The Agatha Christie Challenge – Passenger to Frankfurt (1970)

Passenger to FrankfurtIn which moderately successful, but not entirely serious diplomat Sir Stafford Nye is approached at Frankfurt Airport by a woman who asks him to lend her his passport, his cloak and his flight ticket, as her life is in danger. Feeling like he could do with some excitement in his life, he agrees. This would turn out to be the first in a bizarre course of events that would take Nye around the globe and into a world of espionage, political intrigue and very rich and powerful people who want to alter the course of world events.  As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, as always, I promise not to reveal what happens and whodunit!

80th birthday cakeThe book is dedicated to “Margaret Guillaume” – and, curiously, no one seems to know who this is. If you have any information or insight, please let me know! There’s also an epigraph, attributed to Jan Smuts, twice Prime Minister of South Africa: “Leadership, besides being a great creative force, can be diabolical…” Passenger to Frankfurt was first published in the UK by Collins Crime Club in September 1970, and in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company later that year. Unlike most of Christie’s works, it wasn’t serialised in any magazines or journals prior to publication. There may be two reasons for this. Primarily, it was very much marketed as being Christie’s 80th book, published in her 80th year. She did, indeed, reach the age of 80 on 15th September 1970 to coincide with the publication (or should that be the other way round?) although in order to consider this her 80th book you also have to include the books that had only been published in the US to date, and also all her books written under the pseudonym Mary Westmacott.

NonsenseThe other reason why it may not have been published elsewhere first is because it really isn’t very good at all. If you were around in 1970 and had never read a Christie before but thought you would try her new book and see for yourself why the Queen of Crime had such a brilliant reputation, then no one would forgive you for deciding never to try another of her books again. It starts with an Introduction – and a rather free-wheeling and pompously self-indulgent one at that – where Christie asks us to look at the state of both England and the wider world, and to consider all the crime, and envisage that it’s all due to a “fantastic cause” or “secret Campaign for Power”. She describes the book as “not an impossible story”, but wants us to think of it as “an extravaganza”. If you read this, and, like me, your eyes sent a warning alert to your brain saying Nonsense Ahead – Read No More, you’ve probably already got the gist of the book.

spyIt’s another of her spy stories, as opposed to a detective thriller, although there is an element of that in the final denouement. She had written some cracking spy stories – The Man in the Brown Suit, for example, or the truly delightful They Came to Baghdad. But Passenger to Frankfurt never has even one toe in the real world let alone a foot; it compounds the unlikely on top of the incredible on top of the preposterous. As if someone like Sir Stafford Nye, with his position and influence, would consent to giving away his passport and flight ticket? And then, having done that, someone who doesn’t look like him, and isn’t even the same sex as him, manages to get all the way to Heathrow without someone raising an eyelid.

Alpine sceneryEven once you get past that – yes intriguing, but totally impossible – start, Christie then takes us down a path of sheer conspiracy theory lunacy, involving the young people in country after country ganging together to support some unnameable anarchy, meeting up in remote Alpine regions for music festivals, causing crisis talks within the top reaches of governments of all nations; and then having mysterious rich and senior figures scattered around the world, and who all seem to be friends with Nye’s Aunt Matilda. Even though the final scenario shows this to be a façade, the fact that we’re asked to believe it is simply beyond the pail.

Frankfurt AirportOne of the more disappointing aspects to the book is that although Christie hasn’t lost her powers of imagination – far from it, regrettably – she has started to lose her ability to express some of her ideas succinctly and with impact. There are many long passages throughout the book that are extremely boring, with characters droning on repetitively about abstract philosophies, or internal monologues, such as this from Nye, thinking about Mary Ann/Renata/Daphne: “And he thought suddenly, in a kind of fog of question marks: Renata??? I took a risk with her at Frankfurt airport. But I was right. It came off. Nothing happened to me. But all the same, he though, who is she? What is she? I don’t know. I can’t be sure. One can’t in the world today be sure of anyone. Anyone at all. She was told perhaps to get me. To get me into the hollow of her hand, so that business at Frankfurt might have been cleverly thought out. It fitted in with my sense of risk, and it would make me sure of her. It would make me trust her.” I can’t help but think that could have been written  more pithily with half the number of words.

repetitionConsider the repetition in this extract: “”Here is a list of the armaments that were sent to West Africa. The interesting thing is that they were sent there, but they were sent out again. They were accepted, delivery was acknowledged, payment may or may not have been made, but they were sent out of the country again before five days had passed. They were sent out, re-routed elsewhere.” “But what’s the idea of that?” “The idea seems to be,” said Munro, “that they were never really intended for West Africa. Payments were made and they were sent on somewhere else.””

lethal weaponsOr this: “”It’s not a question of not having enough lethal weapons. We’ve got too much Everything we’ve got is too lethal. The difficulty would be in keeping anybody alive, even ourselves. Eh? All the people at the top, you know. Well – us, for instance.” He gave a wheezy, happy little chuckle. “But that isn’t what we want,” Mr Lazenby insisted. “It’s not a question of what you want. It’s a question of what we’ve got. Everything we’ve got is terrifically lethal. If you want everybody under thirty wiped off the map, I expect you could do it. Mind you, you’d have to take a lot of the older ones as well.””

Dr EvilAt times, the book reminded me of one Christie’s earlier books – and her first big disappointment – The Big Four, with its group of evil megalomaniacs seeking world domination. There are also undertones of Destination Unknown, and its secret Communist paradise and hidden desert laboratory. In fact you half expect to come across Dr No, or more likely Dr Evil, lurking in its pages. It’s a rambling, shambling affair. There are way too many characters who get in the way of each other, and you frequently need to refer back to remember just who they are. In particular, there are too many new characters brought in towards the end of the book, which just feels like a bit of a cheat when you discover how important they are to the final picture. Usually an artful craftsman where it comes to book structure, Christie sets this one all over the place. It’s not surprising that this is one of only four Christie books that haven’t been adapted to TV, film or theatre.

NurseThere are a couple of recognisable characters; we met both Colonel Pikeaway and Mr Robinson in Cat Among the Pigeons, and we will meet them both again in Postern of Fate; Mr Robinson also appears in At Bertram’s Hotel. Lady Matilda’s assistant is a certain Amy Leatheran; thirty-four years earlier she was a nurse, and indeed, the narrator, in Murder in Mesopotamia.

Birdcage WalkThe book contains a mix of real and fictional locations. Nye walks home across Green Park, and is almost run down by a car in Birdcage Walk. Big Charlotte’s Schloss is near Berchtesgaden, in Bavaria, near the border with Austria, and well known for its wartime associations with Hitler. The meeting with Shoreham takes place in an unspecified location in northern Scotland, 17 miles from the airfield. Summit meetings take place in London and Paris, Mary Ann visits Gottlieb in Austin, Texas, and Reichardt is based in Karlsruhe. However, there’s no such place as Lizzard Street, SW3, which appears in the personal ads, and the nearest station to Matilda’s house is at King’s Marston, an hour and a half from Paddington, also a figment of Christie’s imagination.

Walter A RaleighLet’s check out the references and quotations in this book. Christie gives us some Shakespeare in the Introduction, with “Tell me, where is fancy bred”, which is from The Merchant of Venice, and “a tale Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing”, which is Macbeth’s reflection on life after Lady Macbeth has died. Whilst he’s hanging about the lounge at Frankfurt Airport, Nye remembers “I wish I loved the Human Race; I wish I loved its silly face” and thinks it could be Chesterton. He’s wrong, it’s Sir Walter A Raleigh. No, not that Raleigh, the other one (1861 – 1922).

Prisoner of ZendaLady Matilda quotes: “”Ce n’est pas un garçon serieux”, like that man in the fishing.” I’ve had a look around online and I can’t see what she’s referring to, can you? I’m much more confident when she talks about the Beatles – a popular group combo of the 60s, as they say – and The Prisoner of Zenda, an 1894 adventure novel by Anthony Hope, and an often remade romantic movie. Nye refers to the discovery of uranium from pitchblende; I’d never heard of that, but it’s the old name for uraninite, the ore that is the greatest source of uranium. Kleek refers to the Prophet Joel, who wrote “your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions”; this is Verse 28 from Chapter 2 of the Book of Joel in the Bible.

Rikki Tikki Tavi“You’ve got to go like Kipling’s mongoose: Go and find out” says Lord Altamount. That’s one of my favourite children’s stories, the brilliant Rikki Tikki Tavi from the original Jungle Book. “Will no one rid me of this turbulent priest”, quote Messieurs Grosjean and Poissonier during the cabinet meeting in Paris. Grosjean thinks it’s Shakespeare, Poissonier thinks it’s Becket. Poissonier gets the prize – it’s a quote attributed to King Henry II preceding the death of Archbishop Becket. Shakespeare didn’t write a play about Henry II. When Matilda is visiting Charlotte, she reads in the Gideon Bible, “I have been young and now am old, yet have I not seen the righteous forsaken.” It’s Verse 25 from Psalm 37.

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, five guineas, which is the suggested donation for a seat at “the Charity Variety performance which Royalty would attend” (in other words, the Royal Variety Performance.) By 1970 guineas were becoming a bit old hat, and the introduction of decimal currency the following year largely put paid to them. A guinea was a pound and a shilling, so five guineas was £5.25 – and that sum today would be £57. I think it’s highly unlikely that you’d get a plum seat in the Palladium for that price nowadays!

Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for Passenger to Frankfurt:


Publication Details: 1970. My copy is a Fontana Paperback, the first impression, proudly boasting the words first time in paperback, published in 1972, bearing the price on the back cover of 30p. The cover illustration by Tom Adams is a mix-up of a number of appropriate images; a Bavarian castle, an Aryan-looking young man, and an aeroplane flying overhead, all covered by a huge spider weaving his web, with a swastika tattooed on its back. Creepy.

How many pages until the first death: 118 – although it’s only mentioned in passing as happening somewhere else in the world and its significance isn’t realised until the denouement. The first “live” death as such doesn’t appear until six pages before the end, but there’s no mystery to it – we see exactly who kills whom as the death occurs. This is not a murder mystery!

Funny lines out of context:

“He bought a paperback book and fingered some small woolly animals.”

“He’s a most irritating man and he wants a new organ too.”

Memorable characters: The huge number of characters in this book makes it difficult for any one to stand out, but I suppose Big Charlotte, aka The Gräfin Charlotte von Waldsausen, is the most monstrous creation. “An enormous woman. A whale of a woman, Stafford Nye thought, there really was no other word to describe her. A great, big, cheesy-looking woman, wallowing in fat. Double, treble, almost quadruple chins. She wore a dress of stiff orange satin. On her head was an elaborate crown-like tiara of precious stones […] She was horrible, he thought. She wallowed in her fat. A great, white, creased, slobbering mass of fat was her face. And set in it, rather like currants in a vast currant bun, were two small black eyes.” It should be pointed out she’s memorable for her appearance more than for her character.

Christie the Poison expert: Christie’s old favourite, strychnine, is involved towards the end of the book, although it is never actually administered.

Class/social issues of the time:

The whole book is very much a lament on oh dear me, the world today, it’s not what it was, which is very much one of Christie’s regular themes. Matilda dislikes the progressiveness in the world of shopping: “our own grocer – such a nice man, so thoughtful and such good taste in what we all liked – turned suddenly into a supermarket, six times the size, all rebuilt, baskets and wire trays to carry round and try to fill up things you don’t want and mothers always losing their babies, and crying and having hysterics. Most exhausting.”

Mary Ann tells Stafford in Frankfurt that she needs his help to be safe. “”Safe?” He smiled a little. She said, “safe is a four-letter word but not the kind of four-letter word that people are interested in nowadays.” It reminds one of Cole Porter’s Anything Goes – “Good authors too who once knew better words now only use four letter words”.

Matilda laments to Charlotte about life in England today, with financial constraints that stop one from living out the largesse that the older people thought was their birthright. “What a wonderful life you must live. Not that I could support such a life. I have to live very quietly. Rheumatoid arthritis. And also the financial difficulties. Difficulty in keeping up the family house. Ah well, you know what it is for us in England – our taxation troubles.”

But the world today is not just a question of modern shops and swearing. In 1970, the Vietnam war was still very much active. Matilda struggles to understand her Viet Cong from her elbow, “all wanting to fight each other and nobody wanting to stop. They won’t go to Paris or wherever it is and sit round tables and talk sensibly”. And if there’s one theme that this book has by the bucketful, it’s the suggestion that a resurgence of Nazism is just around the corner. I’m not sure that was actually true in 1970 – but it’s certainly true today. However, to be fair, the whole symbolism of The Young Siegfried, and that charisma and “show” are more powerful than words is something one can easily recognise in modern politics.

Latent racism and/or xenophobia is often present in Christie’s books, and I quote this without comment: “”It is not too good,” the Air Marshal was saying, “One has to admit it. Four of our planes hi-jacked within the last week. Flew ‘em to Milan. Turned the passengers out, and flew them on somewhere else. Actually Africa. Had pilots waiting there. Black men.”” And when the identity of the chief traitor is revealed, they are described as “the [N word] in the woodpile”; fortunately a phrase that has now died out.

Classic denouement:  Not classic, but the denouement succeeds in being probably the best couple of pages in the book, although I had to read it twice or three times to fully understand the motive for the killing. Having said that, you’re not actually expecting the book to have a denouement, because there’s nothing much to denoue.

Happy ending? There’s an epilogue that reveals a marriage, so I guess that’s happy. If Project Benvo gets off the ground, then it’s a supremely happy ending for all mankind. But that’s a very big If.

Did the story ring true? Not one iota. It’s pure conspiracy theory fantasy that infuriates the reader with its ridiculousness. I laughed out loud when one of the characters suddenly gets well after having been ill for years due to “shock treatment”. Honestly! And what happens to the young Siegfried at the end of the book is unintentionally hilarious.

Overall satisfaction rating: 2/10. Worst Christie in her canon so far.

NemesisThanks for reading my blog of Passenger to Frankfurt, 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 Nemesis, the final appearance of Miss Marple in Christie’s lifetime. I can remember no details, but I have a feeling it’s going to be pretty good! As usual, I’ll blog my thoughts about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!

The Points of View Challenge – My Sister’s Marriage – Cynthia Marshall Rich

Cynthia RichCynthia Marshall Rich (1933 -)

American writer and lesbian activist, teacher of writing at Harvard University, author of anti-ageism and anti-homophobia books.

My Sister’s Marriage, first published in Mademoiselle magazine, in 1955 (winner of the Mademoiselle Fiction Prize)

Available to read online here

This is the third of five stories in the volume Points of View to be given the style classification by Moffett and McElheny of Subjective Narration. Here’s how their introduction continues: “Of course all first-person stories, even third-person stories, are somewhat subjective; any storyteller is, after all, mortal and fallible. But there is a difference between the narrator who does not seem to be aware of his prejudices and therefore is telling a story somewhat different from the one he intends to tell, and the narrator who consciously makes his bias so obvious that we consider it merely “personal flavor.””

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


My Sister’s Marriage


MademoiselleSarah Ann and Olive were the closest of sisters; people thought they were twins, although Olive was the elder. They lived with their father, Dr Landis, a most respected gentleman who taught them right from wrong, how to be a lady and to live a decent and caring life. With their mother dead, Olive took on the role of mother to Sarah Ann and to care for her father. He never had to raise his voice, but calmly and with maturity, steered his daughters in the direction of a good life.

But Dr Landis could go too far. When Olive meets Mr Dixon, a young gentleman who takes an interest in her, she quickly falls in love. Far too quickly for Sarah Ann’s liking; surely that’s not the behaviour of a decent young woman. Father insists it’s an infatuation and requires Olive to see the young man no more. He’s only a travelling salesman for Miracle-wear soles. Dr Landis knows, without meeting him, that he’s a scoundrel who’s not to be trusted.

Refusing to allow him in the house, and refusing to give his blessing on their relationship, Olive steals away and marries him. Her name is rarely mentioned in the house again, and her letters home are ignored by Landis, although Sarah Ann has been furtively replying. Landis insists that her letters be burned – he takes them away for that purpose. Sarah Ann tells herself that her father knows best, when he tells her that it should be just the two of them in the house for the rest of their lives. She still loves Olive – but Olive can never know.

A riveting piece of storytelling that captures you right from the beginning and never lets up. Sarah Ann is our narrator, and she is clearly bitter and unhappy – and probably lying to herself. She tells us quite aggressively that we are strangers and therefore won’t understand the feelings of herself and her father, but if we weren’t strangers, she wouldn’t be telling us anyway.

Somehow Landis has brainwashed Sarah Ann into fan-worshiping him, to the extent that all other relationships are insignificant. She points out that he went to Harvard and is a better quality man than all the others in their hometown of Conkling. He has made Sarah Ann a brooding, prudish young woman, disapproving of anyone having fun or trying to make a separate life for themselves.

In the end she accedes to his wishes to stop writing back to her sister and to devote her life to only him. Using powerful, clever writing Rich shows how Sarah Ann has been manipulated into giving up her own identity; something that Olive was simply not prepared to do. You feel sad for Sarah Ann and expect that one day she will wake up to her surroundings and discover it’s too late to break free. But Landis has done too good a job at controlling her.

The next story in the anthology is the fourth of the subjective narration stories, On Saturday Afternoon by Alan Sillitoe. I’ve never read any Sillitoe, so I’m looking forward to getting stuck into this one!

The George Orwell Challenge – Shooting an Elephant (1936)

Shooting an ElephantOrwell had already used his experiences as a police officer in Burma for five years from 1922 to create not only his superb Burmese Days, but also his essay A Hanging. In September 1936 he published his essay Shooting an Elephant in New Writing magazine; several years later in 1948 it was broadcast on the BBC Home Service. Once more he would call on his time as an imperialist authoritarian figure in Burma to write this short piece that he himself describes in it as “a tiny incident in itself, but it gave me a better glimpse than I had had before of the real nature of imperialism – the real motives for which despotic governments act.”

MoulmeinIn Moulmein (present day Mawlamyine, the fourth largest city in Myanmar), the un-named narrator (but Orwell doesn’t disguise the fact that it’s him) is notified that an elephant is on the rampage in one of the city’s poorer quarters. It’s not a wild elephant, but a tame, privately owned elephant, who’s in must; Wikipedia tells us more about that state: “a periodic condition in bull (male) elephants characterized by highly aggressive behaviour and accompanied by a large rise in reproductive hormones. Testosterone levels in an elephant in musth can be on average 60 times greater than in the same elephant at other times (in specific individuals these testosterone levels can even reach as much as 140 times the normal). However, whether this hormonal surge is the sole cause of musth, or merely a contributing factor, is unknown. Scientific investigation of musth is problematic because even the most placid elephants become highly violent toward humans and other elephants during musth.”

Indian elephantOrwell/Blair takes his rifle, even though it is too small to kill an elephant. Nor is he willing to kill the animal; he takes it more as an automatic self-defence strategy. But he becomes aware that his actions are creating attention from the locals; they are watching his every move and clearly expect him to kill the elephant. This will be spectacle for the people; and also, the promise of elephant meat is very attractive to them. If he fails to deliver the three outcomes of spectacle, death and meat, he will lose face; and nothing would be worse for him than for the assembled crowd to laugh at him. This is his biggest fear.

elephant gunThe elephant has caused some havoc in the marketplace, but, worst of all, has killed a man. “He was an Indian, a black Dravidian coolie, almost naked, and he could not have been dead many minutes. The people said that the elephant had come suddenly upon him round the corner of the hut, caught him with its trunk, put its foot on his back and ground him into the earth.” He realises he has no choice but to kill the elephant, but because of his inexperience, he does not know that the best way is to shoot it in the ear. Instead, he imagines where the animal’s brain and heart would be, aims there, and shoots several times, which causes the animal to die a slow, painful, lingering death. “It seemed dreadful to see the great beast lying there, powerless to move and yet powerless to die, and not even to be able to finish him. I sent back for my small rifle and poured shot after shot into his heart and down his throat.”

Coringhee coolieHe’s satisfied that he was right to kill the elephant as it had taken a human life, although “the younger men said it was a damn shame to shoot an elephant for killing a coolie, because an elephant was worth more than any damn Coringhee coolie.” The elephant’s owner was furious “but he was only an Indian and could do nothing.” “Afterwards I was very glad that the coolie had been killed; it put me legally in the right and it gave me a sufficient pretext for shooting elephant. I often wondered whether any of the others grasped that I had done it solely to avoid looking a fool.”

Orwell Burma PassportIt’s fascinating to see the opposing motivations at work in this little story. For a piece that was written 85 years ago, and describes an event that had taken maybe 100 years ago, Orwell has quite a complex view on the whole event. For him it is primarily a horrific act to kill a noble beast like the elephant who, although dangerous, is only following his own instinct. But Orwell’s own self-preservation kicks in too, and, unsurprisingly, he values his own safety and authority above that of the elephant. But he realises that, long term, this is a symptom of the evil that is imperialism. “I was only an absurd puppet pushed to and fro by the will of those yellow faces behind. I perceived in this moment that when the white man turns tyrant it is his own freedom that he destroys. He becomes a sort of hollow, posing dummy, the conventionalised figure of a sahib. For it is the condition of his rule that he shall spend his life in trying to impress the “natives” and so in every crisis he has got to do what the “natives” expect of him. He wears a mask, and his face grows to fit it. I had got to shoot the elephant.”

Buddhist priestsFor the locals, they have a much less romantic image of their own local animal life. The elephant is owned by an Indian, so they don’t worry about its death. The locals have a natural cynicism and distrust of their colonial invader, and have no qualms about betraying those feelings to individual foreigners. “As a police officer I was an obvious target and was baited whenever it seemed safe to do so. When a nimble Burman tripped me up on the football field and the referee (another Burman) looked the other way, the crowd yelled with hideous laughter […] The young Buddhist priests were the worst of all. There were several thousands of them in the town and none of them seemed to have anything to do except stand on street corners and jeer at Europeans.” Young Orwell is only human; his own reaction to that is also a matter of balance: “With one part of my mind I thought of the British Raj as an unbreakable tyranny, as something clamped down, in saecula saeculorum, upon the will of prostrate peoples; with another part I thought that the greatest joy in the world would be to drive a bayonet into a Buddhist priest’s guts.”

Burma prison cagesHe doesn’t shy away from describing the grim excesses of life in Burma, whether it be the imperialist influence or nature’s own. “As for the job I was doing, I hate it more bitterly than I can perhaps make clear […] the wretched prisoners huddling in the stinking cages of the lock-ups, the grey, cowed faces of the long-term convicts, the scarred buttocks of the men who had been flogged with bamboos – all these oppressed me with an intolerable sense of guilt.” His description of the dead Dravidian is both gruesome and gripping with its attention to detail: “He was lying on his belly with arms crucified and head sharply twisted to one side. His face was coated with mud, the eyes wide open, the teeth bared and grinning with an expression of unendurable agony […] the friction of the great beast’s foot had stripped the skin from his back as neatly as one skins a rabbit.”

Indian elephantAnd the death of the elephant is a mixture of the surreal and tragic: “A mysterious, terrible change had come over the elephant. He neither stirred nor fell, but every line of his body had altered. He looked suddenly stricken, shrunken, immensely old, as though the frightful impact of the bullet had paralysed him without knocking him down […] he sagged flabbily to his knees. His mouth slobbered. An enormous senility seemed to have settled upon him […] the thick blood welled out of him like red velvet, but still he did not die. His body did not even jerk when the shots hit him, the tortured breathing continued without a pause […] in the end I could not stand it any longer and went away. I heard later that it took him half an hour to die. Burmans were arriving with dahs and baskets even before I left, and I was told they stripped his body almost to the bones by the afternoon.”

Bookshop MemoriesIt’s a powerful piece of writing, constructed with the detailed sincerity and insight you would expect from Orwell. Next in my George Orwell Challenge is a continuation with the essay format, and Bookshop Memories, first published in the Fortnightly Review for November 1936. Once again Orwell writes about what he knows about – his experiences working in a second-hand bookshop that he had already explored in Keep the Aspidistra Flying. I look forward to reading it soon and I hope you read it too!

The Points of View Challenge – Too Early Spring – Stephen Vincent Benét

Stephen Vincent BenetStephen Vincent Benét (1924 – 1984)

American poet (John Brown’s Body), short story writer (The Devil and Daniel Webster), and novelist.

Too Early Spring, first published in Tales Before Midnight, a short story collection, in 1939

Available to read online here

This is the second of five stories in the volume Points of View to be given the style classification by Moffett and McElheny of Subjective Narration. Here’s how their introduction continues: “The following stories are all told by one of the characters after the conclusion of events and the “speaker” is supposed to be addressing us, the general public, not himself or another character. In some of these stories, however, he may sound like a correspondent, or diarist; we may feel he is “using” us or assuming something we don’t assume. Furthermore, as the speaker usually makes clear, the events have not been over very long, although the time gap between the happening and the telling varies a lot among the stories.”

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

Too Early Spring

Tales before MidnightYoung Chuck starts his tale by saying he’s writing it down because he never wants to forget “the way it was”. He sets the scene with basketball practice, and how he’s been encouraged by his brother Kerry, and by mentioning a guy named Tot Pickens, who’s a bit of a louse.

We soon meet Helen, “the Sharon kid”. The Sharon family have only been in town for three years or so, and Chuck has never really noticed her before. But slowly, and gently, the pair fall in love. They’re very respectful of each other, but they talk as if they are an old married couple, fantasising about the house they will have lived in for ages, and the times they have spent together. They work out they will have had seven children, how their kids would have been educated, and how perfect their life together would be.

One day Chuck’s team wins an important basketball match. Mr Grant, the coach, sets up a big celebration meal. But none of Chuck’s immediate family can attend, and Helen stays away because that’s what the girls did. But Chuck wants to continue the celebration later into the evening and decides he will go and visit Helen at her home to let her know the good news. Helen’s parents are also out, but she lets him in and they chat in front of the fire, in their usual, relaxed, respectful way. But the match was tiring, and it’s getting late, and both fall asleep….

…to be awoken by a whirlwind of fury as Helen’s parents return and discover them, put two and two together and assume that Chuck has taken advantage of Helen. Strangely incapable of defending themselves, they become the subjects of shame and gossip. The parents ensure the two never meet again, Chuck gets sent to a college in Colorado, and Helen eventually is moved to a convent.

This bittersweet little story truly has a sting in its tail. The reader suspects right from the start that something has gone wrong and maybe fears a wrongdoing that is much worse than what actually happens. There is a huge sense of tragedy through the misunderstanding that a genuinely charming and loving relationship, which has been conducted throughout with total decency, is brought to an abrupt end through no other fault than falling asleep.

Benét’s writing is measured and sensitive, deliberately introducing a small amount of uncertainty to give the climax of the story a little extra light and shade. The characters are very well drawn as clean-cut All American kids of good morals and decency, and the sad ending is very believable. The two youngsters will live their lives always wondering what if.

The next story in the anthology is the third of the subjective narration stories, My Sister’s Marriage by Cynthia Marshall Rich. Ms Rich is an unknown quantity to me, so that should be interesting!

The Agatha Christie Challenge – Hallowe’en Party (1969)

Halloween PartyIn which Mrs Oliver is staying with a friend in Woodleigh Common and is present at a children’s Hallowe’en party that ends in a grotesque death involving apples, which puts Mrs O off her favourite fruit for life. She calls for assistance from her old friend Hercule Poirot, who speaks to everyone involved with setting up the party, but it’s not until another tragedy takes place that he’s able to identify the murderer.  As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, as always, I promise not to reveal what happens and whodunit!

P G WodehouseThe book is dedicated to “P. G. Wodehouse whose books and stories have brightened my life for many years. Also, to show my pleasure in his having been kind enough to tell me that he enjoys my books.” Wodehouse, of course, was a prodigious writer of humorous novels and short stories all the way through the first three quarters of the 20th century. Hallowe’en Party was first published in the UK by Collins Crime Club in November 1969, and in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company in the same month. It was also serialised in the UK in Women’s Own magazine, in seven instalments in November and December 1969, and in the US in Cosmopolitan magazine in December 1969.

Children's gamesI was very surprised when I started researching for this blog post to read that contemporary reviews of this book were largely not complimentary, because I really enjoyed re-reading this book. I thought it was an intriguing and fascinating plot, which brings the modern reader face-to-face with some uncomfortable truths – the sexualisation of children and the subsequent potential for their abuse and murder. The main problem with the book perhaps is that there are several loose ends that are not tied up, but I didn’t mind that too much; loose ends, like life, aren’t always tied up, and they don’t adversely affect the plot as a whole. There’s also a lengthy reflection about gardens that, try as I might, I fail to see the reason why it occupied quite so much of Christie’s attention.

private detectiveYet, the preliminary story-telling is amusing and entertaining; and Poirot’s thorough and logical series of interviews to come up with a solution is not that different from the equivalent sequence in Murder on the Orient Express, although perhaps a little more ploddy. Nevertheless, Christie employs the tactic of introducing short chapters/chapter parts towards the end of the book to make the final revelations even more exciting. However, despite that excitement, I largely guessed the identity of the guilty party from a very big clue that Christie telegraphs a mile off, so from that point of view it’s a little disappointing. But then there’s always an element of satisfaction when you beat Christie and guess the solution correctly!

retroThere’s quite a retro feel to this book, with not only the return appearance of the new detective team of Poirot and Oliver, but we also welcome back the retired Superintendent Spence, whom we last saw seventeen years earlier in Mrs McGinty’s Dead, a case which the two men recollect in some detail as they imagine what some of the characters and suspects would be doing nowadays. There are also mentions of Poirot’s work in The Labours of Hercules, and Miss Emlyn, the school headmistress, is a friend of Miss Bulstrode whom we met in Cat Among the Pigeons. One of the recurrent plot lines of this book is that of witnessing a murder, although the witness didn’t realise it was a murder at the time. This feels like it borrows from the plots of A Caribbean Mystery and Third Girl, and Mrs Oliver also mentions that she would never again help in running a murder game at a party, which is a direct reference to the plot of Dead Man’s Folly. Poirot and Spence are at pains to declare their appreciation of each other, albeit lightly, with Spence saying of himself “I should never think of myself as a distinguished man”, but Poirot correcting him, “I think of you as such.” Spence also says to Poirot: “may your moustaches never grow less”.

vicar2It’s always fun to spot new aspects to Christie’s characters, and in this book, we discover a fascinating insight into Poirot’s past: “his mind, magnificent as it was (for he had never doubted that fact) required stimulation from outside sources. He had never been of a philosophic cast of mind. There were times when he almost regretted that he had not taken to the study of theology instead of going into the police force in his early days. The number of angels who could dance on the point of a needle; it would be interesting to feel that that mattered and to argue passionately on the point with one’s colleagues.” Poirot a theologian? I would have thought he was much more into empirical evidence than spiritual.

Blind JusticeIt’s also an aspiration that you might feel is at odds with his overwhelming support for justice. “He was a man who thought first always of justice. He was suspicious, had always been suspicious, of mercy – too much mercy, that is to say. Too much mercy, as he knew from former experience both in Belgium and this country, often resulted in further crimes which were fatal to innocent victims who need not have been victims if justice had been put first and mercy second.”

Black patent leather shoesWe always knew about his tendency to wear smart, tight patent leather shoes, but in this book he’s started to suffer for his fashion style. On a few occasions it’s noted that he’s in pain. Mrs Oliver makes the sensible suggestion that he should ““take your shoes off […] and rest your feet.” “No, no, I could not do that.” Poirot sounded shocked at the possibility. “Well, we’re old friends together,” said Mrs Oliver, “[…] if you’ll excuse me saying so, you oughtn’t to wear patent leather shoes in the country, Why don’t you get yourself a nice pair of suede shoes? Or the things all the hippy-looking boys wear nowadays? […]” “I would not care for that at all,” said Poirot severely, “no indeed!” “The trouble with you is,“ said Mrs Oliver […] “that you insist on being smart. You mind more about your clothes and your moustaches and how you look and what you wear than comfort. Now comfort is really the great thing. Once you’ve passed, say, fifty, comfort is the only thing that matters […] if not, you will suffer a great deal and it will be worse year after year.”” The voice of reason versus the voice of vanity.

FinlandAs for Mrs Oliver, there isn’t much here that we didn’t already know. When some of the children ask her why her detective is a Finn, she replies “I’ve often wondered”. When they ask if she makes a lot of money from her books, ““in a way,” said Mrs Oliver, her thoughts flying to the Inland Revenue.”” When questioned if she puts real people into her books, she denies that she does it, but after further probing from Poirot, she admits that she takes the look of someone that she might have met in real life and puts a person with that look into a book; but if she were to discover anything about the person’s character it wouldn’t work, she has to create her own opinion of what the person’s character might be.

Agatha ChristieAll this continues to suggest that Christie put herself into her books in the guise of Mrs Oliver, and completely contradicting Mrs O’s own statement about “putting people into books”. She put herself into the books, after all! Poirot is, unsurprisingly, the person who knows Mrs Oliver best of all. When she consults him about the incident during the party, she arrives in a what I can only describe as the most frantic tizzy imaginable. Poirot’s observation: ““It is a pity,” he murmured to himself, “that she is so scatty. And yet, she has originality of mind. It could be that I am going to enjoy what she is coming to tell me. It could be – “ he reflected a minute “- that it may take a great deal of the evening and that it will all be excessively foolish. Eh bien, one must take one’s risks in life.””

St Mary's Church WoodleighApart from Poirot’s London flat, there’s only one new location in this book, the commuter town of Woodleigh Common, described as thirty to forty miles from London, and near Medchester, where the solicitors Fullerton, Harrison and Leadbetter are based. Woodleigh Common is a figment of Christie’s imagination, but there is a Woodleigh in the South Hams district of Devon, with which Christie would almost certainly have been familiar.

Snapdragon gameThere are quite a few other references and quotations to check out in this book. Critical to the crime is a game that was played at the party, entitled the Snapdragon. I’d never heard of this game. I’m shamelessly going to quote from Wikipedia: “Snap-dragon (also known as Flap-dragon, Snapdragon, or Flapdragon) was a parlour game popular from about the 16th century. It was played during the winter, particularly on Christmas Eve. Brandy was heated and placed in a wide shallow bowl; raisins were placed in the brandy which was then set alight. Typically, lights were extinguished or dimmed to increase the eerie effect of the blue flames playing across the liquor. The game was described in Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language (1755) as “a play in which they catch raisins out of burning brandy and, extinguishing them by closing the mouth, eat them.” According to an article in Richard Steele’s Tatler magazine, “the wantonness of the thing was to see each other look like a demon, as we burnt ourselves, and snatched out the fruit.” Snap-dragon was played in England, Canada, and the United States, but there is insufficient evidence of the practice in Scotland or other countries.”

SiseraPoirot had expected to spend the evening discussing the Canning Road Municipal Baths murder with his friend Solly. I’m not entirely sure – but I think this is an invention of Christie’s; odd, because it sounds slightly familiar. Old sins have long shadows, quotes Poirot when talking about the death of Janet White. This isn’t actually a quotation but an old proverb. Miranda quotes “birds in their little nests agree”; this comes from Love Between Brothers and Sisters, one of the divine songs for children by Isaac Watts (1674 – 1748). She also says to Poirot, “do you think the old saying is true – about you’re born to be hanged or born to be drowned?” She’s actually referring to an old French proverb that says, “He that is born to be hanged shall never be drowned.” Miranda also enjoys the story of Jael and Sisera; that’s the second time Christie has referred to that old Bible reference – the first time is in N or M?

Grasshopper“I don’t know if it was Burns or Sir Walter Scott who said “There’s a chiel among you taking notes”, says Mrs Oliver. It’s Burns, from “On The Late Captain Grose’s Peregrinations Thro’ Scotland”. Mr Drake’s car accident involved a Grasshopper Mk 7 – that’s the old Austin Seven car, the market leader at the time. And a final quote: “the fate of every man have we bound about his neck” – ““an Islamic saying, I believe,” said Poirot.” It’s actually from Chapter 17 of the Holy Koran.

Elvis PresleyChristie must have had a lot of fun coming up with the name Eddie Presweight, a pop singer whose face resembles the man that young Beatrice sees in her mirror during the party game. I’m assuming the “Eddie” was inspired by Eddie Cochran, the “Pres” comes from Elvis Presley, but the “weight” has me stumped. Any ideas, gentle reader?


Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for Hallowe’en Party:


Publication Details: 1969. My copy is a Fontana Paperback, the first impression, proudly boasting the words first time in paperback, published in 1972, bearing the price on the back cover of 30p. The superb cover illustration, presumably by Tom Adams, shows a red apple morphing into a skull, dripping water, and with images in hand mirrors and a very sinister carved pumpkin.

How many pages until the first death: 17 – excitingly rapid.

Funny lines out of context: sadly none.

Memorable characters: Not the strength of this book. Most of the main characters are rather scantily drawn; perhaps the most interesting is Miranda, the very thoughtful and intelligent daughter of Mrs Oliver’s friend Judith Butler. I also rather liked the two boys, Desmond and Nick, who behave with remarkable decency and solemnity for boys their age!

Christie the Poison expert: An unspecified “golden liquid” was to be used as a poison to murder – but when this is thwarted, it’s used for suicide.

Class/social issues of the time:

As the 60s continued to hurtle towards the 70s, you sense Christie getting more and more at odds with modern life. Spence and Poirot reflect on the difficulties within modern relationships. ““I’d say, you know, roughly, Poirot, that more girls nowadays marry wrong ‘uns than they ever used to in my time.” Hercule Poirot considered, pulling his moustaches. “Yes,” he said, “I can see that that might be so, I suspect that girls have always been partial to the bad lots, as you say, but in the past there were safeguards.”” They regret that modern parenting hasn’t seen fit to impose itself on the relationships of young adults like it did in their day. Mrs Drake also disapproves of modern parenting, when reflecting on the appearance and behaviour of some children: “they’re not brought up very well nowadays. Everything seems left to the school, and of course they lead very permissive lives. Have their own choice of friends…”

A side theme that Christie occasionally explores and seems very out of place today is the sexualisation of children and the possibility that children can be sexually attractive in some ways; it’s fascinating how the whole notion of paedophilia was somehow less shocking at that time than it is today. Mrs Oliver refers to 12-year-old Joyce as “rather mature, perhaps. Lumpy” […] “well developed? You mean sexy-looking?” asks Poirot; “yes that is what I mean”. There are other oblique references like this that you simply wouldn’t expect to find in this kind of book today. The two boys – 18 years old and 16 years old – believe there’s “got to be a sex background to all these things” – and imagine perhaps that the new curate might have exposed himself to young Joyce. They also imagine one of their teachers to be a “lesbian” – the first time such a word appeared in a Christie book.

Following on from Poirot and Mrs Oliver’s discomfort with the beautiful young men in Third Girl, here there is another young man who captivates their attention with his looks – Michael Garfield. “A young man […] of an unusual beauty. One didn’t think of young men that way nowadays. You said of a young man that he was sexy or madly attractive and these evidences of praise are often quite justly made […] if you did say it, you said it apologetically as though you were praising some quality that had been long dead. The sexy girls didn’t want Orpheus with his lute, they wanted a pop singer with a raucous voice, expressive eyes and large masses of unruly hair.” Constantly impressed with his appearance, they just don’t know how to deal with him.

1969 was a time when it was reported that mindless violence was everywhere, and abductions and killing of children were two a penny. Petty crime was worse; lawyer Jeremy Fullerton professes himself to be “contemptuous of many of the magistrates of today with their weak sentences, the acceptance of scholastic needs. The students who stole books, the young married women who denuded the supermarkets, the girls who filched money from their employers, the boys who wrecked telephone boxes, none of them in real need, none of then desperate, most of them had known nothing but over-indulgence in bringing-up and a fervent belief that anything they could not afford to buy was theirs to take.”

Mrs Drake also: “It seems to me that crimes are so often associated nowadays with the young. People who don’t really know quite what they are doing, who want silly revenges, who have an instinct for destruction. Even the people who wreck telephone boxes, or who slash the tyres of cars, do all sorts of things just to hurt people, just because they hate – not anyone in particular, but the whole world. It’s a sort of symptom of this age.” And Inspector Raglan’s suspicions fall on the boys simply because of their age. “The percentage of murders committed by this age group had been increasing in the last few years. Not that Poirot inclined to that particular suspicion himself, but anything was possible. It was even possible that the killing which had occurred two or three years ago might have been committed by a boy, youth, or adolescent of fourteen or twelve years of age. Such cases had occurred in recent newspaper reports.” There’s also a lot of consideration given to the possibility simply that mental instability can be a motivation for murder – Dr Ferguson subscribes to this chain of thought, and the whole of chapter nine is given over to his ghoulish beliefs.

Among the less violent or gruesome issues that arise, there are a couple of references to the abolition of the 11+ – that was the exam you took aged 11 to decide whether you could progress forward into the grammar school route (if you passed) or the secondary modern (if you failed). I took my 11+ in 1971 (and passed, heh heh) so I don’t know why they say it had already been abolished in 1969 – different rules for different places, I suppose.

“Do you tell fortunes?” asks Poirot of Mrs Goodbody. ““Mustn’t say I do, must I?” she chuckled. “The police don’t like that. Not that they mind the kind of fortunes I tell. Nothing to it, as you might say.”” This isn’t the first time there’s been an allusion to the fact that certain types of fortune-telling were illegal – and indeed they still are today in many parts of the world. It was originally classified as witchcraft and made illegal in 1563. Until as recently as 1951 a medium could be prosecuted under sections of the Witchcraft Act of 1735 and the Vagrancy Act of 1824.

Classic denouement:  Not quite. The police gather together some suspects for a final questioning which reveals the identity of the wrongdoer. But any guilty parties are not present for that revelation, and we only find out the finer details from Poirot in discussion with Mrs Oliver after it’s all over.

Happy ending? The only sense of “happy ending” is that the innocents have been sorted out from the guilty, and they have the chance to go on to lead successful lives. There’s no big marriages, fortunate windfalls or anything like that.

Did the story ring true? For the most part, yes. The loose ends that remain loose don’t affect the credibility of the story or the solution, just feel a bit untidy. There is something of an unlikely revelation in the last two pages but it’s not beyond the bounds of possibility.

Overall satisfaction rating: 8/10. Marks deducted for untied up loose ends, but it’s still a very enjoyable and entertaining read.

Thanks for reading my blog of Hallowe’en Party, 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 Passenger to Frankfurt, a spy story of which I have absolutely no recollection, and published to mark Christie’s eightieth birthday. As usual, I’ll blog my thoughts about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!

The Points of View Challenge – My Side of the Matter – Truman Capote

Truman Capote (1924 – 1984)

American novelist (In Cold Blood, Breakfast at Tiffany’s), screenwriter, playwright, and actor (Neil Simon’s Murder by Death).

My Side of the Matter, first published in A Tree of Night and Other Stories, a short story collection, in 1949

Available to read online here – please search on the title of the story

This is the first of five stories in the volume Points of View to be given the style classification by Moffett and McElheny of Subjective Narration. Here’s how they introduce this method: “To question the reliability of the person to whom we are listening is to stop and look at our own reliability for a moment. To say that someone else is “being subjective” is to risk a similar complaint about oneself. It is not always possible to be sure whether a narrative is subjective or not. All we can ever do, in or out of fiction, is to test the speaker’s perspective against our own.”

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


My Side of the Matter


A Tree of NightMeet young Mr Sylvester. He’s only 16, but had a good job at the Cash ‘n’ Carry until his new wife Marge (getting married – his first mistake) insists he gives it up to live with her and her two aunts because she’s pregnant (getting her pregnant – his second mistake) in the miserable settlement of Admiral’s Hill (“which is nothing but a damn gap in the road”). Sylvester wants to explain to what a hard time he’s had living with these three women, and is lucky to have escaped with his life (“On Sunday, August 12 […] Eunice tried to kill me with her papa’s Civil War sword and Olivia-Ann cut up all over the place with a fourteen-inch hog knife.”)

His relationship with the aunts started poorly and never got better. Eunice’s first words when she saw him were: “So this is what you ran off behind our backs and married, Marge? […] You sure must’ve picked the runt of the litter. Why this isn’t any sort of man at all.” Whatever Eunice says, Olivia-Ann says the same, although what Eunice doesn’t know is that Sylvester saw Olivia-Ann help Eunice’s canary escape by shooing it through an open window with a broom.

Marge asks if they can take the car to see the picture show at Phoenix City. Eunice is steadfast. “If you think I’d let that runt drive my just-as-good-as-brand-new 1934 Chevrolet as far as the privy and back you must’ve gone clear out of your head.” Sylvester insists he’s used to driving Chevvies but she just retorts “if he’s ever so much as driven a plow I’ll eat a dozen gophers fried in turpentine.” The sisters don’t even let him and Marge sleep together, despite being married; he has to sleep in a cot on the back porch.

So what actually happened on Sunday, August 12? Our hero was picking out a tune on Olivia-Ann’s piano when she complained at him for creating an infernal racket. Incensed, Sylvester confronts her about the canary. She walks out in a quiet fury, only to return with Eunice and Bluebell, the maid, and Eunice demanding the return of one hundred dollars she says she has stolen from her. He denies it, of course, but Marge beseeches him to return the money. “I said “Et tu Brute?” which is from William Shakespeare.” Bluebell adds her supportive voice of complaint, and as a result he “picked up this umbrella off the hat tree and rapped her across the head with it until it cracked smack in two. “My real Japanese silk parasol!” shrieks Olivia-Ann. Marge cries, “You’ve killed Bluebell!” He hadn’t of course. But they try to kill him before he kills them. As the scene descends into farce, Sylvester barricades himself into the parlour with all the ghastly heavy furniture, and we last see him munching through a five pound box of chocolates, occasionally playing the piano to let the others know he’s “cheerful”.

Apparently written when Capote was about 21, this is a lively and seemingly light-hearted tale but it hides a number of darker, more sinister themes. It’s a great choice as an example of subjective narration, because you really come away from it feeling that, as far as blame is concerned, it’s six of one and half a dozen of the other. Capote weaves an intricate web of truths and likely-falsehoods, and you really can’t tell when one ends and the other begins.

His use of language, particularly in the reporting of conversation, shows a most acute ear for bizarre turns of phrase. The “gophers” and “Brute” lines I’ve already quoted make you laugh out loud with their unexpected eloquence. Here are some more devastatingly good one-liners: “she is a natural born half-wit and ought to be really kept in somebody’s attic”; “she has this positively morbid crush on Gary Cooper and has one trunk and two suitcases full of his photos”; and “mosquitoes that could murder a buffalo, given half a chance, not to mention dangerous flying roaches and a posse of local rats big enough to haul a wagon train from here  to Timbucktoo.”

I also like his device of not explaining things that cry out for explanation. Why is Olivia-Ann’s canary called Mrs Harry Steller Smith? How come Sylvester and Marge married so young, after only four days knowing each other, and clearly without family approval? Is there an ulterior motive for the aunts constantly to ridicule Sylvester’s masculinity? What’s Sylvester’s first name? And how come he is acquainted with Julius Caesar?

Masked with comedy, there is a lot of domestic violence in this story, with Sylvester admitting to slapping Marge, bringing Olivia-Ann down with a tackle and hitting Bluebell over the head. Olivia-Ann delivers a knee-punch to Sylvester, but you do sense that it is in self-defence. There’s criticism of the church and religious devotion, with the Morning Star Baptist Church having a preacher, “an awful old turd named Shell whom Eunice drug over one day to see about the salvation of my soul, I heard him with my own ears tell her I was too far gone”; and Olivia-Ann bellowing out hymns whilst planning her next physical assault on Sylvester.

There’s also some deep-south racism, with the N word used twice, and Sylvester seeing Bluebell as a justified target for his violence simply because of the colour of her skin. He also shows a derision for Eunice and Olivia-Ann’s papa by judging him from his portrait: “Papa is kind of handsome but just between you and me I’m convinced he has black blood in him from somewhere.” Of course, one has to assess that kind of language in the context of the age in which it was written, but it’s clear that Sylvester looks on people of colour as having less value.

It’s fair to say that you wouldn’t want to meet any of the characters in real life, although Sylvester would certainly be the most intriguing. There’s no doubt he has an admirable survival instinct, uses language as a weapon in the domestic wars that he has no real interest in waging. He’s also a layabout slob who you sense can probably turn on and off the charm with the flick of a mental switch. Very well written though; Capote packs a lot of content into nine or so pages and certainly proves that brevity is the soul of wit.

The next story in the anthology is the second of the subjective narration stories, Too Early Spring by Stephen Vincent Benét. I think I read some of his poems in an anthology of American poetry when I was at school – but that’s all I know of him.

The George Orwell Challenge – Keep The Aspidistra Flying (1936)

Keep the Aspidistra FlyingOrwell must have been a nightmare for publishers Victor Gollancz, with his penchant for writing about characters and places that he knew and only thinly cloaking them with a veneer of fiction. Burmese Days was originally rejected due to fear of libel, with recognisable links between fictional Kyauktada and the real town of Katha, where Orwell had been stationed. A Clergyman’s Daughter was the subject of many cuts and amendments to mask the reality of Orwell’s own experiences of hop-picking, school-teaching and working with the Church, that inspired the story. In Keep the Aspidistra Flying, one of the major characters, Ravelston, was a barely concealed representation of Sir Richard Rees, who was the editor of The Adelphi magazine, a left-wing journal that published many of Orwell’s essays and other writings.

A Clergyman's DaughterIn addition to A Clergyman’s Daughter, this was the other book that Orwell wrote where he was displeased with the final result, and originally refused permission for it to be reprinted after his death. In a letter to the Canadian literary critic, George Woodcock, he wrote that it “was written simply as an exercise and I oughtn’t to have published it, but I was desperate for money. At that time I simply hadn’t a book in me, but I was half starved and had to turn out something to bring in £100 or so”. He retracted this decision later on – and interestingly, Orwell chose Rees as his literary executor, so he must have trusted him well!

holy BibleOrwell’s epigraph for Keep the Aspidistra Flying was presaged in his previous book. The untrustworthy Mr Warburton had a favourite saying: “if you took 1 Corinthians, chapter thirteen, and in every verse wrote “money” instead of “charity”, the chapter had ten times as much meaning as before.” This is exactly what Orwell has used for his epigraph; by taking verses 1 to 7 and the final verse 13 of that Bible extract, and replacing “charity” (or “love”, depending on your translation) with “money”, he creates something of a nightmare creed. “Though I have all faith, so that I could move mountains, have not money, I am nothing.” Perhaps the most telling of all is verse 13: “And now abideth faith, hope, money, these three; but the greatest of these is money.”

Burmese DaysAs I mentioned in my previous blog posts about Burmese Days and A Clergyman’s Daughter, I’m not attempting to write a serious criticism of the book – there are plenty of wise words out there written by much more able brains; instead I’m just wanting to read, reflect, and jot down my personal reaction to his writing. So here’s my reaction to Keep the Aspidistra Flying. I found it a harder book to read than his previous two novels – Burmese Days in particular I read over the course of a weekend because I literally could not put it down. Keep the Aspidistra Flying, however, I read over the course of a few weeks, taking in a chapter at a time, considering it and processing it, before proceeding with the next chapter. It’s extremely intense, so taking it slowly helps you appreciate it more. It’s also written in a very episodic style, so each chapter is quite self-contained, as far as the story progresses. That makes it easier for you to pause before you continue.

Gordon ComstockHowever, the main issue with it, in comparison to the other books, is that its central hero, in this case Gordon Comstock, is for the most part thoroughly unlikeable. The reader can identify quite easily with John Flory and Dorothy Hare, even though aspects of their personalities are unappealing, because it takes a while for the negative aspects of their characters to show themselves – by which time Orwell has hooked you in. But Comstock instantly repels us – he’s snobbish, prejudiced, contrary, difficult – and in a reverse process from the other books, it’s only after reading quite a lot of the book that you can start identifying with certain aspects of him.

PoundComstock has taken a moral stance, not to follow the Money God but to derive satisfaction from actively working against it. It’s a conclusion he worked out by observing the behaviours of his own family. “There are two ways to live, he decided. You can be rich, or you can deliberately refuse to be rich. You can possess money, or you can despise money; the one fatal thing is to worship money and fail to get it.” On one hand, that’s quite a reasonable and even admirable attitude to take. The trouble is, he’s so priggish about it; he blames everyone and everything else for his problems, he takes it out on his family and friends, he’s selfish and immature; and every time something bad happens to him, secretly, we’re quite pleased. It’s only towards the end, when his degradation gets almost too much to bear, that we start to give him the benefit of the doubt.

DH-LawrenceHe sees himself as a poet, whiling his time away in a dead-end library job, making up verse to help the day go by. When we first meet him, he’s ridiculing or patronising members of the public who come to the bookshop/library where he works. He judges the well-dressed businessman who heads straight for the D H Lawrence, “pining for a bit of smut”; he inwardly criticises the book choice of Mrs Weaver and admires that of Mrs Penn, purely on the basis of their class; he loathes the “moneyed artistic young man” referring to him as a Nancy and mocking his speech.

MiceBut his superiority disdain for his clients is a façade to conceal his own failure and underachievement. Although he’s the published author of Mice, it’s a book that no one ever reads, and of which he himself despairs. “Forty or fifty drab, dead little poems, each like a little abortion in its labelled jar […] The poems themselves are dead. There’s no life in them. Everything I write is like that. Lifeless, gutless, Not necessarily ugly or vulgar; but dead – just dead […] My poems are dead because I’m dead. You’re dead. We’re all dead. Dead people in a dead world.” His masterwork that will never be, London Pleasures, is a half-finished, half-hearted waste of time that he carries around in his pocket, ostensibly in case he ever gets the inspiration to add to it, but primarily to remind him of his failure. He aspires to living the archetypal life of a poet, struggling in some lonely filthy garret somewhere. That’s probably one of the few ambitions he has that he achieves. Otherwise, all he has to offer artistically is failure. In a revealing throwaway line he describes poetry to himself as “the last futility”.

Ceiling crackIn his imitable style, Orwell provides several evocative descriptions of Comstock’s miserable, lonely domestic existence. “He looked about him. Another evening wasted. Hours, days, years slipping by. Night after night, always the same. The lonely room, the womanless bed; dust, cigarette ash, the aspidistra leaves […] For a quarter of an hour, perhaps, he lay on the bed fully dressed, his hands under his head. There was a crack on the ceiling that resembled the map of Australia […] He held up one foot and looked at it. A smallish, delicate foot. Ineffectual, like his hands, Also, it was very dirty. It was nearly ten days since he had had a bath […] Then he turned out the gas and slid between the sheets, shuddering, for he was naked, He always slept naked. His last suit of pyjamas had gone west more than a year ago.”

PoetryHe is a curiously contrary character who, whenever any form of success beckons, retreats in the other direction. When he starts doing well at New Albion, he chucks the job in. His boss Erskine would have understood if he was going for a better job, but he was just going to do writing, in a non-committal way. “Poetry? Make a living out of that sort of thing, do you think?” And of course he can’t. If he could have, he probably would have turned away from it. He came from a generally sterile family, the only surviving members being two ageing aunts and an irrelevant uncle, and his sister Julia who had spent her life in subjugation to her brother, “working a seventy-two hour week and doing her “sewing” at nights by the tiny gas-fire in her bed-sitting-room.” “As for Gordon’s branch of the family, the combined income of the five of them, allowing for the lump sum that had been paid down when Aunt Charlotte entered the Mental Home, might have been six hundred a year. Their combined ages were two hundred and sixty-three years. None of them had ever been out of England, fought in a war, been in prison, ridden a horse, travelled in an aeroplane, got married or given birth to a child. There seemed no reason why they should not continue in the same style until they died. Year in, year out, nothing ever happened in the Comstock family.”

Five poundsHis relationships are one-sided. He loves his girlfriend Rosemary on his own, controlling terms – which are more lust than love. He rides roughshod over Julia, borrowing money that she can scarcely afford and that he will never return. When he receives a ten pounds windfall, he instantly puts five aside to pay back to Julia – but you just know from the start that she’ll never receive it; on those rare occasions when Comstock does have money in his pocket he has no idea how to look after it and he just fritters it away pointlessly. He has no time for any of the other tenants in his block – presumably because their very presence there means they are failures; and he’s quick to perceive a slight against himself such as when he goes to Doring’s house for a party and the place is in darkness; he replies to Doring’s follow-up letter with the words “go to Hell”, thus removing another potential light from his otherwise dark world.

DepressedThe only person he does have time for is Ravelston; he likes, admires and respects Ravelston but hates being financially needy and reliant on him. “Gordon sidled closer to Ravelston as they started down the pavement. He would have taken his arm, only of course one can’t do that kind of thing. Beside Ravelston’s taller, comelier figure he looked frail, fretful, and miserably shabby. He adored Ravelston and was never quite at ease in his presence. Ravelston had not merely a charm of manner, but also a kind of fundamental decency, a graceful attitude to life, which Gordon scarcely encountered elsewhere.” Eventually he even blocks Ravelston from his life, as his self-destructive quest for personal degradation reaches its worst. “He wanted to go down, deep down, into some world where decency no longer mattered […] without regret, almost intentionally, he was letting himself go to pieces.” Today, we’d say that Comstock was suffering from depression. “He just lay there, flat on his back, sometimes smiling a little, as though there were some private joke between himself and the ceiling. The room had already the stuffy sweetish smell of rooms that have been lived in a long time and never cleaned. There were dirty crocks lying about in the fender.”

Down and out in Paris and LondonOrwell always adhered to the adage, write what you know about, and he continues to do that in this book. Elements of Comstock’s morose and poverty-stricken domestic existence are reminiscent of his experiences in Paris, as he wrote more about in Down and Out in Paris and London. “He had turned his collar inside out and tied his tie so that the torn place didn’t show. With the point of a match he had scraped enough blacking from the tin to polish his shoes […] he had procured an empty Gold Flake packet and put not it a single cigarette extracted from the penny-in-the-slot-machine. That was just for the look of the thing.” These are Down and Out tricks of survivial. The fact that Comstock deliberately turns away from money and chooses to attain poverty reminds us of Orwell’s own habit of deliberately living poor for a while, just to get the experience, although he could always return to his middle-class family for support whenever he wanted, unlike Comstock. In many ways Comstock is Orwell – and it’s fascinating that he always refers to him in the book as Gordon, not Comstock, as though he is very personally involved with and relates to the character.

BovexAs always, an Orwell book gives us an excellent insight into the societal themes of the time. From the start, Orwell is scathing of the advertising hoardings that bombard the public with marketing messages, designed to make you feel inadequate unless you buy the product being advertised. Not much has changed there over the last 85 years. “Of them all, the Bovex one oppressed Gordon the most. A spectacled rat-faced clerk, with patent-leather hair, sitting at a café table grinning over a white mug of Bovex. “Corner table enjoys his meal with Bovex,” the legend ran.” (Bovex was a type of Bovril drink, by the way.) Just as the advertisement sees the clerk purely in terms of being “corner table”, so does Comstock. “Corner Table grins at you, seemingly optimistic, with a flash of false teeth. But what is behind the grin? Desolation, emptiness, prophecies of doom. For can you not see, if you know how to look, that behind that slick self-satisfaction, that tittering fat-bellied triviality, there is nothing but a frightful emptiness, a secret despair? The great death-wish of the modern world. […] It is all written in Corner Table’s face.”

FungusThe business where Comstock used to work, New Albion, is described as “one of those publicity firms which have sprung up everywhere since the War – the fungi, as you might say, that sprout from a decaying capitalism.” No love lost there, then. London, the home of capitalism in Britain, he describes as “mile after mile of mean lonely houses, let off in flats and single rooms; not homes, not communities, just clusters of meaningless lives drifting in a sort of drowsy chaos to the grave! He saw men as corpses walking.”

St CypriansOrwell had a lot to say about private education in A Clergyman’s Daughter and he has more personal recollections in this book, which he delivers through Comstock’s invective. His unhappy experience at St Cyprian’s School, Eastbourne, where he became very aware that he was from a much poorer background than his school colleagues, clearly comes out in Comstock’s memories of his own education. “Gordon’s life had been one long conspiracy to keep his end up and pretend that his parents were richer than they were. Ah, the humiliation of those days! That awful business, for instance, at the beginning of each term, when you had to “give in” to the headmaster, publicly, the money you had brought back with you; and the contemptuous, cruel sniggers from the other boys when you didn’t ”give in” ten bob or more. And the time when the others found out that Gordon was wearing a ready-made suit which had cost thirty-five shillings! […] His father, especially, was the kind of father you couldn’t help being ashamed of […] he carried about with him an atmosphere of failure, worry and boredom. And he had such a dreadful habit, when he was saying goodbye, of tipping Gordon half a crown right in front of the other boys, so that everyone could see that it was only half a crown and not, as it ought to have been, ten bob! Even twenty years afterwards the memory of that school made Gordon shudder.”

WomenOn women, Comstock is very uncomplimentary. “They’re a bloody curse. That is, if you’ve got no money. A woman hates the sight of you if you’ve got no money […] the only thing a woman ever wants is money; money for a house of her own and two babies and Drage furniture and an aspidistra. The only sin they can imagine is not wanting to grab money. No woman ever judges a man by anything except his income […] and if you haven’t got money you aren’t nice. You’re dishonoured, somehow. You’ve sinned. Sinned against the aspidistra.” Ravelston’s girlfriend, the appalling Hermione, is given as an example. “She was rich, of course, or her people were […] “Don’t talk to me about the lower classes,” she used to say. “I hate them. They smell.” […] “Hermione, dear, please don’t call them the lower classes!” “Why not? They are the lower classes, aren’t they?” “It’s such a hateful expression. Call them the working class, can’t you?” “The working class, if you like, then. But they smell just the same.” “You oughtn’t to say that kind of thing, “ he protested weakly. “Do you know, Philip, sometimes I think you like the lower classes.” “Of course I like them.” “How disgusting. How absolutely disgusting.”

Coal dustThere’s also the latent racism of the age, which to be fair doesn’t arise very much, but is well expressed in this brief description of one of Comstock’s near neighbours: “In the garret adjoining Gordon’s there lived a tall handsome old woman who was not quite right in the head and her whole face was often as black as a Negro’s from dirt. Gordon could never make out where the dirt came from. It looked like coal dust. The children of the neighbourhood used to shout “Blackie!” after her as she stalked along the pavement like a tragedy queen, talking to herself.”

Cavalry ClubHowever, over and above everything else, money is the theme that matters in this book. Indeed, “money writes books, money sells them” concludes Comstock, as he gazes at the rows of books in the bookshop. “Books of criticism and belles-lettres. The kind of thing that those moneyed young beasts from Cambridge write almost in their sleep – and that Gordon himself might have written if he had had a little more money. Money and culture! In a country like England you can no more be cultured without money than you can join the Cavalry Club.”

Man of LawIt seeps into all sectors of society. “All human relationships must be purchased with money. If you have no money, men won’t care for you, women won’t love you”. It’s always been the case, Comstock would argue, as he quotes Chaucer: “if thou be poure, thy brother hateth thee” (from The Man of Law’s Tale). He sees the elderly people who try to sell their worthless books to him as a consequence of money’s place in society: “They were just by-products. The throw-outs of the money-god. All over London, by tens of thousands, draggled old beasts of that description, creeping like  unclean beetles to the grave.” Money has replaced faith: “Perhaps it is the only real religion – the only really felt religion – that is left to us. Money is what God used to be. Good and evil have no meaning any longer except failure and success.” For Comstock, it even prevents sexual intercourse. “It dismayed him to find how little, at this moment, he really wanted her. The money-business still unnerved him. How can you make love when you have only eightpence in your pocket and are thinking about it all the time?” Indeed, Rosemary rejects his advances when it becomes clear he can’t afford something for the weekend.

ListerineHe likens poverty to one of those complaints that the all-pervasive advertisements are designed to make us anxious: “It’s like those ads for Listerine. “Why is he always alone? Halitosis is ruining his career.” Poverty is spiritual halitosis.” And you can’t pretend to be poor when you’re not: “no rich man ever succeeds in disguising himself as a poor man; for money, like murder, will out” – which must be Orwell delivering a side-swipe against himself.

Pint of BeerAnother by-product of the lack of money is charity. Early on, Comstock rejects Flaxman’s offer of a drink in the pub: “Oh for a pint of beer! He seemed almost to feel it going down his throat, If only he had had any money! Even sevenpence for a pint. But what was the use? Twopence halfpenny in pocket, You can’t let other people buy your drinks for you. “Oh, leave me alone, for God’s sake!” he said irritably, stepping out of Flaxman’s reach, and went up the stairs without looking back.” Later, he rejects Ravelston’s attempts to alleviate his money worries: “However delicately it is disguised, charity is still horrible; there is a malaise, almost a secret hatred, between the giver and the receiver.” Later, when he reflects that he and Ravelston never see each other anymore, Comstock concludes “their friendship was at an end, it seemed to him. The evil time when he had lived on Ravelston had spoiled everything. Charity kills friendship.”

CorruptionThere are endless references to money all the way through the book, but perhaps the most telling conclusion that Comstock – or perhaps Orwell – comes in a conversation Gordon has with Ravelston. “The mistake you make […] is in thinking one can live in a corrupt society without being corrupt oneself […] But one can’t. One’s got to change the system, or one changes nothing.”

T S EliotOrwell brings up a couple of cultural references, which, given Comstock’s pretensions towards culture is perhaps unsurprising. As well as the Chaucer quotation earlier, he refers to “Father Hilaire Chestnut’s latest book of R C propaganda” – a combination of Hilaire Belloc and G K Chesterton I guess – they were close associates and G B Shaw coined the name Chesterbelloc. It’s interesting to see Comstock’s reaction to the poet names on the bookshelf: “already on their way to heaven and oblivion, were the poets of yesteryear, the stars of his earlier youth. Yeats, Davies, Housman, Thomas, De La Mare, Hardy. Dead stars. Below them […] the squibs of the passing minute. Eliot, Pound, Auden, Campbell, Day Lewis, Spender. Very damp squibs, that lot. Dead stars above, damp squibs below. Shall we ever again get a writer worth reading? But Lawrence was all right, and Joyce even better before he went off his coconut.” There’s a nice dig here at Eliot, who rejected Orwell’s writing for Faber; however, in 1940 Orwell wrote that “The writers I care about most and never grow tired of are: Shakespeare, Swift, Fielding, Dickens, Charles Reade, Flaubert and, among modern writers, James Joyce, T. S. Eliot and D. H. Lawrence.” Nevertheless, four years later, Eliot would still reject Animal Farm for Faber.

John GalsworthyI enjoyed how Comstock regarded his more intellectual literary conversations with Mrs Penn, reader of John Galsworthy, instead of Mrs Weaver, reader of Ethel M Dell, as a “freemasonry of highbrows”. When he moves to the more downtrodden library later in the book, he realises he consumes the “yellow-jacketed trash that the library contained” because he didn’t want to put any effort into reading, or to reward himself with anything worthwhile. He’s an immense book snob.

Peter Pan and WendyAs always, Orwell is a master of language, expressing ideas with wonderful imagination, using brilliant similes, even inventing words. Right at the start, he describes the “elvish children” on a “Rackhamesque dust-jacket” as “tripping Wendily through a bluebell glade”. There’s no such word as Wendily, but we know he means in the style of Peter Pan’s Wendy and you can easily imagine those elvish children. Towards the end, when he’s back in the world of advertising, Comstock has to promote a cure for PP Pedic Perspiration, even though “Gordon had searched for the word “pedic” in the Oxford Dictionary and found that it did not exist. But Mr Warner said “Hell! What did it matter anyway?” I’ve checked my Oxford English Dictionary and can confirm that it still hasn’t made it into that hallowed tome.

Tube CommuterHe describes a tram as a “raucous swan of steel”, which implies both its rattling noise but also its effortless gliding movement. Commuters on trams or tubes are a “strap-hanging army”, emphasising both the numbers of commuters and the fact that they aren’t enough seats to convey them – nothing changes there. He anthropomorphises the contents of the bookshop as women in various degrees of sexual experience. “Novels straight from the press” are described as “still unravished brides, pining for the paperknife to deflower them”. Review copies are “like youthful widows, blooming still though virgin no longer”, whilst remainder copies are “pathetic spinster-things […] still guarding hopefully their long preserv’d virginity”. Using the archaic “preserv’d” adds an air of classical literary respectability.

High AltitudeOther great turns of phrase are when the drunken Comstock is complaining about the reputations of great writers “with the fine scorn of the unpublished”; Comstock’s observation that “one’s contacts with rich people, like one’s visits to high altitudes, should always be brief”; his description of Mrs Meakin as having “a loving manner towards anything in trousers”; and Orwell’s brilliant account of Ravelston unwillingly enduring the filth and commonness of the ghastly pub where Comstock insisted on taking Ravelston in for a drink:

Burgundy“Gordon came back balancing two pint glasses of dark common ale. They were thick cheap glasses, thick as jam jars almost, and dim and greasy. A thin yellow froth was subsiding on the beer. The air was thick with gunpowdery tobacco-smoke. Ravelston caught sight of a well-filled spittoon near the bar and averted his eyes. It crossed his mind that this beer had been sucked up from some beetle-ridden cellar through yards of slimy tube, and that the glasses had never been washed in their lives, only rinsed in beery water […] Ravelston […] swallowed a mouthful or so and set his glass gingerly down. It was typical London beer, sickly and yet leaving a chemical after-taste. Ravelston thought of the wines of Burgundy. They went on arguing about Socialism.” Not only is this a brilliantly visceral description, it also emphasises the disparity between the poor and the rich Socialist.

First Bad Idea BearA few other thoughts and observations I had… when Comstock is flashing his cash and spending like there’s no tomorrow, Comstock reveals he has something of a split personality, where he has a sober, sensible half, and a reckless, drunken half. Orwell gives us this moment of truth: “Gordon was restless and thirsty. He had wanted to come here, but he was no sooner here than he wanted to escape. Drunken half was clamouring for a bit of fun. And drunken half wasn’t going to be kept in check much longer. Beer, beer! cried drunken half.” It reminded me so much of Avenue Q’s Bad Idea Bears, if you’ve ever seen that production. Furthermore, Comstock’s angry letter to his friend (ex-friend) Doring, penned in a fury and posted without thought reminded me of something between a drunken text and a troll tweet. No form of communication is ever really new!

monopoly_moneyThere’s an inconsistency with how Orwell describes Ravelston’s income. Orwell tells us that, after income tax, his income was “probably two thousand a year.” Yet a short while earlier, he tells us Ravelston earns eight hundred a year. That’s a rather unusual proofing mistake, unless I’m misreading it. By the way, two thousand a year in today’s value equals something in the region of 100k. Not absolute topflight, but a pretty good income no matter what.

The CutThe fictitious Brewers Yard, just off Lambeth Cut, where Comstock ends up bedding down at Mrs Meakin’s, is described as an utter hell-hole. However, take a walk on the streets off The Cut today and you’ll find yourself in a swanky, trendy and genteel part of London that’s the envy of everyone. Interesting how times change!

ImmoralThere’s two things I haven’t really mentioned. First – the plot twist, so to speak, that reveals Comstock to be essentially much more traditional and indeed materialistic than Rosemary, who you sense will carry on to be something of a free spirit. Is it a credible ending? It’s driven, not so much by his desire to follow Mammon, but more to steer away from what he feels is immoral – specifically, he won’t countenance Rosemary having an abortion. I don’t feel it lacks credibility, although it is very sudden, and you’d be forgiven for feeling a little like he’s strangely let the side down.

AspidistraAnd finally, there’s the symbolism of the aspidistra. All the way through, aspidistras haunt Comstock, whether they be intimidatingly healthy or dusty and dying. It’s a symbol of everything that Comstock has always despised; wealth, stability, middle-class, aspirational, something given far more prominence in people’s lives than it really ought. The story comes full circle at the end when he and Rosemary have a disagreement about whether to invest in an aspidistra as a mark of their outwardly respectable marriage and family; in the end, he wins, and they buy one. He’s now really let the side down!

BabyIt is an intriguing book; less of a good read than his others to date, but there is a lot to think about and a lot to appreciate. As in the end of A Clergyman’s Daughter, the hero disappoints us by not following through and being the person we really want them to be. But Comstock is his own man and will do what he wants, whether it’s right or wrong. And at least, the (literal) sterility of the Comstock family will finally come to an end, so there’s an element of hope at the book’s conclusion.

Shooting an ElephantNext in my George Orwell Challenge is a return to the essay format, and Shooting An Elephant, first published in New Writing magazine in September 1936, later published in book format as part of a collection of essays in 1950. It’s a return to Orwell’s Burma days; only ten paperback-size pages long, but I expect it to be as powerful a piece as A Hanging. I look forward to reading it over the next month or so and I hope you’ll join me in tracking down a copy too.

The Points of View Challenge – Diary of a Madman – Nikolai Gogol

Nikolai GogolNikolai Gogol (1809 – 1852)

Russian novelist (Taras Bulba, Dead Souls), short story writer (The Nose, The Overcoat), surrealist, satirist and playwright (The Government Inspector).

Diary of a Madman, first published in Arabesques, a short story collection, in 1835

Available to read online here – please note, this is a different translation from that by Andrew R MacAndrew, which appears in the Points of View book.

This is the second story in the volume Points of View to be given the style classification by Moffett and McElheny of Diary Narration. Their description of this method continues: “The writers of diaries reveal, or perhaps betray, their own states of mind as well as report recent events. Which claims more attention, self-revelation or reporting?” Mentioning other works written in the diary format, they conclude “such stories lie between the strangely public privacy of diary and a subjective narration addressed to the world at large.”

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


Diary of a Madman


Gogol ArabeskPoprishchin starts his diary on October 3rd, with an account of a miserable day at work as a lowly civil servant, mending pens. He says his boss complains that he’s in a muddle and that his work is of poor quality; but Poprishchin has no respect for him anyway and doesn’t care. What he does care about is the director’s beautiful daughter, Sophie, whom he spies alighting from a carriage; he’s instantly lost in her stunning eyes. He recognises her dog, who starts talking to him.

“What an extraordinary dog! I was, to tell the truth, quite amazed to hear it talk human language. But when I considered the matter well, I ceased to be astonished. In fact, such things have already happened in the world. It is said that in England a fish put its head out of water and said a word or two in such an extraordinary language that learned men have been puzzling over them for three years, and have not succeeded in interpreting them yet. I also read in the paper of two cows who entered a shop and asked for a pound of tea.”

The next day he sees her again, and he’s head over heels in love. He even writes love poetry on his bed. A few weeks pass until his next diary entry, and it seems obvious that he has just been shadowing her. The chief clerk tells him he has no chance at his age, with his looks and his poverty. Eventually he gets the idea of convincing her dog that he is worthy of her. The next day, the dog writes to him, with loads of gossip about her daily life, and that of her father. But the dog lets on that the lady thinks Poprishchin is worthless. “His hair looks like a truss of hay” she says, according to the dog. And then the dog tells him that she is besotted with a young chamberlain, and marriage is on the cards.

“Deuce take it! I can read no more. It is all about chamberlains and generals. I should like myself to be a general—not in order to sue for her hand and all that—no, not at all; I should like to be a general merely in order to see people wriggling, squirming, and hatching plots before me. And then I should like to tell them that they are both of them not worth spitting on. But it is vexatious! I tear the foolish dog’s letters up in a thousand pieces.”

At this news, Poprishchin starts to imagine that he is really a count or a general. He reads in the papers that the throne of Spain is vacant, due to a woman being next in line to succeed. And he concludes, therefore, that it must be he who is the next King of Spain. He still goes to the office, but calls himself Ferdinand VIII; Sophie is still not impressed, so he assumes she is in love with the devil. He prepares for his coronation, organising a suitable costume. He waits for the Spanish deputies to arrive, to take him to Madrid. He waits… and waits…

And eventually they arrive! He is taken away to meet the Chancellor of the State who surprises him by beating him with a stick, but Poprishchin maintains his noble stance. He meets the other grandees with shorn heads and is subjected to cold water torture and assumes the Chancellor is in fact the Grand Inquisitor.

“But yet I cannot understand how the king could fall into the hands of the Inquisition. The affair may have been arranged by France—especially Polignac—he is a hound, that Polignac! He has sworn to compass my death, and now he is hunting me down. But I know, my friend, that you are only a tool of the English. They are clever fellows, and have a finger in every pie. All the world knows that France sneezes when England takes a pinch of snuff.”

Finally he can take no more. The beatings, the cold water, and the lack of appreciation of his royal birthright have taken a total toll on him. He is left to dream of what might have been, and of his childhood memories.

“Mother, mother, have pity on your sick child! And do you know that the Bey of Algiers has a wart under his nose?”

Without doubt this is the masterpiece of the anthology so far. There are many fascinating critical appraisals of this story available to research on the Internet which are definitely worth a read, but what impresses me most about the story is that the use of the diary technique means that we only see Poprishchin’s viewpoint of what’s going on. We never hear at first hand the words of his colleagues, of the director’s daughter, or of the doctors and asylum staff, who clearly operate in his head under the guise of the Spanish delegation and the State Chancellor. We only see the world through his own, disastrously dilapidating sanity.

Being Gogol, he cannot help but make you laugh as you read, but it’s a very uncomfortable laughter as you realise that you’re mocking someone who cannot help himself, and who is headed for mental catastrophe. Your laughter turns to sadness as the story proceeds, and you see the awful treatment of the patients by the staff.

The story has been considered one of the first to be a genuine portrayal of a decline into insanity, specifically through schizophrenia. We see Poprishchin’s delusions of grandeur, hallucinations, and finally his complete breaking with reality, by dating his diary entries with made-up, impossible dates. Even almost two hundred years on, it still gives the reader an alarming insight into what the mind of a – for want of a better word – madman might be like. A true work of genius.

The next story in the anthology is the first of five what Moffett and McElheny describe as subjective narration stories, Truman Capote’s My Side of the Matter. I’ve never read any Capote so this should be interesting!

The Agatha Christie Challenge – By the Pricking of my Thumbs (1968)

By the Pricking of my ThumbsIn which we’re reacquainted with amateur detectives Tommy and Tuppence, on the hunt for a missing old lady, Mrs Lancaster, who lived in the same old people’s home as Tommy’s Aunt Ada, and had given her a painting of an attractive old house. But when Aunt Ada dies, and Mrs Lancaster has been removed from her old people’s home, T & T are at a loss as to how to get the picture back to Mrs Lancaster. Cue a search by Tuppence which ends up getting her deep in trouble. As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, as always, I promise not to reveal what happens and whodunit!

Tommy and Tuppence“This book is dedicated to the many readers in this and other countries who write to me asking: “What has happened to Tommy and Tuppence? What are they doing now?” My best wishes to you all, and I hope you will enjoy meeting Tommy and Tuppence again, years older, but with spirit unquenched!” That’s one of Christie’s rare dedications that needs absolutely no research. By the Pricking of my Thumbs was first published in the UK by Collins Crime Club in November 1968, and in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company the same year. Unusually, it doesn’t appear to have been published in magazine format, abridged or otherwise, before the Collins Crime Club edition,  unlike most Christie books.

Macbeth TextThe book begins with an epigraph – one that explains the title of the book. “By the Pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes”. It’s from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, and is spoken by the Second Witch in Act IV Scene 1. She says it just as Macbeth is about to come on stage; and there’s no doubt that he’s something wicked.

N or MAnswering Christie’s readers question, “what has happened to Tommy and Tuppence?”, I’m delighted to report that they are in fine fettle; possibly the best we’ve ever seen them, in fact. We last saw them in the frankly abysmal N or M? way back in 1941, prior to that we hadn’t seen them since operating their detective agency in Partners in Crime. In 1941 they were frustrated at not being involved in the war effort. Now it’s 1968, and they’re definitely retired, but Tuppence still has her restless flightiness and keenness to meddle in affairs that really aren’t her own. Tommy is still both solid and stolid, a reliable background figure of good renown, who fortunately has retained his old secret service contacts from the war. And they’re still looked after by Albert, their office boy in Partners in Crime, landlord of the Dog and Duck in N or M?, and now, apparently, live-in servant and chef extraordinaire provided it’s chicken. All three of them are presented in the same bright and breezy way that we remember them.

Find the LadyOne tends to think that Christie’s writing and plotting tailed off towards the end, but following the sensational Endless Night, her follow-up By the Pricking of my Thumbs is still a pretty good read, with some fun characterisations, nice plot twists and a totally unexpected denouement. What starts out as a Find The Lady story, grows in creepiness and suspense into criminal revelations that you had no concept of at the beginning of the book. No spoilers, so I shan’t tell you if Tuppence finds her lady, but you won’t be disappointed – at least, not with the whodunit element.

Red HerringHowever, there’s no question that the book suffers from Christie’s over-use of coincidences, although at least this time they don’t compromise the crime or the detection; nevertheless, they do make a lot of the framework of the book very far-fetched. There is also one big loose end that isn’t tied up; it’s as though Christie lost sight of some of her earlier plotting as she got going with her main theme. Alternatively, you could think of the big loose end as a big red herring. That’s for you to decide! I also felt the energy of the book sagged when Tuppence is in conversation with the locals in Sutton Chancellor; not so much with the Perrys, but when she spends time with Mr and Mrs Copleigh, Tuppence gets overwhelmed by all the characters she’s forced to listen about, and so do we. Fortunately, that whole sequence ends up with an unexpected and intriguing event.

Apart from a few references to known, real London locations, the majority of the book takes place in area based around Market Basing, which had been a focal point in Dumb Witness, Crooked House, and The Secret of Chimneys. Medchester, Shaleborough, and the main village of Sutton Chancellor are all creations of Christie’s imagination. There is a Cleveland Hotel in London, which is where Mrs Johnson is said to have taken Mrs Lancaster, and there is also a George Street not too far away, but the Cleveland Hotel isn’t actually on George Street, as Christie has it.

Other references are few and far between in this book. When Tuppence is looking through Aunt Ada’s jewellery she sees a “pinky stone, it must be a ruby this time and a small diamond in the middle. Oh, of course, it’s regard. Rather nice really. So old-fashioned and sentimental.” I’d never heard of that, but Regard rings were an early form of Victorian or Edwardian engagement ring with a row of six stones that spelled out the word Regard: ruby, emerald, garnet, amethyst, ruby and diamond.

Peer GyntWhen Dr Murray is telling Tommy about well-known mass murderers  who killed people they cared for, he mentions “the French woman, Jeanne Gebron, who was called The Angel of Mercy”, and “Nurse Warriner who kept a Home for elderly people.” Although they sound very convincing cases, I can’t see any reference to these people apart from in the context of this book – so this is Christie’s feverish imagination at work again. Philip Starke asks Tuppence “did you ever read Peer Gynt, Mrs Beresford?” “Who was she? Herself? The real one, the true one. Who was she – with God’s Sign upon her brow?” This isn’t a quote from Ibsen’s poem/play, but an allusion to it – when Gynt asks others “Peer Gynt? Who was he?”

PoundRegular readers will know that I like to consider any significant sums of money in Christie’s books and work out what their value would be today, just to get a feel of the range of sums that we’re looking at. Money is unimportant in this book, and there actually only two sums referred to. Mr Copleigh says he would only pay £5 for a painting – that’s £60 today. Wouldn’t get you much. The other sum is £50 which is the value of old white fivers that were discovered in a secret compartment of a writing desk. That’s the equivalent of £600 today, which isn’t much in terms of a life’s savings. Old white fivers went out of circulation in 1961, so let’s assume they were hidden in 1960 – the equivalent of £50 in 1960 today is £800. That’s still not much.


Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for By the Pricking of my Thumbs:


Publication Details: 1968. My copy is a Fontana Paperback, the first impression, proudly boasting the words first time in paperback, published in 1971, bearing the price on the back cover of 25p. The cover illustration, presumably by Tom Adams, shows an eerie broken doll in the foreground (very relevant) and a lady smelling roses in the background (not quite so relevant).

How many pages until the first death: Strictly speaking, 17 – but that isn’t a death that comes under investigation. Nor is the death announced after 31 pages – although it’s shown to be very relevant later. More relevant deaths are first mentioned after 77 pages; but if you’re waiting for an actual murder that happens in real time in the book, you’ll be disappointed.

Funny lines out of context: In conversation with Dr Murray: ““Death had resulted from an overdose of morphine.” “Good Lord!” Tommy stared and the ejaculation escaped him.”

Memorable characters: For the most part, the characters, although entertaining, are not hugely well drawn or memorable, with two main exceptions. First is Aunt Ada, a bullying hectoring old woman who distrusts Tuppence enormously, and will only talk to her nephew when she’s out of earshot – very believable and amusing. The other is the person responsible for all the crimes, so please allow me to move swiftly on without any further comment!

Christie the Poison expert: Morphine is discovered to be the cause of a death that had otherwise been considered to be due to natural causes.

Class/social issues of the time: None of Christie’s regular issues come to the fore in this book, which is in itself interesting; as it was the first time she’d written about Tommy and Tuppence for over 25 years, it’s as though she wiped the slate clean with her usual bugbears, to see if any other themes emerge. They do, although not extensively, and they can all be grouped under the heading Getting used to Growing old.

Tommy and Tuppence think about Aunt Ada as a problem; the problem caused by her old age, and who is going to look after her. “The days are past when Aunt Elisabeth, Aunt Ada and the rest of them lived on happily in the homes where they had lived for many years previously, looked after by devoted if sometimes somewhat tyrannical old servants […] For the Aunt Adas of today arrangements have to be made suitable, not merely to an elderly lady who, owing to arthritis or other rheumatic difficulties, is liable to fall downstairs if she is left alone in a house, who suffers from chronic bronchitis, or who quarrels with her neighbours and insults the tradespeople.”

Other aspects of modern life prove generally irksome to older people – like the vicar of Sutton Chancellor. He bemoans the fact that the local council don’t mend the local signposts: “People who drive down these lanes aren’t usually trying to get anywhere in particular. People who are keep to the main roads. Dreadful,” he added again. “Especially the new Motorway. At least, I think so. The noise and the speed and the reckless driving. Oh well! Pay no attention to me. I’m a crusty old fellow.”

As well as local road arrangements, the vicar also objects to modernisation within the church – specifically the choice of Bible. Tuppence is looking for an Authorised Version in the church, but the Vicar can’t help her. “We don’t use that version in the church now, I’m sorry to say. One has to fall in with the bishop’s ideas, you know, and the bishop is very keen on modernisation, for young people and all that. A pity, I think.”

Another new modern-fangled invention is star-ratings on tourist accommodation. Today we’re used to seeing star ratings everywhere, but this was a relatively new thing in 1968. Tuppence asks Mrs Bligh for a recommendation for a local hotel: “It’s just a market town, you know. It doesn’t cater at all for the motoring trade. The Blue Dragon is a two-star but really I don’t think these stars mean anything at all sometimes. I think you’d find The Lamb better.”

Overall the sense you get from the social aspects of the book is a rejection of modernisation and a distrust of the complacency in the thought that life today is better because it is easier and more comfortable.

Classic denouement:  Not at all, just one of those occasions when all the truth is revealed in a private conversation between two people. Hugely entertaining and unsettling though!

Happy ending? There’s a sense of relief for Tommy and Tuppence that their lives will go back to normal, but for everyone else there’s no particular improvement in any of their lives as a result of the experiences in this book.

Did the story ring true? Try as you might, you can’t overlook the major coincidences that Christie creates in order to get the story up and running. The fact that Tuppence recognises the house in the painting. The fact that the gallery run by Tommy’s friend Robert is actually mounting an exhibition of the works of the artist Boscowan. The fact that Robert knows Mrs Boscowan and can arrange a meeting between her and Tommy. The fact that Tommy and Tuppence’s daughter Deborah read an article in the newspaper that alerted her to the possibility that her mother might be in trouble. There are probably more!

Overall satisfaction rating: If you were just awarding a score on the basis of how suspenseful and surprising the ending is, you’d have no hesitation giving this book a 10/10. However, I think I have to dock it a couple of points for all the coincidences and untied up loose ends. But 8/10 is fair and a good score!

Halloween PartyThanks for reading my blog of By the Pricking of my Thumbs, 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 Hallowe’en Party, which I remember enjoying enormously on previous readings. However, all I can remember from those previous reads is that the book features a fatal bobbing-for-apples scene; and if there are apples, there’s bound to be the return of Mrs Oliver as well as our old friend Hercule Poirot. 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 Clue of the Black Cat (1963)

The Clue of the Black CatIn which we meet young Bobby Thiriet, living in a tiny apartment with his family in the Paris suburb of Puisay. One day his father is offered a deal that sounds too good to be true – a luxurious new apartment in the Belloy Estate. M. Thiriet parts with his savings only to realise he is the victim of a confidence trick. But Bobby, his brothers and his friends are not going to let the crooks get away with it that easily. And what is the secret of the black cat?

The Clue of the Black Cat was first published in 1963 by G. P. Rouge et Or under its original French title Le Témoignage du chat noir, which translates literally as The Testimony of the Black Cat, with illustrations by Prudence Seward. As “The Clue of the Black Cat”, the book was first published in the UK by The Bodley Head in 1964, and translated, as usual, by John Buchanan-Brown. My own copy of the book is the third printing of the American edition, printed by Pantheon Books, and dated September 1966. A few second-hand copies of this book are available to buy at the moment from the usual online sources!

Along with A Hundred Million Francs and Flood Warning, The Clue of the Black Cat was one of the three children’s books written by Berna that he himself thought were his best. The book was inspired by his own experiences at school where he worked on a school newspaper, so I think his fondness for this book is purely sentimental! But this book does have the power to inspire children to do the same – I remember how desperately I wanted to start my own school newspaper after reading this book, and I used to play at home for hours creating news pages.

Berna is still happily in his comfort zone expressing what it feels like to be part of a gang. But whereas with the previous gangs we’ve encountered (Gaby, Charloun) it’s been the oldest member who takes control, in The Clue of the Black Cat our new hero is Bobby, who is the youngest. This puts a slightly different perspective on how we experience the story. He’s also part of two gangs; he and his siblings form one, and the staff of the student newspaper form the other. The other aspect which gives this book a very distinct flavour separate from all other Berna books is its thriller/whodunit nature. It’s called The Clue of the Black Cat because the cat is the most important lead they have in trying to work out how the swindling of George Thiriet’s ten thousand francs takes place, and who the culprits are.

Like the Gaby books, Berna continues to use the juxtaposition between wealth and poverty as a strong foundation for the book. The Thiriets live in the worst part of town in the tiniest apartment and theirs is a miserable existence. When they see the apartment in the Belloy estate it’s another world for George and Bobby. The contrast between the two is tangible. The Thiriets are lucky to have a superb family relationship, and they endure their hardships with unity and self-support. They don’t show envy for those that have; but simply want justice and to have their money returned. They’re not interested in any further recriminations.

Inspector Sinet makes a return appearance, and he reveals a fascinating motivation for continuing to work alongside Bobby and the other kids. “He nearly pulled off his black hat and hurled it to the ground in rage, as in those days of the horse without a head and the street musician. But a ghostly hand restrained him. It belonged to another Sinet who had never enjoyed the happy childhood of his fellows and who felt he still had a claim to those lost years.” Sinet loves working with the gangs because it reminds him of the childhood that he never had; on a personal level, I completely understand that, because I never felt that I had a gang I could belong to, and Berna creates such a lively and engaging gang atmosphere that you feel it’s never too late to join!

Sinet defends the boys in conversation with the caretaker at the Agramon estate. It’s an excellent summing-up of their character: “They are decent, straightforward kids, not like the young toughs you read about in the newspapers. They’ve got might and right on their side, as well as a certain scorn for official procedure which I would be the last to disapprove of.” They are indeed good kids – no wonder we like them.

This was always my favourite Berna book and in fact my favourite children’s book of all time. I love the characters, I love its genuine thriller/whodunit structure, I love the enterprising newspaper spirit of the junior journos, and I love its feelgood factor at the end, with justice being done and a happy-ever-after vibe that doesn’t feel artificial or over-sentimental. I also like how Berna sets up his next book The Mule on the Motorway from the ashes of this case.

The story takes place in the fictional Parisien suburb of Puisay. This is Inspector Sinet’s new work place; when we knew him from his time sorting out Gaby’s gang’s escapades, he was based in Louvigny, but he has been promoted to Commissioner and now works in Puisay. I think it may be based on the real town of Antony.  The Parc de Sceaux, where the Belloy Estate is to be found, is a real location in the suburb of Antony in the south of Paris. In The Mule on the Motorway, which also features Bobby and Sinet, he includes a street map of his fictional Puisay. There’s a very evocative moment, when Bobby and the gang, the PSN crew and Commissioner Sinet are all on the trail of the black cat. “After half a mile the Commissioner was frankly puzzled. He had memorized the general layout of the map, and the route the cat was taking seemed to lead to nowhere. Beyond the Rungis viaduct, over the lanes of the expressway, was a drab desert of factories, waste land, and derelict warehouses. The Paris of tomorrow had not pushed its tentacles that far, and it was hard to imagine a skyscraper rising on that joyless horizon.” I love how Berna realises that, whilst the area is currently derelict, in the future it won’t be. In 1969, the food market at Les Halles relocated to Rungis and today it is the largest wholesale food market in the world.

Berna also expresses beautifully the territorial nature of a gang, as they follow the cat. “Over the concrete arch that spanned the expressway went the whole gang, scooters and all. The boundary of Puisay passed through the middle of the bridge, and both policeman and boys felt the difference when they crossed it. Beyond was unknown country into which, close though it was, no one ever went. For the last five or six years the two adjacent suburbs, once joined by a network of friendly streets, had ben cut off from one another by the bold sweep of the expressway, as though they stood on opposite banks of a river linked only by the majestic bridge under which the main road traffic flowed day and night. Rungis was as distant as a foreign country to Charlie and his friends, and to Sinet, who had never set foot in it.” Modern developments, like the expressway, divide old communities and make life harsher to younger generations.

If I have a complaint about this book, it’s that it lacks a strong female presence. Gaby’s gang features the redoubtable Marion, to whom all the members look for inspiration and confirmation that their ideas and plans have merit. The only female characters in this book are old women, the villainous Natasha, and Charlie’s sister Lily who plays a very minor and non-feminist role, acting as secretary and typist at the PSN instead of going out on adventures. Belle, the oldest Thiriet sibling, is barely present in the book as she has left school and has a job; so, again, she doesn’t participate in the gang mentality or have any fun. The book does, however, contain cats! Perhaps replacing Marion’s dogs in this book, Berna gives us a cast of cats including Toddles and Casimir, and another nameless cat – there may even be more!


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


Chapter One – The Bowels of the Earth – Rue Mirandole. George Thiriet meets his son Bobby at the school gates and tells him how the plans to move into a new apartment had fallen through – again. George is embarrassed; but Bobby is resigned. Bobby suggests moving to a different suburb of Paris, but George says it’s impossible because of everyone’s work or school commitments.

As Bobby sits and waits his turn at the barber’s he pulls out a copy of PSN to read. No one had heard of it – it’s the Puisay Students News. Bobby explains: “there are three thousand of us in that barn of a place and you can’t get to know everyone. So the PSN helps us to keep in touch. Anyone can write what they like about anything – even if it’s offering a second-hand transistor in part-exchange for a guitar.” The conversation grows to George chatting about how proud he is of all his family, but they do have one severe problem – accommodation. He confesses six of them live in two tiny rooms in a basement in the worst tenement block in the Rue Mirandole. One of the men having his hair cut is none other than Inspector – now Commissioner – Sinet. Another of them criticises George for his bad money management and earnings, and the atmosphere turns sour. Bobby wishes his father wouldn’t talk about their money and accommodation troubles so openly.

However, walking home, one of the men from the barber’s shop appears and explains to George that an apartment in the beautiful Belloy Estate is to become available for them at a relatively modest rent. He is Henri Dupont, the managing director of Metropolitan Properties who own the Belloy Estate, and George and Bobby can barely believe their ears. The current tenant will look for a payment of approximately 10,000 Francs for the fixtures and fittings, which is just within George’s budget.

Dupont offers to take George and Bobby over to the apartment straight away so they can look at it. The building is sumptuous; George thinks it’s just too grand for his family, but Bobby is entranced. Mme Papadakis, the current tenant, is at home and agrees to show the Thiriets around the flat. George feels it’s too risky just to hand money over to Mme Papadakis, but Dupont steps in and says his money would be safe: “nothing can be done without Metropolitan Properties’ consent”. It’s while the adults are negotiating that Bobby notices a big black cat curled up on top of a cabinet in the corner of a room. He approaches it carefully, scratches it behind the ears, and the cat purrs with pleasure. When Bobby comes back and says he’s been making friends with the cat, Mme Papadakis says she has no cat, and the boy must be mistaken. Dupont suggests it must be a neighbour’s cat.

Walking back to Dupont’s car, he confirms that “the Belloy Estate awaits you and you can count yourselves as good as there already. Remember where we’re meeting tomorrow – Number 6, eighth floor, Apartment 12”. ““Goodbye Rue Mirandole!” Bobby cried, and danced for joy.”

Chapter Two – The Keys of Paradise. Bobby’s siblings, Belle, Jacques and Laurent have been waiting with their mother for George and Bobby to return home for dinner. They start without them; but when George and Bobby finally get home they sneak in quietly in order to spring their big surprise. As a result all the meal things get knocked off the table. But Bobby confirms the truth – they really have found an apartment for them all.

Excitedly, the family spend the evening making plans, allocating bedrooms, working out how the furniture will fit, dreaming of cool summer dinners on the balcony. The next day Jacques prepares a moving house announcement for the PSN, but he is too late – that week’s edition had already gone to press. Jacques’ friends can’t believe the family’s luck – and make Jacques feel that it will all come to nothing like all his father’s previous plans. But Bobby is 100% certain this will be their big lucky break.

They all pack furiously to get everything ready for the move tomorrow. George has gone to see Mme Papadakis with Dupont to make the payment. When they return, they can’t believe that the sale has actually gone through. Sophie has a concern about their dresser though – will it fit? Bobby is to take the bus and a tape measure to go and check whilst the rest of the family finishes packing.

 Chapter Three – Apartment 12. Without a care in the world, Bobby makes his way to the Belloy Estate, up in the lift, and down the corridor to Apartment 12. But his key doesn’t seem to work. He notices the nameplate for M. and Mme Papadakis is still screwed to the outside, so he knows he has the right apartment. He tries again, but still no luck. Then the door opens to reveal a white-haired old lady, looking surprised at Bobby with his keys. “You’ve got the wrong floor dear” she tells him. “Or perhaps the wrong building.” Bobby stammers out that his father has signed a deal to take over the apartment tomorrow and that Mme Papadakis is moving out today. “The old lady began to laugh and pulled the door wide open. “Come, come, a joke’s a joke,” she said, her cheeks going quite pink. “I am Madame Papadakis.””

Bobby can see that the apartment is fully furnished as it was before. He also sees the black cat. Bobby explains to M. Papadakis what has happened, and Papadakis realises that the family must have been the victim of a confidence trick. He starts to telephone the police as Bobby cries quietly to himself. The family arrive with a plain clothes policeman who establishes the veracity of the Papadakis’ story – that they had been away but got back today, and they do indeed own the apartment outright. The caretaker confirms that there is no Dupont, and all the flats are privately owned. They realise that somehow George was tricked into viewing an empty apartment downstairs but that has been sold to another family who are arriving in two weeks. So who has swindled George out of his ten thousand francs? It becomes a case for Commissioner Sinet.

Sinet is excited to be in his brand new police station in Puisay, and happy to be given the Thiriet case to work on, although he is alarmed at the sight of the family containing “an eleven-year-old ragamuffin hemmed in by two scowling elder brothers. All the misfortunes that had checkered his career as a police officer had been caused by birds of that feather.” He criticises George for being so gullible; “managers of property companies don’t go around offering luxury apartments to the first poor fool they meet. It’s unthinkable!”

Sinet asks Bobby to describe “Dupont” and he does, with great accuracy – he refers to him as the White Hedgehog. He also points out that Sinet would have seen him in the barber’s shop. When George then describes the woman whom they thought was Mme Papadakis, the real Papadakis’ realise it must be their old housekeeper, “the Grand Duchess”, Natasha Popova. She must have taken an impression of the keys before they fired her.

Bobby tells Sinet there was one more witness to the crime – the black cat. Mme Papadakis confirms that the cat, Toddles, belongs to them, but they took Toddles away with them, so whichever cat it was that Bobby saw in the apartment previously, it wasn’t Toddles. But he’s convinced it’s the same cat.

The family return, dejected, to their old flat, and it takes ages to do all the unpacking. George blames himself terribly for his stupidity; but the brothers vow to find out where the money is and get it back somehow. They’re determined to get to the bottom of the mystery and see justice is done!

 Chapter Four – P. S. N. Having kept quiet about the events of the previous day, the three brothers turn up at the storeroom of the PSN after school. Charlie’s network had already alerted him to the con trick, so gets the brothers to open up and explain all. Charlie is thrilled at the prospect of a really strong story for the hundredth issue of the newspaper. But reporter, writer and all purpose worker on the paper Flatfoot thinks they should deal with this story differently. “You ask your father to print two issues a week and we’ll start a twenty-five part serial – a thriller with a really good title like The Clue of the Black Cat! We can’t lose! The PSN will sell like hot cakes!” They plan to write it as a work of fiction, “translated from the English by Lily Baron”, (editor Charlie’s sister) and, because they don’t yet know the end of the story, the Thierets account will be the first two episodes, and then they’ll take it forward depending on what has been discovered by the detectives. The first edition ends with Peter Pancake (the fictional name for Bobby) turning the key in the lock to no avail.

But the real case is moving slowly. George spends every evening combing through suspect photos; detectives have been to the barbers, and the Belloy Estate; even the Papadakis’ have brought a case against the villains as they discover some items have been stolen from their apartment. And Bobby is upset that he feels the writers are ignoring the cat, and the special relationship that should had formed between it and Peter Pancake. By the end of the second episode, interest in the story is at fever pitch – and the writers have brought the black cat back to add to the suspense – but there are still no official developments in the case.

However, that night Sinet gets a call from the caretaker at the Belloy Estate, M. Breton. He confirms that he has also seen a black cat in the basement of the building. But it definitely isn’t Toddles. Sinet tells Breton that he must catch the beast!

Chapter Five – The Trail of the Black Cat. Friday’s issue of the PSN sells like hot cakes, and Charlie’s editorial leader shocks the school: “The Pancakes and their four children, Sybil, Herbert, Sam and Peter, are no mere creatures of our imagination. The three boys are your schoolmates at the Lycée Alfred-Jarry. Perhaps one of them is in your class; you may even be sitting net to him. We have exposed their distress in all its nakedness and you have taken this courageous family to your heart. Do not withdraw your sympathy from Jacques, Laurent, and Bobby Thiriet. They belong to us; they are part of our daily lives.” The rest of the article implored the readership to do what they can to investigate and help the family’s cause. “We call upon your initiative ad your ability to pick up the scent and stick to it. Success, we are sure, will crown our joint efforts.”

Other articles are entitled “What Are the Police Doing?”, “Housing and Crime!”, “Do You Know These Two?” with drawings of the Grand Duchess and the White Hedgehog, and there is a call for anyone who has any information to bring it to the attention of the PSN straight away. Finally there is a drawing of the black cat, who is captioned to say “I alone know who the Grand Duchess and the White Hedgehog really are […] I’m only a black cat like thousands of others, but if you should happen to come across me, I will lead you straight to the gentleman who poses as a public benefactor and to the lady who denied my existence to Bobby Thiriet’s face.” As a result, the PSN offices are swamped with visitors. One boy, Poussard, identifies the White Hedgehog as the maths teacher, M. Vacherin (or Freckleface, as he called him). Poussard is given the job of confronting Freckleface and asking for his alibi. But Bobby confirms that M. Vacherin is not the guilty party.

Meanwhile Sinet goes to the basement of the Belloy apartment block to see if the black cat makes an entrance. He does, at 8pm. He purrs at Sinet, who makes friends with the cat. Bobby, too, is watching and starts tailing Sinet, who is tailing the cat. He goes to the 8th floor, and heads straight for Apartment 12.

Chapter Six – The Clarinetist.  The cat sits outside No 12 and mews loudly. Eventually the door opens and Mme Papadakis comes out. “There he is, the little rascal! […] come in, you naughty kitty! Come say hello to Toddles!” She takes the second cat indoors. Sinet spots Bobby and they unite over the common cause of trying to work out what’s going on. They reflect on how perhaps the Papadakis’ are not as innocent as they seem – they’re not that upset about the theft of their assets, after all. They agree that the cat is key to their investigations.

Bobby convinces Sinet that he should knock at the door and simply ask for the cat – and to make sure it’s the right one. Unsure at first, he decides to throw himself into the adventure. Mme Papadakis is furious at his demands, ridiculing him with the suggestion that he should want to arrest a cat. Sinet bellows so loudly that the cat makes a bolt for the door, escapes past Sinet and Bobby and makes a run for it, hurtling down the staircase. Mme Papadakis closes the door in Sinet’s face.

Also in the corridor is a clarinetist, apparently waiting for other band members to play music. Sinet hurries him along. After all the adventures, Bobby reveals that he has realised that one of the cats – “the crooks’ cat” – has a very thin gold chain around its neck. It has a disc on the chain too, but the cat escaped too quickly for Bobby to take a look at it.

Chapter Seven – Extra! Meanwhile, the PSN are going to release a Sunday four-page special devoted entirely to the black cat. But they need a big story for the back page. A boy called Belmont makes a case that the whole crime against the Thiriets was premeditated: “was it just by chance that the White Hedgehog was in Fred’s barbershop on the same evening as Bobby and his father? […] the way the confidence trick was worked shows that it had all been planned beforehand and wasn’t just to catch the first person who came along […] someone knew Monsieur Thiriet’s difficulties, and it looks as though he found out all about his timetable too.” But who might be in on the deal? Fred for one. Laurent arranges to go for a haircut to check out the lie of the land.

The next visitor to the PSN offices is 80-year-old Mme Deuzy, who has recognised the picture of the Grand Duchess. She says she’s none other Mme Papadakis. Jacques explains that she must be mistaken, but Mme Deuzy is adamant. She first met her the previous spring when she was trying to find a home for her own cat – named Toddles! When a pompous lady came to collect the cat she introduced herself as Mme Papadakis – but Charlie intercedes in the tale and explains that must be Natasha Popova whom she met. But Mme Deuzy saw her in the street six months later and accosted her over the cat, demanding to know where she lives and wanting to see it. The local baker’s boy recognised her as Mme Papadakis and knew her address – No 6, Apt 12, Belloy Estate – and said she’s one of the worst payers in town. Mme Deuzy went to her apartment; she met Toddles there; and she hopes she goes to prison!

Mme Deuzy has provided PSN with their big back page story. But what about the headline. Like all sensationalist journalists they’re not above inventing facts for their own purpose. And what do they choose? Black Cat Murdered.

Chapter Eight – The Death of the Black Cat. Bobby is back at the Belloy Estate, where he sees the musician again, looking out of place as he sports a Tyrolean feather hat. He seems to recognise him from somewhere else. Sinet is also there, waiting for M. Breton to let them all down to the basement with the boilers, where the black cat likes to rest in the warmth. The heat was burning, and the roar was deafening. Bobby knew the cat was there because he had seen the glitter in its eyes, but was hiding. Just as they were leaving to search elsewhere, the cat makes a bolt for it. Ending up on the eighth floor landing, the elevator opens to reveal the clarinetist. The cat is right in front of him. He opens his music case, and two shots ring out. One is a direct hit, and the cat appears to be dead. The marksman grabs the chain off its neck, and makes off.

By the time Sinet and Bobby reach the cat, it’s struggled halfway down the stairs, leaving a trail of blood behind him. Sinet is furious and Bobby is hearbroken. But cats have nine lives, and Bobby takes him home to care for him. It seems as though the PSN headline has almost come true.

Chapter Nine – A Gentleman Called Dupont Whilst Laurent is waiting at Fred’s for a haircut, the barber’s youngest son and occasional assistant, Gaston, arrives, a music case under his arm. “How did the rehearsal go?” asks Fred. “My clarinet played like a dream” he replies. After his haircut, Laurent returns to the PSN offices. “Didn’t see anything odd”, he reports. However, he lets slip that his hair was done by Gaston, who’s a clarinetist with the Wild Cats of Puisay. Lily, Charlie and the others instantly recognise the significance of this and head off to see Sinet.

Charlie and the PSN team tell Sinet of their discovery – but he already knows, as the man having his haircut next to Laurent was a plain clothes policeman. Belmont suggests they try a new tack – trying to identify the M. Dupont that the White Hedgehog impersonated. And lo and behold, Dupont is in Sinet’s office at the same time. Charlie challenges Dupont to recognise the picture of the White Hedgehog in the PSN – and he does. He identifies him as Papadakis. They met at a cocktail party and exchanged business cards, but Dupont tore Papadakis’ up as he didn’t trust him.

Belmont has another flash of inspiration. ““Bobby’s the only one of us who really knows this mystery cat […] it feels at home on the Belloy Estate, but its instincts could be fooled by its surroundings. In other words, it thinks it’s at home because its home surroundings are exactly the same.” The idea had already crossed Sinet’s mind. He had not dared pursue it, for thirty years in the Force had only served to strengthen his ability to stick to the wrong theory, and boys who were too clever made him uneasy.”

And what of the cat? He slept in the bedroom at Rue Mirandole. Bobby slept also, his mind at rest, full of the “excitement (that) came from being part – every minute of the day and night – of this unexpected adventure.”

Chapter Ten – Sunday News The Sunday Extra edition of the PSN was full of the news of the attack on the black cat. Charlie’s headline had the fictional cat admitting that the Belloy Estate seemed like home, but wasn’t – as per Belmont’s suggestion. Meanwhile, the vet had removed the bullet from the real cat, who was convalescing on a large portion of cod. After a dessert of cream and a good after dinner nap, the cat is alert, and bounds into action, scratching on the window. Bobby is unsure about letting him out, but eventually is convinced it’s the right thing to do. Once the whole PSN gang have been stationed outside ready to follow the cat, Bobby lets him out. Once they’ve established which direction he’s going, they’re on his tail. Drawing up the rear is Sinet, who’s never been following a suspect like this before. The cat boldly wanders on over the bridge over the expressway, out of Puisay and into Rungis.

The cat heads straight for an estate that looks exactly like Belloy – but isn’t! Its layout and setting, even the trees planted around it, look identical. Bobby follows the cat inside, and it slumps itself down outside Apartment Five at Building No Six. A plump woman hears him cry outside and instantly throws the door open. “Casimir! […] You’ve had Auntie so worried and poor Uncle’s spent the last twelve days trying to find you in all the back alleys of Rungis”. Charlie unfolds his copy of the PSN and asks if she has seen these people before. “Of course, I know them well […] a charming couple” He’s on the stock exchange. Such a sensible man. I’m going to cash in my savings bonds to buy Puerto Rican oil shares. I’ll double my money in a year.” They decline the old lady’s invitation to a tea party but only after she has given them the name of the couple: Vladimir and Natasha Gorine, who have been renting an apartment opposite for a month. “I shall miss them terribly when they go.”

Chapter Eleven – The Hedgehog’s Gift to Charity Meanwhile Sinet has taken up observation in the Caretaker’s office in front of the building. The Caretaker is suspicious of the boys’ motives, but Sinet defends them and tells him they are the police’s best chance of catching the fraudsters. “You can be pretty sure those boys have worked it all out already and have decided to get back what’s owed to them by hook or by crook.” Twenty of them were stationed around the apartment block, ready to act.

Having ascertained that the hedgehog and Natasha were in, the boys all gathered round and summoned them to the door. “We’re selling raffle tickets for the Winter Vacation Fund” says Charlie. The Hedgehog is about to slam the door on them when he thinks twice and asks them about their methodology of going door-to-door mob-handed. They explain the part each one plays, and then Laurent challenges him to make a contribution. Bobby watches him with fury. “Even a hardened confidence man has moments of weakness which make him fall into the same state of mental blackout as his victims.” The Hedgehog buys a ticket.

Chapter Twelve – The Biter Bit As Vladimir enters the apartment to get a coin, the boys all follow him in. Natasha is reclining with a cigarette watching television and both are extremely annoyed that the boys have entered without permission. Belmont tells him that they think he should give them more than a franc. Bobby suggests ten thousand francs – and for that they’ll see that the pair win the raffle. Slowly the boys reveal that they know that the Gorines are responsible for tricking the Thiriets out of their money; and the pair start to get very anxious. Natasha runs off to a bedroom and starts to prepare for an escape. She’s halfway out of the window when a boy outside makes to help her exit – she retreats back inside. She tries the kitchen door, but two other boys are waiting there to prevent her. Charlie confronts Vladimir for the full amount – the crook knows the game is up but says he hasn’t got the money to hand. Charlie lets slip that Fred and his nephew were arrested last night. Eventually Vladimir throws the money at Belmont and the boys depart – leaving Vladimir and Natasha to recriminate with each other where the whole scheme went wrong.

Still aiming to escape, Vladimir goes to his car only to find that the wheels have been removed and a cat’s head has been painted on each of the doors! So they ring for a taxi. Then Uncle and Auntie from next door catch up with them and offer them Casimir. They say they’re going away for a few days. When they get to the apartment block foyer there are about fifty people there watching them. They get into the taxi – only to discover Commissioner Sinet is in the front seat and he’s taking them to the police station.   

Chapter Thirteen – Merry Christmas! Charlie holds an impromptu party at the PSN offices. A friend of Laurent’s, Dauphin, reports that he has seen Sinet take the two suspects into the police station. But Charlie’s concerned as to how the new developments will affect the PSN reports of the crime. He’s going to make it become more and more like fiction so as to stay different from the mainstream media. What comes after a black cat? “It doesn’t matter if it’s a horse, a dog, a sheep, piglet, canary or fish, the important thing is to bring it into a story and to keep it there until the readers have had enough.” Bobby remembers a story he had read last week about a mule strolling along the expressway. “In the end the poor old thing got himself run over down by the Chevilly bridge. Where did he come from? Where was he going? Nobody knows, and needless to say his owner’s keeping quiet.”

Christmas has returned to the Rue Mirandole. The decorations are up, the drinks are bought. Now for Father George Thiriet to hear the good news. But he has a surprise for them too – he’s found a new apartment!

Sinet tells Bobby that the Hedgehog and the Grand Duchess will face at least five years behind bars. And he has a surprise for Bobby – a black cat. “It’s the cat that Uncle was bringing home to Auntie at the very moment that Casimir came back to his own hearth. They very kindly gave him to me, and I took him out of the goodness of my heart. I’m passing him on to you in the hope that you won’t be too hard on the the confounded purrer. Take him away! His basket’s on my hatstand.” Bobby leaves Sinet on the understanding that he’ll be back to look further at the case of the mule on the expressway.


Mule on the MotorwayTo sum up; this wonderful read is a superb blend of whodunit and children’s adventure, with a very satisfying ending which leads on to Berna’s next book, so we know this is not the last we will see of Bobby and his brothers. If you’ve read the book – or are re-reading it now, I’d love to know what you think about it, so please add a comment below. Next up in the Paul Berna Challenge is the book that has been telegraphed in the final chapters of this book, Le Commissaire Sinet et le mystère de l’autoroute du sud, translated into English as The Mule on the Motorway. Surprisingly it took four years for this next book to emerge; in any event, I can’t wait to re-read it and share my thoughts about it in a few weeks.