The Points of View Challenge – A Bundle of Letters – Henry James

Henry JamesHenry James (1843 – 1916)

American novelist (The Portrait of a Lady, The Ambassadors, The Bostonians), ghost story writer (The Turn of the Screw), short story writer, critic, playwright and travel writer.

A Bundle of Letters, first published in The Parisien magazine, 1879

Available to read online here

This is the third and final story in the volume Points of View to be given the style classification by Moffett and McElheny of Letter Narration. They describe A Bundle of Letters as “a collection of one-way correspondence by characters who because they are together do not write to each other but about each other; since the person each is writing to is a mere listening post, the letters are like entries in a diary.”

They go on to conclude: “although the novel of letters enjoyed its greatest vogue in the eighteenth century, when it was used universally to make fiction more plausible […] the use of the technique continued in the nineteenth century but was used selectively, for certain effects only. Although today’s novel is more likely to combine correspondence with other techniques than to tell a story entirely through letters, epistolary short stories continue to crop up.” Remember this commentary was published in 1966. In the twenty-first century, emails and texts are much more likely to be the norm.

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

 

A Bundle of Letters

 

On 5th September 1879, an independent and outspoken young American woman, Miranda Hope, writes to her mother in Bangor, Maine, from her hotel in Paris. She travels alone, determined to steep herself in as much culture as possible. She wants to learn some of the language too, and to that end by the time she writes her mother another letter on 16th September, she has moved into the house of Mme de Maisonrouge, for conversation practice with Madame and her family. Madame has other paying guests; English, American, and German.

But living under one roof will always bring out animosities.  The next letter is from the other young American woman, Violet Ray, to her New York friend, in which she calls Miranda “the most extraordinary specimen of artless Yankeeism that I ever encountered; she is really too horrible”. Another letter is written by Louis Leverett, a Bostonian, to his friend Harvard. He cares for neither of the young American women: “they are both specimens of the emancipated young American girl—practical, positive, passionless, subtle, and knowing, as you please, either too much or too little”. But he has fallen for the sweet looks of the Englishwoman Evelyn Vane. An update letter from Miranda to her mother reveals that she is learning a lot from Mme de Maisonrouge’s cousin Mr Verdier, that she doesn’t get on with Violet because she is “haughty”, she is inspired by Leverett’s enthusiastic intellectualism, disappointed in Evelyn’s lack of ambition, disgusted by her brother’s lack of respect and flattered by the attention of the German professor.

Evelyn meanwhile confesses in letter to her friend that, apart from Violet, all the guests are various degrees of frightful, Verdier makes it clear in a letter to his friend that his intentions with Miranda are far from honourable – not that she appears to mind – and the German professor, Dr Staub, reveals himself to be a nationalistic bigot who sees all interaction between foreigners in terms of how weak they are and how glorious Germany will step in and rise to supremacy: “…between precipitate decay and internecine enmities, the English-speaking family is destined to consume itself; and that with its decline the prospect of general pervasiveness, to which I alluded above, will brighten for the deep-lunged children of the Fatherland!”

The last word goes to Miranda, who in a letter dated October 22nd, advises that she’s going to move on to somewhere else – not sure where yet, but noting that everyone has been kind and attentive: “especially Mr. Verdier, the French gentleman, from whom I have gained more than I ever expected (in six weeks), and with whom I have promised to correspond.” Did Verdier get his way with her? I guess we’ll never quite know.

This is a very funny and cleverly constructed story; the grand joke in it all is that no one knows precisely what everyone else thinks about them, and the behaviour of each of them on the surface is likely to be completely different from what’s going on inside their heads! It’s also beautifully written in terms of the individual characterisations of those people lodging chez Mme de Maisonrouge. Miranda can’t understand why she upsets and offends people with her plain talking because surely everyone should share the same ideas that she does? Evelyn retreats into English snobbery as she cannot bear the company of all those ghastly common people. Verdier is a louche ne’er-do-well, bragging to his mate about the progress he’s making. Perhaps most entertaining of all is Leverett’s delightfully pretentious use of language, his mind on a self-consciously higher level as the only things that matter to him in life are self-expressioni and Art.

James was fascinated by the differences between Americans, the English, the French and other European nationalities. In this little story he gets to explore nationalistic stereotypes to his heart’s content. Maybe there is a degree of caricature, particularly with the snobbish Englishwoman and the nationalistic German. Much has been made of how the characterisation of Staub was remarkably forward-looking and predictive, with the German’s disdain for the behaviour of his fellow residents, describing Verdier as homunculus, despising any show of decadence, his pompous mocking of anything that isn’t German, and looking ahead to good times for the Fatherland.

James impresses with his ability to tell a fascinating tale but leave much untold too – he demonstrates that there’s great eloquence in silence. What did happen between Miranda and Verdier? Why does she despise William Pratt so? What is buried Mme de Maisonrouge’s past? And many more questions besides.

Apparently, James wrote this in one sitting, which maybe explains how beautifully it flows. Hugely entertaining, a rather elegant and classy read that gives a good insight into the times and prejudices of the day. This could well make me want to read some more Henry James!

The next story in the anthology is the first of the two diary narration stories, and the reason that I bought Points of View in the first place – Daniel Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon. I am really looking forward to reading this story again!

The George Orwell Challenge – A Clergyman’s Daughter (1935)

A Clergyman's DaughterAdvice to budding novelists often includes the recommendation to write about what you know about. Down and Out in Paris and London was a memoir of Orwell’s times spent in those two capitals deliberately living with the poor and homeless. Burmese Days was the result of his experiences with the Indian Police Service in Burma in the late 1920s. Gollancz initially rejected it for publication, largely due to fear of libel as there was little concealment that the fictional Kyauktada was in fact the real town of Katha, where Orwell had been stationed. History repeated itself with Orwell’s next novel, A Clergyman’s Daughter, which was written with the insight provided by two of Orwell’s personal experiences, that of living “on the beach” (homeless) in London, hop-picking in Kent, working in a minor private school in Hayes, Middlesex, becoming friendly with the curate of a local church, and finally more school teaching experience at a larger college in Uxbridge. Homelessness, poverty, hop-picking, teaching in private schools and the machinations of the day to day running of a parish church are all essential elements of his new book, and Gollancz had the same reaction that they had to Burmese Days. They insisted on many cuts and amendments before they would publish, to which Orwell reluctantly agreed. However, partly (but not solely) because of this censorship, he was very unhappy with the final outcome of the book and, initially at least, refused permission for it to be reprinted after his death. This was, however, a decision he came to alter when he consented to the printing of cheap editions “of any book which may bring in a few pounds for my heirs” following his death.

Burmese DaysAs I mentioned in my blog post about Burmese Days, when I started my George Orwell Challenge I decided that I just wanted to read, reflect, and jot down my personal reaction to what he wrote, and leave any more serious criticism to other more intelligent souls. So here’s my reaction to A Clergyman’s Daughter: it’s a hotch potch of brilliant and not-quite-so-brilliant writing, with a fascinating central character who goes on one helluva journey, with some extraordinary plot turns, a too-easy resolution to her main story, and a too-neat ending. There’s also a section which is written as a play text, which, perhaps surprisingly is the sequence that Orwell felt was the best thing in the book; I think it’s the worst. It’s a very experimental book, and – as an experiment – some aspects of it work and some don’t. But, as when I see a play, I try always to value a brave failure over a lazy success, so I have to admire Orwell for a work that he himself didn’t value much. God loves a trier as my mother-in-law would say. Big spoilers alert – it’s impossible to write about this book without telling you the story so if you haven’t read it and want to, please go away and read it. I’ll be fascinated to know what you think of it!

The book is split into five chapters, each of which are split into smaller parts. Chapter One introduces us to Dorothy, a clergyman’s daughter, who spends all her days looking after either the said clergyman, or his parishioners, in numerous ways. She makes the costumes for the village children’s plays, she tries to raise money for the church upkeep, she gets up early to make her father’s breakfast; the list of her duties is endless. But she does it all with spirited grace, backed up by her firm faith. There is one murky presence in her life – Mr Warburton, a middle-aged lounge lizard, who’d like to add Dorothy’s notch to his bedpost. Dorothy, however, has no intention of being anyone’s bedpost notch ever. He is persistent, and so is she; and chapter one ends with her refusing his advances and going back to making the children’s costumes. However, the local gossip Mrs Semprill sees her and Warburton in a late-night clinch, suspects the worst, and isn’t afraid to mention it to all and sundry.

HopsWhen Chapter Two opens, you don’t know where you are; and nor does Dorothy. It turns out that she had some kind of amnesia attack and suddenly finds herself in London, unsuitably dressed, knowing neither her name nor occupation, with no home and no money. She falls in with some youths off to Kent for some hop-picking; and she ends up begging and getting arrested. However, after a while, her memory comes back so she writes to her father to explain what has happened and ask for him to come and get her and bring her home. Several letters in fact; and no reply to any of them. Chapter Three sees her so down and out that she spends a night with the tramps in Trafalgar Square, freezing cold, and abjectly miserable. In Chapter Four she is tracked down by her uncle’s servant and employed at a private school by one Mrs Creevy, who has elevated meanness and cruelty to an art form. Whilst Dorothy enjoys teaching the children (and they have a good relationship with her) her modern approaches to education aren’t appreciated by their neanderthal parents – and Mrs Creevy is only in it for the money (well, and the sadism), so Dorothy has to revert to teaching in the old-fashioned, boring way.

At the end of the chapter Mrs Creevy boots her off the premises with no references, notice or thanks. But Chapter Five sees her rescued by Mr Warburton and taken back home where her reputation has kind of been reinstated, as Mrs Semprill has been discredited by other lies that she told in the past. Warburton offers marriage but she refuses; but she admits she has now lost her faith. This isn’t a springboard to the freer life that Warburton thinks she should enjoy, but simply means she goes back to her old duties, but without faith; so with an element of hypocrisy and meaninglessness. She has made progress as a character, but the book ends the same way that Chapter One ends – just with her previous faith replaced by a gaping void. Does she live miserably ever after, or does she go round again on another amnesia-driven journey of self-discovery? You decide!

There’s a huge amount to enjoy in this book. Like Burmese Days, I found myself devouring it, reading it quickly and avidly, and frequently marvelling at those amazing Orwellian turns of phrase. Chapter One is a delightful account of Dorothy’s life in this turgid parish, with her ungrateful, un-Christian vicar father, full of wonderful observations and cracking characterisations. Chapter Four, also, is a great read, as we follow Dorothy’s struggles living chez Creevy, a money-grabbing vicious old bag who never does a kind act if an unkind one is possible. Chapter Two is a return to Orwell’s already published experiences of hop-picking and living down and out in London, which sometimes feels as though he has just lifted extracts from his Hop Picking diary and plonked them into the story, and just added Dorothy and a few other characters for good measure.

Trafalgar SquareChapter Three is a bizarre straying into the world of drama, but with little information about the people who populate Trafalgar Square, and not very convincing voices for many of his characters there; it makes the one night that Dorothy spent there feel very long indeed. And finally Chapter Five finishes the book where we began, with a lot of soul-searching about how Dorothy can continue doing the same things without faith, and, frankly, frustrating the reader that her journey didn’t create a more fulfilling result for her. “Beliefs change, thoughts change, but there is some inner part of the soul that does not change. Faith vanishes, but the need for faith remains the same as before.” So, personally, I loved Chapters One and Four, found Two acceptable, Five frustrating and Three utterly tedious!

There’s no doubt that Dorothy is a great and rather complex character. When we first see her, we rather admire her ability to put on a brave front in the face of being subjected to some raw treatment from her father who just treats her like a skivvy. There are menial tasks to perform but she does them keenly and earnestly. But we’re quickly alarmed by her self-harming which appears to be driven, not by mental ill-health, but by an almost medieval sense of self-punishment if her mind strays from the letter of the Gospels. Any uncharitable thought, any deviation from the Word of God, and out comes her pin to prick herself, preferably to the point of bleeding.

But this stops when her amnesia kicks in, and she can no longer remember her old life – or even that she had a life; nor does she pray. Instead she faces the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune with stoicism, kindness, optimism, and a sense of ambition – to get out of the situation in which she finds herself but without causing additional hurt to her father. She throws herself into providing stimulating education for Mrs Creevy’s pupils, but when these efforts are thrown back in her face, she puts her job first, as she knows to avoid another Trafalgar Square situation at all costs. She’s imaginative, but realistic. The book ends with her in a position of near-stasis, which is frustrating and disappointing, but probably inevitable. Her dislike of anything physical means she was never going to accept Warburton’s offer of marriage – anything else would have been totally unrealistic. Her experiences have confirmed to her what she doesn’t want out of life, but not what she does want.

Warburton offers a reason for Dorothy’s amnesia. He maintains that her faith was never genuine, and just a convenient excuse for her day-to-day existence. ““You’d built yourself a life-pattern – if you’ll excuse a bit of psychological jargon – that was only possible for a believer, and naturally it was beginning to be a strain on you.” He saw that she did not understand, and explained to her that loss of memory is only a device, unconsciously used, to escape from an impossible situation. The mind, he said, will play curious tricks when it is in a tight corner.” I presume that if he is correct in his explanation, then there should not be a recurrence of amnesia after the book ends.

As usual, Orwell fills the book with a few strong supporting characters who are beautifully written and come to life on the page. Warburton is a total louse, completely devoid of shame, who doesn’t remotely care if his approaches to Dorothy are spurned, no matter how much he presses her. A vital plot point that was by necessity censored from Orwell’s original text was that Warburton had attempted to rape Dorothy, so any sense that he is a lovable rogue is misplaced. He has no compunction about lying to get Dorothy on her own. If nothing else, Dorothy is much wiser after her London experiences, and is not going to be taken in by him. He is insightful though: “a favourite saying of Mr Warburton’s […] if you took 1 Corinthians, chapter thirteen, and in every verse wrote “money” instead of “charity”, the chapter had ten times as much meaning as before.” Interestingly, this Bible chapter would become the epigraph for Orwell’s next book, Keep the Aspidistra Flying.

There’s also the appalling Mrs Creevy, by profession a head-teacher but in reality, a parsimonious self-centred bully, who takes her revenge on the clients who pay less by treating their children worse; vice versa, if they pay well, their children can get away with murder. She guards the marmalade pot with her life; deliberately slices the breakfast fried egg so that Dorothy gets less than her share; turns on her in front of the parents to threaten her with the sack; and only laughs when she’s swindled someone out of some hard-earned cash. “So long as she could think of a way of docking Dorothy’s dinner of another potato or getting her exercise books a halfpenny a dozen cheaper, or shoving an unauthorised half guinea onto one of the “good payers” bills, she was happy after her fashion.” She even manages to cheat Warburton out of half-a-crown. She advocates physical violence against the children: “the best thing with children is to twist their ears”. As a delightful irony, she only sees Shakespeare as a source of immorality; so much for a private education. There’s something of the Wackford Squeers about her; I wonder if Orwell had been reading his Nicholas Nickleby at the same time, as there is a character there called Miss La Creevy (although she is kind!)

And we have the thoroughly unpleasant Reverend Charles Hare, Dorothy’s father, Rector of St Athelstan’s, Knype Hill, Suffolk; a fictional location, much to Gollancz’s relief, no doubt, but strongly suspected to be Southwold, where the book was written. In one of those marvellous, to-the-point descriptions of a character and his behaviour that Orwell executes so well, we understand immediately the kind of person he is. “The Rector, in cassock and short linen surplice, was reciting the prayers in a swift practised voice, clear enough now that his teeth were in, and curiously ungenial. In his fastidious, aged face, pale as a silver coin, there was an expression of aloofness, almost of contempt. “This is a valid sacrament,” he seemed to be saying, “and it is my duty to administer it to you. But remember that I am only your priest, not your friend. As a human being I dislike you and despise you.””

Unsurprisingly he hates Harvest Festival. “Do you suppose […] it is any pleasure to me to have to preach my sermon among festoons of runner beans? I am not a greengrocer.” He’s also a snob; being “the younger son of a younger son of a Baronet […] had gone into the Church for the outmoded reason that the Church is the traditional profession for younger sons. His first cure had been in a large, slummy parish in East London – a nasty hooliganish place it had been, and he looked back on it with loathing. Even in those days the lower classes (as he made a point of calling them) were getting decidedly out of hand.” He keeps his money to himself, leaving Dorothy to fend off creditors; he finds it particularly distasteful that tradesmen should want to be paid.

Hop pickersDorothy meets a range of colourful characters on the road; but these are perhaps not quite as memorable as the others. This is curious, as two of them, Ginger and Deafie, were real people about whom Orwell wrote in his hop-picking diaries; if Gollancz feared a libel case, this was maybe his closest shave. The details about Deafie were true; a) that he was stone deaf and b) that he continually exposed himself to women and children, despite being essentially decent. The details about Ginger were attributed to Nobby in the book – that he was a fearless and charismatic guy who often lived on Trafalgar Square and whose wife had died in childbirth, had been to Borstal, and was a master of thefts, both great and small. However, for the most part, the people she meets hop picking and on Trafalgar Square just don’t inhabit your imagination. Chapter Three – the drama scene – doesn’t do anything to fix these characters firmly in the reader’s mind’s eye. If you had already read Orwell’s essay Hop Picking, which he had published four years earlier, none of Dorothy’s experiences or Orwell’s observations on the whole phenomenon would come as a surprise. I did have to fight a suspicion that Orwell simply created Dorothy’s hop-picking experiences simply so that he could put his own experience and writing to good use. Cynical of me, I know.

Orwell is at his best when revelling in beautifully worded imagery and impactful sentences that just yearn to be read out loud. In that opening scene, he goes into terrific detail to reveal the horror of a putrid Holy Communion service, with Dorothy having to share the communion wine with the unpleasant Miss Mayfill. “Miss Mayfill was creeping towards the altar with slow, tottering steps. She could barely walk, but she took bitter offence if you offered to help her. In her ancient, bloodless face her mouth was surprisingly large, loose and wet. The under lip, pendulous with age, slobbered forward, exposing a strip of gum and a row of false teeth as yellow as the keys of an old piano. On the upper lip was a fringe of dark, dewy moustache. It was not an appetising mouth; not the kind of mouth that you would like to see drinking out of your cup.” It’s a magnificent piece of writing – you can almost smell and taste Miss Mayfill’s saliva as it dribbles over the cup.

I love Orwell’s description of the clients at the “fully licensed” Knype Hill Conservative Club “from whose bow window, any time after the bar was open, the large, rosy-gilled faces of the town’s elite were to be seen gazing like chubby goldfish from an aquarium pane”. When Dorothy has returned to the parish, she notices “that the ash tree by the gate was in bloom, with clotted dark-red blossoms that looked like festerings from a wound”; which dazzles you with its comparison of nature’s beauty with grim disease. In one of his many descriptions of Mrs Creevy, he highlights her personal habit of noisy inelegance: “Mrs Creevy got up from the table and banged the breakfast things together on the tray. She was one of those women who can never move anything without banging it about; she was as full of thumps and raps as a poltergeist” – which is a fantastic simile. Another is when he describes tearing down bines of hops: “huge, tapering strands of foliage, like the plaits of Rapunzel’s hair that came tumbling down on top of you, showering you with dew.”

Macbeth TextIn an amusing nod to the quotation from Macbeth that got Dorothy into trouble with the school parents, when Warburton takes Dorothy to lunch in Coventry Street, among the side vegetables she found “tiny, pearly-white potatoes that had been ripped untimely from their mother earth”. There’s a lovely observation when Dorothy has been having a busy day in the parish: “The sun, burning in the cloudless sky, scorched her back through her gingham frock, and the dusty road quivered in the heat, and the hot, flat meadows, over which even at this time of year numberless larks chirruped tiresomely, were so green that it hurt your eyes to look at them. It was the kind of day that is called “glorious” by people who don’t have to work.” There it is – a typical, Orwellian, killer finish!

Down and out in Paris and LondonI was interested to see a continuation of the disapproval of the way a Labour government, in an attempt to make things better for working class people, actually made things worse. This was a theme that started in Down and Out in Paris and London. One of the farmers employing hop pickers has stated that he will only take on “home pickers”; as Mrs McElligot explains: “dem as has got homes o’ deir own […] dat’s de law nowadays. In de old days when you come down hoppin’, you kipped in a stable an’ dere was no questions asked. But dem bloody interferin’ gets of a Labour Government brought in a law to say as no pickers was to be taken on widout de farmer had proper accommodation for ‘em. So Norman only takes on folks as has got homes o’ deir own.” And, Orwell, never a friend of communism, refers to the life that Dorothy was now leading in London: “the enormous sleepless nights, the cold, the dirt, the boredom and the horrible communism of the Square.”

He also takes the opportunity to deliver a diatribe against private education; something he himself had benefited from, and some elements of which were required to be censored by Mr Gollancz. “There are, by the way, vast numbers of private schools in England. Second-rate, third-rate and fourth-rate (Ringwood House was a specimen of the fourth-rate school), they exist by the dozen and the score in every London suburb and every provincial town.” “…There is the same fundamental evil in all of them; that is, that they have ultimately no purpose except to make money. Often, except that there is nothing illegal about them, they are started in exactly the same spirit as one would start a brothel or a bucket shop.” Dorothy “heard tales of schools that were worse by far than Ringwood House. She heard of a cheap boarding-school where travelling actors dumped their children as one dumps luggage in a railway cloakroom, and where the children simply vegetated, doing absolutely nothing, reaching the age of sixteen without learning to read; and another school where the days passed in a perpetual riot, with a broken-down old hack of a master chasing the boys up and down and slashing at them with a cane, and then suddenly collapsing and weeping with his head on a desk, while the boys laughed at him. So long as schools are run primarily for money, things like this will happen.”

The regulation of the schools was nonsense; “one day a Government inspector did, indeed, visit the school, but beyond measuring the dimensions of the schoolroom to see whether each girl had her right number of cubic feet of air, he did nothing; he had no power to do more.” I must say, Mrs Creevy’s watchword that you do what the parents want and that’s the most important thing in private education was certainly not my experience of going to a private school. If a parent went to my headmaster and quibbled with the way their son was being taught, he’d simply have recommended them to withdraw him from the school!

One final note of interest: I saw that the unfrocked Mr Tallboys, homeless on Trafalgar Square, sang (to the tune of Deutschland über Alles) “Keep the Aspidistra Flying” which would of course go on to be the name of Orwell’s next novel.

I know it’s a cliché, but this book really is the archetypal curate’s egg. The opening chapter is so full of brilliant observations and terrific characterisations, that you can’t wait for the next page. Similarly, the sequence where Dorothy is shacked up at the abominable Creevy’s makes your heckles rise with its injustice. The reader is very concerned about Dorothy’s wellbeing; we really want her to do well, to rise above all the things that have gone wrong for her and to create a happy and successful future. So when it looks like that’s not going to happen, it’s genuinely disappointing; but on reflection, all other outcomes would be artificial. I still feel that the hop-picking episode was written just because Orwell had had the experience and wanted to write about it; and the dramatext-style chapter three just seems totally unsatisfactory.

Keep the Aspidistra FlyingNevertheless, I enjoyed the book very much and would certainly recommend it. Next in my George Orwell Challenge comes his third novel, Keep the Aspidistra Flying. I read this as a teenager – or maybe in my young 20s – but I have absolutely no memory of it. So it will be like reading a brand new book! I’ll read it over the next month or so and then write down my thoughts as usual. In the meantime, thanks for reading and I hope you enjoy the book.

The Agatha Christie Challenge – Endless Night (1967)

Endless NightIn which young 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 also gets to meet 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? As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, as always, I promise not to reveal what happens and whodunit!

Vale-of-GlamorganThe book is dedicated “to Nora Prichard from whom I first heard the legend of Gipsy’s Acre.” Nora Prichard was the paternal grandmother of Mathew Prichard, Christie’s only grandson, and Gipsy’s Acre was a field located on a Welsh moorland near Pentre-Meyrich in the Vale of Glamorgan. Mathew’s grandmother lived in this location, where many years earlier a nearby gypsy encampment was cleared and the head gypsy cursed the land. Either as a result or by coincidence, it became the site of several road accidents. Endless Night was first published in the UK by Collins Crime Club on 30th October 1967, and in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company the following year. In the US it was also first serialised in two parts in The Saturday Evening Post from 24 February to 9 March 1968.

William BlakeThe book begins with an epigraph – a quotation from William Blake’s Auguries of Innocence: “Every Night and every Morn Some to Misery are born. Every Morn and every Night Some are born to Sweet Delight, Some are born to Sweet Delight, Some are born to Endless Night.” This quotation – or at least parts of it – are repeated at times throughout the book, almost as a leitmotif; its relevance is never clear until the end.

WriterAs she entered her final decade (not that she knew it, of course!) Christie hit the ground running with this magnificent book, that you might describe as “late-flowering genius”. On average, it took her three or four months to write a novel, but she said she wrote Endless Night in six weeks. And you can tell; not because it’s slapdash or lacking in detail or finesse, but because it flows immaculately as a stream of thought. Christie must have planned this book to the minutest degree because it’s full of fake clues that the reader picks up and thinks must be significant; and full of real clues that the reader never notices. The result is an extraordinarily engrossing, deceptively simple, un-put-downable read that makes it unquestionably a Christie Classic. As I mentioned in my blog about Third Girl, I’ve never been familiar with Endless Night because we were reading it as a family at the time my father died. Whether it’s simply because I associate it with sadness, or because I (understandably) couldn’t concentrate on it properly, it’s a book that has never stayed in my consciousness; indeed, for many years, I believe I didn’t have a copy of it. I suspect that when I read it recently as part of my Christie Challenge, that might well have been the first time I’ve properly read and appreciated it. And that’s definitely been my loss, because it’s an absolutely brilliant book and probably one of her top ten.

chauffeursYou couldn’t really class this as a whodunit, more a whatshappening. It doesn’t feature any of Christie’s usual detectives, and the only police presence is a minor character who receives reports of certain strange goings-on. It’s written, crucially, in the first person; and the narrator, Michael Rogers, is a complicated guy. He’s not particularly gifted or remarkable; he hasn’t got much money, but nor does he have a work ethic. Recently he’s been working as a chauffeur, but he’s used to having many jobs, that he chucks in as soon as he gets fed up with them – one of those things that was very common in the 1960s when work was plentiful. He neither respects work nor workers: “I’ve driven a lot of people who’ve made money, who’ve worked hard and who’ve got ulcers and coronary thrombosis and many other things as a result of working hard. I didn’t want to work hard. I could do a job as well as another but that was all there was to it.”

1960s DollybirdHe has a poor, distant relationship with his mother; he serially dallies with several girlfriends none of whom come to anything; like most young men he’s much more interested in sex than relationships, and he just moves on to the next young woman when he’s bored – rather like his relationship with jobs. Despite all these faults, he’s strangely likeable, primarily from what you feel is the overwhelming openness and honesty of his narration. He has no misgivings about his own nature; he knows precisely who he is and what his interests are, and, unlike most men, he’s not afraid to express what he feels. In fact, he’s charmingly self-effacing: “I don’t know much about writing things down – not, I mean, in the way a proper writer would do.” He’s also surprisingly fanciful and dreamy in his imagination: “build me a house […] and I’d find a girl, a wonderful girl, and we’d live in it together happy ever after. I often had dreams of that kind.”

Question MarkBecause of the nature of this book, it’s difficult to discuss it without giving way important aspects of the story, and I really don’t want to spoil it for you. The plot has distinct parallels with two of Christie’s previous novels, which I won’t identify at this stage, but you’ll easily see it for yourself when you read it. That’s not to say it’s in any way unoriginal; it’s very much its own book, with a slow, fascinating build to a crescendo that overwhelms the reader. Once you’ve started to work out exactly what is happening, Christie deftly makes you suspect a whole raft of characters of masterminding whatever plot there is, until you realise you were wrong all along. From that point of view, it’s extraordinary.

PlymouthDespite the setting of Gipsy’s Acre being in Wales, this story is firmly Devon-based, with Michael and Ellie getting married in Plymouth; the other locations – Kingston Bishop (the village where The Towers/Gipsy’s Acre is located), Helminster and Market Chadwell, despite sounding rurally plausible, are all inventions of Christie; but we do know from Michael’s narration that the whole area is near the sea. Some of the story takes place in New York, and there are some characters in the book who are truly citizens of the world, being located in Paris, San Francisco, and so on.

Robert Louis StevensonOther references to investigate are primarily quotations from poems or songs. We’ve already seen that Blake’s “some are born to Endless Night” is a recurring theme. Ellie likes to a sing a song about a fly: “Little fly, thy summer’s play My thoughtless hand has brushed away”. This is another work by Blake, simply called The Fly, taken from his Songs of Experience. And when Michael is finally coming home from his gruelling spell in New York, he quotes “Home is the sailor, home from the sea And the hunter home from the hill”, which is from Robert Louis Stevenson’s poem Requiem – although Stevenson’s original line is “home from sea” rather than “home from the sea”, but it frequently gets misquoted.

PoundRegular readers will know that I like to consider any significant sums of money in Christie’s books and work out what their value would be today, just to get a feel of the range of sums that we’re looking at. Money plays an important part in this book, so it’s not surprising that there are several sums that are quoted. When Michael is wandering down Bond Street, he spies a pair of shoes in a shop window that he quite likes – £15 the pair. Out of his league financially, the equivalent today would be £190. That’s expensive but probably not bad for Bond Street. Even more out of his league is the painting that he enquires about, only to discover it costs £25,000. That pretty sum is well over £300,000 today – no wonder he admired it! When Ellie bought a picture on her honeymoon in Venice, it cost the equivalent of £6, which today would be £75 or so – still quite pricey for a piece of tourist trash, but then again Venice is always expensive. Philpott is knowledgeable about the cost of domestic linen: “do you know what a linen pillow case costs? Thirty-five shillings”. That’s of course £1.75 in decimal currency, and the equivalent today would be £22. I suppose that’s not too bad if it’s top quality material. The sum of £300 was found under the floorboards in someone’s property (I shan’t mention whose at this stage) and that today would be worth £3,800. That’s quite a lot to hide under the floorboards. Ellie mentions that they paid off the oil heiress Minnie Thompson’s first boyfriend the vast sum of $200,000. Today that would be $1.6 million – or, in sterling, £1.15 million. Probably worth being bought off!

 

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

 

Publication Details: 1967. My copy is a Harper Collins Paperback, the eighth impression of the Agatha Christie Signature Edition collection, published in 2007, bearing the price on the back cover of £6.99. The cover illustration by David Wardle shows a crow flying across the moon and with some blood spattered on the white lettered title. Not that relevant, really. The Tom Adams illustration on the Fontana paperback is much more telling, with a dead owl and a knife plunged into it, with a message attached.

How many pages until the first death: 212 – but that’s misleading because the Agatha Christie Signature Edition books have much more spacing; the book is 302 pages long whereas most Christie’s normally come around the 190 mark.

Funny lines out of context: The first one for a long time. When Michael tells us that he helped Ellie get on her horse for her morning ride, what he actually says is: “I mounted her.”

Memorable characters: Far and away the most interesting and memorable character is the narrator Michael, with his complex motivations and psychological hang-ups. Ellie is inversely fascinating in that she is a very rich young woman with all the power in the world, but she is content to be a mild-mannered, undemanding person; maybe it’s a rebellion against her brash family and associates. Mrs Lee, the gipsy who is full of prophecies of doom, is memorable, although her characterisation (and that of the hedge-cutting chap Michael meets at the beginning of the book) is pure pantomime. I also liked the character of Andrew Lippincott, with his lawyerly reticence to say anything that could possibly compromise any situation; you can never be absolutely sure you know where you are with him.

Christie the Poison expert: As you read this book you don’t think that poison is going to play a part in it at all; but you’d be wrong. Cyanide is employed, but I shan’t say how or by whom!

Class/social issues of the time: Following on from Third Girl, and Poirot and Mrs Oliver grappling with the Swinging Sixties, there are a couple of references to Michael’s love- (sex-)life that continue to explore that theme of how young people live today. When he and Ellie are starting to learn about each other’s past, he says “I don’t want to know anything about what you’ve done or who you’ve been fond of” and she comes straight out with “there’s nothing of that kind. No sex secrets.” I can’t imagine the likes of Bundle (The Secret of Chimneys) or Anne Beddingfield (The Man in the Brown Suit) having that kind of conversation. As Art gained some rather louche connotations in the previous book, it continues here, with Michael describing the presentation of pictures in a window, “artily arranged with a drape of limp velvet” as “cissy”; with the best will in the world, I can’t imagine Michael being an advocate for gay rights.

Some of Christie’s own personal hang-ups come through Michael’s personality; as a young working-class man with little regard for work it’s nevertheless curious that he should hold an opinion like “not just all this tame security, the good old welfare state limping along in its half-baked way”.

Michael refers to the space race: “a world where man has been able to put satellites in the sky and where men talk big about visiting the stars”. 1967, when Endless Night was published, saw both Apollo 1 and Soyuz 1 missions; two years later man walked on the moon.

The usual low-level xenophobia/racism that can be found in most Christie books is here replaced with an anti-gipsy sentiment. Mrs Lee is seen as a money-grabbing hypocrite who is only in the game for the “cross my palm with silver” aspect of fortune-telling. No opportunity is left untaken to denounce gipsies as thieves. Whilst no one ostensibly believes that the gipsy curse is to be taken seriously, there’s a devilment provided by the gipsy warnings that hangs gloomily – sometimes stagily – over the entire book.

Classic denouement:  There is no denouement in the traditional sense of the word. The story just reaches its astonishing climax organically, in its own time and manner.

Happy ending? No!

Did the story ring true? There are a number of minor loose ends that never get tied up, and a serious coincidence that is never really explored; but somehow, they don’t matter at all. Despite all the reasons why this story really shouldn’t ring true, it does. Michael’s honest, confiding and open narrative style that lulls you into accepting all the events of the book without questioning them; so the reader has absolutely no problem taking the story at face value.

Overall satisfaction rating: I very nearly read this book in one extended sitting, over the course of one day. That never happens to me! If I hadn’t had other commitments, I would have done. But I read it over two days and found it absolutely gripping. I’m very glad to have re-discovered it! 10/10 no question.

By the Pricking of my ThumbsThanks for reading my blog of Endless Night, and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment in the space below. Next up in the Agatha Christie Challenge is By the Pricking of my Thumbs, and a chance to catch up with Tommy and Tuppence in their later years. Our last encounter with them was in 1941’s N or M? which I currently have as my least favourite Christie book – so I’m hoping for some improvement here!  As usual, I’ll blog my thoughts about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!

The Points of View Challenge – Jupiter Doke, Brigadier General – Ambrose Bierce

Ambrose BierceAmbrose Bierce (1842 – 1913/4*)

*date of death uncertain, disappeared sometime after December 26th 1913

American short story writer, journalist, poet, and Civil War veteran.

Jupiter Doke, Brigadier General, first published in The Wasp, 1885

Available to read online here

This is the second story in the volume Points of View to be given the style classification by Moffett and McElheny Letter Narration. They describe Jupiter Doke, Brigadier General as “a crisscrossing of letters, with excerpts from other documents and a deposition thrown in for good measure.”

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

 

Jupiter Doke, Brigadier General

 

WaspOn 3rd November 1861, the Secretary of War writes to the Hon. Jupiter Doke to inform him that the President has appointed him a brigadier general of volunteers. Will he accept the honour? Oh yes he will! He replies on the 9th that it will be the proudest moment of his life. The Secretary of War writes to Major General Blount Wardorg that the new Brigadier General is to be assigned to his department and is to take command of the Illinois Brigade at Distilleryville, Kentucky. Wardorg, however, deliberately instructs Doke to take a route that he knows will be ambushed; he and his men are to be an instant sacrifice. But Doke sends his wife’s cousin in his place (because Doke never likes to get that involved) and it’s poor Mr Briller who gets sacrificed.

As the letters and diary notes continue, we see that Doke has taken to his new status like a fish to water – all apart from the military skill aspect. Wardorg quickly realises that Doke’s is a woefully poor appointment and that he and his men will have to be sacrificed due to their incompetence and stupidity, with the cutting remark to the Secretary of War: “I think him a fool”. After all, Doke is the man who has been collecting 2,300 mules in preparation for each of his men to ride one into Louisville as a form of dignified Retreat. The Confederate Army generals report that a freak of nature in the form of a tornado completely wipes out their men and Doke gets the credit. However, according to the eyewitness Mr Peyton, what really happened was that, at the first sounds of the oncoming enemy, Doke jumped through a window to escape and startled the mules so badly that they stampeded down the road towards the Confederates… I guess any that survived the tornado – if there really was a tornado – were muled to death! Result: Major General Jupiter Doke.

So despite all evidence to the contrary, when the President appointed Doke as Brigadier General, he might just have chosen the right guy! Doke quickly settles in to his new high office, spending all his time enjoying his peripheral benefits, appointing and recommending family members and friends, filling up his expense claims, publishing his speeches and over-egging his heroism, leasing a prominent residence in which to instal his wife and family, and engaging his brother in law to supply arms and regalia (much as you would with PPE today). When it comes to actual military matters, his judgment is pathetic, accidentally sending men to their death, and marching his men into town to be attacked because they were taken for the enemy, and when they returned to camp the real enemy had moved in.

This is a wonderful account of how someone can be promoted way beyond their ability, yet, by a series of extraordinary accidents and misjudgements, the final outcome has them smelling of roses and decorated accordingly. Every decision Doke makes is wrong, primarily because he spends all his time reaping the cash or status benefits of his new-found authority. Bierce portrays him as a magnificent example of small-town pomposity, concealing his own ineffectuality with flattery and self-aggrandization. He never misses a chance to improve his own standing, sneaking in an application for the Gubernatorial Chair of the Territory of Idaho, moving into a “prominent residence” whilst its previous incumbent is fighting in the war, writing a nonsense account of his own heroism for publication in the newspaper. However, the truth is that he is a coward who’ll escape through a window at the first sight of the enemy.

The story improves enormously on a second reading; for 21st century British readers not that familiar with 19th century American idiom and history, it’s easy to miss a few very important details on a first reading. Bierce himself had enlisted in the 9th Indiana Infantry at the start of the Civil War in 1861 and had a great deal of active involvement in several battles and campaigns, so we can trust his experience when it comes to the military procedures and the type of manoeuvres that feature in this story. An excellent satire on how to muck up a war and the elevation of a clown to high office. Now, why does that ring a bell today?

The next story in the anthology, and the last of the three letter narration stories, is A Bundle of Letters by Henry James. As an English graduate, it is to my shame that I have never read any James, so it’s definitely time to put that right.

The Points of View Challenge – A Novel in Nine Letters – Fyodor Dostoevsky

Dostoevsky

Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821 – 1881)

Russian novelist, (Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, Brothers Karamazov) philosopher, short story writer, essayist, and journalist

A Novel in Nine Letters, first published in 1847

Available to read online here

This is the first story in the volume Points of View to be given the style classification by Moffett and McElheny Letter Narration. Here is the start of their description of this narrative style: “Each of the following stories is, to use the title of the James story, “a bundle of letters.” A letter is a written monologue, still relatively spontaneous, still addressed to a certain person for a certain reason; but of course the speaker is not face to face with his listener.” They describe A Novel in Nine Letters as “a two-way correspondence, a dialogue at a distance.”

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

 

A Novel in Nine Letters

 

Novel in nine letters (Russian edition)Pyotr Ivanitch writes to Ivan Petrovitch saying he’s been looking for him everywhere, but would he and Tatyana please come to tea. He’s also not happy about having been introduced to Yevgeny Nikolaitch, but we don’t know why. Also his son is ill and his wife is depressed. Ivan Petrovitch replies to Pyotr Ivanitch that he was at home all the time, so he has no idea why he couldn’t find him. He’s not sure what the problem is with Yevgeny Nikolaitch but wants to meet to talk it out – but now he can’t find Pyotr anywhere. Also, his wife is having a baby. Pyotr responds that he was called away because his aunt was ill – but will meet him at a mutual friend’s. Ivan replies that Pyotr didn’t turn up at the mutual friend’s, making him (Ivan) look an idiot, and accusing Pyotr of backtracking on a financial loan. Pyotr replies that it wasn’t a loan, his aunt’s dead and he’s too wounded to discuss the issues. Ivan says Pyotr’s deliberately avoiding him, deceiving him with pretend friendship, leading him on a merry dance and lying. Pyotr refuses to engage. At the end, both receive evidence that their wives have been cheating with aforementioned Yevgeny Nikolaitch and their friendship is incontrovertibly over!

This is a very entertaining battle of words and will between two “gentlemen” – Dostoevsky gives them shared names in an attempt, I think, to show that they’re interchangeable, and each as bad as the other. It’s great to see how the extreme formality and politeness of the earlier missives gets replaced by downright invective towards the end! Dostoevsky deliberately holds back with the details – what exactly did Yevgeny do to make himself such an unwelcome guest? Why was he at Ivan’s flat? (I think we know the answer to that!) Was it a loan between Pyotr and Ivan or some other kind of agreement? And at the end you ask yourself, is Anna really depressed, and who is the father of Tatyana’s baby?!

Deceptively simple, this short story merits being re-read a few times to get the full nuances of what’s being accused and what’s happening behind the scenes. Apparently, Dostoevsky wrote it over the course of one evening, to pay off a gambling debt – something that Ivan accuses of Pyotr of doing. There are some wonderful turns of phrase in these letters; my favourite is when Ivan accuses Pyotr of “shameful exactitude” for pinpointing the precise time that his aunt suffered a stroke. Over 170 years since it was written, it’s fun to imagine these St Petersburg men engaging in a vicious and bitchy spat, but the nature of their disagreement is timeless – you could just imagine how today they would be keyboard warriors of the worst kind!

The next story in the anthology is Jupiter Doke, Brigadier General, by Ambrose Bierce, another writer whose work I have never encountered, so I am looking forward to reading this one!

The Points of View Challenge – Travel is so Broadening – Sinclair Lewis

Sinclair Lewis

Sinclair Lewis (1885 – 1951)

American novelist (Main Street, Babbitt, Elmer Gantry), playwright, poet and short story writer, awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1930

Travel is so Broadening, originally published as Part V of the novel The Man Who Knew Coolidge, 1938

Available to read online here (start at page 202 of the document)

The second story in the volume Points of View to be given the style classification by Moffett and McElheny Dramatic Monologue. Here’s more of their description of this narrative style: “This kind of monologue, too, has a counterpart in the theatre, whenever one character takes over the stage and talks for a long time uninterruptedly. Some such speeches provide information about what has taken place offstage or permit the character to explain himself, reveal himself, or betray himself.”

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

 

Travel is so Broadening

 

The Man Who Knew CoolidgeLowell Schmaltz collars George Babbitt and his wife after an enjoyable dinner, and takes it upon himself to give advice about the best way to drive to Yellowstone, considering his own extensive, personal experience of long-distance driving. Schmaltz, however, is easily distracted from his main task, and, revelling in the sound of his own voice, forces a range of opinions on his listeners, including the life and times of his brother-in-law Lafayette, the singing talent of his daughter Delmerine, buying a pair of pumps in Chicago, descriptions of typical eateries to be found en route, the rights and wrongs of thumbing a lift, and so on and so on and so on. At the end of his monologue, he realises he hasn’t told the couple half of what he had intended, so it will have to save for another time – although there’s always time for him to squeeze in just one more thing before he goes…

Strictly speaking, this is not a short story in itself, but an extract from the larger book, The Man who knew Coolidge. If one reads the book from the beginning, one will already have encountered the narrator, Mr Lowell Schmaltz, as well as having heard about a couple of the people to whom he refers – his wife Mame, his daughter Delmerine, and some of the places in his life – his hometown of Fall River, Massachusetts, and the fictional city Zenith in the fictional state of Winnemac.

It’s an amusing account of a pompous know-it-all who loves to hold court and never gives anyone else the remotest chance of having their say. We all know people like that, and Schmaltz is a very recognizable character without ever becoming a caricature; although Lewis, the writer, manages to get his own word in when he breaks off from Schmaltz’s narration to explain: “here, by request of the publishers, are omitted thirty-seven other articles recommended by Mr Schmaltz. – EDITOR”.

Its main purpose is to divert the reader with imagining what this dreadful bore would be like in real life, but to today’s audience it also gives a little insight into the early days of driving in America. Even an experienced driver like Schmaltz wasn’t able to drive more than 298 miles in one day – which makes you realise he must have travelled at some speed in the times before freeways! We also get a good understanding of the kind of man Mr Schmaltz is, which doesn’t require much room for anything too deep. Although it’s an enjoyable read, you’re also aware that, deep down, it’s fairly inconsequential, and you don’t need to read too much into it. If there is one lesson to be learned from it, it would be beware of getting cornered by the likes of Mr Schmaltz!

The next story sounds as though it might have a little more gravitas – A Novel in Nine Letters by Fyodor Dostoevsky. In my younger days I read The Brothers Karamazov and Crime and Punishment, but I’ve never read any of his short stories, so this should be interesting! This is also the first of the three stories in the anthology that have been categorised as Letter Narration.

The Points of View Challenge – The Lady’s Maid – Katherine Mansfield

 

Katherine Mansfield

Katherine Mansfield (1888 – 1923)

New Zealand born poet and short story writer, associated with the Bloomsbury Group of writers

The Lady’s Maid, originally published in The Garden Party, 1922

Available to read online here

Here’s the first story in the volume Points of View to be given the style classification Dramatic Monologue by Moffett and McElheny. This is how they start the description of this narrative style: “Now we overhear somebody speaking aloud to another person. He has a particular reason for telling a particular story to his particular audience, and his speech, as in real conversation, is spontaneous and unrehearsed. We can tell where he is and to whom he is talking from references he makes in his monologue.”

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

 

The Lady’s Maid

 

Katherine Mansfield TheGardenPartyMy Lady has a guest staying overnight, and there’s a nice cup of tea left over, so the lady’s maid (Ellen) thought the guest might appreciate it, if she wasn’t asleep yet. The guest gratefully accepts the tea and asks the maid a number of polite questions (that we don’t read) and the maid responds with polite and disarming honesty. During the conversation we discover that the maid dealt with my lady’s mother when she passed away after a stroke; that she chose to leave her own cruel and uncaring family at the age of thirteen to become a junior maid in this same household; and that at one stage she considered marriage to a man named Harry, but my lady couldn’t hide how devastated she would be if Ellen left – and so Harry was dumped.

It’s an elegant tale of complete, self-denying loyalty; part admirable in its honour, part horrific in its self-sacrifice. It’s very convincingly written; when I was reading it, Ellen’s voice came to me as though it were Jean Marsh’s Rose from TV’s Upstairs Downstairs. It’s harder to discern the nature of the unseen character in the conversation; one can only assume she doesn’t know My Lady that well, otherwise she would probably already have known the details that Ellen tells her. You sense that Ellen welcomes the opportunity to open up and tell her story; although she shies away from considering what might happen in the future. She’s content in the here and now and that’s the main thing. Any regrets are pushed right to the back of her mind.

The dramatic monologue style invites you to make sense of a conversation even though you only hear one side of it. It’s a little like a jigsaw puzzle, occasionally you have to piece together the questions from the replies. But it lends itself to exploring the narrator’s thought processes in a gradual and thoughtful way. Very short, but very enjoyable.

The next story in the anthology is Travel is so Broadening, by Sinclair Lewis. I know nothing of him, so have no idea what to expect!

The Agatha Christie Challenge – Third Girl (1966)

Third GirlIn which Hercule 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! With Poirot’s curiosity piqued, he decides to find out more about this strange confession – but when the girl goes to ground, what can he usefully find out? Fortunately, Mrs Oliver knows the family, and she assists by trailing suspects around London – until she herself is attacked! Will Poirot discover whether a murder has been committed, and if so, by whom? Of course he will! And, as usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, as always, I promise not to reveal whodunit!

DedicationThe book is dedicated “to Nora Blackborow.” She was the secretary of Edmund Clark, Christie’s Literary Agent, and, apparently, she was the first point of contact for permission to use Christie’s works. Third Girl was first published in the UK by Collins Crime Club in November 1966, and in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company the following year. A condensed version of the novel was published in the US in April 1967 in Redbook Magazine.

TwiggyAfter a very intriguing and entertaining start, the reader’s disbelief in this book stacks up quickly, with a highly unlikely preponderance of coincidences that simply make it hard to accept. Important clues aren’t dropped unassumingly with her usual flair, but heavily telegraphed, so that even if you don’t quite get what they mean, you certainly know that they are clues. Whilst it is diverting to see Poirot and Mrs Oliver caught up in the seedier side of trendy London 60s life, with drug taking, louche arty tastes and can’t tell the boys from the girls fashions, a lot of the book feels very ploddy. Whilst we, as always, admire Poirot for his ability to think a solution through from the bare bones of the evidence, Christie spends an inordinate amount of time sifting through his little grey cells, without much in the way of action taking place. It also feels quite repetitive, with Mrs Oliver twice ringing him up to disturb his thoughts, almost Groundhog Day-style, but neither time does this achieve anything except to irritate Poirot. Christie also uses the device of Poirot employing Mr Goby (whom we’ve seen before in The Mystery of the Blue Train and After the Funeral), as a rather easy, shorthand way of cutting corners with her writing, in order to come up with a lot of evidence without Poirot having to do any work. In the final analysis, although the crime itself is ingenious, it lacks credibility, and the loose ends get tied up far too easily for my liking.

Talking to each otherAnd that’s all a shame, because there’s plenty in the book to enjoy, including the return of many regular characters, some fascinating new ones, and a few genuinely exciting scenes. Unusually, Poirot takes centre stage in this book right from the start, where we find him winding up his magnum opus – an analysis of the great writers of detective fiction – a work in which he was deeply involved in his last appearance, The Clocks. Third Girl doesn’t really tell us anything new about Poirot, but it underlines a few aspects of his personality that we’ve noted before. His ability to gain people’s confidence comes in very useful with Norma Restarick – “for some reason, Poirot had always been a person it was easy to talk to” – and Mary Restarick – “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.” Poirot has always been quick to admire a well turned-out woman, but even quicker to show dismay at a poorly turned-out one. Poirot’s first meeting with Norma: “anyone of Poirot’s age and generation would have had only one desire. To drop the girl into a bath as soon as possible. He had often felt this same reaction walking along the streets. There were hundreds of girls looking exactly the same. They all looked dirty.”

Old ManBut Norma really hits Poirot in his weakest spot – his age. Poirot was an old man at the time of The Mysterious Affair at Styles, so he’s an exceedingly old man now. Rather cleverly, Christie does not pass judgement on Poirot’s age when we first meet him in this book – she leaves that to Norma. “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.” This observation knocks Poirot’s self-esteem back by what feels like several decades. Later that day he gives Mrs Oliver an outpouring of self-pity, culminating in the simple, but devastated, “it wounded me.” Later, when he is failing to make sense of everything he has found out about the case, he returns to an unexpected self-doubt. ““Perhaps I am too old,” said Hercule Poirot, at the bottom depths of despair.”

Frustrated writerAnd what of Mrs Oliver, the character that Christie invented to bring herself closer into her own books? She seems to have progressed into a less sympathetic direction than before. Whereas in the past we might have seen her struggling to write, or being eccentric with her fondness for apples, here those aspects have given way to a short temper and even an element of hatred. She sends off her latest book to her publishers whilst scolding herself for its shortcomings. ““I hope you like it! I don’t. It think it’s lousy! […] You just wait and see,” said Mrs Oliver vengefully.” And when she’s chasing Poirot up for news of developments in the case, she is appallingly impatient. ““What are you doing? What have you done? […] Is that all? {…] What progress have you made? […] Really, M. Poirot, you really must take a grip on yourself […] What about that woman who threw herself out of a window. Haven’t you got anything out of that? […] Well? […] Really!” At a loss for further comment, Mrs Oliver rang off.”

Union JackGeorge is still his incomparable self, and Miss Lemon is possibly even more po-faced than usual, with her rigorous attention to administration. “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.” On the one occasion Poirot asks her opinion – of the young lady Sonia who accompanied Sir Roderick – her first reaction was merely to answer “foreign”; when pressed, she explains “I always say that it’s better to know where you are when you are employing someone, and buy British.” Miss Lemon is obviously an early Brexiteer. Other repeat characters appear in the form of the aforementioned Mr Goby, who has an inability to look Poirot in the eye, Chief Inspector Neele (merely Inspector Neele when he took charge of the case in A Pocket Full of Rye) and Dr Stillingfleet, that rather gung ho and outspoken psychiatrist who featured in The Dream in The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding and in Sad Cypress. Amusingly, when Poirot is bluffing with Sir Roderick, to make him think they were old colleagues, Poirot lets drop his acquaintanceship with Colonel Race (Cards on the Table, Death on the Nile, Sparkling Cyanide and The Man in the Brown Suit) and M. Giraud (The Murder on the Links). An unusual number of Christie cross-references pepper this story!

Mermaid TheatreLike Christie’s previous book, At Bertram’s Hotel, this is a very London-centric book, with just occasional references to the Restarick family home in the village of Long Basing – presumably this is somewhere close to Market Basing, which appears as a location in many Christie books. Otherwise, the action of the book takes place either at Poirot’s flat in London, the flat at 67 Borodene Mansions where the three girls live (an invention of Christie’s) or in the murky back streets of London where Mrs Oliver attempts to trail David Baker. When she phones Poirot to say she has spotted Norma and Baker, she says she is somewhere between St. Paul’s and the Mermaid Theatre – Calthorpe Street. There is a Calthorpe Street in London, but it’s not in that locale – it’s off Gray’s Inn Road. The Mermaid Theatre – alas, now a mere conference centre – was located at Puddle Dock, Blackfriars.

Bohemian girlThere are only a few other references to consider; Mrs Oliver recalls a string of song quotes when she’s trying to remember Norma’s name. “Thora? Speak to me, Thora […] Myra? Oh Myra my love is all for thee […] I dreamt I dwelt in marble halls. Norma?” One by one: that’s a 1905 song by Fred Weatherly and Stephen Adams called Thora; the Myra song appears to be a complete invention; and the last is an aria from Balfe’s 1843 opera The Bohemian Girl. Ten points if you knew that!

MontgomerySir Roderick also does some name-dropping when it comes to famous war folk who have been writing their memoirs; Montgomery, Alanbrooke, Auchinleck and Moran. Again, one by one: Bernard Montgomery, 1st Viscount Montgomery of Alamein (we all know him); Field Marshal Alan Brooke; Field Marshal Claude Auchinleck, Supreme Commander India and Pakistan 1947-8; and I haven’t a clue who Moran is!

M'NaughtenStillingfleet refers to the M’Naughten Act – this is a ruling concerning a plea of insanity in a criminal case, and I refer you to those wise people at Wikipedia, who describe it thus: “every man is to be presumed to be sane, and … that to establish a defence on the ground of insanity, it must be clearly proved that, at the time of the committing of the act, the party accused was labouring under such a defect of reason, from disease of the mind, as not to know the nature and quality of the act he was doing; or if he did know it, that he did not know he was doing what was wrong”.

PoundRegular readers will know that I like to consider any significant sums of money in Christie’s books and work out what their value would be today, just to get a feel of the range of sums that we’re looking at. There’s only one in this book – the sum of £5, which is given by Miss Reece-Holland to Mr Goby’s informant to help him forget about the presence of blood in the courtyard. Today that would be worth £65. Quite a generous tip!

 

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

 

Publication Details: 1966. My copy is a Fontana Paperback, fourth impression, published in October 1970, bearing the price on the back cover of 5/- (25p). The cover illustration, presumably by Tom Adams, shows the loose house numbers 6 and 7, together with a hand holding a bloodied dagger, surrounded by peacock feathers. All very appropriate, but not quite giving the game away.

How many pages until the first death: Slightly difficult to answer, as there is the report of a death which may, or may not be part of the crime (the reader must decide at the time), which is given after 46 pages. Otherwise, the first obvious murder doesn’t take place until page 159, which is a long wait.

Funny lines out of context: These seem to come less and less regularly as Christie got older and the times grew more modern – so none.

Memorable characters: As I have written quite often recently, most of the characters are not particularly interesting or well-drawn. Amongst the very minor characters, she created a couple of amusing battle-axes in the form of Miss Battersby, the principal at Norma’s school, and Miss Jacobs, who lives in one of the neighbouring flats and discovers a gruesome sight. Apart from these, the character of David Baker is interesting in that he is what Mrs Oliver refers to as the peacock, because of his fine clothes and strutting air; a young man in the Dedicated Follower of Fashion style. The reader can play with his appearance in their mind’s eye and make this character as fanciful and foppish as they like. But the interest in him is only skin-deep (or, clothing-deep).

Christie the Poison expert: Poison doesn’t play a massive role in this book, but there is a suggestion that Mrs Restarick might be receiving a regular slow dose of arsenic, and one of the unexpected things that Norma found hidden in her own desk drawer was a bottle of weed killer.

Class/social issues of the time:

It’s very much a book of its time, with a lot of descriptions of swinging sixties’ lifestyles, fashions, drug taking and so on. As I mentioned earlier, David Baker is often referred to as a beautiful young man, but it’s not meant to be complimentary. “”Beautiful?” said Mrs Oliver, “I don’t know that I like beautiful young men.” “Girls do,” said Poirot. “Yes, you’re quite right. They like beautiful young men. I don’t mean good-looking young men or smart-looking young men or well-dressed or well washed looking young men. I mean they either like young men looking as though they were just going on in a Restoration comedy, or else very dirty young men looking as though they were just going to take some awful tramp’s job.””

It’s not just the personal clothing fashions that are criticised; I like the way Christie takes a side-swipe at the gaudy wallpaper of the day. “As for the wallpaper… “these cherries – they are new?” he waved a teaspoon. It was, he felt, rather like being in a cherry orchard. “Are there too many of them, do you think?” said Mrs Oliver. “So hard to tell beforehand with wallpaper. Do you think my old one was better?” Poirot cast his mind back dimly to what he seemed to remember as large quantities of bright coloured tropical birds in a forest. He felt inclined to remark, plus ça change, plus c’est le meme chose, but restrained himself.”

The respectable/authority types are very critical and surprised by all the drug taking. But even the younger ones are in two minds about it. Frances was at Basil’s party: “Basil would make us try some new pills – Emerald Dreams. I don’t think it’s really worth trying all these silly things.” Stillingfleet remarks how Norma is “full of drugs. I’d say she’d been taking purple hearts, and dream bombs, and probably LSD”. Neele’s observation about Baker is that “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.”

There’s a recurrence of the more recent theme that mental illness might be an inherited factor, and much is made of inquiring into Norma’s past and parentage to see if there could be any links. There’s a long conversation between Norma and Stillingfleet about suicide that today you might suggest warrants a trigger warning.

Elsewhere, there is an interesting observation about how the elderly are prejudiced against the young – which probably largely stems from condemnation of the “permissive society” and the hippie clothing and lifestyle that the older generation just couldn’t understand. There’s a little combination of xenophobia and homophobia from Sir Roderick, describing Poirot as “a thorough frog […], you know, mincing and dancing…”. And Restarick reveals himself as no true feminist when he describes his wife as “as good as a man in some ways.”

Classic denouement:  It’s an unconventional denouement, in that it grows organically out of what appears to be some quite routine questioning of the witness, Miss Jacobs. You wouldn’t necessarily know that Poirot had planned it. Although, knowing him, he probably did.

Happy ending? Yes, but it feels extremely artificial and forced.

Did the story ring true? No. Again, this book relies too heavily on coincidences. The first is that Mrs Oliver should have chanced upon Norma Restarick because friends took her over there for drinks. Without that chance meeting there would have been no book. The next is that she should, amazingly, discover her and David in a café when they were trying to track her down. In all the cafes, in all the cities, she should just walk into the same one. Wow. The third is that the nature of the crime involved a degree of impersonation. That’s not the first time that Christie has pulled this trick in one of her books. But never has the amount of impersonation carried on for such a long time. It simply stretches credibility too far.

Overall satisfaction rating: It’s a shame that the book starts so 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. It’s lifted by the revelation of fairly extraordinary and creative crime activity; but which also quickly palls when you realise how unlikely it is. I’m not sure I can give this more than a 6/10, I’m afraid.

Endless NightThanks for reading my blog of Third Girl, and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment in the space below. Next up in the Agatha Christie Challenge is her next book, Endless Night, of which I have no recollection at all apart from remembering it being around in the house at the time that my father died – either I or my mother must have been reading it at the time – and so I always associate the book with personal sadness. I’m not actually sure I’ve read it since then, so I’m looking forward to putting that right, and hopefully eradicating sad memories. As usual, I’ll blog my thoughts about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!

The Points of View Challenge – This is my Living Room – Tom McAfee

Tom McAfee (1928 – 1982)

Poet, short story writer, novelist and Lecturer in English at the University of Missouri

This is my Living Room, originally published in Poems and Stories, 1966

Available to read online here (Scroll down to Page 105)

The second story in the book to be given the style classification by Moffett and McElheny Interior Monologue. To continue their description of this narrative style: “If the speaker is reacting to his immediate surroundings, his interior monologue will tell the story of what is going on around him. If his thoughts are memories, his soliloquy will review some past events associated with something in the present. If he is mainly reflecting, his train of thought does not record a present or recall a past story – it is the story itself.” Makes sense to me.

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

 

This is my Living Room

 

We’re in Pine Springs, a small town near Birmingham (presumably Alabama), and our host – for want of a better word – is a right charmer (also for want of a better word) who’s married to Rosie, whom he wouldn’t change but doesn’t tell her that, and with two daughters Ellen and Martha, whose virtue he watches like a hawk. When Ellen started trying to wear make-up, he took her out of school; he’s expecting her to turn into a Birmingham whore, despite his subscription to Christian Living.

McAfee gives us a detailed insight into the working of our narrator’s brain, even though it’s a place we’d really rather not go. He’s proud of his guns, and he insists that Rosie can shoot too – even though she doesn’t like it and gets scared. Still, some firm slaps around the face makes her see sense. He’s also proud of his store that he opens up at 7am every day; in fact he prefers it to his home. After his wife has died and his daughters have moved out, he’s going to sell the house and live in the store. It has everything he needs; food, fencing, nails and guns.

Some of his customers don’t always play fair with him. Sam Coates owed him twenty dollars for fencing. Wouldn’t pay until he stuck his .22 in Sam’s face whilst milking his cows. He paid. Old Ezmo too; he wouldn’t pay for his bread, and didn’t respond to our storekeeper’s demands. So when he heard Ezmo outside one night, “I was ready for him. I triggered my 12 gauge and got him square in the face.” He insisted that Rosie took a good look at the dead and bloodied body. “See what this world is coming to. You see that knife he had. I held Rosie’s hand and made her stand there till Ellen Jean could get Sheriff Claine.” Still, tomorrow’s Saturday. Get to bed early. Rosie starts to cry. It wouldn’t be like her if she didn’t cry.

In five rigidly structured pages, McAfee reveals this abomination of a man; violent, racist, ruthless, selfish, complacent and (allegedly) Christian. His confiding style lures the reader in and almost makes us complicit in his beliefs and actions simply by reading and accepting what we’ve read. You know the kind of guy – he assumes that you have the same attitudes that he has, just because you’ve agreed to talk with him. Our storekeeper drifts through his narrative, brooking no resistance from anyone with whom he comes into contact, not even the sheriff; he’s made sure the sheriff knows that he’s aware of the lawman’s involvement in an illicit still, so he’s got no fears there. He doesn’t think twice about assassinating Old Ezmo; he probably feels he’s doing the local community a favour.

It’s an uncomfortable read, but a superbly crafted piece of work. Removed from the second edition of Points of View, doubtless because of its abhorrent use of the N word and general offensiveness, it still stands out as an insight into moral ugliness, within a family and community powerless to stop him.

The next story in the book comes under the narrative style heading of Dramatic Monologue, and it’s The Lady’s Maid by Katherine Mansfield.  I’ve never read anything by Mansfield, so I’m looking forward to reading that next.

The Paul Berna Challenge – The Mystery of Saint-Salgue (1962)

Mystery of Saint SalgueIn which we make one final visit to the world of Gaby, Marion, Zidore and the other members of the Hundred Million Francs gang; adults now – some of them at least – off on a camping holiday in the South of France in Gaby’s Citroen van. But what is the mystery of the village of Saint-Salgue, and why are they being followed?

La Piste du SouvenirThe Mystery of Saint-Salgue was first published in 1962 by G. P. Rouge et Or under its original French title La Piste du Souvenir, which translates literally as The Trail of Remembrance, with illustrations by Robert Broomfield. As “The Mystery of Saint-Salgue”, the book was first published in the UK by The Bodley Head in 1963, and translated, as usual, by John Buchanan-Brown. My own copy of the book is the Bodley Head first edition, bearing the price 13s 6d. A quick check online suggests there are a few copies of this book available to buy at the moment – scattered around the world, mainly!

Paul BernaThis, sadly, is the last book by Berna to feature Gaby and his gang, but when you read it through to the end, and you discover its highly unusual and lifechanging ending, it’s appropriate that this is where we leave our friends to get on with their future. For the most part, it’s a very plot-driven book, with many exciting turns and surprises, full of action, and with a very feelgood ending. Perhaps the ending is a little too far-fetched to appreciate fully; then again, who is to say that such an event couldn’t happen? I’ll have to leave you to read it and discover it for yourself.

Despite its busy plot, there is still space for Berna to explore the developing characters of the gang members. Gaby is already a man; he still has his anger management issues, confronting Charley for not resorting to violence against the villains when they are captured. ““Your non-violence is all wrong! […] by behaving like this you will let them think they are immune to punishment and that’s just encouragement to crooks like them. Now, I see things in a slightly different light”. And he lifted an imperious boot to the seat of Grondin’s shorts…” When their vehicle gets vandalised, his instant reaction is to fly into a fury and kick one of Marion’s dogs – even though the dog was obviously not responsible for the damage. Berna describes Gaby as speaking with a “patronising bite” when mocking Fernand’s father, “Daddy Douin”. And when it comes to the big rescue mission at the end, Gaby’s plan is to use their vehicle as a battering ram. It doesn’t matter that Zidore has spent ages lavishing care on its appearance; Gaby wants to use it with brutal force. He still commands respect within the gang, and you still want to be best friends with him, but I do worry about his future welfare!

Zidore, on the other hand, has turned into a true mechanic; proud of his hard work, always generous with his time and his skill – for example, the way he repairs the Rambler without even being asked. It’s while working with the oil that Berna teases us with the fact that his oil-blackened moustache makes him look ten years older. That impresses on the reader that he too is now a man – and a thoroughly decent one.

In some respects, Fernand takes more centre stage in this book as Berna reveals more of his sensitivity and introvert nature. Although we occasionally see how he’s still besotted with Marion, their relationship doesn’t seem to have moved on at all, and in fact Marion’s role in this book is merely occasionally to make financial decisions and take care of the dogs – although the final scene in the book shows Marion reassuring Fernand that it is ok to make his own decisions and occasionally tell a judicious white lie. It may be that Fernand’s development has been held back by his relationship with his father and also the sense of “not-belonging”, which is at the heart of the story.

The only other person to get more of Berna’s attention than usual is Criquet Lariqué. Fernand describes him as “the cleverest of us all” as he quietly goes about playing a supporting role within the gang. For the first time, Berna addresses Criquet Lariqué’s racial background. When Betty asks where he was born, Zidore steps in: “here of course! […] in our suburb. Criquet’s as French as the rest of us. The colour of his skin makes no difference.” Nevertheless, we feel the boy’s anguish at the end when he fears he will be the only member of the gang who will not fit into everyone’s future, agonising about being from Timbuctoo. As always, the gang is very protective and inclusive, and his fears are unfounded – but his sensitivities to the issue and consequent insecurity are very obvious.

As always, Berna is at his best when he conveys that sense of unity and loyalty that you get from being a member of a gang. No matter their age or ability, everyone is equal, everyone contributes. When the gang members introduce themselves to their Canadian neighbours on the first night of their holiday, each of them explains their role within the group: Gaby, the captain and steersman, Zidore the mechanic, Fernand the navigator-quartermaster, Juan in charge of tent pitching, Tatave head cook, Bonbon his bus boy, Criquet, head waiter, and Berthe and Mélie laundry-maids (Gaby is not a strong feminist). Only Marion refuses to play this game, because of her distrust for anyone new; but Gaby explains she’s in charge of the dogs.

However, for the first time the book touches upon that feeling when a member of the group might be acting on their own agenda, secretively keeping things from the rest of the gang and possibly not working in the gang’s best interests. That suggestion of disunity and disloyalty from within the gang feels quite shocking. Gaby knows his team well enough to conclude who that person might be. “A rebellious lock of hair fell across Fernand’s half-closed eyes. He was wide awake now and could feel the injustice of nine pairs of accusing eyes turning on him. Even Marion, his beloved Marion, was cold and hostile.” But although he has been keeping a major secret from the gang, Fernand has not been working against their best interests – far from it, as it turns out at the end. Nevertheless, you feel Fernand has to work hard to regain the gang’s respect.

Also for the first time, the English title of the novel is more appropriate than the original French! The Mystery of Saint-Salgue completely sums up the entire book, as it’s not until the final pages that we discover what and where Saint-Salgue is and, even then, how its mystery will affect the gang members for the rest of their lives. La Piste du Souvenir – The Trail of Remembrance – is a very abstract title that perhaps emphasises more the journey to get to Saint-Salgue rather than the destination’s significance.

As Berna often likes to do, the book starts with a map, revealing that pretty much everywhere in this book is based on real places. La Goulaine caravan camp, where the story starts, is near Varenne-Saint-Germain, east of Moulins. Sologne is a region and Salbris is a real town between Orleans and Bourges. The village of Estivareilles exists, and although there isn’t a Chapon d’Or, there is a Lion d’Or, with a bar that looks out on to the main road, just as Berna describes. I’m sure you could recreate the journey taken by Calamity Jane the van even today. Talking of which, why are they now calling their vehicle “Calamity Jane”, when in Gaby and the New Money Fraud, they had decided to call it the “Uphill Struggle”? That’s an inconsistency that really bothers me!

There’s another aspect to this book that doesn’t feel quite right. Although the English version is by Berna’s usual translator John Buchanan-Brown, the accuracy of the English idiom doesn’t always seem up to his usual standards. For example, right at the beginning, Charley is staring at the night sky and the narration notes that his gaze falls upon the constellation Cassiope. However, in English we know that as Cassiopeia. In another example, at the beginning of the chapter “The Forest Perilous”, Berna writes: “the moonbeams slanted down to illumine the whole camp.” Illumine is the direct French word, not illuminate as it would be in English. There were a few instances where I felt the language wasn’t spot on, which is very unusual for these books. Maybe the proofreading was carried out too quickly, or Mr Buchanan-Brown didn’t have his mind on the job!

A few other thoughts came to mind whilst reading this book. Grondin’s constant attempts to stop the progress of the gang and the Canadians reminded me of Wile E Coyote’s perpetual attempts to stop the Road Runner. And I love how all Marion’s dogs have human intelligence! They’re really add-on members of the group, with Dick and Plouc in particular playing a significant role in this story. And I thought it was curious that they called the living space at the back of the van “The Bridal Suite”. That suggests an activity that otherwise is certainly not present in the interactions of the gang members, no matter how much Fernand is in love with Marion.

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

 

Chapter One – The Midnight Prowler. As Manitoban holidaymaker Charley Ricou looks out at night from his caravan at La Goulaine, he is amused at the sight of “a sort of red-painted Noah’s Ark on wobbly wheels” that has parked up next to him. The vehicle had arrived earlier that evening, with its cargo of seven boys, three girls and “eleven hairy hounds”, whom the caretaker had said couldn’t stay in the main camp site but could be housed on the sand by the river. Charley, with his wife Betty, had already met the gang that evening, where the gang members all introduced themselves to their new neighbours, and had shared a spot of supper together.

Charley had explained that he and his wife, Betty, come from Saint-Salgue in Manitoba, but it must have been named after an original French town. They want to discover the French Saint-Salgue, but where is it? The gang members are minded to accompany the couple on their quest, although no firm decisions are made. But Charley is disturbed by the appearance late at night of one Grondin, whom he and his wife had met at Houlgate. Grondin was noseying around the gang’s vehicle but didn’t steal anything. Charley is suspicious. “If you ask me he’s worked some dirty deal on those kids”, says Charley to Betty. “He must be mad. How can they worry him?” she replies. “Maybe they’re in the deal, too!” responds Charley, enigmatically.

 

Chapter Two – The Police Station at Salbris. The gang take to the road, planning a journey to the Forest of Tronçais, south of Bourges. But Bonbon has noticed something odd – the dogs are all growling at the luggage, and indeed yellow dog Dick had bitten into the side of one of the cases to reveal a transistor radio. How did it get there? Marion suggests they keep it somewhere safe and discreet and Zidore offers to look after it.

Two policemen on motorbikes roar past and signal for Gaby to stop driving. Satisfied they’ve got the right vehicle, the cops tell Gaby they’ve been ordered to escort them to the police station. Is it something to do with the transistor? They arrive in Salbris and are told to give up their ID papers. They are told that one of their neighbours at the caravan camp has had a transistor set stolen and suspect the gang. If they find the transistor while searching Calamity Jane, they’re in trouble!

Fernand and Marion watch a man leaning against a new Citroen Shooting-Brake, watching the police search with fascination. They’re convinced he’s the man who planted the transistor – but they’ve never seen him before. The police find the set – but Fernand tries to convince the police that it’s theirs. The man at the Citroen (who is indeed the accuser) tells the police the precise brand and colour of his transistor – but everyone gets a shock when the superintendent calls out “it isn’t yours […] someone’s been pulling your leg.”

Fernand gets the bright idea that the police should search the Citroen now, to see if the man actually does have his own set. The policeman agrees and gives the Citroen a major search. And, lo and behold, he finds the transistor, exactly as the man had described. The policeman is furious, insists on seeing the man’s papers, and threatens a full security check. Marion, in the meantime, requests a full apology from the man – Grondin.

It turns out that Fernand and Charley had a quick conversation that morning, where Charley said he saw Grondin place the transistor in their luggage, but afterwards Charley took it out again and put it back in Grondin’s vehicle, and then placed another transistor in their van as a present. Fernand goes on to explain that Charley isn’t just an ordinary tourist. “I think he’s backed by a lot of money as the agent of a Canadian Aid Committee that plans to buy up undeveloped land. But a horde of speculators are in the game already and his arrival threatens to upset all their plans.” But why didn’t he tell them sooner? Because Charley asked him not to.

They stop for a fantastic lunch prepared by Tatave. Steak, chips, cider; some of the gang swim “in the cool green waters of the Sauldre”; “every now and then a kingfisher would flash blue over the stream. There was not a cloud in the blue sky and the countryside sweltered in the summer heat.” Idyllic. But then as they talk after lunch about the odd behaviour of Grondin and the Canadians, none of it makes sense. What was the last thing they agreed? To meet the Canadians at Saint-Salgue. “”Well that’s what is so odd,” Fernand said with a slight smile. “I’ve been through my guide books with a toothcomb, but there just isn’t a French village of that name.””

 

Chapter Three – Zidore Carries his Cross. When they get back to Calamity Jane, they see that she has been vandalised – “Four flat tyres, cut and slashed to the rims, their luggage scattered on the grass and the windscreen smashed in pieces.” Zidore weeps in despair, Fernand is white and speechless, and Gaby gives vent to his famous anger, kicking one of Marion’s dogs, Barnaby, in the rump. The gang will have to cut corners to afford all the repair work or shorten their holiday – and no one wants to do that. They decide to jack up the van, take the wheels off and roll them into Salbris. The old lady at the nearby farm has reported seeing a man in a green car – maybe he was responsible for the damage. Once the wheels are off, Gaby stays behind with the girls and the van, and Zidore, Fernand, Tatave and Juan take the wheels into town. There they meet the police superintendent and tell him their tale of woe. He directs them to Vierzon and gives the name of someone who will be able to help them there.

Criquet goes off to play in the countryside, but he is disturbed by the arrival of a green car. The man asks to look at the red van and Criquet takes him back to the rest of the gang, who explain what happened. Marion accuses the man of being involved. But the man says  that he “saw a Citroen shooting brake emerge from this track. I knew the driver as a petty crook and I also knew that wherever he goes he is up to something underhand […]  I came upon the wreck of your van. It looked all too like his handywork to me, so I was off at top speed in the hope of catching him on the Vierzon road […] Grondin is one of the names he uses. But as far as I’m concerned the driver of the Citroen is one of Sobeco’s strong arm men”. He explains that Sobeco is a construction company that buys land and property and resells it at a profit. “At present we can’t even begin a major construction project without fear of interference from these sharks.” The man, Coppet, offers to pay for their tyres and suggests they change course and go to a camping site on the Atlantic coast for free. But Marion smells a rat and they refuse his generosity.

Shortly afterwards, a police escort brings Zidore, the boys and five freshly re-tread tyres. They put them on, return the blocks they had borrowed from the old lady, who says she has killed a couple of fowls for their dinner tonight. They decide to drive on and keep a permanent watch on the vehicle night and day – but unknown to them, Coppet follows them discreetly in his green Jaguar.

 

Chapter Four – The Forest Perilous. Camped up overnight at the Forest of Tronçais, Fernand and Juan awaken. They walk silently into the forest and agree that it was the sound of a car door shutting that woke them up. Dick the dog takes the lead in investigating where the sound came from. Eventually they see Grondin and his car talking to another man in a white Peugeot. They overheard the men’s conversation. “If those ten kids hadn’t introduced themselves one after the other I should have kept on the track of the Rambler and never given the others a thought. But the name of one of them hit me like a ton of bricks. I dashed for the telephone to check his identity. Ten minutes later I’d got it. His father was one of the people who spoiled our plans and it couldn’t have been an accident that the son was in the camp. I guessed at once he was in league with the Canadians.” It’s obvious that the men think the gang are still stuck in Salbris with an immobilised vehicle. “Anyway one day’s delay will put them out of the running in the unlikely event of their still being in the race. The day after tomorrow, between ten in the morning and midday three candles will be lit at Saint-Salgue. It’s in the bag. There’s no need to worry, the third candle will be for Sobeco.”

It’s also obvious that they’re planning for an accident to befall the Canadians, having tinkered with the brakes to send their Rambler off the top of a hill, with Charley and Betty ending up in hospital if they’re lucky. During their conversation they make it clear where the Canadians are pitched up overnight. Then the two men make elaborate plans to meet the next day at the village of Estivareilles. Grondin gets back in his car, turns on the lights and Fernand and Juan are captured like startled rabbits in the beam. Fortunately Grondin doesn’t recognise the boys and they pretend to be poaching rabbits. To add to the mayhem, Dick the dog lunges at and bites the other man, Punch. They try to catch the boys, but they escape. When they get back to the cars, they find their tyres slashed. Punch: “our expenses will cover the damage. The gang in the van have returned the compliment, and now we know where we stand with those little devils.” Curiously someone has written a Greek letter Sigma on the windscreen with their finger.

Dick signposts the way as the boys head back to camp, with the message that they have to get moving as soon as possible. The most important thing is to warn Charley and Betty before they use the brakes of the Rambler. They decide to leave the camp standing to fool their watchers into thinking that they were still asleep. But when they get to the Rond-point du Chevreuil, there’s no one there. Criquet finds a half-smoked cigarette end of the foreign brand that Charley smoked, so they must only recently have left. But which direction should they take?

 

Chapter Five – Charley Puts his Cards on the Table.  Meanwhile, Charley and Betty had started off at least an hour earlier. Charley says he was surprised not to see the gang at Tronçais, because Fernand had said they would be there. He’s concerned that they might have got into trouble with Grondin. Just as Betty starts to freewheel down a large slope, they hear the clamour of a tooting horn behind – and it’s the gang. With amazing skill, Gaby pulls in front of the Rambler, and, as the Rambler has no brake power, it quickly hits the back of Calamity Jane. Gaby slows down and goes down the gears and eventually both vehicles come to a halt at a corner. “The horse without a head gave us some nasty moments but never anything like this. Did you see the ravine? We were lucky not to power-dive a couple of hundred feet to the bottom.”

Whilst breakfast is prepared, Zidore slips under the Rambler and repairs the damage caused by Grondin, replacing the missing bolt and filling the brakes with six pints of oil. They hold a council of war to decide what to do next. Juan mentions that the men from Sobeco talked about some ceremony near Murat. “”But we’ve never had the slightest intention of heading in that direction!” Gaby protested […] “You’re a bunch of brazen liars,” Charley laughed. “Or else one of you decided to work on his own and then alter course half-way, without the rest of you. You hadn’t yet tumbled to it, but the other people had and when they did you were in real danger. As these crooks are the same bunch who have been watching and following my wife and me the obvious conclusion is that your undercover man is involved in the same business as we are.” His charge burst like a bomb.”

Charley has got it right – and Fernand confesses that his father has asked him to give a man called Mézeran, who lives in Peyrelade, some “family papers”. When Gaby mocks him, out of suppressed fury, Fernand explains how he grew up alongside his father’s sadness at not having roots in Louvigny; and Fernand feels the same. They agree to meet at the same spot – Saint-Salgue. Gaby says it doesn’t exist, but Charley replies, enigmatically:” it does exist, you know […] if you’d only tell yourselves it was the cause of all the trouble, Saint-Salgue would seem much more real.” Marion overcomes her own natural distrust to agree to meeting there, and they all agree on the route. But it’s when Charley shows Fernand a map of where to go, he notes that the name Mézeran appears on the bottom of the sketch map. “Fortunately he drooping forelock hid his expression of amazement. “Seen everything?” Charley asked him with odd emphasis. “Everything,” Fernand replied, his voice level.” Marion sends the dogs Dick and Plouc off with the Ricous to help look after them.

It’s when Grondin and Punch (real name Schutz) are having sandwiches at the Chapon d’Or that M. Coppet pulls up in his green Jaguar. Grondin recognises him as the director of Sigma. Coppet makes a call to Paris and speaks to “the Great White Chief”. It’s clear from his conversation that Ricou and Sobeco are racing for the same destination, as Ricou “is the prime mover of this scheme to adopt Saint-Salgue and nothing but philanthropy is behind it […]  as the allies of the Canadians […] these crazy youngsters are helping us, even though they don’t know it.” Coppet promises that he will be the first to reach Saint-Salgue.

 

Chapter Six – The Man from Peyrelade.  Charley, Betty, Dick and Plouc enjoy an uneventful and scenic drive south. Arriving at their destination: “To one side they could see what looked like an immense stadium, darkened by the first evening shadows. Its upper limits were ringed by the cones of extinct volcanoes smoothed or turreted by the weather; then the meadows swept down in giddying slopes to a thickly wooded plateau. Through the tree tops, they could see the tip of a mountain lake at the bottom of this huge punch-bowl.” An old man is there to greet them – Mézeran. It’s clear there is a family connection. The old man invites them to his farmhouse for some food and an overnight. But Charley says they are waiting for their friends. Instead, Mézeran gets in the Rambler with Charley and Betty, whilst the dogs remain behind, but with Charley’s gloves for scent purposes.

When the gang arrive, they are perplexed that the Rambler isn’t there. Fernand suggests it would be a good place to spend a week, but Tatave grumbles that it would be too far from buying food provisions. Marion notices Charley’s gloves and is also surprised at how silent the dogs are. They encounter an old man, who says that no one has been around for ages – but Marion knows he is lying. He introduces himself as Mézeran and asks for Fernand’s papers. But Fernand refuses, because he realises this man is an impostor! Fernand: “the old mayor is over eighty and gets about in a wheelchair. That I do know… where’s yours?” Realising he’s lost this battle, the old man walks off. “It would have been hard to have forced a confession out of the old rogue, and the gang never allowed violence except in self-defence.”

Marion gets the dogs to follow the scent of the gloves to find the Canadians. Barnaby leads off, and they follow in the van. Barnaby takes them down a deserted lane full of potholes and hairpin bends. It takes them down to a magnificent lake, but they could almost have driven in, so close is it to the road. But had someone got there first? “Ten or twelve yards from the shore the water was barely clear enough to make out the blue and white of the Rambler, but an inch or two of the caravan roof was still above the surface and bubbles of escaping air broke the water around the two submerged vehicles.”

 

Chapter Seven – The Cleverest of Them All. Earlier, Dick wasn’t in the Rambler, but could follow its scent easily. He saw it headed for the lake although couldn’t see who was driving. He yapped his distress and recognised Grondin, having jumped out of the car, watching his handiwork as the Rambert started to submerge. The man tries to chuck a stone at Dick, but the dog is too quick and attacks him, so that he ends up with a gashed cheek. Plouc joins Dick and together they watch a farm building where Grondin, Schutz and Delmas (who had been the fake Mézeran) were talking.

Charley and Betty, meanwhile, were locked in a windowless attic above the barn. Charley was furious at having been duped by Delmas. They stare through a crack between the floorboards and see Dick and Plouc watching the building. Grondin sees the dogs at the same time and takes aim with his gun – but the dogs are more than a match for him. And now, someone else appears; not Delmas, whom Charley was expecting, but another man in a smart suit. He hides in the undergrowth whilst the three conspirators return and formulate their plans.

Juan had been in the lake and had satisfied himself that there was no one in the submerged vehicles. Gaby suggests that Juan tries to unhitch the caravan and then they could drag both vehicles out of the water with the aid of Calamity Jane. Fernand joins Juan as they tie rope around the back of the caravan. Incredibly, they return the caravan to dry land, Zidore secures its brakes and tells Marion and the girls to mop it out. The car is a much harder task, but eventually they succeed in dredging it up. They decide to stay the night by the lake but to have Calamity Jane ready to go at a moment’s notice.

Meanwhile, Criquet appears to be playing with a stick in the water – but he’s not playing. “I’m measuring the water. It’s running away awful fast.” And Fernand could see that the level of the water was going down. ““Measure away, little Criquet,” Fernand murmured as he turned on his heel. “You’re really the cleverest of us all.””

Marion leaves with Juan, Zidore and Fernand. When they get to the crossroads, Marion and Zidore stay, and Juan and Fernand go on with the dogs. Eventually they near the lake and see the big wooden barn. They overhear the voices of Grondin and Schutz, and sneaking a look through the cracks of the door, see the old man who pretended to be Mézeran. As the three men bed down for the night, something soft and silky lands on the back of Fernand’s shoulders – Betty’s scarf.

 

Chapter Eight – We Belong to Saint-Salgue. Coppet watches Criquet’s fascination with the descending water level and explains that the sluice gates of the dam have opened, and the water will flood down to the River Lot and then the Garonne, the Gironde and finally the Atlantic. But this will be the last time this happens, as the next day they will blow up the big wall that kept the water in place. Berthe is not impressed, but Coppet explains: “Men can make mistakes when they undertake a major project […] They do so more often through aiming too low than from aiming too high. A little over thirty years ago when a hydro-electric company built the dam at La Douze they only expected to supply the immediate locality with light and power […]  for the last six hours the water you’ve been watching run away has poured down the gorges to swell a lake six times larger than this one was – over twenty miles long! You can get very excited about all the wonderful things being done today but it’s just as wonderful to get rid of something that’s grown useless before it’s too late.”

Whilst Coppet is charming some of the younger gang, Gaby, Marion, Fernand and Zidore get in Calamity Jane with the dogs and head off to rescue Charley and Betty. Gaby’s solution is to charge down the building with the vehicle. “The old ark’ll go through that door like a knife through butter. Your sleepers won’t have time to turn over in bed”. “Thought of yourself?” Juan murmured in the background. Gaby pulled his little checked cap down even more firmly. “Pah! I’ll only risk a bruise or two.” […] Fernand quietly remarked, “what about Calamity Jane? “Oh, she’s bound to be smashed up,” Gaby answered carelelessly, “but not really concertina-ed”. Zidore’s face went white.” Nevertheless they agree to Gaby’s plan; the walls get smashed in, the dogs attack the villains, Gaby and Zidore tool up for a fight, and Juan and Fernand rush upstairs to free the Canadians. But Charley is soft-spoken and polite to the three men, much to the furious Gaby’s annoyance, who is spoiling for a fight.

They all meet for a celebratory coffee and snacks by the lake, although Tatave points out that Coppet is still there, promising the earth. He’s going to turn the punchbowl into a holiday centre for winter skiing. But as they watch the water recede, something magical happens. The hidden village of Saint-Salgue slowly reappears. First the church spire, then the roofs, then the rest of the buildings. Will the old inhabitants be able to come back to the village? ““That depends.” Monsieur Coppet laughed. “At sunrise this morning the Central Electricity Authority will auction the village lands their predecessors acquired thirty years ago. If they want to, those who suffered compulsory purchase in 1928 can invoke a clause in that sale which guarantees them the prior right to repurchase their properties. Will they be there?  That’s the big question.”” Charley assures them that the finance will be there to afford the buy back.

Gaby reflects on their journey. Although they had intended to go on a Mediterranean beach holiday, “something stronger than the sea drew us here”. Everyone agrees. But it’s Fernand who drops the bombshell. “You’ll want to know why this particular spot rather than any other attracted you, and what holds you to this forgotten place. I’m going to tell you! It’ll come as a shock, but you’ve got to believe me, as you believed what Monsieur Coppet’s just told you […] WE ALL BELONG TO SAINT-SALGUE! […] our parents were all old inhabitants of the drowned village […] twelve left peacefully on the first notification that they had to go […] the hard core was left, young men determined to hold their hard-won land, their hopes or rather the bonds between a man and his birthplace. There were eight of them and these were their names […]Henri Babin, Paul Fabert, Lucien Joye, Maurice Loche, Baptiste Gédéon, Patrice Lourvrier, Constant Douin (my own father) and Django Lespagnol, a gipsy who had settled in the village […] the eight swore they’d stick together. A few days later the train which took them into exile deposited them in a gloomy Parisian suburb.” But Criquet Lariqué feels left out because his parents were not one of the eight. Gaby assures him that Mézeran will make him an honorary citizen of Saint-Salgue.

The auction ceremony takes place – and there’s only one bidder! Charley hands over his cheque, and Saint-Salgue is restored to its former inhabitants. Criquet receives the Freedom of the City. Fernand has just one task left; to find the house that his father lived in and see if an old watch is still hanging in the place where he left it. It is. It needs very careful cleaning, but it could be restored to life. They’ll need to pretend to M. Douin that it instantly went like a dream. “Fernand hesitated. “I’ve never told him a lie in my life.” He sighed and stared at his feet. “Just this once you can, “ said Marion. “He won’t be taken in, but he’ll smile like he used to do and the road to Saint-Salgue will open in front of him once again.””

 

The Clue of the Black CatTo sum up; this is definitely the end of the road for Gaby and his gang. Over the course of four books, we’ve seen them grow from playing in poverty-stricken streets with the horse without a head (which gets a name check in this book), through to owning a vehicle and taking it on holidays. The mystery of Saint-Salgue ends with the suggestion that the future is rosy for these characters; Berna has engineered it so that they will always remain friends, and indeed live in the same environment, although it may not necessarily be Louvigny! It’s an enjoyable and action-packed read; its unusual end might feel far-fetched or just a huge reward for the way they’ve entertained us over the years. If you’ve read the book – or are re-reading it now, I’d love to know what you think about it, so please add a comment below. Next up in the Paul Berna Challenge is something special. His next book was Le Témoignage du chat noir, translated into English as The Clue of the Black Cat. Not only is this my favourite Paul Berna book, but it’s also probably my favourite children’s story of all time, and I can’t wait to re-read it and share my thoughts about it in a few weeks.