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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Memorable characters:

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

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

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

Christie the Poison expert:

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

Class/social issues of the time:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Agatha Christie Challenge – Three Blind Mice (1950)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Agatha Christie Challenge – Crooked House (1949)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Memorable characters:

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

Christie the Poison expert:

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

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

Class/social issues of the time:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Paul Berna Challenge – The Street Musician (1956)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Memorable characters:

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

Christie the Poison expert:

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

Class/social issues of the time:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Talk about judgemental!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Paul Berna Challenge

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

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

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

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

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

The Agatha Christie Challenge – The Labours of Hercules (1947)

The Labours of HerculesIn which Poirot, following an idea planted in his brain by his friend Dr Burton, decides to sniff out and solve twelve cases that mirror the ancient classical labours of Hercules. Each case is written as a short story, preceded by a foreword which explains how Burton gave Poirot the idea.

The book is dedicated “to Edmund Cork of whose labours on behalf of Hercule Poirot I am deeply appreciative this book is affectionately dedicated”. Cork was Christie’s literary agent, “a young man with a slight stammer” as she described him in her autobiography, and someone who became a lifelong friend. All the stories had been previously published in the UK in the Strand Magazine in 1939 and 1940, with the exception of The Capture of Cerberus which was rejected by the magazine and was not published as part of the series. In the US, they were all published between 1939 and 1947 in either This Week magazine or Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. The collection was first published in the format The Labours of Hercules in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company in 1947 and the UK, by Collins Crime Club, in November of that year.

As with Poirot Investigates and The Listerdale Mystery, even though they’re just bite-sized stories, they still contain many of Christie’s usual themes and idiosyncrasies. I’m going to take them one by one and look at each one separately – and, as usual, don’t worry, I won’t reveal the intricacies of whodunit!

The brief, scene-setting foreword reveals Poirot entertaining his friend Dr Burton, Fellow of All Souls, chatting over a glass of Chateau Mouton Rothschild, relaxing in Poirot’s chromium, modernistic furnishings. Burton quizzes Poirot over his unusual first name – and indeed, recollects that Poirot has a brother, Achille, whom we encountered in The Big Four. Burton takes Poirot to task for never having read the Classics, and while Poirot appears to look forward to a retirement cultivating vegetable marrows (“magnificent vegetables – but they lack flavour”), secretly his curiosity is piqued. So he instructs his trusted secretary Miss Lemon to amass as much information about Hercules as possible. Disappointed to discover that Hercules is, for the most part, an unsophisticated brute, he nevertheless decides to seek out twelve cases to be his retirement swansong – and we await the arrival of the first case.

Although only six pages, this is a very entertainingly written introduction to the rest of the book, with some excellent insights into Poirot’s character, and some vague connections to other books. Long ago, in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, we read that Poirot was to retire to cultivate vegetable marrows. It looks as though he still hasn’t got around to starting that yet. In Christie’s previous book, The Hollow, we saw Poirot weekending in a country cottage – whilst still presumably having his flat up in town – and the modern description of his urban surroundings still makes it sound as though his country pursuits aren’t really suitable to his personality. We will see in the first story, The Nemean Lion, how Poirot enjoys both the warmth and the design of his “electric radiator”. There’s progress for you.

We also become reacquainted with Miss Lemon, last seen in Parker Pyne Investigates, as a secretary, “a forbidding-looking young woman with spectacles”. Whilst she had appeared in a 1935 short story, How Does Your Garden Grow, that did not appear in book format in the UK until 1974’s Poirot’s Early Cases. But more of her in the first of these cases shortly.

A couple of brief references to start with: Burton waxes lyrical with his classical quotation: “by skill again, the pilot on the wine-dark sea straightens the swift ship buffeted by the winds”. This comes from Book 2 of Homer’s Odyssey. And Poirot refers to the case of Adolphe Durand, a butcher, tried at Lyon in 1895, “a creature of ox-like strength who had killed several children.” Convincing though M. Durand is, I think this is one of Christie’s mischievous inventions.

The Nemean Lion

The Nemean LionThis first story was originally published in the November 1939 issue of the Strand Magazine in the UK and in September 1944’s edition of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine in the US, under the title, The Case of the Kidnapped Pekinese. It’s a smart little tale, deftly told, of Pekinese dogs being stolen from posh ladies – or rather from their walkers – whilst in the park, and then a heavy ransom being demanded for their return. Christie, being Christie, can’t resist a few of her usual themes, although the direction she’s taking might not quite be what you would expect.

For instance, and unusually, there’s an element of true socialism – communism almost – in the motive for the crimes and, even more unusually, Christie, speaking through the voice of Poirot, is sympathetic to the cause. Although “justice isn’t seen to be done” in this case, a natural kind of justice does take place. Nevertheless, Christie is complicit in siding with the men in the battle of the sexes that takes place with the use of language in this story. “You can’t expect a woman to behave with any sense” avers Sir Joseph, and Poirot doesn’t contradict him. “I know I’ve only got a woman’s brain” says Miss Carnaby, and she means it. Christie belittles the character of Mrs Samuelson by having her declare “men think of nothing but money”, whilst admiring her own bracelet and rings. Fortunately, Miss Lemon is there to redress the balance. When she suggests the case of the missing Pekinese to Poirot as a suitable case for his attention, he assumes the worst: “Poirot was shaken; shaken and embittered. Miss Lemon, the efficient Miss Lemon, had let him down! […] Words trembled on his lips – witty caustic words […]” But after some thought, and some reflection, he reassesses her behaviour: “as usual, Miss Lemon had been right.”

There’s a very unfortunate note of racism in one scene, when a character remarks how some dogs look like each other: “You see, to most people, one Pekinese is very much like another. (Just as we think the Chinese are.)” Oh, no, Mrs Christie, you don’t want to be thinking that.

There are a few London addresses mentioned: Bloomsbury Road Square, Clonmel Gardens, and Rosholm Mansions; all very believable, but none of them exist in real life. Reference is also made to the village of Kellington in Essex; there is a Kellington, but it’s in Yorkshire. There are also a couple of sums mentioned – £200 and £300, being two of the ransom demands made for the return of the Pekinese dogs. Given that the story was first published in 1939, that would be an equivalent of £9100 or £13,700 today. No wonder Mr Samuelson was annoyed.

There’s also a suggestion of poisoning – although I won’t spoil it for you by elaborating further. A gentle, but intriguing start to the Labours.

The Lernean Hydra

The Lernean HydraAn enjoyable little story, originally published in the December 1939 issue of the Strand Magazine in the UK and in the 3rd September 1939 edition of This Week Magazine in the US, under the title, Invisible Enemy. Rumour has it that Dr Oldfield poisoned his wife, which he strenuously denies, although it’s true that there is a romantic frisson between him and his assistant Jean. It goes without saying that it doesn’t take Poirot long to ferret out the truth of the matter.

The story takes place in the wholly believable but entirely made up town of Market Loughborough in Berkshire. We also discover that the town of Darnington is a bus ride away, and that there’s a Woolworths store there. There’s no such place of course, and, sadly, no more Woolworths stores nowadays.

Christie’s interest in poison comes to the fore in this story with the suspicion that Mrs Oldfield died by arsenic, the symptoms of gastric inflammation and arsenical poisoning being – apparently – similar. The character of Jean appears to know a lot about “vegetable alkaloid” poisons, but then again, she is a medical dispenser, which may also be cause for suspicion.

The real world does cross over into this story, with references to Crippen, Le Neve and Armstrong; Crippen, of course, murdered his wife, Ethel le Neve was his mistress; Herbert Rowse Armstrong was the only solicitor ever to have been hanged in Great Britain, for the murder of his wife.

There’s a minor xenophobic remark, when Poirot is called “an exotic little foreigner” – almost a compliment by Christie’s terms – and the sum of £30,000 is mentioned, being the amount that Mrs Oldfield left her husband in her will. That’s a whopping £1.3m in today’s money.

One unintentionally funny line: When Poirot asks Jean if she intends to marry Oldfield, she says he hasn’t asked her – “because I’ve choked him off”. Urban Dictionary attributes a meaning to that phrase that I’m sure Christie never intended.

The Arcadian Deer

The Arcadian DeerThis short and sweet little story was originally published in the January 1940 issue of the Strand Magazine, and in the US in the 19th May 1940 edition of This Week Magazine, under the title Vanishing Lady. Whilst his car is being repaired, Poirot meets the mechanic, Ted Williamson, and is struck by his handsomeness – a Greek God indeed. Knowing Poirot’s fame, Williamson asks him to trace a lady – she was a maid attending on a Russian ballerina staying at a local house – with whom he had instantly fallen in love. But she didn’t keep their second assignation and appears to have gone to ground.

In a heart-warming mission of mercy, Poirot visits many addresses and questions many possible witnesses, including in London, Switzerland and Pisa. Eventually he comes to the truth of the matter; it’s an open-ended affair, but a rather sweet and poignant denouement. It’s a nicely written short story, with plenty of brief, pithy chapters which help Poirot’s chasing down of Nita to gain pace; and at one stage you think it’s actually going to have a very sad ending, whereas, in fact, the opposite is the case.

I don’t know if Poirot was going through some kind of middle-age sexuality crisis, but he appears to be totally besotted with young Ted. “Here, he thought, was one of the handsomest specimens of humanity he had ever seen, a simple young man with the outward semblance of a Greek god […] the young man plunged eagerly into technical details. Poirot nodded his head gently, but he was not listening. Perfect physique was a thing he admired greatly.” He imagines Ted as a “young shepherd in Arcady” – in other words, Arcadia, the ancient district in the Peloponnese.

Other reference points in the story include the village of Hartly Dene, where Poirot’s Messarro Gratz had given up the ghost; both village and car are inventions of Christie. Nita’s last known address was 17 Upper Renfrew Lane, N15, and the ballerina, Madame Samoushenka, now lives in Vagray les Alpes, in Switzerland. Again, both are completely fictitious; although the dancer says her maid was from Pisa, which of course does exist.

There’s a moment of near-xenophobia when the woman who lives at Upper Renfrew Lane can only remember the dancer’s name as Madame Semolina, and describes her as “real Eyetalian”. And there’s one significant sum mentioned in the book – £5 (or maybe even £10) – that’s the amount that Ted is prepared to pay Poirot for his assistance. I rather doubt that Poirot would stoop so low as to ask for such lowly payment – between £200-£400 at today’s value.

The Erymanthian Boar

The Erymanthian BoarThis cunning and clever short story was originally published in the February 1940 issue of the Strand Magazine, and in the US in the 5th May 1940 edition of This Week Magazine, under the title Murder Mountain. Poirot has moved on to the Swiss Alps for a little sightseeing when he is contacted by the local Commissaire of Police to help track down a Parisian gangster, Marrascaud, who has holed himself up in an exclusive and remote mountain resort. There are a few shady characters up there, any one of which could be the criminal at large. By careful deduction Poirot identifies the miscreant who is satisfactorily brought to book.

With a nod to wartime sentiments, the story features a suspicious Jewish doctor who was turfed out of Austria by the Nazis, and there is an American tourist, also with a German name, who might be the target of a wartime reader’s xenophobic concerns. The locations of the story are largely real; Schwartz has visited Paris and has seen all the genuine sights; Poirot has visited Chamonix, Montreux and Aldermatt, all of which exist. As the story takes us higher in the Alps, Poirot travels through Les Avines, Caurouchet and finally Rochers Neiges, where the bulk of the action takes place. These places don’t exist, although there is Rochers-de-Naye, which is almost certainly the inspiration.

Christie refers to the Bertillon photograph of the suspect, which is a term we have heard before in The Murder on the Links; Alphonse Bertillon (1853-1914) was the French criminologist who invented the system of identification of criminals by anthropometric measurements, fingerprints, and so on. Poirot manages to contact the Swiss Police by using a heliograph – which was something we came across in And Then There Were None; it’s a form of morse code.

There’s one of those unintentionally funny moments when Christie’s turn of phrase hasn’t kept up with semantic change: “Schwartz ejaculated: “Marrascaud!””

Nothing much more to be said; a successful little tale that keeps its secret beautifully until the final pages.

The Augean Stables

The Augean StablesThis story was originally published in the March 1940 issue of the Strand Magazine, but there was no US magazine publication until the complete collection was published in 1947. From a really good story to a rather silly one! Poirot is asked for help by none other than the Prime Minister, whose father-in-law, the previous Prime Minister, is about to be revealed as a cheat and a scoundrel by a nasty daily rag. Rumours start about the Prime Minister’s wife, but to what extent are the stories true and who’s manipulating who?

The story starts with a lot of unnecessary and dull detail about the characters which doesn’t really add to our understanding of the situation. There is some talk of the People’s Party, which is clearly an invention of Christie’s, and some unsubtle references to a Herculean task and the Augean Stables, which admittedly is what decides Poirot to take the case but it does come across as very heavy-handed. The repeated phrase “People were talking” introduces some short staccato chapters but it all feels very clumsily written to me.

The village of Little Wimplington, unsurprisingly, doesn’t exist (such a far-fetched name!) and there’s also some latent racism with the use of the phrase, “Dago skunks”.

There’s one financial value mentioned, that of £500, which is the amount paid to Thelma Anderson for her work. That’s the best part of £20,000. No wonder she took the job.

I found this story rather boring, totally predictable and an hour I’ll never get back!

The Stymphalean Birds

The Stymphalian BirdsLet’s hope for better luck with this one. The Stymphalean Birds (sic, as printed in my copy, although it’s usually spelled Stymphalian) was originally published in the April 1940 issue of the Strand Magazine, and in the US in the 17th September 1939 edition of This Week Magazine, under the title The Vulture Women. Under-secretary of state Harold Waring is holidaying in Herzoslovakia, Christie’s made up all-purpose Eastern European state that represents all things non-English (and, by implication, uncivilised), where he encounters mother and daughter Mrs Rice and Elsie Clayton. Elsie is in an abusive relationship with a dreadful husband and Harold begins to feel the urge to protect her. Clayton bursts in on Elsie and Harold having an innocent conversation but suspects the worst. Elsie throws a paperweight at him – and kills him. Scandal! What will this do to Harold’s career? And all along, two ugly, mean-looking Polish sisters are moping around the resort, eavesdropping and preparing to blackmail Harold and Elsie. But all is not as it seems, and Poirot quickly sorts the wheat from the chaff and the villains are brought to justice.

It’s an enjoyable story despite a) being incredibly far-fetched and b) immured in racism. All the way through the Polish ladies are the source of suspicion and dislike, simply because of their looks, their lack of English, and their general foreign-ness. Anything English is good, anything foreign is bad. When the Polish sisters first arrive on the scene, Harold notes “I may be fanciful, but I distinctly felt that there was something evil about them […]” “We’ll find out from the concierge who they are. Not English, I presume?” “Oh no.” When the characters talk of the corruption of the officials of Herzoslovakia, and the amount that has had to be paid to the police to shut them up, Harold says, “”Thank God our police force isn’t like that”. And in a British and superior mood he went down to lunch.” “This isn’t England”, says Mrs Rice. “We’re not in England, worse luck” says Harold. It’s incredibly xenophobic.

It’s also not very forward-thinking when it comes to sexual equality. “Two women living alone are not the best judges of a man’s character,” avows Mrs Rice, and Harold agrees. But it’s rather delightfully old-fashioned in its belief that a simple scandal like the one that Harold unwittingly finds himself immersed would be enough to put an end to a political career. How times have changed!!

It’s a very moral tale; one that I quite easily saw through, primarily because Christie lays the xenophobia on so heavily that it must be a decoy! Enjoyable, despite everything.

The Cretan Bull

The Cretan BullThis curious short story was originally published in the May 1940 issue of the Strand Magazine, and in the US in the 24th September 1939 edition of This Week Magazine, under the title Midnight Madness. Diana Maberly contacts Poirot alarmed that her fiancé Hugh Chandler has broken off their engagement because he is going mad. She’s not convinced of his madness at all, but there are some strange events taking place, like Chandler waking up in the morning covered with blood and overnight someone has attacked and killed livestock, or a cat, and so on. But is there some other evil at large here? Trust Poirot to get to the truth.

Christie seems to have a problem with some of her phraseology here; the phrase “do better to keep his mouth shut” is repeated within a couple of pages and it feels clumsy and poorly thought through. Elsewhere, Poirot is once again impressed by a man’s “magnificent physique” (see The Arcadian Deer above – is he on the turn?) This story doesn’t have much time for the medical profession; Admiral Chandler describes doctors as “humbug merchants” and Poirot himself says “I am not an alienist” (an early term for a psychiatrist). Hugh Chandler mocks Poirot with the quote “Canst thou then minister to a mind diseased?”, which is Macbeth’s plea to the doctor to help his, now insane, wife.

However, Christie the poison expert does come to the fore; Colonel Frobisher mentions a common practice from his Indian days, datura poisoning. Datura is the Latin name for the devil’s trumpet plant, strongly poisonous especially in their seeds and flowers which can cause respiratory depression, arrhythmias, hallucinations, psychosis, and sometimes death. Datura were used to source atropine sulphate which was used for eye treatments. This was fairly specialised knowledge, I suspect!

An interesting story – again, though, brought down by its extremely far-fetched nature. Although you can appreciate the solution, it’s very hard to imagine how this crime worked in practice.

The Horses of Diomedes

The Horses of DiomedesThe Horses of Diomedes was originally published in the June 1940 issue of the Strand Magazine, and in the US, much later, in the January 1945 edition of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, under the title The Case of the Drug Peddler. A young friend of Poirot, Dr Michael Stoddart, is concerned about cocaine taking by a group of people including someone with whom he has amorous intentions, Sheila Grant. Is there anything he can do to help? Well, there is actually – and in doing so, he identifies and brings to justice a drugs ring.

“Drugs ruin people”, says Dr Stoddart, “body and soul. Drink’s a gentle little picnic compared to drugs.” Far be it from me to disagree with the wise doctor, but of all the works of Christie that I have read this is probably the one that has dated the worst. The notion today that a case could be brought about someone coercing someone else to take cocaine is almost sweet in its naivete. How times change. Even so, I still found this a most unlikely and unsatisfactory story.

The story is set in fictional Mertonshire, which had previously housed Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, nicely described thus: “it is practically impossible to live in Mertonshire unless you have an income that runs into four figures, and what with income-tax and one thing and another, five figures is better. At today’s rate, £1000 is the equivalent of £39,000; a five figure sum starts at £390,000. I think we understand Christie’s drift. Two other sum comparators in this story are the £10 that the homeless victim accepted as a bribe – that’s (obviously) £390 in today’s equivalent, and the £50, which is the sum that Mrs Larkin encashed for herself at the bank, which today would be just short of £2000.

The site of the wild parties is 17 Conningby Mews, which, of course, doesn’t exist. There’s a reference to the Brighton Trunk Murders; these took place in 1934 and remained unsolved until the culprit, Tony Mancini, confessed in 1976.

I did enjoy a brief passage, where General Grant describes living in the country: “I liked the country when it was the country – not all this motoring and jazz and that blasted, eternal radio.”

But all in all, this is a very poor effort from Christie.

The Girdle of Hyppolita

The Girdle of HyppolitaAnd this one’s not a lot better! It was originally published in the July 1940 issue of the Strand Magazine, and in the US in the 10th September 1939 edition of This Week Magazine, under the title The Disappearance of Winnie King. The case of a missing schoolgirl and the case of a stolen Rubens come together in this slight, far-fetched, underwhelming and instantly forgettable story. Poirot solves the case, but I can’t help but think he’s boxing below his weight with these tales. It’s unfortunate that he is so attached to his project to complete his own version of the twelve labours of Hercules that it means he has to solve such silly cases, just because they fit in with the title.

The story is written from a very snobbish perspective; with one of the characters referring to “those miserable idiots of unemployed” who had been “pursuing their tactics of lying down on street crossings”. It’s enough to coax the socialist out of anyone! Even Poirot comes out with halfwit statements like “women […] are a miraculous sex” as he considers how ugly ducklings turn into beautiful swans.

The schoolgirl Winnie comes from Cranchester, which doesn’t exist, but really sounds like it ought. Miss Pope’s establishment is in Neuilly, which certainly does exist – a western suburb of Paris.

At least we get the chance to meet Inspector Japp again, which adds a touch of life to this otherwise dull tale.

The Flock of Geryon

The Flock of GeryonThis short story was originally published in the August 1940 issue of the Strand Magazine, and in the US in the 26th May 1940 edition of This Week Magazine, under the title Weird Monster. It’s hello again to Miss Carnaby, whom we met in The Nemean Lion earlier in this book. She is concerned that a friend has been subsumed in some kind of religious sect, as she has willed all her possessions to the cult and previous women who have done that have ended up dead. After some negotiations with Inspector Japp, Miss Carnaby infiltrates the cult. Is she in danger? Will its leader, Andersen, be brought to book? Have a guess.

Not really a whodunit but certainly with elements of thriller, this isn’t a bad story by any means. Christie clearly likes Miss Carnaby, and admires her powers of dissimulation; Poirot describes her as “a woman of great courage and determination […] good histrionic powers” and she shows a lot of spirit and wit in her assistance in this case. She also gives us an amusing insight into anything other than pure English Protestantism: “though I do not approve of Roman Catholics, they are at least recognised”; xenophobia through religion, fascinating! I’m surprised that she never returns in any of Christie’s other works.

Christie the Poison Expert becomes Christie the Spliff Expert with her references to Cannabis Indica, hashish and blang, which seems to have gone completely out of the language relating to this meaning; maybe she was on something when she wrote it.

Newton Woodbury sounds a most pleasant little place; it doesn’t exist, but it really should.

The Apples of The Hesperides

The Apples of The HesperidesThis short story was originally published in the September 1940 issue of the Strand Magazine, and in the US in the 12th May 1940 edition of This Week Magazine, under the title The Poison Cup. Poirot is contacted by Emery Power, a rich antiques collector, trying to find a gold goblet that he had won at auction but which was instantly stolen and never returned. Poirot follows up all the leads in the case and eventually his investigations take him to a convent on the west coast of Ireland…

Rather a moral tale this, not bad, not riveting, but definitely hokey. I like how Christie portrays Poirot so out of place in Ireland, wearing his totally inappropriate patent leather shoes, observing that the Romans had never built a decent road; thinking of it as “a land where common sense and an orderly way of life were unknown.” There’s a little bit of latent racism from Inspector Wagstaffe, who refers to the Italian police as the “Macaronis”; he definitely deserves to be referred to as a rostbif.

Power paid £30,000 for the goblet; that’s almost £1.2 million at today’s value. No wonder he’s keen for it to be returned. Other references in the tale are a story called the “Bust of Napoleon”, which appears to be of Christie’s own invention; Hercules Bicycles, which was a successful bicycle manufacturer in the UK, launched in 1910 but sold to Raleigh in 1960, and now defunct (although the brand lives on in India); and a quote from a song: “The Apple Tree, the Singing and the Gold…” which is from Euripides’ Hippolytus. Poirot has a very eclectic musical taste.

A horse called Hercules wins the Boynan Stakes at 60-1. Now that’s a coincidence.

The Capture of Cerberus

The Capture of CerberusThis final story was first published in the US in the 16th March 1947 edition of This Week Magazine, seven years after most of the others, under the title Meet Me in Hell. It was rejected by the Strand Magazine – which must have been a bold editorial step on their part – because it was too involved in the politics of its time… read on…

Poirot encounters his beloved Countess Vera Rossakoff on the London Underground who invites him to meet her in Hell – which, as the reliable Miss Lemon points out – is a fashionable new nightclub in town. There he meets Vera’s daughter-in-law-to-be, Alice Cunningham, who’s writing a book about criminal psychology, and using the club members as her subject matter. The police, however, know the place as a front for a drugs ring. Can Poirot sort out the good guys from the bad ones, and which side is the Countess on?

This is one of the more entertaining stories in this volume, nicely written and full of lively characterisations. It’s enjoyable for us to watch Poirot become reacquainted with Vera Rossakoff, the only woman he has truly loved. “It is the misfortune of small precise men to hanker after large and flamboyant women”, maintains Christie, cheekily, in this story. Poirot last saw Vera in The Big Four, although his first encounter with her was in the short story The Double Clue, which we didn’t get to read in the UK until the appearance of Poirot’s Early Cases in 1974. Christie clearly loves writing about her, revelling in her sultry appearance, over-emphasising her Russian-ness.

So why was it rejected, on political grounds, by The Strand? Not, surely, because of the amusing observation that “nobody minds a Tory politician spending his own money – but when it’s a Labour man the public feel it’s their money he’s spending” – quite a shrewd observation, in fact. No – the original story, which only came to light when Christie’s secret notebooks were first examined a little over ten years ago, was set in Switzerland and involved the assassination of one August Hertzlein, a thinly disguised characterisation of Hitler. Remember this was 1940!

Other interesting observations include Christie’s description of Miss Lemon as “unbelievably ugly”. That’s not very nice, is it? Poirot observes at length the dowdiness of women on the Underground, and their predilection for knitting; times have changed. Corduroy wearers at the nightclub are described as “Bohemian”; and there’s reference to Peverel, the Battersea murderer, but this is not a real-life case.

Poirot spends the grand sum of £11 8/6 on flowers for the Countess; that’s £447 in today’s money. That’s one helluva bouquet.

Is it just me, or is there something outrageously naughty about the Countess’s description of discovering the emeralds? “I feel through the velvet something hard inside. I slip my hand in, I find what I know by touch to be jewels”. Oh, matron!

And that concludes, at length, (sorry about that) all twelve stories in The Labours of Hercules. At times that was fun, at others incredibly stodgy and unrewarding, not to mention laborious; and, overall, I couldn’t score this book more than 6/10. If you’ve been reading this book as well, I’d love to know your thoughts, please just write something in the comments box.

Taken at the FloodNext up in the Agatha Christie challenge is a book I remember being serialised on BBC Radio when I was about 16, Taken at the Flood, and I’m very much looking forward to re-reading it. If you’d like to read it too, we can compare notes when I give you my thoughts on it in a few weeks’ time. In the meanwhile, happy sleuthing and keep on Christie-ing!

The Agatha Christie Challenge – The Hollow (1946)

The HollowIn which devoted doctor John Christow is found dead by the swimming pool, with his wife Gerda holding a gun in her hand. An open and shut case, surely? But as investigations start to take shape, it’s a much murkier affair than first thought. It takes Hercule Poirot, retired Belgian detective, to have the brains to sort the wheat from the chaff and identify the real murderer. As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I promise not to tell you whodunit!

Francis L SullivanThe book is dedicated “for Larry and Danae, with apologies for using their swimming pool as the scene for a murder”. Larry was better known as Francis L Sullivan, an actor who had played Hercule Poirot on the London stage in the plays Black Coffee and Peril at End House, and would go on to appear in Witness for the Prosecution on Broadway, for which he received a Tony Award. He died in 1956. The Hollow was first serialised in the US in a four-part shortened version in Collier’s Weekly in May 1946 under the title The Outraged Heart. There was no serialisation in the UK. The full book was first published in the US by Dodd, Mead & Co in 1946, and in the UK in November of that year by Collins Crime Club. A later paperback edition in the US by Dell Books in 1954 changed the title to Murder after Hours, but the book is primarily known as The Hollow in the US too.

Slow to startRe-reading this book was rather an odd experience. I found it very slow to start, and I felt little or no interest in any of the characters for several pages until the whole crime element gained traction and the story really got going. Once we’d met Poirot and he was taking an active interest in the crime alongside Inspector Grange, it became unputdownable; before then it had been the reverse! Critical opinion at the time praised this book highly, and it was largely thought to be one of Christie’s best works. However, I think much of it succeeds or fails on how endearing or otherwise you find the character of Lady Angkatell; can anyone be that daft as a brush and remain a functioning individual? Ironically, Christie herself thought she had ruined the book by including Poirot in it; my own feeling is that, on the contrary, he makes it.

SculptorStructurally, this book feels at odds with most of Christie’s output to date. It starts, with no explanatory introduction, with a relatively in-depth and confusing conversation between two characters, about whom you know nothing except their names. Christie plunges us straight into the nitty-gritty of these characters, without any background insights. The second chapter again confuses us with the account of Henrietta Savernake making a sculpture of Doris Saunders; again with no explanation as to who these characters are and why this should be happening. Knowing that Christie rarely wastes words, it’s unclear why she spent so much effort on explaining the creative process behind sculpting; and, even when you’ve finished the book, it still strikes me as unnecessary padding. True, there is an element of bookending the story – starting with an artistic creative process and ending with a complementary process, which you may consider makes a satisfying whole. But the final moments of the book are also rather weird, ending, in my humble opinion, with more than a whimper than a bang.

Pretty Country CottageThis is our first catch-up with Hercule Poirot for four years (he was last seen in 1943’s Five Little Pigs). Four years on, he’s even older (naturally) and more withdrawn from work than he was before. He has now retired to the country – for weekends at least – living at Resthaven, a neatly symmetrical little place that satisfies his need for order, with just a Belgian gardener, Victor, and his wife/cook, Françoise. You sense that Poirot decided on this move against his better judgement. There’s nothing in the English countryside, with its great variety of wildness, discomfort and lack of sophistication, that’s going to make him happy. He’d be much better off in a warm apartment in London, with all its distractions and people to stimulate his little grey cells.

PoirotNevertheless, he is delighted to receive the lunch invitation to the Angkatells because he is, as he says, “un peu snob”; he walks the long way round to their front door rather than cutting through the back shortcut because of his sense of formality and because he is a “stickler for etiquette”. The snob in Poirot is very easily flattered – even though he indeed recognises it for what it is. Consider the reasons why Henrietta comes to him, rather than Inspector Grange, to discuss the case. “”Well, M. Poirot, what does one do? Go to Inspector Grange and say – what does one say to a moustache like that? It’s such a domestic, family moustache.” Poirot’s hand crawled upwards to his own proudly borne adornment. “Whereas mine, Mademoiselle?” “Your moustache, M. Poirot, is an artistic triumph. It has no associations with anything but itself. It is, I am sure, unique.” “Absolutely.” “And it is probably the reason why I am talking to you as I am.””

private-detectiveIt’s during this conversation with Henrietta that Poirot discusses the kind of clues that he is interested in – always a good insight into his modus operandi. Poirot speaks first: “”That is one of Inspector Grange’s men. He seems to be looking for something.” “Clues, I suppose. Don’t policemen look for clues? Cigarette ash, footprints, burnt matches.” Her voice held a kind of bitter mockery. Poirot answered seriously. “Yes, they look for these things – and sometimes they find them. But the real clues, Miss Savernake, in a case like this, usually lie in the personal relationships of the people concerned.” “I don’t think I understand you.” “Little things,” said Poirot, his head thrown back, his eyes half-closed. “Not cigarette ash, or a rubber heel mark – but a gesture, a look, an unexpected action…” And with that he verbally pounces on Henrietta with a challenging and difficult question.

Down drooping moustacheAs mentioned earlier, in this book we meet Inspector Grange, a stalwart from the Wealdshire Police Force, “a large, heavily built man, with a down-drooping, pessimistic moustache”. He speaks, “without excitement, just with knowledge and quiet pessimism”. He doesn’t have time for his Chief Constable, whom he believes to be a “fussy despot”. Grange is efficient, well-meaning, courteous to Poirot, calm and (for a Christie policeman) relatively wise. His film heroine is Hedy Lamarr. Christie completely side-steps Grange when it comes to the denouement and the official police have no part in the story after the Coroner issues his verdict.

Garden swimming poolOne aspect of the case that really perplexes Poirot is how he suspects that he has been presented with a staged scene. Invited to the Angkatells, the first thing he sees after Gudgeon the butler has shown him through to the swimming pool pavilion is a frozen tableau. Indeed, he thinks the Angkatells are teasing him, presenting him with an artificial murder game for him to pretend-investigate, as it were. Poirot’s little grey cells are not to be mocked so lightly. “By the side of the pool was the body, artistically arranged with an outflung arm and even some red paint dripping gently over the edge of the concrete into the pool […] Standing over the body, revolver in hand, was a woman, a short powerfully-built middle-aged woman with a curiously blank expression […] On the far side of the pool was a tall young woman […] she had a basket in her hand full of dahlia heads. A little farther off was a man […] carrying a gun. And immediately on his left, with a basket of eggs in her hand, was his hostess, Lady Angkatell […] It was all very mathematical and artificial […] Really, the whole thing was very stupid – not spirituel at all! […] And suddenly, with a terrific shock, Hercule Poirot realised that this artificially-set scene had a point of reality. For what he was looking down at was, if not a dead, at least a dying man.” Poirot’s continued suspicion throughout the book that he was looking at an artificial scene, even though it’s known that a real murder took place, partly makes one suspect a Murder on the Orient Express type solution. I’ll say no more on that topic.

Shovel DownAs usual, there are a few references to check out. Firstly, let’s look at the locations, to see how real or imaginary they are. The route from London to The Hollow goes via Shovel Down, which sounds more like gardening terminology than a place name. Shovel Down does exist – it’s an area of Dartmoor with some standing stones and other Bronze Age monuments. If Wealdshire (which obviously doesn’t exist) is meant to represent Cornwall, then I guess it’s possible that this is where Christie intends us to think. However, the journey that John Christow proposes, from Albert Bridge, to Clapham Common, Crystal Palace, Croydon, Purley Way, (all of which are real) then Metherly Hill and Haverston Ridge (both of which aren’t), doesn’t seem to take us towards Devon. Market Depleach, convincing though it sounds, is an invention of Christie’s, and as for the much mentioned and longed-for Ainswick, that too isn’t real, although there is of course a Painswick in Gloucestershire. And, of course, John’s and Veronica’s memories take them back to their romance in San Miguel, which could be anywhere. The most significant San Miguel is in the Philippines; again, Christie probably chose it because it’s a good name.

Ulysses and NausicaaAnd now some other references, that I didn’t recognise so thought I should check. When we first meet Henrietta she’s sculpting the head of Nausicaa. In Homer’s Odyssey, she is the daughter of King Alcinous and Queen Arete of Phaeacia. Amongst other things, Nausicaa was the first person in literature to be described playing with a ball. Who knew? Dr Christow devotes his time to finding a cure for Ridgeway’s Disease; that, in itself, does not exist by that name, but commentators associate Christie’s description of it with Multiple Sclerosis. Henrietta also reflects on Peer Gynt, referring to the Button Moulder’s ladle. He’s a character in Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, who threatens to melt Peer’s soul unless he gives him a list of his sins. All very dark and complex.

DelageThere are a couple of cars that were new to me; Henrietta drives a Delage, which was a classic, luxury French car – the Delage company ceased operation in 1953. And the police trail Henrietta in a Ventnor 10, but I’m blowed if I can find any information about that model. Can you help? When playing cards Lady Angkatell suggests a round of Animal Grab. This was an early 20th century card game like snap, but you had to make the sound of the animal who’s card you laid down. For example, if you laid a dog card you had to say “bow-wow”. It must have been… hilarious. Veronica Cray is said to have appeared in the film Lady Rides on Tiger. No such film exists, however, its title comes from an old Chinese proverb which says, he who rides a tiger is afraid to dismount. No prizes for understanding why.

detectiveOne of the reasons Grange doesn’t like his Chief Constable is because he considers him to be a tuft-hunter. I’ve never heard that expression before, but it means a snob, someone who seeks association with persons of title or high social status. So now you know.

MaudChristie must have been reading her poetry anthologies when she wrote this book because there are a couple of allusions to poems. Henrietta quotes to Poirot: “The days passed slowly one by one. I fed the ducks, reproved my wife, played Handel’s Largo on the fife, and took the dog a run.” It’s from Harry Graham’s poem, Creature Comforts. He was a popular writer of comic verse in the early part of the 20th century, a kind of Edwardian Pam Ayres. Poirot himself quotes the much better known “I hate the dreadful Hollow behind the little wood”, which not only gives the book its title but is also from Tennyson’s Maud, published in 1855. As for The Clue of the Dripping Fountain, a gripping read that John Christow had been devouring, alas there is no trace. But what a sensational book it must be.

PoundI’m sure you remember that I like to research the present-day value of any significant sums of money mentioned in Christie’s books, just to get a more realistic feel for the amounts in question. There’s only one sum mentioned in this book, the very precise amount of £342, which is the cost of a certain engagement ring that a character buys for another – I won’t tell you who, because I don’t want to spoil the surprise. That’s around £10,000 in today’s value, so he must have thought a lot of her.

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

Publication Details: 1946. Fontana paperback, 14th impression, published in May 1973, price 30p. The cover illustration by Tom Adams clearly shows the gun that’s sitting in the basket of eggs, that features in the story. No confusion there.

How many pages until the first death: 64. That’s a reasonably long wait, and I must say the book gets much more interesting once there is a murder to investigate.

Funny lines out of context: None that I could see, sadly.

Memorable characters:

Christie is on better form with her characters in this book, with the decidedly batty Lady Angkatell leading the field; a woman whose conversations are a list of non-sequiturs, and who, Poirot realises, has a dangerous ability to make people remember things in a different way because of her bizarre spin on facts. Funny or irritating, you decide, but she’s definitely memorable. I also liked the description of Gerda’s hopelessness; her inability to carve a joint of meat or to drive properly, simply because she’s always under the watchful eye of her husband. I think we all know someone like that. Henrietta’s a cool customer, maybe a little too perfectly drawn to be properly memorable; and I also enjoyed David’s quiet Socialist condemnation of everyone around him.

Christie the Poison expert:

She’s both a poison expert and a general chemistry expert in this book, with John and Gerda’s son Terence keen to construct a nitro-glycerine bomb with his pal Nicholson Minor, and a deadly, unspecified substance that laces a cup of tea and turns the victim’s lips blue – so probably cyanide.

Class/social issues of the time:

A couple of Christie’s favourite themes crop up just once or twice in this book; and one another theme makes a few unwelcome appearances. First, class. There’s an early scene where John Christow, contemplating his treatment of Mrs Crabtree, is surprised to learn that she wants to fight her disease. “She was on his side, she wanted to live – though God knew why, considering the slum she lived in, with a husband who drank and a brood of unruly children, and she herself obliged to work day in day out, scrubbing endless floors of endless offices. Hard unremitting drudgery and few pleasures! […] It wasn’t the circumstances of life they enjoyed, it was life itself – the zest of existence. Curious – a thing one couldn’t explain.” With those words Christow reveals himself to be a patronising, unempathetic snob, disgusted by the lives of the working class.

There’s also another example of Christie’s inability to understand mental illness, with Lady Angkatell’s account of why they read the News of the World. “”We pretend we get it for the servants, but Gudgeon is very understanding and never takes it out until after tea. It is a most interesting paper, all about women who put their heads in gas ovens – an incredible number of them!” “What will they do in the houses of the future which are all electric?” asked Edward Angkatell with a faint smile. “I suppose they will just have to decide to make the best of things – so much more sensible.”” It’s a thoroughly unpleasant exchange, laughing at people considering suicide.

The other recurrent theme is that of xenophobia/racism. There are mild elements of it in Inspector Grange’s belief that “foreigners […] don’t know how to make tea” and the reason Miss Cray admits she didn’t call on Poirot the first time: “I just thought he was some little foreigner and I thought, you know, he might become a bore.” When Lady Angkatell is denying that she set up the death scene, she avows – picking a race out of the blue to patronise – “one can’t ask someone to be your guest and then arrange accidents. Even Arabs are most particular about hospitality.”

There’s a whole lot more unpleasant exchange about Madame Alfrege, Midge’s boss at the upmarket shop. Not only does Christie give Madame Alfrege an outrageous speech defect, she also indulges in some anti-Semitism: “Midge set her chin resolutely and picked up the receiver. It was all just as unpleasant as he had imagined it would be. The raucous voice of the vitriolic little Jewess came angrily over the wires. “What wath that, Mith Hardcathle? A death? A funeral? Do you not know very well I am short-handed? Do you think I am going to stand for these excutheth? Oh, yeth, you are having a good time, I dare thay!”” And so the conversation continues. Later, Midge describes Madame Alfrege as “a Whitechapel Jewess with dyed hair and a voice like a corncrake”.

There’s also some very unfortunate use of the N word. Mrs Crabtree, her words carefully chosen by Christie to emphasise her working class accent and language, describes what it was like to have her hair permed: “It wasn’t ‘alf a difficult business then. Looked like a n*****, I did. Couldn’t get a comb through it.” But also titled people used that word; Lady Angkatell says she hoped her cook, Mrs Medway, “would make a really rich N***** in his Shirt […] chocolate, you know, and eggs – and then covered with whipped cream. Just the sort of sweet a foreigner would like for lunch.” This wasn’t an accepted name for a dessert at the time, but purely an invention of Christie’s. All I can say is, hmmm. Sir Henry describes the problems that Lady Angkatell can cause with her foot-in-mouth language: “she’s put deadly enemies next to each other at the dinner table, and run riot over the colour question!” I bet she has. It was about this time that Christie’s American readers began to disapprove of this latent racism in her books; I believe her American publisher’s simple solution to this problem was to remove these references from her new books without her knowledge. Seems wise to me.

Classic denouement: Not classic, but unusual; Poirot arrives just in time to prevent a murder taking place, and as a result, the unfolding of the details of the crime all takes place in retrospect, and justice isn’t seen to be done.

Happy ending? Although there is a wedding ahead, there’s also an intense air of gloom, with one character’s life doomed to die through illness, and another unable to come to terms with everything that’s happened. So, no, not happy at all.

Did the story ring true? One of the strengths of this book is that although the plot is unlikely – naturally – it does ring true, and you can completely understand how the characters would act in the way that they did.

Overall satisfaction rating: It’s clever, it’s believable, and once it gets going it’s very exciting. However, it is dull to start, and the latent racism is unpleasant. Structurally, it also feels strangely anti-climactic. So, after much reflection, I’m giving it 7/10. If you think that’s harsh, I do understand your concern.

The Labours of HerculesThanks for reading my blog of The Hollow 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 Labours of Hercules, twelve short stories which were expected to be Hercule Poirot’s swansong – but of course, that didn’t happen! I can’t remember any of the stories, so this should be a lot of fun. As usual, I’ll blog my thoughts about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!

The Agatha Christie Challenge – Sparkling Cyanide (1945)

Sparkling CyanideIn which Rosemary Barton, a rather reckless young heiress, dies from cyanide poisoning whilst dining at a posh restaurant – presumably suicide. However, a year later, a very similar fate befalls another member of that dining party. It takes Colonel Race, alongside Inspector Kemp, and a third law enforcement officer, to work out exactly what happened to both victims. As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I promise not to tell you whodunit!

Yellow IrisThe book bears no dedication. Sparkling Cyanide was first serialised in the US in the Saturday Evening Post from July to September 1944 under the title Remembered Death, and in the UK in the Daily Express in a heavily abridged form in July 1945 as Sparkling Cyanide – a year later than its American serialisation. The full book was first published in the US by Dodd, Mead & Co in February 1945, and in the UK in December 1945 by Collins Crime Club. The book is an expansion of the short story Yellow Iris, that was first published in the Strand Magazine in July 1937. It also appeared in the book The Regatta Mystery and Other Stories, that was first published in the US in 1939. Yellow Iris was not published in the UK until its appearance in Problem at Pollensa Bay in 1991.

DInner Party for sixThis book is a curiosity. I found it quite hard to read at first; the characters and the reminiscences didn’t hold my attention, and I found it strangely easy to put down and leave for several days (ahem weeks) before picking it up again and rekindling my interest. It’s separated into three “books”, each with an introductory quotation. The first book lets us share the reminiscences of the six survivors of the first dinner party and I found it, in part, a little confusing and, basically, an unattractive read. Once we reached the point where the second death is being investigated it suddenly seemed to gain life and entertainment and I was keen to read more of it. In fact, I read the final two thirds of it in two days, which is pretty quick and determined for me.

Champagne Afternoon TeaHowever, there is something about it that is strangely unsatisfying. Yes, the gallop to the final post is very exciting, but it’s also (in my humble opinion) hugely far-fetched and relies on a very risky gamble; that a group of people will all act in a certain way if a certain event takes place – sorry to be vague, but I don’t want to give away the game. I’m absolutely convinced that, if I were one of that group of people, I would not have acted in the way that the murderer – or indeed the detectives – predicted. It also suffers a little from the same fate that befalls Five Little Pigs; there is a considerable amount of repetition, particularly in the first section, about things that happened in the past, and you’ve no choice but to wade through it in order to get on with the more interesting things happening in the present.

Truth versus liesThere’s one interesting aspect to this book though, and it’s very appropriate to our own times, that if you tell a lie sufficiently frequently and with sufficient conviction, it’s accepted as the truth. Just as the denouement is about to get underway, the character who has finally worked out what happened and why, gives us this clue: “Consider for yourself how much has been taken for granted on one person’s word.” At that point the reader takes up this challenge and tries to work out to whom this refers, and what facts have been taken for granted that aren’t necessarily true. When I was reading it, I couldn’t remember whodunit from my earlier readings of it; and even this clue didn’t bring me to my senses, despite my trying to solve it. But it’s true; a web of hearsay deceit has been planted under our noses and we never tumble to it. It reminded me with hideous accuracy of the politicians of our day; when no one is held accountable for the truth, preposterous lies are accepted with absolute certainty as fact.

Military colonelIt’s a welcome return to the excellent Colonel Race, whom we first saw in The Man in the Brown Suit, way back in 1924, where he was a spy, a detective, and a wealthy big game hunter, not necessarily in that order. He assists Poirot in Cards on the Table, and Death on the Nile, although his prime interest is in political espionage rather than murder. It’s by means of a letter of introduction from Colonel Race that local police chief Colonel Carbury meets Poirot in Appointment with Death.

AllahabadAs a result of those previous meetings, you get the feeling that if someone has met someone else in another part of the world, Colonel Race will nearly always be a mutual acquaintance. Race only becomes involved in the Sparkling Cyanide case because he is a friend of George Barton, whose wife Rosemary may have taken her own life. When he encounters Mary Rees-Talbot as part of his enquiries, she notes that they haven’t met “since you disappeared so mysteriously from Allahabad that time”. When Inspector Kemp meets the cantankerous General Lord Woolworth alongside Race, the general spits out an anti-police polemic until he espies the Colonel, and breaks off with,”“Seen you somewhere. Now where -?” Race’s answer was immediate and came with a smile. “Badderpore, 1923.” “By Jove,” said the general. “If it isn’t Johnnie Race! What are you doing mixed up in this show?” Race smiled.” Rather like God, Race clearly moves in mysterious ways and is omnipresent.

Good brainIn the Christie canon, Race is a good man; he gets things done, and isn’t afraid to put his head into the lion’s den, so to speak. And although he’s got a good brain, and patiently thinks things through, he’s also not afraid to get things wrong, in public, as he does a couple of times in this book. It’s a shame that this is the last we see of him; Christie never chose to feature him again. Even when we get to consider its original appearance as the short story Yellow Iris, in Problem at Pollensa Bay, which will be right at the end of this Agatha Christie Challenge, it’s a Hercule Poirot story – Christie changed it to Colonel Race for this book.

MahoganyWhat of Chief Inspector Kemp? This is the only book in which he appears. We know that, as an officer from Scotland Yard, he doesn’t usually deal with common or garden murders, but the presence of Stephen and Sandra Farraday (an MP and the daughter of a Lord) numbering among the suspects, the case requires his sensitive touch. Race (naturally) is an old friend. Here’s Christie’s description of him: “Kemp was slightly reminiscent of that grand old veteran, Battle, in type. Indeed, since he had worked under Battle for many years, he had perhaps unconsciously copied a good many of the older man’s mannerisms. He bore about him the same suggestion of being carved all in one piece – but whereas Battle had suggested some wood such as teak or oak, Chief Inspector Kemp suggested a somewhat more showy wood – mahogany, say, or good old-fashioned rosewood.” Coming from a more privileged background, and enjoying the benefits of great wealth, Race is there to smooth out any rough edges that Kemp might have, intelligent, though ploddy, policeman that he is.

Brook StreetAs usual, there are a few references to check out. First: locations. This is a very London-centric story. The Bartons and Iris live in Elvaston Square, which, sadly doesn’t exist in real life, although there is an Elvaston Mews in South Kensington, a stone’s throw from the Royal Albert Hall. Other London locations in the book are Cadogan Square, the home of the Rees-Talbot family, and Brook Street, home of the Woodworths. Both are real; in fact, Brook Street has already been used as a location in Five Little Pigs and Evil Under the Sun; Christie must have had some personal experience of this address.

fairhaven-golf-clubOutside the centre of London, Chloe West lives at 15 Merryvale Court, Maida Vale and 21 Malland Mansions, Earl’s Court, is a flat where, let’s just say, Farraday pays rent but he doesn’t live there. Both of those addresses are fictitious, albeit in real-life suburbs. Ruth meets Victor at the Rupert Hotel, off Russell Square, and the Compradour, Mille Fleurs and the Luxembourg clubs and restaurants are all mentioned; but they’re all totally made up. However, Farraday asks his wife if they could go to Fairhaven for the golf – this is actually an area near Lytham St Annes on the Fylde Coast, where there is still a fine golf club bearing its name. Finally, the little place in the country that the Bartons take for the summer months is in Marlingham, Surrey; it doesn’t exist, but there is a Warlingham – just a slip of an upside-down letter separates them.

HouriAnd now some other references, that I thought were worth investigating. Browne reflects on his meeting with Rosemary Barton, and concludes: “as beautiful as a houri – and probably just about as intelligent!” Maybe you already knew that houris are the virgin companions who await Muslim faithful in paradise, according to the holy Quran. I didn’t. I understand the notion that they would be beautiful; apparently that relieves them from the burden of being intelligent too. I wondered if this was an early example of islamophobia – I sense not, but am open to arguments on this one if you know better!

Master of the HorseAnthony Browne proudly boasts to Rosemary that there was a chamberlain to Henry VIII with the same name. It’s true; Sir Anthony Browne (1500 – 1548) was appointed Master of the Horse in 1539, having proved his loyalty to the king three years earlier when he was sent to contend with the Catholic protesters during the Pilgrimage of Grace. The king so trusted him that, at the end of his life, he gave Browne a dry stamp with which to sign letters in the king’s name. Impressive!

Cachet FaivreRosemary asks Sandra Farraday, whilst in the ladies’ toilets (even in Christie-land ladies all go to the toilets together) for a Cachet Faivre to help with her headache. This was a pain medication containing caffeine and quinine. There’s a scene in Noel Coward’s The Vortex where one of the characters asks the butler to fetch her one; and in Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies, hotel landlady Lottie remarks, “Half the young fellows as come here now don’t have anything except a cachet Faivre and some orange juice.” Sounds like the mid-20th century version of a Red Bull.

EatonsLucilla Drake remembers when Eaton’s Syrup was administered as a health tonic when she was young. At one time, Eaton’s in Winnipeg had the reputation of being the largest department store in the world and was a leader in the world of mail order sales, with a wide range of tonics and medicines, including a kidney cure mixture, a sore throat mixture and a “syrup of Eucalyptus, White Pine and Wild Cherry Compound”. It was clearly a cure-all medicine; I’ve found a 1906 account of treatment of malaria which included Eaton’s syrup during convalescence. The company was acquired by Sears Canada in 1999, and the company closed down in 2018. However, the Eaton Centre in Toronto is still a go-to shopping mall.

wedding rings Iris receives a proposal of marriage. However, she replies, “I’m not of age. I’m only eighteen.” Today, of course, Iris would be well within the legal maturity for marriage. However, back in 1945, you had to be 21 to get married without parental consent. Even today, there are some countries (China and the Central African Republic) where a man has to be 22 to get married, even with parental consent.

AgamemnonLord and Lady Kidderminster are said to look at each other “so might Agamemnon and Clytemnestra have stared at each other with the word Iphigenia on their lips”. Very classical. I’m sure you know, but Agamemnon was the King of Mycenae who commanded the Greek forces in the Trojan War. The goddess Artemis required Agamemnon to kill Iphigenia as a human sacrifice in order for his troops to reach Troy. They were tough times in those mythical days.

Rudyard KiplingColonel Race confronts one of the characters and accuses them of not being who they say they are. That person replies, “for the Colonel’s Lady and Judy O’Grady are sisters under the skin”. I’d heard that reference before but never known its derivation. It’s from a rather crude poem called The Ladies (c.1890) by Rudyard Kipling, where a chap recollects all the women he’s slept with and concludes that, despite their differences in class and race, basically, they’re all the same.

tennysonAs mentioned earlier, quotations introduce each of the three sections that make up the entire book. Part one, entitled Rosemary, begins with “what can I do to drive away remembrance from mine eyes?” which is the opening line from a poem by John Keats written in 1819. Part two, entitled All Souls’ Day, begins “that’s Rosemary, that’s for remembrance”, which even I remembered was a line by Ophelia in Hamlet. Part Three, Iris, begins “for I thought that the dead had peace, But it is not so…” which comes from section sixteen of Tennyson’s Maud, published in 1855.

PoundI’m sure you remember that I like to research the present-day value of any significant sums of money mentioned in Christie’s books, just to get a more realistic feel for the amounts in question. Despite many times alluding to the size of Iris’ inheritance when she comes of age, there’s only one sum mentioned in this book – £200, which is the amount that Victor cons out of Lucilla. That’s around £6000 in today’s value, that the little swine took.

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

Publication Details: 1945. Fontana paperback, 16th impression, published in December 1989, price £3.25. The cover illustration simply shows a popped champagne cork and a calendar page for 2nd November that has been partially burned. Not sure of the significance of the burning.

How many pages until the first death: There are two ways to consider this. We discover that Rosemary died on page one. However, if you’re waiting for a real-time death, you have to wait until page 120. That sounds like a long wait; however, this impression has many more spaces and gaps in its printing than most earlier Christies. Page 120 is about halfway through the book.

Funny lines out of context: One can always rely on Christie’s somewhat archaic use of the “E” word.

“His satisfaction was short-lived, for another thought struck him with the force of a physical blow. He ejaculated out loud.”

“His name soon became known as that of a “coming” young man.”

Memorable characters:

Having been rather spoilt by Christie with her characterisations in her more recent books, this is one area where this book disappoints. You have the strong independence of Ruth Lessing, the devil-may-care bad-boy nature of Anthony Browne, and – perhaps – the political expediency and ambition of Stephen Farraday, but apart from that most of the characters are fairly bland.

Christie the Poison expert:

The clue is in the title! Although cyanide – cyanide of potassium as she refers to it – is the method of poisoning for both deaths in the book, Christie doesn’t go into much detail as to how it works or the effect on its victims. She just points out how it makes anyone who takes it turn blue – “the blue cyanosed face, the convulsed clutching fingers”, as Iris recollects. A third death is averted; however, that wouldn’t have been caused by cyanide poisoning.

Class/social issues of the time:

Most of Christie’s favourite themes crop up in this book, but only occasionally, and without great significance. Take, for instance, feminism and the role of women in society. Most of the women in this book have good social standing but only one, Ruth Lessing, could be described as independent and self-reliant. Rosemary relied on relationships; Sandra Farraday confirms that she couldn’t survive without her husband, no matter what he’d done; Iris demurely waits for life to come to her rather than the other way around. Feeblest of all, Lucilla Drake is depicted as a scatty windbag, powerless against the devious manipulations of her son.

Consider Lucilla’s assessment of George’s domestic lifestyle: “George is very well looked after at present. What more can he want, I should like to know? Excellent meals and his mending seen to. Very pleasant for him to have an attractive young girl like you about the house and when you marry some day I should hope I was still capable of seeing to his comfort and looking after his health. Just as well or better than a young woman out of an office could do – what does she know about housekeeping? Figures and ledgers and shorthand and typing – what good is that in a man’s home?” Clearly she feels that a woman’s role is simply to support a man.

There’s also an amusing interchange between Colonel Race and Inspector Kemp about women in society. “”Do you think she is the type to slip incriminating evidence into a girl’s handbag? A perfectly innocent girl, mind, who has never harmed her in any way? […]” Inspector Kemp squirmed uneasily in his seat and peered into his teacup. “Women don’t play cricket,” he said. “If that’s what you mean.” “Actually, a lot of them do,” said Race, smiling. “But I’m glad to see you look uncomfortable.””

The book was published at the end of the Second World War, when the nations of the world looked to their political leaders for inspiration and help to see them out of the mess of the previous six years. Whether you can tie in the character of Stephen Farraday with that inspiration, I’m not sure; but I did enjoy Christie’s gently savage description of his rise up the ranks: “At twenty-two Stephen came down from Oxford with a good degree, a reputation as a good and witty speaker, and a knack of writing articles. He had also made some useful friends. Politics were what attracted him. […] Though by predilection a Liberal, Stephen realised that, for the moment at least, the Liberal Party was dead. He joined the ranks of the Labour Party. […] But the Labour Party did not satisfy Stephen. He found it less open to new ideas, more hidebound by tradition than its great and powerful rival. The Conservatives, on the other hand, were on the look-out for promising young talent. They approved of Stephen Farraday – he was just the type they wanted. He contested a fairly solid Labour constituency and won it by a very narrow majority. It was with a feeling of triumph that Stephen took his seat in the House of Commons. […]

“Nevertheless, once the excitement of actually being in the House had subsided, he experienced swift disillusionment. The hardly fought election had put him in the limelight, now he was down in the rut, a mere insignificant unit of the rank and file, subservient to the party whips, and kept in his place. It was not easy here to rise out of obscurity. […] One needed something above ability. One needed influence. […] He considered marriage […] some handsome creature who would stand hand in hand with him sharing his life and his ambitions; who would give him children and to whom he could unburden his thoughts and perplexities. Some woman who felt as he did and who would be eager for his success and proud of him when he achieved it.” In other words, a purely self-seeking, self-interested social climber with no thought of service to the nation. It’s not difficult to see in which direction Christie’s political loyalties swung from her description of the three main parties!

There are a couple of minor moments of xenophobia and racial issues, although perhaps not as much as in some of Christie’s books. Christine Shannon explains “that’s why I don’t like Dagoes. When they’ve drunk too much they’re not a bit refined any more – a girl never knows what unpleasantness she may be let in for.” That’s an example of both using a detrimental term and stereotyping an entire range of people to one type of bad behaviour. On another occasion, George Barton tells Race about Rosemary’s death and says that the cabaret was “one of those negro shows”. With the benefit of hindsight, and remembering the popularity of the Black and White Minstrels right up into the late 1980s, that’s actually quite polite for the time.

I was interested by the suggestion that a psychiatrist – or what Christie calls “a nerve specialist […] one of these modern men” advised George that “after a shock of any kind, the trouble must be faced, not avoided” and this is – perhaps – the reason that he calls for the dinner party to be “re-run” as it were at the restaurant where Rosemary died. It’s not often that Christie expresses concern for mental health in her books; it must have been a new consideration of the time. But there’s also some very backward-looking thought processes going on, when Race attributes one of the motives for the crime to “bad blood”. A character is associated with guilt because their mother is “feeble in intellect and incapable of concentration”, their father is “weak, vicious and a drunkard” and their sister is “emotionally unstable.” “A family history of weakness, vice and instability. Predisposing causes.” Talk about judgemental! Wouldn’t go down well in a court of law today.

Classic denouement: The denouement creeps up on the reader and you find you’re at that point of the book without it having been made obvious by the writer. Granted, it’s extremely exciting, but I wouldn’t call it a classic, as the perpetrator is not present at the time and therefore cannot be accused dramatically by the detectives. And there’s also the question of the outrageously unlikely modus operandi of the crime, which I’ll discuss in the next paragraph but one….

Happy ending? Wedding bells in the offing for one couple, although there is a sense of sadness at the end of the book for those who died, which means this book definitely ends in a minor key.

Did the story ring true? NO!!!! As I mentioned earlier on, the whole set-up of the crime relies 100% on a group of people acting in one particular way – like a herd instinct – when presented with a particular set of events. And I just don’t believe it. But I can’t explain that to you without giving away the game.

Overall satisfaction rating: There are a few passages where the writing is highly entertaining, and the detective investigations are highly readable. But it’s also very slow to start and is spoiled by its stupid resolution, so on balance I’m downgrading it to a 6/10.

The HollowThanks for reading my blog of Sparkling Cyanide 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 Hollow, and the welcome return of Hercule Poirot. I can’t remember much about the book but I do remember that a few years back we saw a stage adaptation of the story – and it was pretty awful! So I’m hoping that the original book is much better. Only one way to find out! 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!