The Agatha Christie Challenge – Dead Man’s Folly (1956)

Dead Man's FollyIn which that eccentric detective novelist Mrs Oliver is called in to organise a Murder Hunt at a village fete but she suspects all is not as it should be and so asks Hercule Poirot to make sense of her suspicions. All seems well at first until an unexpected murder takes place in the boathouse! Even though the victim provides Poirot a huge clue at first hand before their death, Poirot can’t see the wood for trees until the final few chapters, when all is explained. As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I promise not to reveal whodunit!

Humphrey TrevelyanThe book is dedicated “To Humphrey & Peggie Trevelyan”. Humphrey Trevelyan – also known as Baron Trevelyan, was a British diplomat and author, and, at the time of the publication of Dead Man’s Folly, was the British Ambassador to Egypt, which is doubtless how Agatha and Max Mallowan came to know him and his wife Peggie. Dead Man’s Folly was first published in the US in three abridged instalments in the Collier’s Weekly in July and August 1956, and in the UK in six abridged instalments in John Bull magazine in August and September 1956. The full book was first published the US by Dodd, Mead and Company in October 1956, and in the UK by Collins Crime Club on 5th November 1956.

FollyDead Man’s Folly is a curious book in a number of ways. At first, it strongly reminded me of The Hollow, with Lady Stubbs taking on the latter-day role of Lady Angkatell. But then the story goes in a different direction, and for many pages in the centre sections of the book, it appears to lose its way, as we wait for something specific to happen. The thing we’re waiting for never actually materialises either, which also feels a bit of a disappointment. Poirot, unforgivably, ignores a vital clue which the reader picks up on immediately; it’s not often that we outsmart Poirot, and it simply doesn’t sit well. When we finally understand the truth of the case, the plot feels overwhelmingly complex and intricate. Many of the characters, too, are just lightly sketched in, and even the return of Mrs Oliver doesn’t portray her as exciting and vivid as we remember her from before. Even the title isn’t particularly suitable; yes, there is the double meaning of the word folly but I’m blowed if I can work out who the Dead Man might be.

Toast and JamNevertheless, there are some very enjoyable sequences, and, if not well-written characters, then well-written conversations. There’s a light comic touch, for example, to Poirot’s lengthy interrogation of Miss Brewis, punctuated by him slowly looking for the breakfast toast and jam.  As I said just now, the return of Mrs Oliver is enjoyable, but not outstanding; but a few further insights are made into Hercule Poirot’s character which redress the balance somewhat on the otherwise sketchy characterisations. In fact, we probably learn more about him in this book than in any other, save, perhaps for the first couple of books where the character was first introduced. We’ve seen before his disapproval of how some young women don’t make the best of their appearance. It’s elaborated on more in this book. When he meets a couple of girls from the local youth hostel, “he was reflecting, not for the first time, that seen from the back, shorts were becoming to very few of the female sex. He shut his eyes in pain. Why, oh why, must young women array themselves thus? Those scarlet thighs were singularly unattractive!” Before you call him a sexist pig, remember he is from a different era. But sexist pig does somewhat come to mind.

Red RosePossibly Poirot’s problem is that he is an old romantic. We already know of his passion for the Countess Vera from previous books. In Dead Man’s Folly, Poirot tells Sally Legge where English husbands get it wrong, and “foreigners are more gallant”. ““We know,” said Poirot, “that it is necessary to tell a woman at least once a week, and preferably three or four times, that we love her; and that it also wise to bring her a few flowers, to pay her a few compliments, to tell her that she looks well in her new dress or her new hat.”” When Sally asks him if he practices what he preaches, he replies, “I, Madame, am not a husband […] alas! […] it is terrible all that I have missed in life.”

World War 1 EndsSome more of Poirot’s homespun philosophy: in conversation with Alec Legge, who believes that “in times of stress, when it’s a matter of life or death, one can’t think of one’s own insignificant ills or preoccupations”, Poirot takes the opposite view. “I assure you, you are quite wrong. In the late war, during a severe air-raid, I was much less preoccupied by the thought of death than of the pain from a corn on my little toe. It surprised me at the time that it should be so. “Think”, I said to myself, “at any moment now, death may come,” But I was still conscious of my corn – indeed I felt injured that I should have that to suffer as well as the fear of death. It was because I might die that every small personal matter in my life acquired increased importance. I have seen a woman knocked down in a street accident, with a broken leg, and she has burst out crying because she sees that there is a ladder in her stocking.” I guess this very much sums up Poirot’s belief that people always behave like people – and that’s how they give themselves away when it comes to matters of crime. It also surprises one that Poirot should have been actively at war during the First World War – The Mysterious Affair at Styles confirms that Poirot arrived as a refugee in England after the war and had been an active member of the Belgian Police Force – but we know of no military involvement. Maybe he was unlucky in a street somewhere.

JigsawChristie brings our attention back to Poirot’s need and desire for symmetrically ordered design. “Hercule Poirot sat in a square chair in front of the square fireplace in the square room of his London flat. In front of him were various objects that were not square: that were instead violently and almost impossibly curved. Each of them, studied separately, looked as if they could not have any conceivable function in a sane world. They appeared improbable, irresponsible, and wholly fortuitous […] Assembled in their proper place in their particular universe, they not only made sense, they made a picture. In other words, Hercule Poirot was doing a jigsaw puzzle.” Thus Christie emphasises Poirot’s obsession with neatness and regularity, and also shows that a jigsaw is the perfect metaphor for how he pieces together the individual facts of a case in order to create the whole picture.

frenchmanInspector Bland, one of a team of policemen that we meet in this book for the one and only time, is perhaps less insightful regarding his opinion of Poirot – initially, at least. PC Hoskins asks him who Poirot is; his response: “you’d describe him probably as a scream […] Kind of music hall parody of a Frenchman, but actually he’s a Belgian. But in spite of his absurdities, he’s got brains.” High praise indeed! For me, the most interesting insight into Poirot’s mentality is his disappointment not to have solved the case earlier. “He went slowly out of the boathouse, unhappy and displeased with himself. He, Hercule Poirot, had been summoned to prevent a murder – and he had not prevented it. It had happened. What was even more humiliating was that he had no real ideas even now, as to what had actually happened. It was ignominious. And tomorrow he must return to London defeated. His ego was seriously deflated – even his moustaches drooped.”

telephoneOne final thing on Poirot – we get to find out his phone number! It’s Trafalgar 8137. When those London area names became numbers, that would have changed to 872-8137; then in 1968 the codes changed and Poirot’s number would have become 01 839 8137 – and now, 0207 839 8137. Hugely disappointing to discover that the number appears to be currently unused.

ApplesEnough of Poirot! Let’s move on to Mrs Oliver, if I can put it like that. You’ll remember from her previous appearances that her trademark symbol is the apple, and once again, when we meet Mrs O for the first time in this book, “several apples fell from her lap and rolled in all directions”. She’s obsessed with the things. I can’t wait to re-read Hallowe’en Party, where Mrs Oliver discovers that apples can have a more sinister side. Poirot values Mrs Oliver’s company and instinct – it’s on her say-so that he ups and leaves the comfort of his London flat for Devon. Whilst we may feel she represents Christie herself, with her insights into writing detective novels, Poirot sees her as a replacement Hastings. Towards the end of the book she makes an innocent comment about hats being a symbol, and Poirot sees the light on one aspect of the crime that’s been bothering him. Mrs Oliver hasn’t a clue that she’s helped. “It is extraordinary,” said Poirot, and his voice was awed. “Always you give me ideas. So also did my friend Hastings whom I have not seen for many, many years. You have given me now the clue to yet another piece of my problem.” Unfortunately she fades out of the book for a long spell in the middle and only reappears right at the end, which I feel is rather unbalanced.

dead bodyLet’s look at some of Mrs Oliver’s insights into the writing process. When Poirot is impressed at her ingenuity in planning a torturously complicated story for the Murder Hunt, she replies, “it’s never difficult to think of things […] the trouble is that you think of too many, and then it all becomes too complicated, so you have to relinquish some of them and that is rather agony.” Later she admits that it’s possible to make a mistake. “”Don’t bother about me,” she said to Poirot. “I’m just remembering if there’s anything I’ve forgotten.” Sir George laughed heartily. “The fatal flaw, eh?” he remarked. “That’s just it,” said Mrs Oliver. “There always is one. Sometimes one doesn’t realise it until a book’s actually in print. And then it’s agony!” Her face reflected this emotion. She sighed. “The curious thing is that most people never notice it. I say to myself, “but of course the cook would have been bound to notice that two cutlets hadn’t been eaten,” but nobody else thinks of it at all.”” I believe Christie herself admitted that there are a few errors in her books; there are chronology discrepancies in Crooked House and Murder in Mesopotamia, I think; and the murder weapon in Death in the Clouds was the wrong size for an aeroplane!

Giving a talkWhen Mrs Oliver returns to the story towards the end of the book, she has been preparing for – or rather not preparing for – a talk she had been asked to give entitled “ How I Write My Books”. But it’s a question she can’t answer. “I mean, what can you say about how you write books? What I mean is, first you’ve got to think of something, and when you’ve thought of it you’ve got to force yourself to sit down and write it. That’s all. It would have taken me just three minutes to explain that, and then the Talk would have been ended and everyone would have been very fed up. I can’t imagine why everybody is always so keen for authors to talk about writing. I should have thought it was an author’s business to write, not talk.” I’m guessing Mrs Christie didn’t much like giving talks.

Woman in the woodOne last observation about Mrs Oliver – Christie wryly mentions that three years after the case “Hercule Poirot read The Woman in the Wood by Ariadne Oliver, and wondered whilst he read it why some of the persons and incidents seemed to him vaguely familiar.” As Pablo Picasso once said, “good artists copy, great artists steal.”

police inspectorThis book is surprisingly full of other police types. Normally Poirot solves a case either on his own or in company with the local police inspector or someone from Scotland Yard. Occasionally they also involve the Chief Constable. Dead Man’s Folly, however, features at least five other police officers. It’s almost as though Christie was trying them out for size to see if they were worth resurrecting in future books. I’ve already referred to Inspector Bland; bland by name, bland by nature. Christie primarily uses him as an all-purpose cop, programmed to ask questions of suspects, rather than an individual with his own personality. “You’re so damned respectable, Bland”, says Major Merrell, his Chief Constable. All we know of Merrell is that Christie tells us he “had irritable tufted eyebrows and looked rather like an angry terrier. But his men all liked him and respected his judgment.” There’s also Superintendent Baldwin, Bland’s immediate superior (we presume), of which we know that he is “a large comfortable-looking man”, whatever that means. We briefly meet Sergeant Cottrell, “a brisk young man with a good opinion of himself, who always managed to annoy his superior officer.” And there’s PC Hoskins, who’s not that PC after all. Hoskins is one of those lesser police officers who listen to the local gossip, and mistrust anyone who wasn’t born in the same village that he was. But we do understand that he is “a man of inquisitive mind with a great interest in everybody and everything”. If there’s a suspect, he’s bound to be a “”foreigner of some sort”, “one of those that stop up to the Hostel at Hoodown, likely as not, There’s some queer ones among them – and a lot of goings-on […] you never know with foreigners. Turn nasty, they can, all in a moment […]” Bland reflected that the local verdict seemed to be the comfortable and probably age-long one of attributing every tragic occurrence to unspecified foreigners.”

DartmouthNow we’ll look at some of the references in this book. Starting with the locations, this book is set primarily in Devon, but bookended with Poirot’s flat in London. Nasse House, the prime location for the story, is in the appropriately named Nassecombe, other local towns and villages to appear are Helm, Helmmouth, Brixwell and Gitcham. All of these place names are fictitious; however, I think it’s likely that the setting is very much inspired by Christie’s own home Greenaway near Dartmouth, and that Helmmouth is Dartmouth, Brixwell is Brixham, Gitcham is Dittisham, and Nasse House and Nassecombe are equated with Noss near Dartmouth.

painted fingernailsThere are a few other references, mostly pretty well known or guessable, with just a couple that foxed me. When Poirot observes Lady Stubbs’ immaculate fingernails, he thinks “they toil not, neither do they spin…” which is taken from the Bible, the gospel of Matthew, Chapter 6, verses 28-29: “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: and yet I say unto you, that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.” I remember having to read that at a school assembly once. When Sally tells Sir George that he reminded her of Betsy Trotwood shouting at donkeys, he doesn’t get the reference, but you and I both know that’s David Copperfield’s aunt.

George SangerMrs Folliat quotes some lines of Spenser to Poirot: “Sleep after toyle, port after stormie seas, ease after war, death after life, doth greatly please…” which are the last two lines of his poem Sleep After Toyle, from his collection of short poems entitled Complaints, published in 1591, which I confess I had never come across. Mrs Masterton tells Poirot that Sir George’s name was possibly taken from Lord George Sanger’s Circus. George Sanger was a travelling showman and circus proprietor active in the 19th century, who established his circus at an amphitheatre on Westminster Bridge Road in London.

Jacques Fath“When lovely woman stoops to folly” quotes Mrs Oliver, without knowing where she’s heard it before. It’s the title and first line of a short poem by Oliver Goldsmith – I wonder if Christie was punning on the name Oliver as a private joke? When Weyman is asked if he had seen Lady Stubbs on the afternoon of the fete, he replies “Of course I saw her, Who could miss her? Dressed up like a mannequin of Jacques Fath or Christian Dior?” Dior, of course, is very familiar. But Fath? He was a French fashion designer, whose clients included Ava Gardner, Greta Garbo and Rita Heyworth, and he even dressed Eva Peron. He died of leukaemia at the age of 42, two years before Dead Man’s Folly was published. Finally, Major Merrall concludes that Lady Stubbs was not a wealthy woman, in fact “she’s not got a stiver of her own”. I’d never come across the word stiver before. It derives from the Dutch, stuiver, which was an old coin, the equivalent of five Dutch cents, a 20th of a guilder. My OED tells me it came into use in English in the early 17th century. Who knew?

PoundWhich brings me nicely to the question of money, and regular 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 no grand values bandied about in this book, rather the opposite in fact. Admission to the fete cost half-a-crown (that’s 12.5p to you youngsters) – at today’s rate that would be just over £2. Bargain, I’d say. And Lady Stubbs tells Poirot that she once won sixty thousand francs at Monte Carlo on the roulette wheel. Unfortunately, she doesn’t tell us exactly when, but even in 1956 that would have been the equivalent of over £8000 today – so not a bad win at all.

 

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

 

Publication Details: 1956. My copy is a Fontana paperback, fourth impression, dated September 1974, with a price of 35p on the back cover. The cover illustration by Tom Adams shows a dead girl clutching a scarf, lying on a bed of daisies under a folly and with a yacht in the distance. That basically brings together many elements of the book although it takes liberties with what actually happened!

How many pages until the first death: 64. It feels like quite a long wait, but you do get a sense of pre-murder suspense; you know something evil is going to happen to someone but you don’t know what and you don’t know to whom.

Funny lines out of context: A classic use of the E word, in a conversation between Mrs Oliver and Hercule Poirot.

“I beg your pardon, M. Poirot, did you say something?” “It was an ejaculation only.”

Memorable characters:

Unfortunately, this is one aspect in which this book falls down badly, and is one reason why it becomes a curious re-read, in that it’s so unmemorable, it’s like you’re reading it for the first time!

Christie the Poison expert:

Again, nothing to see here. Christie’s chosen methods of murder in this book are garrotting and drowning.

Class/social issues of the time:

This book isn’t as rooted in social issues as much as many of Christie’s other works, but there are a few interesting points of note. The growth of Communism continues to vex Christie, a theme she introduced in Destination Unknown and which continued in Hickory Dickory Dock. Here it’s not so strongly alluded to, and is also conflated with Christie’s regular observations about “foreigners”. The siting of the Youth Hostel at Hoodown upsets many of the villagers with its inevitable influx of young people from abroad. Sir George is not happy at this arrangement, especially as many of the young people try to use his land as a short cut. ““Trespassers are a menace since they’ve started this Youth Hostel tomfoolery. They come out at you from everywhere wearing the most incredible shirts – boy this morning had one all covered with crawling turtles and things – made me think I’d been hitting the bottle or something. Half of them can’t speak English – just gibber at you…” He mimicked: “ ‘Oh, plees – yes, haf you – tell me – iss way to ferry?” I say no, it isn’t, roar at them, and send them back where they’ve come from, but half the time they just blink and stare and don’t understand. And the girls giggle. All kinds of nationalities, Italian, Yugoslavian, Dutch, Finnish – Eskimos I shouldn’t be surprised! Half of them Communists, I shouldn’t wonder”, he ended darkly. “Come now, George, don’t get started on communists,” said Mrs Legge.”

But there’s also the curious incident of Alec Legge and the young man in the turtle shirt. The true significance of this is never made absolutely plain, but Poirot confronts the scientist over his deduction that “some years ago you had an interest and sympathy for a certain political party. Like many other young men of a scientific bent” – which takes us straight back to the Communist “paradise” in Destination Unknown. Poirot realises that there was an assignation between Legge and this young man in the boathouse. There is some suggestion, maybe, of espionage, or blackmail; we just don’t know. But whatever the reality, it’s clear that this is another reference to what was perceived to be the growing threat from the east.

There’s also a reiteration of an idea that I’ve seen in other Christie novels, and one which Poirot often employs to his own benefit. Miss Brewis doesn’t hold back from telling Poirot what she thinks about Lady Stubbs. ““Lady Stubbs knows perfectly well exactly what she is doing. Besides being, as you said, a very decorative young woman, she is also a very shrewd one.” She had turned away and left the room before Poirot’s eyebrows had fully risen in surprise. So that was what the efficient Miss Brewis thought, was it? Or had she merely said so for some reason of her own? And why had she made such a statement to him – to a newcomer? Because he was a newcomer, perhaps? And also because he was a foreigner. As Hercule Poirot had discovered by experience, there were many English people who considered that what one said to foreigners didn’t count!” For this to be true, it implies that the English consider foreigners to be less important, or intelligent, or relevant. Whatever, it’s a sign of international disrespect. Poirot recognises latent xenophobia in conversation with Mrs Masterton too. “”By the way, you’re a friend of the Eliots, I believe?” Poirot, after his long sojourn in England, comprehended that this was an indication of social recognition. Mrs Masterton was in fact saying: “Although a foreigner, I understand you are One of Us.” She continued to chat in an intimate manner.” Apart from that, there’s the usual, minor xenophobic banter you find in a typical Christie, including Sir George referring to De Sousa as a “dago”, as well as PC Hoskins’ non-PC comments I mentioned earlier.

Even though the book was published more than ten years after the end of the war, there are still traces of its after-effects. Mrs Masterton doesn’t trust Warburton; “silly the way he sticks to calling himself “Captain”. Not a regular soldier, and never within miles of a German.” Like Christopher Wren in Three Blind Mice (and by association, The Mousetrap) and Laurence Brown in Crooked House, people are still suspicious of any man without an immaculate war record.

But time marches on, and the 1950s bring with them the first signs of creature comforts that we have come to love and appreciate over the past seventy years. Mrs Folliat reflects on how the top cottage at Nasse House has been “enlarged and modernised […] it had to be; we’ve got quite a young man now as head gardener, with a young wife – and these young women must have electric irons and modern cookers and television, and all that. One must go with the times.” I think that’s the first time that Christie has mentioned such modern inventions – although I think we may have seen Poirot blissfully warmed by central heating in an earlier book. By 1956 I would have thought it would have been commonplace to have at least one of these modern items in your household. But then again, Mrs Folliat does rather live in the past.

Trust PC Hoskins to bring up the subject of Lady Stubbs’ IQ, suggesting it might be on the low side. “The inspector looked at him with annoyance. “Don’t bring out these new-fangled terms like a parrot. I don’t care if she’s got a high IQ or a low IQ.” Bland might consider IQ to be a new-fangled idea but in fact the concept of IQ had been around for decades. Maybe at this time it was just starting to gain popular traction.

Classic denouement:  No. As in Hickory Dickory Dock before it, the identity of the murderer is revealed in a quiet private discussion purely between Poirot, Bland and Merrell; but then Christie cuts away from the scene before Poirot can explain to his colleagues How They Did It. Poirot then moves on to a discussion with a third party to seek clarification on certain points of his theories. Apart from that, we never see the culprit confronted with their crime, or see other witnesses find out what actually happened, or their reaction to the truth. Not at all satisfactory, I fear.

Happy ending? Unusually, there’s no reason to expect any happy ending here. No last-minute engagements, no rightful inheritances; in fact, there is a suspicion that one of the characters might end their own life after the end of the book. Very downbeat.

Did the story ring true? Whilst it’s not an impossible solution to the crime it’s a highly implausible one. Very complicated, very elaborate (and totally unguessable!) So, no, it doesn’t ring that true.

Overall satisfaction rating: It’s a complex plot, full of smoke and mirrors, and impossible to guess; it has a dull middle part where nothing much happens, and the characters and story aren’t particularly memorable. To its credit, it fleshes out Poirot a lot more, and there are some entertaining passages. But, overall, a slightly disappointing 7/10.

4.50 From PaddingtonThanks for reading my blog of Dead Man’s Folly 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 4.50 from Paddington, and the return of Miss Marple. The Margaret Rutherford Marple film Murder She Said is based on this book, and I’ve recently seen the film again so I can clearly remember whodunit. We’ll see if that spoils the book at all. As usual, I’ll blog my thoughts about it as soon as I can. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!

The Agatha Christie Challenge – Hickory Dickory Dock (1955)

Hickory Dickory DockIn which Hercule Poirot is brought into make sense of some strange thefts and minor acts of vandalism at a students’ hostel managed by his secretary, Miss Lemon,’s sister, Mrs Hubbard. But when the thefts turn into deaths, his job is to discover who is behind a series of very serious crimes and prevent more murders from taking place.  As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I promise not to reveal whodunit!

MouseThis is the first book written by Christie to bear no dedication since Crooked House was published in 1949. However, even that book started with a foreword. This is the first book to launch straight into the first chapter without any preamble since Sparkling Cyanide in 1945. Hickory Dickory Dock was first published in the UK in six abridged instalments in John Bull magazine, from May to July 1955. In the US, the novel was first serialised in the Collier’s Weekly in three abridged instalments between October and November 1955 under the title Hickory Dickory Death. The full book was first published in the UK by Collins Crime Club on 31st October 1955, and in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company in the following month.

detectiveI had been looking forward to re-reading Hickory Dickory Dock and for the most part it did not disappoint. In many respects, it’s the classic Christie gripping read – a sequence of deaths occurring in a closed environment, and, although there’s no reason why the murderer should not be someone from outside, you really hope that it is one of the obvious suspects and not some unexpected external influence. The characterisations are good, and you really get a feel for how they behave individually. It’s very difficult – if not impossible – for the reader to ascertain the reason for all the individual thefts and minor crimes that Poirot is initially consulted on – in fact, you don’t try, you just let Poirot’s intelligence wash all over you. As far as the identity of the murderer is concerned, it’s curiously both obvious and completely obfuscated. I remember when I first read this book as a child that I guessed who had done it and was both chuffed to have got it right and disappointed not to enjoy a big surprise.

Mouse Ran up the ClockAs with many of her other books, the title is taken from a nursery rhyme or well-known quotation. It’s a great title; but to be fair it’s lazily applied. For example, there’s no relevant mouse or clock involved in the story. Its only relevance is just the fact that the name of the street where the students live is Hickory Road. You can tell that the title came first. The book begins and ends with a couple of old characters whom we’ve met before. Poirot’s super-efficient secretary, Miss Lemon, appears in the first chapter, startling Poirot by making mistakes in her letters. This is not the Miss Lemon that he has become used to over the years, and nor do we expect her mind to be elsewhere when she is “on the job”. We first encountered her in Parker Pyne Investigates, as one of that super-sleuth’s industrious bank of general staff. By 1947, she has joined Poirot’s team, as we reacquaint ourselves with her in The Labours of Hercules. The opening scene, where Miss Lemon makes a (shock!) mistake with the typing, is written with heaps of humour and is a delightful and very funny introduction. At the end of the book, Poirot catches up with “old Mr Endicott” with whom he had worked on the Abernethy case. This refers to After the Funeral; but whether it’s by error or judgment Christie has slightly changed the details from that previous book, where the family’s name was spelt Abernethie and the solicitor in the case was old Mr Entwhistle. Those changes of name seem very curious to me.

LiegeThere are a few other callbacks to other Christie novels in this book. For example, there is the repetition of the name Mrs Hubbard, who is Miss Lemon’s sister who works at the students’ hostel, but is also one of the American guests travelling on the Orient Express in Murder on the Orient Express. When the students are expecting the arrival of Poirot to give a lecture, one of them says “there was a man who was condemned to death for the murder of a charwoman and this detective got him off at the last moment by finding the real person” – that’s the story of Mrs McGinty’s Dead. Poirot also refers to a soap manufacturer from Liège – that’s Sir Joseph Hoggin in The Nemean Lion, part of The Labours of Hercules. Inspector Sharpe remembers Poirot from a previous case – “remember that business down at Crays Hill?” This doesn’t seem to be a definite reference to any of the other works though. Poirot himself is reminded fleetingly of his beloved Countess Vera Rossakoff – being so much more splendid a woman than these drab young students. The Countess featured most heavily in The Big Four but also appears in The Labours of Hercules and will reappear in an early short story, The Double Clue, which we won’t get to read until Poirot’s Early Cases will be published in 1974.

OratorApart from his rather lacking love-life, is there anything new for us to learn about Poirot in this encounter? Not much. We last saw him two years before in After the Funeral, but of course Poirot never really ages; he started off elderly in The Mysterious Affair of Styles and appears to have been frozen in time ever since! The students in Hickory Road have heard of him, of course, when Mrs Hubbard invites him to give an address, and he displays all his well-renowned oratory skills. “Poirot rose to his feet and spoke with his usual aplomb. The sound of his own voice was always pleasant to him and he spoke for three-quarters of an hour in a light and amusing fashion, recalling those of his experiences that lent themselves to an agreeable exaggeration. If he managed to suggest, in a subtle fashion, that he was, perhaps, something of a mountebank, it was not too obviously contrived.”

Mind Your LanguageWe do also get to meet Inspector Sharpe. Personally, I don’t warm to Inspector Sharpe much. He thinks a lot of himself, on the quiet. He’s very patronising, calling Geronimo “sonny”; he’s very ham-fisted in his attempts to be racially fair (at times in Hickory Dickory Dock, you feel like you’ve been transported to that old ITV 70s sitcom Mind Your Language, in its unsubtle treatment of foreign nationals!) Sharpe prides himself on his ability to get information out of people by conversation and by his general amiability; but I think he’s just big-headed, to be honest. However, he does get the job done and is a careful and thoughtful sleuth with good insight and ability. He doesn’t reappear in any other Christie books – and I can’t say that I’m disappointed.

WriterIn Destination Unknown, Christie uses her usual tactic of writing short chapters, or short divisions within chapters, to increase a sense of speed, excitement and tension. She does this in the opening part of the book and it works extremely well. In Hickory Dickory Dock, she uses the same technique but later in the book. At times, she sets up a veritable frenzy of short scenes, which really keeps the pace driving forwards. It’s quite filmatic (is that the word?) in style, where you see a series of unconnected events one after the other and they build up to an overall picture of many people’s activities all at the same time. It’s a very exciting technique. Another successful technique is when a character is involved in a conversation with another character but Christie doesn’t tell us who that second character is – and for good reason, because that second character is just about to murder the first. That works extremely well in this book.

Dramatis PersonaeHickory Dickory Dock has a relatively high number of cast characters. Apart from Poirot and Sharpe, Miss Lemon and George, and a couple of other police/security types, all the other characters live or work at Hickory Road – and there are at least seventeen of them. So there’s a wide range of characters who have to be introduced fairly rapidly to the reader. Christie employs the device of introducing the list of petty acts of theft or vandalism early on and then having Mrs Hubbard explain which of the characters was most affected by each little crime. It’s a very clever way of introducing such a large cast of characters and associating each one directly with one aspect of the case. It also offers the reader plenty of options as to whom they think might be responsible for the crimes; however, as I mentioned earlier, although there are many possibilities, suspicion largely falls on a limited number of residents – and it’s not a hard one to guess.

LondonNow we’ll look at some of the references in this book. I would normally start with the locations, but, almost uniquely in the Christie oeuvre, there’s only one location in this book apart from Poirot’s own apartments, and that’s the student hostel in Hickory Road. No surprise that this is a completely made up address; there is a Hickory Road in London, but it’s London, Ontario! The only other Hickory Road in the UK that I can unearth is in Lincoln. So we can assume it’s purely an invention.

CortesThere are quite a few other references though, some more intractable than others. Of Miss Lemon, Christie notes that “on questions of surmise, she was lost. Not for her the state of mind of Cortez’ men upon the peak in Darien.” That one perplexed me. But that was poor, I needed look no further than my copy of Keats. “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer”: “I like some watcher of the skies/ When a new planet swims into his ken;/ Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes/ He stared at the Pacific—and all his men/ Look’d at each other with a wild surmise—/ Silent, upon a peak in Darien.” But that still doesn’t explain who Cortez was or where Darien is. I’ll hand you over to Wikipedia: “Hernán Cortés de Monroy y Pizarro Altamirano, 1st Marquess of the Valley of Oaxaca was a Spanish Conquistador who led an expedition that caused the fall of the Aztec Empire and brought large portions of what is now mainland Mexico under the rule of the King of Castile in the early 16th century.” The Darien in question is a province in Panama, at the far east of the country. To be honest, I’m not remotely surprised Miss Lemon didn’t worry about it.

Sherlock Holmes“The parsley sinking into the butter on a hot day” murmurs Poirot to himself, intrigued by Miss Lemon’s lack of concentration. He explains to her that it’s a quotation from Sherlock Holmes but he doesn’t tell us more. “You will remember, Watson, how the dreadful business of the Abernetty family was first brought to my notice by the depth which the parsley had sunk into the butter upon a hot day.” This is from the short story The Adventure of the Six Napoleons from the book The Return of Sherlock Holmes. So now you know. Although I’m still not sure what relevance butter and parsley have to anything. It’s been a long time since I’ve read any Holmes.

Girls Own BookWhen Poirot is presented with the list of items that have been either stolen or vandalised, he says it reminds him of a game he was forced to play by young friends during Christmas, called The Three Horned Lady. He explains that it’s a memory game and if you forget the items in your list you get awarded a horn. Then you become a one-horned lady. If you forget two more times you become a three-horned lady and you’re out. I’d never heard of this particular game, but Google shows that it was described in The Girl’s Own Book dated 1844 – I don’t know if that’s its first time in print, but that shows that it was at least 100 years old when Christie wrote about it.

FulbrightSally Finch is said to be studying in the UK on a Fulbrite (sic) scholarship – The Fulbright Programme is designed to improve intercultural relations, cultural diplomacy, and intercultural competence between the people of the United States and other countries through the exchange of persons, knowledge, and skills. It was started in 1946, with the first UK – US exchange taking place in 1948, and it still continues to this day. In a breakfast argument between Valerie and Nigel, she refers to The Oxford Group – again I point you towards Wikipedia: “The Oxford Group was a Christian organization first known as First Century Christian Fellowship founded by the American Lutheran Christian priest Frank Buchman in 1921. Buchman believed that the root of all problems were the personal problems of fear and selfishness.” Over the years the Oxford Group became Moral Re-Armament, and in 2001 became Initiatives of Change, which is still active today.

Annie Get Your GunValerie jokes that “you can’t get a man with a gun” – which of course I am sure you are aware is a song that comes from the 1946 musical Annie Get Your Gun. Mrs Nicoletis is described as being “cheese-paring”, a phrase that was new to me, meaning “extremely careful with money”. I guess the derivation is that if you pare the cheese, it goes further. Elizabeth Johnston strongly disapproves of the American “witch hunts, their hysterical spy mania, their obsession over Communism.” In 1955, America was just getting over the worst of McCarthyism. “I know two things about the horse and one of them is rather coarse”, quotes Sharpe, much to Poirot’s surprise. This amusing little rhyme was by Naomi Royde-Smith and was published in the Weekend Book of 1928. Patricia’s paperweight depicted a Lion of Lucerne – which is a rock relief in Lucerne, Switzerland, that commemorates the Swiss Guards who were massacred in 1792 during the French Revolution, when revolutionaries stormed the Tuileries Palace in Paris. It is one of the most famous monuments in Switzerland. But I’ve never seen or heard of it. And that completes the references for this book.

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. Len Bateson bets Nigel Chapman £5 that he couldn’t obtain three different types of poison by three different methods. Nigel wins his bet. £5 in 1955 would be worth £91 today so that’s quite a lot of money for a spontaneous bet. Superintendent Wilding confirms that “you can pack ten or twenty thousand pounds’ worth of heroin in a very small space”. I’m no expert on the street value of heroin today, but ten to twenty thousand pounds in 1955 equates to a massive £1.8m – £3.6m today. And the five or six thousand pounds’ worth of drugs that Wilding estimates could be easily imported on one simple journey is the equivalent of £91,000 to £110,000 today. Not bad pocket money.

Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for Hickory Dickory Dock:

Publication Details: 1955. My copy is a Fontana paperback, fifth impression, dated June 1972, with a price of 25p on the back cover. The cover illustration by Tom Adams shows a green-lit face with big staring eyes looking out at a mouse perched on top of a hand, with a dazzling jewelled ring on one of the fingers. Only the jewel has any relevance. It’s an atmospheric image but not overly appropriate!

How many pages until the first death: 55 – but there’s been plenty of other crime and investigation already by then.

Funny lines out of context: basically, to find these funny, you have to have a dirty mind. But I think I know my readers well enough.

“Sergeant Cobb said “Good morning Madam,” and produced his credentials.”

“…he now proceeded to take the drawers out and turn them upside down. He uttered an ejaculation of pleasure. “Here we are, my lad” he said.”

Memorable characters:

This book is very strong on all its supplementary characters. You’ve got the brash Valerie, the immature Nigel, the constantly perplexed Akibombo, the aggressive Colin, the assertive Elizabeth, and the ghastly Mrs Nicoletis. The dialogue between the students is lively and well captured, and  you get an excellent insight into many of their characters.

Christie the Poison expert:

Christie would have dug deep to bring to mind the several poisons that are cited in this book. One death is caused by morphine tartrate, which today is used as part of the active ingredients in an injection of Cyclimorph, used to relieve moderate to severe pain. A drug named Vegenin is referred to a couple of times, which is a mixture or paracetamol, codeine and caffeine; I’d never heard of it but it is still sold as a proprietary brand today. Liquor arsenicalis, or Fowler’s Solution, is mentioned; this is a pharmacopoeial preparation made by boiling arsenious acid and carbonate of potassium in water, and then adding compound tincture of lavender. It is highly poisonous, but was very useful in small doses in certain skin diseases and in some forms of dyspepsia. Originally produced by Thomas Fowler in 1786, this has been out of regular use for a very long time.

When Nigel collects his three poisons, in addition to the morphine tartrate he also obtains hyoscine tablets and a bottle of tincture of digitalin. Hyoscine is a common drug used against motion sickness, and postoperative nausea; it can also be used in cases of irritable bowel syndrome or colic. You can buy it under the brand name Kwells. Digitalin is obtained from the foxglove and has been used in medicine for almost 250 years, primarily in cardiac treatment. However, the wrong dose can be fatal. Chandra Lal uses boracic for his eyes – from borax, this is a crystalline salt; they also refer to sulphuric acid which of course is another lethal compound used mainly in cleaning products and for industrial use. Finally there is Medinal, the first commercially available barbiturate, used as sleeping aid from 1903 until the 1950s. There is probably more poison in this book than in any other Christie!

Class/social issues of the time:

One social issue that was raised in Destination Unknown continues in this next book – that of Communism. It’s introduced gently in the early stages of the book, with just some hearsay about the causes why the police were called to the hostel in the past. “”It wouldn’t be the first time,” said Mrs Hubbard, recalling various unpleasant incidents. “There was that West Indian student who was wanted for living on immoral earning and that notorious young Communist agitator who came here under a false name…”

Sally agrees with Sharpe that there is something of which she is afraid: “The whole place […] isn’t what it seems. No, no, Inspector, I don’t mean Communists. I can see that just trembling on your lips. It’s not Communists I mean. Perhaps it isn’t even criminal.” Sharpe clearly betrayed a small sense of knee-jerk suspicion about Communism, which Sally refutes. We’ve already seen that Elizabeth strongly condemns American McCarthyism. However, when it is discovered that she is a card-carrying member of the Communist party herself, Poirot, interestingly, swings to the opposite conclusion. “I should think she was a valuable recruit to the Party […] she is a young woman of quite unusual intelligence, I should say.” Sharpe continues: “It was interesting to me […] because she has never paraded those sympathies, apparently, she’s kept very quiet about it at Hickory Road. I don’t see that it has any significance […] but it’s a thing to bear in mind.”

Jean Tomlinson, however, offers the other view. ““Of course, one isn’t surprised at anything Colin McNabb does […] I’m sure he’s an atheist and a most disbelieving, mocking, unpleasant young man. He’s rude to everybody. It’s my opinion that he’s a Communist!” “Ah!” said Inspector Sharpe. “Bad!”” Communism is clearly seen as something to be feared, an intellectual but illegal and immoral activity; but one with which, maybe, Poirot has some sympathy?

Race and xenophobia often turn up in Christie’s works but perhaps not so regularly as they do here. Having a hostel full of students of all nationalities is bound to stoke some opinions that today feel extremely uncomfortable. Fortunately, the N word never appears, but the C one (as in coloured) does on a few occasions. As part of Miss Lemon’s opening anxiety about the welfare of her sister Mrs Hubbard, she tells Poirot, “She’s always been fond of young people and good with them, and having lived in the East so long she understands racial differences and people’s susceptibilities. Because these students at the hostel are of all nationalities; mostly English, but some of them actually black, I believe.” Interestingly, she goes on to observe: “half the nurses in our hospitals seem to be black nowadays […] and I understand much pleasanter and more attentive than the English ones”, which is perhaps not an opinion that one might have expected. But this book would have coincided with the growth in the NHS and the search for nursing staff from overseas. Plus ça change…

 Even Mrs Hubbard is not immune from the xenophobia. When Mrs Nicoletis accuses the Italian cook of swindling her, Mrs H steps in: “I can assure you that no foreigner is going to put anything over on me”, with an implication that foreigners are either less intelligent or less adept than the indigenous Brits and it’s a matter of honour for them to be seen as top dog. West Indian Elizabeth is given the nickname “Black Bess” by all the housemates, and it’s seen as an affectionate term – Black Bess was of course the name of Dick Turpin’s horse. Today we’d consider that potentially insensitive at the very least. Christie doesn’t help matters by giving the Italian cook and housekeeper the name Geronimo, who was originally an Apache leader, and comedy catchphrase – it’s what someone might have yelled in a 60s cartoon before jumping into the abyss. Perhaps even more extraordinary, the West African student is named Akibombo, which sounds like an onomatopoeic ridiculing of the language from that region. In his defence, at least Akibombo comes across as a relatively decent and likeable character. Christie can’t resist a little bit of fun-poking when she writes: “owing to his colour, Mr Akibombo was not able to blush, but his eyelids blinked in a discomfited manner.”

There’s a sweeping statement about the behaviour of some racial minorities; Jean again, who isn’t the most forward thinking of the students: “I think it’s much more likely to be Mr Akibombo […] Jealousy. All these coloured people are very jealous of each other and very hysterical.” Christie also puts these words in the mouth of Mr Chandra Lal: “Deliberate oppression of native races. Contempt and prejudice, colour prejudice. It is here well authenticated.” I really can’t see an Indian student of political science using the phrase “native races.” However, despite all these examples of uncomfortable use of language, I don’t think you come away from this book feeling that it’s actively racist. It’s definitely a child of its time, and Christie is exploring a number of attitudes to the coming together of people from all over the world.

One interesting little subject that rears its ugly head ever so slightly is that of pornography. Christie, with the utmost gentility, reveals that “Mr Achmed Ali has some extremely pornographic literature and postcards which explains why he went up in the air over the search”. Such postcards today would be collectors’ items. My guess is that they were probably just pin-up girls from the movies… but who knows?

The final – again minor – subject that reappears is that of inherited insanity. It’s revealed that one character has a father who is a certified patient in a Mental Hospital. Again, the detectives affirm that it probably has no bearing on the matter but that they will bear it in mind. The sins of the fathers are indeed visited upon the sons.

Classic denouement:  No, not a classic in the sense of Poirot herding everyone into a room, raising the suspicion with one person only to fox us with a j’accuse of someone completely different. It is however, a very successful denouement, and possibly unique in the Christie canon; and a long one, running over several chapters. The identity of the murderer is revealed in a discussion purely between the detectives, and is then confirmed by Poirot’s discussion with a third party, an additional revelation made about another of the characters, followed by a follow-up chapter where you see everyone else’s reactions. It’s one of those denouements where you never actually get to see the culprit get accused – which is slightly disappointing.

Happy ending? Moderately, yes. An engagement is announced between two young people and a third is delighted to be asked to be Best Man.

Did the story ring true? From the plotting, the interactions between the detectives and between the suspects, there’s something about this book that feels surprisingly very realistic. So yes, I believe this story completely!

Overall satisfaction rating: Re-reading this book alerted me to one or two areas in which it disappoints you slightly; the unusual denoument, the fact that you guess whodunit (well, I did), the uncomfortable racial language. Nevertheless, there’s just something about this story that makes it a personal favourite and I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of re-reading it. So for me, it’s a 10/10.

Dead Man's FollyThanks for reading my blog of Hickory Dickory Dock 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 Dead Man’s Folly, and the return of both Hercule Poirot and the redoubtable Mrs Oliver, no doubt festooned with apples. I don’t have much memory of it, so I’m looking forward to tackling this one over the next few weeks. As usual, I’ll blog my thoughts about it as soon as I can. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!

The Agatha Christie Challenge – Destination Unknown (1954)

Destination UnknownIn which Hilary Craven, suicidal after the loss of her child and abandoned by her husband, is offered an adventure which may prove fatal – so what has she to lose? All she has to do is impersonate the wife of a missing scientist. What could possibly go wrong? Not a whodunit as such, but more a what, why and howdunit, and, as usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I promise not to reveal its main secrets!

The MousetrapThe book is dedicated “To Anthony, who likes foreign travel as much as I do”. This Anthony is Anthony Hicks, the second husband of Christie’s daughter Rosalind. Christie was clearly very fond of her new son-in-law. In her autobiography, she writes: “I do not know what I would do without him in my life. Not only is he one of the kindest people I know – he is more remarkable and interesting character. He has ideas. He can brighten up any dinner table by suddenly producing a “problem”. In next to no time, everyone is arguing furiously.” She also reveals that Anthony came up with the title “The Mousetrap” so she clearly owed him something! Destination Unknown was first published in the UK in five abridged instalments in John Bull magazine, in October and November 1954. In the US, the novel was first serialised in the Chicago Tribune in fifty-one parts between April and June 1955 under the title Destination X. The full book was first published in the UK by Collins Crime Club on 1st November 1954, and in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company later in 1955 under the title So Many Steps to Death.

Lively girlDestination Unknown is one of those curious Christie concoctions that concentrates on espionage rather than murder. Her first attempt was a rattling good read in the form of the Man in the Brown Suit; and three years before Destination Unknown she created the sparklingly entertaining Victoria Jones in the brilliant They Came to Baghdad. In comparison with these two books – both of which contain lively and spirited female leads – Anne Bedingfield and Victoria Jones – Destination Unknown is rather a damp squib. The main problem is that Anne and Victoria are such fascinating and lively characters right from the start, full of spirit and daring and not remotely scared to take risks and be, frankly, naughty. Hilary Craven, however, is a very different kettle of fish. She starts the book as a shadow of her former self (a former self that we, obviously, never meet), and when she begins to liven up as a character, it’s only because she is pretending to be someone else. So Hilary doesn’t come across as a character in her own right until much later in the book, by which time a sense of uninterest in her has kicked in. It’s not coincidental that Destination Unknown remains one of Christie’s few books yet to be adapted into TV or film.

Hammer and SickleIt’s very much a book that relies on its themes rather than its characters or, indeed, its story. Christie takes the opportunity to fantasise about how a secret Communist “paradise” might present itself; a hidden, nearly Utopian environment that has no hope of succeeding because of the controls placed on the individuals concerned by the Big Brother bosses. Much has been made of the fact that the book clearly gained inspiration from the real-life scandal of involving the defection of Italian scientist Bruno Pontecorvo from his work at the Atomic Energy Research Establishment at Harwell, to the Soviet Union. Pontecorvo’s colleague Klaus Fuchs was also arrested for espionage, imprisoned for nine years and on his release emigrated to East Germany where he continued his work as a nuclear physicist. Christie cannot conceal her own political leanings with the invention of her hidden desert laboratory, and indeed the whole structure of the book is to send Hilary into this den of iniquity and somehow reveal its secrets to the British Secret Service in a joint act of loyalty and betrayal.

Lion's denIn many ways this is a book of two halves. The first half sets up the story, introduces us to the characters, and Christie employs much lightness of touch to keep us entertained as we delve deeper into the story. However, once the story takes us to Morocco, and Hilary – in her disguise as Olive Betterton – has to survive in the lion’s den, it’s as though Christie takes her foot off the accelerator and we just coast to a not very interesting denouement. Yes, we do find out who is in charge of the operation, and yes we do discover who is guilty of what crimes (although it’s never clear in the first half of the book that we will eventually find these things out – Destination Unknown indeed), but the surrounding characters are too under-written and/or irrelevant for us to care.

Man behind a deskThat early lightness of touch deserves a little exploration, as it’s probably the best part of the book. The first few pages introduce us to a character who Christie calls “the man behind the desk”. Obviously some form of secret agent, his identity is deliberately kept from us. Many times Christie could give us his name, but still she gives him this deliberately mysterious identity. It’s only when Mrs Betterton arrives and wants to speak to him that Christie reveals that he has a name. “Oh, Mr Jessop, I do hope – is there any news?” But even then she next refers to him as “the man called Jessop”. You’re never really sure if it’s his real name or just a nom d’espionage. It’s very nicely done.

Three ladies waitingAs the first part of the book gets underway, Christie employs her usual style of writing short chapters, or short divisions within chapters, to increase a sense of speed and urgency, of excitement and building tension – and it works extremely well. There’s an amusing sequence where we’re introduced to Mlle Jeanne Maricot, seen seated in the Hotel St Louis, alongside Miss Hetherington and Mrs Calvin Baker, both of whom have important roles to play in the story. Mlle Maricot, however, is just biding her time and planning an augmentation to her sex life. She has absolutely nothing to do with the plot, but Christie gives her her moment in the sun, shares her inner thoughts and then “with long graceful steps Mademoiselle Maricot walked out of the small salon and out of the story.” It’s a lovely, artistically detached moment where the author confides in the reader that there’s, basically, nothing to see here. We don’t entirely believe Christie and keep expecting her to pop up in surprising moments, but she doesn’t.

FontanaThere’s another stylistically self-conscious moment, where Miss Hetherington is seen “at a small table against the wall eating her dinner with a Fontana book propped up in front of her”, just as the reader might well be doing precisely the same thing. She’s teasing with us! But that lightness of touch ends with the dramatic bombshell that Hilary and her companions have arrived at the Communistic desert paradise laboratory ranch – and it’s a real shame. There’s evidence from Christie’s notebooks that she was planning They Came to Baghdad and Destination Unknown at the same time – and all the good bits went into the first book, sadly.

Depressed womanLet’s go back and examine the character of Hilary Craven. When we first meet her, she is escaping the misery of her day to day life by taking a flight to Paris. “Out of the greyness, the coldness, the dead numb misery. Escaping to the sunshine and blue skies and a new life. She would leave all this weight behind, this dead weight of misery and frustration.” But that escape is self-delusion. A few paragraphs later: “Hilary thought, “Perhaps the plane will crash… Perhaps it will never rise off the ground, then that will be the end, that will be the solution to everything.” And when she discovers that the plane to Casablanca that she should have taken from Paris – but they couldn’t get there because of fog – crashed and the passengers were killed, her first reaction is “blinding anger […] Why wasn’t I in that plan? If I had been, it would have been all over now – I should be dead, out of it all. No more heartaches, no more misery. The people in that plane wanted to live. And I – I don’t care. Why shouldn’t it have been me?” OK, we understand that Hilary has endured a huge amount of sadness and disappointment. But to present this character as the heroine of the story is very underwhelming to the reader. Rather than feeling sorry for her, or having empathy with her situation, instead you just want her to buck up her ideas and become one of Christie’s usual jovial types. It somehow just doesn’t feel right.

Palais Jamai Now we’ll look at some of the references in this book, starting with the locations. As well as using the big names of London, Paris, Casablanca and Fez, plus Heathrow and Beauvais airports, Christie bases Betterton’s workplace at Harwell, just like the real-life Pontecorvo and Fuchs. Harwell is, of course, a large village to the west of Didcot in Oxfordshire. In Casablanca, the Hotel St Louis, where Mlle Maricot pauses to regroup, appears to be a creation of Christie; but the Palais Djamai was a grand mansion in Fez that had been turned into a luxury hotel, and even today it’s still a notable member of the Sofitel chain of hotels. But otherwise there are surprisingly few locations mentioned in this book.

Niels BohrAs for other references: perhaps the most vital element of the story, the book refers to the discovery of ZE Fission. This is going to come as a shock, but I’m no nuclear scientist. But a quick Google suggests that Ze is a charge originally discussed by Bohr and Wheeler in 1939. I’m going to just leave that there. Olive Betterton’s last words, on the other hand, are a little clearer to understand: “Snow, snow, beautiful snow, you slip on a lump and over you go”. Whilst there are a couple of old songs that include the lyrics “snow snow beautiful snow”, I can’t find anything that includes going over a lump. So that’s a mystery to me, unless you know better?

Bell SongHere’s another quote: “le long des lauriers roses révant de douces choses” – an overheard snatch of French opera, as Christie puts it. This is the Bell Song, from Lakmé, written by Leo Delibes and premiered in 1883. And there’s another: “as a garden enclosed is my sister, my spouse” – a line remembered by Hilary – which is actually Chapter 4, Verse 12 of the Song of Solomon in the Bible. Hilary is asked if she has heard of “leucotomy” – “that’s a brain operation, isn’t it?” she replies. Indeed it is – it is the surgical cutting of white nerve fibres within the brain, especially prefrontal lobotomy, formerly used to treat mental illness. It’s another word for a lobotomy, now banned by most countries.

Twelfth Night“I sent Hilary Craven off on a journey to a destination unknown, but it seems to me that her journey’s end is the usual one after all” concludes Jessop at the end of the book, in an allusion to Shakespeare. In Twelfth Night, Feste the clown sings “Journeys end in lovers meeting” – so you can already guess that it has a happy ending.

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. However, this is not that kind of a book, and there are no sums of any significance mentioned – even though the desire for great richness is a key to the why and wherefore of the plot.

 

Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for Destination Unknown:

Publication Details: 1954. My copy is a Fontana paperback, sixteenth impression, dated June 1976, with a price of 60p on the back cover. The cover illustration by Tom Adams shows a surreal, Dali-esque landscape with figures in the mountainous backdrop (which could evoke the Atlas Mountains), a trail of pearls – which is significant – a figure with a deathly stare (might be Adams’ impression of a leper, unsure) and some frog/toad images which I don’t understand in the slightest.

How many pages until the first death: 37 – but it really isn’t that kind of book at all.

Funny lines out of context: just one, involving Christie’s favourite “E” word.

“”God bless my soul,” ejaculated the American Ambassador.”

Memorable characters:

Again, this is where the book severely falls down. Its characters are solidly one-dimensional, acting out their roles within the structure of the book but without ever bursting into interesting or remarkable life.

Christie the Poison expert:

Again, poison plays a very minor part in one aspect of the book but it’s fairly general and I don’t think Christie had to research much to include it.

Class/social issues of the time:

As discussed earlier, much of the book concentrates on what was seen as the growing threat of Communism and Christie’s imagination creates a Communist paradise where everything in the world looks good outwardly but actually is a façade, and a society that stifles and suppresses creativity. On the surface, the scientists have everything they need to perform amazing work, but in reality they find it hard to be inspired. Even the non-scientific Hilary can sense this: “she had felt first, when introduced into the Unit, a blinding panic, a horrible feeling of imprisonment and frustration, and the fact the imprisonment was camouflaged in circumstances of luxury had somehow made is seem all the more horrible to her.”

The book starts in the Secret Service offices, so the political element of the book is there right from the beginning. Jessop says of Betterton that he had the “usual left-wing tendencies at the period when everyone had them”, revealing a dismissive attitude to socialism that’s present throughout the book. When we start to meet the other team members who will be based in the Atlas Mountains secret paradise, their politics are highly questionable. Fräulein Needheim refers to the local Berber women as “a slave race. They are useful to serve their betters, but no more.” When questioned by Hilary as to the harshness of this judgment, she goes on “I have no patience with sentimentality. There are those that rule, the few; and there are the many that serve.”

It’s not just Needheim who repels Hilary with their views. Dr Barron affirms that he could destroy a continent with the poisonous content of one little phial. “She had said to him: “But could you ever do that? Actually really do it?” And he replied, looking at her with faint surprise: “Yes. Yes of course, if it became necessary.”” She accuses Peters of wanting to destroy an old world, as a result of his declaration that “we’ve got to have World Peace, World Discipline, World Order.” And Ericsson affirms to her “we must conquer the world. Then we can rule […], we few who count. The brains. That is all that matters.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, there are a few instances of xenophobia in this book. Miss Hetherington believes that hotels abroad should only be inhabited by the English and she gets most upset when she discovers foreigners also use them. The observations made about the members of the party flying to the Atlas Mountains are very much seen in terms of their being French, American, Norwegian, German and English. There’s also a post-war throwback regarding Miss Jennson, when Andy Peters asks “did I, or did I not, catch a hint of the Heil Hitler there?”

In what is more an observation on current social issues, I was amused that there were only six people on board the flight. It’s as though they were in their own Covid times!

It doesn’t show a great sense of empathy with mental health to suggest that going on a reckless mission where you might die is a good alternative to suicide!

Classic denouement:  No, it’s a weak fizzle. Not that there’s much to “dénoue” anyway. The brains behind the Communist camp are revealed relatively early, and the final twists in the last few pages are of comparatively low interest, and if you’re looking for an unexpected individual to be responsible for some grand deception – you’ll be disappointed.

Happy ending? I guess so – Hilary finds a reason to live, which has got to be a positive outcome. And love may be on her horizon.

Did the story ring true? From my own perspective, it’s utter balderdash and complete nonsense.

Overall satisfaction rating: Despite a pacy start and some nicely written early passages, Christie quickly gives up on the narrative and I couldn’t wait for it to end. A generous 5/10.

Hickory Dickory DockThanks for reading my blog of Destination Unknown 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 one of my all-time favourite Christie books, Hickory Dickory Dock, and I can’t wait to get back into its tale of deception and murder within a student’s hostel community. As usual, I’ll blog my thoughts about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!

The Paul Berna Challenge – The 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!