The George Orwell Challenge – In Defence of the Novel (1936)

You can read In Defence of the Novel online here.

New English WeeklyIn the same month that Orwell published his essay Bookshop Memories, in which he drew on his own experiences working in the Booklover’s Corner bookshop in Hampstead, he also wrote this essay, In Defence of the Novel, which was published in two parts in the New English Weekly magazine, on 12th and 19th November 1936.

Bookshop Memories is a very personal, and rather snobbish, account of his opinions of the bookselling trade. He’s quick to criticise and condemn those who want to read books that he simply finds beneath him, alighting on his bête noir Ethel M Dell for particular derision, even though she sold in massive numbers, so was obviously pleasing some people somewhere.

In Defence of the Novel takes his critical view of bookselling one stage further, by attributing what he calls the “extremely low” “prestige of the novel” to hack reviewers praising poor quality writing to the nines. As a result, he argues, “if you write novels you automatically command a less intelligent public than you would command if you had chosen some other form.” He doesn’t believe that the novel is “a contemptible form of art” but believes “to salvage it you have got to persuade intelligent people to take it seriously.”

Old BooksIt’s a curious opinion to blame what he perceives to be the novel’s poor reputation on the industry’s reviewers, rather than the quality of the writing itself. However, he quotes from the previous week’s edition of the Sunday Times, “if you can read this book and not shriek with delight, your soul is dead.” There’s no denying – that’s a trashy piece of reviewing! As Orwell also points out, “novels are being shot at you at the rate of fifteen a day, and every one of them an unforgettable masterpiece which you imperil your soul by missing. It must make it so difficult to choose a book at the library, and you must feel so guilty when you fail to shriek with delight.”

Equating the quality of a novel with the quality of its reviews sounds nonsensical. However, Orwell examines the problem closer and explains that reviewers themselves won’t get published or paid if they describe a book as a load of tripe – and reviewers have mouths to feed just as writers do. It’s the commercial structure of needing a good review to sell a book (and to sell advertising) that by necessity brings the quality down. Obviously, all publishers want their books to sell, so all publishers want good reviews. But Orwell points out that “even if there were no question of bribery, direct or indirect, there can be no such thing as good novel criticism so long as it is assumed that every novel is worth reviewing.” As a result, Orwell questions whether it might “be possible to devise a system, perhaps quite a rigid one, of grading novels into classes A, B, C, and so forth, so that whether a reviewer praised or damned a book, you would at least know how seriously he meant it to be taken.”

What is surprising to the reader of today is that Orwell should have this opinion of the novel; because from our perspective, there’s nothing particularly wrong with 1930s novel writing. William Faulkner, Virginia Woolf, John Steinbeck, Aldous Huxley, Scott Fitzgerald – not to mention Orwell himself – were all writing memorable and highly regarded novels that have stood the test of time. Maybe when you’re operating within a system, like Orwell was, it’s sometimes difficult to see the wood for the trees and take a pessimistic view of the future. Here’s the conclusion to the essay:

George Orwell“Various people have prophesied that the novel is doomed to disappear in the near future. I do not believe that it will disappear, for reasons which would take too long to set forth but which are fairly obvious. It is much likelier, if the best literary brains cannot be induced to return to it, to survive in some perfunctory, despised and hopelessly degenerate form, like modern tomb-stones, or the Punch and Judy Show.”

To be honest, it’s an appalling over-reaction on Orwell’s part. Whilst there may be a glimmer of truth in his argument, he takes it too far. “Look for instance at the fourpenny novelettes that you see piled up on any cheap stationer’s counter. These things are the decadent offspring of the novel, bearing the same relation to Manon Lescaut and David Copperfield as the lap-dog bears to the wolf.” That may be true, but it in no way prevents future Lescauts or Copperfields being written. Counterbalancing the Ethel M Dell books of his time are Brave New World, Rebecca, The Hobbit; it’s easy to produce a list of stand-out 1930s novels for yourself.

Nevertheless, it’s an Orwell essay, and as usual demands that you pay attention and listen to his argument. The Road to Wigan PierWritten with clarity and authority, it’s an entertaining read and it’s always fun to admire him communicate his beliefs – even if you might not agree with him! By the way, a few months ago I read an article in The Stage that complained that over-enthusiastic reviews for a play that doesn’t deserve them can be as harmful as a bad review – so maybe Orwell was right all along!

Next in my George Orwell Challenge is The Road to Wigan Pier, a full-length non-fiction book about the bleak living conditions of working class people in Lancashire and Yorkshire, and an examination of the British attitude to socialism. I remember enjoying this book thoroughly when I read it in my early 20s and I look forward to reading it again soon – and I hope you read it too!

The Agatha Christie Challenge – Sleeping Murder (1976)

Sleeping MurderIn which young Gwenda Reed has a vision that she witnessed a murder when she was a child, and Miss Marple helps her and her husband Giles to investigate if she really did see the crime – and if so, who was the murderer! As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, as always, I promise not to reveal what happens and whodunit!

VaultThis was the last novel to feature Miss Marple and, like Curtain, was written at some point in the 1940s, then locked away in a vault until such time that Christie wanted it to be published. As it turned out, she died in January 1976, before it was published. Also like Curtain, Christie didn’t dedicate this book to anyone. Sleeping Murder was first published in the UK by Collins Crime Club in October 1976, and in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company shortly afterwards, although it had been previously serialised in the US in two abridged instalments in Ladies Home Journal in July and August 1976.

Cover Her FaceThere are some conflicting opinions as to exactly when the book was written. Originally it was thought to have been around 1940, but other evidence suggests it could be almost a decade later. I note that when the characters all go to the theatre in the early part of the book they go to His Majesty’s Theatre, which obviously dates it as pre-1952. Christie had a number of possible titles for the book; the one she preferred and intended was Cover Her Face – but unfortunately for her, P D James got in there first with her first Inspector Dalgliesh novel published in 1962. Apparently, Christie had to get the manuscript out of the vault in order to change the title.

private-detectiveAfter the success of Curtain, written when Christie’s creative skills were at their height, the book-buyers of 1976 expected something equally sensational from Miss Marple’s last case, as it had also been written many years before. Alas, this hope was rather misplaced. Much of Sleeping Murder is taken up by Gwenda and Giles painstakingly working their way around the country as amateur sleuths on the track of something they don’t quite understand, with Miss Marple acting as an emotional and cerebral  associate, dispensing advice and warnings from a safe distance. Of course, one of the most exciting things about reading a whodunit – Christie or otherwise – is hoping for a big surprise at the final denouement. Unfortunately, that doesn’t happen in this book; the person who (I felt, at least) was the most likely to have done the crime was indeed the murderer. And although it’s nice to pat oneself on the back and bask in the glory of one’s success, one also gets to feel a little cheated out of a final surprise. So you come away from the book not only slightly disappointed by the journey to the big revelation, but also by the revelation itself.

Duchess of MalfiThe plot also suffers from being based on a massive coincidence, namely that Gwenda bought the same house for her and Giles to live in that she had briefly lived in as a child. It isn’t as though she’d always lived in the same village, Dillmouth; she didn’t even realise she’d lived in England. Of all the houses in all the towns…. she had to buy the one she already knew (without knowing). Personally, I also find it hard to believe that Gwenda would overreact quite so astonishingly at watching the play The Duchess of Malfi – the line “Cover her face. Mine eyes dazzle, she died young…” sends her into apoplectics. For a young woman who is otherwise firmly in charge of her life, I find that pretty hard to believe.

Joan Hickson as Miss MarpleNevertheless, it’s very nicely written and acts as a decent swansong and nostalgia trip, celebrating the great lady’s status as a much loved amateur detective. Perhaps oddly, Miss Marple doesn’t seem to have aged in the same way that Poirot has. Whereas Hastings was upset at the sight of his old friend’s failing health, Miss Marple is described much as she always has been: “an attractive old lady, tall and thin, with pink cheeks and blue eyes, and a gentle, rather fussy manner, Her blue eyes often had a little twinkle in them.” Not only unchanged in appearance, but also in behaviour; she is still as independent and wily as ever, popping around all the old-fashioned shops ostensibly to buy wool and suchlike, but really trying to get as much gossip about the past as possible. No one would suspect her cunning ulterior motives.

His Majesty's TheatreShe’s still socially active too; when we first come across her in the book, she is part of the party going to the London theatre, going out for a meal, and still socialising with her nephew Raymond West, still messing about in her garden, complaining about the unreliability of gardeners, and keeping up to date with her old friend Dolly Bantry. You wouldn’t know that the years have come and gone. It’s quite comforting to see that age has not withered her (well, not more than she was already withered!) Raymond West, however, who in some of the earlier book comes across as an insufferable prig, seems to be a little less annoying now – just generally intimidating, if you’re not used to moving in his circles, as Gwenda wasn’t. Miss Marple’s maid is Evelyn; that’s an anomaly, as in her later years she was looked after by her super-kindly Cherry.

Imperial TorquayThere’s not much more to say about the book at this stage, so let’s take a look at the locations. Most of the book takes place in the Devon town of Dillmouth. You might be forgiven for thinking that this is Christie’s name for Dartmouth, but Aunt Alison’s letter makes it clear elsewhere that Dartmouth is a separate town. It’s a curious blend of fact and fiction; Dr Kennedy lives in Woodleigh Bolton, a fictional location, but there is a village called Woodleigh near Kingsbridge in Devon. Local train stops include Helchester, Lonsbury Bay, Newton Langford and Matchings Halt, all of which are completely charming names and totally fictional. The sanatorium in Norfolk is said to be near the town of South Benham; again, that’s fictional but there is a Banham halfway between Norwich and Thetford that might be the inspiration. Apart from that, Christie uses real-life locations, such as Exeter, Northumberland, and indeed the final chapter takes place in the well-known Imperial Hotel, Torquay.

John GielgudNow for the references and quotations in this book. I’m sure you’ll realise that the esteemed actor they had the pleasure of seeing starring in Webster’s The Duchess of Malfi was Sir John Gielgud – in real life he performed in this play at the Theatre Royal Haymarket in the 1944/5 season, which again can help to identify when the book might have been written. The murderers Madeleine Smith, Lizzie Borden and Dr Crippen all get a mention – Christie has mentioned these people several times before, in The Mystery of the Blue Train, The Labours of Hercules, After the Funeral, Ordeal by Innocence, The Pale Horse, The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side,  The Clocks, and Elephants Can Remember.

stork leg wool“Calcutta Lodge was surrounded by a neat trim garden, and the sitting-room into which they were shown was also neat if slightly overcrowded. It smelt of beeswax and Ronuk.” Ronuk? This was a brand of sanitary polish, manufactured in Portland, Dorset, until the 1950s. Miss Marple, meanwhile, in a wool shop remarks: “I always find Storkleg so reliable. It really doesn’t shrink. I think I’ll take an extra two ounces.” I believe this is a type of wool that gives an extra grip to the body, so is suitable for socks. But I could be wrong. Please tell me if I am!

Emily BronteGiles quotes: “I know a hundred ways of love, and each one makes the loved one rue”. This is a slight misquote from Emily Bronte – the original is “I know a hundred ways of love, All made the loved one rue” – it’s from her untitled poem LVII that begins “Were they shepherds who sat all day on that brown mountain’s side”. And, of course, there is a quick gallop through some of Miss Marple’s earlier cases in conversation with Inspector Primer, including a reference to “a little poison pen trouble” (The Moving Finger) and a churchwarden shot in the Vicar’s study (The Murder at the Vicarage.) There’s also a slightly bizarre forward reference, with an old lady at the home in Norfolk asking Gwenda “is it your poor child, my dear?” which had been previously used in By the Pricking of my Thumbs – but which wouldn’t be written for at least another twenty years!

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

 

Publication Details: 1976. My copy is a Fontana Paperback, first Australian paperback edition published in 1978, bearing the price on the back cover of $2.50. I know I had an earlier copy – the original hardback first edition, no less – but it has vanished in the seas of time. The cover illustration by Tom Adams shows a dead woman’s face against an attractive sea- and skyscape, plus a bundle of wool with two knitting needles – which I presume is in homage to Miss Marple.

How many pages until the first death: 150. It’s a long wait, but the reader isn’t frustrated by the delay. You can sense this death coming quite a long way off.

Funny lines out of context: Sadly none.

Memorable characters: Really disappointing on this front.

Christie the Poison expert: Not much here either. There is some mention of the Indian practice of “wives driving their husbands insane by datura poisoning” in the Indian courts, but that’s it. Datura is a form of Deadly Nightshade.

Class/social issues of the time: Once again we have to think of the “time” as being sometime in the 1940s rather than 1976. But there are very few issues of note in this book anyway. There’s the usual sense of xenophobia, with a number of characters repeating the thought that Leonie, the Swiss nanny, was a bit stupid because she was a foreigner; that distrust is also repeated with Mrs Fane’s scorn that her son Robert had married a Roman Catholic.

There’s also the old gardener who deplores change: “Changes all the time. People takes a house nowadays and lives in it ten or twelve years and then off they goes. Restless. What’s the good of that?” And there’s also the common theme of total distrust of anything to do with mental illness, and the sneaking suspicion that it could be inherited.

And I do have to draw your attention to the unfortunate use of the N word in a conversation with Galbraith, the old estate agent, who remembered Major Halliday. I think there was a big difference in the word’s acceptability between the 40s and 70s, so maybe it was odd that it wasn’t amended by the editors.

Classic denouement:  No – instead it’s one of those occasions when the murderer reveals themselves by their own activity, attempting to kill another person, which in this particular case is thwarted by a rather comic intervention by Miss Marple.

Happy ending? Yes – in that Gwenda and Giles get to live happy ever after in their chosen home; and Miss Marple is left to carry on carrying on, undeterred by age or infirmity.

Did the story ring true? Most of the plot feels believable. The only thing I find extraordinary is that Gwenda returned unwittingly to the scene of the crime and wanted to buy it for her home.

Overall satisfaction rating: It’s not bad and it’s not great. An entertaining enough read, but it’s a shame the identity of the murderer is so obvious. 7/10

Miss Marple's Final CasesThanks for reading my blog of Sleeping Murder, and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment in the space below. That was Christie’s last novel to be published, but the Agatha Christie Challenge continues with a posthumous book of short stories, Miss Marple’s Final Cases and Two Other Stories. These had never been published in the UK before, so I’m looking forward to reading them – possibly for the first time! As usual, I’ll blog my thoughts about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!

The Agatha Christie Challenge – Curtain (1975)

CurtainIn which Hercule Poirot and Arthur Hastings are reunited for one final time – back at the scene of their first case, The Mysterious Affair at Styles. The old mansion is now a guest house, where Poirot is a resident, accompanied by a new valet, Curtiss. But Poirot has a surprise up his sleeve – he confides in Hastings that one of the guests is a serial murderer, and he wants Hastings to be his eyes and ears so that they can prevent another murder from taking place. There’s just one main problem: Poirot won’t tell Hastings who the murderer is! Is Hastings perceptive enough to pick up all the vital clues? Can he prevent another murder? And how will Poirot end his distinguished detective career? As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, as always, I promise not to reveal what happens and whodunit!

1940s calendarAs the book was written at some point in the early 1940s, when Christie was at her inventive best, but without the future knowledge of exactly when it would be published, it’s perhaps appropriate that, unusually, she didn’t dedicate this book to anyone. Curtain was first published in the UK by Collins Crime Club in September 1975, and in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company shortly afterwards, although it has been previously serialised in the US in two abridged instalments in Ladies Home Journal in July and August 1975.

Red HerringFor the contemporary reader in 1975, Curtain was a breath of fresh air, after the disappointments of Christie’s more recent publications. Much research has taken place to try to establish exactly when it was written, but it’s hard to be more specific other than early in the 1940s. To end Hercule Poirot’s career on a highlight – for the reader, if not for Poirot himself, arguably – must have been Christie’s chief goal, and so she set about writing a superbly plotted, intricate story, full of red herrings and manipulative mind-games, and a classic Christie cast of old soldiers, young whippersnappers, hen-pecked husbands and research-crazed scientists. The result is a riveting read and a denouement finale that’s very different from a traditional Christie but has you on your seat with twists and surprises.

The Mysterious Affair at StylesSetting the story back in Styles, where Poirot and Hastings had cemented their friendship back in 1916, provides a very satisfactory circular structure to their detective days together – indeed to Christie’s works as a whole. Of course, the timings mean there are all sorts of inconsistencies regarding their ages, respective health conditions and life experiences. 55 years had elapsed between the publication of The Mysterious Affair at Styles and Curtain, and Poirot was already an old man way back then. Hastings tells us at the beginning of this book, “I had not seen my old friend for nearly a year”; whereas the last book that Hastings narrates is Dumb Witness, published in 1937 – so there’s some inconsistency there. Hastings is now widowed, his late wife buried back in The Argentine where they lived. His daughter Judith, who plays a significant role in Curtain, is only 21, which again requires the reader to have some elasticity of understanding! Hastings is, in his own words, not “Heaven help me, a clever man. I blundered – made mistakes.” Christie paints Hastings as not only a bit of a chump when it comes to helping Poirot solve the case, but also rather Neanderthal in his reaction to his belief that Judith is spending too much time with Allerton, a man whom Hastings instinctively dislikes. We know that fathers can get very possessive of their daughters, but Christie took Hastings down some very torturous paths of personal discovery! Fortunately, All’s Well that Ends Well on that front, although there is a darker aspect to Hastings’ over-the-top reaction, but that’s for further discussion after you’ve read the book!

PoirotAnd what of our much-loved and respected hero, Poirot? Of course, we see him through Hastings’ eyes, as this “limping figure with the large moustache”. But on closer inspection, “crippled with arthritis, he propelled himself about in a wheeled chair. His once plump frame had fallen in. He was a thin little man now. His face was lined and wrinkled. His moustache and hair, it is true, were still of a jet black colour […] only his eyes were the same as ever, shrewd and twinkling”. And of course, age hasn’t taken its toll on Poirot’s vanity: “mercifully, though the outside decays, the core is still sound […] the brain, mon cher, is what I mean by the core, My brain, I still functions magnificently.” Good to see that some things never change. What is occasionally a little distressing is to read how Poirot rounds upon Hastings with frustration and fury at the latter’s denseness. “Go away. You are obstinate and extremely stupid and I wish that there were someone else whom I could trust, but I suppose I shall have to put up with you and your absurd ideas of fair play.” Harsh words, Hercule; particularly as Hastings is still coming to terms with his new widowed status: “I’m not much of a fellow. You’ve said I’m stupid – well, in a way it’s true. And I’m only half the man I was. Since Cinders’ death…” Still, I suppose we can extend Poirot a hand of sympathy as he gets older and more infirm; as Hastings notes, “now, when he was indeed a sick man, he feared, perhaps, admitting the reality of his illness. He made light of it because he was afraid.”

CookTimes may have moved on, but some of Poirot’s views are still firmly in the past (unsurprising, as that’s when the book was written!) In conversation with Judith, he criticises her keenness on working for Dr Franklin at the expense of finding a husband. ““Your middle finger is stained with methyliine blue. It is not a good thing for your husband if you take no interest in his stomach.” “I dare say I shan’t have a husband.” “Certainly you will have a husband. What did the bon Dieu create you for?” “Many things, I hope,” said Judith. “Le marriage first of all.””

private detectiveThere’s one curious inconsistency of Poirot’s philosophy that is at odds with his stated views in other books. Faced with the task of preventing a murder, he asserts that it is impossible to stop a murderer from carrying out their intentions; and he goes into great detail about the only possible methods one can use, and how they are all likely to fail. However, in Poirot’s Early Cases, which was published only a year earlier (albeit the tales were written much earlier), that is more or less exactly what he achieves in the story Wasps’ Nest.

scaredThis is a beautifully written book, with an extremely clever set up and tight plotting. Christie manages to achieve a sense of unease at many key moments in the story, which almost lend it a supernatural element; there is much debate, for example, to what extent the previous death that occurred at Styles has left its mark on the fabric of the building. ““The atmosphere of the place […] something wrong, if you know what I mean?” I was silent a moment considering […] Did the fact that death by violence – by malice aforethought – had taken place in a certain spot leave its impression on that spot so strongly that it was perceptible after many years? Psychic people said so. Did Styles definitely bear traces of that event that had occurred so long ago? Here, within these walls, in these gardens, thoughts of murder had lingered and grown stronger and had at last come to fruition in the final act. Did they still taint the air?”

BinocularsThere’s also the scene where Norton fumbles with his binoculars, is embarrassed about what he has accidentally seen and refuses to elucidate further; it’s a very uneasy moment and you feel that something extremely significant has happened – but you’re not quite certain why. It’s all very cunningly written, and when you discover exactly what has happened at the end of the book, all these significant moments make sense. There was a time when Christie would enjoy including what I call a “presaging moment” in her books, which always create tension and nervousness, and Curtain includes a fine example: “How little we realized then that Norton’s hobby might have an important part to play in the events that were to come.” There’s another scene when Franklin upsets a box of chocolates and they spill out on to the floor; as a Christie fan you read much more into such an event than it might necessarily warrant – will this be an opportunity for a murderer to swap a chocolate for a poisoned one, for example? As I said earlier, the book is littered with delightful red herrings.

TadcasterThere are just three locations in the book. It almost exclusively takes place at Styles House, in the village of Styles St Mary, which we know is reached by crossing “flat Essex landscape”. There’s also the setting for the Coroner’s Enquiry, and Boyd Carrington’s house. The only other location mentioned is the Yorkshire town of Tadcaster, where Franklin and Judith drove to get some laboratory supplies. Tadcaster? That’s hardly convenient for Essex! I think the proof-readers didn’t do their job properly there.

AsquithNow for the references and quotations in this book. Has tings asks if there were any similarity between this case and the case of Evelyn Carlisle. This is the book Sad Cypress, published in 1940, which perhaps gives us a closer clue as to when Curtain was written. Again, I wonder if the proof-readers took the afternoon off as the character’s name is actually Elinor Carlisle. Poirot also refers to “your Mr Asquith in the last war”. Herbert Asquith was the Prime Minister from 1908 to 1916 – so you wouldn’t think of him as being from the time of “the last war” in 1975!

CowperHastings wonders who it was who wrote “the darkest day, lived till tomorrow, will have passed away”. This is a slight misquote; the original is “the darkest day, if you live till tomorrow, will have passed away” and is by William Cowper, from The Needless Alarm, 1790. There are more quotes, from Shakespeare; O, beware, my lord, of jealousy… and Not poppy, nor mandragora, nor all the drowsy syrups of the world…, both of which are spoken by Iago in Act Three, Scene Three of Othello. There is also a reference to Judith cutting off the head of Holofernes; he was an invading Assyrian general, and she was a Hebrew widow who beheaded him when he was drunk.

St John ErvineMrs Franklin wore a negligee of pale eau-de-Nil; this is a pale yellowish-green colour, said to be coined by Flaubert in the mid-19th century when France was obsessed by Egypt. And of the two clues that Poirot leaves to Hastings, one is a copy of John Ferguson by St John Ervine – this is a 1915 play by (according to Wikipedia, so it must be true) the most prominent Ulster writer of the early twentieth century and a major Irish dramatist whose work influenced the plays of W. B. Yeats and Sean O’Casey. So there you go.

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

Publication Details: 1975. My copy is a Fontana Paperback, first paperback edition published in 1977, bearing the price on the back cover of 70p. I know I had an earlier copy – the original hardback first edition, no less – but it has vanished in the seas of time. The cover illustration simply shows a bowler hat placed atop a walking cane. Classy.

How many pages until the first death: 127. That’s a good two thirds of the way into the book, but it’s such a good read that you’re not remotely impatient for a death to investigate.

Funny lines out of context: Sadly none.

Memorable characters: The book is much more interested in presenting a deeply woven plot rather than memorable characters, so there’s not much meat here. However, Hastings’ daughter Judith is an interesting character, largely because she presents herself as a highly unpleasant person, and not at all what you might expect coming from the kindly loins of Hastings. Consider this little opinion piece: “I don’t hold life as sacred as all you people do. Unfit lives, useless lives – they should be got out of the way. There’s so much mess about. Only people who can make a decent contribution to the community ought to be allowed to live. The others ought to be put painlessly away.” Nice lady.

Christie the Poison expert: A veritable cornucopia of poisons and chemical treatments litter this book – Christie must have had a field day. Arsenic, morphine, cyanide, strychnine; plus the alkaloids of the physostigmine family, and the sleeping draughts veronal and the fictional slumberyl, all play a small or not so small part.

Class/social issues of the time: Bearing in mind that the “time” in question is probably during the Second World War, it’s fascinating to read Hastings’ description of the period – specifically in terms of no longer producing men of the standard of Colonel Luttrell – as “these degenerate days”. You’d say that was an opinion that didn’t bear much optimism for the future.

Hastings has a very tricky relationship with Judith; perhaps that has always been the way for fathers and daughters, but his possessiveness towards her becomes quite aggressive, as does her resistance to his protection. Poirot admits that “the mauvais sujet – always women are attracted to him”. As women were making their way in the workplace with much greater strides than in previous eras, it would be inevitable that they would have to learn the ways to deal with bad boys independently, and not just rush to the protection of Daddy. But all this takes a very hard toll on Hastings.

One of Christie’s traditional bugbears gets a good airing with some major discussions about divorce. There is a passage where Hastings lists and comments on the individual attitudes to divorce of many of the residents at Styles. Hastings describes himself as “essentially an old-fashioned person, yet I was on the side of divorce – of cutting one’s losses and starting afresh.” Boyd Carrington, who had had an unhappy marriage, was nevertheless against divorce. “He had, he said, the utmost reverence for the institution of marriage. It was the foundation of the state. Norton, with no ties and no personal angle, was of my way of thinking, Franklin, the modern scientific thinker, was, strangely enough, resolutely opposed to divorce. It offended, apparently, his ideal of clear-cut thinking and action.” By listing these opposing and perhaps unpredictable attitudes, Christie shows what a state of indecision society was in at the time in respect of divorce.

I did think it was an extraordinary state of affairs that someone who is convinced they have had a heart attack – Poirot, no less – would refuse to see a doctor. Perhaps there was a mistrust of the medical profession at the time? But, on the other hand, this refusal might be a clue as to the final “whodunit” aspect of the book – so I won’t say any more on the subject!

Classic denouement:  No – but it’s an absolute humdinger, where Christie reserves one of her very finest solutions till the final moment.

Happy ending? That’s a hard one to call. One couple appear to be looking forward to a happy relationship together, which is a positive result. However, there can be absolutely no doubt at all that this is the end of Hercule Poirot, and you may find that sad!

Did the story ring true? This is one of Christie’s ultimate plotting successes, so  yes, it rings absolutely true.

Overall satisfaction rating: It’s one of her undoubted best – no wonder she kept it in a drawer for when it was needed! 10/10

Sleeping MurderThanks for reading my blog of Curtain, and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment in the space below. That was the last book to be published in Christie’s lifetime, but that doesn’t mean it’s the end of the Agatha Christie Challenge. Next up is another book that she wrote at an earlier time and is the swansong for Miss Marple – Sleeping Murder. I can remember one vital aspect of this story – but the rest of it is a blank, so I’m looking forward to giving it a re-read. As usual, I’ll blog my thoughts about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!

The Agatha Christie Challenge – Poirot’s Early Cases (1974)

Poirot's Early CasesIn which Christie takes us back in time and gives us eighteen early cases solved by Hercule Poirot, in many of which he is helped or hindered by his old pal Hastings. All the stories had been previously published in the UK in journals and magazines between 1923 and 1935; and in the US, they were all published between 1924 and 1961 in book collections. Poirot’s Early Cases was first published in the UK by Collins Crime Club in September 1974, and this collection was first published in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company later in 1974 under the slightly different title Hercule Poirot’s Early Cases. There’s no additional scene-setting or framework, so I’ll take them all individually, and, as always, I promise not to reveal whodunit!

The Affair at the Victory Ball

1920s ballThis first story was originally published in the 7th March 1923 issue of the Sketch Magazine in the UK, and in the book The Underdog and other Stories in 1951 in the US. It was Agatha Christie’s first published short story. At the Victory Ball, a party of six wear the costumes of the Commedia dell’Arte. But a double tragedy ensues when Harlequin is found murdered, and, back at her flat, Columbine dies of an overdose of cocaine.

A simple structure to this story, Poirot and Hastings are idling their time when Inspector Japp arrives with a request for help. We had already met Japp in The Mysterious Affair at Styles, and he will return in three of the other short stories in this collection. He would also go on to feature in six more Christie novels, and the short story Murder in the Mews. As he would do on a few occasions, Poirot solves the puzzle without needing to visit the scene of the crime.

You can see that Christie is still introducing her audience to Poirot, going back to the basics of the man; his egg-shaped head and what Hastings calls his “harmless vanity”; the account of his time in the Belgian police force and how he solved the mystery at Styles. At this stage of his time in England, Poirot still shows some shakiness in his command of the English language: “his dossier […] I should say his bioscope – no, how do you call it – biograph?” He also asks what would always become a vital question in any Christie murder “Who benefits by his death?” and he expressly asks Japp if he will be able to “play out the denouement my own way” – again, another of Poirot’s trademarks. Of Hastings we learn little, except that he is a faithful acolyte, of whom Poirot grieves he has “no method.”

Other aspects that come up in this story: cocaine use plays an important role in this story, which no only would have interested Christie the pharmacist/poison expert, but also points to a very contemporary feel, as that was definitely the drug de choix of the day. The use of the Harlequin character may point to an interest that was to develop into Christie’s short-lived detective Harley Quin. The Colossus Hall, where the Victory Ball took place, appears to be one of Christie’s early inventions.

Christie gives us an honest and massive clue, which certainly led me to guess who the perpetrator was – although I didn’t guess any of the details as to How It Was Done. And that denouement, that Poirot was so keen to keep for himself, is certainly a very theatrical affair and thoroughly entertaining to read.

An enjoyable, clear, and undemanding start to the book.

The Adventure of the Clapham Cook

ClaphamA preposterous and highly contrived little story, originally published in the 14th November 1923 issue of the Sketch Magazine in the UK and in the book The Underdog and other Stories in 1951 in the US. Mrs Todd arrives unannounced and demands that Poirot investigate the disappearance of her cook; such cases are not normally his purview, but it isn’t long until he proves the connection with the disappearance with a crime reported in that day’s Daily Blare.

The story is of interest as it is one of the rare occasions that Poirot concerns himself with solving a “lower class” crime. At first, he is not inclined to assist, telling Mrs Todd that he “does not touch this particular kind of business”, which infuriates his visitor with his snobbishness. When he changes his mind, his patronising attitude is still unpleasant to read: “This case will be a novelty. Never yet have I hunted a missing domestic.”

However, another of Poirot’s traits comes to the fore in this story; the fact that, once his interest is piqued, nothing will stop him from discovering the truth. He ignores the fact that Mr Todd sends him a guinea for his trouble when he is dismissed from the case. He simply carries on. As Hastings notes, “his eagerness over this uninteresting matter of a defaulting cook was extraordinary, but I realised that he considered it a point of honour to persevere until he finally succeeded.”

Mrs Todd gives us an interesting insight into the world of an upper middle-class woman trying to keep servants in her employ. “It’s all this wicked dole […] putting ideas into servants’ heads, wanting to be typists and what nots. Stop the dole, that’s what I say.”

Christie still reports Poirot’s power of English as uncertain; “if I mistake not, there is on my new grey suit the spot of grease – only the unique spot, but it is sufficient to trouble me. Then there is my winter overcoat – I must lay him aside in the powder of Keatings.” Keating’s Powder, by the way, was a treatment for killing bugs, fleas, beetles and moths in clothing.

Apart from Poirot’s flat, there’s one location mentioned in the story – 88 Prince Albert Road, Clapham, the Todd residence. There are a couple of Prince Albert Roads in London, but neither is in Clapham.

There are a few financial sums mentioned in this story; an income of £300 per year, which today would be worth about £12,500; and the guinea, that the Todds thought would be enough to pay off Poirot for dropping the investigation would be worth about £45 today. No wonder he was insulted. The £50,000 that the newspaper says the bank clerk has taken, would be the equivalent of about £2.1 million today. Now that’s not a bad haul.

I didn’t care for this story; the solution is extremely unlikely and Poirot solves it with a level of vanity that is rather unattractive.

The Cornish Mystery

CornwallThis enjoyable and surprising little story was originally published in the 28th November 1923 issue of the Sketch Magazine, and in the book The Underdog and other Stories in 1951 in the US. Poirot and Hastings travel to Cornwall to investigate Mrs Pengelley’s suggestion that her husband has been poisoning her. Poirot arrives too late to avert a tragedy but isn’t convinced that the husband is guilty.

It’s Poirot’s idea that he should travel to Cornwall pretending to be Hastings’ “eccentric foreign friend”, playing up his image of eccentricity and unpredictability. He doesn’t hold back when he discovers that he has arrived too late to save Mrs Pengelley: “An imbecile, a criminal imbecile, that is what I have been, Hastings. I have boasted of my little grey cells, and now I have lost a human life, a life that came to me to be saved.” He takes his responsibilities very seriously, but also doesn’t like to show any imperfection or misjudgement. Everything must be perfect in Poirot’s world, including the impeccability of his record at solving cases.

The solution to the case allows Poirot and/or Christie, depending on how you read it, to be judge and jury with the murderer, bluffing them into confession and atonement whilst concealing the fact that he has no proof. Consequently it feels like a very moral ending.

The story moves from Poirot’s London flat to the Cornish village of Polgarwith, where the Pengelleys live. It’s a convincingly sounding Cornish name, but it doesn’t exist. Christie utilises her interest in poison, with the news that a large amount of arsenic was discovered in the corpse. There’s another of those unintentionally funny moments when Christie’s turn of phrase hasn’t kept up with semantic change: ““God bless my soul!” he ejaculated.”

Freda is reported to live on £50 per year, which today would be somewhere in the region of is only a little over £2,100. It’s not a lot.

Concise and diverting.

The Adventure of Johnnie Waverly

adventureThis neat and believable short story was originally published in the 10th October 1923 issue of the Sketch Magazine, under the title The Kidnapping of Johnnie Waverly, and in the book Three Blind Mice and Other Stories in the US in 1950. Three-year-old Johnnie Waverly has been kidnapped from his home; his father had received a number of warnings that it would happen but didn’t take them seriously. His parents have sought advice from Poirot, who agrees to take on the case. Waverly Court is home to a priests hole, and Poirot finds unusual footprints inside it; and works forward from that clue to identify what has happened to Johnnie and how he can be safely returned.

Poirot continues to reveal little aspects of his personality; he betrays his rather fiddly prissiness when he complains to Hastings about, of all things, his tie pin. “If you must wear a tie pin, Hastings, at least let it be in the exact centre of your tie. At present it is at least a sixteenth of an inch too much to the right.”

One aspect of this story reveals a great difference between society in the 1920s and today, a hundred years later. The story contains a description of a man and a small boy in a car together, driving through villages. “The man was an ardent motorist, fond of children, who had picked up a small child playing in the streets of Edenswell […] and was kindly giving him a ride.” Kindly giving him a ride? There is no way this would happen today; any man who did that would face instant accusations of being a paedophile; at the very least he would be considered to have abducted the child and would have broken the law. Times change!

The only address other than Waverly Court in the story is the home of Johnnie’s nurse, 149 Netherall Road Hammersmith. Whilst there are a number of Netherall Roads in the country, there are none in London.

The sum demanded for the return of Johnnie was originally £25,000 and then rose to £50,000. The equivalent today would be just over £1 million, rising to just over £2 million. Quite some sum. At the other end of the scale, the ten shillings that were paid to the tramp who delivered the note and parcel to Waverly Court would today just be £20. Not bad payment for a simple courier job!

The Double Clue

ClueThis short, slight and rather easily solved story was originally published in the 5th December 1923 issue of the Sketch Magazine, and in the book Double Sin and Other Stories in the US in 1961. Society antiques collector Marcus Hardman consults Poirot over the theft of valuable jewels from his safe during a tea party when only four people who were present could be the thief. A little investigation from Poirot and Hastings and the culprit is very quickly discovered.

This story is of primary interest because it is the first time Poirot (and we, the readers) meet the Countess Vera Rossakoff, the extravagant and alluring Russian refugee, with whom Poirot becomes pretty much instantly entranced. At the end of the story Poirot believes he will meet her again somehow, sometime; and indeed we do. We meet her again in The Big Four, and in The Capture of Cerberus, the final story of The Labours of Hercules. Otherwise, the plot is slight and, once you understand the relevance of the Russian Dictionary consulted by Poirot, very easy to solve. It contains a big clue identical to one of those that litter Murder on the Orient Express.

There’s a suggestion in the story that you can inherit kleptomania from your parents; a theme that recurred a few times in Christie’s work is the idea that mental illness can be passed down between the generations. I always feel that rather dates her work, as I’m not sure it holds any scientific value today. Unless you know different?

The South African millionaire Mr Johnston lives on Park Lane, in London, which is obviously real. Hardman’s assistant and rather dubious friend Parker lives on Bury Street, which is just around the corner, in St James’s – so unusually, Christie chooses to use two real-life locations. If Johnston was a genuine millionaire, £1 million in 1923 equates to over £42 million today, so he really is a rich so-and-so.

Not one of her best works; mildly amusing but nothing to dwell on.

The King of Clubs

King of ClubsThis relatively simple and slightly infuriating little tale was originally published in the 21st March 1923 issue of the Sketch Magazine – her second published short story – under the full title The Adventure of the King of Clubs,  and in the book The Underdog and Other Stories in the US in 1951. Poirot is called in by Prince Paul of Maurania to solve the case of the murder of a theatrical impresario, Henry Reedburn. The prince’s fiancée, dancer Valerie Saintclair, had burst into the impresario’s neighbours’ house, belonging to the Oglander family, with blood on her dress, shouted “Murder!”, and then collapsed. Meanwhile Reedburn’s body was discovered in his own house. But did she do it? The Prince and Valerie had earlier consulted a clairvoyant who had turned over the King of Clubs card and said it was a warning. Had Valerie interpreted Reedburn as being the King of Clubs? And what is the significance of the fact that the King of Clubs is missing from the pack of cards with which the Oglanders were playing bridge?

The story is significant for two reasons. One is that the resolution is one of those rare occasions were Poirot does not press for the guilty party to be charged, even when murder has been committed. The other is that it is marred by a very hard-to-swallow coincidence involving the card the King of Clubs. I can’t say more, lest I give the game away.

Hastings says of Poirot: “That is the worst of Poirot. Order and Method are his gods. He goes so far as to attribute all his success to them.” Poirot loathes the way that Hastings just casts his read newspaper on the floor, unlike Poirot, who “folded it anew symmetrically.” That little observation goes a long way to illustrate the difference between the two characters.

The story is set in Streatham, which of course exists; Prince Paul is from Maurania, which doesn’t. The name could be a mixture of Mauretania and Ruritania. No other references need explaining!

The Lemesurier Inheritance

John LeMesurierThis entertaining but slightly dubious short story was originally published in the 18th December 1923 issue of the Sketch Magazine, and in The Under Dog and other Stories in the US in 1951. Years earlier, Poirot and Hastings had met three members of the same family over dinner: Vincent, Hugo and Roger Lemesurier. There was a curse, that the first born of each generation dies, handing over the inheritance to the second born. The next day, Vincent is killed falling off a train. Several years later, Mrs Hugo Lemesurier tracks Poirot down to tell him that their eldest son has had a number of unusual near-death accidents; she feels sure there can be no such thing as the family curse, but Hugo is convinced it is true. So Poirot and Hastings head up to Northumberland to the Lemesurier estate to make some sense of it all. Is there a curse? Or is there a more old-fashioned murderer? An exciting little denouement reveals all!

This is a good early example of a Christie story where supernatural fears and superstitions actually conceal a simple crime. Take away the deliberately misleading framework and you have quite a straightforward crime – or series of crimes. It’s of additional interest as the opening passage is set during the First World War, and is just about the most historical that we get to see Poirot and Hastings together. Mind you, it was very early on in Christie’s career (and indeed Poirot’s and Hastings’) for the latter to describe this crime as an “extraordinary series of events which held our interest over a period of many years, and which culminated in the ultimate problem brought to Poirot to solve.” Big claim, indeed.

Christie the poison expert is in full swing with this story, with mentions being made of ptomaine, atropine and formic acid poisoning. It must have tickled her to be able to distil so much expert information into so short a story.

Christie is sometimes criticised for not making some of her supplementary characters more interesting, and for not giving them their own characterisation to inhabit. She’s certainly guilty of that in this story, where she has Hastings describe the children’s governess, Miss Saunders, as “a nondescript female”. Really, neither Hastings not Christie bothered to try to make her interesting!

Not a bad story, but perhaps a little easy. Christie doesn’t really examine the origins of the Lemesurier curse, but only how it affects the current generations. There again, it is only ten pages or so!

The Lost Mine

MineThis nostalgic little memoir by Poirot was originally published in the 21st November 1923 issue of the Sketch Magazine, and in the US, in the 1924 volume Poirot Investigates – it only appeared in the US edition of this book and not in the British version. Poirot reminisces on how he gained ownership of the only shares he owns – those of the Burma Mines Ltd. With Hastings as his captive audience he tells the tale of one Wu Ling, head of the family who had paperwork referring to a lost, but lucrative mine, and who travelled to London with the papers to sell them. But Wu Ling went missing after leaving his hotel, and the next day his body was found in the Thames. Misadventure or murder? Poirot wouldn’t be telling the story unless it was the latter, would he?!

Christie’s device of having Poirot tell his own story, virtually uninterrupted, is a clever way of obscuring what is, in effect, a very slight story. But it is an entertaining little tale, marred by some mock-Chinese-style language that really makes the modern reader cringe, and with a moral slant against the degradation of one’s mind and body by visits to opium dens.

Poirot teases Hastings for his admiration of ladies with auburn hair – hardly any of Christie’s books featuring Hastings omitted a mention of the latter’s penchant for auburn ladies. As for Poirot himself, his biggest feeling of outrage is when it is suggested, as part of his investigations, that he shaves off his moustache. As if the great man would ever undergo such self-sacrifice!

The story is set in real-life locations around London, with Wu Ling staying at the Russell Hotel in Russell Square (now the Kimpton Fitzroy hotel), and characters being traced to what Poirot describes as “the evil-smelling streets of Limehouse” – an area of London which is now much more gentrified than it was in Poirot’s time.

In an attempt to emphasise Poirot’s affinity with everything symmetrical, he informs us that his bank balance stands at £444, 4 shillings and 4 pence. “It must be tact on the part of your bank manager” sneers Hastings. Today that sum would be worth £18,780. Not so symmetrical, and not so impressive – you’d expect the great man to have amassed a much bigger figure than that!

Another minor piece of writing; moderately entertaining, nothing more.

The Plymouth Express

1920s plymouthA rather complicated and contrived story, it was originally published in the 4th April 1923 issue of the Sketch Magazine, under the enhanced title The Mystery of the Plymouth Express, and in The Underdog and Other Stories in the US in 1951.  It would become the basis of Christie’s 1928 novel The Mystery of the Blue Train. When the dead body of a woman is found on the Plymouth Express train, her father asks Poirot to investigate. She was due to travel for a house party, but surprises her maid with the instruction to wait at Bristol station and she would return with a few hours. Whatever her plans were, they went seriously wrong. It’s up to Poirot and Hastings to sort the lies from the truth and discover what really happened to the late Mrs Carrington.

Although Poirot would explain it as good psychology, he has a rather pompous view towards the actions that a woman would do under certain circumstances. “Why kill her?” asks Poirot, “why not simply steal the jewels? She would not prosecute.” “Why not?” “Because she is a woman, mon ami. She once loved this man. Therefore she would suffer her loss in silence.”

The story is littered with real West Country locations: Plymouth, Bristol, Weston (super Mare), Taunton, Exeter, Newton Abbot and so on. Mrs Carrington took all her jewels on the train, which her father suggests amounted to something in the region of a hundred thousand dollars. Today the equivalent sum is around £1.35 million. Quite a lot. More interesting though is the fact that it cost Poirot 3d to make a phone call from the Ritz. That’s about 53p today, which is not dissimilar from today’s cost. And the paperboy was given a half-crown for his errand – that’s over £5 – not bad work if you can get it.

I wasn’t overly impressed with this story!

The Chocolate Box

box-of-chocolateThis entertaining short story was originally published in the 23rd May 1923 issue of the Sketch Magazine under the title The Clue of the Chocolate Box, and in the US, in the 1924 volume Poirot Investigates – it only appeared in the US edition of this book and not in the British version. In response to Hastings’ suggestion that Poirot had never had a failure with one of his cases, Poirot confesses that he did have one, and then proceeds to tell him this tale of when he was a detective with the Belgian Police Force. M. Déroulard was a promising governmental minister who unexpectedly died, but family member Virginie Mesnard did not believe the death was due to natural causes. She asked Poirot to investigate. Déroulard had a sweet tooth and was never far from a box of chocolates. It was only when Poirot realised that the lid of the box of chocolates was a different colour from the box that he suspected something might not be quite right. And when poison is found in the possession of one of the suspects, surely he is guilty of the murder. But Poirot is in for another surprise before the guilty party is revealed.

Another Poirot narration but this one works much better than The Lost Mine. It’s full of references to poison: Prussic Acid, morphine, strychnine, atropine, ptomaine and trinitrine – Christie must have had a field day incorporating all those into the story. Déroulard lived on the Avenue Louise in Brussels – a real location about a mile south of the Grand Place.

Christie writes: “he had married some years earlier a young lady from Brussels who had brought him a substantial dot. Undoubtedly the money was useful to him in his career…” Dot? That’s a new word to me in this context. However, it’s an archaic term that describes a dowry from which only the interest or annual income was available to the husband. Who knew?

Hastings says he wouldn’t drink Poirot’s disgusting hot chocolate for £100. I bet he would – that’s a nifty £4,300 in today’s money.

This is another story where Poirot doesn’t act further in bringing a guilty party to book once he has identified them. Perhaps that’s part of his failure. He references this case in Peril at End House, so he clearly has a long memory about it. Nevertheless, he still has his familiar arrogance, which is shown up in an amusing brief exchange with Hastings at the end of the story.

I enjoyed this one!

The Submarine Plans

SubmarineThis short story was originally published in the 7th November 1923 issue of the Sketch Magazine, and in the US in the Under Dog and Other Stories in 1951. It was also the basis for the novella-length story The Incredible Theft, which was published in the 1937 volume Murder in the Mews.  Poirot is summoned late at night to meet Lord Allonby, the head of the Ministry of Defence, who reports that some secret plans for a new submarine have just been stolen from his country house Sharples. He reports seeing a mysterious shadow appearing to leave the room where the plans were on a table. Will Poirot find out who the mysterious figure is? Or was Allonby mistaken? You already know the answer.

An enjoyable short story that holds together nicely. Allonby refers to when Poirot helped him with the kidnapping of the Prime Minister during the First World War, which is a story that had been previously published in Poirot Investigates. A couple of red herrings that send you the wrong way, until you realise the solution is extremely simple. There’s a clever finish to the story when Hastings reports that an enemy of the nation came a-cropper with their submarine plans. He also insists that Poirot guessed the solution. That doesn’t seem likely to me!

The Third Floor Flat

THird floor flatThis story was first published  in the January 1929 issue of Hutchinson’s Adventure & Mystery Story Magazine, and in the US in Three Blind Mice and Other Stories in 1950. After a night out, two men and two women arrive back at the flat of one of the women, but she can’t find the key to get inside her fourth floor flat. The two men offer to use the coal lift to get inside but they accidentally enter the third floor flat. When they eventually emerge at the right place, one of the men has blood on his hands. They go back to check, only to discover that a woman has been murdered in the third floor flat. Fortunately Poirot lives in the fifth floor flat! And it doesn’t take Poirot long to come to the correct conclusion.

Published six years later than all the other stories in the book so far, this has a very different voice and tone from the others. Hastings is not present, and doesn’t narrate the story. Christie’s third person narration is more formal, stiff and distant than when Hastings is “in charge”. You would almost think it was written by a different person. It has an extraordinarily inventive ending, and I found the whole thing totally unbelievable.

The four characters are said to have gone to the theatre to see The Brown Eyes of Caroline. Such a shame it doesn’t really exist as it is a great title.

Double Sin

double sinThis enjoyable short story was first published in the 23 September 1928 edition of the Sunday Dispatch, and in the US in Double Sin and Other Stories in 1961. Poirot and Hastings take a business/holiday trip to Devon by bus where they encounter Miss Mary Durrant, taking a set of valuable miniature paintings to a client for his approval and payment. Alas, during the journey, the miniatures are stolen. But it doesn’t take Poirot any time at all to discover what really happened to the miniatures and who is guilty of the crime!

It’s a rather charming and entertaining story, an enjoyable read. Poirot teases Hastings about his perennial fondness for girls with auburn hair; Hastings teases Poirot back for his fear of draughty windows on a bus. Bizarrely, Hastings accuses Poirot of having “Flemish thrift” when he is clearly from the French-speaking part of Belgium, and not Flemish at all. The story takes place in the fictional Devon towns of Ebermouth and Monkhampton, and the miniatures are said to be by the artist Cosway – Maria Cosway was indeed a painter of miniatures in the 18th and 19th centuries. The miniatures are said to be worth £500 – today that would be the equivalent of about £22,000. Doesn’t sound unreasonable.

Miss Penn, the antiques dealer on whose behalf Mary Durrant is taking the miniatures, has all the appearance of a certain Miss Marple, who would maker her first appearance in print a couple of years later.

The Market Basing Mystery

Market BasingThis entertaining short story was first published in the 17th October 1923 edition of The Sketch magazine, and in the US in The Under Dog and Other Stories in 1951. Inspector Japp invites Poirot and Hastings to the market town of Market Basing for the weekend, but there crime catches up with them, as they are called to a mansion where the owner Walter Protheroe has apparently taken his own life but the position of the pistol in his hand suggests that he couldn’t have done – so is it murder? It doesn’t take long for the three sleuths to come to the right solution – not before Japp has leapt to the wrong conclusions, of course.

It’s a very entertaining little tale, simply told, with all the clues fairly open to the reader. We learn something new about Japp, that he is a keen botanist, who knows all the Latin names to the most obscure plants. Hastings quotes an amusing piece of doggerel – “the rabbit has a pleasant face…” This seems to be a well-known but anonymous few lines of verse. Unless Christie made it up?

The story was expanded into the novella Murder in the Mews, published in 1937.

Wasps’ Nest

wasps nestThis rather odd short story was first published in the 20th November 1928 edition of the Daily Mail, and in the US in Double Sin and Other Stories in 1961. Poirot arrives at the house of an old friend John Harrison, saying he is investigating a murder that hasn’t yet been committed. Harrison doesn’t believe him, but then Poirot asks more about his forthcoming visit from an acquaintance who will be shortly arriving to remove the wasps nest that has grown on his property. But who is the murderer that Poirot is trying to intercept?

What is particularly odd about this story is that it feels like it has been written by someone else – not only does it not feel like an account by Hastings, it doesn’t feel like Christie either. Nevertheless, there is a poison aspect to this story – the potential use of potassium cyanide, which would have been of interest to Christie.

There is an amusing line taken out of context – and out of its time too, when Poirot explains how he can distract someone so that he can pickpocket them; unfortunately, his turn of phrase is: “I lay one hand on his shoulder, I excite myself, and he feels nothing.”

This story was also was the first Christie story to be adapted for television with a live broadcast on 18 June 1937. It was adapted by Christie herself, and broadcast in and around London, with Francis L Sullivan playing Poirot.

The Veiled Lady

veiled ladyThis entertaining short story was first published in the 3rd October 1923 edition of The Sketch magazine, under the title The Case of the Veiled Lady, and in the US in Poirot Investigates in 1924 – it only appeared in the US edition of this book and not in the British version. Poirot and Hastings are visited by a Lady Millicent who once wrote an indiscreet letter to a soldier that she fears would end her engagement to the Duke of Southshire were it to be common knowledge – and she is being blackmailed by a Mr Lavington who has the letter in his possession. Lavington refuses to give the letter to Hastings or Poirot. So Poirot decides to break into Lavington’s house and take it. But what then? Do Lady Millicent’s troubles go away?

This excellent little tale conceals a nice surprise twist right at the end which you don’t see coming, and is one of Christie’s better early short stories. We learn of Poirot that his vanity is such that the believes the whole world is talking about him, much to Hastings’ derision.

Lavington is blackmailing Lady Millicent in the sum of £20,000, which today would be around £850,000. No wonder she’s worried. And there’s another of Christie’s accidental funny sentences, concerning use of the “E” word. ““The Dirty swine!” I ejaculated. “I beg your pardon, Lady Millicent.””

Problem at Sea

CruiseThis enjoyable short story was first published in issue 542 of the Strand Magazine, in February 1936, under the title, Poirot and the Crime in Cabin 66, and in the US in The Regatta Mystery and Other Stories, in 1939. On a sea trip to Alexandria, Poirot encounters Colonel Clapperton and his difficult, cruel wife, whom Clapperton appears to love despite the way she treats him. Others on board take Clapperton to one side and try to give him an entertaining trip despite his wife’s best efforts. A murder takes place; Poirot quickly sees through the deception and solves the crime.

You can tell at once from the tone of the writing that this story was constructed by a much more mature brain than the majority of the other stories in this volume; it appeared in print at least ten years later than most of the other Early Cases. Nevertheless, the twist in the tale is very easy to guess and the reader works out the solution before Poirot.

Christie the Poison Expert comes to the fore with some detailed information about the effects of taking Digitalin; and sadly the story is marred by an instance of very unfortunate racism (it wouldn’t have been seen that way in 1936, but it is today). Hastings is noticeably absent, his final appearances in Christie’s novels (apart from in Curtain, published many years later) were in The ABC Murders and Dumb Witness, both of which would have been written about the same time.

“How Does Your Garden Grow?”

Mistress MaryThis short story was first published in issue 536 of the Strand Magazine in August 1935 and in the US in The Regatta Mystery and Other Stories in 1939. Miss Barrowby writes to Poirot asking for his help in a delicate family matter. He instructs Miss Lemon to reply, but hears nothing back. Then Miss Lemon discovers that Miss Barrowby has died, so he decides to visit her house, where she meets a Russian help, and Miss Barrowby’s remaining relatives, the Delafontaines. But did Miss Barrowby die from poison, and, if so, how come no one else in the household suffered the same fate?

Again, another slightly more recent piece of writing, still with Hastings gone (and missed too, by Poirot) and with a much more three-dimensional feel. Christie gives us some great descriptive passages about Miss Lemon, whom Poirot employs as an assistant detective, and her input helps not only him solve the crime but also helps the story along nicely too.

Again, too, there is poison involved, this time strychnine, always one of Christie’s favourites. The story takes place in Charman’s Green, Bucks, said to be about an hour from London – I wonder if that is Christie-speak for Chesham. There’s an ingenious solution to the story, and one which I was certainly nowhere near guessing.

And that concludes all eighteen stories in Poirot’s Early Cases. Many of them are not bad at all, and I’d say the good ones outweigh the bad ones considerably. It’s always difficult to put a rating on a book of short stories, but I’d definitely give it a 7/10. If you’ve been reading this book as well, I’d love to know your thoughts, please just write something in the comments box.

CurtainNext up in the Agatha Christie challenge is a book that Christie wrote some time in the 40s, when she was at her peak, designed to be the last ever book featuring Hercule Poirot, Curtain. If you’d like to read it too, we can compare notes when I give you my thoughts on it in a few weeks’ time. In the meanwhile, happy sleuthing and keep on Christie-ing!

The Agatha Christie Challenge – Postern of Fate (1973)

Postern of FateIn which we meet for Tommy and Tuppence for the final time, as they have retired to the coastal resort of Hollowquay and set up home in an old house called The Laurels, accompanied by their faithful old retainer Albert and a mischievous Manchester Terrier called Hannibal. The old house still has a number of old books left by the previous owners, and as Tuppence is sorting through them, she discovers a code in one of the books that she deciphers as the message: “Mary Jordan did not die naturally. It was one of us. I think I know which one.” But who was Mary Jordan, and who killed her?  As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, as always, I promise not to reveal what happens and whodunit!

HannibalThe book is dedicated “for Hannibal and his master”. Agatha Christie kept Manchester Terriers, among one of which was Bingo, and it is believed that the fictional doggie Hannibal is based on him. Presumably, his master was Max Mallowan! Postern of Fate was first published in the UK by Collins Crime Club in October 1973, and in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company later the same year. Unlike most of her other books, it doesn’t appear to have been serialised in any periodicals or magazines.

Agatha ChristieThere are two possible approaches to reading this book. The first is to be charitable. Christie was 83 when this was published, and held in the highest regard by both her editors and her loyal fanbase. One can well imagine that any suggestions or reservations the editors might privately have held would have been suppressed in order not to offend the Grande Dame; and her loyal readers would buy it by the bucketful anyway. This was to be the last book she would write; her powers were waning and, by all likelihood, early signs of dementia were setting in. It was never going to be a masterpiece.

repetitionThe alternative approach is to compare it in the cold light of day with her other works – and it fails dismally. As in all her later year books, it kicks off with a very inventive opening, but the follow-through just isn’t there. As with Elephants Can Remember, the book is littered with endless repetitions, only this time there are also swathes of unnecessary characters, irrelevant discussions and themes; and there are many nostalgic passages where Tommy and Tuppence recollect their former glories and best detective work of the past. When we finally come to the crunch, there’s no real denouement. As T S Eliot said in The Hollow Men, “This is the way the world ends, not with a bang but a whimper”.

Old coupleThat’s not to say that it’s unreasonable for Tommy and Tuppence to live in the past so much. To be fair, that’s a perfectly legitimate characterisation for the couple, who are now retired and have time on their hands to look back. The trouble is, you can accept it the first time they do it, but when they do it time and time again it’s very boring for the reader. On Christie’s part, it’s fairly unforgiveable of her to include in their recollections of the N or M? case the fact that she actually gives away the identity of the criminal in that book – so you definitely don’t want to read Postern of Fate before reading N or M? (not that I rate that book highly anyway!)

SealyhamThe book clearly required much more heavy editing than it received. There are so many extraneous conversations about irrelevant subjects, like James the Sealyham, or Great-Aunt Maria’s purse of sovereigns, wrongly marked price tags in shops, or the interminable references back to the books of their childhoods. It’s full of Tommy and Tuppence’s domestic banter about a wide range of personal matters that clearly amused Christie (and maybe does for T&T’s most loyal fans) but for most readers it simply drags the narrative down.

OxbridgeI feel this would have worked better as a snappy short story rather than a rather long novel. Clues are written in, very obviously, and the reader works them out much earlier than Tommy and Tuppence do. One clue – that of Oxford and Cambridge (I won’t say what its relevance is) is discussed once and then they come back to it later as if it was a brand new idea. There’s also a lack of continuity from earlier books; for example, Deborah Beresford is said to be the mother of twins but those twins turn out to be aged 15, 11 and 7 – three twins, that’s interesting! There’s a villager named Miss Price-Ridley, but in previous books the Price-Ridleys featured in Miss Marple cases such as The Body in the Library and The Murder at the Vicarage – a completely different world from that of the Beresfords. Christie also gives Hannibal, the dog, a voice, and pretends that it speaks to its owners, in a rather self-indulgent and nauseously babyish way. All in all, not my cup of tea.

ButterHaving said all that, there’s one aspect of the relationship between Tommy and Tuppence which hadn’t really been spelled out in the previous books but is very clear here – and it concerns worrying about the other’s wellbeing. Tommy has always been the solid, reliable type, and Tuppence has always been the more unpredictable, flighty partner. With increasing old age, this difference becomes a little more serious. Tommy ““worried about Tuppence. Tuppence was one of those people you had to worry about. If you left the house, you gave her last words of wisdom and she gave you last promises of doing exactly what you counselled her to do: No, she would not be going out except just to buy half a pound of butter, and after all you couldn’t call that dangerous, could you?” “It could be dangerous if you went out to buy half a pound of butter,” said Tommy.”

butlerAlbert still lives with them; now widowed, he’s their general housekeeper, cook, and general all-round factotum. He also worries about Tuppence, on Tommy’s behalf, and also for his own peace of mind. Other recognisable names are Colonel Pikeaway and Mr Robinson, both of whom we first encountered in Cat Among the Pigeons, and Mr Horsham who was also a character in Passenger to Frankfurt. In their recollections, Tommy and Tuppence remember the characters from their earlier cases, such as Jane Finn and Mr Brown, as well as (of course) their adopted daughter Betty who appeared in N or M?

TorquayThere are only really two locations mentioned in the book. One is London – where Tommy regularly attends business and other meetings; the other is the completely fictional Hollowquay, home to The Laurels. Putting two and two together, Hollowquay is clearly based on Torquay.

Andrew LangNow for the references and quotations in this book. Many of them refer to old children’s books. The first story that Tuppence remembers reading as a child is Androcles and the Lion, told by Andrew Lang, who wrote collections of folk- and fairy-tales, the majority of which were published in the late Victorian and Edwardian eras.

Here are the other books and authors mentioned in the book:

Mrs Molesworth (1839 – 1921), who wrote The Cuckoo Clock (1877), The Tapestry Room (1879) and Four Winds Farm (1887).

Stanley Weyman (1855 – 1928) writer of Under the Red Robe (1894) – about Cardinal Richelieu, and The Red Cockade (1895).

L T Meade (1844 – 1918) writer of girls’ stories

Winnie the Pooh by A A Milne (1882 – 1956)

Alice Through the Looking Glass and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll (1832 – 1898)

Charlotte Yonge (1823 – 1901), writer of Unknown to History (1881) and The Daisy Chain (1856)

E Nesbit (1858 – 1924) writer of The Story of the Amulet (1906), Five Children and It (1902) and The New Treasure Seekers (1904)

The Prisoner of Zenda by Anthony Hope Hopkins (1894)

Robert Louis Stevenson (1850 – 1894), writer of The Black Arrow: A Tale of the Two Roses (1888), Treasure Island (1883), Kidnapped (1886) and Catriona (1893).

G A Henty (1832 – 1902)

I haven’t yet been able to identify the writer or date of The Little Grey Hen.

ErardOne of the chapter titles is Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast. That’s a quote from Alice in Wonderland. Tommy and Tuppence have possession of an Erard Piano, named after Sébastien Érard, a piano maker from Strasbourg, considered to be amongst the finest in the world. When Tuppence is playing it, she recollects a song: “Where has my true love gone a-roaming?” but I can’t find it online anywhere – does anyone recognise the song?

holy BibleTuppence quotes “new sins have old shadows” – but she’s in error. The correct phrase is old sins cast old shadows; and it’s an old proverb. Talking of Proverbs, Colonel Pikeaway refers to the daughters of the Horse Leech, which was a phrase I’d never heard before; it comes from the Old Testament, Book of Proverbs, Chapter 30, Verse 15. At the sight of Hannibal, he also quotes “dogs delight to bark and bite” which is from a hymn by Isaac Watts: “Let dogs delight to bark and bite, For God has made them so: Let bears and lions growl and fight, For ‘tis their nature, too.” Colonel Pikeaway refers to the Frankfurt Ring business, which I can only presume is a nod to Christie’s very own Passenger to Frankfurt.

PoundRegular readers will know that I like to consider any significant sums of money in Christie’s books and work out what their value would be today, just to get a feel of the range of sums that we’re looking at. There are only a couple of low value sums mentioned. Beatrice’s coat, that was double-priced at both £3.70 and £6, today would be priced at £31 and £50. Still very reasonable. And there’s a suggestion that someone might have offered a fiver to tamper with some wheels. A fiver then would be worth £42 today. That’s not enough to endanger a life, I wouldn’t have thought.

Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for Postern of Fate:

Publication Details: 1973. My copy is a HarperCollins Paperback, published in 2015, bearing the price on the back cover of £7.99. I know I had an earlier copy, but it has vanished in the seas of time. The cover illustration shows a rocking horse, casting a shadow of a man in a top hat riding that very same riding horse.

How many pages until the first death: This edition has 325 pages – it’s much more spaced out and paper-greedy than the old Fontana paperbacks. The first death which is reported comes on page 46; the first (only) death that takes place during the course of the book’s narrative comes on page 213 – so that’s quite a long wait.

Funny lines out of context:

Tommy, in conversation with Mr Robinson. ““And now,” said Tommy, “now you’re the tops.” “Now who told you that?” said Mr Robinson. “All nonsense.” “I don’t think it is,” said Tommy. “Well,” said Mr Robinson, “some get to the tops and some have the tops forced upon them.” That’s one for my gay friends.

Memorable characters: Sadly none. Most of the villagers are stereotypical country bumpkins; all the characters are bland.

Christie the Poison expert: The historical death takes place as a result of foxglove leaves being mixed up with spinach leaves in the kitchen to create a rather lethal meal.

Class/social issues of the time:

One of the accidental side effects of Christie’s writing style having lost its drive and its sense of narrative, is that there are plenty of conversations where characters ramble on about things inconsequential to the story, but not their day-to-day lives. As a result, Christie provides us with something of a running commentary on the events and news of the time.

For example, regular chilly weather in the afternoons is seen as a possible side-effect of “all the natural gas they’re taking out of the North Sea.” People are exploring science, which results in them flying to the moon, or researching oxygen being supplied by the sea not the forests. Pikeaway is suspicious of Europe: “Got to keep in with the Common Market nowadays, haven’t we? Funny stuff going on there, by the way. You now, behind things. Not what you see on the surface.” He later goes on to lament “there’s always trouble. There’s trouble in every country. There’s trouble all over the world now and not for the first time.” Conspiracy theories abound: “Do we know anything about germ warfare? Do we know everything about gases, about means of inducing pollution?”

The boy Clarence attributes the shooting in Tommy and Tuppence’s garden to the Irish Republican Army.  ““I expect it’s them Irish,” said Clarence hopefully. “The IRA. You know. They’ve been trying to blow this place up.”” Miss Mullins puts such events down to the rise in general lawlessness. “Sad he had to get himself done in by some of this violent guerrilla material that’s always gong about bashing someone […] Go about in little groups they  do, and mug people. Nasty lot. Very often the younger they are, the nastier they are.”

In other matters, Tommy and Tuppence remark on the fact that they recently had had a census – and you sense that Christie disapproved at the state’s nosiness. There’s early 70s inflation, and the dissatisfaction with the current government; Albert observes “you wouldn’t believe it – eggs have gone up, again. Never vote for this Government again, I won’t. I’ll give the Liberals a go.” Things one used to take for granted are on their way out; “Children nowadays how are four, or five, or six, don’t seem to be able to read when they get to ten or eleven. I can’t think why it was so easy for all of us.” People don’t buy birthday cards much anymore; and even fruit isn’t what it was: “there were such wonderful gooseberries in the garden. And greengage trees too. Now that’s a thing you practically never see nowadays, not real greengages. Something else called gage plums or something, but they’re not a bit the same to taste.”

Tuppence is very proud of her handbag. “Very nice present, this was,” she said. “Real crocodile, I think. Bit difficult to stuff things in sometimes.” Anyone today who still regularly uses a real crocodile handbag would definitely suppress the fact!

Classic denouement:  No – in fact there’s barely a denouement at all. We do discover some of the solutions to some of the issues, including the identity of the murderer; but it’s all written so lacking in urgency or any sense of occasion, and it’s all revealed second- or third-hand. You keep expecting a final twist, and it never happens.

Happy ending? It looks as though Tommy and Tuppence may – or may not – continue living at The Laurels, but wherever they live they’ll always be the same bantering couple who love each other’s company but probably irritate the hell out of everyone else. So I guess it’s happy for them!

Did the story ring true? In part. The code in the book and the concealment of clues in the house is something that you can just about accept. The most extraordinary coincidence is that Tommy and Tuppence happen to retire, of all places, to this particular house of secrets. It’s also surprising that its contents were not cleared before they moved in, or that the local people who know so much about what went on there haven’t done anything to publicise it. Why did no one mention the Pensioners Palace Club earlier? Why did the kids not tell their parents the things they knew?

Overall satisfaction rating: It’s very unsatisfactory. It’s a toss-up between whether this is better or worse than Passenger to Frankfurt; there’s not a lot in it. That book is more preposterous and ridiculous, but at least has quite an exciting ending. This book is just blancmange. 1/10.

Poirot's Early CasesThanks for reading my blog of Postern of Fate, and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment in the space below. Next up in the Agatha Christie Challenge is a return to the short story format, with Poirot’s Early Cases, eighteen tales published in periodicals between 1923 and 1935 and which had never (with a couple of exceptions) been published in book form in the UK before. So it will be odd but enjoyable to go back in time and revisit the early days of Poirot and Hastings. 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 – The Use of Force – William Carlos Williams

William Carlos WilliamsWilliam Carlos Williams (1883 – 1963)

American poet (The Red Wheelbarrow), writer, and physician.

The Use of Force, first published in the collection Life Along the Passaic River, in 1938

Available to read online here

This is the third of four stories in the volume Points of View to be given the style classification by Moffett and McElheny of Detached Autobiography. Here’s how their introduction continues: “Two of the stories are about the narrator’s childhood, told many years later. The other two are about adult experiences. One of them might have happened the day before it is told, but after strong feelings have cooled, the narrator’s maturity enables him to talk about them with an outsider’s detachment.”

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

 

The Use of Force

 

Life Along the Passaic RiverDoctor has called on the Olson family because daughter Mathilda is very sick. Although she seems “strong as a heifer”, she’s had a fever for three days. There have been cases of diphtheria at the local school so it’s important she’s checked out. Doctor asks if she has a sore throat. Apparently not, say the parents, but Doctor decides he should inspect her throat to make sure.

But Mathilda has other ideas. She refuses to engage with Doctor in any way, won’t open her mouth, and when he tries to get near, she flings her arm out and nearly breaks his glasses. At first Doctor rather admires her tenacity and independence, especially in the face of her parents’ embarrassment and annoyance at her behaviour. But as she grows more and more unreasonable, he gets progressively angrier, and, despite his better judgment decides that the use of force will be the only way he can check her throat.

Even though she’s bleeding, and shrieking in agony, Doctor continues to pin her down and “overpowered the child’s neck and jaws. I forced the heavy silver spoon back of her teeth and down her throat till she gagged.” Surprise, surprise, he discovers she’s been hiding the fact that her tonsils are covered with a membrane that tells him that she’s had a sore throat for three days. Her final fury at being found out is worse than the pain of the throat.

William Carlos Williams was a physician all his life and so presumably this incident is based on a real event, or at least suggested by one. In the grand scheme of things this is a very minor incident, but it reveals to Doctor just how personally he became involved with the case – that it became war between him and his patient, and that he allowed his reactions to get out of control. “I could have torn the child apart in my own fury and enjoyed it. It was a pleasure to attack her. My face was burning with it.”

As for Mathilda, she didn’t take defeat lying down. The last lines of the story are: “ Now truly she was furious. She had been on the defensive before but now she attacked. Tried to get off her father’s lap and fly at me while tears of defeat blinded her eyes.”

What started off as a simple home visit to a patient escalated to battle of wits and strength. A minor incident perhaps, but Doctor learned a lot about himself as a result. Maybe next time he would react differently? Was the use of force justified in this case? Could it potentially have saved the girl’s life? Were the parents acting in her best interests? There are a number of questions you can ask yourself – and no obvious answers.

The next story in the anthology is the fourth and final of the detached autobiography stories, Bad Characters by Jean Stafford, of whom I have never heard!

The Agatha Christie Challenge – Elephants Can Remember (1972)

Elephants Can RememberIn which celebrated author Ariadne Oliver is contacted by the prospective mother-in-law of her goddaughter Celia Ravenscroft, to ask if she knew anything of the circumstances of the apparent double suicide of Celia’s parents. Suspicious of the woman’s motives, but curious about the case, she shares the information with Hercule Poirot, and they decide to see what those involved with the Ravenscrofts remember about their tragic death. Will the testimony of these “elephants” explain the deaths?  As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, as always, I promise not to reveal what happens and whodunit!

Question MarkThe book is dedicated “to Molly Myers, in return for many kindnesses”. My research so far hasn’t been able to uncover a Molly Myers in Christie’s circle – perhaps you know who she is, in which case, please tell me! Elephants Can Remember was first published in the UK by Collins Crime Club in November 1972, and in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company in the same year. It was also published in two abridged instalments in the Star Weekly Novel, the Toronto newspaper supplement, in February 1973.

Sherlock HolmesElephants Can Remember continues Christie’s gradual decline in inventiveness, writing style and thematic topics. As she got older, she seems to have become fonder of nostalgically revisiting her old books, with the stories of Five Little Pigs, Mrs McGinty’s Dead and Hallowe’en Party all being quoted and recalled by Poirot and Spence. Indeed, she even occasionally adds explanatory footnotes as an aide-memoire, clarifying which old case it is that they are recalling. Some of her references were clearly old favourites, such as the case of Lizzie Borden or the Sherlock Holmes story where the parsley sank into the butter and the dog did nothing, as she has quoted them more than once before in other books. The Lizzie Borden case was cited in After the Funeral, Ordeal by Innocence and The Clocks, and the Sherlock Holmes parsley story in Partners in Crime, Hickory Dickory Dock, The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side and The Clocks again. The dog reference was also mentioned in Cards on the Table. It’s almost as though her thinking days are over; if it worked once, it will work again – if she actually remembered that she had referred to these cases before. She also runs out of steam early; you can measure this simply by means of the word/page count. A typical Christie in a Fontana paperback will run to approximately 192 pages. This book, same publisher and font, only gets to 160 pages.

Indian elephantOne aspect of the book that gets done to death by repetition is the notion of elephants. If the book is about one thing, it’s memory – perhaps not surprising, given it’s written by an 82-year-old author. Poirot and Mrs Oliver are trying to solve a case that happened many years in the past, so it all depends on what people remember. An elephant never forgets, goes the saying, so they need to find as many elephants as possible. However, the adherence to this metaphor just gets dragged out endlessly throughout the book. It’s as though Christie had to write an essay where the title was How Many Times can you Substitute the word Elephant for Witness, and she diligently constantly referred to the title of the essay like a good school student. What starts out as a light-hearted notion quickly becomes repetitive and tiresome.

HonestyNevertheless, despite the repetitiveness, the lack of inventiveness and the occasional lapse of continuity, it’s still quite an entertaining book. Admittedly, the basis of the solution is telegraphed strongly early on, so one aspect of the conclusion is easy to guess; but not the whole story, so there are still some surprises left at denouement-time. The characters are probably not as well-drawn or interesting as they ought to be, but there are some entertainingly written scenes, and it also poses a dilemma about whether honesty is always the best policy and how far you can or should take blind acceptance of the flaws of those whom you love.

PoirotAs Nemesis would be the last book that Christie wrote about Miss Marple (although not the last book published that included her), Elephants Can Remember would be the last she wrote featuring Poirot – although Curtain was still to be posthumously published and the short story collection Poirot’s Early Cases which featured his 1920s cases that had only been published in the US was still to come. Unlike Mrs Oliver, who is still full of beans and is happy to traverse the length and breadth of the country in search of elephants (sigh), Poirot remains content to stay seated and thoughtful, and thus susceptible to Mrs O’s constant criticism that he does nothing. “”Have you done anything?” said Mrs Oliver. “I beg your pardon – have I done what?“ “Anything,” said Mrs Oliver. “What I asked you about yesterday.” “Yes, certainly, I have put things in motion. I have arranged to make certain enquiries.” “But you haven’t made them yet, “ said Mrs Oliver, who had a poor view of what the male view was of doing something.” He does, however, grandly plan a flight to Geneva – amusingly refusing Mrs Oliver’s offer to accompany him. So there is life and independence in the old dog yet.

ChurchyardAge may, however, be a reason why he’s no longer quite so well known as he used to be. When Mrs Oliver introduces Celia to Poirot her reaction isn’t what he normally would expect. “”Oh,” said Celia. She looked very doubtfully at the egg-shaped head, the monstrous moustaches and the small stature. “I think,” she said, rather doubtfully, “that I have heard of him.” Hercule Poirot stopped himself with a slight effort from saying firmly “Most people have heard of me.” It was not quite as true as it used to be because many people who had heard of Hercule Poirot and known him, were now reposing with suitable memorial stones over them, in churchyards.”

repetitionJust as a side note, you can see here in those two recent quotes from the book how Christie had become bogged down in repetition. Consider the dual use of the word “view” in the conversation with Mrs Oliver, and that of the word “doubtfully” in the conversation with Celia. Here’s a fascinating quote from the Wikipedia page about the book: “Elephants Can Remember was cited in a study done in 2009 using computer science to compare Christie’s earlier works to her later ones. The sharp drops in size of vocabulary and the increases in repeated phrases and indefinite nouns suggested that Christie may have been suffering from some form of late-onset dementia, perhaps Alzheimer’s disease.”

private detectiveThere are a few other names from the past that we catch up on in this book, primarily Superintendent Spence, who featured prominently in other Poirot stories, Taken at the Flood, Mrs McGinty’s Dead and Hallowe’en Party. Spence is solid, reliable, thoughtful and helpful; he was the original investigating officer for the case. Spence provides a good function in the story without ever being a really interesting character. Another recurring chap is Mr Goby, that odd private investigator to whom Poirot subcontracts the task of finding out about the backgrounds of various suspects over the years. Goby still cannot look anyone in the face, which is an amusing observation of an essentially shifty character. But it’s hard not to consider Goby as an easy device for providing the reader with information without having to imagine how you’d go about getting it yourself. Perfect for a Christie whose powers of imagination are beginning to wane.

BournemouthAs usual, the book contains a mixture of real and fictional locations. Poirot and Celia both live in London, Poirot, as ever, at Whitefriars Mansions (which doesn’t exist) and Celia having lived at addresses in Chelsea and off the Fulham Road, neither of which are real. The Ravenscrofts had lived at Bournemouth – undoubtedly real – but the other locations in the book, Little Saltern Minor, Chipping Bartram and Hatters Green are all fictional.

Lizzie BordenNow for the references and quotations in this book. As I mentioned earlier, Garroway refers to the case of Lizzie Borden, did she “really kill her father and mother with an axe?” She was an American woman, tried and acquitted of the murder of her parents with an axe in August 1892. Garroway also asks “who killed Charles Bravo and why?” Bravo was a British lawyer, fatally poisoned with antimony in 1876, and to this day the case remains unsolved. And Superintendent Spence refers to the Sherlock Holmes case where the parsley sank in the butter. That refers to “The Adventure of the Six Napoleons”, published in The Return of Sherlock Holmes in 1904.

Teresa of AvilaIn her recollections, Mrs Carstairs refers to St Teresa of Avila. She was a 16th century Spanish noblewoman who became a Carmelite nun. Poirot and Mrs Oliver share a quote, “qui va a la chasse perd sa place” – which basically means that when you leave a spot, a place, an object or anything you possessed at the time to do something else, you might lose it when you come back. It’s an old French saying.

KiplingPoirot says he is “like the animal or the child in one of your stores by Mr Kipling. I suffer from Insatiable Curiosity”. This is the story of the Elephant’s Child, in Kipling’s Just So Stories, published in 1902. And in conversation with Poirot, Celia quotes “and in death they were not divided”, thinking that it might come from Shakespeare. She’s wrong; normally if it’s not Shakespeare, it’s the Bible; and it’s the description of Saul and Jonathan in the first chapter of the Second Book of Samuel, verse 23. And finally, “the dog it was that died”, says Garroway, quoting from Oliver Goldsmith’s Elegy on the Death of a Mad Dog.

Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for Elephants Can Remember:

Publication Details: 1972. My copy is a Fontana Paperback, the first impression of “this continental edition”, proudly boasting the words first in paperback, published in 1973, bearing the price on the back cover of 35p. As a “continental edition” my guess is that I bought it on holiday in Spain! I’m afraid I can’t remember. The cover illustration very simply has an elephant stomping all over a revolver. Not terribly inventive!

How many pages until the first death: It’s only 9 pages until we discover the deaths that Poirot and Mrs O investigate, but there are no other deaths during the course of the narration.

Funny lines out of context:

““Nom d’un petit bonhomme!” said Hercule Poirot. “I beg your pardon, sir?” said George. “A mere ejaculation,” said Hercule Poirot.”

Memorable characters: The “elephants” that Mrs Oliver visits tend to merge into one and are not as memorable as they should be. Mrs Burton-Cox is frequently referred to as unpleasant and bossy, but Christie’s writing doesn’t really present her like that to us. Celia and Desmond are worthy more than interesting, but I did like Zelie, the old governess.

Christie the Poison expert: Nothing to see here.

Class/social issues of the time:

As Christie was writing much nearer to the present day – certainly in my lifetime (I was 12 when this book was published) perhaps any class or social issues of the time seem less distinct from our perspective. One significant use of language comes with the use of the N word in connection with the word brown to describe the colour of Mrs Oliver’s hat. It stands out today as an appalling choice of words, but fifty years ago it was much more acceptable.

Poirot still plays upon the general xenophobia/racism of the time and allows himself to “play the foreigner” to help get information. “Everyone tells everything to me sooner or later. I’m only a foreigner, you see, so it does not matter. It is easy because I am a foreigner.”

Apart from that, the strongest theme or concept in the book is that of memory; how reliable one’s memory is, particularly as one gets older – although people often find they remember stuff from their childhood very clearly but can’t remember why they walked into a room. Mrs Oliver confesses to Poirot that she can’t remember how long they have been friends: “Oh I don’t know. I can never remember what years are, what dates are. You know, I get mixed up.” Christie gives Mrs Oliver’s housekeeper Maria the same affliction: “…these here literary luncheons. That’s what you’re going to, isn’t it? Famous writers of 1973 – or whichever year it is we’ve got to now.”

It isn’t, however, credible when Christie does the same for the much younger Celia. Celia was at school when her parents died – which is a catastrophic thing to happen to a young person’s life. Yet when Mrs Oliver asks her what she remembers about her parents’ deaths, she replies: “nothing […] I wasn’t there at the time. I mean, I wasn’t in the house at the time. I can’t remember now quite where I was. I think I was at school in Switzerland, or else I was staying with a school friend during the school holidays.  You see, it’s all rather mixed up in my mind by now.” This is nonsense! I lost my father when I was 11 and I can remember every aspect of it – it’s imprinted in my brain. There’s no way Celia would be this vague, unless she was deliberately trying to be secretive (which she isn’t.)

A knock-on effect of memory loss and, indeed, ageing – such as Christie herself was facing – is a preoccupation with how one might be looked after in one’s old age. Time was when larger families would always have space and time to look after ageing family members – but that was becoming a thing of the past. Julia Carstairs is living in a “Home for the Privileged” – what we would now describe as sheltered housing. “Not quite all it’s written up to be, you know. But it has many advantages. One brings one’s own furniture and things like that, and there is a central restaurant where you can have a meal, or you can have your own things, of course.“

Mrs Matcham had a different experience. “When I was in that Home – silly name it had, Sunset House of Happiness for the Aged, something like that it was called, a year and a quarter I lived there till I couldn’t stand it no more, a nasty lot they were, saying you couldn’t have any of your own things with you. You know, everything had to belong to the Home, I don’t say as it wasn’t comfortable, but you know, I like me own things around me. My photos and my furniture. And then there was ever so nice a lady, came from a Council she did, some society or other, and she told me there was another place where they had homes of their own or something and you could take what you liked with you. And there’s ever such a nice helper as comes in every day to see if you’re all right.”

Classic denouement:  No – it’s not the kind of book to have one. However, I think Christie gives us the solution in a very charming scene, where a somewhat Deus ex Machina character arrives unexpectedly and confirms Poirot’s suspicions by telling everyone exactly what happened.

Happy ending? Certainly – the young lovers are determined to press ahead with their marriage and there’s nothing that can stop them. They’re also reunited with an old friend, with whom they can presumably now keep in contact. The old friend is also delighted to see them; but she may have ongoing concerns about whether or not she did the right thing.

Did the story ring true? You can conceivably believe that the way the double deaths occurred is credible – just about. I still think Celia’s lack of recollection is highly unlikely. What is undoubtedly believable is that those people who did remember the event all those years ago remember different – and indeed contrasting – things.

Overall satisfaction rating: It’s not that well written, most of the solution is telegraphed a mile off, and it’s rather repetitive. Yet it does retain a certain charm – I think 6/10 is fair.

Postern of FateThanks for reading my blog of Elephants Can Remember, 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 Postern of Fate, which is the last new work by Christie to feature Tommy and Tuppence, and indeed, the last new work she was to write. Again, I can remember nothing about this book, but I understand that I shouldn’t have high hopes! 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 Mule on the Motorway (1967)

Mule on the MotorwayIn which we make a welcome reacquaintance with young Bobby Thiriet, his family and friends, and the student journalists who work on the P. S. N. – the Puisay Students News. At the end of The Clue of the Black Cat, it was reported that a mule had been found running along a motorway. How did it get there, and what was it running from? Did it survive the experience? Charlie Baron of the P. S. N. thinks there could be a story in this – and he is right! What is the story of the mule who was found dodging the traffic, and if there are criminals involved, will Bobby and the gang get to the bottom of it?

The Mule on the Motorway was first published in 1967 by G. P. Rouge et Or under its original French title Le Commissaire Sinet et le mystère de l’autoroute du sud, which translates literally as Commissioner Sinet and the mystery of the southern highway, with illustrations by Gareth Floyd, a prolific children’s illustrator best known for his illustrations on BBC TV’s Jackanory programme. As “The Mule on the Motorway”, the book was first published in the UK by The Bodley Head in 1967, and translated, as usual, by John Buchanan-Brown. My own copy of the book is the first edition. It was published in the US under the more appropriate title The Mule on the Expressway. Currently I can only see one second hand copy for sale online, in Australia.

Once again we’re in the company of Bobby Thiriet and his friends, whom we met in The Clue of the Black Cat. Commissioner Sinet is still in charge of the local Puisay police, and the students at Bobby’s school still run the P. S. N. – the Puisay Students’ News. The story of the Mule on the Motorway was set up at the end of the previous book, so it’s quite a surprise that it took four years for the book to come to fruition – in the meantime Berna had been writing other books (for adults) under his pseudonym Paul Gerrard. The first chapter makes it clear that the activity of The Clue of the Black Cat wasn’t very long ago – those missing years have vanished into thin air!

As always, Berna gives a great insight into what it’s like being a member of a gang. In the previous book, it was Bobby who, although he’s the youngest in the group, is definitely the hero of the story. In this book, Bobby sits at one end of the story, with his preoccupation with looking after Quicksilver, the mule, and providing his voice in the back column of the newspaper. But at the business end of the story, Charlie Baron plays a much more prominent role as the editor of the P. S. N., generally masterminding everyone’s activities and bringing the story together under one narrative roof, so to speak. The gang mentality is always there in the background, but isn’t forced to the forefront of the story as it sometimes is with Berna. In the previous book, it was Sinet who revealed himself a little jealous no longer to be a gang member; in this book it’s Bobby’s father George. He continues to admire his sons’ activities, with just a tinge of remorse: “George Thiriet was once more discussing the activities of the boys with a sarcasm and a bitterness which cloaked his jealousy, and, no doubt, his regret at having grown too old to join in.”

Now that the Thiriets live in the Belloy Estate, there isn’t such a distinction to be made between the wealth or poverty of the characters, as there was in The Clue of the Black Cat. In fact, classes mix seamlessly in this story, with the obviously wealthy and well-to-do Colonel Brousse exercising his largesse and allowing Quicksilver to live in his stables. With Bobby almost exclusively at the stables while he’s not at school, there’s no real difference between the haves and the have-nots in this story.

Commissioner Sinet is once more in charge, initially disappointed not to have had any communication from Bobby and the guys, but the story soon makes up for that. We also meet the Gendarme Patard, whom Bobby first thinks might be a character they could poke fun at, but later plays a small but very significant part in the investigations. Later we also discover Sinet’s colleague Commissioner Charrel, an avuncular, pipe-smoking, decent sort of chap whom Sinet has briefed well about the capabilities of the gang.

It’s an excellent companion piece to The Clue of the Black Cat, which remains my favourite Berna book and in fact my favourite children’s book of all time. I like how the characters have developed from how we met them in the first book; Bobby’s love of animals continues to play a focal role in the stories, and it’s essentially another exciting thriller/whodunit, with a genuinely surprising secret that gets revealed towards the end. Plus there’s the fun of the student journos; and once again Berna sets up his next book A Truckload of Rice from a throwaway line by Charlie towards the end. With the Black Cat up front and the Truck of Rice at the back, the three books more or less make a mule sandwich!

PuisayAs with the previous story, the setting for this book is the fictional Parisien suburb of Puisay. This time, Berna has furnished us with a detailed map of the town, showing the location of the police station, the Belloy Estate and more. We can locate the riding club, M Broquin’s nursery, Patard’s home in the Rue Gaboriau, even the premises of Ariméca. He shows us the areas that are old Puisay, new Puisay and those areas scheduled for redevelopment. The district of Puisay does not stand still. However, of course, just outside Puisay Berna brings real locations into the story. Verrières-le-Buisson, for example, where Poussard discovers M. Lantoine, does exist; it’s the next-door town to Antony. Wissous, site of the Carbonato car lot, is also a real town, adjacent to Orly Airport.

I had noted that the one thing the previous book lacks is a strong female presence. Again, this book very much has the same cast of characters, and it’s still an issue. The only active female presence is Lily, and she is still rather put upon and her brother Charlie only allows her to do the typing –  very misogynistic in its approach. She’s sent out to see Broquin because he sells flowers and “flowers are girls’ things” says Belmont. Charlie is very dismissive of his sister: “Run a comb through your hair and get your make-up on!… Look at her! She looks as though she’s been pulled through a hedge backwards.” However, her role does develop during the course of the book. When she comes up trumps with suggestions for pushing the investigation forward, Charlie comments: “We’ve been making a big mistake in shutting you up in the news-room all the evening. You’re as good as Flatfoot or the three Thiriets on an outside job.” High praise indeed, he says, sarcastically.

Naturally, Berna’s writing is a joy throughout the book, but the short paragraph I enjoyed the most is when he describes the crushing procedure of the scrap metal at the site in Wissous. “The burnt-out or shattered wrecks were laid out in some sort of order, depending on their state of damage. Tractors were continually moving up and down the lines to tow away he better samples to the salvage depot which formed one end of this mournful motor show-room. Men in asbestos gloves and fibre-glass masks cut the wrecks up with blow-lamps, removing the last scrap of alloy or special steel, and leaving merely a shapeless mass of chassis or coach-work. This was then picked up by a mobile crane and dropped into the jaws of a gigantic hydraulic press, mounted on rails and dominating the landscape […] The jaws of this mechanical ogre crushed the metal with a sinister snapping sound. The mass, now reduced to two-thirds of its original size, was passed on to be squeezed still smaller in the angry hiss of the steam-press, to become first a cube, then a rectangle and finally, at the end of the process, to be thrown out like a parcel. All that remained of what had once been a gleaming, speeding car was reduced to the ridiculous dimensions of a suitcase.” There’s a sense of innocent excitement, and an admiration for the skill and ingenuity involved, at this industrial procedure that otherwise might simply be a commonplace observation. Berna can wring delight out of the simplest thing.

The other aspect of the book which strikes you so strongly today is the prevalence of smoking amongst the young people. As in Magpie Corner, it’s so alien to our minds that a children’s book should have anything involving smoking. But this is France in the 1960s, which was a very different society. In one scene, played for laughs, Sinet offers Quicksilver some Gitanes cigarettes, and the mule obliges by chomping and chewing them. In another scene Charlie offers the Gendarme Patard his last cigarette. Can you imagine today a boy offering a policeman a cigarette?

Here’s my chapter by chapter synopsis of the book. By the way, this is only the third Berna title (after Magpie Corner and Flood Warning) where the chapters don’t have individual titles. 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. Bobby Sinet and PatardBobby Thiriet arrives at the police station wanting to meet Commissioner Sinet. New policeman Patard wonders why the boy is so familiar with Sinet and the station, and Malin, “the Commissioner’s right-hand man”, explains the con trick that the Thiriets endured a few weeks before – the plot of The Clue of the Black Cat. Surprised, Patard is given a copy of the Puisay Students’ News where he reads how the case of the black cat had now come to an end. But now there is a new problem to solve – the stray mule who was “run over one December night on the motorway between Arcueil and Rungis. Where had he come from, and where was he going?”

PatardPatard is unimpressed. But Malin recommends he keeps reading future editions of the P. S. N. – and if he rubs Bobby up the wrong way, he’ll end up appearing in the paper “under a false name, but everyone in Puisay will be able to recognise Patard the policeman.” Meanwhile Sinet is disappointed that Bobby hasn’t kept in touch much recently. Sinet has a bombshell for Bobby – the mule didn’t die in the accident. However, it has been sent to the abattoir at Vaugirard, to be auctioned in a few days’ time. That’s one slaughtered mule and one story less for the P. S. N. Is there anything that can be done about it? Bobby and Sinet go into secret discussion.

The scene changes to the offices of the P. S. N. Charlie Baron is in charge; his ace investigators are Bobby’s brothers, Jacques and Laurent; Belmont is the best at doorstep interviews, Patureau – better known as Flatfoot – is the cartoonist and photographer, and Charlie’s sister Lily is the typist. Bobby arrives and tells them what Sinet said – including that, if they could get the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals to back them, they might be able to buy the mule from the slaughterhouse. Charlie’s thoughts turn to how to re-write the P. S. N. headlines – including a subscription for the rescue of the mule.

IvanhoeMeanwhile, back at the Thiriets’ apartment, George, Bobby’s father, doesn’t see how the “flimsy story” of the mule is going to be of any interest to anyone. Bobby plays with Ivanhoe, the black cat that Sinet gave him at the end of the previous book; he doesn’t agree with his father. “That mule didn’t get into the rush hour traffic from Paris all by himself. So one of two things must have happened: either someone must have wanted to get rid of him so badly that they pushed him on to the motorway and they’d have to be pretty good swine to do that, or else the mule was being ill-treated and chased by some toughs and this was the only way to escape his pursuers.” Not only that, but the mule was pulling a cart – and there’s no sign of that anywhere – where is it? Thiriet is certain that the boys shouldn’t interfere with the police and should take no further part in the investigation. But the Thiriet boys have other ideas…

Chapter Two. On the roadOn Friday morning the P. S. N. was on sale as usual. Flatfoot had come up with an excellent photo of a mule – albeit not the one in question, but who was to know? Charlie has written some purple prose to accompany the image, referring to the “beseeching, almost a reproachful, look in his dim eyes”. It’s accompanied by a demand for the readers to donate money to save “the poor orphan”. Some students planned to be generous with their contributions; others saw it as just a joke. Flatfoot does some investigating and concludes that 39% of the school are behind them all the way.

At the P. S. N. offices, Lily is in charge of receiving the cash. But the initial response is not as good as they had hoped. ““Ninety-five francs fifty,” Lily announced. “That’s not a very bright start.”” No one is waiting to make a donation. “Perhaps the chaps thought this mule on the motorway was an April Fool joke,” suggests Belmont. Charlie rounds on Flatfoot for his poor quality research. Just then, one of Bobby’s friends, Poussard, Broussepopped in with two francs, apologising for not being able to give more. This gives the others hope that they might be on the right track after all.

Just then, an unexpected visitor arrives in the form of Colonel Brousse, who runs the local stables and riding club. He makes an offer to stable the mule for free, in return for its doing some odd jobs. Charlie is overwhelmed. Brousse criticises the write-up though – the mule needs a name, and the photograph is of a Picardy donkey! He donates fifty francs and leaves. The boys suggest a number of names but in the end it is Laurent’s suggestion that wins favour – they decide to call the mule Quicksilver.

Chapter Three. QuicksilverSinet has taken responsibility for buying the mule from the auction, but the prices are rising. ““By Wednesday evening mule-on-the-hoof had risen to a thousand francs, and they were very far from having that amount of money. “Got it?” Monsieur Sinet asked the youngster, with deliberate coldness. “Only eight hundred,” Bobby answered with a tremor in his voice. “And even that’s the result of a terrific effort on our part.”” Bobby and Sinet realise there might be something suspicious in the fact that so much money is being offered for the beast. They’re 250 francs short – but a Madame Gilardoni, who runs The Society for the Welfare of Slaughter House Animals, has donated 150 francs, and Sinet himself is prepared to give a hundred “in memory of all the excitement the Black Cat gave us.” Sinet also reveals that it was he who advised Brousse about the mule, so the offer of the stabling is genuine. Sinet says they should pick a name for the mule – and when he finds out what they’re calling him, he buries his head in his hands.

The Thiriet brothers arrive at the Saint Just riding club, and meet Joel Brousse, the stable lad. He shows them the stable that’s been prepared for Quicksilver. Flatfoot arrives on his Vespa, accompanied by the Colonel, Sinet and the mule, who is distinctly skittish. “What do you think of him”, asks the Colonel. “At first Charlie and the others could not speak. They were amazed and appalled by the sheer ugliness of the beast, for it was still in its winter coat, a tangle of coarse, dull black with a coppery sheen in places. The scar from his accident had left a broad strip of bare, black skin running along his right side from shoulder to haunch. To add to it all, his groom at the slaughterhouse had shaved his mane and docked his tail, as they do to all horses before they are killed. “What a ghastly sight!” Lily sighed. “To think we took all this trouble to save that old door-mat from the knackers…””

From his teeth, two stable lads estimate the mule is nearer twenty-five years old than twenty. But he has good hoofs and shoes, and Charlie is convinced they’ll drag the mule’s secret out of him – or Bobby will, with his way with animals. In fact, Bobby spends some time with Quicksilver, giving him food, helping him settle in to his new stable. He tells the others that he and Quicksilver have had a private chat. “He doesn’t want to meet those shady characters in Puisay again; the ones who hung around offering three times what we paid for him.” This chance remark fills Charlie with optimism for good material for the P. S. N. and arouses Sinet’s suspicion that All Is Not Quite Right.

Chapter Four.Lantoine Friday’s P. S. N. is dominated by news about Quicksilver. News, opinion, maps and a back page piece by Bobby written as though by the mule himself. He confesses he has lost his memory, but guesses he was mistreated by his former master and wonders where he is hiding now. He also refers to the large sums that were surprisingly being offered for him. Quicksilver challenges the reader to solve the problem and work out what happened to him and who was his master. He also reveals that he can be visited – for free if you had contributed to his fund, or for one franc if you hadn’t.

MarkovitchQuicksilver receives twenty or thirty regular visitors, much to the delight of Colonel Brousse who expects to increase his membership as a result. Lily is also delighted at the additional income. But the investigations quickly come to a standstill. Belmont suggests they widen their search area. But then Poussard arrives with news from Verrières-le-Buisson; it might belong to M. Lantoine, the market-gardener. Lantoine told Poussard that his mule Dynamo wasn’t missing and was well-behaved; but Poussard didn’t believe him. Flatfoot leads a group of them to Lantoine’s farm on the pretence that they have to take a photograph of a mule. Lantoine lets them visit Dynamo’s stable, but warns them he can be grumpy. But true enough, there’s a mule there, who got very grumpy when they photographed him.

Meanwhile at the riding club, Brousse gets an unexpected visitor in the form of Vlado Markovitch of the Brandenburg Circus in Rotterdam, resplendent in a Tyrolean hat, looking for a mule to join the Bengal Tigers in their circus act. It sounds very unlikely – but Brousse directs him to where Quicksilver is stabled.

Chapter Five. Inspecting QuicksilverBobby has been spending all his spare time looking after Quicksilver, and already the mule is in better condition. Bobby was just chatting to him and preparing to leave for the evening when Markovitch approached him. He repeats his unlikely offer (which includes five thousand francs for the owner) which has Bobby in fits of laughter. Bobby tells Markovitch to tell Quicksilver the plan, at which “the mule suddenly shot out its neck. Its teeth snapped so close to Vlado’s ear that the Tyrolean hat flew up into the air.”

The offer obviously rejected by both boy and mule, Markovitch goes off, muttering angrily. The Colonel asks how much he offered Bobby, and deduces “I’m beginning to think that the animal’s been involved in something pretty murky.” Bobby agrees – but anything that Quicksilver has told him is staying a secret for the moment. Sinet arrives, and goes up to the stall. The Thiriet brothers are there, talking with Joel Brousse and Poussard. Meanwhile, Quicksilver enjoys chewing on Sinet’s Gitanes cigarettes.

They are all perplexed as to why people are willing to part with so much money for the mule, when he’s not worth anything like that much on the market. Sinet’s suspicion is that he was “used in some criminal activity, and that he might be recognised by someone who witnessed what happened, and that this would give the police a lead to the crooks who used him.” He thinks further: when the crooks thought the mule had died, they thought they were in the clear. But when they discover that he survived, and has been bought from the slaughterhouse, they have to do something to get him back. And Sinet’s not convinced that Lantoine has no connection with the crime either; although there’s no need to question him further at the moment. “Just leave it all to Quicksilver, or rather to Bobby.”

Chapter SixQuicksilver and the cartBrousse secures his copy of the latest P. S. N. It tells how a character (now named Igor Popovitch) has appeared at the stable wanting to buy the mule. Quicksilver’s own reminiscences are also in print (courtesy of Bobby). He says he remembers being led away by Popovitch and then being knocked down by more than one car and left to die – and when Popovitch returned to collect him, he refused to go along with his story. “I’d rather have died in the slaughterhouse than trot round the ring in front of five thousand people with a Bengal tiger perched on my back.”

That afternoon at the stable, an older boy named Langlais – one of Charlie’s enemies – comes to see Quicksilver. It turns out he knows Lantoine and Dynamo. Dynamo has a tendency to escape and cause damage, so Lantoine decided to get rid of him. Langlais is convinced Quicksilver is Dynamo. Bobby tells him to go to the P. S. N. offices, tell Charlie, and go off with Belmont to confront Lantoine.

Langlais and Belmont help the market-gardener with some work and Langlais goes to see Dynamo. He realises it’s a different mule – and Lantoine confirms this. “Every mule I’ve had for the last twenty years has been called Dynamo. This one’s the fourth in the line.” Lantoine goes on to tell the boys what happened to the previous Dynamo. “About the middle of December, some idiot came round and gave me two thousand francs for that lump of dogs’ meat. I managed to replace that horror and still have a bit over as well – this mule only cost me half that.” But who was it who bought the mule? Broquin, an ugly nurseryman from Puisay, accompanied by “a fat little man, as dark as an Indian, with a little moustache. Very well dressed, he was.” Could that be Markovitch, thinks Belmont? Lantoine agrees that Broquin paid too much for Dynamo: “[he] didn’t know the prices and he didn’t bargain for more than a few minutes. He wanted a mule and a cart in a hurry for some sort of job. I don’t know what it was. He paid me in cash and off he went. What he did next is none of my business.”

It’s agreed that Lily and Langlais should go to see Broquin.

Chapter Seven. The two investigators walk around the nursery as though they’re lovey-dovey in love. Eventually Broquin introduces himself to them and asks how he can help. They respond by asking about plants they can put on the balcony, but inside they are shocked that the man they are talking to is Broquin as he is not ugly, and nothing like the description that Lantoine gave. Broquin sadly tells them that he’s retiring soon – against his will, but there was no future in his business. But he doesn’t believe the two and asks for the real purpose of their visit. “A mule”, replies Langlais. Broquin introduces them to his mule – a little yellow tractor, that does the work far better. But when Langlais explains exactly why they are there, Broquin is offended. He denies any knowledge of the animal and escorts the pair off his property. But as they are ready to leave, Langlais spots hoof-marks on the edge of the path. The penny drops, and Langlais offers to help find out if he sold goods to someone with a mule on the day in question. “Your fellow seems to have been here with his mule and cart on the sixteenth of December last. He made four trips during the course of the afternoon to remove six tons of compost and twenty bags of fertiliser. He paid cash.” His name? Lantoine. So it’s a double bluff.

And that’s not all. The day before, another man was looking for a big load of compost. A well dressed, middle-aged gentleman. It doesn’t add up. Why “he should have considered it essential to buy a mule and cart especially for the job […] when a tipper-truck would have finished it all in one go.” They tell Broquin to start buying the P. S. N. to find out more. Broquin’s final suggestion is that “now you’ve got hold of the mule, why don’t you try to get hold of the cart?”

Chapter Eight. CartThe first decision of the day at the P. S. N. is to give a name to the mystery man who has duped by Broquin and Lantoine. Laurent suggests Slewjaw because both men said his jaw was lopsided. Then Lily comes up with the idea that the cart might have been left on a car-dump. Belmont agrees to check out the site at La Croix-de-Berny, and Jacques the place at Wissous.  When Belmont returns, he has no news – the site is a free for all, and anyone could help themselves to anything there. And there was no sign of the cart.

Jacques, however, has more luck. He’s entranced by watching the hydraulic press that crushes the metal of all the old vehicles that have been dumped there. But then he spies a little cart – “painted dark green, it had rubber tyres with wavy treads and it seemed in first-rate order.” There’s a sticky black mess at the bottom, which Jacques believes is the remains of the compost after rain. The foreman offers it to him for a hundred francs, but Jacques tells him he only has fifty. The offer is accepted, and the business concluded.

Chapter Nine. QuicksilverJacques hurtles at full speed to the stable to tell Bobby that he has found Lantoine’s cart. Bobby instantly asks him if he completely sure and Jacques feels slightly worried but is satisfied he did the right thing. They tell the Colonel, who suggests Bobby leads the mule to Wissous. Bobby is very alarmed at this – happy that he’s got the confession from Bobby that he isn’t 100% in tune with the animal, Brousse agrees to send one of his lads, Candau, with him. On the way, Candau, whose nickname is Tom Thumb, tells Bobby he thinks Quicksilver is a difficult animal, hard to predict or understand. Bobby thinks the mule is frightened taking this journey. Nevertheless, when they get to Wissous, Quicksilver seems to recognise the cart and Candau hitches it to the mule, whilst Bobby goes for a walkabout.

Bobby is shocked when he recognises someone in the office, through the window. The manager’s name is advertised as Carbonato, but it’s Markovitch! Bobby panics and tells Candau they have to get out quick. But at the exit, the foreman asks to see Bobby’s receipt again. They realise the men working there had stopped their work and were starting to surround them. “But Quicksilver had other ideas. He suddenly took the bit between his teeth, swung round in the opposite direction and tried to make his escape down a side-path beyond which nothing was to be seen. A workman sprang up in his path, waving an oxy-acetylene cutter that spat a long blue flame. Quicksilver gave a heart-rending bray and swung off, galloping still faster. The cart rocked crazily over the rutted ground. It was then Bobby realised that the mule was going through the same nightmare sequence of events as before, in the same surroundings and with the same tormentors.” When Bobby looks round and sees the workman push up his mask, he sees he has a lopsided face – it’s Slewjaw!

Meanwhile Candau is terrified because Quicksilver is out of control. Heading once again for the motorway, the mule manages to stay on his feet “and still he galloped on, twisting and turning among the speeding vehicles” but they get to the Wissous fly-over, Quicksilver slows to a walk and somehow they make their escape on the quiet road to Puisay.

Back at the stables, Candau confirms to the others that Carbonato’s men were like a bunch of rustlers and that they all had it in for the mule. Meanwhile Charlie and the gang were investigating the cart and discovered hidden away at the bottom five plastic bags containing what they think is artificial fertiliser. Later Sinet comes along and confirms that Carbonato-Markovitch and Slewjaw both have police records. And another surprise: “Among the men who scared you so badly was one of our plain-clothes squad. It was Quicksilver who wrecked everything […] We let the little fish swim around until we can catch fifty or a hundred at once. In other words there’s someone behind Markovitch and Slewjaw – the big fish. And until we can get our hands on him, we’ll never be able to solve the mystery.”

Chapter Ten. The headline on the next P. S. N. read Mule on the Motorway Again! and had a print run of 5,000 copies sold at double the usual price – fifty centimes. Flatfoot sent a copy to Carbonato Carwreckers, just for good measure. Brousse and Sinet buy their copies at exactly the same time and start reading. The Colonel asks Sinet more about their undercover officer. He deals with “industrial offences”. Puisay “has grown far more important than its neighbours from the point of view of research and technical equipment. Inevitably this modernisation has attracted a certain type of criminal to the town. Their activities are unpublicised, they work in the shadows and they seldom use violence, but they do as much damage to the economy of the country as a whole wave of recessions… Do I have to tell you who they are?” “Industrial spies?” murmured the Colonel […] “The cream of the joke,“ Sinet added, “is that our budding detectives haven’t guessed what the whole business is about, yet. The only thing that seems to matter to them is to expose the cruelty inflicted on that beast of burden they’ve taken under their wing.”

Charlie asks, through his newspaper column, for witnesses to the unloading of the compost from the cart to help trace Quicksilver’s steps; and Bobby has written another eloquent article by the mule. To the Colonel’s surprise, Sinet thinks that by following the evidence of the cart and the compost the boys are getting closer to the truth. And the first person to arrive at the P. S. N. offices as a witness is Madame Deuzy, who still gets a free copy of the paper after her help in solving the case of the Black Cat. She reports having seen the mule, with cart and man walking alongside, several times on the same day, a damp and foggy afternoon sometime in December. The boys try to work out Quicksilver’s route from a map based on what Madame Deuzy has told them. They conclude that the most likely route was along the Rue Pincevent. Other witnesses confirm this – but the trail vanishes somewhere down the Boulevard de Rungis. Charlie and Jacques get into an argument about what to do next, with Charlie caring more about his circulation and Jacques caring more about Quicksilver.

The argument is interrupted by the arrival of Patard, Sinet’s colleague. He has information for them. He lives in the Rue Gaboriau, off the Boulevard de Rungis, and saw Quicksilver trot by with his cart several times on the 16th December. Charlie offers him his last cigarette, and Patard remembers that it wasn’t more than ten minutes between seeing the mule going in one direction and coming back in the other – so the delivery point for the compost can’t be far from the Rue Gaboriau. It’s late, but Charlie needs the copy for the P. S. N. Flatfoot agrees to play the part of Quicksilver and time a journey from outside Patard’s house and see where he arrives five minutes later.

Chapter Eleven. ArimecaFlatfoot gets into character at the Rue Gaboriau as he pretends to be Quicksilver, emulating his “heavy and regular tread”. As bemused onlookers watch on, he heads towards the Boulevard, uncertain which direction he would take from there. He turns right – Charlie yells stop at the moment his stopwatch reached five minutes – and Flatfoot/Quicksilver had reached the premises of a company called Ariméca. This doesn’t seem a likely place for Quicksilver to have brought four deliveries of compost. A van approaches the building and is subjected to an intense automatic security check before being allowed in.

The boys (and Lily) have never seen such a contraption before, so Flatfoot plucks up courage to ask the security guards what it was for. They say it’s an ultra-sensitive radiation detector. And anyone or anything going in or out is subjected to the same scrutiny. Even a mule and a cart. Stunned by this comment, the guard continues: “A few months ago our Assistant Works Manager was raising a roof for some compost to go on the flower-beds round the office block. Then some nurseryman from Puisay offered him four cart-loads which were duly delivered one afternoon. This was the occasion when the portcullises at Ariméca were raised for a mule.”

The guard offers to give Flatfoot an exhibition of how Oscar, the machine, works. But once all seven of them have walked through to watch, the portcullis comes down and they are trapped. “It’s our job to hold any inquisitive people we find hanging around the gates”. “Bring them to me!” says a snarling voice via the intercom.

Chapter Twelve. However, when the gang met the two men who were waiting for them inside, the first thing Charlie notices is that they have copies of the P. S. N. on a table. The first man introduces himself to them as Commissioner Charrel; the other man is Monsieur Steven who’s in charge of security at Ariméca. They know all about the gang from conversations with Sinet. Charrel asks them what they hope to achieve with their investigations, and Jacques replies that they don’t know – and it depends on what is being manufactured at Ariméca. Steven explains: “Ariméca is a research centre financed by a dozen major organisations specialising in the production of heat-resistant metals. A few months ago a sample of tetrital was stolen from our laboratories. This is a revolutionary alloy designed for use in the manufacture of space-capsules and capable of standing up to temperatures in the region of 3000°C. Our directors were at their wits’ end. They were in danger of losing all profit from the discovery should it be prematurely revealed.”

Charrel goes on to say that the company contacted Interpol, who put Charrel on to the case. They’re satisfied that the secret hasn’t left the country, but what they are looking for is a bar, eighteen inches long, weighing about two pounds. It was stolen and replaced by a different bar, but they think the original sample may still well be hidden in the building. The date the theft was discovered? December 17th. Charrel agrees that the men at the car-dump in Wissous are under suspicion. He thinks the boss there must have been tempted when he discovered how much foreign firms would pay for the secret of a new process. But the company hasn’t acted so far because they are waiting for the big fish to show up – whoever it is who would be willing to pay a lot for the bar. Lily suggests the bar could be hidden in the earth of some hydrangeas – an idea that Steven rejects. Charlie asks if he can name Ariméca in his articles – but Steven says if he tries that, he’ll bring an injunction on the printing works.

Chapter Thirteen. Langlais and the Colonel come to meet Bobby at the stable. He tells Bobby of the developments in light of the visit to Ariméca. Bobby listens quietly and impassively. In the end he says that nothing “won’t stop me believing that Quicksilver really did get out of the factory with the sample of that wonderful metal.” So why are Carbonato and Slewjaw so intent on getting the mule back? Maybe there’s something still in the cart? A thorough inspection reveals nothing. What about the bags of fertiliser? The club gardener took them. Bobby and Langlais inspect them closely and one bag is heavier – but it only reveals four horseshoes. Old ones of Quicksilver, maybe? So what shoes is he wearing now? The penny drops. Quicksilver is wearing shoes made of tetrital! Slewjaw must have substituted the shoes, and when the mule was outside the premises of Ariméca, they tried to get them off him, but frightened the mule so he did a bolt.

Langlais has another surprise. He remembers the description Broquin gave of the well-dressed man who asked him if he had compost for sale. He recognised that description in someone he’d seen very recently – Monsieur Steven! There’s no proof that Steven is wrapped up in this; but they decide to tell Sinet, who’ll tell Charrel. And Brousse has a plan, to lay a trap “with Quicksilver playing the part of the tethered goat.”

Chapter Fourteen. Who owns this muleThe next P. S. N. sells out rapidly. Charlie has written a great spread which includes a reconstruction of Quicksilver’s journey, the evidence of Mme Deuzy and Gendarme Patard (here renamed Tapard) and also the fact that a major part of the story remains censored. And Bobby’s column for Quicksilver shows that the mule wants to move on and leave his sorry past behind him. He recounts the way he passes his time every day, and adds that Bobby is going to get him a new set of shoes. Carbonato is not going to receive a free copy of this edition! Tom Thumb wonders how much Quicksilver’s shoes might be worth – Bobby suggests ten or fifteen million, making the mule more valuable than any Derby winner.

They put the bridle on Quicksilver and begin a walk into Puisay to visit the blacksmith, Monsieur Taupin. If Carbonato and his men want to kidnap him, Charrel’s watchdogs will be there to prevent it. Quicksilver started to get anxious as he sensed the motorway was near, but they reach the blacksmith’s yard and M Taupin starts work. The blacksmith is not impressed with Quicksilver’s old shoes – “it’s not even iron! Why,  your mule could have broken his neck twenty times over on his way here. You try running barefoot on gravel and you’ll discover what it feels like.”

Whilst Candau and Taupin have a beer together in the forge, Bobby and Quicksilver wait outside. Then four men come into the yard. Carbonato and Slewjaw, and two others. “Who owns this mule?” asks one. “I’ve never seen you before,” said Bobby with a nasty smile, “but someone was talking about you only yesterday evening. You’re Monsieur Steven, and you’ve come to grab the precious fragments of tetrital stolen from Ariméca… For your private account?” Steven is furious, but at that point Taupin appears. Carbonato offers to buy the shoes that have been removed from Quicksilver but Taupin says they are already sold. “Who to?” And Commissioner Charrel appears, with the four horseshoes tied together. Steven and the other men try to make their escape and walk straight into the hands of Sinet.

Sinet has a plan for Quicksilver’s retirement, working at a Wild West Club in Chantilly “where anyone from Paris who wants to play at cowboys can let off steam.” The last P. S. N. to wrap up the story of the mule on the motorway has to be written quickly so a new issue can be printed the next day. Sinet tells Bobby that his success in solving this case means he’ll almost certainly get promotion, and Bobby is delighted for him.

And what next for Bobby and the gang, the P. S. N. and the local police? A story concerning a goldfish? “The new chemist in the Avenue de Paris has been giving one away to all his customers.” There must be a story in that!

 

A Truckload of RiceTo sum up; A very satisfying, amusing and readable book with entertaining characters and a surprisingly inventive story with a great surprise ending. And, again, the story sets another book up featuring Bobby and the gang, this time involving the goldfish. 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 results from Charlie’s suggestion that next time Bobby becomes involved in an intrigue surrounding a goldfish, Le Commissaire Sinet et le mystère des poissons rouges, translated into English as A Truckload of Rice. I look forward to re-reading it and sharing my thoughts about it in a few weeks.

The Points of View Challenge – Warm River – Erskine Caldwell

Erskine CaldwellErskine Caldwell (1903 – 1987)

American novelist (Tobacco Road, God’s Little Acre) and short story writer.

Warm River, first published in the collection We are the Living, in 1933

Available to read online here

This is the second of four stories in the volume Points of View to be given the style classification by Moffett and McElheny of Detached Autobiography. Here’s the part of their introduction that specifically refers to this story: “The other story, which is about a change in emotional perspective, is told from the newly learned point of view. By one means or another, but ultimately always by the passage of time, the speaker has arrived at the understanding of his experience he must have in order to discuss it with a neutral, watchful audience.”

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

 

Warm River

 

We Are The LivingOur narrator, Richard, crosses a rickety bridge over a warm river to reach the house of Gretchen, her father and her two sisters. At this point we don’t know why he’s visiting them. They’re obviously both very excited to be seeing each other, and his visit was clearly expected. Richard and Gretchen spend a long time looking at each other, not finding the right words to say. Later, Richard asks her father why it is that he has settled in this romantic location in the mountains. He says he and his late wife were born there, and lived there for twenty years, and by living there he still feels close to her and can still carry on loving her, even though she’s no longer there.

Stunned by this simple revelation of true love, Richard finds himself questioning his own reason for being there. Does he love Gretchen? He admits to himself that he can’t really say that he does, although he understands that she loves him ardently. She tries to get him to say he loves her, at least just a little – but he cannot.

They sleep separately, Gretchen promising to wake Richard in good time to get his morning train. But Richard cannot sleep. He smokes and frets. Eventually he opens his bedroom door and looks towards hers, only to find that she too is not asleep, but kneeling on her rug, crying. He is struck by how beautiful she is. Come morning, she is rushing around to get his breakfast before he leaves; but he has a fresh understanding of his emotions. “Gretchen […] don’t hurry to get me off – I’m not going back this morning – I don’t know what was the matter with me last night – I know now that I love you”. The story ends with his asking her to show him the way down to the river; “I have got to go down there right away and feel the water with my hands.”

This is a deceptively soft, slight, gentle tale which reveals much more on a second reading. At first it appears to be the story of a rather naïve and tentative chap who’s been invited in by a prospective girlfriend to meet the family, uncertain of his emotions towards the young lady, but which grow stronger and more certain as he sees more of her. However, you can also read it as though he knows exactly what he wants from that naughty night away – in fact both of them do, and it’s only when Richard can spend his time alone no more that he gets up, “stiff and erect” (Caldwell’s words, not mine) and voyeuristically spies on Gretchen. And it’s only then that he realises she’s worth more than just a one night stand.

The sensuality of everything to do with the warm river, that Richard initially fears to cross but later desperately wants to wash over his hands, reeks of sexual symbolism. Caldwell’s writing feels a little heavy-handed to me, with its constant references to the countryside, the mountains, the river, deliberately daubing the romanticism onto the canvass. I think it’s a clever tale, but I didn’t like it that much. It’s a well-regarded short story but I don’t think it would attract me to reading more of his works.

The next story in the anthology is the third of the detached autobiography stories, The Use of Force by William Carlos Williams, an author whom I think of more as a poet than a short story writer. I will be interested to see what his short story skills are like!

The George Orwell Challenge – Bookshop Memories (1936)

Bookshop MemoriesI rather wish I had read this essay Bookshop Memories, which first appeared in the November 1936 issue of Fortnightly magazine, before I had read and written about Orwell’s novel Keep the Aspidistra Flying. As usual, he used his own experiences to help him write both novels and essays, and his time working in the Booklover’s Corner bookshop in Hampstead in 1934 really informed his characterisation of Aspidistra’s anti-hero Gordon Comstock. I felt, as I was reading that novel, that Comstock really was Orwell himself, only vaguely hidden. And now that I have read his own personal account of working in a second-hand bookshop, I have no doubt that’s the case.

It’s a short and simple account of his observations about what it is like to work in a second-hand bookshop. He offers us all sorts of opinions, regarding the clientele, what sells well (and what doesn’t), the sensory overload of being surrounded by tens of thousands of books, to how it changes your own opinion about books. Having myself been a second-hand book trader (although online, not in a shop) I can recognise some truths in his writing that are as accurate today as they were in the 1930s.

Old BooksThat overwhelming sense, for instance, of being surrounded by centuries of writing, of decaying paper and musty dust. “Books give off more and nastier dust than any other class of objects yet invented, and the top of a book is the place where every bluebottle prefers to die.” How true. Orwell claims that he would never have wanted to be a full-time bookseller because “while I was in it I lost my love of books. A bookseller has to tell lies about books, and that gives him a distaste for them; still worse is the fact that he is constantly dusting them and hauling them to and fro.” I also think there’s a lot of truth in that; and whilst I hope I never lied about the books I had for sale, I did have to dissect them scientifically in my descriptions, highlighting all the faults within a particular copy – there’s nothing worse than a disappointed book-buyer – and by doing so you miss out on conveying the magic of the thing. Certainly when I was a bookseller I was not a book-reader.

But I was still shocked by Orwell’s criticisms and sheer judginess of the customers in the shop – and it’s exactly the same snobbery and cynicism that colours the character of Gordon Comstock, which makes him so thoroughly unlikeable. It’s the first topic that Orwell takes in this essay – the kind of people who, you suspect, made every day in the shop a misery for him. If it’s not “first edition snobs”, it’s “oriental students haggling over cheap textbooks”, “the decayed person smelling of old breadcrusts”, “unmistakable paranoiacs”, “certifiable lunatics”, or “wistful spinsters and the fat wives of tobacconists”. He is so judgmental about the customers! To him they are nothing but “pests”. He definitely wasn’t created for retail work.

Ethel M Dell The Way of an EagleRather like Comstock, he is dismayed that the number one author with the library subscribers was neither Priestley, Hemingway, Walpole nor Wodehouse, but Ethel M Dell, a fairly prolific writer of romances whom the critics hated but her readers loved. The snob in Orwell gets no pleasure out of giving the people what they want, because it’s not what he thinks they should want. He’s very certain about what he thinks people should read: “Modern books for children are rather horrible things, especially when you see them in the mass. Personally I would sooner give a child a copy of Petronius Arbiter than Peter Pan, but even Barrie seems manly and wholesome compared with some of his later imitators.” The use of the phrase “manly and wholesome” seems very revealing to me – particularly when you consider how Comstock despised the artistic young man to whom he referred as Nancy in Keep the Aspidistra Flying.

old-swedish-stampsThere are some general observations about life in the bookshop that, whilst still being judgmental, are perhaps not quite so offensive. He notes that they sold used stamps to stamp collectors, whom he describes as “a strange, silent, fish-like breed, of all ages, but only of the male sex; women, apparently, fail to see the peculiar charm of gumming bits of coloured paper into albums.” Whilst personally I wouldn’t call all stamp collectors strange, silent and fish-like, I have to say I’ve never met a female stamp collector, but I’m sure there must be some! I think it’s something that gets introduced to boys whilst girls are happily doing something else, and time never catches up with them.

Old Christmas CardIt’s also interesting to see that the shop made good business from the sale of Christmas Cards, although they only spent “a feverish ten days” on sale, whereas today they’d be there for at least two months. “It used to interest me to see the brutal cynicism with which Christian sentiment is exploited.” Some things never change, but just get worse. There’s also the very interesting observation that “in a lending library you see people’s real tastes, not their pretended ones” – and the authors that one borrows are very different from the authors that one buys.

“It is simply useless to put Dickens, Thackeray, Jane Austen, Trollope, etc into the ordinary lending library; nobody takes them out. At the mere sight of a nineteenth-century novel people say. “Oh but that’s old!” and shy away immediately. Yet it is always fairly easy to sell Dickens, just as it is always easy to sell Shakespeare. Dickens is one of those authors whom people are “always meaning to” read, and, like the Bible, he is widely known at second hand.”

Charles DickensI’m not sure that Dickens has stayed that popular 85 years later; although, yes, there are a number of Dickens that I haven’t read, and I’ve always meant to! He notes the growing unpopularity of American books – that’s a trend that’s certainly changed over the years; and the unpopularity of short stories. I’m no expert, but I sense that might still be the case.

So this a curious essay in some respects. Very personal, and one presumes Orwell is being scrupulously honest with his reader. His bookshop snobbery is quite jarring, but his factual observations about what sells and what doesn’t are fascinating. It’s written in a chatty, conversational style, that’s perhaps different from any of his previous essays which were more detached and serious in both style and content. George OrwellA very interesting accompanying piece to Keep the Aspidistra Flying!

Next in my George Orwell Challenge, and still with the essay format, is In Defence of the Novel, first published in the New English Weekly in two instalments November 1936. I look forward to reading it soon and I hope you read it too!