The George Orwell Challenge – Burmese Days (1934)

Burmese DaysBurmese Days was the first full-length novel that Orwell wrote, using observations he made during his years with the Indian Police Service in Burma. He wrote the first draft while living in Paris in the late 1920s; then revised it in 1932, with its final version fully written by early 1934. However, it was rejected by Gollancz, who had published Down and Out in Paris and London the previous year, due to their fears of libel. It was clear that Orwell’s fictional location for his story – Kyauktada – was in fact the real town of Katha, where Orwell had served in the Police Force. In fact, the European Club, the jail and the police station are still in existence today, and, if you needed any further clues, the map that Orwell reprints at the beginning of the book makes it all too clear that Kyauktada is indeed Katha. It was feared that the characters bore too great a similarity to people he met whilst stationed there, and Gollancz was not prepared to take the risk. Orwell offered the book to Jonathan Cape and Heinemann too, but they turned it down for the same reason. However, it was accepted by Harpers for publication in the United States, where it was finally published in October 1934. On the understanding that Orwell could demonstrate that he had not named real people, Gollancz finally accepted it for publication the following June.

Happy reader boyWhen I started my George Orwell Challenge a short while ago, I decided that it would be both big-headed and redundant of me to try to add to the weight of literary criticism about any of his writing. I just wanted to read, reflect, and jot down my personal reaction to what he wrote, and leave any greater insights to brains much more accomplished than mine. So let me start by saying that I had no real expectation of what this book would be like. But you know the kind of book where you’re gripped from the first page, you resent time not spent reading it, and you can see the characters in your mind’s eye, and hear their voices and their accents, and see the locations, and feel the emotions of everyone involved in the book? This book is that book. I REALLY LOVED THIS BOOK!

burmaSo what is it about this book that made it stand out for me? I answer by directing you to the four things that most people would want from a first-rate novel. A strong, credible story; vibrant, memorable characters; eloquent use of language; and conveying truths and insights that makes your brain work. And Burmese Days has these four assets in spades. If you haven’t read the book yet, and don’t want to see any spoilers, please stop reading here, go and read the book this instant, and then come back! It’s going to be impossible to write about this book without giving away vast amounts of the plot – and its shocks and surprises.

Let’s start off with the strong, credible story. John Flory, thirty-five years old, English timber merchant and long-time resident of Burma, doesn’t fit in with the other Englishmen at the Club; primarily because his best friend in the country is the Indian Doctor Veraswami, and pukka sahibs in Burma are only meant to mix with other white people. A decree has gone out, that the club must elect one non-European Member, in an effort to improve relations with the local people. Subdivisional Magistrate U Po Kyin, corrupt and ambitious, has his sights set on being granted this honour; the thorn in his flesh is Veraswami, as the most likely other person to be elected.

Meanwhile, Flory is otherwise sad and alone, and can see no way out of his miserable lifestyle. Enter Elizabeth Lackersteen, twenty-two and a highly eligible Englishwoman, newly arrived in Burma from living in Paris. Flory sees his chance and does his best to arouse her romantic interest. But there are two problems; one – he is cultured, well-read and artistic, all characteristics that she loathes. And secondly, he has a large and unsightly birthmark on his face that he finds hard to cover up and which takes away a lot of his confidence; will the birthmark make a difference to how Elizabeth sees him? Not only that, but a rival appears on the scene – military policeman Verrall, a handsome but vain man who loves his polo. But does he also love Elizabeth? I don’t really need to outline any more of the story here; this just gives you a hint of the intrigues at play and the possible outcomes.

Indian DoctorWhat about those characters? Looking at it from an old-fashioned moral standpoint, there’s one out-and-out good person, one irredeemably evil person, and everyone else falls somewhere between the two. Dr Veraswami is, maybe not goodness personified, but still a thoroughly decent and honest man, which makes the attempts to discredit him even more telling. He respects the authority of the British, he does everything he can to be a good friend and host, and when push comes to shove, he is there to support Flory in quelling the rebellion. In the opposite corner is U Po Kyin, an outright villain with no redeeming features, corrupt to the nth degree; a murderer and rapist, likened by Veraswami to a crocodile in that he’s always out for a kill and will always go for the weak spot to secure his evil wishes.

CrocodileAs those two characters occupy the end positions in the goodness/evil scale, although they are well drawn and entertaining to read about, perhaps they are slightly less interesting than the more complex characters. A case in point, and somewhere in between them, is Elizabeth Lackersteen, whose experiences in Paris have affected her detrimentally, so that when she arrives in Burma she is extremely vulnerable. She is pretty and presents herself well, and at first appears to be a charming young lady, but she has a very black-and-white view of what’s good and what’s not, and primarily it comes down to money – due to two terms at a very expensive and posh school. “Thereafter, her whole code of living was summed up in one belief, and that a simple one. It was that the Good (“lovely” was her name for it) is synonymous with the expensive, the elegant, the aristocratic; and the Bad (“beastly”) is the cheap, the low, the shabby, the laborious […] Everything from a pair of stockings to a human soul was classifiable as “lovely” or “beastly”.”

HunterAs we get to know Elizabeth more, we realise that she is appallingly and unashamedly racist; when Flory introduces her to some local people she quickly loses any sense of decency (“how revoltingly ugly these people are […] so coarse-looking; like some kind of animal […] what absolutely disgusting people”), and this sets her against Flory: “He was forever praising Burmese customs and the Burmese character; he even went so far as to contrast them favourably with the English. It disquieted her. After all, natives were natives – interesting, no doubt, but finally only a “subject” people, an inferior people with black faces. His attitude was a little too tolerant.” We also discover that she is romantically – even sexually – aroused by watching violence. She is desperate to kill anything that moves when Flory takes her on a hunt, and when he talks animatedly about shooting, “she really loved him when he talked like this”. When she shoots a pigeon, “he put it limp and warm into Elizabeth’s hand. She could hardly give it up, the feel of it so ravished her. She could have kissed it, hugged it to her breast […] She was conscious of an extraordinary desire to fling her arms around Flory’s neck and kiss him; and in some way it was the killing of the pigeon that made her feel this.”

Rosa DartleShe’s also a cultural philistine, finding the local pwe dance “beastly” and wanting to leave early, thereby offending the local performers; “Elizabeth watched the dance with a mixture of amazement, boredom and something approaching horror […] Surely it was not right to be sitting among the black people like this, almost touching them, in the scent of their garlic and their sweat? Why was she not back at the Club with the other white people? Why had he brought her here, among this horde of natives, to watch this hideous and savage spectacle?” She hates the word “Art”, because her mother was a martyr to Art in Paris, and she equates it with poverty and pretentiousness, dirt and foreigners. “Elizabeth had no friends in Paris […] Elizabeth saw only foreigners, and she disliked all foreigners en bloc; or at least all foreign men, with their cheap-looking clothes and their revolting table manners.” As a result she’s a truly bad romantic match for Flory, for whom culture is very important. She would have hated knowing that he likened her to Rosa Dartle, a character from David Copperfield, as she would find all literary allusions “beastly”.

Polo PlayerOther notable characters include the drunken Mr Lackersteen, Elizabeth’s uncle, who perpetually makes lecherous approaches to her; his manipulative and shallow wife, whose only intention is to marry her off, so that they no longer have any responsibility for her; Ma Hla May, Flory’s vengeful ex-mistress; Ellis, the vindictive, cruel racist businessman who never misses an opportunity for violence against the locals; Verrall, the dismissive military policeman who is only happy on horseback; Deputy Commissioner Macgregor in charge of the Club; and Ko S’la, Flory’s devoted and long-suffering servant.

Which leaves the central character, Flory; a fascinatingly flawed anti-hero. Never comfortable with the other pukka sahibs, he despises their racism but is weak to call them out on it. When Ellis organises a petition against Veraswami joining the Club, Flory signs it despite acknowledging his disloyalty to his friend because he doesn’t want any confrontation. He treats Ma Hla May with total disrespect, using her only for sex; he gets so drunk he has to be undressed and put to bed by Ko S’la. He makes himself look foolish in comparison with Verrall with his lack of horsemanship. Nevertheless, it’s Flory who dares to swim the Irrawaddy to alert the police in the town that the Club is under siege, possibly saving lives in the process. It’s Flory who rescues Elizabeth when she fears attack from a water buffalo. It’s Flory who appreciates the Burmese culture and respects the local traditions. And it’s Flory who genuinely tries his hardest to court Elizabeth and do his best for her. The reader wholly identifies with Flory, so that you forgive him his flaws and misjudgements. And it’s those flaws and misjudgements that make him a supremely believable character.

JungleOrwell constantly delights us with his immaculate use of language; his narrative style is clear and full of imagery, flashes of humour, surprises and sideswipes. He starts with an ironic but wholly appropriate epigraph from As You Like It – “this desert inaccessible Under the shade of melancholy boughs” – equating the Forest of Arden with the jungles of Burma. He relishes the opportunity for regular descriptions of jungle fauna and flora, evoking all the senses to convey the setting to the reader. Take, for example, these few lines from the scene where Flory escapes into the jungle because he cannot sleep at night. “It was scrub jungle at first, with dense stunted bushes, and the only trees were half-wild mangoes, bearing little turpentiny fruits the size of plums […] there was a poisonous, ivy-like smell of crushed leaves. It was still hot, though the sun was losing his glaze and the slanting light was yellow […] at the edge of the stream there was a huge dead pyinkado tree festooned with spidery orchids, and there were some wild lime bushes with white, waxen flowers. They had a sharp scent like bergamot. Flory had walked fast and the sweat had drenched his shirt and dribbled, stinging, into his eyes. He had sweated himself into a better mood.”

Pyinkado treeAnd there’s more. “Here a peepul tree grew, a great buttressed thing six feet thick, woven of innumerable strands of wood, like a wooden cable twisted by a giant. The roots of the tree made a natural cavern, under which the clear greenish water bubbled […] a flock of green pigeons were up there, eating the berries […] the whole tree was alive with them, shimmering, as though the ghosts of birds were shaking it […] then a single green pigeon fluttered down and perched on a lower branch, It did not know that it was being watched. It was a tender thing, smaller than a tame dove, with jade-green back as smooth as velvet, and neck and breast of iridescent colours. Its legs were like the pink wax that dentists use.”

It’s a barrage for the senses. The colours: yellow, white, green, pink; the smells: turpentiny, ivy-like, lime, bergamot; the liquid: the stream, stinging sweat, bubbling water; the fruits, trees and flowers: mangoes, plums, pyinkado, orchids, waxen flowers, peepul, berries. It overflows with lush description, almost too much to take in, overwhelming – just like the jungle would be. Orwell equates the vegetation with the Burmese people. On the first page of the book, he notes that “the Burmese do not sag and bulge like white men, but grow fat symmetrically, like fruits swelling.” With such regard for the flora and fauna, it comes as a shock to the reader when he describes Flory and Elizabeth on their hunting expeditions; with such an eye and ear for the sights and sounds of nature it’s grotesque when its animals are shot.

Orwell tells us of a time when Flory was trying to impress Elizabeth with tales of shoots he had been on before. “She was quite thrilled when he described the murder of an elephant which he had perpetrated some years earlier.” The word murder, an act he perpetrated, is normally only used of human beings, but here Orwell raises the sense of crime involved – which I’m guessing would have been very forward-looking at the time. During Flory’s erroneous attempt to impress Elizabeth with his horse-riding skills, Orwell affirms that “he knew that, like nearly everyone, he looked his best on horseback”. Association between people and animals is shown positively unless it involves the animal’s death. When Elizabeth wounds and then Flory kills the leopard, “they stroked his beautiful white belly, soft as a hare’s”; but after the pelt has been cured and prepared as a gift for Elizabeth, “the skin had been utterly ruined. It was as stiff as cardboard, with the leather cracked and the fur discoloured and even rubbed off in patches, It also stank abominably. Instead of being cured, it had been converted into a piece of rubbish.”

quiet cathedral cityElsewhere, Orwell’s style just captures the reader, with originality and imagination, always truthful and insightful. “Next day the town was quieter than a cathedral city on a Monday morning.” “Painting is the only art that can be practised without either talent or hard work.” “On board ship everyone behaves as though he were rich.” “He was an intelligent man and an able servant of his firm, but he was one of those Englishmen – common, unfortunately – who should never be allowed to set foot in the East.” “There is a humility about genuine love that is rather horrible in some ways.” “Is there anything in the world more graceless, more dishonouring, than to desire a woman whom you will never have?”

Burma Police TrainingThere’s frequent, almost random use of the N word, by characters such as Ellis, for whom the Burmese and Indians are nothing but scum beneath his feet, but also by Flory and Orwell as the narrator, imbued with irony and exposing the racism of others. “When a man has a black face” says U Po Kyin, “suspicion is proof”, encapsulating the idea that there’s one law for one and one for the other. This lack of fairness is why Flory doesn’t fit in with his white colleagues; and Orwell’s narrative subtly switches between simply giving an account of Flory’s life and commenting on the morality and decency of those who make a living from the British Empire. “There is a prevalent idea that the men at the “outposts of Empire” are at least able and hardworking. It is a delusion. Outside the scientific services – the Forest Department, the Public Works Department and the like – there is no particular need for a British official in India to do his job competently […] it is a stifling, stultifying world in which to live. It is a world in which every word and every thought is censored. In England it is hard even to imagine such an atmosphere. Everyone is free in England; we sell our souls in public and buy them back in private, among our friends. But even friendship can hardly exist when every white man is a cog in the wheels of despotism. Free speech is unthinkable. All other kinds of freedom are permitted. You are free to be a drunkard, an idler, a coward, a backbiter, a fornicator; but you are not free to think for yourself. Your opinion on every subject of any conceivable importance is dictated for you by the pukka sahibs’ code.”

Two AnnasI was strongly reminded of a theme that Orwell had written about in both Down and Out in Paris and London, and in his essay on Common Lodging Houses – that of profiteering from the misfortunes of others, at their expense. The prisoners’ food is prepared by the wife of a constable, “a stout Burmese woman”, who Orwell describes as “kneeling outside the cage ladling rice and watery dahl into tin pannikins.” He explains: “the Government provided for the prisoners’ food at the rate of two annas and a half per meal per man, out of which the constable’s wife looked to make a profit of one anna”. Just like the meal ticket swindle, for those staying in lodgings, where vouchers worth sixpence were given to the tramps but were redeemed at an eating-house for only fourpence worth of food, it’s a scandal that is still found everywhere today. Elizabeth’s observations about her mother’s poverty-stricken life in Paris were doubtlessly based on Orwell’s own observations whilst living there in the 1920s.

Mosquito netBut it’s not all heartache and savagery. Orwell has a lightness of touch that turns to gentle humour with delicate ease. From colonial jokes: “Reminds me of the old colonel who used to sleep without a mosquito net. They asked his servant why and the servant said: “At night, master too drunk to notice mosquitoes; in the morning, mosquitoes too drunk to notice master””; learned jokes: “at least you have brought to us law and order. The unswerving British Justice and the Pax Britannica.” “Pox Britannica, doctor. Pox Britannica is its proper name”; pricking pomposity jokes: “How slow you are! I should have thought even a fool would have seen that I am raising this rebellion merely in order to crush it. I am – what is that expression Mr Macgregor uses? Agent provocateur – Latin, you would not understand”; irony jokes: “the editor will get six months’ imprisonment for this,” he said finally. “He does not mind. He says that the only time when his creditors leave him alone is when he is prison.” And so on. Reading Orwell is always full of unexpected pleasures!

Thomas HardyIt’s not a perfect book by any means. There are a couple of dubious plot devices that make you think of Thomas Hardy at his worst – like the earthquake that just so happens to coincide with Flory attempting to say something very important to Elizabeth, and a kind of fatalism overshadows the ending that suggests that it was never going to be end happily for our hero. But then, Orwell did state that he wasn’t the kind of writer. From the essay Why I Write: “I wanted to write enormous naturalistic novels with unhappy endings, full of detailed descriptions and arresting similes, and also full of purple passages in which my words were used partly for the sake of their sound. And in fact my first complete novel, Burmese Days…is rather that kind of book.”

Orwell ends the book with a lively round-up of what the characters are all up to now. It feels like an extremely modern tactic, such as would end a TV reality/documentary series. “Ethel is now back at home and getting to grips with her new hip” or “Fingers Dolittle was given a ten year prison sentence”; except that here the loose ends of all the major characters are tied up, largely to the satisfaction of the reader – except that, of course, Orwell would never give it a happy ending.

A Clergyman's DaughterDespite those couple of minor quibbles, I think this is a terrific book. A subtle – or maybe not so subtle, you choose – indictment of the British Empire, from one who worked there and decided that life in Blighty was best. I don’t think this book is anything like as well known as it deserves to be, and I am currently pestering all my friends to give it a read. I think you should too! I’d be fascinated to know your thoughts, so please add them in the comments below. Next in my George Orwell Challenge comes his second novel, A Clergyman’s Daughter. I have no idea what to expect, so I’m looking forward to reading it over the next month or so and then I’ll put pen to paper and write something about it. In the meantime, thanks for reading and I hope you enjoy the book.

Guest Book Blog – An Rutgers van der Loeff – Avalanche!

As a diversion away from my usual book challenges, my friend Gary asked me if I had ever read Avalanche! by An Rutgers van der Loeff, a children’s book written in 1954, which won the Best Children’s Book of the Year award in the Netherlands that year. Neither the book nor the writer triggered any childhood memories, so Gary sent me a copy to read and ruminate about! And I have to say, as soon as I opened up the package and saw the cover of the book, I did remember it being in my junior school library… but I’m pretty sure I never read it, nor any others by Rutgers van der Loeff.

The blurb on the Penguin edition reads: “Avalanche! is an unusually fine story about a party of boys and girls from the Pestalozzi Children’s Village who went to a high Alpine hut to ski. Their adventures began as avalanche after avalanche came down, slowly at first, then spreading and gaining speed […] It is a grand book, infectious in its feeling of courage in adventure, and is warmly recommended for boys and girls of 11 or 12 and upwards.”

An Rutgers van der Loeff wrote over fifty books between 1941 and 1985, but only nine were translated into English. Her most successful book – and one of her earliest – was De Kinderkaravaan, translated as Children on the Oregon Trail. Avalanche! was first published in the UK in 1957; its original Dutch title, Lawines razen, translates literally as Avalanche’s Rage. It was translated into English by Dora Pound, and illustrated by Alie Evers; and I can find out very little about either of them.

Beware – Spoilers!

The Story. The book is a bittersweet tale of a Swiss boy, Werner, son of the village schoolteacher, who accompanies his father on a rescue mission to lead some boys who have been staying in a mountain hut safely back into the village in the face of oncoming avalanches. These are boys from the Pestalozzi Children’s Village in Trogen (which really existed – and indeed, still does.) Werner and his father successfully lead the boys back to safety, although one, little Paolo, a lively Italian boy, is caught out by a small avalanche and trapped, as his inexperience prevents him from escaping it. Werner keeps hold of Paolo’s hand whilst trapped, effectively making both of them at serious risk of death. But another Italian boy, Giuseppe, finds them, and with them both safely rescued, Paolo now looks on Werner as his best friend and life-saver.

The rest of the book traces Werner and Paolo’s friendship through further avalanche incidents, the uncertainty of whether Werner’s parents have survived a massive snowfall on their house, the evacuation from the village, first to Glarmatt then to Brachen, the appearance of a new refugee from an avalanche, Klaus, and the furious digging to find his parents and his sister. When the imminent danger is over, the boys return to their Children’s Village, with the promise that Werner will visit them; he keeps his promise, but there are more surprises in store right at the end.

The Writing Style. Rutgers van der Loeff has a lively and exciting writing style, that can rush ahead with itself when she’s thrilled with her own story-telling, and then pauses more thoughtfully as she delves deeper into her characters, their thoughts and their motives. It may be a children’s story, but she never shies away from the harshness of life, looking tragedy full in the face at times. There’s no room for sentiment at the sight of an avalanche; the snow may be pure and white, but she describes it simply as “white death”. There’s nothing romanticised or sweetened for a child readership. And an avalanche can start so easily – just the noise of a child’s tantrum is all it takes. “Even a shout can do it. The silliest trifle can suddenly loosen the treacherously piled mass of snow and start it roaring down the slope in a cloud of dust, sweeping away everything in its path and crashing down to the valley.” The harshness of life is everywhere in this book. When Paolo suffers a fit of uncontrollable crying, through stress, cold and grief, Hans Peter, the Austrian assistant, firmly slaps him in the face to make him stop – much to the disapproval of Mr Hutamäki, the Finnish teacher and leader of the expedition.

Elsewhere, the narrator tells the truth about the avalanche’s victims plainly and factually. “No dead bodies had been recovered. There were thirteen people injured, two of them seriously. Five were still missing. These were the three Altschwanks and Mr and Mrs Gurtnelli.” When they ask a medical orderly how Klaus’s sister, Marie, is, he replies “It’s not certain yet that she’s dead”, lacking any empathy with the plight of the potentially bereaved. Not known for his sensitivity, Hans Peter doesn’t hold back from delivering the news: “Marie’s alive, but they don’t know if she’ll pull through […] and they’ve found the parents, they were both dead […] and Klaus is very ill. He’s delirious.”

It’s not only death that Rutgers van der Loeff addresses in a forthright and brutal manner. It can be anything. For instance, Werner is apprenticed to Regli, the carpenter, whom she describes as “a good carpenter but he had a slut of a wife and was a bit short-tempered at times.” That word (slut) has always had a double meaning of both being slovenly and sexually promiscuous; we’re not quite sure what she’s getting at here but it’s a tough word to use in the context of a children’s book. There are, however, also some nice lighter comic moments, such as the appearance of the ticket collector on the train, who “moved on, handing out cheery remarks like pills”.

But I think where Rutgers van der Loeff succeeds most is in conveying the double-edged sword of the snowy environment. “And then it happened. In the middle of the night. Just below the top of the Kühelihorn a great mass of snow broke loose with a crash like an explosion.” And in an instant, the village is deluged by snow. “Man can build snow-breaks, he can put up wedge-shaped barriers at threatened points, he can dig trenches and plant trees, but once or twice in a century man is beaten.” Towards the end of the book, Werner takes time to think and reflect on everything that had happened. “It was all so improbable: the terrors of the last few days, the strain of this strange night. None of it seemed to fit the deceptive loveliness of the white peaks against the blue sky and the sunny peace of this upland valley. Here death walked abroad, and the white terror still lurked.”

It’s interesting that Rutgers van der Loeff’s main characters are all male – the few females involved have very peripheral roles and only two – Aunt Augusta and Tishoo – have anything approaching a strongly written character. All the plot is driven by the male characters, primarily the boys; and I would wonder if today this book would have much to appeal to a young female readership. I’ve not read any of her other books, so I don’t know if this is typical of her output.

The villagers. The book starts with an introduction to the small, traditional Swiss village of Urteli, Werner’s home, and we meet some of the locals and tradesmen, and get to know their characteristics and relationships. Werner’s parents, for example; the brave and decisive Hans, who never questions whether going to rescue the boys in the mountain hut is too risky, and the reticent and timid Maria Altschwank, desperate for him not to go, and not to take Werner with him, but knowing that it was pointless to argue. Then there’s the baker, whose first thought when his village is under threat is to look after his own and not have a care about anyone else. He resents providing bread for foreign boys: “they’re foreign brats! I’ve never heard so much queer babble in all my life […] in times of shortage I bake for my own people first”. That’s an attitude which, almost 70 years later, you’d still find today.

Little vignettes criss-cross throughout the book, giving an intimation of happy or dissatisfied lives in their tiny community. We meet the cantankerous Aunt Augusta, who softens when she’s faced with hardship; never ceasing to be independent, and determined to look after Maria once she’s out of medical danger – and later realising the error of her ways. We meet Mr Taureggi, who generously offers his cowshed for the boys to take shelter, and allows his house to become a first aid centre. There’s Old John, the road-mender, wise but quirky, fit beyond his years, devoted to his wife. Mrs Rähmi, with her perpetually crying baby; Finetti, the butcher and sausage-maker, quietly hoping for a little bit of disaster in the hope of seeing his son, stationed locally; Mr and Mrs Gurtnelli, who own the café, and their son Bartel, confident and go-getting. All human life is here; which makes it all the more poignant when the village has been besieged by an abnormal amount of snow. From the perspective of today’s multi-media, Internet-driven age, it’s hard to imagine quite how isolated the village is – and that the mountain hut has absolutely no connection to the outside world. No telephone, no wireless, nothing.

Pestalozzi. Alongside the villagers we also meet the group of boys who have been sheltering in the hut, and whom Altschwank and Werner rescue. Because the Pestalozzi Children’s Village houses children and orphans from all over the continent, Rutgers van der Loeff reveals fascinating culture clashes between the locals – some of whom have rarely been out of their village – and the foreigners, with their different ways of looking at things and behaving. Antti, for example, shows typical Finnish quiet and reserve, whilst Greek Nikolai is gregarious and talkative. When Werner visits the home at the end of the book he meets another Greek child, Sylvia, nicknamed Tishoo because she can’t stop sneezing, and she has all the confidence and assertiveness you would expect from someone who has thrived from their education and upbringing, despite the odds. But none is livelier and more unpredictable than little Paolo.

Werner and Paolo. They say that opposites attract, and there could be no greater disparity between the boys than that between Werner and Paolo. Werner is a serious boy, one who takes on everyone’s problems for himself, respects his elders and is desperate to do the right thing. Paolo, on the other hand, is a flighty type, who can’t conceal his emotions, cries at the slightest provocation, sings at inappropriate moments and is cheeky with adults. Paolo thrives on adventures, both real and imaginary, making up stories to entertain the others, weaving imaginary events in with reality, so that you can’t tell where one ends and one begins. Werner, however, keeps his head below the parapet, is rooted in reality and can be trusted to provide practical solutions. As such, he decides he needs to stay close to Paolo in the rescue mission, because the latter needs help more than any of the others. That’s not to say that Werner feels no sense of emotion; when he walks back with his father, he is overwhelmed by a sense of security and safety that his father’s presence gives him. No wonder he’s struck dumb when he fears his parents have died.

Fate throws Werner and Paolo together when Werner catches the boy’s hand emerging from the avalanche of snow that has trapped him. For seven minutes they lay trapped under the snow until the Italian boy Giuseppe finds them. Paolo is very stressed from the experience and cannot stop crying. Convinced Werner saved his life, Paolo cannot bear to be separated from him. This emotional challenge catches Werner on the raw and he finds it difficult to know how to react.

“He was attracted to the boy, though he did not know why” adds the narrative, in a manner that suggests there might be some kind of homosexual awakening in Werner. I’m still undecided about that; that might be a very 21st century interpretation! It’s true that the two try to spend time together whenever it is possible. At one point, when Werner is recovering from being trapped by the avalanche from the Kühelihorn, dazed and anxious about his parents, “Paolo sat on the floor by the camp bed and began to stroke his hand softly, as one might stroke a cat. Werner said nothing, but he did not pull his hand away.” Another time, “Paolo was the only one who had been lucky enough to drop off to sleep. He lay like a little child with his head against Werner’s shoulder.” Near the end of the book Paolo finally tells Werner how old he is, despite the latter’s asking so many times. He’s 14 and 3 months, so not at all the little child that he might otherwise appear to be. There’s definitely a physical connection between the two, almost always initiated by Paolo, whose demonstrative Mediterranean ways must have been something of a shock to the reserved Germanic Werner. There’s a moment when everyone on board the train tells Werner they will always be his friend, when Werner and Paolo exchange a look. “It was a look of understanding, such as old friends exchange”.

What is a man? That’s the question that Werner asks himself as he comes to the end of this crisis. There’s a very strong scene where a soldier takes Werner to task for his irresponsible actions in separating the boys away from the group and digging for Marie and her parents, in isolation from any more experienced rescue workers. The ironic thing is that they do indeed save Marie – but it could have led to a much more dangerous outcome, so the soldier is both furious with Werner and impressed with him. Confused and tired, Werner’s initial response is to laugh. “Werner began to laugh helplessly […] till he suddenly felt he wanted to lean helplessly on the man’s shoulder and laugh and cry at the same time. And that, of course, was one of the things a boy did not do. Paolo might do it, but Paolo never gave the impression of being a real boy. Or was he? He had stayed to go on with the digging, though he admitted being the most frightened of them all. And didn’t that make him the bravest?” Despite Paolo’s girlish behaviour, despite the fact that he likes strip cartoons that feature “great big strong men”, despite flying into rages, despite (or maybe because of) his fury at the others’ insensitivity when they play a game about what they miss and want right now, Paolo’s resilience, spirit, imagination, fierce loyalty and sheer bravery make him more of a man than all the others. To take just one example, only he has the insight to realise that Klaus and Marie should not be split when rehoused. He shows wisdom that Aunt Augusta lacks. “The child is father to the man,” as Wordsworth put it.

To sum up: “Misfortune shakes you awake, and you’ve all had a jolly good shaking up and are wide awake, but it’s only when you’re awake that life becomes quite real, because you’ve learned what it’s worth.” So says Hans Peter, quoting the Head of the Pestalozzi village, summing up what’s happened to all the boys as a consequence of the events of the book. And that’s very much the awakening that Werner is forced to undergo. A study of an unlikely but deep friendship between two very different boys, caused by their being thrown together as a result of life-threatening danger. I enjoyed this book very much; you could never tell which way it was going to end up. I did find the character of Paolo occasionally irritating, and when he and Werner have arguments, I always found that I was on Werner’s side! But it’s a very positive tale, bringing out the best of people under extreme circumstances. If you’ve read this book too, I’d love to know your thoughts about it. And if you’ve read any other books by An Rutgers van der Loeff that you recommend, please drop me a comment below!

The Agatha Christie Challenge – A Caribbean Mystery (1964)

A Caribbean MysteryIn which Miss Marple has been sent on a rest holiday to the Caribbean island of St Honoré, where she is cornered by an old bore named Major Palgrave, who tells her a story about a murder and offers to show her a photo of the murderer; however, at the last minute he thinks better of it. Nevertheless, murders follow, and Miss Marple is up for the challenge to find out the culprit is and prevent more deaths. As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, as always, I promise not to reveal whodunit!

ArpachiyahThe book is dedicated “to my old friend John Cruikshank Rose with happy memories of my visit to the West Indies”. John Rose worked on the dig at Ur under Leonard Woolley, and when Max Mallowan oversaw a dig in Arpachiyah in Syria in 1932, he recruited Rose as his draughtsman. A Caribbean Mystery was first published in the UK by Collins Crime Club on 16th November 1964, and in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company in 1965. It was also published, in two abridged instalments, in the Toronto Star Weekly Novel in January 1965.

Craddock and MarpleAlthough some significant contemporary reviewers saw this book as a return to form for Christie, personally I found it rather disappointing. As does sometimes happen with Christie, it gets off to a cracking start, but then it seems to lose its way in the middle, before gathering all its bits and pieces and getting its act together for a decent ending. Unlike most Miss Marple books that had been published by this date, A Caribbean Mystery places Miss Marple firmly in the heart of things, without a Detective Inspector Craddock or similar copper to do the majority of the donkey work, which normally leaves Miss M to hover in the wings and turn up for a few crucial blows.

police inspectorNo, in this book, the local Caribbean detectives play a very minor role and it’s up to Miss Marple to mastermind the investigation. She wastes no time starting her detective work, well before any of the authorities suspect that something might be amiss. But you quickly realise it’s a role with which she isn’t actually that familiar. Unlike Poirot, who lies with the greatest of ease, you see her go through pangs of guilt about telling porkies to suspects in order to find out what she wants. Moreover, she has to team up with the offensive Mr Rafiel, who treats most people like slaves; he’s a crude and offensive conversationalist at the best of times. We’re simply not used to seeing Miss Marple put up with impolite behaviour, and, without a decent English police superintendent or a polite environment to work in, this just doesn’t feel like The Real Miss Marple. Maybe we miss St Mary Mead too much, but sometimes it’s as though another character has invaded the book and taken over Miss M’s personality. That might account for the fact that once she had started her investigations in earnest, rather than finding it unputdownable, I found hardtopickupable.

modern novelsLet’s take a further look at what more we learn about Miss Marple in this book; as she takes central stage throughout, there’s a lot of material to consider. Right at the beginning we hear her views on “modern novels” – “so difficult – all about such unpleasant people, doing such very odd things and not, apparently, enjoying them.” It maybe comes as no surprise that Miss Marple wouldn’t like that kind of book; one thinks of her with her Bible and maybe a Jane Austen if she wanted something racy. But Christie goes on with something that may come as a surprise: ““Sex” as a word had not been mentioned in Miss Marple’s young days; but there had been plenty of it – not talked about so much – but enjoyed far more than nowadays, or so it seemed to her. Though usually labelled Sin, she couldn’t help feeling that that was preferable to what it seemed to be nowadays – a kind of Duty.”” Miss Marple! Are we discovering that you’re not quite the maiden aunt we always presumed? Sometime later her mind goes back to the past. “A young man she had met at a croquet party. He had seemed so nice – rather gay, almost Bohemian in his views […] he had been suitable, eligible, […] and Miss Marple had found that, after all, he was dull. Very dull.” It doesn’t sound like they had a passionate affair, so it’s hard to know what to make of her romantic past.

Bread and butter puddingAway from her natural environment, she’s not enjoying her holiday as much as she ought, and certainly not as much as her nephew Raymond would have expected. She’s bored by the weather always being fine: “no interesting variations”. Tim Kendal is alert to her slight unhappiness, and somewhat erroneously offers her bread and butter pudding to make her feel more at home. “Miss Marple smiled and said that she thought she could do without bread and butter pudding very nicely for the present.” But she doesn’t like the steel bands; “she considered they made a hideous noise, unnecessarily loud.” She doesn’t like the way young people dance; “flinging themselves about, seeming quite contorted.” She’s critical of Lucky: ““forty, if she’s a day, and looks it this morning,” thought Miss Marple.” She feels sorry for Esther: “Miss Marple sighed, a sigh that any woman will give however old at what might be considered wasted opportunities” – but in this instance it’s the fact that she doesn’t know how to make herself attractive. Miss Marple never was bound to the cause of feminism. All this amounts to the fact that there isn’t much joy in Miss Marple in this book – she’s out of sorts, out of place and the twinkle in her eye is missing.

NurseOne other aspect to the narrative that didn’t entirely feel comfortable to me was the side plot about Molly’s health. Without giving too much away, so I must pick my words carefully, it did feel at times as though Christie considered it a separate story, not properly integrated into the rest of the book. But that may be a deliberate ploy by Christie to mask an important part of the plot. I’ll leave you to decide!

HoletownOtherwise it’s quite a straightforward book; it all takes place in the one location, the Caribbean island of St Honoré, which is an invention of Christie’s, whose chief town appears to be Jamestown. That’s the original name of Holetown, the capital of Barbados, so maybe that’s where Christie is setting it in her imagination. Like Evil Under the Sun, And Then There Were None and the next book she was to write, At Bertram’s Hotel, a hotel plays a prominent part, which always lends a sense of confinement and claustrophobia to a story.

SereniteIn other references, Miss Marple wonders if she made up the quote “the many splendoured weather of an English day”.  It looks like she did, as I can’t find any other instances of that phrase online. The bottle that was found in Major Palgrave’s room, Serenite, is a natural medication extracted from herbs and is a non-addictive sleep aid. It’s also the new name given to a gemstone found in Oregon, USA! There is also a magnesium-based drug called Serenight.

bibleMiss Marple advises us that as a child they were told to put cobwebs on a cut. Really? I’ve never heard of that before. But apparently, it’s true. Spider webs supposedly have natural antiseptic and anti-fungal properties, which can help keep wounds clean and prevent infection. Who knew?! There’s also a couple of instances where Miss M appears to call on the Almighty to help. “Who will go for me? Whom shall I send?” she asks. This is taken from the Book of Isaiah, Chapter 6 Verse 8. And she misquotes the Bible in her sleepiness, “and the evening and the morning were the last day”; it should be the first day, not the last day, and that comes from the creation story, Genesis Chapter 1 Verse 5.

KiplingTalking of the Bible, one of the chapters is entitled “Without Benefit of Clergy”, which is a short story by Rudyard Kipling; and Miss Marple says that she once worked for “the Armenian relief”, which I presume meant working with refugees. There is an Armenian Relief Society, founded in 1910 and based in Boston, Massachusetts. Another tantalising insight into Miss M’s back story that is only lightly touched on. We want to know more!

SuetoniusMr Rafiel comes out with some Latin: “Ave Caesar, nos morituri te salutamus”. Miss Marple apologises for not knowing much Latin; but it means, those who are about to die salute you – and is taken from Suetonius’ Life of the Caesars. Basically, Rafiel is telling Miss M that he’s not got long to go; and, indeed, by the time Christie was to write Nemesis, in 1971, Rafiel has died.

PoundRegular readers will know that I like to consider any significant sums of money in Christie’s books and work out what their value would be today, just to get a feel of the range of sums that we’re looking at. There’s only one in this book – the sum of £50,000. It’s an important sum – and is the amount that one of the characters has willed to another of the characters – I’ll say no more on that front because it might give some of the game away! Anyway, that’s the equivalent of over £700,000 today. A very nice little inheritance!

 

Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for A Caribbean Mystery:

 

Publication Details: 1964. My copy is a Fontana Paperback, twelfth impression, published in March 1972, bearing the price on the back cover of 25p. The cover illustration, presumably by Tom Adams, depicts the dead face of Major Palgrave, his bulbous glass eye staring out hideously at us. There’s also a snapshot – which is a Very Big Clue.

How many pages until the first death: 16. Another very quick death, which always gets the reader’s juices flowing!

Funny lines out of context: Sadly none.

Memorable characters: Most of the characters are not particularly memorable, or individually well drawn. I’d say the standout character is Mr Rafiel, because of his charismatic stature and ruthless domination of his staff and the other characters – even Miss Marple. He’s a shouting bully, used to getting his own way through a lifetime of successful business deals and with no sensitivity to other people’s feelings. But you can tell that there is a lot of intelligence there too, and he and Marple form a pretty useful detective team.

Christie the Poison expert: Poison is involved in the first death, and in another attempted murder that is frustrated just in time. There’s a suggestion that arsenic is involved, also Belladonna Atropine, and Datura, which is not just a pretty flower.

Class/social issues of the time: I said earlier on that I felt this was a very straightforward book in some respects, and that’s certainly reflected in the lack of social issues discussed in the book. Nevertheless, there are still a few interesting things to consider.

The book predates Roy Jenkins’ Permissive Society, but you can see some of the more modern ways of speech and behaviour appearing. Miss Marple’s nephew Raymond has a friend who wanted somewhere quiet to write a book – he’s going to stay in Miss Marple’s house whilst she is in the Caribbean. ““He’ll look after the house all right. He’s very house proud. He’s a queer. I mean –“ He had paused, slightly embarrassed, but surely even dear old Aunt Jane must have heard of queers.” I’m pretty sure that back in 1963 this was disrespectful, but common, terminology.

It’s also interesting how Molly seems to expect to have to put up with behaviour that today we’d consider unacceptable sexual harassment. The drunken Gregory, for example: ““now then, Molly my lovely, have a drink with me […] now don’t run away.” His arm fastened round her arm. “You’re a lovely girl, Molly […] I could go for you, you know, in a big way.” He leered at her.” Clearly, she looks on this kind of incident as just one of the down sides of the job.

Given Christie’s propensity for a little latent xenophobia, if not racism, it was always going to be unlikely that a story that takes place on a Caribbean island would get off scot-free in this department. There are, for example, some assumptions made about the local Caribbean staff, that, sexually, their morals are not all they should be. Miss Marple reflects: “nice natures, all these girls, and a pity they were so averse to getting married. It worried Canon Prescott a good deal. Plenty of christenings, he said, trying to console himself, but no weddings.”

There is also an uncomfortable moment where Dyson laughs at the sight of Victoria’s face; “it had looked like a faceless apparition but that was because, though the dress was white, the face was black”. Admittedly Dyson was drunk, but still I didn’t care for that sentence. Even more uncomfortable is when Tim tries to explain Molly’s anxiety: “Coming out here to the West Indies. All the dark faces.” There is, however, one paragraph where Rafiel appreciates how hard Molly and Tim have worked to get the hotel up and running, and his choice of language is very much of its day but now feels simply racist. I’m going to leave you the quote with no further discussion on the subject: “They’ve both worked like blacks, though that’s an odd term to use out here, for blacks, don’t work themselves to death at all, so far as I can see. Was looking at a fellow shinning up a coconut tree to get his breakfast, then he goes to sleep for the rest of the day. Nice life.”

Classic denouement:  The culprit is uncovered when Miss Marple and Rafiel step in to prevent another murder, and thus there is no time for a grand gathering of suspects in the best Poirot tradition. As a result the revelation is a little hurried, but, without question, it’s dramatic and exciting. Then there is a final chapter, where everything falls into place, followed by an epilogue, which makes the end feel a little lopsided. I should, however, say, that I couldn’t remember whodunit when I started to read the book, but about two thirds of the way through I successfully guessed who it was. And if I can do it, I expect most people can!

Happy ending? Not a traditional Christie happy ending – more a wistful one. Some people get a raw deal out of it.

Did the story ring true? There are two glaring aspects to the story which for me are entirely far-fetched. Palgrave is about to show a photo of a murderer and then stops in his tracks because he sees something/someone presumably involved in that old murder. There’s no way that that could have been the first time that Palgrave saw that thing or that person – so why would he start the conversation in the first place? That doesn’t make sense to me. There’s also a moment where Miss Marple just happens to find a book concealed underneath a mattress, which certainly provides something of a clue. Again, how did she know to look there? No, for me this book is one of those to be filed under Too Much Coincidence and Too Far-Fetched, sadly.

Overall satisfaction rating: A good start and a good end but it sags in the middle; and you also feel Miss Marple isn’t depicted in quite the same way that she has been before, which feels disappointing. Added to the coincidences discussed above, I can’t give this book more than a 7/10.

Third GirlThanks for reading my blog of A Caribbean Mystery, and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment in the space below. The next book that Christie wrote was At Bertram’s Hotel, but I’ve already written about that book, as my first few Christie blogs appeared in the order that I originally read them! Therefore next up in the Agatha Christie Challenge is the book after that, Third Girl, of which I only have a vague recollection – Hercule Poirot feeling very much out of place in Swinging Sixties’ London. I’m really looking forward to re-reading this one! As usual, I’ll blog my thoughts about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!

The George Orwell Challenge – Down and Out in Paris and London (1933)

Down and out in Paris and LondonOrwell had used his experiences living in deliberate poverty in Paris and London to create material for essays that had already been published, including Hop Picking and Common Lodging Houses. In 1930 he wrote an account of all his Paris experiences, including working as a plongeur (washer-up and general dogsbody) in restaurants, but it was rejected by publishers Jonathan Cape. The following year he added his London memoir to the first part, but this larger version was still rejected, this time by Faber and Faber. Editorial director T S Eliot wrote “We did find it of very great interest, but I regret to say that it does not appear to me possible as a publishing venture.” He left the manuscript with Mabel Fierz, an older woman with whom Orwell had a relationship and who was keen to help young authors, and she sent it to an agent who thought it would be a perfect fit for the new publishing house Victor Gollancz. And, subject to a few changes, it was! Initial sales were low, but it was taken up by Penguin seven years later, when Orwell was a much more established writer, and reprinted, to greater success.

The book is simple in structure; thirty-eight short chapters in two clearly separate parts, the first twenty-three describing his time in Paris and the rest of the book covering his return to London. It opens with an epigraph: O scathful harm, condition of poverte! from the Man of Law’s Prologue in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales. Living in poverty is the miserable, evil, and unifying thread that runs throughout the book, so it’s a good choice for an epigraph. Down and Out in Paris and London is narrated in the first person, as a memoir; you sense that every word he says is true and this encourages you to keep reading, to share at first hand in his (largely poverty-stricken and grimy) experiences. Orwell indicated in his introduction to the French edition of the book that everything he writes about is more or less true, just with some flexibility on the characters he meets, the order in which things happen, and natural writers’ exaggeration.

This blog post isn’t an attempt by me to write a “proper” piece of literary criticism, it’s just my own reflections on the book and some of its aspects that particularly jumped out at me as I was reading it. I first read the book when I was eighteen and it had a strong effect on me. But I could remember few of the details, apart from Orwell’s advice that you should always take a flyer from someone in the street if it is offered (or even if it isn’t): “When you see a man distributing handbills you can do him a good turn by taking one, for he goes off duty when he has distributed all his bills.” I’ve always put that into practice, even if I’m not remotely interested in what the flyer has to say. It’s the reason that I always come back with dozens of them whenever I’m walking about during the Edinburgh Fringe!

If there’s one message that comes out from this book more than any other for me it’s Orwell’s ability to make the best of a bad situation and how he offers the reader advice so that you can do the same. One of the eminently practical things about Orwell’s writing is that he doesn’t just describe a bad situation and then bemoan the lot of anyone who has to endure it. By making the best of every situation, and also describing how others do the same, he has created a remarkably uplifting book, considering the poverty and degradation strewn on its pages. For example, his first description of life in the Rue Coq d’Or includes the story of the Bulgarian student who makes intricate and elegant shoes all morning before attending lectures at the Sorbonne. He’s someone who is obviously on his way up and out of trouble, much to Orwell’s admiration. An example of Orwell offering advice on how to cope with a bad situation is when he tells how, if you burn sulphur, you can drive the bugs marching around the floor of your room into the next door room – very helpful advice when you’re besieged by them. Also he tells us: “you can live on a shilling a day in Paris if you know how. But it is a complicated business.” He has advice on how not to look destitute even when you are, describing how Boris the Russian soldier “managed to keep a fairly smart appearance. He shaved without soap and with a razor-blade two months old, tied his tie so that the holes did not show, and carefully stuffed the soles of his shoes with newspaper. Finally, when he was dressed, he produced an ink-bottle and inked the skin of his ankles where it showed through his socks. You would never have thought, when it was finished, that he had recently been sleeping under the Seine bridges.”

Spike cell roomsHe also offers solutions for society to escape from bad situations. He has a range of ideas for stopping the continuous problem of tramps in England – specifically in London – roaming the streets pointlessly and dejectedly. They could, for example, be given work on farms to grow their own food. Or they could put an end to the rule that a tramp could not stay at the same casual ward within a thirty day period, which therefore requires him to stay on the road rather than attempt to set down roots.

Hammer and SickleOne tends to think of Orwell as a political writer, but in this book there is no sense of identifying with any one political party. What does come across is that Orwell is strongly on the side of the working man, but not the shirking man. He has little time for the Communist waiter Jules, who stands on the side-lines and watches whilst everyone else breaks their backs trying to get the Auberge de Jehan Cottard ready for opening: “Boris and I did all the work. Jules was skulking…” Orwell doesn’t pass comment on how Jules puts his communism into practice – but he doesn’t have to. “Did any man alive ever see me working when I could avoid it? No, And not only I don’t wear myself out working, like you other fools, but I steal, just to show my independence. Once I was in a restaurant where the patron thought he could treat me like a dog. Well, in revenge I found out a way to steal milk from the milk-cans and seal them up again so that no one should know. I tell you I just swilled that milk down night and morning […] it wasn’t that I wanted milk, you understand because I hate the stuff; it was principle, just principle.”

Orwell describes Jules has having a “curious, malignant spirit”. He goes on: “he told me, as a matter of pride, that he had sometimes wrung a dirty dishcloth into a customer’s soup before taking it in, just to be revenged upon a member of the bourgeoisie.” Jules is an angry and hostile man; a man driven by vengeance and selfishness. He’s one of Orwell’s most vividly drawn characters in this book – of which there are plenty – and one wonders if he was perhaps the first true communist that Orwell ever met, which might inform his opinions about communism that we will characterise future works. He’s also very different from the other waiters that Orwell gets to know in Paris, who approach their work from a completely opposite direction. “Never be sorry for a waiter” he stresses. “Sometimes when you sit in a restaurant, still stuffing yourself half an hour after closing time, you feel that the tired waiter at your side must surely be despising you. But he is not […] he is thinking, “one day, when I have saved enough money, I shall be able to imitate that man”. He is ministering to a kind of pleasure he thoroughly understands and admires. And that is why waiters are seldom Socialists, have no effective trade union, and will work twelve hours a day […] they are snobs, and they find the servile nature of their work rather congenial.”

This observation, about the nature of waiters, is typical of Orwell’s writing style, in that it is a clever mix of pure journalism and social commentary, part factual, part gossip, part truth, part inference. With great lightness of touch, he can express a complex issue in a simple sentence – so that you feel you’ve absolutely grasped what he’s trying to convey. He devotes a considerable amount of time in the book discussing the life of tramps, and what can be done to ameliorate their position, and how the rest of society regards them; but he sums it up beautifully in the phrase “a tramp is only an Englishman out of work, forced by law to live as a vagabond”. His friend Boris tells a story of a Russian duke who swindles restaurants and waiters by getting them to pay for his meals, playing on his status as being a guarantee of his integrity (wrongly). Orwell infers that the duke made quite a lot of money that way, and that probably the waiters did not mind being swindled. His summing up: “A duke is a duke, even in exile” expresses the rationale perfectly.

He’s delightfully matter-of-fact in dealing with some of the desperate aspects of the poverty-stricken life. One night, whilst he is working long hours as a plongeur, a murder takes place right outside his lodgings. Everyone in the house is awoken by the noise and disruption; they get up and see what’s happened for themselves. But that is all. “We just made sure that the man was done for, and went straight back to bed. We were working people, and where was the sense of wasting sleep over a murder?” There’s another passage where Orwell encapsulates the reality of employing plongeurs, who are a vital element of the restaurant trade but simply not to be trusted: “the food we were given was no more than eatable, but the patron was not mean about drink; he allowed us two litres of wine a day each, knowing that if a plongeur is not given two litres he will steal three.”

Other lines and descriptions just shout out from the pages, capturing the reader’s imagination and understanding. He describes the moment when you realise that thousands of people in Paris work long hours with no hope of ever doing anything else, as “a good cure for self-pity”. Tramps gathering outside a church in the hope of a free tea are “like kites round a dead buffalo.” In a Paris restaurant, the fewer the waiters involved in the preparation of your meal, the greater the chance it will be clean: “roughly speaking, the more one pays for food, the more sweat and spittle one is obliged to eat with it.”

Orwell does seem to have caught some of the French scorn for the well-to-do foreign clients staying at the Hotel X; they “seemed to know nothing whatever about good food. They would stuff themselves with disgusting American “cereals”, and eat marmalade at tea, and drink vermouth after dinner, and order a poulet à la reine at a hundred Francs and then souse it in Worcester sauce. One customer, from Pittsburg (sic) dined every night in his bedroom on grape-nuts, scrambled eggs and cocoa. Perhaps it hardly matters whether such people are swindled or not.” He recognised that waiters are snobs, and he has become snobbish himself.

Men outside a Common Lodging HouseOne thing that did strike me about the book is how relevant much of it is today. Whilst we no longer have common lodging houses, we do have Houses of Multiple Occupation, which, like in the 30s, need to be licensed and have to meet certain standards. Similarly there are no casual wards today, but there are shelters for the homeless. The meal ticket swindle, where vouchers worth sixpence were given to the tramps but were redeemed at an eating-house for only fourpence worth of food – thus having the proprietor effectively stealing twopence from each tramp – is strongly reminiscent of the recent scandal where school meal vouchers were exchanged for hampers containing food worth less than half the value of the voucher; basically, there’s always someone there to make money from the disadvantaged. Orwell could see there was no end to this type of swindle: “this kind of victimization is a regular part of a tramp’s life, and it will go on as long as people continue to give meal tickets instead of money.” And Paddy, Orwell’s Irish tramp companion, saw “all foreigners” as “dem bloody dagoes” – for, according to his theory, foreigners were responsible for unemployment.” Rightly or wrongly, that was one of the reasons people voted for Brexit. Things don’t change as much as we think they do.

The Orwell of this book enjoys his own company; he’s perfectly happy being solitary, taking rooms on his own, writing his essays, observing others. When poverty kicks in, necessity requires him to work alongside other people. But whether he’s on his own or with others, it’s the characters that flit in and out of his life – especially in Paris – that give his memoir extra colour and depth, elements of horror, humour and simple incredulity. We’ve already mentioned the Bulgarian student, working on his shoes before his daily visits to the Sorbonne. There’s the Russian mother and son – she darning socks for sixteen hours a day whilst he loafs in the Montparnasse cafés – it’s not difficult to see with whom Orwell’s sympathies lie there. Orwell points out that poverty breeds eccentricity; “people who have fallen into solitary, half-mad grooves of life and given up trying to be normal or decent. Poverty frees them from ordinary standards of behaviour, just as money frees people from work” – another of Orwell’s pearls of wisdom.

He then talks about the true eccentrics he has met in Paris. The Rougiers, for example, who sold postcards on the Boulevard St Michel, packaged as if they were pornographic, but in fact they were merely of Loire chateaux. They spent their lives half-starved and half-drunk and  “the filth of their room was such that one could smell it on the floor below.” Henri, the melancholy and silent sewer worker, whose ability to talk about anything other than work had been dashed out of him by a bad love affair. There’s Charlie, the young innocent-looking lad, who tells a tale so shocking of his experience with an unwilling prostitute that is really a brutal rape; Orwell describes him as a “curious specimen”, and an example of the “diverse characters” to be found in the Coq d’Or quarter. Orwell’s relating of Charlie’s story is so appalling and cruel that Gollancz nearly didn’t publish the book because of it.

There is Boris, whom Orwell liked, the brash and booming Russian soldier, now on hard times trying to scrape a living as a waiter; Boris was Orwell’s chief companion in Paris. There is Valenti, a waiter at the Hotel X, whose life is a novel in itself: “crossing the Italian frontier without a passport and selling chestnuts from a barrow on the northern boulevards, and being given fifty days’ imprisonment in London for working without a permit, and being made love to by a rich old woman in a hotel who gave him a diamond ring and afterwards accused him of stealing it, were among his experiences.” There’s Furex, the Limousin stonemason, who worked hard all week so that he could spend Saturday interminably drunk: “the queer thing about Furex was that, though he was a Communist when sober, he turned violently patriotic when drunk. He started the evening with good Communist principles, but after four or five litres he was a rampant Chauvinist denouncing spies, challenging all foreigners to fight and, if he was not prevented, throwing bottles.“ And of course there’s Jules, the lazy, vengeful and proud Magyar waiter.  Time for another Orwell bon mot: “Proud and lazy men do not make good waiters. It was Jules’s dearest boast that once when a customer in a restaurant had insulted him, he had poured a plate of hot soup down the customer’s neck, and then walked straight out without even waiting to be sacked.”

Pavement artistOrwell goes into less detail regarding the characters he meets in London; the main two are Paddy, the Irish tramp, and Bozo the screever, or pavement artist. Paddy was unusually smart and didn’t resort to crime in order to eat; he took Orwell under his wing and showed him how to survive as a tramp. Bozo was an artist through and through, intelligent and thoughtful, creative and inspirational. Lame, following what we would now call an industrial accident, Bozo tried to get work, selling books like his father, then toys, then finally resorting to screeving. He had travelled; spoke French, knew Shakespeare, had watched a corpse burn in India. Orwell clearly finds him a very impressive character. The London folk are less eccentric, and more like friends on whom Orwell relied; whereas the Paris characters are quirkier and more peripheral; for the most part Orwell did not need to rely on others in Paris in order to survive.

Whether it’s despite or because of the poverty and the wretchedness – and I’m tempted to think it’s both – there’s a lot of humour hidden away in the darker recesses of this book. As we’ve already seen, Orwell has a wicked turn of phrase, that can convey multitudes in a few syllables. This applies just as well to the humour lurking behind the sorrow. His account of pawning his clothes in Paris, having to take a number and waiting to be called, being swindled out of a decent price for his property, watching the old man pick his woollen pants off the floor, and so on, is delivered as though he were giving a witty and urbane after dinner speech à la Oscar Wilde. Throwaway observations like: “afterwards, when it was too late, I learned that it was wiser to go to a pawnshop in the afternoon. The clerks are French, and, like most French people, are in a bad temper till they have eaten their lunch” are very funny whilst conveying a grain of absolute truth.

Another example of Orwell’s wry sense of humour comes when he is describing how he and Boris applied to work as hands at a circus. “You had to shift benches and clean up litter and, during the performance, stand on two tubs and let a lion jump through your legs. When we got to the place, an hour before the time named, we found a queue of fifty men already waiting. There is some attraction in lions, evidently.” There was also the time when Orwell became involved in a secret society of Communists looking for journalists; anyone arriving at their location brought a bag of washing, to make it look respectable. But it was a con, because you had to pay twenty francs to be allowed in the society. They promised him 150 francs an article, but they swiftly disappeared; however, his sense of humour allows him to respect their inventiveness. “They were clever fellows, and played their part admirably. Their office looked exactly as a secret Communist office should look, and as for that touch about bringing a parcel of washing, it was genius.”

On another occasion, Orwell recounts how he was offered a permanent job as a plongeur at a restaurant, where they spend the entire time swearing and cursing at each other, but treat each other as equals when work is finished for the day. “The head waiter says he would enjoy calling an Englishman names. Will you sign on for a month?” I could go on – but you can see how Orwell’s use of humour, even in the depths of despair, played a major part in seeing him through – as indeed it did all the people whose lives he crossed whilst down and out.

There are plenty of serious observations to be made, however. The hoops that have to be gone through, and humiliation that has to be endured in order to get a Salvation Army bed for the night, mean that, whatever spirit of generosity might be there in the intent, Orwell will resent the Salvation Army for the rest of his life. Churches, generally, come in for a lot of criticism – there’s another oddly hilarious scene where a number of tramps are made to sit through a service, and they behave so riotously badly in revenge against the people offering charity. “The scene had interested me. It was so different from the ordinary demeanour of tramps – from the abject worm-like gratitude with which they normally accept charity. The explanation, of course, was that we outnumbered the congregation and so were not afraid of them. A man receiving charity practically always hates his benefactor – it is a fixed characteristic of human nature; and, when he has fifty or a hundred others to back him, he will show it.”

Here are some more of Orwell’s observations and deductions from his couple of years living down and out. The fact that clothes are powerful things; when Orwell is finally able to wear anything other than rags and patches, “my new clothes had put me instantly into a new world. Everyone’s demeanour seemed to have changed abruptly […] dressed in a tramp’s clothes it is very difficult, at any rate for the first day, not to feel that you are genuinely degraded.” The fact that begging is loathed by society is because it’s impossible to grow rich from begging. “In practice nobody cares whether work is useful or useless, productive or parasitic; the sole thing demanded is that it shall be profitable […] Money has become the grand test of virtue. By this test beggars fail, and for this they are despised […] A beggar, looked at realistically, is simply a businessman […] he has merely made the mistake of choosing a trade at which it is impossible to grow rich.”

The fact that fatigue has a bad effect on one’s manners. The overworked, under slept, underpaid, underwashed hotel workers in Paris treat each other abominably, not only with foul language, but physical and mental cruelty in a manner that no other professional would ever dream of behaving or accepting. Take the argument between Orwell and the cook: “Once she nagged and nagged until at last, out of pure spite, I lifted the dustbin up and put it out in the middle of the floor, where she was bound to trip over it. “Now, you cow, “ I said, “move it yourself.” Poor old woman, it was too heavy for her to lift and she sat down, put her head on the table and burst out crying. And I jeered at her. This is the kind of effect that fatigue has upon one’s manners.” Orwell knows he behaved despicably; but he tells us the tale with honesty as an illustration of those desperate times.

Maitre dThe fact that there is a caste system in a French hotel, with the manager at the top of the tree, the maitre d’hotel next, who “did not serve at table, unless to a lord or someone of that kind”; he would be followed by the head cook, who dined in the kitchen but at a separate table; then came the chef du personnel, the other cooks, then the waiters, who would only receive a retaining fee and their tips, then the laundresses, the apprentice waiters, then the plongeurs (like Orwell), then the chambermaids and finally the cafetiers. The relationship rules were unwritten but fully understood; but only while they were at work. Outside of work, a spirit of liberté, egalité, fraternité took over.

The fact that there is a similar hierarchy of status of begging in London; “there is a sharp social line between those who merely cadge and those who attempt to give some value for money […] The most prosperous beggars are street acrobats and street photographers. On a good pitch – a theatre queue for instance – a street acrobat can often earn five pounds a week […] Organ-grinders, like acrobats, are considered artists rather than beggars […] Screevers can sometimes be called artists, sometimes not […] Below screevers come the people who sing hymns, or sell matches, or bootlaces, or envelopes containing a few grains of lavender – called, euphemistically, perfume […] there is not a singer or match-seller in London who can be sure of £50 a year – a poor return for standing eighty-four hours a week on the kerb, with the cars grazing your backside.” This is just a small selection of the revelations and insights that Orwell offers us throughout the book.

George OrwellIt’s been suggested that Orwell expresses a lot of antisemitic sentiment in the book, particularly in the Parisian section. Is this evidence that Orwell was antisemitic, or is it simply the product of the age? I don’t know enough to comment, but I would point out that he also writes intolerantly of homosexuality; not so much in this book, but in the earlier essays he rather despises the tramps who turn to other men for sex – an almost inevitable consequence to the fact that their daily life completely prevents them from ever meeting women. I’m tempted to think that this is due to the times in which he lived, rather than betraying a truly antisemitic or homophobic characteristic; maybe this will become clearer with his later books. I will keep a watch out!

One other point – if your copy of the book, like mine, was printed many years ago, you may find that chapter 32, where Orwell writes journalistically about everyday London slang and swearing, contains a number of words that have been replaced by a euphemistic dash; this is because Gollancz couldn’t consider the book for publication if those foul words were included – much to Orwell’s fury. It’s only been in very recent publications that the dashes have been replaced by the actual words that Orwell originally used. And, to fulfil your curiosity as to which words they are, I can reveal that they are our good old friends f*ck and f*cking! This is a genuinely fascinating chapter, because a number of the slang words used, which Orwell foresaw would quickly go out of style, either never did, or have since come back into use. You don’t need a glossary to understand what is meant by mooching, dideki, boozer, kip, or knocking-off.

Burmese DaysThere is so much more to be got out of this book – I can only recommend that you read it for yourself, if you haven’t already! And if you’ve read it too, I’d be fascinated to know your thoughts, please add them in the comments below! Orwell’s next published writing were a few poems, but, for brevity’s sake, I’m not going to include them in my George Orwell Challenge, After that comes his first novel, Burmese Days. Hopefully I’ll read it over the next few weeks then get my thoughts down on paper soon after! Thanks for reading and I hope you enjoy the book.

The Agatha Christie Challenge – The Clocks (1963)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PoundRegular readers will know that I like to consider any significant sums of money in Christie’s books and work out what their value would be today, just to get a feel of the range of sums that we’re looking at. There’s only one in this book – the sum of £7 10/- is found on the dead man’s body. That’s the equivalent of about £110 today. Just about the amount of money you might take out with you to cover you for most needs on a day out.

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Memorable characters:

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

Christie the Poison expert:

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

Class/social issues of the time:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Caribbean MysteryThanks for reading my blog of The Clocks, and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment in the space below. Next up in the Agatha Christie Challenge is A Caribbean Mystery, and Miss Marple on holiday in the West Indies – but of course, she’s never far away from crime. I can’t remember anything about it, so I’m looking forward to re-reading it and, as usual, I’ll blog my thoughts about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!

The George Orwell Challenge – Common Lodging Houses (1932)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PoundRegular readers will know that I like to consider any significant sums of money in Christie’s books and work out what their value would be today, just to get a feel of the range of sums that we’re looking at. There aren’t many in this book – the chief sum mentioned is that of £500 which was deposited into Giuseppe’s bank account, which today would be around £7500. Almost more interesting, although much smaller, is the admission fee to the Gossington Hall fete, which was a shilling. That’s 75p at today’s rate. Pretty cheap, really.

 

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

 

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

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

Funny lines out of context: Disappointingly none.

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

Christie the Poison expert:

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

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

Class/social issues of the time:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The ClocksThanks for reading my blog of The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side, and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment in the space below. Next up in the Agatha Christie Challenge is The Clocks, one of the first Christies I ever read, and I remember as a child being thoroughly confused by it – I remember my mother asking me if I understood whodunit and I also remember lying to her that I did! As a result I’ve never quite come to terms with this book and certainly can’t remember anything about it. Therefore I’m very much looking forward to re-reading it and, as usual, I’ll blog my thoughts about it as soon as I can. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!

The George Orwell Challenge – Hop Picking (1931)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Agatha Christie Challenge – The Pale Horse (1961)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PoundRegular readers will know that I like to consider any significant sums of money in Christie’s books and work out what their value would be today, just to get a feel of the range of sums that we’re looking at. Thomasina Tuckerton is said to have inherited an estate worth at least £100,000, which at today’s rate would equal at least £1.5 million. Lady Hesketh-Dubois left half that amount in her will, £50,000 net – so that’s £750,000 today. And the other interesting sum mentioned is the five shillings that Easterbrook is forced to part with to buy a rose from Poppy at her flower salon; today that would be worth about £3.90. That’s not that expensive really!

 

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

 

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

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

Funny lines out of context: A few.

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

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

Memorable characters:

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

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

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

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

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

Class/social issues of the time:

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Mirror Crack'dThanks for reading my blog of The Pale Horse, and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment in the space below. Next up in the Agatha Christie Challenge is The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side, and a return to Miss Marple. I’m pretty sure I can remember a lot of this book, including the identities of the murderer and at least one victim. Nevertheless I’m looking forward to re-reading it and, as usual, I’ll blog my thoughts about it as soon as I can. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!