wait at Bristol station and she would return with a few hours. Whatever her plans were, they went seriously wrong. It’s up to Poirot and Hastings to sort the lies from the truth and discover what really happened to the late Mrs Carrington.

Although Poirot would explain it as good psychology, he has a rather pompous view towards the actions that a woman would do under certain circumstances. “Why kill her?” asks Poirot, “why not simply steal the jewels? She would not prosecute.” “Why not?” “Because she is a woman, mon ami. She once loved this man. Therefore she would suffer her loss in silence.”

The story is littered with real West Country locations: Plymouth, Bristol, Weston (super Mare), Taunton, Exeter, Newton Abbot and so on. Mrs Carrington took all her jewels on the train, which her father suggests amounted to something in the region of a hundred thousand dollars. Today the equivalent sum is around £1.35 million. Quite a lot. More interesting though is the fact that it cost Poirot 3d to make a phone call from the Ritz. That’s about 53p today, which is not dissimilar from today’s cost. And the paperboy was given a half-crown for his errand – that’s over £5 – not bad work if you can get it.

I wasn’t overly impressed with this story!

The Chocolate Box

box-of-chocolateThis entertaining short story was originally published in the 23rd May 1923 issue of the Sketch Magazine under the title The Clue of the Chocolate Box, and in the US, in the 1924 volume Poirot Investigates – it only appeared in the US edition of this book and not in the British version. In response to Hastings’ suggestion that Poirot had never had a failure with one of his cases, Poirot confesses that he did have one, and then proceeds to tell him this tale of when he was a detective with the Belgian Police Force. M. Déroulard was a promising governmental minister who unexpectedly died, but family member Virginie Mesnard did not believe the death was due to natural causes. She asked Poirot to investigate. Déroulard had a sweet tooth and was never far from a box of chocolates. It was only when Poirot realised that the lid of the box of chocolates was a different colour from the box that he suspected something might not be quite right. And when poison is found in the possession of one of the suspects, surely he is guilty of the murder. But Poirot is in for another surprise before the guilty party is revealed.

Another Poirot narration but this one works much better than The Lost Mine. It’s full of references to poison: Prussic Acid, morphine, strychnine, atropine, ptomaine and trinitrine – Christie must have had a field day incorporating all those into the story. Déroulard lived on the Avenue Louise in Brussels – a real location about a mile south of the Grand Place.

Christie writes: “he had married some years earlier a young lady from Brussels who had brought him a substantial dot. Undoubtedly the money was useful to him in his career…” Dot? That’s a new word to me in this context. However, it’s an archaic term that describes a dowry from which only the interest or annual income was available to the husband. Who knew?

Hastings says he wouldn’t drink Poirot’s disgusting hot chocolate for £100. I bet he would – that’s a nifty £4,300 in today’s money.

This is another story where Poirot doesn’t act further in bringing a guilty party to book once he has identified them. Perhaps that’s part of his failure. He references this case in Peril at End House, so he clearly has a long memory about it. Nevertheless, he still has his familiar arrogance, which is shown up in an amusing brief exchange with Hastings at the end of the story.

I enjoyed this one!

The Submarine Plans

SubmarineThis short story was originally published in the 7th November 1923 issue of the Sketch Magazine, and in the US in the Under Dog and Other Stories in 1951. It was also the basis for the novella-length story The Incredible Theft, which was published in the 1937 volume Murder in the Mews.  Poirot is summoned late at night to meet Lord Allonby, the head of the Ministry of Defence, who reports that some secret plans for a new submarine have just been stolen from his country house Sharples. He reports seeing a mysterious shadow appearing to leave the room where the plans were on a table. Will Poirot find out who the mysterious figure is? Or was Allonby mistaken? You already know the answer.

An enjoyable short story that holds together nicely. Allonby refers to when Poirot helped him with the kidnapping of the Prime Minister during the First World War, which is a story that had been previously published in Poirot Investigates. A couple of red herrings that send you the wrong way, until you realise the solution is extremely simple. There’s a clever finish to the story when Hastings reports that an enemy of the nation came a-cropper with their submarine plans. He also insists that Poirot guessed the solution. That doesn’t seem likely to me!

The Third Floor Flat

THird floor flatThis story was first published  in the January 1929 issue of Hutchinson’s Adventure & Mystery Story Magazine, and in the US in Three Blind Mice and Other Stories in 1950. After a night out, two men and two women arrive back at the flat of one of the women, but she can’t find the key to get inside her fourth floor flat. The two men offer to use the coal lift to get inside but they accidentally enter the third floor flat. When they eventually emerge at the right place, one of the men has blood on his hands. They go back to check, only to discover that a woman has been murdered in the third floor flat. Fortunately Poirot lives in the fifth floor flat! And it doesn’t take Poirot long to come to the correct conclusion.

Published six years later than all the other stories in the book so far, this has a very different voice and tone from the others. Hastings is not present, and doesn’t narrate the story. Christie’s third person narration is more formal, stiff and distant than when Hastings is “in charge”. You would almost think it was written by a different person. It has an extraordinarily inventive ending, and I found the whole thing totally unbelievable.

The four characters are said to have gone to the theatre to see The Brown Eyes of Caroline. Such a shame it doesn’t really exist as it is a great title.

Double Sin

double sinThis enjoyable short story was first published in the 23 September 1928 edition of the Sunday Dispatch, and in the US in Double Sin and Other Stories in 1961. Poirot and Hastings take a business/holiday trip to Devon by bus where they encounter Miss Mary Durrant, taking a set of valuable miniature paintings to a client for his approval and payment. Alas, during the journey, the miniatures are stolen. But it doesn’t take Poirot any time at all to discover what really happened to the miniatures and who is guilty of the crime!

It’s a rather charming and entertaining story, an enjoyable read. Poirot teases Hastings about his perennial fondness for girls with auburn hair; Hastings teases Poirot back for his fear of draughty windows on a bus. Bizarrely, Hastings accuses Poirot of having “Flemish thrift” when he is clearly from the French-speaking part of Belgium, and not Flemish at all. The story takes place in the fictional Devon towns of Ebermouth and Monkhampton, and the miniatures are said to be by the artist Cosway – Maria Cosway was indeed a painter of miniatures in the 18th and 19th centuries. The miniatures are said to be worth £500 – today that would be the equivalent of about £22,000. Doesn’t sound unreasonable.

Miss Penn, the antiques dealer on whose behalf Mary Durrant is taking the miniatures, has all the appearance of a certain Miss Marple, who would maker her first appearance in print a couple of years later.

The Market Basing Mystery

Market BasingThis entertaining short story was first published in the 17th October 1923 edition of The Sketch magazine, and in the US in The Under Dog and Other Stories in 1951. Inspector Japp invites Poirot and Hastings to the market town of Market Basing for the weekend, but there crime catches up with them, as they are called to a mansion where the owner Walter Protheroe has apparently taken his own life but the position of the pistol in his hand suggests that he couldn’t have done – so is it murder? It doesn’t take long for the three sleuths to come to the right solution – not before Japp has leapt to the wrong conclusions, of course.

It’s a very entertaining little tale, simply told, with all the clues fairly open to the reader. We learn something new about Japp, that he is a keen botanist, who knows all the Latin names to the most obscure plants. Hastings quotes an amusing piece of doggerel – “the rabbit has a pleasant face…” This seems to be a well-known but anonymous few lines of verse. Unless Christie made it up?

The story was expanded into the novella Murder in the Mews, published in 1937.

Wasps’ Nest

wasps nestThis rather odd short story was first published in the 20th November 1928 edition of the Daily Mail, and in the US in Double Sin and Other Stories in 1961. Poirot arrives at the house of an old friend John Harrison, saying he is investigating a murder that hasn’t yet been committed. Harrison doesn’t believe him, but then Poirot asks more about his forthcoming visit from an acquaintance who will be shortly arriving to remove the wasps nest that has grown on his property. But who is the murderer that Poirot is trying to intercept?

What is particularly odd about this story is that it feels like it has been written by someone else – not only does it not feel like an account by Hastings, it doesn’t feel like Christie either. Nevertheless, there is a poison aspect to this story – the potential use of potassium cyanide, which would have been of interest to Christie.

There is an amusing line taken out of context – and out of its time too, when Poirot explains how he can distract someone so that he can pickpocket them; unfortunately, his turn of phrase is: “I lay one hand on his shoulder, I excite myself, and he feels nothing.”

This story was also was the first Christie story to be adapted for television with a live broadcast on 18 June 1937. It was adapted by Christie herself, and broadcast in and around London, with Francis L Sullivan playing Poirot.

The Veiled Lady

veiled ladyThis entertaining short story was first published in the 3rd October 1923 edition of The Sketch magazine, under the title The Case of the Veiled Lady, and in the US in Poirot Investigates in 1924 – it only appeared in the US edition of this book and not in the British version. Poirot and Hastings are visited by a Lady Millicent who once wrote an indiscreet letter to a soldier that she fears would end her engagement to the Duke of Southshire were it to be common knowledge – and she is being blackmailed by a Mr Lavington who has the letter in his possession. Lavington refuses to give the letter to Hastings or Poirot. So Poirot decides to break into Lavington’s house and take it. But what then? Do Lady Millicent’s troubles go away?

This excellent little tale conceals a nice surprise twist right at the end which you don’t see coming, and is one of Christie’s better early short stories. We learn of Poirot that his vanity is such that the believes the whole world is talking about him, much to Hastings’ derision.

Lavington is blackmailing Lady Millicent in the sum of £20,000, which today would be around £850,000. No wonder she’s worried. And there’s another of Christie’s accidental funny sentences, concerning use of the “E” word. ““The Dirty swine!” I ejaculated. “I beg your pardon, Lady Millicent.””

Problem at Sea

CruiseThis enjoyable short story was first published in issue 542 of the Strand Magazine, in February 1936, under the title, Poirot and the Crime in Cabin 66, and in the US in The Regatta Mystery and Other Stories, in 1939. On a sea trip to Alexandria, Poirot encounters Colonel Clapperton and his difficult, cruel wife, whom Clapperton appears to love despite the way she treats him. Others on board take Clapperton to one side and try to give him an entertaining trip despite his wife’s best efforts. A murder takes place; Poirot quickly sees through the deception and solves the crime.

You can tell at once from the tone of the writing that this story was constructed by a much more mature brain than the majority of the other stories in this volume; it appeared in print at least ten years later than most of the other Early Cases. Nevertheless, the twist in the tale is very easy to guess and the reader works out the solution before Poirot.

Christie the Poison Expert comes to the fore with some detailed information about the effects of taking Digitalin; and sadly the story is marred by an instance of very unfortunate racism (it wouldn’t have been seen that way in 1936, but it is today). Hastings is noticeably absent, his final appearances in Christie’s novels (apart from in Curtain, published many years later) were in The ABC Murders and Dumb Witness, both of which would have been written about the same time.

“How Does Your Garden Grow?”

Mistress MaryThis short story was first published in issue 536 of the Strand Magazine in August 1935 and in the US in The Regatta Mystery and Other Stories in 1939. Miss Barrowby writes to Poirot asking for his help in a delicate family matter. He instructs Miss Lemon to reply, but hears nothing back. Then Miss Lemon discovers that Miss Barrowby has died, so he decides to visit her house, where she meets a Russian help, and Miss Barrowby’s remaining relatives, the Delafontaines. But did Miss Barrowby die from poison, and, if so, how come no one else in the household suffered the same fate?

Again, another slightly more recent piece of writing, still with Hastings gone (and missed too, by Poirot) and with a much more three-dimensional feel. Christie gives us some great descriptive passages about Miss Lemon, whom Poirot employs as an assistant detective, and her input helps not only him solve the crime but also helps the story along nicely too.

Again, too, there is poison involved, this time strychnine, always one of Christie’s favourites. The story takes place in Charman’s Green, Bucks, said to be about an hour from London – I wonder if that is Christie-speak for Chesham. There’s an ingenious solution to the story, and one which I was certainly nowhere near guessing.

And that concludes all eighteen stories in Poirot’s Early Cases. Many of them are not bad at all, and I’d say the good ones outweigh the bad ones considerably. It’s always difficult to put a rating on a book of short stories, but I’d definitely give it a 7/10. If you’ve been reading this book as well, I’d love to know your thoughts, please just write something in the comments box.

CurtainNext up in the Agatha Christie challenge is a book that Christie wrote some time in the 40s, when she was at her peak, designed to be the last ever book featuring Hercule Poirot, Curtain. If you’d like to read it too, we can compare notes when I give you my thoughts on it in a few weeks’ time. In the meanwhile, happy sleuthing and keep on Christie-ing!

The Agatha Christie Challenge – Postern of Fate (1973)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Prisoner of Zenda by Anthony Hope Hopkins (1894)

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

G A Henty (1832 – 1902)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Funny lines out of context:

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

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

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

Class/social issues of the time:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Poirot's Early CasesThanks for reading my blog of Postern of Fate, and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment in the space below. Next up in the Agatha Christie Challenge is a return to the short story format, with Poirot’s Early Cases, eighteen tales published in periodicals between 1923 and 1935 and which had never (with a couple of exceptions) been published in book form in the UK before. So it will be odd but enjoyable to go back in time and revisit the early days of Poirot and Hastings. As usual, I’ll blog my thoughts about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!

The Points of View Challenge – The Use of Force – William Carlos Williams

William Carlos WilliamsWilliam Carlos Williams (1883 – 1963)

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

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

Available to read online here

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

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

 

The Use of Force

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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