The origins of The Road to Wigan Pier are not entirely clear, but it seems that in January 1936 Orwell’s publisher Victor Gollancz commissioned him to research and write about the unemployment, poverty and housing conditions in the north of England. On 31 January that year, Orwell’s diary shows that he travelled up from Coventry, slowly either walking or taking buses up to Manchester, then staying in Wigan, Barnsley and Sheffield; returning to London on 30 March. His experiences, the people he meets on the way, the owners of the houses in which he stayed, and his time spent down the mines all contributed to the first part of The Road to Wigan Pier, a powerful, poignant, detailed examination of the life of working class people both in and out of work in those towns. It remains an extraordinarily vivid account of distressed, exhausted, hopeless lives and cannot fail to have an impact on anyone who reads it.
By contrast, Orwell devotes the second part of the book to an attempt to come to terms with his own feelings about injustice and oppression, why socialism must be the answer to society’s problems, but also why it is unlikely ever to be achieved in Britain. Playing devil’s advocate, he explores the “spiritual recoil” felt by those who, by all accounts, ought to support socialism but don’t, placing much of the blame on socialists themselves.
Whilst being impressed and absorbed by what Orwell had written in part one of the book, Gollancz was alarmed at the content of the second part, feeling it would alienate, and indeed infuriate, the Left Book Club readers, the very people whom Gollancz hoped would buy the book. With Orwell refusing to allow Gollancz to publish part one without part two, Gollancz decided to publish, but with a foreword written by himself, trying to placate the readers’ reactions he feared. Praising the first part of the book was easy; Gollancz writes “for myself, it is a long time since I have read so living a book, or one so full of a burning indignation against poverty and oppression.” I’ll come on to what he has to say about the second part of the book later.
The original edition also included 32 illustrations, primarily photographs of Welsh coal miners, and the slums in the East End of London. Orwell did not take the photographs and did not select them for publication; it is likely, though not certain, that they were chosen by Orwell’s friend, the architect of Portmeirion in North Wales, Clough Williams-Ellis. But the source of the photographs is unknown. Today, the illustrations form a helpful, if alarming, accompaniment to Orwell’s text. Whilst the pictures of the rundown, inadequate housing are truly awful, those featuring people are the most memorable. There’s a rather pitiful picture of ten or more men searching in slag-heaps for little pieces of coal; another with a family crammed into one tiny bedroom; and a third where a miner is taking his bath, assisted by his wife. All the photos are fascinating in many ways, but what is impressive is the admirable sense of indomitable spirit that won’t stop these people from living their lives as best they can.
Part One is broken down into seven distinct chapters. Chapter One concentrates on his time spent living in a cheap lodging house, talking about the other residents and the owners of the property. In Chapter Two he explores the life and work of those down coal mines, the working conditions and their day to day existence. In Chapter Three, he looks at the wider issues of miners – their health, their wages, and so on. Chapter Four is concerned with the housing situation in the north, chapter Five deals with unemployment, and chapter Six with food and malnutrition. The first part ends with Chapter Seven, comparing aspects of the north and the south and concluding that the north is full of ugliness.
Flowing, authoritative and immensely readable, Part One is Orwell at his documentary best. Without any hint of an introduction or warming his readers up for the details ahead, the first page dives straight in with a sensuous description of waking up in a lodging house, the assault on the ears made by “the clumping of the mill-girls’ clogs down the cobbled street”, observing the “heavy glass chandelier on which the dust was so thick that it was like fur”, the discomfort of “one of those old-fashioned horsehair armchairs which you slide off when you try to sit on them.” Within minutes of starting to read, you can see, hear, feel all those things that greet Orwell when he wakes up every morning.
Of course, it reminds one of Down and Out in Paris and London, and emphasises so much of the human side of poverty and the miserable existence the people led. As in that book, Orwell pulls out so many fascinating observations that stick in the mind of the reader, even if they are mere asides to the main body of his descriptions. I was fascinated by the bathing etiquette of the miners; eating their meal before taking a bath, washing methodically the top half of their bodies in the same sequence, then their wife will wash their back with a flannel. Lack of easy access to baths for many miners leads Orwell to conclude that “probably a large majority of miners are completely black from the waist down for at least six days a week.”
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Orwell mentions the prevalence of superstition amongst miners given the inherent dangers in the work. “Apparently the old superstition that it is bad luck to see a woman before going to work on the morning shift is not quite extinct.” As a result, a miner working in the morning is likely to get his own breakfast, whereas working later in the day or in the evening, his wife would wait up to give him a meal. “In the old days,” says Orwell, “a miner who happened to meet a woman in the early morning would often turn back and do no work that day.”
Orwell envies them their toughness, their iron-like appearance, and almost romanticises their strength: “it is only when you see miners down the mine and naked that you realise what splendid men they are. Most of them are small (big men are at a disadvantage in that job) but nearly all of them have the most noble bodies; wide shoulders tapering to slender supple waists, and small pronounced buttocks and sinewy thighs, with not an ounce of waste flesh anywhere.” Commentators have queried this apparent emphasis on the homo-erotic; it’s an interesting observation considering that elsewhere in this book and in others, Orwell is quick to condemn anyone he suspects of being “a nancy boy”.
Orwell returns to this theme later, when he considers what he describes as “the physical degeneracy of modern England”. In part two of the book he will examine at length the consequences of having hard manual work performed by machines; here he notes that the average man in England today is likely to have “puny limbs, sickly faces” and that “a man over six feet high is usually skin and bone and not much else.” “Where are the monstrous men with chests like barrels and moustaches like the wings of eagles who strode across my childhood’s gaze twenty or thirty years ago? Buried, I suppose, in the Flanders mud. In their place there are these pale-faced boys who have been picked for their height and consequently look like hop-poles in overcoats.”
There’s a lot of information about miners’ pay, with estimates that the average miner earned around £115 a year in 1934, despite the newspapers and the like overstating it at more like £150 a year. Even so, this is a poor wage; £115 in 1934 is the equivalent of less than £6000 today. Even if a miner can earn enough to pay rent for a house, Orwell states that there are some cumbersome restrictions on Corporation Housing. Every garden must have the same kind of hedge. You cannot keep poultry or pigeons – and Orwell points out that “Yorkshire miners are fond of keeping homer pigeons; they keep them in the back yard and take them out and race them on Sundays.”
Other observations he makes include the prevalence of “home-made bicycles” – that’s something you would never see today; “bicycles made of rusty parts picked off refuse tips, without saddles, without chains and almost always without tyres”. Clearly a sign of poverty, these bikes are ridden by the men who try to scrape a living or heat their home by scavenging for pieces of coal from the slag heaps at the mines. Orwell is frequently quick to be judgmental of people, and he describes this as “immense and systematic thieving of coal by the unemployed. I call it thieving because technically it is that, though it does no harm to anybody.” The men sling bags across these home-made bikes, “containing perhaps half a hundredweight of coal, fruit of half a day’s searching.” Orwell tells us that “in Wigan the competition among unemployed people for the waste coal has become so fierce that it had led to an extraordinary custom called ‘scrambling for the coal’, which is well worth seeing. Indeed I rather wonder that it has never been filmed.” There is something slightly distasteful about Orwell watching this desperate attempt by families to mitigate against their poverty as a kind of spectator sport.
It’s also interesting to compare Orwell’s time with today, in connection with the places that he visited during his two months in the industrial north. He says the ugliest place he visited was Sheffield; in fact he says it “could justly claim to be called the ugliest town in the Old World.” There’s no doubt that, aesthetically, the city had suffered from the destruction caused by industry and its detritus. But this is a million miles away from the Sheffield that I have known, on-and-off, over the last forty years; today, the modernisation of the city centre has made it one of the most desirable places to live in the country. Similarly Wigan; although I don’t know Wigan personally, it’s fascinating to discover that the Wigan Local History and Heritage Society despair at Orwell’s book. I quote from their website: “The book has done untold damage to the town since its publication in 1937 and that harm will continue because of books’ longevity. He claimed to like the people of Wigan, God knows what he would have written if he hadn’t. The book will hang like an albatross round Wigan’s neck for decades if not centuries to come.”
Let’s take a moment to consider some of the references in the first part of The Road to Wigan Pier. First of all – what is that pier? Wigan is inland, so how could it even have a pier? Its origins go back a long way. The first section of the Leeds and Liverpool Canal was completed in 1777, and one of the early buildings remaining from that time is the Grade II Listed terminal warehouse at the end of the canal (Number One Wigan Pier). A pier head was built in 1822 and it was served by a 3.5 mile road that linked it to a number of collieries. So in fact Wigan Pier was a vital component of the distribution of coal from the town to Liverpool, Leeds and beyond. It had something of an ironic reputation, as it associated the traditional idea of a pier (seaside, holidays, relaxation) with the coal mining industry, and was cited in popular songs and jokes over many decades. By the time Orwell reached Wigan he was disappointed to discover that Wigan Pier had been demolished in 1929. Since then, of course, the canal is now only used for recreational purposes, and “Wigan Pier” has gone through many reincarnations, including being a museum and heritage centre, a night club, and the home of the Wigan Pier Theatre Company. Currently closed, there are plans afoot to build housing and other leisure facilities at the site.
There are many references in the first part of the book to the Means Test. Today, whilst we understand the concept of means-testing in general, I for one was not aware that there was something simply called The Means Test during the 1930s. Introduced in 1931 and withdrawn in 1941, in simple terms, if the income of a household in which an unemployed claimant lived was considered “adequate” – whatever “adequate” is (or was) – then the dole was stopped. Orwell points out the deficiencies of this system and how it unfairly discriminated against old-age pensioners, frequently driving them out of their homes. This Means Test was very strictly enforced, frequently ad absurdam. Here are two of Orwell’s instances of the ridiculousness of the enforcement:
“One man I knew, for instance, was seen feeding his neighbour’s chickens while the neighbour was away. It was reported to the authorities that he ‘had a job feeding chickens’ and he had great difficulty refuting this. The favourite joke in Wigan was about a man who was refused relief on the ground that he ‘had a job carting firewood’. He had been seen, it was said, carting firewood at night. He had to explain that he was not carting firewood but doing a moonlight flit. The ‘firewood’ was his furniture.”
Orwell is frequently guilty of talking jargon and quoting acronyms that may have been fully understood at the time but that, 90 or so years later, are unlikely to be recognised. He talks of the PAC; this was the Public Assistance Committee. At roughly the same time as the Means Test, the responsibility for poor relief was passed on from central government to local councils, and the local PAC would have been the people in charge of administering this onerous task. Similarly, the NUWM, whom Orwell praises for doing “the best work for the unemployed”, was the National Unemployed Workers’ Movement, an organisation set up in 1921 by the Communist Party of Great Britain, which fought the Means Test and organised protest marches. It suspended activity at the outbreak of the Second World War, and never resumed its work, finally being dissolved in 1946.
There are a number of people to whom Orwell refers, but who are not household names today. In his chapter about nutrition, Orwell discusses the various opinions as to the number of undernourished people in Britain, stating “Sir John Orr puts it at twenty millions.” Born in 1880, Orr was at first a teacher, then a leading nutritionist, who became the first Director-General of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization. He won the Nobel Prize for Peace in 1949. Major C H Douglas, to whom Orwell refers in connection with the inability of some collieries being able to sell all the coal of which they are capable of producing, was an engineer and a pioneer of social credit economic reform, born in Manchester in 1879. And the Italian Primo Carnera, whom Orwell mentions in connection with the pretensions of short Englishmen to physical prowess, was Boxing Heavyweight Champion of the World in 1933 and 1934.
It’s always a delight to immerse oneself in Orwell’s glorious use of language, and there are plenty of opportunities for his inimitable style to shine through. He has a wonderful attention to detail, revealed in the first few pages where he describes the kitchen table where everyone in the Brooker household ate. “I never saw this table completely uncovered, but I saw its various wrappings at different times. At the bottom there was a layer of old newspapers stained by Worcester Sauce; above that a sheet of sticky white oil-cloth; above that a green serge cloth; above that a coarse linen cloth, never changed and seldom taken off. Generally the crumbs from breakfast were still on the table at supper. I used to get to know individual crumbs by sight and watch their progress up and down the table from day to day.” I love the idea that he almost struck up a relationship with individual crumbs.
In the same way that Orwell (and more importantly Gollancz) escaped libel in Burmese Days because of Orwell’s chatty recollections of real life people that he met, he continues to relate to us individual incidents during his time in the northern towns that would almost certainly be recognised by anyone there at the time or who also knew those people. He goes into great detail about the other people who live with the Brookers – I’m fairly sure he invented that surname but not 100% certain – and he doesn’t hold back from the criticisms and the judgments. Of Mrs Brooker’s habits, he gives us a good insight into just how revolting she was: “She had a habit of constantly wiping her mouth on one of her blankets. Towards the end of my stay she took to tearing off strips of newspaper for this purpose, and in the morning the floor was littered with crumpled-up balls of slimy paper which lay there for hours.” Perhaps my favourite description in the entire book is of Mr Brooker, where Orwell says “he was one of those people who can chew their grievances like a cud.”
But he has a very important point to make about the Brookers. “It is no use saying people like the Brookers are just disgusting and trying to put them out of mind. For they exist in tens and hundreds of thousands; they are one of the characteristic by-products of the modern world. You cannot disregard them if you accept the civilisation that produced them. For this is part at least of what industrialism has done for us.” You sense that this will become the starting point for his writing in the second part of the book.
He’s a real master of the simile; his description of the coal mining procedure includes “the process of getting it out is like scooping the central layer from a Neapolitan ice”. He refers to the blue lining that can appear on miner’s skin due to the all-pervasive coal dust: “some of the older men have their foreheads veined like Roquefort cheeses from this cause”. Of the houses in Wigan that have slipped and slid due to mining work underneath, he says “sometimes the front wall bellies outward till it looks as though the house were seven months gone in pregnancy.” And I love how he can turn on a well-used phrase and smash it to smithereens: “row upon row of little red houses, all much liker than two peas (where did that expression come from? Peas have great individuality)”. By constantly playing games with the language like that, he keeps his descriptions and ideas fresh and lively, even when describing some of the darkest and dreariest aspects of life.
He’s perhaps at his cheekiest when he takes the opportunity to rebut the words of a nameless critic. “I am told,” he says, “that it is bad form for a writer to quote his own reviews, but I want here to contradict a reviewer in the Manchester Guardian who says apropos of one of my books: ‘Set down in Wigan or Whitechapel Mr Orwell would still exercise an unerring power of closing his vision to all that is good in order to proceed with his wholehearted vilification of humanity.’ Wrong. Mr Orwell was ‘set down’ in Wigan for quite a while and it did not inspire him with any wish to vilify humanity.” You can’t pin Orwell down and make him conform to any structure he chooses to ignore.
Before having a look at the more difficult Part Two of The Road to Wigan Pier, let’s go back to Gollancz’s urgently written placatory foreword. Having praised part one to the heavens, he describes the second part as “highly provocative”, picking up one particular theme which Orwell emphasises. Gollancz states “I have in mind in particular a lengthy passage in which Mr Orwell embroiders the theme that, in the opinion of the middle class in general, the working class smells! I believe myself that Mr Orwell is exaggerating violently…” Gollancz sets himself against Orwell’s suggestion that socialists are cranks; specifically concerning that word, he continues that “it appears to mean anyone holding opinions not held by the majority – for instance, any feminist, pacifist, vegetarian or advocate of birth control”.
This particular bugbear of Orwell’s perplexes Gollancz: “there is no more ‘commonsensical’ work than that which is being done at the present time by the birth control clinics up and down the country – and common sense, as I understand I, is the antithesis of crankiness.” He recognises that Orwell’s writing shows a “conflict of two compulsions” throughout part two of the book, and concludes that “Mr Orwell does not once define what he means by Socialism; nor does he explain how the oppressors oppress, nor even what he understands by the words ‘liberty’ and ‘justice’.”
Orwell himself was in Spain at the time of publication, fighting in the Spanish Civil War and gathering material that would come to fruition, first with his essay Spilling the Spanish Beans, and later and more significantly with his book Homage to Catalonia. He had no idea that Gollancz had published The Road to Wigan Pier with this foreword; on 9th May 1937, Orwell wrote to Gollancz thanking him politely for the foreword, saying that he could have answered some of Gollancz’s criticisms if only he had known about them.
However, one thing is true, especially to today’s reader; this is a much harder and rather less rewarding read than the first part of the book. Whilst there is no doubt that his sense of injustice and his hatred of oppression can be found in almost every paragraph, his polemic against so much of British society at the time reduces his writing spark. You rarely get those flashes of observational brilliance; instead he gets tied up with being judgmental and critical. He says he plays devil’s advocate in an attempt to understand why people think Socialism is not the answer, when Orwell clearly believes that it is. What is the source of the spiritual recoil that kills its progress before it has even started?
It seems to me that Orwell has four main problems that he needs to get his head around. The question of class; of “machine worship”; socialists themselves; and the alienating language they use. Class is perhaps the hardest to grapple with, because the English class system was, is and always will be an intractable mess. Orwell always found it hard to identify himself in the class system, being brought up lower-middle-class but gaining a scholarship to Eton; working in the Indian police force, yet spending so much time down and out and writing about it. He feels to me like the character in Jarvis Cocker’s Pulp’s brilliant song Common People – he wants to know what it feels like to be one of the common people, to have no money and nothing to do, but at the same time knowing that he could pick up the telephone “when you’re laid in bed at night watching roaches climb the wall, if you called your dad he could stop it all”.
All middle class people have dormant prejudice, says Orwell, “but at the same time everyone claims that he, in some mysterious way, is exempt from it.” That alone makes it virtually impossible for the class system to end. And of course, there is his outrageously bold statement, that upset Gollancz so much, that “lower classes smell”. Orwell thinks there is no getting over this problem – one, because it is a feeling so ingrained in the minds of the middle classes, and two, because he believes it to be true. “Race hatred, religious hatred, differences of education, of temperament, of intellect, even differences of moral code, can be got over; but physical repulsion cannot. You can have an affection for a murderer or a sodomite, but you cannot have an affection for a man whose breath stinks – habitually stinks, I mean.” There’s a lot to unpack there, and it’s up to the individual reader to sort the wheat from the chaff. But with such a firmly held view, there’s no room for negotiation.
On the question of “machine worship” – in other words, the blind tendency towards mechanisation of all craft-type trades and labour, in order to make life easier for ourselves, or to reduce labour costs – Orwell contemplates whether there still is a place in the world for physical strength, when it is no longer needed. It is, to be fair, a fascinating examination of the whole idea of “progress” which today we all readily accept as if there were no alternative.
Orwell’s problem with socialists themselves is a very personal attack; reminiscent of Groucho Marx’s insistence that he wouldn’t want to be a member of any club that would admit him, it’s a half-comedic, half-deadly serious examination of those people who call themselves socialists and therefore put everyone else off from being like them. As he says, “as with the Christian religion, the worst advertisement for Socialism is its adherents.” But his list of qualities that make a typical Socialist is totally ridiculous. In addition to the feminist, pacifist, vegetarian or advocate of birth control, quoted by Gollancz, he includes “fruit-juice drinker, nudist, sandal-wearer, sex-maniac, Quaker, “Nature Cure” quack”.
He tells a story of travelling in a bus in Letchworth “when the bus stopped and two dreadful-looking old men got onto it. They were both about sixty, both very short, pink and chubby, and both hatless. One of them was obscenely bald, the other had long grey hair bobbed in the Lloyd George style. They were dressed in pistachio-coloured shirts and khaki shorts into which their huge bottoms were crammed so tightly that you could study every dimple […] The man next to me […] glanced at me, at them, and back again at me, and murmured, “Socialists”.” It’s an extraordinarily judgmental, cruel and unreasonable description; consider the pejorative use of the words and phrases dreadful, chubby, obscenely, pistachio-coloured, huge bottoms and even hatless; all hyper-critical, and all on pure surmise. However, it’s an incredibly vivid piece of writing and not one you forget in a hurry. There’s no good reason to equate these people’s appearances with socialism; it’s probably an early example of media manipulation that’s designed to make us think badly about such people. Perhaps it’s unsurprising that he elsewhere uses the term “bare-arse savage” and claims that “Orientals can be very provoking.”
As for the language typically used by socialists, I can completely accept that constantly referring to people as comrades would get very tedious. Orwell tells an excellent anecdote about the Marxist attitude towards literature. Following some articles in a literary column that frequently invoked Shakespeare, “an incensed reader wrote to say, ‘Dear Comrade, we don’t want to hear about these bourgeois writers like Shakespeare. Can’t you give us something a bit more proletarian?’ etc etc. The editor’s reply was simple. ‘If you will turn to the index of Marx’s Capital,’ he wrote, ‘you will find that Shakespeare is mentioned several times.’ And please notice this was enough to silence the objector. Once Shakespeare had received the benediction of Marx, he became respectable. That is the mentality that drives ordinary sensible people away from the Socialist movement.”
Let’s look at a few more of those references that Orwell mentions in the second part of the book, mainly people in the public eye at the time whose names are now forgotten. He refers to a time “when a miner was thought of as a fiend incarnate and old ladies looked under their beds every night lest Robert Smillie should be concealed there.” Robert Smillie was the leader of the miners, a militant socialist who lived from 1857 to 1940. He can be considered like an early 20th century version of Arthur Scargill. Beachcomber, whose articles Orwell refers to in the Daily Express, was a nom-de-plume used by more than one journalist, but primarily was J B Morton, who wrote under that name from 1924 to 1975. John Beevers (1911 – 1975) wrote the book World Without Faith, and was critical of the machine-worship that so upset Orwell. The other interesting reference that was new to me concerned the Duke of York’s Summer Camps – which were precisely as they sound, an initiative by the future King George VI to unite children from all backgrounds working together to build their characters. An early version of the Duke of Edinburgh Award, I suppose.
Orwell is remarkably prescient in some of the things he writes about, and some of the changes to the world that he predicts. He talks of the vast numbers of people who are employed, but are not on a living wage. That’s the same today. He describes the methods employed by some people to stay warm cheaply (by not being at home), like going to the pictures for twopence and staying there all afternoon. With the rise in fuel prices, people face the same problem today. There are the problems of budgeting for a household when your income is so small. There are even discussions about the idea of “levelling up” – I thought that was a purely 21st century concept; and predictions about the horrors of war to come.
Orwell’s conclusion to the book includes this observation: “In the next few years we shall either get that effective Socialist party that we need, or we shall not get it. If we do not get it, then Fascism is coming; probably a slimy Anglicised form of Fascism, with cultured policeman instead of Nazi gorillas and the lion and the unicorn instead of the swastika.” You can still see it coming – if it isn’t already here.
There’s a lot more that could be discussed about this book, but I have already written way too many words! I’d absolutely recommend it, although primarily for the first part, with its vivid documentary approach to poverty and housing. The second part is largely stodgy and a tough read – but don’t let me stop you from reading it!
Next in my George Orwell Challenge will be his essay that appeared in the New English Weekly in two parts in 1937 – Spilling the Spanish Beans. I’ll look forward to reading it and writing about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meantime, thanks for reading my thoughts about Wigan Pier!
This is the first of four stories in the volume Points of View to be given the style classification by Moffett and McElheny of Memoir, or Observer Narration. Here’s how their introduction starts: “The following technique imitates first-hand reporting. The authors of these stories have neither told them in the third person nor had the main character tell them; instead they have used an observer or subordinate character as narrator. Observing is itself sometimes a profound experience, and to want to tell someone else’s story is to be involved in it.”
Spoiler alert – if you haven’t read the story yet and want to before you read the summary of it below, stop now!
The Fall of the House of Usher
Our unnamed narrator is heading for The House of Usher – home to his boyhood friend Roderick Usher, who has written to him, asking him to visit. Roderick is obviously suffering from physical and mental torment and wants his old friend to give him some companionship and improve his mood. But as the narrator approaches the house, it appears as a picture of gloom and darkness in the distance. His suspicions are confirmed as he is shown through dingy corridors to Roderick’s room.
Our narrator is shocked at how much Roderick has changed – he has become cadaverous and anxious, and overwhelmed by a sense of fear. But he finds solace in his pictures and his music, which the narrator encourages and helps. He briefly meets Roderick’s sister Madeline, his only other companion in the house. Madeline suffers from catalepsy and falls into trances, and is extremely ill.
Some time later, Roderick informs the narrator that Madeline has died, and together the two men carry her body into the House’s family tomb. Our narrator notices that Madeline still has a fresh colour to her skin, but that is a common feature after death. One night there is a fearful storm which wakes both men; Roderick is filled with terror, and the narrator tries to placate him by diverting his attention by reading to him from his much loved books. At the moment in the tale where the narrative describes the slaying of a dragon, who emits hideous death cries, similar noises are heard inside the house.
Usher confesses that he has buried Madeline whilst she was still alive. She has broken free from the tomb and falls through the bedroom door with a final agonised death cry, which in turn causes mortal terror for Roderick. The story ends with the narrator fleeing for his life, as he looks back on the House which crumbles under the force of the storm. The House of Usher has irredeemably fallen.
This story has a well-deserved reputation for being a master example of a Gothic horror tale. Many analyses have been written, pointing out the symbolism of the House as a decaying body – the fissure in the structure of the building is like a human scar, and the windows are likened to eyes. Themes of mental and physical illness permeate the story, and its apocalyptic ending is Biblical in proportion. The narrator, in his anonymity, remains an outsider in the tale, which fortunately allows him to escape uninjured, although whether he will ever get over the mental turmoil caused by his experience is debatable.
Poe’s writing is exceptionally formal, and with incredible attention to detail. Whilst there is very little in the way of genuine action in this story, he concentrates on the sense of fear generated by everything the narrator sees and hears. So, despite the lack of action, the reader’s attention is still gripped throughout – more than 180 years since it was first published. At the end, you realise there are a number of questions that remain unanswered, including the nature of Roderick’s illness, and the nature of Roderick and Madeline’s relationship. Has Madeline really been alive in the tomb all this time, or is this a visitation by her ghostly spirit to take revenge on Roderick?
The next story in the anthology is the second of four classified by Moffett and McElheny as memoir, or observer narration, the well-known Mademoiselle Pearl by Guy de Maupassant.
American novelist and short-story writer, and winner of the Pulitzer Prize in 1970 for The Collected Stories of Jean Stafford.
Bad Characters, first published in the New Yorker Magazine, December 4th 1954
Sadly I can’t find a copy of it free to read online.
This is the last of four stories in the volume Points of View to be given the style classification by Moffett and McElheny of Detached Autobiography. Here’s how their introduction sums up this story: “The amount of focus on people other than the narrator varies in these stories, but always there is some […] “Bad Characters” is about the narrator’s friend as much as about herself, so closely are we asked to associate them.”
Spoiler alert – if you haven’t read the story yet and want to before you read the summary of it below, stop now!
Emily Vanderpool has very few friends – Muff the cat shows her the most affection. Bullied and teased, she has a strange idiosyncrasy, whereby she gets a kind of panic attack, and needs to be on her own. Life is drab until she meets Lottie Jump. Lottie is different from the other kids; she has charisma, she has attitude, and she seems happy to share her time with Emily. Emily’s first experience with her was seeing her steal a chocolate cake; this is shocking to Emily, who had been brought up to know the difference between right and wrong. But it’s also strangely exciting: “I was deeply impressed by this bold, sassy girl from Oklahoma and greatly admired the poise with which she aired her prejudices.”
Lottie is prepared to be friends with Emily, on the understanding that she is prepared to do her fair share of stealing. The demand is a hammer blow to Emily’s conscience: “I was thrilled to death and shocked to pieces […] I was torn between agitation […] and excitement over the daring invitation to misconduct myself in so perilous a way.” She also turns a blind eye to the fact that Lottie has stolen Emily’s mother’s perfume flask from her drawer and doesn’t tell her the truth when she assumes she has mislaid it somewhere.
On Saturday, the two girls go into town and spend time in Woolworths. Lottie suggests Emily undertakes some distraction techniques with the shop staff, whilst she shoplifts a number of items and secretes them under her enormous hat. All goes well at first, until Emily has one of her panic attack moments whilst she is engaging with a sales clerk. She makes a cruel remark to Lottie, who at that moment is palming a string of pearls under her hat. The assistant sees it; cries out “Floorwalker! Mr Bellamy! I’ve caught a thief!” And with that, the game is up. But it backfires on Emily, as the experienced Lottie simply plays deaf and dumb and passes the blame back on to Emily, who is unprepared to defend herself. It’s a hard lesson for Emily – and she never sees Lottie again.
It’s a beautifully written little story; the characterisations of Lottie and Emily are very well drawn and you really feel you know them well. There’s some delightful use of language; Emily’s father is friends with the local Judge, and she describes his appearance as “a giant in intimidating haberdashery”. It also builds pace nicely, as you get closer and closer to the Saturday “shopping” day; the anticipation of what’s about to happen gets quite exciting.
Of course, it’s a thoroughly moral story, reflecting Emily’s falling for the glamour of the villain, with the allure of the forbidden activity. It’s inevitable that the wrongdoer will get off scot-free, and the more innocent of the two will take all the blame. One of the longer stories in this volume, the reader can comfortably lose themselves in its gradual progress, and appreciate the characterisations and developments. A thoroughly entertaining read.
The next story in the anthology is the first of four classified by Moffett and McElheny as memoir, or observer narration, the well-known The Fall of the House of Usher by Edgar Allan Poe.
So there we have it, gentle reader, the Agatha Christie Challenge is all but over! But we need to have some final thoughts about her themes, her characters, and also which are the best and which are the worst of her works – my opinion only, of course! So let’s start with…
Looking back over her works, these are the themes and bugbears that Christie frequently gets her teeth into.
Primarily, questions of class. Almost every book is seen from a middle-class perspective, with the opportunity to both look up to the upper classes and aristocracy, and down on the working classes, servants and general layabouts.
There’s a considerable mistrust of foreigners; this can certainly be related to both World Wars, but you also sense it’s ingrained. There are lots of instances of xenophobia and some (perhaps not as many as one would expect) instances of downright racism. It’s difficult to criticise the use of language when words and phrases that we would never use today were commonplace throughout Christie’s career.
Politics: Christie is naturally conservative (small C) in outlook; most of her characters dislike “progress” – whether it be in housing, social awareness, fashion or political thought. She hates high taxation, and many characters take to the page to complain about how much the state is taking off them. There is a lot of distrust of Socialism and Communism; and Christie has a love/hate relationship with the idea of feminism – mainly she hates it, but occasionally she voices in its favour (possibly because she just thinks she should!)
Mental Illness and The Criminal Mind: there’s much adherence to the thought that to be a murderer, you must be insane. There’s also the notion that insanity is hereditary, which damns people before they have a chance to prove themselves.
She’s definitely anti-divorce, which must be a throwback to her experience with Archie.
From the mid-1940s on, there are many reflections of wartime and post-war austerity, and in her later years, the inevitable concerns about how older people will be looked after – either by the state or by their families.
And she’s always fascinated by both archaeology and archaeologists!
Now, just for a bit of fun…
Kings of the Cops
We all know all about Poirot, Miss Marple and the rest, but what about the happy band of Police Inspectors, without whom there’d be no justice? Each of these detectives appeared at least twice in Christie novels and stories – let’s appreciate them!
Inspector Neele in A Pocket Full of Rye, promoted to Chief Inspector Neele in Third Girl. Typical Neele: (on David Baker) “he’s one of the usual mob. Riff-raff – go about in gangs and break up night clubs. Live on purple hearts – heroin – coke – girls go mad about them.”
Chief Constable Colonel Weston in Peril at End House, and Evil Under the Sun. Typical Weston: “If Vyse is the chap, well, we’ll have our work cut out. He’s a cautious man and a sound lawyer. He’ll not give himself away. The woman – well, there would be more hope there. Ten to one she’ll try again. Women have no patience.”
Chief Constable Colonel Melrose and Inspector Raglan, both in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and The Seven Dials Mystery. Typical Raglan (on Poirot) : “Then a grin overspread [Raglan’s] weaselly countenance and he tapped his forehead gently. “Bit gone here,” he said.”
Chief Constable Colonel Melchett and Inspector Slack, both in The Murder at the Vicarage and The Body in the Library; Melchett also in the short story, Death by Drowning (The Thirteen Problems) and Slack also in the short stories Tape Measure Murder, and The Case of the Perfect Maid (Miss Marple’s Final Cases). Typical Melchett (talking to Lawrence Redding) : “”We want to ask you a few questions – here, on the spot,” he said. Lawrence sneered slightly. “Isn’t that a French idea? Reconstruction of the crime?” “My dear boy,” said Colonel Melchett, “don’t take that tone with us.” Typical Slack: “She’s a woman, and women act in that silly way. I’m not saying she did it for a moment. She heard he was accused and she trumped up a story. I’m used to that sort of game. You wouldn’t believe the fool things I’ve known women do.”
Inspector Craddock in A Murder is Announced, promoted to Detective Inspector Craddock in 4.50 from Paddington and to Chief Inspector Craddock in The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side (although he’ll always be just Dermot to Miss Marple!) Typical Craddock: (about Mitzi) “I think the foreign girl knows more than she lets on. But that may be just prejudice on my part”.
Superintendent Spence in Taken at the Flood, Mrs McGinty’s Dead, and retired in both Hallowe’en Party and Elephants Can Remember. Typical Spence: “I should never think of myself as a distinguished man”, but Poirot corrects him, “I think of you as such.”
Superintendent Battle in The Secret of Chimneys, The Seven Dials Mystery, Cards on the Table, Murder is Easy and Towards Zero. Typical Battle: ““Detective stories are mostly bunkum,” said Battle unemotionally. “But they amuse people.””
And the BIG DADDY of them all, Inspector Japp in The Mysterious Affair at Styles, and The Big Four; then promoted to Chief Inspector in Peril at End House, Lord Edgware Dies, Death in the Clouds, The ABC Murders and One Two Buckle My Shoe. He also appears in three stories in Poirot Investigates, three in The Labours of Hercules, four in Poirot’s Early Cases, and one in While the Light Lasts. Truly a credit to the police profession! Typical Japp (on Poirot’s mental dexterity) : “”When we got back here I started to question him. He waved his arms, seized his hat and rushed out again.” We looked at it each other. Japp tapped his forehead significantly. “Must be”, he said.”
Five Christie novels that break all the rules (but, of course, I’m not going to tell you why)!
The Murder of Roger Ackroyd
Murder on the Orient Express
And Then There Were None
Now let’s look at her characters – starting with the main man himself!
Poirot in his own words. Here are some of Poirot’s finest comments – about himself, about crime, about life:
“I am like the prima donna!” (The ABC Murders)
“Alas, I suffer the penalties of greatness!” (The Million Dollar Bond Robbery, Poirot Investigates)
“”And his mistake?” I asked, although I suspected the answer. “Mon ami, he overlooked the little grey cells of Hercule Poirot.” Poirot has his virtues, but modesty is not one of them.”” (The Big Four)
“My name is Hercule Poirot […] and I am probably the greatest detective in the world.” (The Mystery of the Blue Train)
“You have seen the gentle, the calm Hercule Poirot; but there is another Hercule Poirot. I go now to bully, to threaten, to strike terror into the hearts of those who listen to me.” (The Mystery of the Blue Train)
“They say of me: “That is Hercule Poirot! – The great – the unique! – There was never any one like him, there never will be!” Eh bien – I am satisfied. I ask no more. I am modest.” (Peril at End House)
“As a boy, I was poor. There were many of us. We had to get on in the world I entered the Police Force. I worked hard. Slowly I rose in that Force. I began to make a name for myself. I made a name for myself. I began to acquire an international reputation. At last, I was due to retire. There came the War. I was injured. I came, a sad and weary refugee, to England.” (Three Act Tragedy)
“We know the kind of murder that has been committed, the way it was committed. If we have a person who from the psychological point of view could not have committed that particular type of murder, then we can dismiss that person from our calculations.” (Cards on the Table)
“Until you know exactly what sort of a person the victim was, you cannot begin to see the circumstances of a crime clearly.” (Five Little Pigs)
“I am in my own line a celebrated person – I may say a most celebrated person. My gifts, in fact, are unequalled!” (After the Funeral)
“It is necessary to tell a woman at least once a week, and preferably three or four times, that we love her; and that it also wise to bring her a few flowers, to pay her a few compliments, to tell her that she looks well in her new dress or her new hat.” (Dead Man’s Folly)
“If I mistake not, there is on my new grey suit the spot of grease – only the unique spot, but it is sufficient to trouble me.” (The Adventure of the Clapham Cook, Poirot’s Early Cases)
Poirot in the words of others:
“A very famous detective…a marvellous little fellow…a funny little man, a great dandy, but wonderfully clever” (Capt. Hastings in The Mysterious Affair at Styles)
“He was hardly more than five feet, four inches, but carried himself with great dignity. His head was exactly the shape of an egg, and he always perched it a little on one side. His moustache was very stiff and military. The neatness of his attire was almost incredible. I believe a speck of dust would have caused him more pain than a bullet wound.” (Capt. Hastings in The Mysterious Affair at Styles)
“I had learned, with Poirot, that the less dangerous he looked, the more dangerous he was.” (Capt. Hastings in The Murder on the Links)
“”You have made a hit, Poirot. The fair Lady Edgware can hardly take her eyes off you.” “Doubtless she has been informed of my identity,“ said Poirot, trying to look modest and failing. “I think it is the famous moustaches,” I said. “She is carried away by their beauty.” Poirot caressed them surreptitiously. “It is true that they are unique,” he admitted.” (Capt. Hastings in Lord Edgware Dies)
“A ridiculous-looking little man. The sort of little man one could never take seriously.” (Miss Debenham in Murder on the Orient Express)
“Mr Satterthwaite had recalled himself to M. Hercule Poirot’s memory. The little man had been very affable. Mr Satterthwaite suspected him of deliberately exaggerating his foreign mannerisms. His small twinkly eyes seemed to say, “You expect me to be the buffoon? To play the comedy for you? Bien – it shall be as you wish!”” (Three Act Tragedy)
“I found later that there wasn’t anything – no small scrap of insignificant gossip – in which he wasn’t interested. Men aren’t usually so gossipy.” (Amy Leatheran in Murder in Mesopotamia)
“Of course, I knew he was a foreigner, but I hadn’t expected him to be quite as foreign as he was, if you know what I mean.” (Amy Leatheran in Murder in Mesopotamia)
“That old mountebank? He won’t find out anything. He’s all talk and moustaches.” (Tim Allerton in Death on the Nile)
“About as dangerous as a black mamba and a she-leopard” (Superintendent Battle in Towards Zero)
“You’d describe him probably as a scream […] Kind of music hall parody of a Frenchman, but actually he’s a Belgian. But in spite of his absurdities, he’s got brains.” (Inspector Bland in Dead Man’s Folly)
“You’re too old. Nobody told me you were so old. I really don’t want to be rude but – there it is. You’re too old. I’m really very sorry.” (Norma Restarick in Third Girl)
““The trouble with you is,“ said Mrs Oliver […] “that you insist on being smart. You mind more about your clothes and your moustaches and how you look and what you wear than comfort. Now comfort is really the great thing. Once you’ve passed, say, fifty, comfort is the only thing that matters […] if not, you will suffer a great deal and it will be worse year after year.”” (Mrs Oliver in Hallowe’en Party)
“Order and Method are his gods. He goes so far as to attribute all his success to them.” (Capt. Hastings in The King of Clubs, Poirot’s Early Cases)
Poirot, according to Christie:
“Hercule Poirot shrugged his shoulders. He was at his most foreign today. He was out to be despised but patronised.” (Five Little Pigs)
“Hercule Poirot sat in a square chair in front of the square fireplace in the square room of his London flat. In front of him were various objects that were not square: that were instead violently and almost impossibly curved. Each of them, studied separately, looked as if they could not have any conceivable function in a sane world. They appeared improbable, irresponsible, and wholly fortuitous […] Assembled in their proper place in their particular universe, they not only made sense, they made a picture. In other words, Hercule Poirot was doing a jigsaw puzzle.” (Dead Man’s Folly)
“Poirot had the capacity to attract confidences. It was as though when people were talking to him they hardly realised who it was they were talking to.” (Third Girl)
“His mind, magnificent as it was (for he had never doubted that fact) required stimulation from outside sources. He had never been of a philosophic cast of mind. There were times when he almost regretted that he had not taken to the study of theology instead of going into the police force in his early days. The number of angels who could dance on the point of a needle; it would be interesting to feel that that mattered and to argue passionately on the point with one’s colleagues.” (Hallowe’en Party)
“He was a man who thought first always of justice. He was suspicious, had always been suspicious, of mercy – too much mercy, that is to say. Too much mercy, as he knew from former experience both in Belgium and this country, often resulted in further crimes which were fatal to innocent victims who need not have been victims if justice had been put first and mercy second.” (Hallowe’en Party)
Miss Marple in her own words:
“I’m afraid that observing human nature for as long as I have done, one gets not to expect very much from it. I dare say the idle tittle-tattle is very wrong and unkind, but it is so often true, isn’t it?” (The Murder at the Vicarage)
“Living alone, as I do, in a rather out-of-the-way part of the world, one has to have a hobby […] my hobby is – and always has been – Human Nature. So varied, and so very fascinating. And, of course, in a small village, with nothing to distract one, one has such ample opportunity for becoming what I might call proficient in one’s study.” (The Murder at the Vicarage)
“There is a great deal of wickedness in village life.” (The Bloodstained Pavement, The Thirteen Problems)
“I’ve no patience with modern humanitarian scruples about capital punishment.” (A Christmas Tragedy, The Thirteen Problems)
“Women have a lot of sense, you know, when it comes to money matters. Not high finance, of course. No woman can hope to understand that, my dear father said.” (4.50 from Paddington)
“Modern novels” – “so difficult – all about such unpleasant people, doing such very odd things and not, apparently, enjoying them.” (A Caribbean Mystery)
“The depravity of human nature is unbelievable” (Strange Jest, Miss Marple’s Final Cases)
Miss Marple in the words of others:
“Specialised knowledge is her claim”, he says; “we use it in police work. We get a burglary and we usually know pretty well who did it – of the regular crowd, that is. We know the sort of burglar who acts in a particular sort of way. Miss Marple has an interesting, though occasionally trivial, series of parallels from village life.” (Sir Henry Clithering in The Body in the Library)
“That woman knows more about the different kinds of human wickedness than anyone I’ve ever known.” (Mrs Dane Calthrop in The Moving Finger)
Miss Marple, according to Christie:
“Miss Marple wore a black brocade dress, very much pinched in round the waist. Mechlin lace was arranged in a cascade down the front of the bodice. She had on black lace mittens, and a black lace cap surmounted the piled-up masses of her snowy hair.” (The Tuesday Night Club, The Thirteen Problems)
“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.” (A Murder is Announced)
According to Poirot: “Yesterday it was Mademoiselle Daubreuil, today it is Mademoiselle – Cinderella! Decidedly you have the heart of a Turk, Hastings! You should establish a harem!” (The Murder on the Links)
“”Your judgments of character are always profound, my friend…that is to say, when there is no question of a beautiful woman!” I looked at him coldly.” (The Tragedy at Marsdon Manor, Poirot Investigates)
“You are that wholly admirable type of man, honest, credulous, honourable, who is invariably taken in by any scoundrel. You are the type of man who invests in doubtful oil fields, and non-existent gold mines. From hundreds like you, the swindler makes his daily bread.” (Peril at End House)
“Poirot smiled affectionately across the table at me. “My good friend,” he said. “I depend upon you more than you know.” I was confused and delighted by these unexpected words. He had never said anything of the kind to me before.”” (Lord Edgware Dies)
“Go away. You are obstinate and extremely stupid and I wish that there were someone else whom I could trust, but I suppose I shall have to put up with you and your absurd ideas of fair play.” (Curtain)
According to himself: “Now I am old fashioned. A woman, I consider, should be womanly. I have no patience with the modern neurotic girl who jazzes from morning to night, smokes like a chimney, and uses language which would make a Billingsgate fishwoman blush!” (The Murder on the Links)
“It had always seemed to me extraordinary that a woman should go so far in the scientific world. I should have thought a purely masculine brain was needed for such work.” (The Big Four)
“I’m not much of a fellow. You’ve said I’m stupid – well, in a way it’s true. And I’m only half the man I was.” (Curtain)
According to others: “Rather the case of the cart without the horse, your being here without him, isn’t it?” (Inspector Japp in The Mystery of Hunter’s Lodge, Poirot Investigates)
Tommy and Tuppence
Tuppence on Tommy: ““Oh, Tommy, Tommy,” she cried, “I do love you so—and I may never see you again….” At the end of five minutes Tuppence sat up, blew her nose, and pushed back her hair. “That’s that,” she observed sternly. “Let’s look facts in the face. I seem to have fallen in love—with an idiot of a boy who probably doesn’t care two straws about me.”” (The Secret Adversary)
Tommy on Tuppence: “I LOVED her. I’d have given the soul out of my body to save her from harm […] Tuppence is my girl! I’ve always loved her, from the time we played together as kids. We grew up and it was just the same. I shall never forget when I was in hospital, and she came in in that ridiculous cap and apron! It was like a miracle to see the girl I loved turn up in a nurse’s kit——” (The Secret Adversary)
Tommy ““worried about Tuppence. Tuppence was one of those people you had to worry about. If you left the house, you gave her last words of wisdom and she gave you last promises of doing exactly what you counselled her to do: No, she would not be going out except just to buy half a pound of butter, and after all you couldn’t call that dangerous, could you?” “It could be dangerous if you went out to buy half a pound of butter,” said Tommy.”” (Postern of Fate)
Tuppence on herself: “I don’t mind lying in the least. To be quite honest, I get a lot of artistic pleasure out of my lies.” (N or M?)
A writer of “forty-six successful works of fiction, all best sellers in England and America, and freely translated into French, German, Italian, Hungarian, Finnish, Japanese and Abyssinian.” (The Case of the Middle Aged Wife, Parker Pyne Investigates)
“I mean, what can you say about how you write books? What I mean is, first you’ve got to think of something, and when you’ve thought of it you’ve got to force yourself to sit down and write it. That’s all. It would have taken me just three minutes to explain that, and then the Talk would have been ended and everyone would have been very fed up. I can’t imagine why everybody is always so keen for authors to talk about writing. I should have thought it was an author’s business to write, not talk.” (Dead Man’s Folly)
“I’m too busy writing or rather worrying because I can’t write. That’s really the most tiresome thing about writing – though everything is tiresome really, except the one moment when you get what you think is going to be a wonderful idea, and can hardly wait to begin.” (The Pale Horse)
““It is a pity,” he murmured to himself, “that she is so scatty. And yet, she has originality of mind. It could be that I am going to enjoy what she is coming to tell me. It could be – “ he reflected a minute “- that it may take a great deal of the evening and that it will all be excessively foolish. Eh bien, one must take one’s risks in life.”” (Poirot in Hallowe’en Party)
“Mr Satterthwaite is a dried-up elderly little man who has never known romance or adventure himself.” (The Coming of Mr Quin, The Mysterious Mr Quin)
Satterthwaite “knew far more of feminine secrets than it is good for any man to know”. (The Soul of the Croupier, The Mysterious Mr Quin)
“He felt suddenly rather old and out of things, a little dried-up wizened old fogey of a man.” (Harlequin’s Lane, The Mysterious Mr Quin)
“He was large, not to say fat; he had a bald head of noble proportions, strong glasses and little twinkling eyes.” (The Case of the Middle Aged Wife, Parker Pyne Investigates)
“A forbidding-looking young woman with spectacles” (The Case of the Middle Aged Wife, Parker Pyne Investigates)
“Unbelievably ugly” (The Capture of Cerberus, The Labours of Hercules)
“On questions of surmise, she was lost.” (Hickory Dickory Dock)
“She asked no questions and she displayed no curiosity. She did not tell Poirot how she would occupy her time whilst he was away. She did not need to tell him. She always knew what she was going to do and she was always right in what she did.” (Third Girl)
Let’s also pay tribute to the quirky narrators, cameo appearances, dubious witnesses, amateur sleuths and wicked criminals who make Christie’s books the fun to read that they are.
Here are a few to recollect with fondness:
Julius P Hersheimmer (The Secret Adversary)
Monsieur Giraud of the Sureté (The Murder on the Links)
Anne Beddingfield and Sir Eustace Pedler (The Man in the Brown Suit)
Anthony Cade (The Secret of Chimneys)
Philip and Caroline Sheppard (The Murder of Roger Ackroyd)
Bundle Brent (The Seven Dials Mystery)
Mrs Belling (The Sittaford Mystery)
Nick Buckley (Peril at End House)
Princess Dragomiroff, Mrs Hubbard, Colonel Arbuthnot and everyone on board (Murder on the Orient Express)
Bobby Jones and Frankie Derwent (Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?)
Amy Leatheran (Murder in Mesopotamia)
Emily Arundell and Miss Peabody (Dumb Witness)
Mrs Otterbourne (Death on the Nile)
Mrs Boynton and Lady Westholme (Appointment with Death)
Lavinia Pinkerton, Major Horton and Luke Fitzwilliam (Murder is Easy)
Mr Pye and Partridge the maid (The Moving Finger)
Renisenb, Nofret, Esa, and Henet (Death Comes as the End)
Lady Angkatell (The Hollow)
Victoria Jones (They Came to Baghdad)
Lucy Eyelesbarrow and Luther Crackenthorpe (4.50 from Paddington)
Mark Easterbrook and Ginger (The Pale Horse)
Marina Gregg (The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side)
Jason Rafiel (A Caribbean Mystery)
Michael Rogers (Endless Night)
Big Charlotte (Passenger to Frankfurt)
Congratulations, celebrations and jubilations to you all for the joy you have brought me and millions of others!
And it would be remiss of me not to give a big up to the one and only Colonel Race, who played a vital part in The Man in the Brown Suit, Cards on the Table, Death on the Nile and Sparkling Cyanide!
As a finale, here’s my assessment of her works, in order of their excellence, starting with what I think is her worst book…..
While Tuppence is sorting through some old books, she discovers a code in one of them that she deciphers as the message: “Mary Jordan did not die naturally. It was one of us. I think I know which one.” But who was Mary Jordan, and who killed her?
It’s very unsatisfactory. It’s a toss-up between whether this is better or worse than Passenger to Frankfurt; there’s not a lot in it. That book is more preposterous and ridiculous, but at least has quite an exciting ending. This book is just blancmange. 1/10.
Sir Stafford Nye is approached at Frankfurt Airport by a woman who asks him to lend her his passport, his cloak and his flight ticket, as her life is in danger. Feeling like he could do with some excitement in his life, he agrees. What happens next?
Pure conspiracy theory fantasy that infuriates the reader with its ridiculousness. 2/10.
Tommy and Tuppence are frustrated by the fact that no one wants them to help with the war effort, until a trusted contact comes along and offers Tommy a position he can’t resist. Tuppence isn’t to know about it, but of course she finds out and accompanies him. Can they identify the Fifth Columnist working undercover in an English seaside town?
Despite a few positive aspects, I generally did not enjoy this book at all, and if it had been the first Christie I ever picked up, I doubt I would have ever read another. 3/10.
Katherine Grey, the recent recipient of a fine inheritance, seeks a change from her modest life in St Mary Mead by taking the Blue Train to stay with well-to-do cousins in France; but en route becomes entangled with a plot to steal rubies and murder an heiress.
It takes a long time to get started, and the characters just go nowhere at the end. Definitely a book that ends with a whimper rather than a bang. 4/10.
Hilary Craven, suicidal after the loss of her child and abandoned by her husband, is offered an adventure which may prove fatal – so what has she to lose? All she has to do is impersonate the wife of a missing scientist. What could possibly go wrong?
Despite a pacy start and some nicely written early passages, Christie quickly gives up on the narrative and I couldn’t wait for it to end. Utter balderdash and complete nonsense. 5/10.
A return to the grand country mansion of Chimneys, with “Bundle” Brent, that typical Christie bold adventuress who, with her friends, helps to expose the activities of the secret “Seven Dials” society, uncover the identity of its head, the mysterious No. 7, and in so doing discovers a murderer.
Not all bad by any means – with some exciting passages, a good surprise ending and some enjoyable characterisation. It’s just a bit boring. 5/10.
Hastings returns to England to be reunited with his old pal Hercule Poirot, and together they uncover the identities and crimes of an international group of four evil megalomaniacs aiming for world domination, and eventually put a stop to their wicked ways.
Twelve short stories, all apparently unrelated, that aren’t murder mysteries but tales of the supernatural. It is notable for the fact that it contains one of Christie’s best known short stories, Witness for the Prosecution.
Whilst there are a few excellent and memorable stories – for example Witness for the Prosecution and The Gipsy – there are also more than enough that really bring it down. 5/10.
Jacko Argyle is found guilty of the murder of his mother Rachel and dies in prison before Dr Arthur Calgary can come forward and gives him a cast-iron alibi for the time the crime was committed. The other household members aren’t happy to discover that it wasn’t Jacko who killed Rachel – as it means one of them must have!
A good, mysterious start and an exciting, if frantic ending. You don’t find whodunit until the final pages, and the story does actually hang together quite convincingly. It’s such a shame, then, that the vast majority of the book is made up of tedious conversations, waiting around for something to happen. 6/10.
Ariadne Oliver is contacted by the prospective mother-in-law of her goddaughter Celia Ravenscroft, to ask if she knew anything of the circumstances of the apparent double suicide of Celia’s parents. Curious, she shares the information with Poirot, and they decide to see what people remember about their tragic death. Will the testimony of these “elephants” explain the deaths?
It’s not that well written, most of the solution is telegraphed a mile off, and it’s rather repetitive. Yet it does retain a certain charm. 6/10.
Tommy and Tuppence, now six years into their happy ever after marriage, are installed by their old friend Mr Carter in Blunt’s Brilliant Detectives Detective Agency, where they solve a number of varied crimes.
It starts well, but I got bored. Still, it’s a clever concept. 6/10.
Rosemary Barton, a rather reckless young heiress, dies from cyanide poisoning whilst dining at a posh restaurant. A year later, a very similar fate befalls another member of that same dining party. It takes Colonel Race to work out exactly what happened to both victims.
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. 6/10.
Poirot’s breakfast is disturbed by the arrival of a young lady who confesses that she might have committed a murder – but, then again, she might not! Poirot decides to find out more about this strange confession – but when the girl goes to ground, what can he usefully find out? Mrs Oliver knows the family, and she assists by trailing suspects around London, but will Poirot discover whether a murder has been committed, and if so, by whom?
The book starts promisingly, with an intriguing character presenting an intriguing case, but then it quickly turns into a Hunt the Lady game, which kind of goes nowhere, and gets quite dull in parts. 6/10.
Poirot encounters an archaeological dig in Iraq, only to discover that the wife of the leader of the dig has been murdered in a seemingly impossible manner. There’s a motley crew of archaeologists and assistants working there – and one of them must have done it!
Interesting to see Poirot operating in a different environment. but this isn’t an overly successful book. 7/10.
Mr Harley Quin, enigmatic representative of the Commedia dell’Arte, drifts in and out of Mr Satterthwaite’s life, as a catalyst for solving crimes and saving lives, the responsibility for which he hands over to Mr Satterthwaite, giving the old man a final purpose in life.
It’s very enjoyable, but the short story format doesn’t work as well for me as the “proper novel”. And there’s a supernatural element and a number of untied loose ends that don’t really work. But the characterisation is fascinating! 7/10.
Elinor Carlisle is on trial for the murder of Mary Gerrard. All the evidence is stacked up against her, but is Hercule Poirot convinced?
A curate’s egg. Slow to start, few if any Poirotisms, and a drippy and irritating character in the form of Roddy. That said, it’s a strong surprise revelation, and the courtroom scenes have their own buzzy life about them. 7/10.
Gwenda Reed has a vision that she witnessed a murder when she was a child, and Miss Marple helps her and her husband Giles to investigate if she really did see the crime – and if so, who was the murderer?
It’s not bad and it’s not great. An entertaining enough read, but it’s a shame the identity of the murderer is so obvious. 7/10.
On a rest holiday to the Caribbean island of St Honoré, Miss Marple is cornered by an old bore named Major Palgrave, who tells her a story about a murder and offers to show her a photo of the murderer; however, at the last minute he thinks better of it. Nevertheless, murders follow, and Miss Marple is up for the challenge to find out the culprit is and prevent more deaths.
A good start and a good end but it sags in the middle; and you also feel Miss Marple isn’t depicted in quite the same way that she has been before, which feels disappointing. 7/10.
Young 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?
A clever, inventive story; but slow to start, with an unbelievable element, some very unpleasant racism and a not entirely satisfactory ending. 7/10,
Mrs Oliver is called in to organise a Murder Hunt at a village fete but she suspects all is not as it should be and so asks Hercule Poirot to make sense of her suspicions. All seems well at first until an unexpected murder takes place in the boathouse!
A complex plot, full of smoke and mirrors, and impossible to guess; it has a dull middle part where nothing much happens, and the characters and story aren’t particularly memorable. 7/10.
Tommy and Tuppence form The Young Adventurers Ltd and through a combination of hard work and good luck prevent the evil Mr Brown from capturing secret documents that could cause a world war.
I miss the traditional “murder mystery/whodunit” aspect in this book and find it a little over-frantic. But there’s much to enjoy and the characterisations of Tommy and Tuppence themselves make it worth reading alone. 7/10.
Miss Marple, her detective-fiction writing nephew Raymond West and four friends set up the Tuesday Night Club where each one would tell a story of an unsolved crime and the companions would have a think and come up with the identity of the criminal. Naturally, Miss Marple always works out what happened and whodunit.
The portentous loose ends of a few of the stories never get resolved, which is rather disappointing, and you very much get the feeling that this is a combination of previously published magazine stories rather than a whole, individual work. That said, a number of the stories are very enjoyable, and I think I only solved the case before Miss Marple on one occasion – so that makes it quite exciting. 7/10.
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.
Clever, 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. 7/10.
Bobby Jones discovers a man who has fallen from a cliff and who asks Why didn’t they ask Evans? before he promptly dies; a tragic accident perhaps, but when someone tries to poison Jones and he almost dies, he reckons there’s more to this than meets the eye. Who is the dead man, and who is Evans?
It’s fun but it’s foolish; it’s pacey but it’s problematic. 7/10.
Miss Marple solves the murders of a rather hectoring boss and father, and other members of his family and domestic household. A goldmine, a prodigal son, a nursery rhyme, a vengeful family and an unseen boyfriend all play a part.
The crime and the Sing-a-song-of-sixpence theme dovetail nicely. 7/10.
Poirot receives a commission from a Miss Emily Arundell, only to discover she had died a couple of months earlier. He and Hastings examine the circumstances of her death and conclude it was not as natural as the doctor had presumed. Miss Arundell had recently changed her will but had her scheming relatives known this?
An enjoyable story that lacks a certain je ne sais quoi. 7/10.
Poirot is asked to consider a case that took place sixteen years earlier, where Caroline Crale was found guilty of the murder of her husband Amyas. But her daughter is convinced that her mother was innocent, and wants to reassure her fiancé of that fact. Poirot exercises his little grey cells and proves that you can solve a murder just by thinking.
Very clever plotting, an unusual structure, and a good ending. On the other hand, it’s very repetitive. 8/10.
Tommy and Tuppence are on the hunt for a missing old lady, Mrs Lancaster, who lived in the same old people’s home as Tommy’s Aunt Ada, and had given her a painting of an attractive old house. But when Aunt Ada dies, T & T are at a loss as to how to get the picture back to Mrs Lancaster. Cue a search by Tuppence which ends up getting her deep in trouble.
A very suspenseful and surprising ending, but there are a lot of coincidences and untied up loose ends. 8/10.
Poirot is enjoying a quiet holiday in a discreet island off the coast of Devon, when one of his fellow holidaymakers is found strangled on a beach. Naturally the local police ask Poirot to assist – and just before they call in Scotland Yard his little grey cells come to the rescue.
A very good read, and the crime is very satisfactory, from the reader’s point of view; but some of the characters are rather boring, and the ending is disappointing. 8/10.
Miss Marple is contacted via a solicitor’s letter by the late Mr Rafiel, who asks her to investigate a crime but gives no other indication of what it is or how she should do it. This results in Miss Marple taking a coach tour of Famous Houses and Gardens of Great Britain. But are all the other passengers genuine, and what crime will Miss Marple stumble upon?
Not without its faults but it’s a pretty satisfying book overall and I enjoyed reading it enormously! 8/10.
Poirot unwillingly attends an appointment at the dentists, only to find out that a murder takes place at the dental surgery later on the same day. Soon Poirot is immersed in a web of political intrigue and activists – but is it a crime of passion or of politics?
A cracking yarn; very pacey, full of surprises and a tough one for the little grey cells. However, for some reason, it’s not particularly memorable. 8/10.
Anne Beddingfeld, orphaned and inquisitive adventuress, witnesses the death of a man at Hyde Park Corner tube station and subsequently gets caught up in a realm of intrigue which takes her from London to Marlow to South Africa, on the hunt for the mystery man named “the Colonel”.
Despite its ridiculous coincidences, tendency to stray into travelogue, and an awful lot of romantic nonsense, it has some extremely good characters, rather witty conversations and creates an old-fashioned “rattling good read”. 8/10.
Parker Pyne places advertisements in newspapers seeking clients who are unhappy, in the promise of making them happy again. In the first six stories we see him at work in London; in the second he’s on holiday in Europe and the Middle East but clients keep throwing themselves at him.
A very enjoyable read, written so that you can almost take it as a novel. 8/10.
Poirot’s plans for a cosy Christmas Eve as guest of Colonel Johnson, Chief Constable of Middleshire, go awry when local bigwig Simeon Lee is found murdered in his locked bedroom that evening. Poirot joins Johnson and local Superintendent Sugden to work out which of the Lee family Christmas visitors did the heinous deed.
On the plus side, it’s an exciting read, with an excellent denouement and a suitably surprising solution to the crime. On the negative side, Poirot isn’t himself; there are no references to little grey cells, no moments of breathtaking vanity. 8/10.
Superintendent Spence is not satisfied that James Bentley is guilty of the murder of charwoman Mrs McGinty, and asks Poirot to discover the real culprit. Poirot unearths the real murderer and saves Bentley from the gallows.
A little chewy occasionally, but with a very exciting second half and a banger of a denouement. 8/10.
Mrs Oliver is present at a children’s Hallowe’en party that ends in a grotesque death involving apples, which puts her off her favourite fruit for life. Poirot speaks to everyone involved with setting up the party, but it’s not until another tragedy takes place that he’s able to identify the murderer.
A very enjoyable and entertaining read – a few untied loose ends. 8/10.
Young Emily Trefusis is determined to prove the innocence of her fiancé Jim for the murder of Captain Trevelyan. With the help of the busybodying news reporter Charles Enderby and the thoroughly decent Inspector Narracott, she does a fine job!
A very easy and fast read, one that you don’t want to put down because you’re thoroughly involved in the plot and investigation. 8/10.
The Boynton family suffer under the malign and cruel tyranny of their matriarch, so that it comes as no surprise that one afternoon the wretched woman is found dead as a dodo. Poirot promises the local military chief in charge of police that he will solve the crime in a mere twenty-four hours, simply by interviewing the suspects and employing the little grey cells.
Miss Marple assists the police in solving the assault of a forgetful cleric, discovering the mastermind of a sequence of high value robberies and identifying the true identity of the murderer of a hotel employee, all in a seemingly respectable and old-fashioned London hotel.
A complete flight of fantasy; eccentric, unlikely and rather weird. However, the characters are largely believable and it’s a very good read. 8/10.
Garrulous busybody Heather Badcock corners movie star Marina Gregg at a reception party, boring her to tears; and the next minute, she’s dead! But did the murderer intend the harmless Heather as the victim, or the wealthy and influential Marina? Miss Marple has all the necessary access to the facts to crack the case.
A very enjoyable book, with a good story, and I really like the way Christie uses it to reassess the character of Miss Marple with her passing years, and how old and new lifestyles can (or cannot) co-exist. 9/10.
Colin Lamb is tasked to unearth an espionage hub, at the same time that he accompanies his pal Inspector Hardcastle in solving the mystery of the murder of an unidentified man found in someone else’s house, surrounded by clocks! Colin enlists the help of his old friend Hercule Poirot – and without his help, Hardcastle would have been lost.
An excellent read, but the final solution is both a little overcomplicated and under-delivering. 9/10.
Miss Marple visits her old friend Carrie-Louise at her home Stonygates, which is also used as an educational institution for delinquent youths, to prepare them for an honest life in the world outside. Carrie-Louise’s sister Ruth knows that something is wrong at Stonygates, but can’t put her finger on what. Will Miss Marple see through the trick of mirrors?
Despite its faults – the lapses in characterisation, and a lack of classic denouement, it’s an incredibly entertaining read and a very intriguing crime. 9/10.
Poirot receives a desperate plea for help from M. Paul Renauld in France, but by the time he and Hastings rush to his aid, he has been murdered. Poirot works with the local magistrate to discover precisely what happened whilst engaging in duels of wit with the local officer of the Sûreté.
The constant twists and turns lead you up and down garden paths and everywhere but the truth, and are really entertaining. An undervalued little gem of a book. 9/10.
Dashing actor Sir Charles Cartwright falls for the lovely young Miss Hermione Lytton Gore and together they amateur sleuth their way through a series of deaths, aided by the redoubtable Mr Satterthwaite and one Hercule Poirot.
Despite a few ragged edges, a very entertaining and exciting read, and I found the second half of it un-put-downable. 9/10.
Mrs McGillicuddy witnesses a murder from her train window as another train overtakes and she sees the back of a man strangling a woman. However, no murders or missing women have been reported. Is this the result of her overactive imagination? Miss Marple doesn’t think so.
The good sides outweigh the downsides, and the twists are very entertaining. 9/10.
Victoria Jones bumps into Edward in a park in London and falls in love with him in an instant. He’s going to Baghdad to help open a bookshop for his boss and she decides to chuck everything in and follow him to Baghdad. But many other important political and influential people are also travelling to Baghdad, and Victoria gets caught up in a spot of espionage because she’s that kind of girl.
The body of an unknown young woman is found in the library of Arthur and Dolly Bantry’s home, so, naturally, Mrs Bantry doesn’t hesitate to tell her old friend Miss Jane Marple who, as always, follows her unique suspicions to get to the truth.
Good characters, good story-telling, a believable (albeit contorted) plotline and a humdinger of an ending. 9/10.
Historian and writer Mark Easterbrook witnesses a fight between two girls in a coffee bar – which leads him into a mystic underworld of seances, black magic and the surprise deaths of unwanted relatives. And what connection can an old converted pub, The Pale Horse, have with these deaths?
An excellent book, extremely well-written and one of Christie’s more un-put-downable works. 9/10.
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! Fortunately Miss Marple is on hand to give valuable assistance.
Wealthy socialite Linnet Ridgeway marries Simon Doyle, the fiancé of her best friend Jacqueline de Bellefort, much to the latter’s fury. Miss de Bellefort stalks the newly married couple all round Egypt on holiday, but Hercule Poirot refuses a commission from the new Mrs Doyle to “do something about it”. However, when one member of the love triangle is found murdered, it is up to Poirot to solve the case.
Poirot and Hastings are reunited on holiday at the Cornish coast and meet Miss Nick Buckley, who has survived several accidents, any or all of which could have been fatal. Whilst Poirot is in conversation with her a bullet whizzes past and makes a hole in her hat!
A brilliant read – very exciting, and very hard to guess whodunit. 9/10.
Ex-Police Officer Luke Fitzwilliam finds himself at the heart of a village where a number of people have recently died – and maybe not by natural causes. He goes undercover researching for a make-believe book and, as murder becomes more and more obvious, he eventually stumbles into discovering who really killed all these people.
An extremely enjoyable read; pure whodunit escapism, with quite a lot of humour and some memorable characters. And a lot of deaths often lifts a whodunit, in a ghoulish sort of way! 9/10.
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?
The forerunner to The Mousetrap, this is a terrifically exciting read and, if you’re one of those people who still don’t know whodunit, the denouement will knock you sideways. 10/10.
Tennis star Nevile Strange takes his new wife Kay to stay with his late guardian’s widow, Lady Tressilian, when his first wife, Audrey, is also visiting. Tempers flare, old flames are kindled, and old scores are settled. Two deaths later, Superintendent Battle questions the suspects and gets to the bottom of what actually happened.
Poirot and Hastings are reunited for one final time – back at Styles, which is now a guest house, where Poirot is a resident. Poirot confides to Hastings that one of the guests is a serial murderer; but there’s just one main problem. Poirot won’t tell Hastings who the murderer is!
One of Christie’s undoubted best – no wonder she kept it in a drawer for when it was needed! 10/10
Sophie Leonides decides she can’t marry Charles until the identity of her grandfather’s murderer is discovered. Charles’ father is the Assistant Commissioner of Scotland Yard, who agrees 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.
Solicitor Mr Entwhistle enlists the help of his friend Poirot to get to the bottom of the death of one of the late Richard Abernethie’s relatives shortly after the family meet to attend Abernethie’s funeral. Who killed the relative, and was Abernethie’s death murder too?
Poirot is brought into make sense of some strange thefts and minor acts of vandalism at a students’ hostel managed by his secretary, Miss Lemon,’s sister, Mrs Hubbard. But when the thefts turn into deaths, his job is to discover who is behind a series of very serious crimes and prevent more murders from taking place.
Despite the unusual denouement and the uncomfortable language, this is a pure favourite! 10/10.
Brother and sister Jerry and Joanna Burton move to the tranquil country town of Lymstock to help with his recovery after a flying accident. But instead of quiet rural life they become embroiled in a hunt for a poison-pen letter writer who appears to have driven one poor resident to suicide. But then another body is discovered.
Despite a couple of tiny rankles this is such a good read. 10/10.
Poirot travels on board an aeroplane, where one of his fellow passengers is murdered in plain sight of everyone else. With the help of Inspector Japp and contributions from fellow passengers Jane Grey and Norman Gale, Poirot uncovers the truth of this extremely bold murder.
Christie achieves a truly fluid and entertaining writing style in this book, and Poirot has never been so manipulative. 10/10.
Four detectives including Hercule Poirot play bridge in one room of Mr Shaitana’s house whilst four other guests play bridge in another, where Mr Shaitana sits by the fire and watches; and when they get up to go home at the end of the evening, one of the four has murdered their host. No one else is implicated in the crime; and Poirot identifies the murderer through psychological examination of the characters involved.
Michael Rogers narrates his own tale of acquiring a property at Gipsy’s Acre, despite the warnings of local people that the property and land is cursed; and how he meets the girl of his dreams. They build a fabulous architect-designed house on the land; but do they live happy ever after, or does the gipsy curse ruin their lives ahead?
Ten strangers receive a summon to visit a rocky island off the coast of Devon, expecting either a holiday, a reunion or an offer of work; and then one by one each of them is murdered by the mysterious U. N. Owen.
A brilliant read. Fast, exciting, suspenseful, and totally impossible to solve. 10/10.
Renisenb, a young widow from an ancient Egyptian family of 4,000 years ago, returns to her home, having buried her young husband, and hoping everything will be as it once was. However, she finds herself at the heart of a family torn apart by bitter jealousy, rivalry, tyranny, and, eventually, murder.
Murder comes to the exclusive girls’ school Meadowbank, run by the redoubtable Miss Bulstrode, and Middle Eastern espionage clashes with young ladies’ tennis practice. The police don’t seem to have much of an idea until one of the girls escapes to London to ask the help of family friend Hercule Poirot.
Despite all its flaws I am a huge fan of this book and it’s one of the most accessible, understandable and exciting of all her works. 10/10.
Poirot travels on the Simplon-Orient Express from Istanbul to Paris but the train is caught in a snowdrift near Vincovci, and when Poirot wakes the next morning, he discovers that one of his fellow passengers has been murdered. Who is he, and who has killed him?
Let’s keep it simple. Poirot solves the murder of Roger Ackroyd, as narrated by Dr Sheppard.
Everything fits very believably into place, and although it’s a bold and ambitious crime, Christie fairly presents us with all the clues. The Classic Classic! 10/10.
Agree or disagree with my rankings? Please let me know!
Thanks again for sticking with me over the last eight years of this Labour of Love. I’m grateful for all the comments, suggestions, questions and opinions about these terrific books – and just because I’ve reached the end of my personal challenge, doesn’t mean to say you should stop too! So keep the comments coming!
Now that I have finished my Agatha Christie Challenge, it will give me more time to turn my attention to my other challenges currently “on the go” – and start to make better progress with them. If you haven’t already checked them out, I’m working my way through all George Orwell’s essays and books (The George Orwell Challenge), all the children’s novels by French writer Paul Berna (The Paul Berna Challenge), all the short stories in a fascinating anthology entitled Points of View (The Points of View Challenge) and all the James Bond films (The James Bond Challenge). These have taken a back seat whilst I have been trying to complete the Christie challenge – but now it’s time for me to look at those again. And, knowing me, I wouldn’t be surprised if I start a couple more challenges soon!
Having said all that, it has been suggested to me that I might like to add Agatha Christie’s plays to my Challenge. It wasn’t something I had intended to do, but I can see that there could be merit in it! I don’t think there would be a lot of point in reading and writing about those plays that are directly adapted from her own books, but that does still leave a number (14, I think) of stage and radio plays written over the years. Let’s just say I’m thinking about it!
Five individual short stories – four of which were reworked into other works, and which were published in the John Curran books Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks, Agatha Christie – Murder in the Making, and Tony Medawar’s Bodies in the Library. I’ll take them all individually, and, as always, I promise not to reveal whodunit!
The Man Who Knew
Believed to have been written shortly after the end of the First World War, but before the publication of The Mysterious Affair at Styles. Never published in Christie’s lifetime, but she reworked it into The Red Signal, which was first published in issue 232 of The Grand Magazine in June 1924, and subsequently as part of The Hound of Death collection in the UK in 1933. You can find the story in John Curran’s Agatha Christie – Murder in the Making.
Derek Lawson returns from a theatre trip with friends to discover a revolver has been planted in one of his drawers, and a note has been scrawled on his theatre programme, don’t go home. With the news that his uncle, the Harley Street specialist Sir James Lawson has been shot, he puts two and two together, and resolves to take action to prevent himself from being accused of the crime.
Atmospheric and engaging, this (very) short story has all the hallmarks of a young writer finding her feet, establishing for herself what works and what doesn’t. It’s very limited to the bare bones of its own story, with hardly any embellishments – Christie would put that right when she created The Red Signal, which is a far, far more expansive and gripping piece of writing.
As John Curran points out, it’s extraordinary that this manuscript has survived; most haven’t. Whilst taken on its own, it’s not earth-shattering, but it is an interesting insight into Christie’s early imagination.
The Wife of the Kenite
Unlike the other stories in this selection, The Wife of the Kenite had been published before, in The Home Magazine, in Sydney, Australia, in 1922. Since then it had gone to ground and wasn’t available in print again until its appearance in Tony Medawar’s Bodies in the Library in 2018.
Soldier for hire, Herr Schaefer has escaped Johannesberg and is on the run – on the lookout for a contact, Mr Henschel. He discovers Henschel’s farmhouse; he isn’t there, but his wife is. She recognises him – but doesn’t tell him; and he doesn’t recognise her. He admires a woman who reads her Bible, but can’t quite remember the significance of Chapter Four of the Book of Judges…
Starkly and powerfully written, this is an eerie tale of revenge being served best cold. Christie plays nicely on our imaginations, and we can almost see the sparse South African landscape (she had visited South Africa with Archie Christie) and sense the grit and Germanic forcefulness of Herr Schaefer and the grimness of Henschel’s wife. The final act of the story is also left to our imagination, and that works very well.
Field Marshal Jan Smuts gets mentioned twice – at the time this was written, he was Prime Minister of South Africa; and mealies is a South African term for maize plants. Voogplaat, the Belgian village that used to be where the woman lived, sounds very credible but is in fact a name made up by Christie.
As for Judges 4, verses 17 – 21: “Sisera, meanwhile, fled on foot to the tent of Jael, the wife of Heber the Kenite, because there was an alliance between Jabin king of Hazor and the family of Heber the Kenite. Jael went out to meet Sisera and said to him, “Come, my lord, come right in. Don’t be afraid.” So he entered her tent, and she covered him with a blanket. “I’m thirsty,” he said. “Please give me some water.” She opened a skin of milk, gave him a drink, and covered him up. “Stand in the doorway of the tent,” he told her. “If someone comes by and asks you, ‘Is anyone in there?’ say ‘No.’ ” But Jael, Heber’s wife, picked up a tent peg and a hammer and went quietly to him while he lay fast asleep, exhausted. She drove the peg through his temple into the ground, and he died.”
War crimes are never forgotten.
The Incident of the Dog’s Ball
This is one of two unpublished short stories that were discovered by Christie’s daughter Rosalind Hicks in 2004 in an attic. John Curran suggests it was written around 1933, but never saw the light of day as Christie decided to rework and expand it into her novel Dumb Witness, published in 1937. However, it may have been written earlier than this as the majority of short stories that feature both Poirot and Hastings date from the 1920s. You can find the story in John Curran’s Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks.
Poirot receives an intriguing letter from Miss Matilda Wheeler asking for his help in a very unspecific sort of way; something was wrong, ever since “the incident of the dog’s ball”. But the letter has inexplicably taken a number of months to reach him. His curiosity piqued, he decides to see Miss Wheeler; however, on arrival at her house, they discover that she has died. Poirot’s not going to let that mystery go unexplained!
Although never published and clearly regarded by Christie as a stepping stone to writing Dumb Witness, The Incident of the Dog’s Ball stands up pretty well as a short story on its own. There are a couple of errors, that would no doubt have been picked up if it had been properly proof-read, but apart from that it’s an entertaining and pacey read. It’s set in the village of Little Hemel; there really ought to be a place near Hemel Hempstead that shares this name, but alas no. In any case, Christie decides to locate Little Hemel in Kent, just to confound us. And Hastings has been awarded the O.B.E.! I wonder if it was for services to detection?!
Curiously, the story has a different murderer and explanation of the crime from Dumb Witness, so even if you have read the longer novel, there’s no reason to miss out on this little gem. There are some passages of the short story that have been transported straight into the novel; and Curran points out that there is a very similar letter to Miss Wheeler’s in Christie’s short story How Does Your Garden Grow? which was featured in the collection Poirot’s Early Cases.
I think this little tale is somewhat underestimated!
The Capture of Cerberus
This is the other story that Rosalind Hicks found in an attic in 2004, and you can also read this one in John Curran’s Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks. It is the original twelfth story in the collection The Labours of Hercules, published in 1947. The first eleven stories were originally published in The Strand Magazine, but this one was rejected. And, considering its subject matter, and the time that it was written, it’s no surprise that it was rejected. The story The Capture of Cerberus that was included in The Labours of Hercules is a completely different story, although both tales included Poirot getting reacquainted with the only love of his life, Countess Vera Rossakoff. So, again, if you’ve read The Labours of Hercules in full, that’s no reason not to read this original Cerberus story.
During a chance meeting in Geneva, Vera Rossakoff introduces Poirot to a Dr Keiserbach. Vera tells Keiserbach of Poirot’s extraordinary abilities – “he can even bring the dead back to life”. Impressed by this, Keiserbach privately later reveals to Poirot his true identity, Lutzmann; his son has famously shot the “dictator of all dictators”, August Hertzlein – but was torn to pieces by the baying mob and died on the spot. But Lutzmann is convinced that it wasn’t his son who killed Hertzlein: “he loved that man. He worshipped him […] he was a Nazi through and through.” So who did kill Hertzlein?
Given this was probably written in 1939 before the outbreak of war, it’s no surprise that the Strand magazine would have wanted this story suppressed. August Hertzlein is a clear reference to Adolf Hitler, and this story is almost unique in Christie’s works as being so obviously overtly political. Consequently, it’s a very entertaining and engrossing read, with Poirot on fine form, employing the most devious tactics to get to the truth.
It’s also superbly written, with a much more mature and adept use of language and some terrific turns of phrase, such as you would expect from the author pretty much at the height of her powers. There are some excellent new insights into Poirot’s character and beliefs. “To arouse enthusiasm was not his gift and never had been. Brains, he thought with his usual lack of modesty, were his speciality. And men with great brains were seldom great leaders or great orators. Possibly because they were too astute to be taken in by themselves.”
There’s a fascinating description of why Poirot is so attracted by Rossakoff, even though she is now older and heavily made up: “the original woman underneath the makeup had long been hidden from sight, Nevertheless, to Hercule Poirot, she still represented the sumptuous, the alluring. The bourgeois in him was thrilled by the aristocrat.”
And I was very much amused by Vera’s enthusiastic over-the-top praising of Poirot to Keiserbach: “He knows everything! He can do anything! Murderers hang themselves to save time when they know he is on their track.”
The Case of the Caretaker’s Wife
This unpublished story is approximately 80% identical to The Case of the Caretaker, that appears in the collection Miss Marple’s Final Cases, with very much the same story and the same solution. John Curran speculates that it was written in 1940, given its appearance in Christie’s notebooks, and you can find it in his book Agatha Christie – Murder in the Making.
Here’s how I précised the story as it appears in Miss Marple’s Final Cases: “Previously a ne’er-do-well, Harry Laxton brings his wealthy new bride back to his home village. The locals are keen to meet her and are pleased to see Harry has made good – except for Mrs Murgatroyd, the evicted caretaker of the old house that Harry has renovated. When she curses young Louise Laxton, the young bride thinks twice about living in the house and in the area. But who is murdered, and by whom?” And there’s no reason to change that for this version of the story!
There are three main differences between the two versions. The Case of the Caretaker’s Wife is more openly set in St Mary Mead, with its usual cast of characters – Mrs Price-Ridley, Miss Hartnell and Miss Wetherby, rather than Mrs Price, Miss Harmon and Miss Brent. This story is told in a straightforward narrative, rather than being bookended by Dr Haydock giving Miss Marple a written-out mystery to solve to keep her spirits up whilst she’s getting over flu. And this story is expanded a little to include an interview between Miss Marple and Mrs Murgatroyd, and removes the clumsy and unlikely scene in The Case of the Caretaker where a hypodermic syringe falls out of a miscreant’s pocket.
John Curran points out – which I hadn’t recognised when I read Miss Marple’s Final Cases – that this is a precursor to Christie’s excellent 1967 novel, Endless Night.
All in all, Caretaker’s Wife is probably a better story than Caretaker, but if you’ve already read the one, there’s no real need to read the other!
And not only does that conclude my look at these five unpublished stories – and I’ll award this little selection with an overall mark of 7/10 – it also concludes my re-reading of all of Christie’s detective fiction! Thanks for sticking with me over the past eight years on this one. I can’t let this end here, so I will be back with one last summing-up of Christie’s works. What do we know of Poirot, Marple, and all the other major characters in her works? What themes and ideas did she deal with most prominently throughout her long career? And which are the best and which are the worst? I’ll be back with my final thoughts in the not too distant future – and, in the meanwhile, happy sleuthing and keep on Christie-ing!
In which that eccentric detective novelist Mrs Oliver is called in to organise a Murder Hunt at a village fete but she suspects all is not as it should be and so asks Hercule Poirot to make sense of her suspicions. All seems well at first until an unexpected murder takes place in the boathouse! Even though the victim provides Poirot a huge clue at first hand before their death, Poirot can’t see the wood for trees until the final few chapters, when all is explained. As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I promise not to reveal whodunit!
And if that sounds like the plot to Dead Man’s Folly, that’s because it is! Hercule Poirot and the Greenshore Folly was originally written to pay for a church window in the chancel of St Mary the Virgin in Churston Ferrers, the church where Christie worshipped. However, as John Curran explains in his excellent notes that accompany the book, Christie’s agents found it impossible to sell the manuscript! That was because it was neither short story nor novel, and didn’t fit into the market at the time. Undeterred, Christie wrote a new short story for the church window, the similarly named but completely different Greenshaw’s Folly, that was published in the UK in the collection The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding.
Writing Hercule Poirot and the Greenshore Folly was not wasted however, as Christie realised she could expand it into a full length novel, and that’s how Dead Man’s Folly was born. This “junior version” of the later novel wasn’t published in the UK until 2014, by Harper Collins, and with an introduction by the man with whom everyone associates Christie paperback covers, the artist Tom Adams, who died in 2019.
If you have already read Dead Man’s Folly, then there is no reason (other than the purely academic exercise of comparing the two texts) to read Greenshore Folly. They tell precisely the same tale, with precisely the same clues, twists and surprises, and with precisely the same murderer. If you haven’t read either, jump straight to Dead Man’s Folly and don’t bother with the earlier version. Not that there’s anything wrong with it, it’s just the whole description of the detective investigation is much more sparse and less involving. If, in the unlikely event that you’ve read Greenshore Folly but not Dead Man’s Folly, wait a few years until you’ve completely forgotten the plot and the characters, and then read Dead Man’s Folly; it will come as a pleasant surprise.
Apart from a few extended conversations and some name/place name changes, both books are virtually identical up until the first murder. At that point, Dead Man’s Folly goes into much more rewarding detail about the detective procedure, whereas Greenshore Folly performs a short-cut and more or less jumps to the end.
Thematically, then, the book is on exactly the same lines as Dead Man’s Folly – so if you want to read more, please refer to my blog about it! The link is above. Like the fuller version, I think this deserves a 7/10.
We’re so very near the end of the Agatha Christie Challenge, gentle reader! All that remains is to consider five more short stories that have come to light in recent years. Four of them were printed in John Curran’s two excellent books; The Capture of Cerberus and The Incident of the Dog’s Ball in Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks, and Miss Marple and the Case of the Caretaker’s Wife and The Man Who Knew in Agatha Christie – Murder in the Making. Additionally, The Wife of the Kenite has been published in the collection Bodies from the Library, edited by Tony Medawar.
I’ll give them all a read shortly, and, as usual, I’ll blog my thoughts about them soon. In the meantime, please read them too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!
Nine short stories, never previously published in book form in the UK, including two featuring Hercule Poirot. Additionally, the volume contains accompanying notes by Christie scholar and detective story writer, Tony Medawar. While the Light Lasts was first published in the UK by Harper Collins in August 1997. Eight of the stories had been published in the US collection The Harlequin Tea Set, in April 1997. I’ll take them all individually, and, as always, I promise not to reveal whodunit!
The House of Dreams
This spooky little story was originally published in issue 74 of the Sovereign Magazine in January 1926. John Segrave dreams of a beautiful house, and the next day he meets Allegra Kerr with whom he falls head over heels in love. But she vows that she will never marry, and refuses to tell him why. However, recurrent dreams of the beautiful house reveal a secret that explains her silence…
This is a revised version of a story that Christie wrote when she was very young, The Dream of Beauty, which was never published, but which she considered to be the first thing that she had written that had any merit. It’s an introduction to one of the themes that would often play a major part in Christie’s works, that of the anxiety that insanity can be inherited and run riot within a family.
Reading the story with the benefit of hindsight, you can see Christie’s feel for the supernatural, which also frequently cropped up in some of her earlier works. However, you can also see that it is the product of an immature voice, trying too hard to make her points, lacking subtlety throughout. It’s littered with over-the-top, flowery language and often feels repetitious.
For example, her description of Beethoven’s Pathétique is just too much: “that expression of a grief that is infinite, a sorrow that is endless and vast as the ages, but in which from end to end breathes the sprit that will not accept defeat. In the solemnity of undying woe, it moves with the rhythm of the conqueror to its final doom.” And there are paragraphs upon paragraphs describing the same elements of the dream which definitely required some editing.
It is interesting to see how acceptable language has changed over the 100 odd years since this was written; Christie describes one of Allegra’s aunts as a “hopeless imbecile”, which today might just about be acceptable as an informal description of a mate who always gets things wrong, but here was used to describe someone with mental illness.
Allegra quotes: “ill luck thou canst not bring where ill luck has its home”; “the words used by Sieglinde in the Walküre when Sigmund offers to leave the house.” Not saying this is incorrect, but if you Google the quotation, the only reference is its appearance in this story.
Interesting to read the early Christie finding her feet – but not a lot more than that.
This entertaining little story was originally published in issue 218 of The Novel Magazine in May 1923 under the title of A Trap for the Unwary. Ne’er-do-well Jake Levitt recognises that the new acting sensation, Olga Stormer, is in fact none other than little Nancy Taylor whom he knew in the past and has an eminently blackmailable history. He sends her a letter intimating that he has recognised her and inviting her to respond. But her response was perhaps a little more than he bargained for…
This is a very enjoyable, quick and punchy story with some entertaining characterisations and nice turns of phrase. Maybe I have read too many Christies, but I did find the twist of the tale very easy to predict – but that doesn’t detract from the pleasure of the tale.
Olga Stormer is said to be playing the part of Cora in The Avenging Angel. The only Avenging Angel I’ve come across is a Western movie made in 1995, so I’m presuming this play comes straight from Christie’s imagination.
A well-written, tightly constructed little tale; great fun.
This devilishly entertaining little tale was originally published in issue 374 of Pearson’s Magazine in February 1927. Villager Clare Halliwell’s heart is broken when her childhood sweetheart Gerald marries the younger, prettier Vivien, but still hopes one day he might realise the error of his ways. When lunching in a nearby town she sees in the register that Vivien has stayed overnight with another man – and not for the first time. Armed with that knowledge, should she confront them and use the information to her own advantage, or should she stay silent?
This is a cracking little read and, in my opinion, one of Christie’s best short stories. It hides not one, but two stings in its tale with its rather creepy surprise ending which I certainly did not see coming! But, psychologically, it all makes sense. Even so, there is a sad reliance on a massive coincidence – that Clare should be lunching at the same hotel that Vivien had stayed in – but I guess coincidences do sometimes happen.
Set in the fictional village of Daymer’s End, and in the town of Skippington, forty miles away, there is some suggestion that they are not too far from Bournemouth. The other “real” place mentioned in the story is Algiers, where Gerald and Vivien propose to live. At the time, it would have been a rather glamorous French outpost; I don’t think many people would have it on their bucket list today, but maybe I’m wrong.
I discovered a new word: “Many of the wiseacres shook their heads and wondered how it would end.” Wiseacres? Never heard that word before. Oxford Dictionaries define it: “a person with an affectation of wisdom or knowledge, regarded with scorn or irritation by others; a know-all.” You live and learn.
In his notes, Tony Medawar makes much of the fact that this story was written shortly before Agatha Christie’s famous disappearance, and makes some allusions between that and the plot of this story. He may have a point, he may not; personally, I’m not convinced.
Terrifically entertaining story! And with a clever play on words with the title too, which you only appreciate right at the end.
This amusing short story was originally published in issue 1611 of The Sketch Magazine on 11 December 1923. The story was later expanded into novella form and was printed as the title story in the 1960 UK collection The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding. Poirot is a guest at a Christmas House Party, but on Christmas morning receives a note warning him not to eat any of the plum pudding. Is his life in danger, or is it a prank? And how did the Christmas Cracker jewel get inside the pudding?
It’s curious, but I enjoyed Christmas Adventure more than The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding. Being shorter and sparer, it quickly gets to the heart of the mystery without losing any of its fun and spirit. I understand why Christie thought to expand the story – because it’s a good one! But I prefer it in its pithier, briefer form.
There are some good characterisations – the group of young people who attempt to tease Poirot by staging a mock murder come across as a decent bunch, and the lovelorn Evelyn is a very credible character. I also liked how Emily Endicott longed for the “Good Old Days” when people enjoyed listened to their elders and betters!
Poor old Poirot was missing his pal Captain Hastings, who emigrated to Argentina at the end of The Murder on the Links He needn’t have worried – Hastings would return for many UK return trips over the years, and they will still have many more adventures together!
The Lonely God
This rather charming and simple romance was originally published in issue 333 of the Royal Magazine in July 1926, under Christie’s original title, The Little Lonely God. Every day, Frank Oliver visits the British Museum, entranced by a minor figure of a nondescript God. He sees a “lonely lady” who also appears to be affected by the statue. Eventually he plucks up courage to speak to her – but will anything develop from their shared interest in this lonely God?
There’s not very much to say about this story. It’s pure romantic fiction, quite elegant and entertaining, and it’s easy to identify with its two lonely protagonists. Tony Medawar sees in this story a reflection of Christie’s interest in archaeology, but this was published a couple of years before she went on her first trip to Baghdad, so I’m not sure I would link the two that much.
I did like Frank’s encouragement to the lady that they should have buns for tea at an ABC Shop. “I know you must love buns! […] There is something […] infinitely comforting about a bun!”
Undemanding, but thoroughly pleasant!
I’m taking this description directly from Wikipedia: “Manx Gold was one of the most unusual commissions undertaken by Christie in her career […] The idea of a treasure hunting story was prompted by a wish on the part of Manx politicians to promote tourism to the Isle of Man. Christie wrote a short story which was serialised in the Daily Dispatch in five instalments on 23, 24, 26, 27 and 28 May 1930. The story gave the clues to the location of four snuffboxes hidden on the island, each of which contained a voucher for £100 – a considerable sum in 1930. Island residents were barred from taking part. To further promote the hunt, the story was then published in a promotional booklet entitled June in Douglas which was distributed at guesthouses and other tourist spots. Although a quarter of a million copies of this booklet were printed, only one is known to have survived.” And indeed, £100 in 1930 would be the equivalent of more than £4,500.
If you haven’t already read this story, give yourself an hour, log on to your Map App and Google, and see if you can beat Fenella and Juan as they race around the Isle of Man solving the clues. I was pretty happy with myself for getting clues 1 and 2 half right – but I expect few people would solve the last two. If you’re a Brit and of a certain age, like myself, you might remember the clues on Ted Rogers’ 3-2-1 TV programme; these are even more hard to crack. Also: I couldn’t find Kirkhill on any map.
But it remains a lively and thoroughly entertaining read; Medawar likens Juan and Fenella to the young heroes of Christie’s earlier books, and indeed to Tommy and Tuppence and I think they bear a fair resemblance. He also takes us painstakingly through the clue solutions, which is extremely helpful, and gives us all the background to the Manx tourism scheme. I found this a delightful, and indeed, unique tale!
Within a Wall
This ambiguous romantic tale with a bit of a twist was originally published in issue 324 of the Royal Magazine in October 1925. Gifted painter Alan Everard is married to the dynamic Isobel Loring, but his friend Jane Howarth is also in love with him – which manifests itself in a strange manner.
Romantic, yes, but also strangely unpleasant. Isobel’s abuse of Jane’s generosity almost feels like a prostitution of her friendship. And, as Medawar points out in his notes, the ending is very ambiguous. There are all sorts of interpretations you could adopt in your own personal understanding of the story.
Christie gives one of the characters the unusual surname of Lemprière – she must have enjoyed the force of that name because she would also give it to Joyce Lemprière of The Thirteen Problems fame. That Joyce was also a painter; and would eventually marry Miss Marple’s nephew Raymond West.
There’s an uncomfortable moment of antisemitism with the mention of “a small Jew with cunning eyes”, but otherwise the narration of this story is beautifully done – it’s an interesting voice that doesn’t sound like Christie’s own normal narrative style. And the £100 that Jane gives to support Alan and Isobel’s daughter Winnie would be the equivalent of £4250 today. Generous indeed.
The Mystery of the Baghdad Chest
This entertaining little story was first published in issue 493 of the Strand Magazine in January 1932. The story was later expanded into novella form and was printed as The Mystery of the Spanish Chest in the 1960 UK collection The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding. Poirot’s attention is drawn to a case where a Major Rich has been accused of murdering a Mr Clayton, whose bloody body was discovered in an antique chest. Mrs Clayton is a friend of socialite Lady Chatterton who encourages Poirot to speak to her about the case, because she insists Rich is innocent. Poirot can’t resist but employ his little grey cells to get to the heart of the matter.
I’ve lifted that precis of the story from my blogpost about The Mystery of the Spanish Chest, because the two stories are identical in plot, just a couple of characters have undergone a change of name. In the Spanish Chest, Hastings becomes Miss Lemon – more appropriate for the passing of the years, and Inspector Japp becomes Inspector Miller. Apart from that, there is precious little to choose between the two accounts, merely a lengthening and a greater attention to detail in the investigation. But several of the conversations in the first tale are reproduced faithfully in the updated tale.
Hastings does, however, take the opportunity to describe Poirot’s vanity, both in behaviour and appearance, in terrific detail. “The talents that I possess – I would salute them in another, As it happens, in my own particular line, there is no one to touch me. C’est dommage! As it is, I admit freely and without hypocrisy that I am a great man. I have the order, the method and the psychology in an unusual degree. I am, in fact, Hercule Poirot! Why should I turn read and stammer and mutter into my chin that really I am very stupid? It would not be true.”
“To see Poirot at a party was a great sight. His faultless evening clothes, the exquisite set of his white tie, the exact symmetry of his hair parting, the sheen of pomade on his hair, and the tortured splendour of his famous moustaches – all combined to paint the perfect picture of an inveterate dandy. It was hard, at these moments, to take the little man seriously.”
Just like The Mystery of the Spanish Chest, this is an excellent read.
While the Light Lasts
This was originally published in issue 229 of The Novel Magazine in April 1924; the plot of this short story is similar to that of her novel Giant’s Bread, published in 1930 under the pen name of Mary Westmacott. George and Deirdre Crozier visit a tobacco plantation in Rhodesia, where George works, and where Deirdre’s first husband Tim, who died in the war, wanted to live. But when Deirdre suffers a spot of heatstroke, she is taken back to the main house by a Mr Arden, who has his own secret to share…
In comparison with the other stories, this is really little more than a fragment, but nevertheless it tells an age-old story, and it tells it rather well. The character of Enoch Arden appears in Tennyson’s poem of the same name, but also would appear in Christie’s Taken at the Flood in 1948. Moody, tragic and with a sense of guilt, this is an interesting and memorable little piece of writing.
And that concludes all nine stories in While the Light Lasts and Other Stories. A couple of rather lightweight stories are balanced with some meaty good reads, so on balance I would give this selection 7/10. If you’ve been reading this book as well, I’d love to know your thoughts, please just write something in the comments box.
Next up in the Agatha Christie challenge is a short novel written in 1954 to raise money for a church – Hercule Poirot and the Greenshore Folly. This was published in 2014, but Christie would rework the story and create Dead Man’s Folly from it. If you’d like to read it too, we can compare notes when I give you my thoughts on it in a few weeks’ time. In the meanwhile, happy sleuthing and keep on Christie-ing!
In which Christie gives us eight short stories, comprising two with Hercule Poirot, two with Parker Pyne, two with Harley Quin and two other tales. None of the stories had been published in book form in the UK before. Problem at Pollensa Bay was first published in the UK by Harper Collins in November 1991, and this collection was not published in the US as the stories had all been published in magazines there before. I’ll take them all individually, and, as always, I promise not to reveal whodunit!
Problem at Pollensa Bay
This modest little story was originally published in the November 1935 issue of the Strand Magazine, and on 5th September 1936 in the US in Liberty Magazine, under the title Siren Business. Mr Parker Pyne is holidaying in Majorca when he is asked by English woman tourist for his help in stopping her son marrying someone she feels is unsuitable for him.
Six of the stories in Parker Pyne Investigates involve Mr P trying to avoid working with people whilst he’s on holiday, and Problem at Pollensa Bay fits perfectly into that category. Published a couple of years after the other Parker Pyne stories, we don’t learn very much extra about the unwilling detective, although he’s very forthright telling Mrs Chester to stop meddling in her son’s affairs.
The plot is very straightforward and simple, and totally compatible with Parker Pyne’s modus operandi in his previous stories. The situation is set up entertainingly and simply, Parker Pyne’s solution to the problem arrives discreetly and totally under our radar, and when you realise the garden path down which you’ve been lead, you realise how superbly Christie has misled you.
Pollensa is introduced as a very arty environment; you can feel it in her description: “Girls strolled about in trousers with brightly coloured handkerchiefs tied round the upper halves of their bodies. Young men in berets with rather long hair held forth in “Mac’s Bar” on such subjects as plastic values and abstraction in art.” All very self-indulgent, but rather charmingly so. It makes a nice juxtaposition with the conversations between the Chesters and Parker Pyne, which are a model of middle class politeness: “they talked about flowers and the growing of them, of the lamentable state of the English pound and of how expensive France had become, and of the difficulty of getting good afternoon tea.”
There is also a beautiful moment between the over-reacting Mrs Chester and the more laid back Parker Pyne: ““You must do something! You must do something! My boy’s life will be ruined.” Mr Parker Pyne was getting a little tired of Basil Chester’s life being ruined.”
However, the story is definitely damaged by a whopping coincidence that makes Christie’s life easy but makes us doubt the veracity of her yarn, when the gushing Nina Wycherley, who just happens to be staying at a nearby hotel and who just happens to know both Mrs Chester and Mr Pyne separately, just happens to meet those two people in a teashop. Sorry, I’m not buying it.
There’s also the unfortunate use of the D word, which was one of Christie’s favourite derogatory terms in the 1930s and 1940s: “the creature’s a dago. She’s impossible.”
Christie gives us loads of Majorcan locations to accentuate the realism of the story – not only Pollensa, but Palma, Soller, Alcudia, and the always hideously expensive (it was then, and is still now) Formentor. The hotels Pino D’Oro and Mariposa don’t exist, sadly, but were probably based on the Illa D’Or and the Mar i Cel, which did (and still do.)
Nothing too mentally strenuous, and no crime; but pleasant enough.
The Second Gong
Poirot goes out full throttle in this entertaining little story, originally published in the UK in issue 499 of the Strand Magazine in July 1932, and in Ladies Home Journal in June 1932 in the US. It was also the basis for the novella Dead Man’s Mirror, first published in the UK as part of the 1935 collection Murder in the Mews. Poirot has been invited to meet Hubert Lytcham Roche, but when he arrives it appears that his host has taken his own life, a bullet through the head that also shattered a mirror in the room. The room is fully locked, and Inspector Reeves is sure it is suicide. But Poirot suspects foul play…
This is a pacy, no-nonsense full-on detective story in miniature, that whizzes along with an imaginative plot and ends with a classic denouement of the type that Christie fans love. There are many similarities with Dead Man’s Mirror, but Christie developed the characters more into a fuller story. But the basic structure of both stories, including the manner of the murder and the identity of the murder, is pretty much the same. It also ends with the same twist, which is here given away rather by the title The Second Gong – a little bit of Christie magic, an unexpected event that brings a smile to your face but is perfectly credible.
“I’m modern, you know, M. Poirot. I don’t indulge in sob stuff” avers Diana Cleves, the adopted daughter of the dead man. That’s an interesting character point for this decidedly tough cookie who knows her own mind and is most definitely a product of her own times.
Mrs Lytcham Roche informs Poirot that the terms of her husband’s will allows her an annual income of £3000. From today’s perspective that’s the equivalent of £150,000. I mean, she’d be comfortable, but it’s not enough to murder someone – is it?
An easy, exciting read that gets your imagination going and gives you a nice surprise ending.
This slightly odd little tale was originally published in issue 559 of the Strand Magazine in July 1937, and in the 10 October 1937 edition of the Hartford Courant newspaper under the title “The Case of the Yellow Iris” in the US. Christie would later reuse the basis of this story to expand into the full-length novel, Sparkling Cyanide. Poirot is phoned late at night with the request to attend a table at a restaurant where yellow irises are the floral centrepiece. The mysterious caller believes she is in great danger. But from what? And can Poirot get there in time to prevent foul play?
I found this story slightly odd because it sets up an apparent crime, which is then revealed to have been averted but which makes another previous non-suspicious death now a murder (perhaps) but the murderer wanders off scot-free and then the story continues for four more pages of indifferently interesting resolution. Structurally, I didn’t care for this story at all.
I was also uncertain of the timeline of the story; Poirot is telephoned at 11:30pm but then goes out to a restaurant where the Maître D’ enquires whether he would like a table for dinner – and clearly the restaurant is full of people mid-meal, mid-dance, mid-enjoying themselves. Either in those days people ate very late in London (not really a British way of doing things) or Christie didn’t really think that through.
Nevertheless, there are some entertaining moments. It starts with a pure piece of Poirotism, with his appreciation of the electric bar heater because of its symmetry rather than a “shapeless and haphazard” coal fire. We discover, through an unusual moment of embarrassment for Poirot, that he dyes his hair: ““Señora, I would not date to ask you to dance with me. I am too much of the antique.” Lola Valdez said: “Ah, it ees nonsense that you talk there! You are steel young. Your hair, eet is still black.” Poirot winced slightly.”” And I really enjoyed this understatement: ““at once… it’s life or death…” […] There was a pause – a queer kind of gasp – the line went dead. Hercule Poirot hung up. His face was puzzled. He murmured between his teeth: “There is something here very curious.””
Poirot meets up with an old friend, Tony Chappell, at the restaurant. Christie writes their initial encounter as if Chappell were someone who might have featured regularly in her books; but I believe this is his only appearance in her works. Christie the Poison Expert comes to the fore with the use of potassium cyanide as the weapon of choice. And the song with which the cabaret singer stuns the restaurant into silence appears to be an invention of Christie’s – which is a shame really, sounds like it could be rather good!
Not the best Poirot story, if truth be told.
The Harlequin Tea Set
It is not thought that this fascinating, mystic short story ever received magazine publication in either the UK or US. In book form, its first appearance was in Macmillan’s Winter’s Crimes No 3, published in 1971; and in the US it was first published in a short story collection – The Harlequin Tea Set and Other Stories – by Putnams in April 1997. This collection contained the short stories that would be published in the UK in 1997 in the collection While the Light Lasts.
Mr Satterthwaite’s car breaks down en route to stay with an old friend and his family, and whilst he is waiting for the mechanic to fix the problem, he goes in to the Harlequin Café that he noticed as he was driving by. He wondered if his old friend Mr Quin might turn up – and sure enough, he does. Satterthwaite tells Quin about the friend whom he is going to stay with – and invites Quin to come too, but Quin refuses, trusting Satterthwaite entirely to do something “for someone else […] I have the utmost faith in you.” When he reaches his destination, he becomes engrossed in his friend’s family and their comings and goings. But somehow, he knows something is going to happen – and then something that Quin said before they parted finally makes sense. And Mr Satterthwaite definitely does do the right thing.
This is a curious short story without question. As a whole, you come away from it feeling very satisfied, your mystic curiosity piqued by the extraordinary symbiotic relationship between Quin and Satterthwaite. More than ever, you’re sure that Quin is Satterthwaite’s alter ego, a side of himself that he’s never allowed to express, a side that wants to come out and enable himself to do extraordinary things. At the same time, you also feel that quite a lot of this story is mere filler. Satterthwaite dithers and fusses and achieves nothing over several pages and I confess he was trying my patience severely during the first half of this tale; although I did enjoy the amusing car-based introduction to the story.
Satterthwaite refers to the last time that he saw Quin – “a very tragic occasion” he calls it. The last story in the volume The Mysterious Mr Quin is Harlequin’s Lane; however, the last to have been originally published in magazine format is The Man from the Sea. However, I do believe it is Harlequin’s Lane to which they refer. The lack of earlier magazine publication makes it more difficult to date the writing of this story. An awareness that smoking gives you cancer and a reference to smoking “pot” might suggest that this was written in the 1960s. Characters have lived in but returned from Kenya because, “well you know what happened in Kenya”. This could refer to the Mau Mau Uprising of the 1950s or the declaration of independence in 1963.
A key clue to the solution of this particular story is “daltonism”, which was a term used for colour-blindness named after John Dalton (1766 – 1844) who was one of the first researchers into the condition. The story takes place in the villages of Doverton Kingsbourne and Kingsbourne Ducis, both of which sound tremendous but neither of which is real.
Unsettling, intriguing – but occasionally dithery and slow.
The Regatta Mystery
This simple and perhaps predictable story originally featured Hercule Poirot, but was rewritten by Christie to feature Parker Pyne instead, originally appearing in May 3, 1936 edition of the Hartford Courant in the US, and in the Strand Magazine, in the UK, later that year. Hatton Garden diamond trader Isaac Pointz entertains a group of people in Dartmouth, and all goes well until 15 year old schoolgirl Eve tells him she has discovered the perfect way to steal his priceless jewel, the Morning Star. Everyone humours the child with her imaginings, until she fumbles the diamond whilst handling it – and no one can find where it landed!
Probably the most entertaining aspect of this story is the speed and ease with which Mr Parker Pyne solves the mystery. No detailed investigation or visit to the scene of the crime for him; merely listening and running the facts of the case through his computer of a brain is all it takes. At the same time that’s a weakness, because there’s no sense of investigation, no first hand interrogation of the suspects, which is what makes most crime thrillers enjoyable. The story is all build up and no denouement.
It all takes place in Dartmouth, at the Royal George Hotel – in real life, the Royal Castle Hotel, where Christie was but one of several notable guests. Very little more needs to be said about this story – except that, perhaps, the Morning Star diamond, that Pointz carries around with him, which is valued at £30,000 in 1936, would today have an equivalent value of around £1.5 million. No wonder it was desirable to unscrupulous souls.
The Love Detectives
This underwhelming little tale was first published in issue 236 of The Story-Teller magazine in the UK in December 1926 under the title of At the Crossroads. This was the first of a series of six stories in consecutive issues of the magazine titled The Magic of Mr. Quin. The remaining five would later form part of the book, The Mysterious Mr. Quin in 1930. The plot has similarities to 1930 Miss Marple novel The Murder at the Vicarage. The story was first published in the US in Flynn’s Weekly in October 1926, with the title The Love Detectives.
Whilst visiting his friend Colonel Melrose, who also happens to be the local Chief Constable, Mr Satterthwaite and he are called out to the scene of a murder – and, on the way, their car has a minor altercation with another vehicle driven, apparently, by none other than Mr Harley Quin. Quin accompanies them to the scene of the crime and encourages Satterthwaite to play an active role in the investigation. Sir James has been killed, and both his wife and her friend confess to the crime, in an attempt to protect the other. But they are both wrong as to the method with which Sir James was dispatched. So it must have been his valet or his butler?
The story starts well and even with the hugely coincidental meeting between Satterthwaite and Quin, which is always par for the course, the set up of the crime is intriguing and enjoyable. But the investigation comes across as slight and hurried, and I didn’t really enjoy it much.
There are several Colonel Melroses in Agatha Christie’s works, and they are all Chief Constables, but it’s generally felt that they’re not all the same person. I rather liked the characterisation of this Colonel Melrose; a no-nonsense, sporty type. When Lady Dwighton and Delangua are comforting each other, Christie writes of him: “Colonel Melrose cleared his throat. He was a man who disliked emotion and had a horror of anything approaching a “scene”.” He’s rather the opposite of Satterthwaite, who’s at home with emotions, and regarded the fact that the murdered man was killed by a statue of Venus as “food for poetic meditation.”
Satterthwaite introduces Quin to Melrose by reminding the latter of the Derek Capel case. This is the first story in The Mysterious Mr Quin collection – The Coming of Mr Quin.
Not a lot to entertain the reader here, I don’t think.
Next to a Dog
This very slight tale was first published in The Grand Magazine in the UK in September 1929 and in the compilation The Golden Ball and Other Stories in the USA in 1971.
Widow Joyce Lambert seeks a job as a governess but won’t give up her dog, Terry, who was given to her by her late husband. Her only option appears to be to marry the rich but horrible Arthur Halliday. She agrees to do so, provided she can bring Terry with her. But Terry has an accident and is badly injured…
A very nondescript story, to be honest. It shows the unconditional love between loyal dog and loyal owner, but that’s about it!
This interesting little story was first published in the UK in issue 329 of the Royal Magazine in March 1926. The story first appeared in book form in the UK in the 1982 collection The Agatha Christie Hour, to tie in with a dramatisation of the story in the television series of the same name. It was first published in the US, like Next to a Dog, in the compilation The Golden Ball and Other Stories in the USA in 1971.
Vincent Easton is hoping that Theodora Darrell will leave her husband and run away with him to a new life in the Transvaal. She keeps her appointment to meet him at Victoria Station, and all seems to be going Vincent’s way until she sees a newspaper headline reporting that her husband’s business was facing a financial crisis – sudden crash – serious revelations – and she tells Vincent she must go back to him. But what happens when she does return to her husband?
This story is a little more promising than Next to a Dog, but not much. It sets up a very interesting dilemma for Theodora, and you think it’s just going to be a woman having to choose between her husband and her lover. But it goes in a darker direction than that; betrayal can work in more than one direction. But the resolution of the story is sadly underdeveloped and hits you with all the force of a damp lettuce.
And that concludes all eight stories in Problem at Pollensa Bay and Other Stories. In comparison with the previous volume, Miss Marple’s Final Cases, despite a couple of stronger stories, they’re overall rather disappointing and slight, and I cannot give this selection more than a 6/10 rating. If you’ve been reading this book as well, I’d love to know your thoughts, please just write something in the comments box.
Next up in the Agatha Christie challenge is the final collection of nine short stories that were never published in book form in the UK – While the Light Lasts and Other Stories. The stories were originally published in magazine format between 1923 and 1932. If you’d like to read it too, we can compare notes when I give you my thoughts on it in a few weeks’ time. In the meanwhile, happy sleuthing and keep on Christie-ing!
In which Christie gives us six short stories featuring Miss Marple, plus two other supernatural stories, none of which had been published in the UK before in book form. Miss Marple’s Final Cases was first published in the UK by Collins Crime Club in October 1979, and this collection was not published in the US as the stories had all been published in magazines there before. I’ll take them all individually, and, as always, I promise not to reveal whodunit!
This first story was originally published in the October 1954 issue of Woman’s Journal, and in the US in Double Sin and Other Stories, in 1961. The way it was written and published is an interesting curiosity; it was written to raise money for the Westminster Abbey restoration appeal, and was sold to the highest bidder, the aforementioned Woman’s Journal, who never revealed how much they paid – but it is believed to be a substantial amount.
Vicar’s wife Diana Harmon comes upon a dying man in the local church; he must have been there all night clutching a wad to a bullet wound in his chest. When he sees Diana, he just says the one word “sanctuary”. Despite the efforts of the doctor, the man dies shortly afterwards. But Diana is suspicious of the man’s relatives, Mr and Mrs Eccles, who want to know all about his death and what happened to the man’s coat. That’s when Diana calls upon the assistance of her godmother, Miss Jane Marple, and together, with of course the help of the police, they solve the mystery of the man’s death.
This excellent little story, that sets up a neat and intriguing plot, is simply but effectively told, although the solution to it is perhaps a little hurried. We’ve met Diana and Julian Harmon of Chipping Cleghorn, together with their pompously named cat, Tiglath Pileser, before – they feature in A Murder is Announced which had been published a few years earlier in 1950. Inspector Craddock, who leads the police detection in that book, also appears in Sanctuary.
Christie explains that Diana had been called “Bunch at an early age for somewhat obvious reasons and the name had stuck to her ever since.” I’m not sure if one would instantly work out those obvious reasons, but I went back to A Murder is Announced and found this helpful description: “Mrs Harmon, the roundness of whose form and face had early led to the soubriquet of “Bunch” being substituted for her baptismal name of Diana…” Still not quite sure why plumpness would suggest “Bunch”, but there you go.
There are some easy clues to working out who the criminal(s) is/are, but the reason why the dying man also says “Julian” is quite satisfying, and I like the fact that Miss Marple enjoyed the “pre-war” quality of her face towel.
One slightly odd matter: the dead man had on him half a return railway ticket, but the police constable says he must have come to Chipping Cleghorn by bus. I think we can forgive this discrepancy as it was all written for charity!
A really enjoyable start to the book.
Miss Marple exercises her brain in this charming little story, originally published in issue 643 in July 1944 of the Stand Magazine in the UK under the name The Case of the Buried Treasure, and in This Week magazine on 2nd November 1941 in the US. Young Charmian and Edward were hoping to use their expected inheritance from their Uncle Mathew in order to set up home together. However, he’s hidden his riches somewhere and they don’t know how to go about finding them!
Not only does this Miss Marple short story NOT contain a murder, it doesn’t even contain a crime! Instead Miss M and her two young friends go on a treasure hunt trying to find how and where Mathew has left them an inheritance. The fact that there is no crime makes the whole story stand out and feel very clean and wholesome! There’s also a very clever solution to the mystery.
This story shows Miss Marple at her kindest and most indulgent. She can’t wait to help the nice young couple solve their conundrum – and you get the feeling it’s partly because she wants them to find the inheritance but also she’s really interested in revealing the solution, almost from an academic point of view. She makes the rather damning observation, “the depravity of human nature is unbelievable”; maybe it’s Charmian and Edward’s youthful spirit and delight that attracts her to them so much. Interestingly, if this was originally published in 1941, it was probably written around ten years after Miss Marple first appeared in her books, and a couple of years before her second appearance, in The Body in the Library.
There are quite a few interesting references to follow up. Edward says “it made me think of an Arsene Lupin story wither there was something hidden in a man’s glass eye.” Lupin, of course, was a gentleman thief in the fiction of French writer Maurice Leblanc; he first appeared in print in The Arrest of Arsene Lupin in 1905. The story that includes the glass eye is The Crystal Stopper, first published in 1912.
Miss Marple refers to the recipes of Mrs Beaton in her rather unusual route to get to the truth. ““First catch your hare – “ as Mrs Beaton says in her cookery book – a wonderful book but terribly expensive, most of the recipes begin, “Take a quart of cream and dozen eggs.”” Mrs Isabella Beaton – really Beeton – was probably the first published expert about cooking (and indeed, all domestic science), most notably in her Book of Household Management, first published in 1861.
There are a couple of old-fashioned sayings in this story. Describing something as gammon and spinach, to mean nonsense, was a phrase I’d never come across before. Actually I had… as I knew the old rhyme A Frog he Would a-Wooing go, but I didn’t realise the phrase was in the refrain. I believe the Spinach part was originally Spinnage, as in spinning a tale. But it’s an odd one really.
There’s also the phrase All My Eye and Betty Martin, which I didn’t know until I came across it in another Christie book, One Two Buckle My Shoe. This was published just a year before Strange Jest first appeared in print, so it must have been a phrase that was firmly embedded in Christie’s mind at the time!
There are a couple of financial sums mentioned in this story, but the important one is the big individual item to be inherited, which was estimated to have a value of $25,000, which today would be equivalent to about £450,000. Charmian and Edward are going to be VERY rich.
Very entertaining, undemanding, pure little story.
Tape Measure Murder
This jaunty little tale was originally published in the February 1942 issue of the Strand Magazine, under the title The Case of the Retired Jeweller, and in the November 16th 1941 edition of This Week magazine in the US. Dressmaker Miss Politt calls on Mrs Spenlow to make alterations to a dress but doesn’t answer the door – because she’s dead. Did Mr Spenlow kill his wife to inherit her money?
One wonders why anyone might commit murder in St Mary Mead, when it is inevitable that Miss Marple will get involved and guide the police to the correct deduction. In many ways, plot-wise this is a classic early Christie story in miniature, with dropped clues and red herring suspects; but she revels in an unusually massive dose of fun in the invigoratingly dramatic and humorous way in which she tells the tale. Consider, for example, how she announces that Mrs Spenlow has died: ““Nonsense,” said Miss Hartnell firmly. “She can’t have gone out. I’d have had met her. I’ll just take a look through the windows and see if I can find any signs of life” […] Miss Hartnell, it is true, saw no signs of life. On the contrary, she saw, through the window, Mrs Spenlow lying on the hearthrug – dead.”
The story enjoys reuniting us with the usual St Mary Mead suspects as well as Miss Marple – Chief Constable Colonel Melchett, Inspector Slack, Constable Palk and Miss Hartnell had all appeared in The Body in the Library. Miss Hartnell, Slack and Melchett were also in The Murder at the Vicarage, and Melchett also crops up again in The Thirteen Problems. The continuity of characters is almost comforting as you read what they get up to next.
Christie tells us that some people call Miss Marple “vinegar-tongued” – but that’s not a description of her that I recognise. Yes, of course, she is comfortable telling difficult truths when the time is right, but there’s not normally any vinegar to her style. There’s certainly none in this short story. Melchett describes Ted Gerard as an “Oxford Grouper”; the Oxford Group was a Christian organisation founded in 1921, which became very popular in the 1930s and led to the formation of Alcoholics Anonymous. And this is another tale in which Christie refers to Dr Crippen, hanged for the murder of his wife in 1910.
It’s a very entertaining tale written with a lightness of touch and an almost indecent sense of fun and mischief, stylistically quite unlike most of Christie’s other work.
The Case of the Caretaker
This odd little short story was originally published in the January 1942 issue of the Strand Magazine, and in the July 5, 1942 edition of the Chicago Sunday Tribune in the US. A gloomy, bed-ridden Miss Marple is slowly recovering from flu, so Dr Haydock gives her a puzzle to solve – a murder mystery that he has written out – apparently a work of fiction, but Miss Marple soon sees through that. She also works out the identity of the murderer. Previously a ne’er-do-well, Harry Laxton brings his wealthy new bride back to his home village. The locals are keen to meet her and are pleased to see Harry has made good – except for Mrs Murgatroyd, the evicted caretaker of the old house that Harry has renovated. When she curses young Louise Laxton, the young bride thinks twice about living in the house and in the area. But who is murdered, and by whom?
Structurally, this is something of a curiosity, as most of the story comprises of Dr Haydock’s narrative, simply topped and tailed by an introduction and Miss Marple’s conclusions. It’s a new way to express a familiar plot, and it works fine, with Miss Marple solving the mystery on the sidelines, relying only on what she’s told by someone else. The only problem with the story is that the solution to Dr Haydock’s puzzle is rather easy to guess.
One of the characters is a Miss Harmon – might she be a relative of Bunch, who appeared earlier in this collection in the story Sanctuary, as well as in A Murder is Announced? Both stories are set within the Miss Marple landscape. Christie the Poison Expert comes to the fore with strophanthin discovered in a syringe – this was used by native African tribes used as an arrow poison, and today is often used in euthanasia.
Christie described Haydock’s challenge to Miss Marple to solve the puzzle as a “Parthian shot” – originally a hit-and-run tactic employed by the Parthian cavalry, but nicely subsumed into the English language because of its similarity to the phrase “parting shot”, which is basically what is meant here. And Harry Laxton is described as a scapegrace – I’ve heard of scapegoat, of course, but never a scapegrace. They’re not the same thing; according to my OED, a scapegrace is a young scamp or rascal, someone who escapes the grace of God. So now you know.
Guessable, but enjoyable.
The Case of the Perfect Maid
This clever and imaginative story was originally published in the April 1942 issue of the Strand Magazine under the title The Perfect Maid, and in the September 13, 1942 edition of the Chicago Sunday Tribune in the US. Gladys Holmes is dismissed from her position as maid to Misses Lavinia and Emily Skinner and replaced with an apparently perfect maid, Mary Higgins, who comes with excellent references. But is Mary Higgins as perfect as she seems?
This is a terrific little tale that draws you in and leaves you truly surprised by Miss Marple’s extraordinary but totally believable solution. She tricks the criminal – even before a crime has been committed – into revealing themselves with undeniable evidence. All the St Mary Mead crew are there – Haydock, Hartnell, Miss Wetherby, Inspector Slack, and even Mrs Price-Ridley gets a mention. Some new characters are introduced, living at Old Hall, a big house that has been converted into flats, including an Indian judge who insists on having a “chota hazri” – basically an early morning cup of tea and a biscuit.
The story is beautifully written too, with a lightness of touch and deftly humorous turns of phrase. Gladys is a described as “bouncing, self-opinionated” which gives us a perfect insight into what she’s like. Miss Emily’s hairstyle is “untidily wound around her head and erupting into curls, the whole thing looking like a bird’s nest of which no self-respecting bird could be proud.”
Short, sweet, and great fun.
Miss Marple Tells a Story
This unusual but rather clever little tale was originally published in the 25th May 1935 issue of Home Journal, under the title Behind Closed Doors, although it had been previously broadcast on the BBC in May 1934, read by Christie herself, as a special commission for a radio series called Short Story. It was originally published in the US in the collection The Regatta Mystery and Other Stories in 1939. Miss Marple solves a classic “locked room” murder mystery, and saves a husband from going to the gallows.
The story is unusual in that it is narrated by Miss Marple rather than Christie telling us her story. This was written quite early in Miss Marple’s career, so to speak, coming after The Murder in the Vicarage and The Thirteen Problems, but before the majority of the Marple novels. As narrated by herself, here Miss Marple comes across as a little more dithering and self-effacing than one is used to; easily distracted and wittering on about unimportant things. It’s not how I see Miss Marple; it’s almost like a development stage for Christie to get her characterisation right.
Other aspects that don’t fit in with the usual Marple landscape include the fact that she has yet another maid at this time – Gwen, and that there is a town twenty miles away called Barnchester; I believe this is the only story featuring that fictional location. However, her nephew Raymond and his wife Joan, to whom she tells her story, are consistent characters in all the Marple stories. And she does admit to preferring the art of Alma-Tadema and Leighton, as she had already explained in A Murder is Announced.
There’s one theme which fits in with many other Christie stories and novels, which is that a murderer is a murderer because of “insanity in the family”.
Curious, but entertaining.
The Dressmaker’s Doll
This is the first of two stories that were not published in my original copy of Miss Marple’s Final Cases but were added to a later edition. It was first published in the December 1958 issue of Woman’s Journal, and in the US in the June 1959 issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. The story had previously appeared in Canada in the 25 October 1958 issue of the Star Weekly magazine.
A doll appears at a Dressmaker’s workshop. No one seems to remember how it got there, or if someone gave it to someone as a gift. The floppy doll has a habit of moving from room to room, but no one admits moving it. In the end, the people who work there become so anxious about the doll that they throw it out of a window. But will it be gone forever?
Not a crime story, more an attempt at a ghost story or supernatural tale. It’s rather repetitive, heavy-handed in its construction and conversations, and with a somewhat disappointing ending. Clearly Christie was trying to turn her hand to the supernatural – but really, this story doesn’t work well at all. However, according to John Curran in Agatha Christie: Murder in the Making, she described The Dressmaker’s Doll as “a very favourite story.”
In a Glass Darkly
This spooky little tale was originally published in the US, in the 28 July 1934 issue of Collier’s Weekly. It hadn’t been published in the UK until it appeared in this volume. However, its first public appearance was when Agatha Christie read the story on BBC Radio on 6th April 1934. Sadly, no recording of the broadcast has survived.
When changing for dinner the narrator sees a vision in a mirror behind him of a man with a scar strangling a beautiful girl; of course, when he turns around, the vision is gone and all that is was there was a wardrobe. But then he goes down for dinner and sees that the beautiful girl is in fact his best friend’s sister, and that the man with the scar is her fiancé. Has he seen her future in a dream? Can he stop the man from killing her some time in the future?
This is another supernatural tale, considerably better, I would say, than The Dressmaker’s Doll, but still lacking a truly decent twist that would make it a good short story. But it nicely plays with the psychology of relationships, and is decently written.
And that concludes all eight stories in Miss Marple’s Final Cases and Two Other Stories. On the whole, they’re very high quality – especially if you ignore the two supernatural stories at the end! Fully worthy of an 8/10, rating I would say. If you’ve been reading this book as well, I’d love to know your thoughts, please just write something in the comments box. Next up in the Agatha Christie challenge is another collection of eight short stories that were never published in book form in the UK – Problem at Pollensa Bay and Other Stories. If you’d like to read it too, we can compare notes when I give you my thoughts on it in a few weeks’ time. In the meanwhile, happy sleuthing and keep on Christie-ing!
In which young Gwenda Reed has a vision that she witnessed a murder when she was a child, and Miss Marple helps her and her husband Giles to investigate if she really did see the crime – and if so, who was the murderer! As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, as always, I promise not to reveal what happens and whodunit!
This was the last novel to feature Miss Marple and, like Curtain, was written at some point in the 1940s, then locked away in a vault until such time that Christie wanted it to be published. As it turned out, she died in January 1976, before it was published. Also like Curtain, Christie didn’t dedicate this book to anyone. Sleeping Murder was first published in the UK by Collins Crime Club in October 1976, and in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company shortly afterwards, although it had been previously serialised in the US in two abridged instalments in Ladies Home Journal in July and August 1976.
There are some conflicting opinions as to exactly when the book was written. Originally it was thought to have been around 1940, but other evidence suggests it could be almost a decade later. I note that when the characters all go to the theatre in the early part of the book they go to His Majesty’s Theatre, which obviously dates it as pre-1952. Christie had a number of possible titles for the book; the one she preferred and intended was Cover Her Face – but unfortunately for her, P D James got in there first with her first Inspector Dalgliesh novel published in 1962. Apparently, Christie had to get the manuscript out of the vault in order to change the title.
After the success of Curtain, written when Christie’s creative skills were at their height, the book-buyers of 1976 expected something equally sensational from Miss Marple’s last case, as it had also been written many years before. Alas, this hope was rather misplaced. Much of Sleeping Murder is taken up by Gwenda and Giles painstakingly working their way around the country as amateur sleuths on the track of something they don’t quite understand, with Miss Marple acting as an emotional and cerebral associate, dispensing advice and warnings from a safe distance. Of course, one of the most exciting things about reading a whodunit – Christie or otherwise – is hoping for a big surprise at the final denouement. Unfortunately, that doesn’t happen in this book; the person who (I felt, at least) was the most likely to have done the crime was indeed the murderer. And although it’s nice to pat oneself on the back and bask in the glory of one’s success, one also gets to feel a little cheated out of a final surprise. So you come away from the book not only slightly disappointed by the journey to the big revelation, but also by the revelation itself.
The plot also suffers from being based on a massive coincidence, namely that Gwenda bought the same house for her and Giles to live in that she had briefly lived in as a child. It isn’t as though she’d always lived in the same village, Dillmouth; she didn’t even realise she’d lived in England. Of all the houses in all the towns…. she had to buy the one she already knew (without knowing). Personally, I also find it hard to believe that Gwenda would overreact quite so astonishingly at watching the play The Duchess of Malfi – the line “Cover her face. Mine eyes dazzle, she died young…” sends her into apoplectics. For a young woman who is otherwise firmly in charge of her life, I find that pretty hard to believe.
Nevertheless, it’s very nicely written and acts as a decent swansong and nostalgia trip, celebrating the great lady’s status as a much loved amateur detective. Perhaps oddly, Miss Marple doesn’t seem to have aged in the same way that Poirot has. Whereas Hastings was upset at the sight of his old friend’s failing health, Miss Marple is described much as she always has been: “an attractive old lady, tall and thin, with pink cheeks and blue eyes, and a gentle, rather fussy manner, Her blue eyes often had a little twinkle in them.” Not only unchanged in appearance, but also in behaviour; she is still as independent and wily as ever, popping around all the old-fashioned shops ostensibly to buy wool and suchlike, but really trying to get as much gossip about the past as possible. No one would suspect her cunning ulterior motives.
She’s still socially active too; when we first come across her in the book, she is part of the party going to the London theatre, going out for a meal, and still socialising with her nephew Raymond West, still messing about in her garden, complaining about the unreliability of gardeners, and keeping up to date with her old friend Dolly Bantry. You wouldn’t know that the years have come and gone. It’s quite comforting to see that age has not withered her (well, not more than she was already withered!) Raymond West, however, who in some of the earlier book comes across as an insufferable prig, seems to be a little less annoying now – just generally intimidating, if you’re not used to moving in his circles, as Gwenda wasn’t. Miss Marple’s maid is Evelyn; that’s an anomaly, as in her later years she was looked after by her super-kindly Cherry.
There’s not much more to say about the book at this stage, so let’s take a look at the locations. Most of the book takes place in the Devon town of Dillmouth. You might be forgiven for thinking that this is Christie’s name for Dartmouth, but Aunt Alison’s letter makes it clear elsewhere that Dartmouth is a separate town. It’s a curious blend of fact and fiction; Dr Kennedy lives in Woodleigh Bolton, a fictional location, but there is a village called Woodleigh near Kingsbridge in Devon. Local train stops include Helchester, Lonsbury Bay, Newton Langford and Matchings Halt, all of which are completely charming names and totally fictional. The sanatorium in Norfolk is said to be near the town of South Benham; again, that’s fictional but there is a Banham halfway between Norwich and Thetford that might be the inspiration. Apart from that, Christie uses real-life locations, such as Exeter, Northumberland, and indeed the final chapter takes place in the well-known Imperial Hotel, Torquay.
“Calcutta Lodge was surrounded by a neat trim garden, and the sitting-room into which they were shown was also neat if slightly overcrowded. It smelt of beeswax and Ronuk.” Ronuk? This was a brand of sanitary polish, manufactured in Portland, Dorset, until the 1950s. Miss Marple, meanwhile, in a wool shop remarks: “I always find Storkleg so reliable. It really doesn’t shrink. I think I’ll take an extra two ounces.” I believe this is a type of wool that gives an extra grip to the body, so is suitable for socks. But I could be wrong. Please tell me if I am!
Giles quotes: “I know a hundred ways of love, and each one makes the loved one rue”. This is a slight misquote from Emily Bronte – the original is “I know a hundred ways of love, All made the loved one rue” – it’s from her untitled poem LVII that begins “Were they shepherds who sat all day on that brown mountain’s side”. And, of course, there is a quick gallop through some of Miss Marple’s earlier cases in conversation with Inspector Primer, including a reference to “a little poison pen trouble” (The Moving Finger) and a churchwarden shot in the Vicar’s study (The Murder at the Vicarage.) There’s also a slightly bizarre forward reference, with an old lady at the home in Norfolk asking Gwenda “is it your poor child, my dear?” which had been previously used in By the Pricking of my Thumbs – but which wouldn’t be written for at least another twenty years!
Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for Sleeping Murder:
Publication Details: 1976. My copy is a Fontana Paperback, first Australian paperback edition published in 1978, bearing the price on the back cover of $2.50. I know I had an earlier copy – the original hardback first edition, no less – but it has vanished in the seas of time. The cover illustration by Tom Adams shows a dead woman’s face against an attractive sea- and skyscape, plus a bundle of wool with two knitting needles – which I presume is in homage to Miss Marple.
How many pages until the first death: 150. It’s a long wait, but the reader isn’t frustrated by the delay. You can sense this death coming quite a long way off.
Funny lines out of context: Sadly none.
Memorable characters: Really disappointing on this front.
Christie the Poison expert: Not much here either. There is some mention of the Indian practice of “wives driving their husbands insane by datura poisoning” in the Indian courts, but that’s it. Datura is a form of Deadly Nightshade.
Class/social issues of the time: Once again we have to think of the “time” as being sometime in the 1940s rather than 1976. But there are very few issues of note in this book anyway. There’s the usual sense of xenophobia, with a number of characters repeating the thought that Leonie, the Swiss nanny, was a bit stupid because she was a foreigner; that distrust is also repeated with Mrs Fane’s scorn that her son Robert had married a Roman Catholic.
There’s also the old gardener who deplores change: “Changes all the time. People takes a house nowadays and lives in it ten or twelve years and then off they goes. Restless. What’s the good of that?” And there’s also the common theme of total distrust of anything to do with mental illness, and the sneaking suspicion that it could be inherited.
And I do have to draw your attention to the unfortunate use of the N word in a conversation with Galbraith, the old estate agent, who remembered Major Halliday. I think there was a big difference in the word’s acceptability between the 40s and 70s, so maybe it was odd that it wasn’t amended by the editors.
Classic denouement: No – instead it’s one of those occasions when the murderer reveals themselves by their own activity, attempting to kill another person, which in this particular case is thwarted by a rather comic intervention by Miss Marple.
Happy ending? Yes – in that Gwenda and Giles get to live happy ever after in their chosen home; and Miss Marple is left to carry on carrying on, undeterred by age or infirmity.
Did the story ring true? Most of the plot feels believable. The only thing I find extraordinary is that Gwenda returned unwittingly to the scene of the crime and wanted to buy it for her home.
Overall satisfaction rating: It’s not bad and it’s not great. An entertaining enough read, but it’s a shame the identity of the murderer is so obvious. 7/10
Thanks for reading my blog of Sleeping Murder, and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment in the space below. That was Christie’s last novel to be published, but the Agatha Christie Challenge continues with a posthumous book of short stories, Miss Marple’s Final Cases and Two Other Stories. These had never been published in the UK before, so I’m looking forward to reading them – possibly for the first time! As usual, I’ll blog my thoughts about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!