The Paul Berna Challenge – The Knights of King Midas (1958)

The Knights of King MidasIn which we meet Charloun and his gang, who try to raise money in any way they can to support elderly people who had lost their homes in a fire; and at the same time become a thorn in the flesh of the greedy Town Clerk Monsieur Amoretti!

The Knights of King Midas was first published in 1958 by G. P. Rouge et Or under its original French title Millionnaires en herbe, which translates literally as Millionaires in Grass, with illustrations by Brian Wildsmith. Wildsmith is considered one of the great children’s books Illustrators, winning the 1962 Kate Greenaway Award for British Children’s Book Illustration; he lived from 1930 to 2016. As “The Knights of King Midas”, the book was first published in the UK by The Bodley Head in 1961, and by Puffin Books in 1964. Like the previous Puffin editions, it was translated by John Buchanan-Brown. My own copy of the book is the first Puffin edition, printed in 1964, bearing the price 3/6.

In the first two books we met Gaby and his gang; and in Magpie Corner we met Frederick; older, and more of a loner. The Knights of King Midas introduces us to another bunch of French ragamuffins, Charloun and his gang, living in the more glamorous town of Port-Biou, set in the French Riviera; Berna gently mocks the children’s Provençal accents when he notes they pronounce Coucoulin’s name as Coucouleeen. There is no such place as Port-Biou but it obviously borrows from Port-Bou on the Pyrenean coast; at one stage Berna places it as between Marseilles and Menton, and he also points out that fish caught at Port-Biou are sent to the hotels of Bandol and Sanary, two coastal resorts between Marseilles and Toulon.

Whereas Berna’s earlier books were set against either the grim and poverty-stricken Louvigny, or the manual labour of a petrol station, this book opens with a bucolic theme – stag-hunting; although that’s no less hard work, and provides an excuse for the gang to rush about noisily imitating hounds. But this rural environment feels much more positive than his previous urban settings. At first, the children’s apparent bloodlust about the stag seems cruel to our modern eyes (but then, children are cruel!) with the enjoyment of cornering the animal (“the brute”) and endangering its life (“he’s making straight for the rocks on the Pointe. What a joke if he goes over the edge!”) But once we realise they’re trailing a donkey, and have been for the past ten months, and they always make sure the donkey is safe and unharmed after their games, suddenly they seem much more childlike and playful.

There are eleven members in Charloun’s gang, plus the twelfth; unseen, in the form of the famous Mistral wind, that occasionally helps them. It’s a sign of the times that the children can take advantage of the countryside setting to decorate their boat with wildflowers picked from an island. Today, of course, that would be totally unacceptable – we’re always told not to pick the flowers! But in 1958 things were different, and there was no shortage of wildflowers. The open-air countryside aspect of this book extends out into the water too. The third chapter contains a thrilling but also strangely restful description of a fishing trip out in a boat, the boys relaxing on board until a fish bites then it’s full activity until it’s caught.

There is an fascinating portrayal of the rough (although loving) corporal punishment handed out in those days. For example, we see Amoretti attempt to kick Charloun in the seat of his pants. Wouldn’t be allowed today, of course! When she saw his dirty shorts, Angel’s mother “rewarded his carelessness with a sound slap”. Such was parenting in the late 50s. Mlle Blanc is fond of her schoolchildren and exercises her discipline in more subtle ways. Berna describes the gang thus: “the eleven of them shared a birthright which meant more in her [Mlle Blanc’s] eyes than all the virtues – whatever happened, they were never bored.”

As usual, Berna gets to the heart of what it’s like to be a member of a gang. Mlle Blanc understands that for the gang to bond together firmly, they need to have an enemy. It had been Piston the donkey – it was to become Amoretti. In this book we also see what it’s like to be on the outside of a gang: “Mademoiselle Blanc was only sorry to see how closed Charloun and his friends kept their small circle. Doudou had been expelled for cowardice two months before and they had kept their number at the awkward figure of eleven. Mademoiselle Blanc had a twelfth up her sleeve – Philippe Vial, who was bored to death because no one would have anything to do with him.” It’s a class-based decision to exclude him from their gang; he’s seen as a posh Parisian, a firm outsider, and they want nothing to do with him.

There’s also a horrendous undercurrent of sexism; when the gang decide which six of their number will be part of the Blue Danube crew, they choose “the two prettiest girls”. Ah well – as Maurice Chevalier would have said, thank heavens for little girls. When Charloun is considering which members of the gang have contributed the most towards acquiring the funds, he doesn’t count the girls. “The girls had had bright ideas and they had helped in a thousand different ways, but they were not so free as the boys to pull off the big bits of business and so that sort of thing could not be expected of them.”

Nevertheless, this is a charming book of true altruism. The children use their skills as gang members, both collectively and individually, to raise as much money as they can in order to help people less fortunate than themselves. None of them holds back, none keeps their resources to themself, none puts their own fortune above the others. As Philippe’s grandfather lawyer observes: “the children concerned combine healthy common sense with a lunatic logic. They’ve understood that you should never take anything, or give anything, without putting in a little of the small change of life which no one can see but which gives things their real worth – loving kindness.”

By so doing, they also defeat Amoretti, a somewhat pantomime villain character, who embodies greed and bullying. Like Gaby’s gang in the first two books, this is a gang that you, the reader, would really like to join. All the way through, the children benefit from the kindness and the wisdom of Mademoiselle Blanc, who subtly guides them to success, and who, too, is a beneficiary of the children’s experiences, appreciating their generosity and joining in with their innocent happiness, which you sense will nourish both her and them in the years to come.

As usual, Berna – through his translator – can sometimes come up with some beautiful lines. I loved the description of the sea at the beginning of Chapter Three, where Pastourelle and Cadusse are fondly and reflectively looking out at the water. “In the distance, the sleepy sea was streaked with glittering points of light that slowly snaked its surface as the current moved them. At regular intervals a gentle swell would lift the fifty boats moored to the jetty and would die away with a cool plop against the harbour wall.” It’s a description that appeals both to your sight and your hearing.

In Berna’s first two books, poverty was tangible in both the gang and their local environment. In Magpie Corner, there was much more money around, but it was derived from hard work and crime. In The Knights of King Midas, things are much more relaxed. “Port-Biou was paradise enough, and, rich or poor, the children did not worry about money”. The Vial family are particularly comfortable and well-off, and fortunately, innately generous. The local traders are happy to pay for a good fish supply, for example; the regatta, the quiz show, the scrap merchant are all wealthy sources that the children can easily tap into. Perhaps this level of creature comfort – albeit that some of the parents have to scrimp and save to get by – enables the children to be altruistic and generous. They don’t need the resources for themselves. This book also has less micky-taking, name-calling, cruel nicknaming than Berna’s earlier works. If there was one attribute that marks this book out, it’s probably simple kindness.

As in all of Berna’s books that we’ve looked at so far, the memory of the Second World War still lingers on in the environment. When Angel gets a dirty bottom from sitting on his stone on the beach, the dirt turns out to be rust because his stone is the top of a 12-ton cupola from the wrecked USS Massachusetts, bombarded on the day of the Allied Landings.

For a book with a number of subtle nuances – for example, the suggestion of a growing relationship between Philippe and Miqué, which Charloun simply can’t see, and which is never further touched on – there are admittedly some very clunky plot developments, no more extraordinary than Philippe’s unexpected success on a TV quiz show – although Angel’s discovery of valuable wreckage on a beach also takes the biscuit. Perhaps you have to suspend disbelief in this book more than in Berna’s previous books; but it’s written in such a winning style that you’re prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt all the way through.

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!

Big GameChapter One – Big Game. Berna introduces us to the gang. Charloun, Rigolo and Miqué are going off to follow the stag; en route they meet Norine, Angel, Titin, Sandrine and Frisquet. Rouqui, Coucoulin and Rosette are missing, but Charloun expects they will join them on the stag hunt. The younger members pretend to be hounds, barking excitedly, whilst Charloun takes charge with his hunting horn, calling the pack to order. It soon emerges that it’s not a stag they’re hunting, but Piston the donkey.

Having lost the trail, a twelve-year-old boy emerges from the pinewood where the gang had located Piston. He wanders over to where Piston was standing munching a branch of wood and starts talking to the donkey. At that moment, the Mistral howls up the road and frightens Piston, so that he charges at the boy; but the boy is too quick and makes his escape. The noise this produced alerts Miqué and her make-believe hounds to resume the hunt.

But events get the better of them. Coucoulin notices a trickle of grey smoke come puffing out from the bushes. Boldly, Rigolo, Sandrine and Rouqui join him to beat out the fire with their cudgels but it’s too much for them. Charloun gives the order to “run to the shanties” and “warn the Mohicans”, but they’re too late. The fire had already engulfed the first shanty, the Pastourelles’, and all the shanty residents had rushed outside with a few possessions, trying to put out the flames with a small supply of water – and the children help in this endeavour.

Eventually three firemen arrive from Port-Biou but there isn’t much left for them to save. Unfortunately, town clerk Monsieur Amoretti overhears Madame Escoffier, one of the shanty residents, accuse the children of having caused the fire by their games. Amoretti cuffs Charloun in punishment. But it’s Miqué who realises the seriousness of this accusation and runs off to tell Mademoiselle Blanc, the schoolmistress; and the two of them go off to tackle Amoretti.

Mohican's EncampmentChapter Two – The Mohicans’ Encampment. On her arrival Mlle Blanc wastes no time in establishing the innocence of the children, and accuses Amoretti of making up the story about the children causing the fire – she tells him that if he won’t stop accusing the children, she’ll accuse him in public – which would be believed because he’s always wanted to get rid of the shanty houses, home to the Mohicans – so called, because it sounds like La Mouilllecanne, the name of a little reeded-up local estuary. The firemen go into the burnt-out forest but there’s no sign of Piston, dead or alive. Charloun wants to give Amoretti a piece of his mind but Mlle Blanc talks him out of it.

Fifteen elderly people, now homeless, gather outside the Escoffiers’ cottage – the one house not destroyed. Amoretti pretends to be sympathetic – although for years there had been interest in converting the land to a holiday park or to preserve the fishing village. M. Cardusse blames Amoretti and the council for not clearing the land properly – they were powerless to protect it against the fierce Mistral. Their only hope is temporary accommodation at the schoolhouse until Casteran, the builder, can construct something for them. Charloun suspects there’ll be a back-hander in it for Amoretti.

Charloun discovers that Miqué thought she saw an additional person in the forest – presumably the boy described in the first chapter. But that’s nothing to worry about now – the main thing is for them to do all they can to help the Mohicans. Charloun orders everyone to empty their pockets – and between them they can muster five hundred and sixty francs, “barely enough to buy a small joint of beef! How much poorer can you get!” sighs Charloun. But what’s his plan? To support the Mohicans in a financial fight against Amoretti and the Council – even though many of the gang didn’t really believe they could achieve anything.

And we learn about Philippe Vial – a boy at school who’s clearly not a gang member, and is undoubtedly the boy who was also lurking in the forest when the fire started. He’s been ostracised because he is a posh outsider from Paris, and not very talkative. His mother tells him that the Mohicans’ land is ripe for development. “Philippe was appalled. He did not grasp it at all, but the fire, which had started by being rather a joke, now swelled to the size of a disaster.” Does that mean Philippe started the fire?

As the family walk around the shanties, which have been haphazardly re-erected with the help of some kindly folk, Monsieur Vial explains the history of the encampment, how it was let on a peppercorn rent, but how it’s now much more valuable and a grand hotel – The Residence, Port-Biou – has already been designed – by M. Vial himself. Amoretti and the Council will be ready to pounce. As Philippe discovers more and more how vulnerable the pensioners now are, he becomes very quiet and guiltily furtive.

Rouqui's BouillabaisseChapter Three – Rouqui’s Bouillabaisse. Pastourelle and Cadusse gaze out across the sea and regret that they may have to move away – they’ll miss this fantastic sight. Rouqui and Frisquet ask Pastourelle if they can take his boat – the Lion des Mers – out into the water to catch some fish. At first it looked as though they wouldn’t be lucky, but then the boys landed a bass, “a luxury piece” according to Rouqui. More fish are caught – perch, wrasse, dorado, even a sea-scorpion. All the ingredients for a perfect bouillabaisse.

Meanwhile Charloun and other gang members stage a public conversation, alerting eavesdroppers to the fact that there would be a splendid bouillabaisse at the Admiral hotel tonight. It has the desired effect; several unexpected table bookings result in the chef panicking. Lo and behold, Rouqui and Frisquet turn up at the hotel with two baskets of freshly caught fish and a demand for 5,000 francs. The chef reluctantly agrees this high price, and the boys are ecstatic. That’s the first lot of money to donate to the Mohicans.

7,850 francs is the total for the day; however, it’s a long way from the million francs that Charloun has worked out is needed to save the Mohicans from the workhouse. Coucoulin carelessly confesses that he has a valuable stamp in his collection – worth 80,000 francs. Sell it! cry the gang members but Coucoulin has other ideas.

Amoretti is unnerved by the sight of the gang, walking near the shanties. Could they ruin his plan to acquire the land?

The British Guiana Two Cents GreenChapter Four – The British Guiana Two Cents, Green. Mlle Blanc is impressed with the children’s efforts to raise a million francs, although she cannot believe they will achieve it. Poor Coucoulin has become the target of a series of mental bullying tactics to try to get him to sell the stamp; but he’s as obstinate as Piston. However, when his sister prays that he sells the stamp, he gives in, saying that he will use the proceeds to buy real estate.

Coucoulin offers the stamp to M. Bodin, the dealer. He’s very impressed with the stamp and offers him the choice of 90,000 francs for it, or exchanging it for 120,000 francs worth of other stamps – even 130,000 francs’ worth. A very generous offer that stops Coucoulin in his tracks. But Coucoulin insists on the cash, and just as Bodin is slowly counting it out, Coucoulin’s grandfather, Toussaint, takes the cash from under his nose. Hysterical, Coucoulin shames Toussaint into giving him back the money.

True to his word, Coucoulin brings the money to Charloun and the rest of the gang, who celebrate wildly. With so much cash now collected, the gang decide to take turns to guard it carefully. Frisquet suggests that they give themselves a name – and they go with Coucoulin’s suggestion of the Order of the Knights of King Midas – owing to the gang’s golden touch.

The chapter ends with a dramatic confrontation between Miqué and Philippe; her virtually accusing him of starting the fire, him neither denying nor admitting it, but suspecting that it would be through Miqué that he might become accepted by the gang.

Gondoliers of the Blue DanubeChapter Five – The Gondoliers of the Blue Danube.  News of the Order started to spread like wildfire, and quickly Charloun and the gang members were teased by the adults of Port-Biou as Knights and Millionaires. Their next plan was to win the prize in regatta race in Bandol, and Charloun gave the Yacht Club Commodore the crew name, The Gondoliers of the Blue Danube. However, M. Pastourelle won’t lend the gang the use of his rowing boat – the distance is too far and the whole project is too dangerous.

However, Rigolo’s father is the local boat-builder, and knows of a few ownerless craft that the gang could use. All that was left was for them to find gondoliers’ costumes and to make the Saint-Anatole boat presentable. But the gang couldn’t compete with the rich boat owners of Bandol. Mlle Blanc suggests they decorate the boat with flowers – picked by their own hands. So Rouqui and Frisquet take the Lion des Mers out to the Ile de Biou and discover plenty of beautiful blue delphiniums that will recreate the “Blue Danube” look.

Charloun and Rigolo were to be navigator and engineer, together with the two prettiest girls, Miqué and Sandrine, and the two youngest gang members, Norine and Angel. First the boys constructed some wooden shapes to fix to the boat so that it looks like a gondola. The others decide to pick the flowers at the very last moment so that they look as fresh as possible. They get a great haul late at night, and Miqué spends the whole time silently gazing and reflecting. “I’ll never ever see anything so lovely” she sighs; and Charloun misunderstands her because he is a boy without a developed sense of empathy.

Mlle Blanc is accompanied by Philippe Vial as they watch the blue boat coasting into place. With the crew members dressed in white, the boat is a true picture. And despite stiff competition from more luxury and richly appointed craft, the 100,000 francs prize was awarded to the Gondoliers. No one can believe it, least of all the children. And as the Saint-Anatole journeyed back to Port-Biou, the sea became awash with blue delphiniums.

Troubadours of Queen JoanChapter Six – The Troubadours of Queen Joan.  As Amoretti was reading about the children’s success in the local newspaper, Mlle Blanc had cashed the 100,000 franc cheque and had given the cash to the children. The bag that contains the loot is getting bigger all the time, and she warns them about keeping the money like that, but having a growing pile of cash is all part of the fun for the children. Amoretti wants to find out how the children are spending the money but he can’t find anything out; but the children learn that they must be careful with the money.

Meanwhile Mlle Blanc is still encouraging the gang members to allow Philippe to join them. He’d be an asset, she is sure; and would help to bring more money into the fund. Miqué alone had seen him at the site of the fire, and had never breathed a word to anyone. But now she saw the time was right to question him: ““First tell me who set fire to the pine wood”, she said abruptly, “and then we’ll see.” Philippe took his chance, while he had it. With Mademoiselle Blanc to back him up he was sure he could win her over. “I’d like to. But promise to keep it to yourself. No one will believe it but…” “All right.” Philippe put a friendly arm around Miqué’s shoulder and whispered something in her ear. Mademoiselle Blanc looked away. A broad grin spread slowly over Miqué’s face. She was thirteen, Philippe a few months older, and it was natural that she should see the funny side even of a disaster. When Philippe finished, she was doubled up with laughter that brought tears to her eyes.””

Philippe tells Miqué that a film company is making a movie in nearby La Cadière and are looking for extras – they need a boy and they pay well. Quick as a flash Miqué rushes off to tell the others. Rigolo cycles off to get the advert and the gang realise the best person for the job is Titin. Titin’s not so sure though, especially as the advert describes the role as donkey boy. Nevertheless, the next morning Titin approaches Piston’s owner, M. Mazet, to ask if he can borrow his donkey. Mazet has no objections – but Piston probably won’t like it. However, Titin treats Piston so gently that the donkey obliges him with a gentle obedience, and much to M. Mazet’s surprise, Piston walks to La Cadière with Titin on his back.

Just before their destination they chance upon a huge number of donkeys and boys, all hoping to be chosen for the role. Piston doesn’t like that one bit and charges into the crowd, demanding that the rest of the pay attention to him. The director is instantly taken with Titin and Piston and gives them the role. Titin delivers his words perfectly, but just before the actress playing the Queen can reply, Piston lets out a mighty bray and everyone falls apart laughing – except the Queen, who is furious at being upstaged by a donkey. But the scene works, the writer writes the braying into his script and the Queen has to take her cue from Piston. The scene takes three days to shoot and Titin is paid 2875 francs an hour – 70,000 francs in all.

The Treasure VanishesChapter Seven – The Treasure Vanishes. On a lovely day, Rouqui is catching fish, and Sandrine and Miqué are chatting with Mlle Blanc. Miqué is looking after the money, and her bag, which is blue, contains 295,000 francs. When Charloun tallies up the income for the day – only 800 francs – he asks Miqué for the bag so he can add the new cash to the rest. But, horror of horrors, the girl realises she has left her bag somewhere. Devastated, she bursts into tears. Charloun is furious. He jumps on Rigolo’s bike and heads towards the bench in front of the Café Vieux which is where she must have left it. He returns, dejected, without the money. The bag wasn’t there and M. Vieux had seen nothing.

The children split up to hunt for the bag – but no luck. Charloun thinks their only hope is that someone has taken the bag to lost property at the town hall – but that would alert Amoretti and that could be disastrous. Angel goes off to ask. Strangely, Miqué seems calm – with almost a smile on her lips. When Angel gets to the lost property office he’s deliberately vague but Amoretti is highly suspicious – if there’s money in the bag, there is an implication that Angel must have stolen it. But they go through every blue item in the lost property office and Angel insists that it isn’t any of them. Once Angel has gone, Amoretti gives orders to the local policeman Garidan and Cucq to search the village for a blue bag. He wants to get to the money first.

However, to the rescue comes Philippe. Despite being told in no uncertain terms that he wasn’t welcome, he reveals that he found the bag and couldn’t let anyone know about it earlier because his family had visitors and he couldn’t leave. He hadn’t touched a penny of the contents – and the gang members are enormously relieved! But what are they to do about Philippe? Should he now become a gang member? They put it to a vote – and it’s almost unanimous that he should join. And, after allowing them to waste a lot of time, they let the two policemen know that the missing bag has been found – but not without some teasing!

Big BusinessChapter Eight – Big Business. The gang realise that their growing wealth has relied on some lucky breaks. Where will the next lucky break come from? One day Angel wore his best clean white shorts, and when he got home, the seat was absolutely filthy – enough for his mother to give him a slap (wouldn’t be allowed today!) The next time he wears those shorts, they’re covered with rust stains again – and this time she “smacked him on the spot”. Mme Despardieu complains to Charloun but he can’t understand how Angel is getting his shorts dirty.

Charloun and Rigolo determine to get to the bottom of the cause; and they quickly discover that it’s because Angel sits on a particular stone outside the emplacement where the gang usually meet. Rigolo investigates the stone further and discovers something potentially precious. They cover the stone with sand and the next day ask Mlle Blanc for some advice. She thinks they might have a right to ownership, but it needs to be discussed with the Harbour Board – and Rigolo’s father used to work for them at the time of the invasion. Investigations continue; M. Cabbasole and Mlle Blanc engage a lawyer to draw up a legal statement.

Charloun and Rigolo were nowhere to be seen during the Bastille Day celebrations; but just as Amoretti was congratulating himself on a nice profit from the firework display, the boys surprise him with possible information about a treasure trove. Only enough information to infuriate him of course! With Cucq on their trail, they return to dangle more information in front of Amoretti – and then turn and flee at the last moment.

Finally they tell Amoretti what they have discovered – the twelve ton steel cupola salvaged from the USS Massachusetts bombarded by the Germans on the day of the Allied Landings. Amoretti is determined that he should not have to share the value with the children – but they’ve already instructed the scrap merchant Cabassole to act for them. And their share of the loot turns out to be 405,000 francs. Charloun concludes that they have ten days left to raise 300,000 francs – and it’s only Philippe who hasn’t pulled his weight yet.

Back coverChapter Nine – Double and Quits.  The days march on, and the gang continue to raise what money they can from odd jobs, fishing and the like. They target their efforts on a grand jumble sale but, although it raises 30,000 francs, it’s not enough. At 250,000 francs short, Miqué has the bright idea to approach the contractor to see if they can knock something off the quotation for the work.

Meanwhile, much to everyone’s surprise, Philippe turns up – on a TV quiz show! And the top prize is – a million francs. The gang all watch as one by one all Philippe’s opponents are eliminated, owing to his extraordinary general knowledge and maths ability. He wins 512,000 francs – and then is asked if he’s like to double it to 1,024,000. The gang is on tenterhooks whilst he decides – and he chooses to double! But Philippe doesn’t let them down – and is the proud winner of over a million francs.

Sprung up like MushroomsChapter Ten – Sprung up like Mushrooms. The gang arrive at M. Casteran’s office with all the money to instruct Casteran to build the properties for the Mohicans to move into. But he cannot do it until the end of August – and this is not quick enough to save the Mohicans from the meanness of Amoretti. However, he is moved by little Norine’s gift of three francs and does his best to order the immediate construction of bungalows for the Mohicans.

At 8pm Casteran’s men move in to start the construction work. Pastourelle can’t fathom how they were instructed or who’s going to pay for it. Casteran tells them it’s being taken care of; and only then do the gang fully appreciate the extent of their achievement. Overnight all the new bungalows are erected, and the Mohicans are free to move into their new accommodation.

But no one tells Amoretti! He wakes up the next morning, thrilled that he will finally be able to take possession of the Mohicans’ land. Arriving with his policemen in tow, he cannot believe his eyes when he gets there. Left looking both foolish and tricked, Amoretti’s plans have come to nothing.

The spare money from the fund is divided out among the Mohicans, save for a little reserve that Mlle Blanc uses to host a huge celebratory meal and party. And Philippe is able to reveal the identity of who it was that started the fire – Piston! He had stolen a charred branch from a bonfire that some locals had used to cook fish – and he had walked it back in his mouth and the burning end had set light to the shanties.

The book ends with Mlle Blanc in a reflective mood. “Her joy was tinged with sadness. Charloun, mad as he was, had held to his word and had won through; now it was all over so soon! As Miqué had said one evening not long ago, “I shall never, ever see anything so lovely.” In those simple words she had given expression to the everlasting discontent of those who seek perfection, the wish of children who live their golden age and want the world to return to it. “No!” Mademoiselle Blanc told herself. “Never have regrets. These happy times will always live in their memories and be there to cheer them, even when life is at its darkest.”

Mystery of the Cross Eyed ManTo sum up; The Knights of King Midas is full of kindness, generosity, understanding and compassion; but the opposition embodied by the character of Amoretti is rather unsubtle and two-dimensional. Despite its occasional faults it’s a very enjoyable read with a big feelgood factor; and there are some amusing insights into practices that are no longer acceptable – hitting your children and discriminating against girls come to mind! If you’ve read the book – or are re-reading it now, I’d love to know what you think about it, so please add a comment below. Paul Berna’s next book was Les Pèlerins de Chiberta, which wasn’t translated until seven years later in 1965, as The Mystery of the Cross-Eyed Man, but as we’re taking Berna’s books in the order he wrote them, rather than the year they were published in English, we’ll take that book next. I look forward to re-reading it and sharing my thoughts about it in a few weeks.

The Agatha Christie Challenge – After the Funeral (1953)

After The FuneralIn which diligent family solicitor, Mr Entwhistle, enlists the help of his friend Hercule Poirot to get to the bottom of the death of one of the late Richard Abernethie’s relatives shortly after the family meet to attend Abernethie’s funeral. Who killed the relative, and was Abernethie’s death murder too? After Entwhistle does the initial groundwork it is up to Poirot to assist Inspector Morton in solving whatever crimes have been committed. As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I promise not to reveal whodunit!

AbneyThe book is dedicated “For James, in memory of happy days at Abney”. The James in question was Christie’s brother-in-law James Watts, who had married her sister Madge. Abney was the Gothic Victorian house where they lived, and on which Enderby Hall, the home of the Abernethie family in this book, is clearly based. After the Funeral was first published in the US in forty-seven parts in Chicago Tribune magazine, between January and March 1953. In the UK, the novel was first serialised in the weekly magazine John Bull in seven abridged instalments from 21 March to 2 May 1953. The full book was first published in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company in March 1953 under the title Funerals are Fatal, and in the UK by Collins Crime Club on 18th May 1953.

Margaret RutherfordLike They do it with Mirrors before it, After the Funeral was used as the basis for a Margaret Rutherford Miss Marple film, this time Murder at the Gallop, but Poirot is replaced by Marple, and although there are some similarities between the two stories, there are also a large number of differences. However, the identity of the murderer is largely the same in the film as in the book, so reading the book might spoil the film for you (and vice versa). And it would be a shame to have this book spoilt, because it’s an absolute cracker, that starts relatively quietly but builds up an incredible pace to create a genuine page-turner. Christie uses the device of short mini-chapters within longer overall chapters to build up suspense and excitement. And as for the identity of the murderer, well I hadn’t the faintest idea and the story preserves their anonymity right up to the end of the denouement. What’s frustrating – and incredibly clever – is that you know the reappearance of nuns making charitable collections is a clue – but your brain can’t quite join all the links and tell you exactly why it’s a clue, and to whom the clue directs you (or should do!)

Big mealThe character of Poirot has been pretty well established by Christie over the years, and there are few surprises in our understanding of how he operates in this book. When Entwhistle first approaches him he won’t discuss the case at all until they have demolished a splendid repast – tummy always comes first with Poirot. His vanity, as always, knows no bounds: “I am in my own line a celebrated person – I may say a most celebrated person. My gifts, in fact, are unequalled!” Perhaps one unexpected observation from the great man was his assertion that “women are never kind […] though they can sometimes be tender”. Makes me think that Poirot never met the right woman.

SolicitorThere are two other significant people in this book; Entwhistle, whose curiosity and sense of family duty encourage him to act as an amateur sleuth in the early parts of the book, and Inspector Morton of the local constabulary, brought in to solve the crime. The first chapter, to be fair, is seen from the perspective of Lanscombe, the faithful Abernethie retainer who’s seen them all come and go over the years. After a few pages he hands the perspective over to Entwhistle, who, after a nicely prompt opening murder, and after being encouraged to take an active role in sorting out the initial investigations by Morton, takes it on himself to visit all the family members. Entwhistle is very much in charge of operations for the first seventy-odd pages, and you do wonder exactly why he’s throwing himself into the investigation quite so fully. Morton himself is another relatively understated fellow. Christie describes him as “a quiet middle-aged man with a soft country burr in his voice. His manner was quiet and unhurried, but his eyes were shrewd”. To be fair he never really becomes interesting.

private detectiveThis was also the second appearance of the private detective Mr Goby, whom we met in The Mystery of the Blue Train and who will come back in Third Girl. Christie says of Goby that he was “small and spare and shrunken. He had always been refreshingly nondescript in appearance and he was now so nondescript as practically not to be there at all.” Poirot has a lot of time for Goby’s skills, and he’s not known for prizing others’ achievements and abilities, so we can assume that he’s very good at his job.

Clement_AttleeAs well as unravelling a fascinating crime story, Christie also adds many moments of social commentary. As always, she weighs up the good old days with today’s post-war weariness and finds in favour of the past. She admires tradition, distrusts the labour party, has little time for either the lower classes or people with mental health problems, and as for the modern police, well…! I’ll look a bit closer at all of those later in this post. But you do get a big sense of regret for the old days passing. This will turn out to be the last time Christie creates a splendidly old-fashioned butler, for example. Grand old family estates are being broken up, modern houses are featureless and ugly, and life isn’t what it should be. The character of Miss Gilchrist embodies this, with her hankering after the good old times of running a tea shop; her attitude reminded me very much of Chekhov’s Three Sisters, for whom life could be great again if only they could get back to Moscow. You sense many people involved in this story have their own private Moscows.

BrixhamLet’s have our usual look at some of the references in this book, starting with the locations. Usually Christie weaves an elaborate web of fictitious places that clearly, or maybe not quite so clearly, relate to real-life equivalents. However, in After the Funeral, this policy seems to have gone out of the window. Cora Lansquenet is seen in the buffet at Swindon, Miss Gilchrist takes the bus to Reading, George Crossfield goes betting at Hurst Park Racecourse (in West Molesey, Surrey, which closed in 1962), and Miss Gilchrist’s gallery of pictures are of Brixham, Cockington Forge, Anstey’s Cove, Kynance Cove, and Babbacombe – although Polflexan is made up, I think. Poirot sends Entwhistle by train to Bury St Edmunds, and Miss Gilchrist dreams of opening up a teashop in Rye or Chichester. Only the central location of Lytchett St Mary, which Christie asserts is in Berkshire, is fictitious – even then, it takes its name from St Mary’s Church in Lytchett Matravers, the Dorset village –  and the made-up neighbouring town of Market Keynes, which nicely combines the original village location of Milton Keynes with Maynard Keynes’ philosophies of the Economy.

Lizzie BordenThere are only a handful or other references to mention. Entwhistle makes an ironic mention – quoting the infamous rhyme of the time – of Lizzie Borden, who was tried and acquitted of the axe murders of her father and stepmother in Massachusetts in 1892. In a paragraph where he reflects on other famous murderers, Christie refers to Seddon, Smith and Rowse, Armstrong, Edith Thompson and Nurse Waddington. Frederick Seddon was hanged in 1912 for the arsenic poisoning murder of his lodger Eliza Mary Barrow, Rowse Armstrong was a solicitor who murdered his wife and attempted to murder a professional rival (hanged 1922) – and also quoted in Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?, Edith Thompson was also discussed in Mrs McGinty’s Dead, Nurse Dorothea Waddington was hanged in 1938 for the poisoning by morphine of nursing home patients for the inheritance, and Smith was probably George Joseph Smith, also mentioned in Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?, hanged in 1915. What a gruesome lot!

CortonI’m familiar with a Pouilly Fuisse such as imbibed by Poirot and Entwhistle on their gorgeous feast before discussing the case, but they also drank a Corton which was new to me. My ignorance! It’s a Cote de Beaune from the Burgundy district of France. My bad. The other interesting reference is to the fact that George Crossfield was a member of OUDS. In fact, so was I. It’s the Oxford University Dramatic Society. But you knew that already. There’s also a reference to Lord Edgware Dies – Poirot admits to having been “nearly defeated” – and a Pangbourne case, but I’m not sure to what Inspector Morton is referring there.

PoundRegular readers will know that I like to consider any significant sums of money in Christie’s books and work out what their value would be today, just to get a feel of the range of sums that we’re looking at. There are a few sums mentioned in this book, mostly of (relatively) low value for a Christie. Cora is delighted to discover that she will have an income of £3000-4000 a year, which today would be the equivalent of £58,000 – £78,000, which is perfectly reasonable; considering she is said to have just £500 in the bank, which is £9760 at today’s rate. Crossfield won £50 at the races – the equivalent of £976. According to the nun collecting for charity, most people gave between 2/6 and 5/-, which today would be roughly £2.50-£4.50, and the lavish £1 tip that Poirot gives the telegram boy would be worth about £20 today. No wonder he was dumbfounded!

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

Publication Details: 1953. My copy is a Fontana paperback, eighth impression, dated November 1969, with a price of 4/- (20p) on the back cover. The cover illustration by Tom Adams shows a concerned-looking nun and a bloody axe beneath a glass dome, with an illustration of a harbour in the background. That covers a number of clues!

How many pages until the first death: 19 – unless you count Richard Abernethie who dies before the book starts. Thus you don’t have to wait too long before your home-sleuthing act has to get into gear.

Funny lines out of context: two, both of which play on a more modern meaning of an otherwise straightforward word.

Wondering whether George Crossfield has a criminal streak in him: “Had he felt instinctively, as Mr Entwhistle felt, that George was not straight?”

And Timothy puts it to him more bluntly: “he suspected you of not being straight, didn’t he?”

Memorable characters:

The characterisations are, again, perhaps not the strong point of this book. There are a couple of exceptions: I did like the polite interferences of Entwhistle, who’s a well-drawn and interesting character in his own right. And the gruff grumpiness of the hypochondriac and hypocritical Timothy also makes for an entertaining read. Christie starts the book with a family tree and it’s very useful for reference as the book develops because I found it hard to distinguish some of the less interesting characters.

Christie the Poison expert:

Entwhistle gets involved in quite a complicated discussion with Dr Larraby regarding the possible causes for Abernethie’s death, where Larraby affirms that if it wasn’t due to natural causes, “some kind of narcotic would be indicated. There was no sign of cyanosis” – which is the bluish tint to the skin that can be caused by a drug overdose, like heroin, but for sure the condition is also associated with cyanide. Abernethie’s vitamin supplements contained adexoline – today normally referred to as adexolin – but this is not considered in any way a dangerous drug.

There is a dose of arsenic that laces a slice of wedding cake, but I’ll say no more of that incident as I don’t want to spoil any surprises for you!

Class/social issues of the time:

There’s quite a lot of social unhappiness going on in this book, as I suggested earlier. Britain is still getting its act together after the war; Miss Gilchrist complains about the scarcity of eggs, and the fact that they’re foreign – more on the general xenophobic elements of this book shortly. Poirot adopts a pretend character – M. Pontarlier, whose job is to assist refugees. And the reaction to that? “Rosamund, however, had only said vaguely, “Oh! Refugees all over again, I’m so tired of refugees.” Thus voicing the unspoken reaction of many, who were usually too conventional to express themselves so frankly.”

This lack of kindness, of selfishness even, can be seen in other ways. There’s a continued lack of tolerance for mental health issues. There’s condescension towards Greg for having been a voluntary patient at a mental home, even from his wife who stops herself just in time from calling him “batty”. Poirot extends the kindness as far as it can be with his description of Greg as “unbalanced”. Earlier in the book, when guessing who might have committed the murder, Susan affirms “it’s got to be a certain kind of person […] a brutal, perhaps slightly half-witted type – a discharged soldier or a gaol bird […] one has to have a motive for murder – unless one is half-witted”. There’s no kindness in Susan;s comments, but it is interesting, however, that she perceives that ex-soldiers or ex-prisoners can suffer with what we now realise to be PTSD.

There are other societal pressures. Timothy blames “that damned Labour government” under Attlee from 1945-1951, and even under Churchill he still perceives the government to be “mealy-mouthed, milk-and-water socialists”. They can’t get servants, because they now ask for too much money; the daily woman went home at the end of her working day much to Timothy’s despair: “does that class of woman care? Not she? With any decent feelings she’d have come back that evening and looked after me properly. No loyalty any more in the lower classes.” Timothy is universally disgruntled with life.

The police are not exempt from the criticism. There are many suggestions that they’re no longer up to the task, despite Entwhistle’s stoic defence of them. Susan again: “you remember that woman who was murdered in Yorkshire last year? Nobody was ever arrested. And the old woman in the sweet shop who was killed with a crowbar. They detained some man, and then they let him go! […] it shows that there must be a lot of these sorts of people going round the countryside, breaking into places and attacking lonely women – and the police just don’t bother!” Timothy is the same: “I’ve no faith in the police nowadays – the Chief Constables aren’t the right type.” For these characters, progress is a backward step.

There is, of course, the usual dollop of xenophobia. One of our first insights into the old butler Lanscombe is his regret that Cora married a Frenchman “and no good ever came of marrying one of them!” Janet, the kitchenmaid, tars foreigners with the same brush. After Poirot had asked her some questions, her reactions are: “these foreigners! The questions they asked. Their impertinence! […] what business was it of some foreign doctor coming along and nosing around?” Later in the same conversation: “Lanscombe was courteous but distant. Less resentful than Janet, he nevertheless regarded this upstart foreigner as the materialisation of the Writing on the Wall. This was What We Are Coming to!” Lanscombe implies in the conversation that if foreign refugees were to live at Enderby then he wouldn’t be able to stay. He doesn’t warm up to Poirot later in his stay either. ““Foreigners!” thought Lanscombe bitterly. “Foreigners in the house! […] I don’t know what we’re coming to.””

Miss Gilchrist has a different kind of prejudice against foreigners. She feels she doesn’t have to maintain a polite or well-behaved character in their presence. In conversation with Poirot: ““You see, I listened!” “You mean you happened to overhear a conversation? “ “No.” Miss Gilchrist shook her head with an air of heroic determination, “I’d rather speak the truth. And it’s not so bad telling you because you’re not English.” Hercule Poirot understood her without taking offence.” There’s also an unfortunate use of the N word, in connection with the woodpile simile, spoken by Crossfield.

One final interesting example of a tradition that plays a significant part in the story; that of placing a piece of wedding cake under your pillow as a sure hope that you will find the man of your dreams. It could save your life!

Classic denouement:  Yes! This one’s a thriller. It’s in two parts – Poirot assembles everyone in the library and you think it’s going to be the big showdown but in fact he is just gathering further information. Ten pages later he assembles everyone again, but this time in the drawing room – including the murderer – who inevitably gives themselves away.

Happy ending? Yes, although you get a slight sense of it being an appendix rather than an organic conclusion. One person is going to have a baby, another is going to follow their heart and their dreams.

Did the story ring true? As always, there are a few far-fetched moments, but on the whole it fits together nicely and you can absolutely believe that what is said to have happened, has happened.

Overall satisfaction rating: I thought this was a terrific read and see no reason not to give it a 10/10!

image(1218)Thanks for reading my blog of After the Funeral and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment in the space below. Christie’s next book in her whodunit canon was A Pocket Full of Rye, which I’ve already written about – as it was the first of hers that I ever read. Therefore, the next book in this Agatha Christie Challenge is her next book after that, which is Destination Unknown, one of those Christies that feature none of her usual sleuths. I can’t remember anything about this book, so I’m looking forward to catching up with it. As usual, I’ll blog my thoughts about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!

So How’s it Going?

The Real ChrisparkleHow’s Lockdown treating you, gentle reader? I hope you and yours are safe and sound, exercising “common sense” (whatever that is) and minimising risks wherever possible. There’s a whole beautiful world out there, where all your friends and relatives are waiting, The Arts are waiting for a kick-start, comics are preparing a barrage of new jokes for us (or they’d better be) and there are exciting places to discover – once it’s safe again. Until then, pull up the drawbridge, log into Zoom, and catch up with your DVDs and books.

Agatha ChristieI say “books” – as though that was a thing. I don’t know about you, but since Lockdown I have not been able to concentrate on reading AT ALL. I’m too easily distracted, I read a paragraph and instantly forget what I read. So for the moment, my Agatha Christie Challenge and Paul Berna Challenge are on hold until my reading Mojo comes back.

Just a little wine for the eventMrs Chrisparkle has discovered cooking! Who knew that there were other items of kitchen equipment apart from the microwave? So that’s great news. And fortunately, fine food always deserves a fine wine – that’s a bonus. As a downside, The Real Chrisparkle’s Facebook page has fallen foul of some odd computer hiccup and I can’t access it at all. So if you check that page every so often – I wouldn’t bother, nothing’s going to be happening there for some time, I fear.

Typical Eurovision Mayhem

Now that the Eurovision that never was is over, I need to find something else to write about. What I’m proposing, gentle reader, are alternate blog posts where I share some holiday snaps from the great places we’ve been to over the last [redacted] years, and retro theatre posts where I go back over all the shows I’ve seen in [also redacted] years of theatregoing. Not promising anything truly exciting or revealing; we’ll just see how it goes.

So, see you tomorrow with some holiday snaps from Buenos Aires. Take care!

The Real Chrisparkle meets M. R. Carey (yet again!) to discuss The Book of Koli

IMG_6098Greetings gentle reader and welcome to yet another interview with M. R. Carey – because he’s written yet another book! Hello Mike!

M R Carey: Hi Chris. Thanks for the invite.

Real Chrisparkle: My pleasure! Your new book came out a few days ago – and it’s The Book of Koli – the first of a trilogy I believe. Would you like to tell us a little bit of what the book’s about (without giving any games away, of course)!

MRC: Sure! This is me going back into post-apocalyptic territory. The story is set a few centuries from now. Our civilisation has fallen apart for numerous reasons. There was resource depletion, which caused resource wars. Biodiversity went through the floor. The climate broke down, despite attempt to throw science at the problem – and the solutions that were tried mostly made things worse. Basically there’s been a massive thinning out of the human population. The survivors live in small, isolated communities – so small that they’re probably not even genetically viable in the longer term. The level of technology has gone back to something close to a medieval level – except for a few precious pieces of tech salvaged from the old times. The people who wield this tech are known as Ramparts, and the protagonist of the book, Koli Woodsmith, desperately wants to become one. But it’s very much a case of “be careful what you wish for…”

RC: I can say from my personal knowledge that it’s a great book and you set up a very exciting series of adventures for our hero Koli to endure! Can I first ask, why did you choose to set the story in the Calder Valley – and Mythen Rood, that’s Mytholmroyd, is it not? Do you have some association with that area?

MRC: Not really, no – although I went there last year as guest author on an Arvon writing course at Lumb Bank. I wanted somewhere that was a long way from London, for reasons that become clear as the story goes on, and being a Northerner I turned my eyes northwards rather than, say, to the south-west. I had some fun with the place names, and I took a few liberties with geography. You have to assume that some of the settlements we hear about are a little way removed from their present-day equivalents. Otherwise the distances don’t work. But the main thing I wanted was a real and defined area in England that has changed a lot but still has some recognisable landmarks or features.

RC: Thanks for clearing that up! This is (at least!) the second time that you’ve set novels in a post-apocalyptic world. What is it about such a world that you find so fruitful and fascinating?

MRC: There are lots of reasons, but I think most of all I like post-apocalyptic worlds because they present simply. There are a lot of things we think are fundamental that are really accidents – they come down to social codes and social roles, rather than to anything intrinsic in human nature. In a post-apocalyptic novel you can strip that stuff away and get back to basics – while at the same time holding up the things that only seemed to be basics to a kind of indirect scrutiny.

RC: That’s very interesting – it’s almost like it allows us to come closer to the truth of what life is all about. It’s perhaps strange and slightly frightening that the book has been published in what might be a pre-apocalyptic time for all of us, with the Covid-19 running riot around the world! Staying at home means we have to strip the unnecessary stuff away too. Might there be accidental parallels between your fictional universe and our current situation?

MRC: Yeah, I’m very much afraid there are! The second book actually has a plague narrative as a major strand. While Koli is off on his journeys, Mythen Rood succumbs to an epidemic – and it falls to Spinner, the girl he thought he loved, to try to figure out how to combat it. Obviously there’s no question of a vaccine in a world that has no real concept of science. It’s more a question of trying to find out what the vectors of transmission are so they can close them down.

I’d finished writing those sequences by the time lockdown started – actually I sent them in last July – but they were still very much in my head when Covid-19 went from something distant and disturbing to something that was right at the door and threatening to knock it down. There’s a passage in that second book where Spinner reflects on how different it is to live through a catastrophe, as opposed to hearing stories about it. Stories can prepare you for the worst, up to a point, but when you’re catapulted into the actual experience, the first thing that happens is that you change from the business-as-usual version of you to the crisis version. And you don’t necessarily know in advance what that’s going to look like.

Sound of MusicRC: Perhaps it gives us a greater insight into the nature of catastrophe – as you say, nothing can really prepare us for what lies ahead. I guess we’ll have to wait until the second book to find out! We’ve spoken of post-apocalyptic and pre-apocalyptic situations; I wonder, can you imagine writing a book that dealt with the actual apocalypse itself? After all, if there were to be a post-apocalyptic world afterwards, there’d have to be some survivors, so it could be quite a positive/optimistic story! Maybe a bit like The Sound of Music, but where the von Trapps survive to establish a new world order!

MRC: That’s an appealing image. If I’d ever written a third book set in the world of The Girl With All the Gifts, it would have been something along those lines – jumping back in time another decade to the time of the Breakdown and exploring how the arrival of Cordyceps impacted the world. One thing that Covid-19 has painfully exposed is how fragile a lot of social structures are, and how threadbare our safety nets have become. Capitalism is predicated on never-ending growth, so we’ve created a society that’s a bit like a shark. If it stops moving, it’s in danger of dying. It would be fascinating – and terrifying – to look at that process in action. I mean, in a work of fiction. I have to say, I’m not enjoying living through it.

RC: And to be fair, the public don’t need to be spooked more than they already are. Now is probably a time for horsies and bunnies! But it is frightening – and at the same time strangely intriguing – to see the tenets of society shrivel up. Fortunately, there’s always hope at the bottom of Pandora’s Box! So, going back to the beginning of The Book of Koli; you create a world that we barely recognise, but we can see there are long established rituals and patterns of behaviour that we don’t understand at all at first and then gradually get some sense of what it’s all about. It’s very much a time-travel experience for the reader. That, plus the unusual language, can be a bit of a barrier at first. Were you aware that you were making life potentially tricky for some of your readers?

Huckleberry FinnMRC: I was, yeah. I can vividly remember reading Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker, and bouncing off that strange future English. I was doing something less radical, but I knew it would take a bit of grappling with for some readers. It was just that Koli’s voice was at the centre of everything, for me, in the same way Melanie’s voice was in GIRL. Even more so, in fact, because Koli is the narrator. I was trying – in my small way – to do something a little bit similar to what Mark Twain did in Huckleberry Finn. I wanted to tell a story from the point of view of someone who is barely literate and has to struggle to communicate with us. It would have felt like cheating if Koli had spoken in standard English – and I think it would have taken something away from the book. A layer of meaning, or a bit of light and shadow.

Speaking to the gradualness – the way the world reveals itself slowly and piecemeal – that’s a side effect of the first person perspective. The things that Koli tells us are the things that matter to him, which means they’ve got to be visible to him. It’s only when Ursala comes into the story that we get the luxury of a different take. That’s when we start to see over Koli’s shoulder and connect his world to ours. I love that kind of narrative bait and switch – both as a reader and as a writer.

RC: Indeed, the connection between those two characters is incredibly positive – it put me in mind of the old Kung Fu programme – with Ursala as a figure of wisdom, and Koli as the little grasshopper learning his way! Koli may be barely literate but he’s still superbly eloquent. How did you set about constructing his use of language? (which for me was a constant source of delight in the book!)

Girl With All The GiftsMRC: Thanks! I’m glad you enjoyed it. Koli’s voice was the thing that came first, in fact – and it existed before I started to write the novel. As with The Girl with All the Gifts, there was a short story that came first. The narrator at that story is called Tari, and he lives in an actual medieval village rather than in a quasi-medieval future, but he’s got a lot of Koli’s characteristics and I gave him the same unlettered, earnest voice. A lot of it is the logical but wrong application of rules. Koli treats most verbs as if they had regular endings. He’s also really bad at modals, especially “have”. I’ve spoken to a few people who said they cringed whenever they hit a “should of” or “would of”. All I can say is so did Microsoft Word. I fought a long, bitter fight against the spellchecker, which turned itself back on whenever I booted up and did its best to thwart me. But yeah, I’m glad you said you found Koli eloquent in spite of all his errors. I felt like there was a kind of hacked-about, jury-rigged poetry to his language. I wanted readers to engage with him, and to feel comfortable with his voice after that first bumpy acclimatisation.

RC: I think – (I could be wrong) that all Koli’s “new” nouns are created from the “add two existing words together to make a new word” device; words like “summer-dance”, “pair-pledge” “stop-mix” “brown-skin”, and so on. I also love the use of “tumble” for sex! And why don’t we say “onliest”? It makes much more sense than “only”!

MRC: Exactly! Yeah, I was very pleased with “tumble”. There’s a lot of information in that word. It suggests both a guilt-free attitude to sex and an absence of sexist asymmetries. It takes two to tumble. There’s one point where Jemiu, Koli’s mother, tells him to take his mind off Spinner and look for love elsewhere. It’s one of the few places in the book where the F word appears. She tells him that getting married is very different from “a fuck thrown in the bushes at Summer-dance” – and the harshness was deliberate.

RC: Yes! I remember that phrase – it certainly stands out! Koli is a great creation. When you said earlier, that at the start of the book we just hear the things that matter to him – that made me realise that it makes our relationship with him very intimate. We get a very clear picture of what’s going on inside his head. He’s honest with himself, so he’s honest with us. We can trust him. How would you describe him?

MRC: I think he’s the nicest protagonist I’ve ever written. He messes up badly at times, and he’s certainly capable of being selfish and thoughtless, but he never lets himself off the hook for those things. He feels his mistakes and does his best to atone for them, and most of the time he’s really trying to do the right thing. He looks out for his friends – and at times even for his enemies. Without going into spoiler territory, I think Koli’s fight with Mardew is a touchstone for his character. He has every reason to hate Mardew and very little reason to extend him any compassion or concern, but he can’t switch off those things. They’re in his nature. One of Monono’s pet names for him is “dopey boy”, but I think he’s got a kind of emotional intelligence that’s very bit as important as the other kind.

RC: Absolutely! He’s incredibly likeable, but flawed – he has a sense of ambition that leads to an element of ruthlessness, but, deep down, that’s not really him at all. How do you see Koli in the classic “what would he be like down the pub” situation? Full of stories and bonhomie, I would imagine. And capable of downing a few lager-pints!

MRC: He wouldn’t have any barriers or defences. He’d throw himself into everything that was going on, probably try to sing a song or tell a joke and get lost in the middle, and he’d almost certainly get sentimental and tell you he loved the bones of you about three pints in. Whereas it takes me at least four, as you know.

RC: Basically, Koli is you, hiding in plain sight, isn’t he?! Mentioning “dopey boy”… Monono is another fascinating character. When she calls him that it says easily as much about her as it does him. In one respect, Monono is incredibly powerful, and in another, bizarrely powerless. She’s the voice trapped in the machine, a blast from the past; like the out of control “oo-oo” voices on Video Killed the Radio Star, or Hello this is Joanie’s voice carrying on long after she’s no longer here. How did you come to create her? What influenced how she turned out?

MRC: You’re way too kind, Chris! I think I based Koli on my kids rather than on me. I was talking about emotional intelligence earlier. It’s a thing I’ve struggled with all my life. My temper, my hypochondria, my inability to let anything lie… they’ve always been there, and they’ve always been problematic. My kids don’t seem to have those demons.

With Monono, as with Koli, I started with the voice – in this case, a teasing and funny, savvy and mischievous voice – and let the character accrete around it. And weirdly, the backstory of her actual pre-apocalypse life was the last thing to arrive, which made it effortless. By that time I had a really vivid sense of her. There’s a scene in the second book where (by strange means that I won’t reveal) she gets to take Koli for a walk around Tokyo. It’s one of my favourite scenes in the trilogy, not least because it’s actually her first time there as well as his. She’s NOT that dead girl, she’s something built on that template, and she knows it.

I gave her a lot of my own hang-ups about biodiversity, and I also used her narrative to provide some more clues as to how our world gave birth to Koli’s. But I needed her to feel real as a person too – especially since, when we first meet her, she really isn’t one. The things she gets wrong, like the repeated dialogue and getting Koli’s name wrong, are meant to be poignant as well as funny. She’s been intentionally hobbled – a vital personality reduced to an interface – and I wanted the reader to feel a kind of horror and pity at that.

RC: She’s definitely an all-round personality, and innately programmed to help, in whatever manner that might mean. I’m looking forward to the Tokyo walk! And yes, there is a sense of pity at what is essentially her entrapment. On another note… without giving away any spoilers, Koli is a wannabe Rampart but actually the Ramparts aren’t as heroic as they’re cracked up to be. I was reminded of Groucho Marx’s famous line that you wouldn’t want to be a member of a club who’d have you! The Rampart world is not a great endorsement of ambition and power. What do you think of these attitudes and characteristics – is ambition for power a good thing?

MRC: No, it really isn’t. I tend to think that a desire to take power should disqualify people from ever having it. In every workplace I’ve ever known, the people who were most successful were – almost without exception – people who put self-promotion and advancement before actually doing their jobs. Organisations depend for their survival on an army of people who never rise through the ranks because they’re too busy working.

The Vennastins are a dodgy bunch, without a doubt. They’re not beyond the pale, though – or at least not all of them are. There are nuances. Fer is like a female Boris Johnson, wedded to her lies and willing to do anything to keep them from coming out. Mardew is basically a thug. But Catrin isn’t a bad leader, and she’s sometimes able to rein in her sister’s worst impulses. And there’s more to Perliu than meets the eye. We see a lot more of all of them in the second and third books, and the whole question of Rampart power – and the possible alternatives – comes more and more to the fore.

RC: I guess very few people – even those who seek power for their own pleasure – are evil through and through, so it will be very interesting to see how those characters and Rampartism in general develop! There’s also not-very-veiled criticism of institutionalised religion, with the unsettling scenes with Senlas and his followers. Even in a post-apocalyptic age religion survives. Simon and Garfunkel’s Sound of Silence came into my head when I was thinking about both him, and the value of tech in this new world: And the people bowed and prayed to the neon God they’d made. Is Tech the new God?

MRC: Tech has taken on a kind of sanctity, for sure. There are strictures on its use, taboos about its handling, and so on. But God is always God, I guess. In one form or another, religion seems to be a fixture in every human society. What I tried to do in the Koli books is to show how malleable belief is. The rudiments of Christianity are still around in Koli’s world, but there’s another messianic figure – Dandrake – who seems to have arisen from within Christianity and then broken away from it, much as Christianity broke away from Judaism. We learn a fair bit more about Dandrake, both as a religious figurehead and as a historical figure, and we’re able to judge the distance between the two. Senlas just takes the same logic to an even more rabid and intemperate conclusion. Koli doesn’t have any time for any of this stuff, but we’ll meet some other believers – and belief systems – in book two. Gods are never in short supply, one way and another…

RC: It’s becoming clear that you have so much to say through the character of Koli and his adventures that there’s no way you could have fitted it all into one book. No wonder it’s a trilogy! You’re a fan of the trilogy structure I believe – I’m thinking Mervyn Peake here for example. I wondered whether the rest of the trilogy would follow on instantly from the end of this book, or whether we’d see Koli at three stages of his life?

GormenghastMRC: I think there’s a lot of power in the extended series format. I love the Gormenghast trilogy, as you say – and Earthsea, and The Book of the New Sun, and Zelazny’s Amber novels. The crucial thing is that you’ve got to have an end point in mind and you’ve got to make sure the individual novels carry their weight as parts of the whole. Koli’s story felt like a big, sprawly, epic thing that would benefit from a big canvas. Then as I incorporated other stories – Monono’s, Cup’s, Spinner’s – It felt like I could do something with point of view that would (I hope) be unexpected and effective. The second and third books follow straight on from the first in terms of time, but they don’t only follow Koli. We keep one eye on Mythen Rood, and the characters we left behind there.

RC: A perfect way to end this interview but keep us in suspense for the rest of the trilogy! When are the final two parts to be published?

MRC: Book two is out in September, and book three in April of next year. They open outwards from book one, showing us a lot more of Koli’s world, and putting him on a collision course with the distant past that could determine the shape of the future.

RC: So I’m guessing not much in the way of horsies and bunnies?

MRC: Hahaha! There are definitely comedic moments. And touching moments. I don’t write grimdark… 😀

RC: Excellent! And is there life after Koli? What’s your next project, if you have one?

T S EliotMRC: I’m just starting to noodle with a new idea. It will be horror-inflected, and it will have ghosts in it. And a bit of T. S. Eliot. That’s about as far as I’ve got.

RC: Sounds like my cup of tea! Best of luck with it! And thanks again for taking the time to have this interview. Been great chatting as always!

MRC: My pleasure, Chris. I’ve enjoyed it too. Cheers!

The Agatha Christie Challenge – They Do it with Mirrors (1952)

They do it with MirrorsIn which Miss Marple visits her old friend Carrie-Louise at Stonygates, the old mansion she shares with her husband Lewis Serrocold, and which is used as an educational institution attempting to shape up delinquent youths and prepare them for an honest life in the world outside. Carrie-Louise’s sister Ruth knows that something is wrong at Stonygates, but couldn’t put her finger on what. Will Miss Marple see through the trick of mirrors and identify who’s responsible for the death of a family visitor? Of course she will! As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I promise not to reveal whodunit!

Cosmopolitan April 1952The book is dedicated simply “To Mathew Prichard”, Agatha Christie’s only grandson. His son James is the current CEO of Agatha Christie Ltd. They Do it with Mirrors was first published in the US in a condensed version in the April 1952 edition of Cosmopolitan Magazine, under the title Murder with Mirrors. It was first published in the UK in six abridged instalments in John Bull magazine between April and May 1952. The full book was first published in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company later in 1952, still with the title Murder with Mirrors and in the UK by Collins Crime Club, as They Do it with Mirrors on 17th November 1952.

Margaret Rutherford as Miss MarpleThere are elements of this story in the Margaret Rutherford Miss Marple film Murder Ahoy, where an assembly of criminally inclined young men are all housed together but this time on board a ship, the Battledore. Apart from that, nothing remotely connects this book with the film, and you can safely enjoy one without spoiling the surprise for the other! Despite having a few begrudging reviews at the time, I think this book is a terrific read. Once Miss Marple has arrived at Stonygates, the events of the book take place over a period of four days, which adds urgency and tension to the storytelling. The title already reveals that there is some sleight of hand at work that obfuscates the murder – but once Miss Marple gets clarity on how the whole thing was done, identifying the guilty party is easy-peasy. The reader doesn’t really get the chance to reflect and imagine what the trick with mirrors might be until presented with a final solution that resolves all the relevant points of the story. Once you’ve appreciated it, it’s very pleasing in its straightforwardness. If you’re looking out for them, you can this book to your collection of “Christie Staged Murder Scenes” – rather like that in A Murder is Announced, published only two years earlier.

MirrorsI believe this is the first time that Miss Marple is involved in a case right from the very start. Usually she is brought in by the police after a crime has been committed in order to help them out with her village-life analogies. In They Do it with Mirrors, she’s a part of the very first conversation, with Ruth van Rydock, listening to the latter’s concerns about her sister Carrie-Louise. We accompany her on her trip to Stonygates, and from then on, she’s hardly ever out of the reader’s sight. Interesting, perhaps, then that we don’t learn that much more about her, although she does come up with one fascinating observation about life; that, in comparison with British perceptions of American lifestyles, “we are so very fond of failures”. That ought to give us a greater insight into the nature of crime, but I don’t think it particularly helps us with this book.

police inspectorWe do get to meet Inspector Curry in this book; he hadn’t heard of Miss Marple’s expertise before meeting her, which must make him unusual in the Christie police files. Make the most of him, because he doesn’t return in any later Christie books. Curry is a calmly able and diligent policeman; he “had a pleasant voice and manner. He looked quiet and serious and just a little apologetic. Some people made the mistake of under-rating him. Actually he was as competent in his way as Miss Bellever was in hers. But he preferred not to make a parade of the fact.” He’s traditional and modest; sensitive to the perceptions and expectations of his elderly witness, and calls Miss Marple Ma’am; “the old ones like ma’am, he thought. To them, police officers were definitely of the lower classes and should show respect to their betters.”

Winston ChurchillHe’s also a product of his upbringing, perhaps not challenging the views of earlier generations as much as an intelligent man should. “”Russians” to Inspector Curry were what “Bony” had been in the early day of the nineteenth century, and what “the Huns” had been in the early twentieth century. Anything to do with Russia was bad in Inspector Curry’s opinion.” Curry and Marple work well together, with a strong sense of mutual trust and respect, and a liking for not jumping to conclusions. Neither of them has a modern outlook on the issue of mental health, and when Miss Marple witnesses Edgar Lawson’s apparent weaknesses – believing his father to be a famous statesman or hero like Churchill or Montgomery – she’s surprisingly dismissive and lacking in empathy.

family treeChristie’s structure for the book is simple; the first few expository days are quickly run through, and then the meat of the book comes with Curry’s detailed examination of all the suspects’ stories and alibis. The untitled chapters are split into smaller sections, simply to provide a visual pause for breath between individual conversations and investigations. I did, however, find it helpful to write out my own family-tree for Carrie-Louise and all her relatives, as it’s a complicated family and it was useful to refer to something occasionally. There is a plan of part of the downstairs of Stonygates House; there’s no particular need to look at it until just before the denouement, when its obvious relevance becomes unavoidable. The characterisations are standard, erring on the side of underdrawn; any interesting personality traits in the suspects are sacrificed for an eager telling of the investigations and a drive towards discovering the guilty party.

SavoyAs usual, there are a few references to check out, starting with the locations. The book starts with a visit by Mrs Van Rydock to London, so we get references to the Savoy, Claridge’s, the Berkeley and the Dorchester, all of which we know to be real. When Miss Marple gets a train to Market Kindle, that’s the location for the rest of the story; there’s no such place, and Christie deliberately gives us no clues as to the direction that Miss Marple has travelled from St Mary Mead. The only other location mentioned in the book is San Severiano; Pippa marries the Italian, Guido, the Marchese di San Severiano, but the only San Severiano that I can discover in the world is part of Cadiz, in Spain, so I can only presume this too is a fictitious location.

somerset and wiltshire bankThere are few other interesting references that can all be quickly and easily dealt with. When we first meet Mrs van Rydock, she’s trying on a Lanvanelli creation. Whoever this gifted dress designer is, we’ll never know as they’re a Christie creation too. Gina’s affectionate name for Carrie-Louise is Grandam, which is a very archaic term for a grandmother. Lewis Serrocold has placed one of his ex-con young men in a job with the Wiltshire and Somerset Bank. Whilst we don’t recognise that name today, the Somerset and Wiltshire Bank used to exist and was swallowed up by Lloyds Bank at some point before the mid-1970s – I can’t find anything more concrete on that at the moment.

siskin“Recover hope all ye who enter here” is the inscribed welcome at the entrance to Stonygates. It’s a play on the words of Dante, in the Divine Comedy, who supposed the gates to Hell were inscribed “Abandon hope all ye who enter here”. Miss Marple pretends to be distracted by the sight of siskins in the garden; these are members of the Finch family, similar to a goldfinch but smaller. Gulbrandsen apparently had a collection of Thorwaldsen’s statuary. Bertel Thorvaldsen (1770 – 1844) was a Danish sculptor of international repute. And at various stages in the book, Edgar Lawson declares that his father is Winston Churchill or Viscount Montgomery – neither of whom need any clarification from me.

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 sum mentioned in this book – that of £10,000, which is how much Carrie-Louise is going to leave Miss Bellever in her will. £10,000 in 1952 is worth approximately £200,000 today, which is a tidy sum and no mistake.

Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for They Do it With Mirrors:

Publication Details: 1952. My copy is a Fontana paperback, eleventh impression, dated November 1975, with a price of 50p on the back cover. The cover illustration by Tom Adams shows a revolver on top of a piece of sheet music, then reflected in several mirrors at adjacent angles. In the distance are some stylised garden scenes. It’s a great design that’s totally appropriate for the book without giving too much away.

How many pages until the first death: 66. The death comes as a complete surprise and is superbly stages in terms of the structure of the book.

Funny lines out of context: two, that both rely on the other meaning of one of Christie’s favourite words.

When Gina tells Miss Marple how she gets on with the delinquent inmates: “It’s the thugs I like best […] I don’t fancy the queers so much.”

And when she’s asked by Inspector Curry who she thinks might have committed the murder: “one of the queers did it, I should think.”

Memorable characters:

This is perhaps the one area where this book falls down a little, in that there are no truly stand-out characters. That’s why it was helpful to write out my own family-tree for Carrie-Louise, because it was difficult at times to remember which person was which.

Christie the Poison expert:

Given that there are no murders in this book that are caused by poison, it’s perhaps surprising that the book allows Christie to show off quite a lot of her knowledge. There’s some talk of the case of Katherine Elsworth, whose husband died of arsenic, which she obtained by soaking flypapers (a very old-fashioned way of dealing with flies as it seems today). That young scamp Ernie refers to “strickline” and “Prussian Acid” in conversation with Gina; he means Strychnine, and Prussic Acid, today better known as cyanide. The chocolates sent to Carrie-Louise are laced with aconitine, a poison derived from the monkshood plant; Alex Restarick jokes that he prefers curare, famously the poison that you’re meant to dip your arrow in, in Central and South America.

Class/social issues of the time:

There are far fewer of the usual class/social references in this book than you would normally expect to find in a Christie novel. Primarily any references are geared towards the education system, which is not to be unexpected, given that Stonygates is an institution set up to educate young criminals out of a life of crime. Ruth van Rydock sighs to Miss Marple when she says “there are fashions in philanthropy. In Gulbrandsen’s time it was education. Before that it was soup kitchens […] feeding the body gave way to feeding the mind. Everyone went mad on educating the lower classes […] He was more and more convinced that juvenile delinquents were not subnormal – that they had excellent brains and abilities and only needed right direction.” Primarily Mrs van Rydock uses the weapon of class to try to prevent education being offered to those who don’t deserve it: “everyone expects education as a matter of right – and doesn’t think much of it when they get it!”

The redemption of criminals is an age-old theme but one gets the sense that Stonygates is an institution that’s ahead of its time, with old guard onlookers like Miss Marple and Mrs van Rydock having very little respect for its work. A criticism of the book at the time was that Christie wasn’t comfortable with the set-up she had created in this book; I’m not sure I completely agree, but it’s interesting to see the alternative viewpoints offered, with the specialists like Dr Maverick, being referred to as “half-baked sentimentalists” (Miss Bellever’s opinion.)

There’s normally a spot of xenophobia in a Christie book; here it’s reserved for criticism of the character of Wally Hudd, Gina’s American husband. He’s definitely a fish-out-of-water, uncomfortable in the environment; a practical man alone in a household of intelligent brains, and a classic outsider. But the level of prejudicial language used against Wally is minimal in comparison with that used against European or (heavens above) African foreigners in Christie’s other books. Regrettably, this book does feature one use of the N word; in its slight defence, it’s used in the old “woodpile” phrase, an objectionable use of language that a very unpleasant ex-boss of mine was still using in the 1990s.

One surprise moment, highlighting something I would have thought was very old-fashioned but maybe was still common at the time of writing: Inspector Curry is sarcastically critical of Gina’s attire after the murder. “I see you’re not wearing mourning, Mrs Hudd?” The Victorian age was the height of the mourning-wear tradition in Britain, although I know from my own family experience that people chose to wear black for a good few months after bereavement as late as the 1970s.

Classic denouement:  Sadly not. The identity of the murderer is revealed in a private conversation between Inspector Curry and Miss Marple, and then we fast-forward to an explanatory aftermath. Still, the modus operandi of the crime is fascinating enough to still make this an exciting end to the book.

Happy ending? Moderately so, in that a relationship that we felt was on the rocks is clearly firmly back on track. Again, Christie could have made more of the emotional fallout of the revelation of the murderer, but didn’t develop the characters enough to make this work.

Did the story ring true? It just about survives a spot of critical thought. “They do it with mirrors” suggests the whole thing is a magic trick, and that’s about the level of credibility that it deserves; in other words, it looks true and it feels true, but we know deep down it can’t be true!

Overall satisfaction rating: Despite its faults – the lapses in characterisation, and a lack of classic denouement, it’s an incredibly entertaining read and a very intriguing crime. So I’m going to upgrade it to a 9/10.

After The FuneralThanks for reading my blog of They Do it with Mirrors 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 After the Funeral, and it’s back to the world of Hercule Poirot. I can’t remember much about this book, so I’m looking forward to rediscovering it. As usual, I’ll blog my thoughts about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!

The Paul Berna Challenge – Magpie Corner (1957)

In which we meet Frederick, whose father runs the new petrol station at Magpie Corner. One day a stranger enters their midst; who is he, and what is his interest in the station and in Frederick’s father? And why is his father always so surly to his devoted son? All will be revealed in this engrossing and heartfelt tale of contraband and family relationships.

Magpie Corner was first published in 1957 by G. P. Rouge et Or under its original French title Le Carrefour de la Pie, which translates literally as Magpie Crossroads, with illustrations by G. de Sainte-Croix. As Magpie Corner, it was first published in the UK by Hamish Hamilton in 1966, a full nine years after its original French edition. Unlike the previous Puffin editions, which were translated by John Buchanan-Brown, this book was translated by Helen Woodyatt and apart from the frontispiece and dust jacket, contains no other illustrations. My own copy of the book is the second hardback impression, printed in 1967, bearing the price 18/-. Helen Woodyatt’s only other translation in print, as far as I can see, is a 1964 translation of Marguerite Thiebold’s Pascal and the Tramp.

Leaving behind Gaby and his gang from the first two books, in their rundown suburb of Louvigny, we’re now in the peaceful village of La Rua, which actually exists in the eastern region of France, Bourgogne-Franche-Comté, approximately 70 km north of the provincial capital, Besançon. The book begins with an account of how the children have to keep the cows from straying on to the busy main road nearby; that would be the D1, which links the communes of Vitrey-sur-Mance and Membrey. However, Berna also tells us that a by-pass connects La Rua with Rouvray, via the grasslands of Chamarande, in the direction of Mâcon, which places the story to the south of Paris. Furthermore, Berna points out that Madame Paulin no longer has to travel to Tournus or Pont de Vaux to trade, both of which are very close to Mâcon, further complicating the issue! I think this is one of the situations where Berna has chosen real places but has nevertheless created a mystery and fantasy about them.

The book centres on Frederick; and it’s a very powerful, moving portrait of a kind-hearted, resilient boy, who’s a bit of a loner. He’s ignored and unloved by his father, and, as a result, all-consumed by suspicion as his life lacks reassurance. In his other works we’ve seen so far, Berna excels at showing the strength that can be gained from being a member of a gang. Frederick is as far away from having a gang to be a member of as you can possibly get. He seems to be a fish out of water; friends with the two girls, but estranged from the company of other boys. At the age of fifteen, Frederick is much older than the average age of Gaby’s gang. Whilst they’re looking for escapades to pass their spare time, Frederick is much more focussed on what he’s trying to achieve. He’s like a Rottweiler on the track of a criminal, and he’s not going to let him escape. Gaby’s gang spend the whole time laughing; but there’s not much laughter in Frederick’s life. There’s no sense of early romance between him and either Colette or Fanny, unlike the charming developing relationship between the much younger Marion and Fernand.

Rather than playing, Frederick now turns to work for a release from his worries. Vehicles have become his friend: he can tell a six cylinder diesel from its thundery rumble, and Berna makes this association stronger by his sensuous description of petrol fumes; “the all-pervading smell of petrol obliterated the natural scent of the newly mown hay. But the children liked it.” He’s never more at home when tinkering with engines and watching a master at work; and the more he works on the petrol station, and the more exposure he has to the other drivers, the more his confidence grows. You sense it’s a very different boy who closes the book than the one who opens it.

This is an exciting, devious, complicated little tale, with double-crossing villains and double-crossing heroes. Today, it would probably not be acceptable to have a book, ostensibly written for children, where smoking featured so heavily. But this was France in 1957; Langlais doesn’t flinch an inch when his son starts smoking in front of him. There’s not one word of criticism or negativity connected with the cigarettes; no asides about health issues, it’s just a mundane, 100% acceptable, routine. In fact, when Frederick teases Morden towards the end of the book, sniffing at the cigarette smoke, he says “it smells good, doesn’t it?” As well as all that smoking, there are plenty of trips to the café to enjoy some of Uncle Armand’s rosé. Pushing bad habits on children? Perhaps that’s how we would see it from the 21st century. Little surprise, perhaps, that this book has been largely forgotten – which is a shame, because it’s a superb tale, beautifully written.

The Street MusicianLike The Street Musician, Magpie Corner is a reflective, atmospheric book, with some superb writing and intense examination of the hero’s motives and emotions. Berna – through his translator – can sometimes come up with some beautiful lines. Towards the end of the book, when Jeremy and Frederick have set a trap of which Langlais is unaware, but will benefit from, he expresses the father’s anxiety: “Monsieur Langlais was the most vulnerable. He was rather like a tethered goat put out unawares to tempt the tiger, and ignorant of the body of men ready to help him.”

Unlike the previous books, this is a much more male-oriented story. All the significant players – Frederick, his father, Jeremy, the speed-cops, the postman, Morden, and the two people in the 4CV, are all men. Colette and Fanny play a lesser role in Frederick’s life as the book progresses. And Mme Paulin and Frederick’s mother barely feature at all. I feel this increases the book’s sense of maturity and seriousness; definitely a book written for fifteen-year-old boys.

A Hundred Million FrancsI’ve noticed how Berna likes to give nicknames to some of his characters – not always affectionately. In A Hundred Million Francs, one of the henchmen gets called “Ugly”. In The Street Musician, the tramp is called Spare-A-Copper, the nutseller is Monkeynuts, and they call the accordionist, M. Anatole, “The Phantom”. In Magpie Corner, the nicknames are becoming a little more unkind; right from the start Frederick refers to Jeremy as “The Hunchback”, and Colette calls the two 4 CV men, “Duckbeak” and “Clownface”. Maybe it’s true that children, particularly in those days, gave uncomplimentary nicknames to adults they didn’t like, but looking back on it from our viewpoint, it feels not only childish, but rather unpleasant. I’ll keep a watch on Berna’s use of nicknames in future books.

In Berna’s other books so far, poverty had always played a tangible role in the stories and in the day to day lives of the gang. In Magpie Corner, there is no such poverty. The Petrol Station and the Café Restaurant are both doing extremely good business and there is no shortage of money to provide the characters a comfortable life. The poverty is of a different kind; the poor quality of the relationship between Frederick and his father, and the lack of communication and support that the father should provide. However, it’s also interesting the extent to which people will put themselves out for free cigarettes – thronging the roads with their cars on the look-out. Although today cigarettes are taxed so highly that they are a luxury item, back in 1957 I would have thought they would have been relatively cheap; so maybe there isn’t as much money in circulation in the wider society of this book.

As in Berna’s previous books, the memory of the Second World War still lingers on in the environment. When Jeremy asks Frederick about the abandoned quarry at Senozan, Frederick describes it as the “cemetery for scrap iron […] there are something like two thousand wrecks there. Vans, private cars, tractors, as well as all the German and American military machines from 1944, tanks and even armoured cars. It’s an enormous pile and the council can’t get rid of it.” The treasure of the Lost Legion goes on to play a significant role in the book.

A couple of the plot twists are written a little heavy-handedly. The book suffers from one awfully heavy moment of obvious exposition, when Frederick overhears the conversation of the men from the 4 CV; almost farcical in the way it gave telegraphed the plot. The big surprise that’s kept right to the very end should also, I feel, have been written with a little more sophistication, so that it emerged naturally from conversation. The big surprise is also, I can’t help but think, very far-fetched and unlikely; but it does allow the book to finish on a high.

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!

FrederickChapter One introduces us to the Paulin family; Mme Paulin runs The Magpie Inn on Magpie Corner; a renovated barn which she turned into an eight-bedroomed café, restaurant and mini-hotel. Aunt Guitte is head chef, Uncle Armand runs the bar, and her two daughters, Colette and Fanny, do their best to keep an eye on the cows, as the family still ran a small farm too. On the other side of the road, a new SICA petrol station had been built, and the Langlais family moved in to run it. Fifteen-year-old Frederick Langlais quickly became friends with the Paulin girls: “he was very friendly and they liked him at once. He was different from the village boys of La Rua and Rouvray, who were mostly pretty rough and rowdy.”

Whilst watching the cars, Frederick, Colette and Fanny get talking to Claud and Poulard, a couple of speed cops (“we’re not cops, we’re guardians of the highway”), taking a break. Claud notices M. Langlais working at the petrol station and mutters to himself, “I’m sure I’ve seen that chap somewhere before,” which intrigues and slightly disturbs Frederick, the only person to hear him. Frederick is always concerned about his father’s wellbeing. “You’ve only got to look at him. He seems to be obsessed by some awful dread. And it’s only since we came here. I’ve got the impression that he’s expecting something terrible to happen.” Where the girls are curious about all the people that go by, Frederick just watches and worries about his father – “the man who had become a stranger to him”.

Policeman Claud asks Frederick about his father: “he used to be a long-distance lorry driver […] he had his left shoulder badly smashed in an accident. For six months he had to have some marvellous electric treatment which works miracles. His shoulder is quite all right now, but he can’t drive any more. So someone found him this job, which is far less tiring.” When Frederick goes back to the petrol station at the end of the afternoon, his father isn’t welcoming, but simply gives him jobs to do. “Monsieur Langlais avoided his son as much as possible. Frederick’s blind admiration and devotion embarrassed him. The child had an unusually sympathetic nature which he longed to show to his father, but he was too young to know how to express himself and only succeeded in irritating him.”

We learn that Frederick doesn’t believe that his father was away for six months in an American hospital. “Frederick’s vague suspicions were strengthened after his father came back. He suddenly appeared without any warning at the little villa they had taken in Choisy le Roi. He insisted on leaving again that very day. He pulled down their suitcases from the top of the wardrobe and told them to pack quickly and be ready to go as soon as darkness fell. He said he must go into the country to convalesce. The whole affair seemed suspiciously like a flight from something or someone.”

“One morning by chance he happened to see his father taking a shower. The ex-lorry driver had two perfectly good shoulder blades and no trace of a scar anywhere.” Not driving; but not injured; and away for six months… what could it be?

LanglaisChapter Two sees a ramshackled old Citroen lorry pull up for petrol just as Frederick and the girls are returning home from school. The lorry looks like a hearse, held together with wire. Its owner, whom Frederick christens “the hunchback” because of a swelling on his back, tells M. Langlais that he’s looking for a job; he’s a mechanic, and he could help Langlais provide a breakdown service. They go to the Magpie Inn to discuss it, whilst leaving the petrol pumps to Frederick. When they emerge, slightly worse for wear after the consumption of plenty of rosé, it’s agreed; M. Jeremy is to have the spare room and will give Langlais 40% of everything he makes.

Jeremy certainly brings Langlais out of his shell; there had never been so much laughter in the house, and between them they set up the new workshop in under an hour. “Frederick turned back clenching his fists. For the last six months he had been trying to be a friend and companion to his father. And now this wretched hunchback had stepped into his place with no difficulty at all. An hour later they all met for dinner; father, mother, son and the irrepressible visitor. Monsieur Jeremy was very polite and talkative; he told some funny stories and when he raised his glass to his lips he crooked his little finger in the grandest possible manner. Both Monsieur Langlais and his wife were much impressed by so much elegance […] but the boy kept his head down and concentrated on his food. He felt deeply suspicious and offended.”

The worst moment for Frederick is when Jeremy remarks to Langlais, “your boy doesn’t talk much” and Langlais replies “he’s fifteen years old, and children of that age are all more or less idiots.” Frederick is furious. But he’s also determined that Jeremy shouldn’t do anything to make his father’s life worse.

JeremyChapter Three, and Jeremy is already making his first sale to an old farmer from Uchizy with a clapped-out old truck, whom he convinces to part with two hundred francs in exchange for a valve overhaul and a general check-over. Even Frederick, watching at a distance, admires his sales technique.

Frederick’s suspicions about Jeremy are raised again with the news that Colette saw him sitting outside and smoking at 2am. (You’re not allowed to smoke on petrol forecourts nowadays!) But, true enough, Jeremy does the repairs on the truck, and he and Langlais get on like a house on fire; although Frederick still regrets: “it won’t make any difference to me […] whatever he’s like with other people, he never seems to care for me.”

Just as Frederick is about to go sit by the river with the girls, his father tells him he wants him to help Jeremy with his work. Frederick sees it as an opportunity to find out what Jeremy is really like, so he changes into overalls , goes into the workshop, and receives his first lesson in vehicle mechanics. Against his better judgment, Frederick is impressed, and actually enjoys the work. Jeremy says he can come back any time for more jobs – and he’d get paid at the proper rate. But the mood sours when Jeremy asks Frederick more detailed questions about his father and the business; Frederick determines not to give anything away.

However, going back to the job in hand, Frederick feels more at ease: “Frederick had forgotten all about Colette and Fanny and the arrangements for a swim in the cool water of the Saône. His thoughts were concentrated on helping to put together the pieces of this jig-saw puzzle as he listened enthralled to the mechanic’s professional talk. He was able to be quite useful and he felt entirely happy and engrossed. No one had ever before talked to him in such a friendly way or allowed him to take part in such serious work. For the first time in his life he was experiencing the pleasure of working in harmony with a man of professional ability. His father had never given him that satisfaction.” A few hours later and Frederick and Jeremy are laughing away together. They take the repaired truck out of the workshop, and Langlais watches them. “Jeremy gave the thumbs-up sign and accelerated the engine. Monsieur Langlais came up to them to speak to the mechanic but did not pay the slightest attention to his son, whose beaming oil-covered face was leaning out of the door longing for some sign of recognition.”

Frederick feels he may come to terms with Jeremy’s presence “in a way no longer possible with his own father.” At dinner, Jeremy compliments Frederick on his work, but his father gives him no praise, only saying that he was to assist Jeremy for two hours every morning – which Frederick felt was going to eat into the fun of the holidays too much. When he tells Colette and Fanny, they’re disappointed. But Frederick has a thought about why Jeremy has suddenly turned up. “I wonder if he could have come here because of the cemetery […] the one at Senozan, the car scrapheap.” People had been visiting it recently, because of a newspaper article, “about the treasure of the Lost Legion. This had been a pathetic army formed by a rabble of Asiatics who had trailed pitifully after the routed Wehrmacht. In September 1944 one battalion of this comic opera army had vanished completely, apparently wiped out somewhere between Mâcon and Tournus”. Maybe Jeremy is hunting for this treasure?

Meanwhile, Langlais decides to stay open in the evenings, to see if the trade is worthwhile. Late at night, Frederick watches through his window to see his father working on the pumps, with Jeremy watching him in the shadows; “I’m watching over my father, who is letting himself be dominated by a horrible stranger.”

At 2am, the rumble of a lorry awakens Frederick. “The hunchback emerged suddenly into the light from the pumps. The driver leaned over again, and Frederick heard him say, “That’s good! You got the place all right? […] “Don’t talk here!” [Jeremy] said in a low voice. “The kid’s bedroom’s just there. Come over here! […] their low murmurs were unintelligible”. Jeremy filled the lorry with fifty litres of petrol and then it drove off. But Frederick is absolutely convinced that something is not right. All he knows is the name on the side of a lorry – SOBITO International Road Transport.

Claud and PoulardChapter Four The next morning Frederick simply doesn’t know what to do. Fanny explains that SOBITO is a new company with four lorries working regular routes, and they are next due to drive past Magpie Corner on Monday night. Should they watch out for it? Maybe there’s enmity between SOBITO and other hauliers over the monopoly of routes.

Langlois notes with excitement how many litres of heavy were sold overnight from pump five. ““That SOBITO lorry alone took fifty litres,” said Frederick in a gently but very clear voice.” Frederick explains how he watched the transaction; Jeremy is obviously shocked. Whilst the two men enjoy a drink and a laugh at the Café opposite, Frederick beseeches his mother to tell the truth about what really happened to his father. “Your father killed someone with his lorry […] it wasn’t his fault, I’m certain, but he was sent to prison for six months for that one wretched stroke of bad luck, which cost the life of an unknown man. A thing like that leaves its mark on a man, and your father is very sensitive. Don’t mention it to him – ever!”

After this revelation, Frederick feels he understands his father better; no longer frightened of him, but sympathetic. But he can’t resist quickly telling his father not to trust Jeremy – and his father calls him out for his words: “I’m not going to take any advice from a child like you. You are far too young to criticise grown-up people!”

Later, chatting with Traffic Cop Claud, Frederick admits he’s concerned about the presence of Jeremy in their lives. He goes on to tell Claud about what he’s just discovered about his father’s accident, and Claud tells him of an accident involving a cyclist the previous year, where a lorry driver took the blame for the dead cyclist’s bad road behaviour. Was it the same accident?

Magpie CafeChapter Five Life is busy at Magpie Corner. Jeremy has lots of customers and appreciates it when Frederick lends a hand – and, despite himself, Frederick always enjoys working alongside an expert. But when pushed, he has a full-on argument with Jeremy, accusing him of wanting to know where the family money is kept. Frederick discovers that Jeremy has been told about his father’s accident. Jeremy says he wants to be friends with Frederick but the boy is having none of it. Jeremy flies into a rage: “””I dare you to repeat to your father everything you have said to me!” he shouted, stamping his foot. He hates the sight of you, you silly little ass, and well you know it!””

Meanwhile, two sinister men had left their 4CV for repair, and were returning back to the café. One asks Uncle Arnaud for “cheaper” cigarettes. “”I do occasionally have a chance of getting a few packets free of duty for my regular customers,” he said peaceably. “But I don’t manage to keep them long, I don’t ask where they come from.” Are they Customs officers? Whatever, they convince Mme Paulin to let them have a room for a couple of nights. Frederick’s suspicions are even further aroused. He sees them in an argument with Jeremy, but he’s not taken in – he thinks it’s a charade for his benefit.

On a whim, Frederick decides to go and hide at the quarry at Senozan, to keep a watch out for anything suspicious. And who does he spy? None other than the two men with the 4CV. Frederick overhears their conversation: “If the stuff really was here everyone would know about it. There are plenty of nosy parkers around. It’s not so easy to hide ten tons of cargo. Besides, no lorry could get along that track.” Then the other man: “Listen, Louis, do you know what I think? I think the boss is worried stiff. The must know he’ll never get his fifty million cigarettes back again.” Worst of all for Frederick, the men mention Langlais in respect of this crime. “Packets of Diamond and Princess have been in circulation the whole way along this main road. It’s pretty obvious, especially as Langlais is hiding himself so near here.”

Frederick decides it’s time for action. He searches all the tunnels and eventually finds a chamber which hides a second chamber – and at the end of it, he feels the wheel of a lorry…

SmokersChapter Six sees Frederick speak directly to his father: “I know I’m only a kid, and probably not much good at anything. But I do want us to be friends again. Whatever it is that you have done doesn’t make any difference to me. After all, you are my father and I don’t want anyone to harm you, and they shan’t if I can stop them.” He can’t see his father’s reaction behind his dark glasses, but he hopes his message has hit home. Frederick also tells the girls about his adventure at the quarry – well, some of the details at least.

Later that night, Frederick comes down to talk to his father again. “Please listen! That hunchback is one of Monsieur Morden’s spies! […] We must go away at once Dad, We can find somewhere to go, it doesn’t matter where…” Langlais replies: “Yes, Frederick, I’ve known all along. I guessed it from the first moment when he was so keen to come and work here. But it was too late then to do anything about it. The moment they located me here I couldn’t move without involving us all, you, your mother and me, in a tragedy. So I tried to deceive him by playing his game. I let him spy into my private affairs so that he could see that I was only an ordinary sort of chap like thousands of others.”

At last Frederick and his father can talk freely between each other. Langlais understands and knows that his son is fully supportive of him, and Frederick is desperate to know more. Langlais doesn’t want to keep running and hiding for the rest of his life. He’s happy enough in their new position and wants to fight to keep it. But he confesses to his son that for years he drove Morden’s lorries knowing full well he was carrying contraband; but what could he do? His pregnant wife was delicate, his son was about to be born. He wanted to be able to provide for them as best he could. “As a matter of fact I never enjoyed one single moment of that ill-gotten comfort. It was poisoned by my sense of guilt, and my fear of being found out. When you were a little boy you used to ask innocent questions about my job – what sort of loads I carried, that sort of thing. And when I answered I found I was lying, lying to an innocent little boy. My life seemed to have become one big lie. I gradually became so ashamed that after a while I found myself avoiding you. It is natural for children to trust their parents and when you were about six you had a way of looking a me which made ashamed to think that I could deceive my wife and child so terribly.”

More revelations from Langlais. When he caused the death of the cyclist, he was accelerating away from rival smuggling gangs who would have stopped his lorry and taken control of his load. Langlais felt that if he accepted the blame and went to prison it would rid him of Morden and his illegal work for ever – but no. The contraband he was carrying at the time of the accident never came to light. Clearly, Jeremy and the 4CV men are working for Morden and trying to locate the stolen lorry and its goodies. So Langlais wants Frederick to keep an eye on Jeremy, and maybe take his mind off trying to find the contraband; Frederick suggests the girls will keep the 4 CV men out of harm’s way; which just leaves the SOBITO men.

So why, when Langlais finally goes to bed at 2am, is Frederick missing from his bedroom?

CalasChapter Seven Calas the postman arrives for a morning rosé at the Café and starts to brag about smoking both Diamond and Princess cigarettes – which just so happen to be the brands that were in Langlais’ lorry. He tells the 4CV men that they were just lying on the ground on the road from Chamarande that morning. Then two other men come in, also smoking the same brands. The 4CV men, whom Colette has nicknamed Duckbeak and Clownface, grow more unsettled and ask Uncle Armand for local countryside tips; Armand offers the services of the two girls to walk with the two men in the countryside (that wouldn’t happen today!!)

Frederick (who tells his father he just went for a walk the previous night) cheekily offers Jeremy a cigarette from his new packet of Diamonds. Jeremy is thunderstruck and is desperate to know where Frederick got them – and he tells the same story as the postman. Jeremy says: “I know people who would pay the earth to get their hands on a stock of these”, to which Frederick replies, “would they pay enough to let my father live in peace?”

Frederick asks Jeremy if he would like to live in the area for good. Jeremy concedes that it’s a good place, and that he was lucky to get on so well with his father. Later that day, Frederick spots Duckbeak and Clownface hiding in a taxi. Something’s going to happen soon, and, for once, it’s Jeremy who seems the most nervous.

4CV MenChapter Eight sees Frederick on a late-night rendezvous with Calas – down at the abandoned lorry in the quarry at Senozan. This is where Calas gets his endless supply of cigarettes, of course; and the only other person who knows about it is the driver, Young Charley, who won’t be happy until the whole stash has gone, and now never goes near the place. He unwittingly got involved in Morden’s contraband scam, and hadn’t a clue what to do with the lorry. It was Calas’ idea to hide it in Senozan.

Together they worked to fill two big sacks with cigarettes, but at this stage, what they did with them is a mystery. Frederick walks home at about 2am only to be discovered by his father. The two of them watch as a long-distance lorry accelerates towards the filling-station and knocks down all the pumps, and, without stopping, hurtles on to rejoin the main road and disappear. Langlais does his best to make the site safe, although Jeremy is reticent to help. When the police come, Frederick is able to give the number plate of the lorry – although he doesn’t mention it was the same lorry that called the previous week. Frederick also takes the opportunity to needle Jeremy once more, and he’s not happy about it.

Chapter Nine And we straightaway know what Frederick and Calas have done; as loads of people descend on the quarry to pick up hundreds of packets of cigarettes that are just lying on the ground. And, good news: SICA repaired the petrol pumps at 6am the next morning, so there was hardly any loss of trade. After some closer questioning by Frederick, he discovers that the lorry that is hidden in the quarry was not his father’s but another run by the same company – he confirms that the driver’s name was Charley.

Two men dressed in black check in to the Café for an overnight stay – and Uncle Armand is convinced they are customs officers. Over lunch Frederick realises that Jeremy has his own argument with the 4CV men – but he won’t say what it is. Perhaps, thinks Frederick, Jeremy can finally be trusted… However, Jeremy has devised a plan, and asks Frederick to provide him with one complete carton of cigarettes, containing five hundred packets of twenty. He won’t say why; but Frederick agrees. And then Jeremy drops a bombshell – Morden is coming to Magpie Corner tomorrow.

Another surprise – in conversation with traffic cop Claud, it emerges that they knew all along about the abandoned lorry and the plentiful supply of cigarettes, as Frederick watches him puffing away at a fresh pack of Diamonds. Claud invites Frederick to confess to the liberal scattering of packets a few days earlier – but he stays quiet. Nevertheless, Claud informs Frederick that he knows full well where the missing lorry is – safely parked out of harm’s way.

At night, Frederick has been true to his word and Jeremy divides up the cigarettes and stashes them all over the red 4CV; in the boot, behind the cushions, under the seats, in the door pockets. That done, Jeremy, Frederick and Calas drive around the village, dispensing cigarette packets everywhere.

Chapter Ten The by-pass is choked with motorists on the hunt for free cigarettes, some to smoke themselves, some to set up stalls to make a profit. Langlais is asked to see the police about a trivial matter, which leaves Frederick and Jeremy in charge of the big final scene. They were just serving some customers when a royal blue Jaguar pulls up at Pump Number One; Morden, his chauffeur and two other men. Morden wishes to see Langlais but Frederick explains he is with the police but will be back soon, maybe with some officers. Unimpressed with the sight of “his” cigarettes being shared out all over the place, they get out of the car and wait for Langlais to return, while Jeremy works on the Jaguar. Meanwhile the locals continue to smoke their hearts out.

Langlais tells Morden that he ought to leave whilst he can, but Morden is not in the mood to change his mind. Then Frederick bursts in and tells Morden it’s his Cherbourg lorry that is stuck locally and that, as no one came to claim it, for the last three days it’s been the property of Calas, the Postman. “”As for my father’s lorry,” went on Frederick, still perfectly calm, “I can’t say yet, because it’s in the hands of the traffic police and the Special Branch for suppression of smuggling.” Claud and Poulard arrive and confirm that the lorry Langlais was driving is currently being stored in Lille “in a shed behind the Customs Office!” Morden denies ownership of the vehicle; Claud confirms “for a cargo of that nature and tonnage […] counting the expenses, taxes, surcharges, compensation, damages and other indemnities claimed by the Customs, the Treasury and the State (all in algebraic progression, mind you), I should say our man would get a bill for about eight hundred million francs.”

On the road out to Rouvray, Morden and his men are stopped by Customs Officers – and five hundred cartons of Diamond cigarettes are found in the boot – the contraband that Jeremy had planted on them, when he was attending to the Jaguar.

Frederick confronts Jeremy with his suspicion that “it was you who planned that robbery of the two lorries in league with the drivers’ mates, wasn’t it? […] But it all went wrong because of my father and his accident. Klaus tried to rob you in his turn, and then young Charley lost his head. Monsieur Morden looked for his lorries all over France, and you were looking for them too on your own account. For a short while you hoped you could recover the Senozan one, but it was impossible for one man alone, and I got in your way.” Jeremy denies it, but we know Frederick is right.

One final revelation: the cyclist who died as a result of the accident, and the guilt for which Langlais has had to deal with for so long, had been dead six hours when the police arrived. So Langlais has been living with that guilt unnecessarily! It wasn’t him!

The Knights of King MidasTo sum up; Magpie Corner wasn’t translated until nine years after it was written, so, in the sequence of British publications of Berna’s works, it appears later and out of place, and I think has long been overlooked as a result. To my mind it’s a book of great atmosphere, considerable sadness; not a typical childhood funtime romp, but an examination of some of the darker sides of life. I really like it! If you’ve read the book – or are re-reading it now, I’d love to know what you think about it, so please add a comment below. Paul Berna’s next book was Le Kangourou Volant, which was never translated into English. So we’ll skip that one so that the next in the Paul Berna Challenge is The Knights of King Midas, and once more we’re in the world of gangs; not Gaby and his friends, but Charloun and his gang, so there’s a whole new bunch of French youngsters to meet. I can’t remember much about it, so I look forward to re-reading it and sharing my thoughts about it in a few weeks.

The Agatha Christie Challenge – Mrs McGinty’s Dead (1952)

Mrs McGinty's DeadIn which Superintendent Spence is not satisfied that James Bentley is guilty of the murder of charwoman Mrs McGinty, and asks that owner of magnificent moustaches, Hercule Poirot, to delve into the case to see if he can discover the real culprit. Poirot accepts the challenge, and, enduring a stay at a grotty B&B all in the pursuit of justice, unearths the real murderer and saves Bentley from the gallows.  As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I promise not to reveal whodunit!

The MousetrapThe book is dedicated “To Peter Saunders, in gratitude for his kindness to authors”. Peter Saunders was the theatre impresario who produced The Mousetrap, amongst other successes. Mrs McGinty’s Dead was first published in the US in thirteen instalments in the Chicago Tribune Sunday editions from October to December 1951, under the title Blood Will Tell. The full book was first published in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company in February 1952 and in the UK by Collins Crime Club, on 3rd March 1952, almost exactly a year after the publication of They Came from Baghdad.

Margaret RutherfordThis was one of the last books by Christie that I read first time around, primarily because I had seen the Miss Marple/Margaret Rutherford film Murder Most Foul, which is (allegedly) an adaptation of Mrs McGinty’s Dead, and thought that, as I now knew whodunit, there wasn’t a lot of point reading it. How wrong I was! Whilst it is a tremendously fun film, Murder Most Foul bears as much similarity to Mrs McGinty’s Dead as does the Book of Common Prayer. So, if you find yourself in the same situation, don’t lose any sleep over it!

CrowdWhether it’s because it is so unlike that film, I’m not sure, but I always have difficulty recalling the plot, characters and identity of the murder whenever I read this book. As a result, personally, it’s an entertaining read, as it’s as though I’m coming to it new. However, I do also find this book rather ploddy at times, particularly in those early, expositional chapters. It did take me some time to complete it. There are also a quite a large number of characters, and therefore possible suspects, and it’s one of those books where you have to stop and think exactly who we’re reading about in this chapter and what association they have to the rest of the book.

ApplesNevertheless, it’s entertainingly written, with plenty of humorous episodes, enjoyable characterisations and a few tongue-in-cheek references to the ardours of writing detective fiction. Yes, Mrs Oliver is back, Christie’s thinly veiled self-creation, obsessed with apples, struggling with storylines, exasperated that she made her detective a Finn, a vegetarian and too old – exactly the same problems that Christie had created for herself with Poirot. There are some very funny moments in the scenes between Mrs Oliver and Robin Upward, the very theatrical playwright who is adapting one of her books for the stage; his vision of her characters and plot is so very different from hers, and one can indeed imagine that this could be a real source of anguish for any author whose works are highly adaptable.

CurtainThere’s an intriguing conversation between Mrs Oliver and Robin when he gets the idea that she should write a book where her detective Sven Hjerson is murdered. “No fear,” she replies, “what about the money? Any money to be made out of murders I want now”. But of course, by this time, Christie had already written and squirrelled away Curtain and Sleeping Murder, the books which end the careers of Poirot and Miss Marple, to be published after her death. And from my memory, what Robin suggests should happen to Sven happens to one of her detectives… we’ll just leave that idea hanging there.

Vegetable MarrowsMrs McGinty’s Dead is our first meet-up with Poirot for four years – we last encountered him in Taken at the Flood. Given Mrs Oliver’s petulance about Sven Hjerson, I guess we can conclude that Christie had temporarily had enough of our Belgian hero and wanted to write some different characters – hence the interim books Crooked House and They Came to Baghdad featured neither Poirot nor Marple. She re-establishes the character in the opening paragraphs of the book, fondling his moustaches, creating an art form out of eating, drinking revoltingly luminescent sweet liqueurs, missing his old pal Hastings – even though his vanity only permits him to consider him as a stooge – and not regretting giving up the cultivation of vegetable marrows, a hobby which he gamely embarked on in The Mysterious Affair at Styles but it never caught on.

Detective2We also meet Superintendent Spence again, having also become acquainted with him in Taken at the Flood. He’s a bit more of a rounded character in this book; considered, intelligent, honourable and tenacious. Christie allows Poirot to point out the major difference between her two detectives, when Poirot gets frustrated at not making quicker progress: “I get nowhere – nowhere […] There is nothing – no little gleam. I can well understand the despair of Superintendent Spence. But it should be different for me. Superintendent Spence, he is a very good and painstaking police officer, but me, I am Hercule Poirot. For me, there should be illumination!”

TheatricalsAt times the book feels almost like a travelogue, with our hero Poirot moving from residence to residence, interrogating the occupants, trying to get to the bottom of what happened. As a result, there are a multitude of characters, most of whom play a minor role, but the consequence of that is we get a surfeit of suspects. This tends to confuse and frustrate rather than make it more exciting or difficult to crack. But the book redeems itself with its comic scenes (Poirot trying to make himself at home in the Summerhayes household is very funny) and the portrayal of Robin and all his theatrical chums is cheeky and entertaining.

WarminsterAs usual, there are a few references to check out, starting with the locations. The main activity of the book takes place in Broadhinny, and the neighbouring towns and villages of Kilchester, Cullenquay, Parminster, Cullavon, and Drymouth all play a part. Of course, these are all fictional; Parminster might be based on Warminster – one tends to think of Christie-land as being the West Country – although perhaps Kilchester is based on Colchester. The book starts with Poirot emerging from the Vieille Grand’mère restaurant into Soho; there are many Vieille Grand’mère’s all around the world but I can’t identify one in Soho.

Children's gamesThe title Mrs McGinty’s Dead refers to a children’s playground game. “Question and answer all down the line,” says Spence. “Mrs McGinty’s Dead! How did she die? Down on one knee just like I! – and then the next question […] Holding her hand out just like I”. I have to say I don’t recall that game from my childhood. Do any of my gentle readers? When Mrs Oliver and Poirot meet, they recall their shared experience regarding a Mr Shaitana. He was the victim in that excellent book Cards on the Table.

Robert Browning“Beautiful Evelyn Hope is dead”, quotes Poirot in conversation with Spence. Evelyn Hope, as far as this story is concerned, was Eva Kane’s assumed name once she’d fled after being suspected in the Craig case. But the quote is from Robert Browning’s poem, Evelyn Hope. This is not the first time that Christie has named a character after someone in a poem; Enoch Arden, who is frequently referred to in Taken at the Flood, is the name of a poem by Browning’s contemporary, Tennyson.

Edith Thompson“If we hanged Edith Thompson, we certainly ought to have hanged Janice Courtland”, avers Superintendent Spence. But who was Edith Thompson? She, together with her lover Frederick Bywaters, was found guilty of the murder of her husband in 1922 – even today, the guilty verdict against her seems very harsh, based on a series of love letters but no hard evidence. “Do you know, cher ami, what is a secret de Polichinelle?” asks Poirot of Spence. He answers his own question. It “is a secret that everyone can know.” It comes from a 1903 play of the same name by French dramatist Pierre Wolff.

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. The cash amounts mentioned in this book aren’t particularly expensive, but they’re interesting, nonetheless. Bentley is accused of having stolen £30 from Mrs McGinty. That’s about £600 today – quite a lot to steal from an older lady. All Mrs McGinty had in the bank was £200, to be bequeathed to her niece – that’s the equivalent of about £4000 today. Bentley’s board and lodgings cost him £3 a week – that’s £60 a week today, which is very good value for what he got. Mrs McGinty used to charge 1s 10d per hour for her cleaning services – about £1.80 today, way below the minimum wage. One other interesting fact; stamps to send a letter cost one penny. That’s just 10p today. Someone in the Royal Mail is obviously raking it in at the moment, I’ll say no more than that!

Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for Mrs McGinty’s Dead:

Publication Details: 1952. My copy is a Fontana paperback, seventh impression, dated August 1974, with a price of 35p on the back cover. The cover illustration by Tom Adams shows a massive fly hovering over a tea table, in an old-fashioned parlour. And is that a shoe attached to a foot attached to a leg at the bottom of the picture?

How many pages until the first death: The first death takes place before the book starts, and is referred to on the third page. However, there’s quite a long wait before the second death – 126 pages in all.

Funny lines out of context: sadly, none spring to mind.

Memorable characters:

Quite a lot to enjoy here. There’s the hopeless but likeable Maureen Summerhayes with her wayward children, awful cooking skills and “comfortable” guest house that’s more like an assault course. There’s the gutsy Maude Williams, willing to risk her own safety in a bid to help trap the guilty party, in the best tradition of Christie gutsy young women. There’s the haughty Mrs Carpenter, who can’t believe that her word doesn’t carry more weight in law than a mere servant’s. But most fun of all is the flouncy Robin Upward with his coterie of actors, ostentatiously referring to his mother as Madre, fussing and preening wherever he goes.

Christie the Poison expert:

Again, no real references to death by poisoning in this book. All the murders are much more violent and brutal.

Class/social issues of the time:

The early 1950s were known for being a time of dismal austerity. “The war has complicated things,” laments Superintendent Spence, although he is thinking specifically of the opportunity for the unscrupulous to change wartime records, identity cards, and so on, for their own dubious gains. The only hopeful new aspect to everyday life was the National Health service – but even there, people were cynical. In the words of Mrs Sweetiman, “nowadays even if you’ve got a chilblain you run to the doctor with it so as to get your money’s worth out of the National Health. Too much of this health business we’ve got. Never did you any good thinking how bad you feel.” Come to think of it, who gets chilblains nowadays? I don’t think I’ve ever heard of anyone having them.

Most of the class/social references in the book are spiteful little comments about foreigners, the homeless and – thinking primarily about Robin Upward – the use of the word “pansy” to describe a man who’s not particularly into women. Mrs Sweetiman refers to “nasty tramps” in their area who might have broken into Mrs McGinty’s house. Deirdre Henderson is of the same mind, referring in a later conversation with Mrs Oliver that there are “horrid tramps” in the area.

Elsewhere, as has happened in the past, Poirot is considered to be a “funny little foreigner” (again by Deirdre Henderson); Mrs Sweetiman’s assistant Edna needs to inform the police of a development but feels she can’t approach Poirot – “not a foreigner, I couldn’t.” Poirot contacts Mrs Wetherby ostensibly to suggest a replacement for their cook, Frieda, and she is relieved that Maude is “no, not foreign – English, thank goodness.”

You might expect the class system to be at its most pompous in an English village, where the lowly born serve the high and mighty. Mrs McGinty had few admirers, even though many relied on her work to keep their houses clean. Even though she had worked for her, and she was now dead, Mrs Carpenter still can’t bring herself to think of Mrs McGinty as more than just “some old charwoman”. But then again, neither Mrs Carpenter nor her husband are Nice People.

Classic denouement:  Yes! And the first since Towards Zero, eight years earlier. It’s one of those occasions where Poirot gathers everyone into a room, he lays a trap to make it seem like one person is responsible for the killings when all along it is someone else in the room, who at first tries to brave it out but then snaps. The best kind of end to a Christie book.

Happy ending? In a sense yes, although it’s very low-key and under-emphasised. There is a supposition that a relationship might blossom at the end of the book, but it’s not the one you might have expected and even then it’s only in the suspicious minds of the detectives. All a bit dark and gloomy, to be honest.

Did the story ring true? Nothing is so bizarre that you read it and think, oh Mrs Christie how could you possibly think we’d believe that –  and given the fact that so many of the world’s problems today come from the unscrupulous and biased news media, for me it rings very true that the crime and solution came from a newspaper cutting.

Overall satisfaction rating: A little chewy occasionally, but with a very exciting second half and a banger of a denouement. 8/10.

They do it with MirrorsThanks for reading my blog of Mrs McGinty’s Dead 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 They do it with Mirrors, and the chance to reacquaint ourselves with Miss Marple. This is another book I find it hard to remember, so it will be a journey of discovery re-reading the book. As usual, I’ll blog my thoughts about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!

The Agatha Christie Challenge – They Came to Baghdad (1951)

They Came To BaghdadIn which Victoria Jones bumps into Edward in a park in London over lunchtime sandwiches and falls in love with him in an instant. He’s going to Baghdad to help open a bookshop for his boss, and, troubled that she won’t ever see him again, she decides to chuck everything in and follow him to Baghdad. But many other important political and influential people are also travelling to Baghdad, and Victoria gets caught up in a spot of espionage because she’s that kind of girl.  As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I promise not to reveal its most exciting secrets!

BaghdadThe book is dedicated “to all my friends in Baghdad”. Since the political and Islamist developments of the late 20th century it’s difficult for most westerners to imagine Baghdad being the kind of place where people could just up and visit on a whim. But Christie would have accompanied her husband Max Mallowan on many an archaeological dig out there, and her autobiography has several references to her times there and the people she worked with. They Came to Baghdad was first published in the UK in eight abridged instalments in John Bull magazine from January to March 1951, and in Canada, in an abridged version in Star Weekly Complete Novel, a magazine supplement published in Toronto, in September 1951. Unusually, there was no magazine pre-publication of this book in the US, until the full book was published by Dodd, Mead & Co in late 1951. It had previously been published in full in the UK by Collins Crime Club, on 5th March 1951.

whodunitThe first time I tried to read this book (aged about 10 probably), I couldn’t get on with it at all. I was voraciously reading all the Christies I could lay my hands on, and when I realised this wasn’t a murder mystery (as such) I completely lost interest and went to find another “proper” whodunit instead. Then when I went back to it as an older teenager I gave it another chance and got completely wrapped up in the escapism of it all; the fascination of the setting, the excitement of the adventure, and who could resist the charms of Victoria Jones?

VictoriaIf you met her in real life, she’d be a keeper, for sure. Full of daring, absolutely fearless, but prone to making a few bad judgment calls; an imperfect kind of heroine that actually would make her a very realistic creation. Victoria’s the sort of girl who would go off on a whim; she believes in taking a chance on life in the hope that it would pay off. When she’s chloroformed and held captive in some miserable hovel, on regaining consciousness her instant reaction is to celebrate the fact that she’s still alive – she’s ineffably optimistic. She doesn’t let a mere thing like incarceration hold her back; and whilst she’s not particularly learned she is enormously practical.

ArchaeologistChristie keeps a steady conversational style going through much of this book; written in the third person but almost always with Victoria as the central character. Occasionally Dakin or Edward take control of whatever scene is playing out, but nine times out of ten we’re seeing life through Victoria’s eyes. This is particularly effective in the few archaeological dig scenes, where Victoria has installed herself as an anthropologist despite knowing nothing about the subject. Christie’s writing flows vividly as she shows Victoria experiencing life on a dig, just as Christie herself had done a few years earlier. There’s a sense of wonder and excitement about the work; a respect for and interest in the dead of centuries ago whose minutiae of life is becoming apparent. The chief archaeologists themselves as portrayed as rather eccentric boffins, like Dr Pauncefoot Jones, or suspicious nit-pickers like Richard Baker. I’m sure Christie saw both on her travels.

RitzAs usual, there are a few references to check out, starting with the locations. The book starts in London; with Victoria and Edward meeting at Fitzjames Gardens, Victoria working for a firm in Graysholme Street, WC2, and another character living at Elmsleigh Gardens, “a quiet, rather dingy Kensington square”. None of them is real, sadly. Edward invites Victoria to dine on a sausage at the “SPO in Tottenham Court Road” – whilst Tottenham Court Road is of course real, I’ve no idea what the SPO was. Victoria walks past the Ritz Hotel in Green Park (real) and down Albermarle Street (also real) in search of Balderton’s Hotel (fictional – although there is a Balderton Street just south of Oxford Street.)

Rashid Street BaghdadOnce Victoria has decided to follow Edward to Baghdad, the rest of the book takes place in the area of present-day Iraq. Dakin’s office near Bank Street and Rashid Street in Baghdad, seems extremely likely; a map of modern day Baghdad shows Rashid Street and the Bank of Iraq being close by. A body is found on the Rowanduz Road – Rowanduz is a town in the north of Iraq; it’s perhaps unlikely that it’s big enough to warrant a road named after it. Victoria spends some time wandering around the Copper Bazaar in Baghdad – today it’s better known as the Coppersmith Souk but it’s still there.

Shatt al ArabElsewhere a boat paddles along the Shatt el Arab, a river made by the confluence of the Tigris and Euphrates river in modern day Iran; Carmichael is said to have been born in Kashgar, an ancient city on the banks of the Tigris, but now regards Kerbela, 100 km south west of Baghdad, as “his city”; and Basrah, also mentioned, is a modern city on the Shatt el Arab. Dr Pauncefoot Jones is excavating the ancient city of Murik, which is said to be 120 miles from Baghdad, although the only Murik I can find is in Syria, well away from Baghdad; curious. When Victoria accompanies Mrs Clipp, they arrive at Castel Benito Aerodrome, an airport in Tripoli created by the Italians in Libya. Originally, it was a small military airport, but it was enlarged in the late 1930s and was later used by the British RAF after 1943. Tripolitania is the region of Libya in which Tripoli is situated. Interesting that they had to change planes here in order to get to Baghdad. And when Victoria is captured, she is held in Mandali, which today is a small town on the Iraq/Iran border. Clearly, Christie put a lot of effort into setting her story in real places in and around Baghdad.

Arabic CalligraphyThere are few Arabic words and quotations used in the book, for which it might be helpful to know the English meanings. People on the street in Baghdad call out “Balek!” at regular intervals; balek is Arabic for mind, so maybe they mean “mind out”? Victoria uses the phrase “el hamdu lillah” to her captors, which endears her to them; it’s a praise to Allah. She also works out that the word “bukra” means tomorrow; although not according to Google Translate it doesn’t. And Abdul Suleiman sang an Arab chant: “Asri bi lele ya yamali, Hadhi alek ya ibn Ali”. Google Translate gives this as: “My family, for me, O dictate, this is on you, Ibn Ali”. I think we just about get the picture.

BernadotteAnd now for some other references. Mr Morganthal tells Miss Scheele, “they got the Shah of Persia last year, didn’t they? They got Bernadotte in Palestine.” Who was Bernadotte? He was a Swedish diplomat who negotiated the release of about 31,000 prisoners from German concentration camps, including 450 Danish Jews from the Theresienstadt camp, and became United Nations Security Council mediator in the Arab–Israeli conflict of 1947–1948, until he was assassinated in Jerusalem by the paramilitary Zionist group Lehi. During Edward’s first conversation with Victoria, he thinks Jones is an unsuitable surname for a Victoria, and that Victoria Sackville-West would be better. Of course, Victoria Sackville-West did exist and was well known as a poet and lover of Virginia Woolf. And, c.1979, I attended a party in Oxford where my friend Sarah Sackville-West, who was reading English in the year below me, introduced me to her sister Victoria. So I’ve met the real Victoria Sackville-West, so there.

JumboWhen Edward says goodbye to Victoria at this first meeting, he ends with “partir, say mourir un peu”. In the correct, original French, partir c’est mourir un peu is a direct quote from the 1890 poem Rondel de l’adieu by Edmond Haraucourt. And there’s another poem quoted, that starts, “Jumbo said to Alice I love you…” Jumbo was the elephant imported into America by P T Barnum, that died whilst on tour. It was then replaced by Alice, Jumbo’s “widow”. Their transatlantic love affair was a source of some fascination in the Victorian era. Carmichael remembers travelling with his friends who were members of the Aneizeh tribe. Today better known as the Anazzah or Anizah tribe, these are a widespread people, currently mainly found in Saudi Arabia, but originally from the area in the north of modern day Syria, and they pre-date the rise of Islam.

Scheele's GreenBaghdad is said to be “in the sterling area and money therefore presented no difficulties”. I can do no better than to quote you what Wikipedia has to say on the matter: “At the outbreak of the Second World War, the sterling area was formed as an emergency measure to protect the external value of the pound sterling, mainly against the US dollar.” Iraq left the sterling area in 1959. Sir Rupert at one stage mentions “Scheele’s Green” as a coded message about Anna Scheele. It’s a cupric hydrogen arsenite, a yellowish-green pigment which in the past was used in some paints and wallpapers, but has since fallen out of use because of its toxicity. As a form of arsenic, it’s a carcinogen, and its presence in the green paint on Napoleon’s walls is said to have contributed to his death.

Gilbert a BecketVictoria reflects that she was very much like “the Saracen maid who arrived in England knowing only the name of her lover “Gilbert” and “England”. This is the tale of the capture and release of Thomas à Becket’s father while on Crusade in Palestine. A version of the tale appeared in Charles Dickens’ A Child’s History of England, where it is said that “a worthy merchant of London, named Gilbert à Becket, made a pilgrimage to the Holy Land and was taken prisoner by a Saracen lord;” he is released only by the agency of the lord’s daughter, who “wanted to become a Christian, and was willing to marry him if they could fly to a Christian country”. The faithless Gilbert, however, only returned her love until he found an opportunity to escape and flee to England. Gilbert had taught the lady only two words: “London” and “Gilbert.” Armed only with this knowledge, the lady sets out to find him.

WIlliam Ernest Henley“And we are for the dark” thinks Victoria, just before she awakes from a nightmare vision. This is a line from Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, Act Five, Scene Two. She loves her quotations, does Victoria; later on, she says “When you were a King in Babylon and I was a Christian slave”, which comes from William Ernest Henley’s “Or Ever the Knightly Years”. Finally, with the literary references, Victoria wants to answer the question, “who is Lefarge?” with the reply, “he’s brother to Mrs Harris”, in an allusion to Sairey Gamp’s imaginary friend in Dickens’ Martin Chuzzlewit.

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. In this book, Anna Scheele is said to have bought a sapphire and diamond ring from Cartier’s for £120 – its value today would be £2635, so that’s a nice little piece of gear. The cost of getting from London to Baghdad was estimated as being between £60-£100, which would be £1300-£2200 at today’s rates, which seems quite pricey. Victoria’s total assets amount to £9, 2/-, which today equals £200 – that’s not a lot. Mrs Clipp espies someone wearing a mink coat that she estimates cost $3000; that’s a $30,000 dollar coat today. And the coat that Carmichael examines in the souk was priced at seven dinars, which he says is too much; for many years the Iraqi dinar was fixed as equal to US $3.22, so that coat would have been worth $22.54, which at today’s rate would be about $225. Very expensive for a souk.

Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for They Came to Baghdad:

Publication Details: 1951.  Hardback publication for the Thriller Book Club, 121 Charing Cross Road, London WC2. No dust jacket survives!

How many pages until the first death: 108, although another character in the book has died before then but we don’t realise it. Quite a long wait – but then, it’s not a whodunit as such, so it matters less.

Funny lines out of context: a couple, with a stretch of the imagination.

“It’s for you, Jonesey,” a colleague remarked unnecessarily, her eyes alight with the pleasure occasioned by the misfortune of others. The other typists collaborated in this sentiment by ejaculating” (the sentence goes on to add “you’re for it Jones”.)

“Lot of cock”, thought Shrivenham disrespectfully.

Memorable characters:

Victoria wipes the floor with all the other characters, for the reasons given earlier. Apart from that, you have the rather camp, over the top expressions of the hotel proprietor Marcus Tio, who brightens up the scenes he’s in; and I rather like the understated villainy of the duplicitous Catherine.

Christie the Poison expert:

You wouldn’t know it from this book. She’s been replaced by Christie the Archaeology Expert. Her fascination with the bringing the past to life is summed up in this reflection from Victoria: “as they went along the Processional Way to the Ishtar Gate, with the faint reliefs of unbelievable animals high on the walls, a sudden sense of the grandeur of the past came to her and a wish to know something about this vast proud city that now lay dead and abandoned.”

Class/social issues of the time:

Victoria’s a working-class girl trying to fit in to very middle-class settings – that of the archaeologists and the intelligence units; no wonder she has to fumble her way through to the success she achieves at the end. When Dakin first encounters Victoria, he’s extremely patronising towards her. Otherwise there aren’t many “class” observations in this book.

Other observations that set this novel firmly in the mid-20th century are the excitement of air travel – Victoria wonders how a great big aeroplane could actually get into the sky, and is alarmed at all the noises and movement – and concern about world Communism, with “Uncle Joe” (Stalin) maybe appearing at the world conference to be held in Baghdad, fear of war against (or for) Communism in many places around the world.

But the political imperative in this book isn’t simply socialism versus conservatism. There’s a New Order on offer, and attainable with sacrifices. “The bad things must destroy each other. The fat old men grasping at their profits, impeding progress. The bigoted stupid Communists, trying to establish their Marxian heaven. There must be total war – total destruction. And then – the new Heaven and the new Earth. The small chosen band of higher beings, the scientists, the agricultural experts, the administrators […] the young Siegfrieds of the New World. All young, all believing in their destiny as Supermen. When destruction had run its course, they would step in and take over […] “But think […] of all the people who will be killed first.” “You don’t understand […] that doesn’t matter.””

Classic denouement:  As this isn’t a classic whodunit, the denouement isn’t as straightforward as many of Christie’s other books. The realisation of exactly what’s gone on, and the nature of the final twists, is slowly, but excitingly drawn out, using short, mini-chapters that build towards are very rewarding finish.

Happy ending? Yes! Primarily, Victoria survives her escapades – that’s a reward in itself. But it also looks like a happy, if unexpected, relationship is about to blossom.

Did the story ring true? There’s so much fanciful adventure going on in this book that it’s very hard to believe some parts of it. The most extraordinary thing is that when Victoria is on the run, she’s picked up by Richard Baker; of all the people in all Mesopotamia, it has to be him that encounters her. And then it’s revealed that Baker has all sorts of innocent connections with Carmichael. #Yeahright.

Overall satisfaction rating: Thoroughly enjoyable escapist nonsense. Worthy of a 9/10.

Mrs McGinty's DeadThanks for reading my blog of They Came to Baghdad 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 Mrs McGinty’s Dead, and for some reason I can never recall the plot of this book – so I have no idea what to expect! As usual, I’ll blog my thoughts about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Memorable characters:

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

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

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

Christie the Poison expert:

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

Class/social issues of the time:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Agatha Christie Challenge – Three Blind Mice (1950)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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