The Agatha Christie Challenge – Crooked House (1949)

Crooked HouseIn which Sophie Leonides decides she can’t marry Charles until the identity of her grandfather’s murderer is discovered. By chance, Charles’ father is the Assistant Commissioner of Scotland Yard, who agrees with Chief Inspector Taverner that Charles can sit in on the investigations as his unique position of trust, bridging the gap between the family and the police, could be useful. The Assistant Commissioner has worked it all out before anyone else – but he doesn’t uncover the murderer. As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I promise not to tell you whodunit!

There was a crooked manThe book bears no dedication, but it begins with a foreword: “This book is one of my own special favourites. I saved it up for years, thinking about it, working it out, saying to myself: ”One day, when I’ve plenty of time, and want to really enjoy myself – I’ll begin it!” I should say that of one’s output, five books are work to one that is real pleasure. Crooked House was pure pleasure. I often wonder whether people who read a book can know if it has been hard work or a pleasure to write? Again and again someone says to me: “how you must have enjoyed writing so and so!” This about a book that obstinately refused to come out the way you wished, whose characters are sticky, the plot needlessly involved, and the dialogue stilted – or so you think yourself. But perhaps the author isn’t the best judge of his or her own work. However, practically everybody has like Crooked House, so I am justified in my own belief that it is one of my best. I don’t know what put the Leonides family into my head – they just came. Then, like Topsy, “they growed”. I feel that I myself was only their scribe.”

BravoCrooked House was first published in a condensed version in the US in the October 1948 edition of Cosmopolitan magazine, and in the UK it was first serialised in seven abridged instalments in John Bull Magazine from April to June 1949. The full book was first published in the US by Dodd, Mead & Co in March 1949, and in the UK on 23rd May of that year by Collins Crime Club. Not only was it one of Christie’s favourites to write, but it has always enjoyed excellent critical acclaim as being one of her best.

cricket grass fieldI can remember sitting on a grassy lawn at the age of about 12, when I should probably have been watching my house team bat in the weekly cricket match, but couldn’t be arsed as the saying now goes, because I was engrossed in Crooked House and I desperately wanted to finish it. I made the classic mistake of checking ahead to see how many pages were left, and, in this book, gentle reader, if you do that, it is impossible not to discover whodunit. So if you haven’t yet read it, don’t be tempted to flip to the back pages for whatever reason. You’ll only spoil it for yourself.

Old ManThe title, of course, is one of many of Christie’s works that was inspired by a nursery rhyme – there was a crooked man, who etc, etc, and they all lived together in a little crooked house. To be fair, the house itself doesn’t play that strong a part in the story, but there are other reasons why it is an extremely appropriate title. There’s no Poirot or Miss Marple in this book to come and solve the crime, and the detective team from Scotland Yard are introduced in a very casual manner. The book is narrated by Charles, so it’s all written in the first person, and Charles never actually introduces himself to us. It’s simple and stylish, broken into straightforward chapters with no chapter headings, no subdivisions, and nothing to get in the way of the flow of story-telling. Charles’ father, the Assistant Commissioner, is only ever referred to as “the Old Man”, because that’s how Charles thinks of him – we only discover his real name is “Sir Arthur” on page 73. It is Taverner who oversees the case, and a thorough, decent kind of a chap he is too. Charles describes him in the narrative as “solid, dependable, and with an air of businesslike promptitude that was somehow soothing”.

VainBut it’s to Sir Arthur that we look for a new perspective on the art of murder in this book. Time and time again we’ve read Poirot banging on about psychology and all that. Sir Arthur would no doubt agree with Poirot’s opinions, but he has some of his own, too. “What are murderers like? Some of them […] have been thoroughly nice chaps […] Murder, you see, is an amateur crime […] One feels, very often, as though these nice ordinary chaps had been overtaken, as it were, by murder, almost accidentally. They’ve been in a tight place, or they’ve wanted something very badly, money or a woman – and they’ve killed to get it. The brake that operates with most of us doesn’t operate with them […] Some people, I suspect, remain morally immature. They continue to be aware that murder is wrong, but they do not feel it. I don’t think, in my experience, that any murderer has really felt remorse… And that, perhaps, is the mark of Cain. Murderers are set apart, they are ‘different’ – murder is wrong – but not for them – for them it is necessary – the victim has ‘asked for it’, it was ‘the only way’ […] Is there a common denominator? I wonder. You know […] if there is, I should be inclined to say it is vanity […] I’ve never met a murderer who wasn’t vain… it’s their vanity that leads to their undoing, nine times out of ten. They may be frightened of being caught, but they can’t help strutting and boasting and usually they’re sure they’ve been far too clever to be caught […] and here’s another thing, a murder wants to talk […] having committed a murder puts you in a position of great loneliness. You’d like to tell somebody all about it – and you never can. And that makes you want to all the more. And so – if you can’t talk about how you did it, you can at least talk about the murder itself – discuss it, advance theories – go over it.” Very wise words there, from the Old Man. I think it as at this point in the book that he has already concluded that he knows whodunnit. If you carefully read and analyse his thoughts, you realise there are a lot of clues there.

Clothing CouponsThere are a few interesting themes in this book, mainly involving surviving everyday life in post-war Britain, which I’ll take a look at later. Otherwise, this is very much a plot-driven book, starting with the murder to be solved virtually right from the very beginning of the book, and working backwards, rather than working towards a murder – which may be chronologically more sensible but is often less fun.

IzmirAs usual, there are a few references to check out, starting with the locations. The book is set in the village/suburb of Swinly Dean, which is close enough to London to warrant a Scotland Yard investigation rather than a local constabulary. There is no such place, but there is Swinley Forest, which covers quite a large area south of Windsor into north Surrey, so that would be appropriate for a country location still close to London. When Josephine is rushed to hospital, she is taken to Market Basing General Hospital, and Market Basing is the setting for Dumb Witness, and is also where the police are based who investigate The Secret of Chimneys; Basingstoke seems the likely real-life equivalent. Not many other locations are mentioned; Aristide Leonides is often mentioned as coming from Smyrna, which since 1930 has been better known as Izmir, in Turkey.

Athene SeylerAs for the other references, there are a number of people mentioned in this book whose identity I needed to clarify. Magda’s first appearance reminds Charles of Athene Seyler, an English actress best known for playing Lady Bracknell in The Importance of Being Earnest and one of the murderous spinsters in Arsenic and Old Lace. Athene Seyler would have been 60 years old when this book appeared; she lived on to the ripe old age of 101. Taverner admires a portrait of Aristide Leonides in the house that was painted by Augustus John. Another notable British artist, he was a major post-Impressionist who specialised in portraits. He died in 1961 aged 83.

Constance KentWhen Sir Arthur is waxing lyrical on the nature of murderers, he brings to mind “Constance Kent, everybody said, was very fond of the baby brother she killed.” Kent was a fascinating murderer, who, at the age of 16 murdered her 4-year-old brother – this was in 1860. Investigating was the famous Inspector Whicher but public opinion demanded that Kent be released because he was working class and she was not – such a bizarre situation. She was eventually found guilty, and went to prison until she was 41. Later she emigrated to Australia and died in Sydney at the age of 100. She was still alive when this book was published.

Brains TrustMagda describes Leonides reading out his will to the assembled family as “rather like the Voysey Inheritance”, which is a rather grand play from 1905 by Harley Granville-Barker. Even I can just about remember The Brains Trust, which Josephine says she listens to. This was a popular radio show where a panel tried to answer difficult questions from the audience. A bit like Question Time without the Gammon. Sir Arthur describes the late Mrs Leonides’ as being “the daughter of a country squire – an M. F. H.” I’d never heard of an MFH before and I think it does me credit. It’s a Master of Foxhounds.

PoundI’m sure you remember that I like to research the present-day value of any significant sums of money mentioned in Christie’s books, just to get a more realistic feel for the amounts in question. Money has a very high place in this book, and the sums that are mentioned are somewhat mind-blowing. Leonides had apparently left his wife £100,000 in his will, bestowed an allowance of £150,000 on his son Roger, and the total value of his will was £1m. The equivalent of those three sums at today’s value would be £2.5 million, £3.75 million and £25 million. We’re not talking chicken-feed here.

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

Publication Details: 1949. Fontana paperback, 14th impression, published in December 1974, price 35p. The cover illustration by Tom Adams probably gives away more of the plot and whodunit than is decent, so I’ll say no more apart from the fact that I can’t offhand particularly see the relevance of the bottle of pills.

How many pages until the first death: 4. That might be just about as immediate a death as Christie gives us in all her works. Certainly it lends an air of urgency and purpose to all the investigations that follow.

Funny lines out of context: Part of a description of where all the family members are gathered at an important meeting: “Roger was astride a big pouffe by the fireplace.”

Memorable characters:

Not certain whether he counts as memorable, but I rather like Charles the narrator. He has an elegant air about him, full of uncertainties and misgivings, thrust into some uncomfortable situations that he never sought. Magda is an amusing grande dame of the theatre; Josephine is an irksome, precocious child; and the biggest character of all, Aristide Leonides, is already dead.

Christie the Poison expert:

Two of the deaths in the book involve poison, and the first is a rather unusual choice by Christie, eserine. Today better known as physostigmine, it would have been a relatively recent commodity at the time the book was written, as it was first synthesised in 1935 and is primarily used in the treatment of glaucoma. It is the active ingredient in the West African Calabar Bean.

The other death is from the more common digitalin, which was also the fatal ingredient in Appointment with Death, derived from the common foxglove.

Class/social issues of the time:

Most of Christie’s usual themes don’t seem to surface here very much, although there is one racial slur when the elderly Edith de Haviland refers to Aristide’s wife as “a dago” and an “ugly common little foreigner”. Apart from that, the book is another that gives a good insight into how people were surviving after the war. Magda slyly acquires clothes coupons on the black market in order to continue to indulge her lavish fashion lifestyle – but it’s a struggle (and illegal). One of the reasons the family looks down on Laurence Brown is because he was a “wretched conscientious objector”, and he goes on to explain why he took that path: “what if I was afraid? Afraid I’d make a mess of it. Afraid that when I had to pull a trigger – I mightn’t be able to bring myself to do it. How can you be sure it’s a Nazi you’re going to kill? It might be some decent lad – some village boy – with no political leanings, just called up for his country’s service. I believe war is wrong, do you understand? I believe it is wrong.” I’m sure that would have been a relatively unpopular opinion at the time.

Worrying political intrigue of the day is also shown by Nannie’s opinion of who killed Leonides. “I didn’t say it was a burglar, Miss Sophia. I only said all the doors were open. Anyone could have got in. If you ask me it was the Communists […] everyone says that they’re at the bottom of everything thing that goes on. But if it wasn’t the Communists, mark my word, it was the Catholics. The Scarlet Woman of Babylon, that’s what they are.” Nannie is a prime example of the kind of person of whom one could say “a little knowledge is a dangerous thing”. Nannie, clearly, doesn’t hold with Catholicism; Charles describes her as “a good old Black Protestant”.

There’s a very good scene where the family members discover that most of them have been disinherited by the late Mr Leonides and their acceptance and/or fury at the discovery is described in a satisfying long examination of how the love of money can damage relationships. At a time when money was, generally, scarce, having such a large windfall whipped away from under your nose would be – shall we say – a trying experience. Manners are also becoming a thing of the past; the episode of The Brains Trust that Josephine listened to, concluded that “nobody’s a lady nowadays […] the said it was ob-so-lete.”

Classic denouement: No, but it’s a uniquely exciting ending, involving a car crash and the surprise revelation of exactly what’s gone on by reading a couple of written testaments that had been prepared a long time in advance.

Happy ending? Apart from the fact that the family suffers a surprise bereavement at the end, it’s a relatively happy ending in that a planned wedding can go ahead, and there’s a definite Happy Ever After sense to the last page.

Did the story ring true? It is, perhaps, a little surprising that a written confession hadn’t been discovered by some police search; but, that aside, the murderer’s M.O. seems perfectly reasonable and this isn’t one of Christie’s stories that is riddled with unlikely coincidences.

Overall satisfaction rating: Along with other popular opinion, I can see no reason not to award this book the coveted 10/10!

Three Blind MiceThanks for reading my blog of Crooked House 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 an oddity. I’ve been working through Christie’s oeuvre in the order in which it was published in the UK. But there was one short story that was published in the US in 1950 that was never published in the UK during Christie’s lifetime. In many ways it is one of her more significant stories, and I think now is the time to include it in this assessment of her works. It’s Three Blind Mice, which became the source for the ultra-successful play The Mousetrap. The other short stories in the collection were all printed later in the UK, so I’ll ignore the rest of them for the moment, but just concentrate on that one famous story. 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 – Taken at the Flood (1948)

Taken at the FloodIn which young widow Rosaleen Cloade becomes a very wealthy widow a second time, much to the annoyance of the rest of her late husband Gordon’s family, who were counting on his generosity to keep them in the manner to which they have been accustomed. If only they could prove that her late first husband Underhay is still alive, once again they would be rich. But is he alive? Will this cause Rosaleen and her brother David to be blackmailed? And will there be murders for Hercule Poirot to solve? As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I promise not to tell you whodunit!

Brutus - sculptureThe book bears no dedication, but it does begin with an epigraph: “There is a tide in the affairs of men, Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune; Omitted, all the voyage of their life Is bound in shallows and in miseries. On such a full sea are we now afloat, And we must take the current when it serves, Or lose our ventures.” This is a quotation from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, a line spoken by Brutus as a justification for his complicity in betrayal and plotting. Unlike most of Christie’s other books to date, Taken at the Flood was not serialised in either the UK or the US before its publication in novel format. It was first published in the US by Dodd, Mead & Co in March 1948 under the title There is a Tide, and in the UK in November of that year by Collins Crime Club, as Taken at the Flood.

Radio 4 Book at BedtimeI remember hearing a BBC radio adaptation of this book as “Book at Bedtime” on Radio 4, way back in the 1970s; I recorded it onto cassette so that I could listen to it at a more “awake” time. Oddly, although I could remember some of the character names, I couldn’t recall anything about the story and certainly not whodunit. And when I started to re-read this book, I found it strangely confusing. There are several sets of Mr and Mrs Cloade, and after a while they start to become hard to differentiate in your head. Christie also uses the convention of calling the married women both by their formal names (i.e. Mrs Lionel Cloade) and by their own names (Katherine Cloade) and by their family names (Aunt Kathie) – in that example, all three names are used to describe the same woman. If you’re not paying attention you can get horribly lost.

Wade through mudBut I don’t think it’s only the names that confuse. I never really felt that Christie provided a strong, identifiable description of many of the main characters, so that many of the introductory chapters feel ploddy, wading though mud, almost. It took me many attempts to keep reading. After about sixty pages, the mood and the style cheer up and suddenly the book becomes interesting. But it’s a distinctly slow start.

PoirotDisappointingly, although we continue our acquaintance with Hercule Poirot that we have maintained over the last few books, we really learn absolutely nothing new about him in this book. All his attributes and quirks have been seen before, so, character-wise, we’re very much treading water in this book. Similarly, we also meet Superintendent Spence for the first time, and I’m afraid he’s not very interesting, just a workaday character designed to ask questions to keep the plot ticking over rather than sparkling. We’ll meet him again in Mrs McGinty’s Dead – and I hope he’s more inspirational there! Fortunately, when it gets going, the story itself is very intricate and enjoyable, so it’s worth sticking with it.

blitzUnusually, Christie is very precise with her time-setting for this book. The opening scene, where Poirot overhears an old duffer reminisce in his gentlemen’s club, is specifically set in Autumn 1944; the rest of the book takes place in late Spring, 1946. The first part of the story recalls an episode that happened during an air-raid over London. The innocent deaths of an entire family wiped out in the Blitz was a matter of recent memory for Christie’s readers; an easily relatable tragedy that many people with which many people would be familiar.

WrensThe remainder takes place in the aftermath of the War. It’s an atmosphere of discontent; the initial relief and happiness that the War is over is now long gone, and the realities of life are sinking in. Lynn, the late Gordon Cloade’s niece, who has returned to London after being a Wren on active service, notes that hate is everywhere. “I’ve noticed it ever since I got home. It’s the aftermath war has left. Ill will. Ill feeling. It’s everywhere. On railways and buses and in shops and amongst workers and clerks and even agricultural labourers. An I suppose in mines and factories. Ill will.” In a later conversation with will-she won’t-she fiancé Rowley Cloade, she explains her absence through the daily routines everyone must now endure. “It’s all the chores – you know. Running round with a basket, waiting for fish and queueing up for a bit of quite disgusting cake.” David Hunter is a prime example of a type of character who might be well recognised by the first readers of this book – a further look at his character will follow later in this blog.

Campden HillAs usual, there are a few references to check out. Firstly, let’s look at the locations, to see how real or imaginary they are. The book opens with a scene at the Coronation Club, where Major Porter is the “club bore”. “Coronation Club” is actually a very common name for clubs of all sorts, all around the English-speaking world; but there is no such gentleman’s club in London. The air-raid on the Cloade house took place at Campden Hill, which is a real address in Holland Park, London; and Rosaleen and David’s London flat is found at Shepherds Court, Mayfair which is very nearly a real address too (there’s Shepherd Court and Shepherd Market). The rest of the story takes place at the “small old-world village” of Warmsley Vale. Despite the details of its being three miles from the golf course and 28 miles from London, there is no such village, nor, of course, is there an Oastshire – although I guess we may presume that’s Kent.

Enoch ArdenAs for the other references, I remembered the character Enoch Arden from my school days; when I heard that radio adaptation as a teenager, we had been studying Tennyson, so it clicked in my brain. Enoch Arden is the hero of Tennyson’s eponymous poem; a man who was shipwrecked for ten years but escapes home only to find that his wife has happily remarried, and he never reveals his identity to her. It’s a very appropriate nom-de-plume for the returning Underhay (Rosaleen’s first husband – if that is indeed who he is). Frances Cloade recollects that Jeremy had “all those Stanley Weymans in his bedroom”. I’d never heard of Weyman – in fact he was a very successful writer of romance novels during the late Victorian/Edwardian era. He died in 1928.

Christina RossettiThere are a couple of quotations that I thought I should investigate. When Lynn is considering whether she still loves Rowley, a line of poetry comes to mind: “Life and the world and mine own self are changed”.  This is from Christina Rossetti’s poem, Mirage, published in 1879. And Rowley quotes: “Just the man she left behind her”; however, I can find no link to what this may have been taken from. It sounds like an old Music Hall song to me. Any ideas, gentle reader?

PoundI’m sure you remember that I like to research the present-day value of any significant sums of money mentioned in Christie’s books, just to get a more realistic feel for the amounts in question. Money is an important theme in this book. We quickly learn that Gordon Cloade’s fortune amassed to more than £1 million. Taking the date for this estimate as 1944 – which is when Christie stipulates the first part of the story took place – that would be a current value of over £31 million, which sure is some inheritance. Adela Marchmont asks Rosaleen for £500 to help her out of some domestic difficulties – that’s about £15,000 at today’s rates. When Frances Cloade asks for a gift of £10,000, she gets short shrift back from David. Not surprisingly really, as that sum is worth almost £300,000 today.

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

Publication Details: 1948.  Fontana paperback, 6th impression, published in March 1973, price 30p.  The vivid cover illustration by Tom Adams depicts a house bombed during the war, with the redness of fire permeating the whole design. There’s also a luscious pair of lips having red lipstick applied to them, and I’ve got no idea where that fits into the story!

How many pages until the first death: 81. One of the reasons the book seems slow and ponderous to start is that there’s no death to investigate. However, to be fair to Christie, she does make up for it later in the book with more deaths and clever plotting. Nothing is quite what it seems in this book.

Funny lines out of context: Christie recounts how Frances Cloade, as a child, had played with a visiting bailiff, which must have been awkward: “She had found the bum in question very agreeable to play with.”

Memorable characters:

For me, the Cloade family members are rather indistinguishable, apart from the Madame Arcati-like Katherine, and the country bumpkin-like Rowley. By far the most interesting character is David Hunter, who scrounges off his sister’s inheritance, and exudes arrogance wherever he goes. Superintendent Spence says he knows Hunter’s type. “It’s a type that’s done well during the war. Any amount of physical courage. Audacity and a reckless disregard of personal safety. The sort that will face any odds. It’s the kind that is likely to win the V.C. – though, mind you, it’s often a posthumous one. Yes, in wartime, a man like that is a hero. But in peace – well, in peace such men usually end up in prison. They like excitement and they can’t run straight, and they don’t give a damn for society – and finally they’ve no regard for human life.”

Christie the Poison expert:

Only one of the deaths in the book involves poison; one of the characters dies through morphine administration, called Morphia in the book. But Christie doesn’t go into any great detail on the subject.

Class/social issues of the time:

Unusually, there’s only issue I can identify – but it features in a big way – and that’s xenophobia and mistrust of foreigners. When Major Porter looks up from his reminiscences and sees the very exotic appearance of Hercule Poirot in front of him, his first thought is “foreign, of course. That explained the shoes. “Really,” thought Major Porter, “what’s the club coming to? Can’t get away from foreigners even here.””

But there’s worse to come. Christie needed a witness character for a scene later in the book and she created the redoubtable and absolutely horrible Mrs Leadbetter. ““You’re a foreigner”, she says to Poirot. “Yes,” replied Hercule Poirot. “In my opinion,” said the old lady, “you should all Go Back.” “Go back where?” inquired Poirot. “To where you came from,” said the old lady firmly. She added as a kind of rider, sotto voce: “Foreigners!” and snorted.” She’s a typical racist. She goes on to say that “that’s what we fought the war for” – how many times have you heard that old chestnut?

Later she goes on to criticise what she sees as the governmental error of “sending the mothers to work in factories. Only let ‘em off if they’ve got young children. Young children, stuff and nonsense! Anyone can look after a baby! A baby doesn’t go running round after soldiers. Girls from fourteen to eighteen, they’re the ones that need looking after!” Mrs Leadbetter clearly doesn’t have much time for the young women of her era. It gets worse; and I apologise for the use of language but when you see it written down it really does stress how out of place her words are. “It takes a mother to know just what a girl is up to. Soldiers! Airmen! That’s all they think about. Americans! Niggers! Polish riff-raff!” Sadly, the impression I got from reading this is that it’s meant to be almost an amusing interlude act, and that Mrs Leadbetter is a figure of fun for her outdated opinions. There’s nothing remotely amusing about the character, and I think the episode sours my entire interpretation of the book.

Classic denouement:  No. It’s another of these unusual denouements that creep up on you unexpectedly, where Poirot arrives just in time to prevent a murder taking place, and we discover the all the ins and outs after we know the identity of the murderer and not before – which I think is always a little disappointing. However, as I indicated earlier, the actual plotting and planning of the crime is very cleverly done, so a “classic” denouement probably wouldn’t have fitted the story as well as this surprise denouement. Whether you feel justice is seen to be done is very much up to the reader’s conscience when you realise exactly what had happened.

Happy ending? Not exactly. There may be happiness ahead for one couple – it depends on the outcome of the trial.

Did the story ring true? A side issue of the fact that this is a complicated plot is that there is one particular element that I consider to be too far-fetched to be possible. So although the background of the story is highly believable, the actual minutiae of some elements of the crime don’t hang together sufficiently for me to believe them.

Overall satisfaction rating: It’s a clever, inventive story; but slow to start, with an unbelievable element, some very unpleasant racism and a not entirely satisfactory ending. I don’t think I can give it more than 7/10.

Crooked HouseThanks for reading my blog of Taken at the Flood 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 Crooked House, which I remember reading on the lawn at school when I was about 12. One of Christie’s shock solutions – I instantly remember the identity of the murderer – so it will be interesting to re-read and see if everything hangs true. 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 – A Hundred Million Francs (1955)

A Hundred Million FrancsIn which Gaby and his gang enjoy playing with a broken toy horse, recklessly careering down the streets of Louvigny until one day it is stolen. They seek the help of Police Inspector Sinet to try to retrieve it. But the horse is stolen around the same time as a hundred million francs go missing from the Paris – Ventimiglia Express. A coincidence? Sinet and the gang get to the bottom of both crimes and find they are surprisingly linked….Be warned, there are spoilers, especially in the second part of this blog post where I offer you my chapter-by-chapter synopsis of the book.

Cheval sans teteA Hundred Million Francs was first published in 1955 by G. P. Rouge et Or under its original French title Le Cheval sans Tête, with illustrations by Pierre Dehay. As A Hundred Million Francs, it was first published in the UK by The Bodley Head in 1957. The literal translation, The Horse Without a Head, was its original title in the first American edition, published by Pantheon in 1958. It was translated by John Buchanan-Brown, who translated nearly all of Paul Berna’s books; and it featured illustrations by Richard Kennedy (1910-1989), who illustrated many notable children’s books and gained his apprenticeship at The Hogarth Press under Leonard and Virginia Woolf.

My own copy of the book, which you can see at the top of this page, is a Puffin edition, reprinted in 1970. As at the time Britain was nearing the change to decimal currency, the price on the back cover is shown as both 20p and 4/-. This is the only Paul Berna book in my possession that was bought new from a bookshop. I also had a new copy of The Clue of the Black Cat, but that was lost in the seas of time. All my other Bernas are second-hand (but largely in very good condition, I’m pleased to say!) The pages have gone a little brown, but pleasantly so; there’s no foxing, tears or other marks. I’ve looked after it well for the last 49 years!

Disney horseThis is the only book by Paul Berna to have been adapted for film; Disney made The Horse Without a Head: The 100,000,000 Franc Train Robbery in 1963, with a cast including Jean-Pierre Aumont, Herbert Lom, Leo McKern, Peter Butterworth, Lee Montague, Peter Vaughan and many other well-known actors. The script was by T. E. B. Clarke, who was responsible for many of the famous Ealing Comedies, such as Passport to Pimlico and The Lavender Hill Mob. Paul Berna hated the film! In an interview with him dated around 1984, by Roger Martin, he said (as translated by me) “I have only one regret about Le Cheval sans Tête, and that’s that it was brought to the cinema by Walt Disney. They made it into a gangster film, distorting it right from the opening scene where we see the mobsters preparing their hold-up of the train.”

The inspiration for the story came from two different sources. Firstly: Berna’s childhood. He grew up as part of a large family and he too had a headless horse that he used to play with as a child. Back to Monsieur Berna to tell us more: “There were seven of us. The three eldest were boys, the Big ones. Then came a girl and the three Little ones, including me. The Big ones used to try to steal our “headless horse” […] I was very familiar with this horse well since it was my favourite toy. I had to hide it from the cellar to prevent them from grabbing it!”

He went on to say that being part of a large family, where there were loads of arguments but nevertheless loads of fun, had a major impact on him, both personally and as a writer for young people. And you can really see the influence of having lots of people around him in his books. No one (that I’ve come across) conveys the thrills, tensions and that sense of belonging and loyalty that you get from being a member of a gang like Paul Berna does. And this is shown to superb effect in A Hundred Million Francs. But he also derived inspiration for writing the book having seen the film of Emil and the detectives, the original one, made in 1935. Although he had not read the novel, he said to himself: “Why not write crime novels for young people?”

map-of-french-regionsThe setting. Berna was notable for establishing very precise locations for his books. He would use places that he knew very well personally, such as Aix, Bordeaux, Marseille and Brittany, to give that personal touch, Other than that, he would pore over the most detailed maps he could find, extracting the names of tiny villages, or even street names to stimulate the imagination. Sometimes he would mix these detailed real locations with places that he made up from pure fantasy.

The setting for this book is the town of Louvigny, which exists as a suburb of Caen, in Normandy. However this Louvigny-Triage is a railway town on the route between Paris and Ventimiglia, on the northern Italian coast. We can assume that it is a suburb in to the south-west of Paris. Berna locates the story in and around the rue des Petits-Pauvres, the rue de la Vache Noire, the rue Cécile, and a ruined enclosure called the Clos Pecqueux. The roads and their connections are so intricately described that you could well imagine that this was a real location. But he confirmed in interview, “Louvigny-triage does not exist. It is not Villeneuve St Georges, as was believed, but an imaginary place that seems more real because of its disparate elements of typical working-class suburbs.”

Style. The book won the Salon de l’enfance Award for 1955. However, it also received some criticism at the time for its tone, and the use of slang. Berna defended himself against those criticisms, not believing the slang to be excessive. Personally, I think the tone is just right. Of course, there are a few slight anachronisms and moments where the book surprises you with its use of language, but much of that may be from John Buchanan-Brown’s translation. I understand that Paul Berna’s style in the original French (which I haven’t read) is actually quite adult and mature; and you never get the feeling that he is in any way talking down to his readers – this is a strength that makes it stand out against, say, the children’s crime stories of Enid Blyton, which were from a similar period.

Industrial GloomIndustrial gloom. It struck me how unsentimental Berna’s description of the railway town is, with its discarded ironwork, trucks, rails, sleepers, and so on. This is not a comfortable, middle-class setting. This is a bleak, industrial wasteland, where you have to pick your way through the machinery of the past to find a place to play. Berna recreates this harsh landscape with superb grit. When Roublot brings Fernand the toy train, the boy rejects it because “if we want trains, we’ve real ones on the tracks at the other side of the road”.

It’s not just the railway industry that has impacted the town. Marion explores Lilac Lane, near a coal-yard. “True, the coal-dust had killed off the original lilacs years ago, but their memory was preserved by the lane, a cut winding between high walls until it brought you to the disused saw-mill, whose empty and crumbling buildings backed on to the rue Cécile.” When the gang members walk home from the shed, we read that “they stumbled in the bomb-craters that five or six Allied air-raids had left in the Clos Pecqueux during the war.”

Even crime in this town is unglamorous. When Sinet is reflecting where the horse might have been hidden, he imagines it’s in “an old shed […] twenty bags of mouldy flour, a cask of rough wine, a roll of shoddy cloth, all sorts of wretched little things taken on the sly”.

But, as if to make up for all this gloom and poverty, there is humour. The slapstick comedy of the woeful crooks breaking into the building. The larking around of the gang members dressed in carnival outfits. The joking behaviour in the Magistrates’ Court. Once the crime has been solved, Inspector Sinet is frequently seen laughing along with the children. And even if those moments of comedy don’t actually make the reader laugh, we appreciate the fact that the characters are basically happy – and that makes us happy too.

povertyPoverty. Berna was attracted to write about people in poverty. Again, from that 1980s interview, he observed: “I like these circles. When I was in military service, I discovered amazing people, peasants, workers, especially chtimis (people from the Nord – Pas de Calais areas of France), people relying on Assistance, desperately alone, who had to borrow six sous to buy tobacco. What they were looking for was a presence to break their inhuman isolation. Since then I have always had a great attraction for the poor.”

It’s obvious that the gang members themselves are from poor families. When they bring food for the gang to eat at the sawmill, it consists of eight potatoes and a stock cube; Criquet sneaks in one cigarette for the entire gang to share. When Marion invites the gang to her house for hot chocolate, before going out on an adventure, we find out that her mother “took these brigands’ visit very well, considering that she found they had eaten up her supply of bread for the weekend during the five minutes they had been there.” And Criquet cannot empty his pockets in front of the reporters, because “his mother had stitched them up to make his trousers last longer.”

Father Brissard says there are eleven in the gang – ten, plus “a boy from Nazareth”. I’m not sure to what extent that’s deadly serious or tongue in cheek. Certainly today I think it’s unlikely you’d share some religious message under those circumstances to a gang of ragamuffins. And one other totally anachronistic moment in the book comes when Marion organises the purchase of some cigars as a present for Sinet. Children allowed to purchase cigars? Only in France!

Gang mentalityGang mentality. What I love most about the book is its depiction of what it’s like to be a member of a gang, its subtle rules and etiquette, and the interdependent relationship between the gang members. As a rather isolated child, reading this book really made me crave being a member of a gang like Gaby’s. It’s sad how Marion and Fernand fear that the loss of the horse could lead to the break-up of the gang. They realise they need an additional purpose to meeting out of school, and not just the general reason of being friends or gang members. They have to be united through a separate reason – and playing with the horse is the perfect reason.

Berna shows several aspects of the gang mentality. The selflessness of individuals, bringing in a potato or a cigarette for everyone to share. There’s the loyalty shown by and to each individual member; for instance, when they all stand silently, intimidating Roublot at the market. They have the ability to all make each other laugh, such as when they dress up in the silly costumes and entertain each other with their inventive charades. They even take it in turns to look after the rusty key.

The gang members all have their own little qualities and traits, but the two stand-out characters are Marion, because of her incredible understanding of dogs, her calmness and practicality under pressure, and her kindness, as well as her daring; and Gaby, who, although is the leader of the gang (because he is the oldest) is only one of two children (the other being Fernand) to express his emotions through crying. So in their way both are surprisingly forward-looking role models for the two sexes – it’s ok for girls to be strong, and it’s ok for boys to be emotional. Another vital element of this particular gang is their over-riding honesty, as shown when they empty their pockets in front of the reporters.

Although the girls are just as daring as the boys – and given Marion’s special position within the gang as treasurer – the times are still traditional enough for it to be expected that the girls will do the gang’s domestic chores, like preparing food and tidying up, whilst Gaby and the boys make plans. It is perhaps a criticism that the younger female members of the gang are its least well described and least interesting characters.

At the end, they’re almost prepared to make Sinet a member of the gang; they always show generosity towards those who have been generous to them. But they don’t trust outsiders as a whole; which is why they make up silly answers to the journalists’ and reporters’ questions that they fear will expose them and give them publicity they don’t want.

Other thoughts that came to mind whilst reading this book were surprise at the genuine moment of peril when the crooks start shooting at the children through the slats in the barricade. The gang members treat the attack with contempt, but, seriously, this could have killed someone! And the sequence where Berna joyfully describes Marion’s gradual summoning of the dogs to come help fight the crooks reminded me of the twilight bark in One Hundred and One Dalmatians, written in 1956. If there’s any sense of copycat about the two scenes, note that A Hundred Million Francs came first!

Given these are all decent people, I was quite surprised at this brief exchange:

Sinet (of Roublot): Did you know he’d already been to prison?
Fernand: No, but you can tell what he’s like by his face.

Talk about judgemental!

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

Careering down the roadChapter One – Half Holiday. We’re instantly introduced to Gaby and the rest of his gang; ten children careering down the hill between the rue des Petits-Pauvres at the top and the rue de la Vache Noire at the bottom, on the famous Headless Horse toy. It had been bought for Fernand Douin by his father from a rag and bone man (or rather exchanged for three packets of black tobacco) but its head and legs didn’t last long – and it never even had a tail.

Other gang members we meet are Marion, the gang’s treasurer, who rescues and returns abandoned dogs to health; little Bonbon, whose job it is to stand on corners and warn passers-by that the headless horse might be racing through; Tatave, Bonbon’s older and more corpulent brother, who always brakes at the wrong moment; Juan, “the little Spanish boy”; Zidore Loche; Mélie; Berthe Gédéon; Amélie Babin, “the gang’s first-aid expert”; and Criquet Lariqué, “the little darky from the Faubourg-Bacchus”. These were different times, and I’m sure that was not meant to be offensive.

ZigonYou can tell that Gaby is the leader of the gang by the heroic way in which it’s described that he holds the record for lasting longest on the horse; 35 seconds without once putting on the brakes. Gaby insists on having no one older than twelve in his gang, because “once you’re over twelve, you become a complete fool and you’re lucky if you don’t stay like that for the rest of your life.” Like any generous despot, he plans to extend the age limit to fourteen, so that he himself doesn’t fall foul of his own rules.

We’re in the town of Louvigny-Triage. Clearly a railway town, “all the men were on the tracks, in the sidings, the signal boxes, or the railway workshops, and the women were either shopping in the Quartier-Neuf or were strolling round the Thursday Market.” When Fernand thinks the horse is broken for ever, he thinks “there was nothing like it from Louvigny to Villeneuve-Saint-Georges” (a small commune in the south-eastern suburbs of Paris).

Other local residents whom we meet, largely as a result of their accidental clashes with the horse, are M. Gédéon, Berthe’s father; M. Mazurier, the coalman; César Aravant, the scrap merchant; “Old Zigon”, who gets money for old bottles; Mme Macharel, who has a bakery in the Market; Roublot, another market trader – “a nasty-looking specimen, with a heavy, sallow face that mirrored his petty dishonesty”; Inspector Sinet (of whom more later); M Joye, Gaby’s 17-stone, mechanic father; Mme Louvrier, Bonbon and Tatave’s mother; and Mme Fabert, Marion’s mother.

Walking the horse backWhile the gang are at the market, observing Roublot spouting his selling patter, all eyes turn to the subtle figure of Inspector Sinet, who seems to be following a man in a blue boiler-suit through the market. Roublot appears particularly ill-at-ease seeing this, and before long he’s left all his stock and market stall equipment where it was and fled. On his way back home, Fernand notices the headless horse lying in the middle of the road, far from the safe place he had left it for his father to repair. At that point, Roublot appears, silent and menacing; but Marion, who’s with Fernand, lets out a piercing whistle; three of her biggest doggy friends came to the call, and once more Roublot flees.

Sadly, M. Douin takes a good look at the broken horse and realises he can’t fix it. The problem is a broken fork. Tears fall from Fernand’s eyes. But M. Douin has a plan – the next morning they will visit M. Rossi at the car factory who will be able to forge a new fork for them with ease. The chapter ends with father and son, happily mending other parts of the horse, whilst Mme Douin watches with amusement.

An offer to buy the horseChapter Two – Goodbye to the Horse. Not a very optimistic chapter title – is this the end of the horse? We’ll find out! But first, an explanation of the Black Cow, as in rue de la Vache Noire. Marion thinks it refers to an abandoned engine – continuing with the emphasis on this being a railway town – with Berna’s lovely phrase describing its out-of-place presence, “as unexpected as a hippopotamus in a field of daisies”. Gaby, Marion and some of the lads keep their promise to Old Zigon to replace the bottles they broke the previous day, emphasising that they’re honest and decent types. They consider going to the pictures, but it’s too expensive, especially as they have to pay for the two poorest members of the gang. Tatave suggests selling the bottles to Old Zigon, but Marion points out that they’re not theirs to sell, and that it would look bad trying to make money out of an old man. Again, that underlines both their decency and how hard-up this environment is. In the end, Marion gets the money from a lady, whose Pekinese Dog Marion had nursed back to health.

Beware of the dogsMeanwhile, at the Café Parisien, Roublot is seen deep in conversation with some other “toughs” – “deep in conversation, leaning across the table, their hats nearly touching”. Inspector Sinet also turns up at the café, a sticking plaster on his cheek, which gives the gang members something to laugh at. And on Saturday night, M. Douin comes home with the horse. M. Rossi had given it a coat of paint, greased the hubs, put back the wheels and straightened the bent spokes. It’s while the children are testing the horse to see how well it’s running that M. Douin tells his strange tale; that someone at the Café Parisien had offered him five thousand francs for the horse. When Douin refuses, he offers him ten thousand. Ten thousand!!

Grim locationWhilst the gang members are playing with the horse they notice two men in fur-lined lumber jackets watching them. Somewhat spooked by this, they return home. When M. Douin looks through his window he confirms that the two men are the same two who made the ridiculously expensive offer to buy the horse. A couple of days later, the same two men try to grab the horse off some of the younger members of the gang. Things escalate as the gang continue to refuse to sell, and then the men start to get violent. “Wait till the toe of my boot gets you, my lad” says the one called Pépé; “I bet it doesn’t,” snorted Gaby, “My dad’s the only one who can lay a finger on me, and he has to catch me first.” And just as it seems like there’s going to be a big fight between them all, Marion whistles for her doggy friends, and Hugo, the boar-hound, Fritz and César all come at her command and attack the men. As soon as the one called Ugly cries for help, Marion calls them off; and the two men limp away, defeated, and with their coats ruined. But just why are they so interested in the horse?

At playM Douin decides to do a bit of investigating himself. He calls on Blache, the rag and bone man, from whom he originally obtained the horse. Blache remembers the unusual circumstances in which he came across the horse – clearing bomb damage in Petit-Louvigny. Whilst he was looking at it, someone told him that the horse had belonged to him before the bomb damage destroyed the house. When Blache tried to identify this man – as he knew the people who had lived in the area – the man told him to beat it, and take the horse with him. But Blache finally remembered the man’s name – Mallart – and had discovered that Inspector Sinet had arrested him last week. And – good news – Blache still owned the head that went with the body.

The horse stolenWhen Douin gets home, he discovers that Fernand hasn’t arrived home yet, and Mme Douin begins to get concerned. So he goes out to look for him, and thinks he should find Gaby’s dad to ask if he knows where his son is. M. Joye informs him that the horse had been stolen!

Father BrissardChapter Three – Inspector Sinet. Next day, it’s back out with the gang on the horse, riding high through the neighbourhood. However, on his turn, Fernand loses control of the horse and is flung from the saddle, whilst the horse continues on its merry way, straight into the path of some burly men in a van – including Pépé and Ugly, who take hold of it and speed off with the gang’s prize possession. Hurt and outraged, they decide to report the theft to the police; on the way meeting Father Brissard, who sympathises with their plight.

MarionInspector Sinet and his colleague Lamy lament how uselessly they spend their days, never grappling with any proper criminals. They long to be allowed to work on an exciting case, like the recent robbery of a hundred million francs from the Paris-Ventimiglia Express. Nevertheless, they listen to the gang tell their story, and in return, Sinet and Lamy promise to help. Sinet is just about to screw up his notes and chuck them in the bin when he remembers that the horse had indirectly helped him to capture Mallart the other evening – so he felt more inclined to help. Then Messieurs Joye and Douin show up, apologising for the kids but explaining that the horse is really all they have. Sinet is now determined to do his best to help.

Roublot and FernandChapter Four – A Rusty Key. Going home from school, Marion and Fernand agree they must find a replacement for the horse, or else the gang risks falling apart. Marion suggests training one of her dogs as a gift for Fernand, but he refuses because his mother doesn’t like animals. Fernand lets himself into his house but carelessly fails to close the door properly. He’s soon joined by the intimidating Roublot, foot in the door, holding a large square parcel. Inside is a brand-new train set, which he says the market folk had clubbed together to buy for the gang as a way of saying sorry that the horse had been stolen. Fernand is unimpressed. Furious, Roublot takes it back, and then does his best to search the kitchen cupboards, wardrobes and other hiding places. But Fernand threatens Roublot with the fire poker and he soon flees the scene. Shortly afterwards, Inspector Sinet arrives, wanting to know why Roublot was there. Somewhat improperly, Sinet asks if he could search the house and Fernand assents – but it is to be their secret.

Roublot at the MarketThe next day, Roublot sets up his stall as usual. He demonstrates his amazing potato chipper to the crowds and sells a couple. Then he realises there are ten young people still watching him – the gang. All on their best behaviour, quietly intimidating him back. At first he tries to laugh it off, but then he loses his temper and threatens to give them a “cuff around the ears”. But none of the gang breaks rank, and it’s Roublot who packs up his stall and flees.

WatchedFernand and Marion start to set up the abandoned sawmill shed as the new gang HQ. After their meagre meal and one shared cigarette, they start to talk about the stolen horse; specifically, when and why it suddenly created such an interest. Realising that it happened on the night of the big accident, eventually they conclude it must have been something that Fernand and his father removed from inside the horse when they were working on it. Fernand remembers that, amongst the removed items was an old key. Gaby’s convinced that it’s also the key to the mystery and insists they abandon their meal and try to find the key at Fernand’s house. They find it, take it back to the shed and read that it has a label attached: “Billette Works, 224 Ponceau Road”.

Carnival masksChapter Five – The Abandoned Factory. Inspector Sinet has spent some time trying to follow up the horse-theft but is currently drawing a blank. Roublot is hard to catch, no one has heard of Ugly or Pépé, and he notes that even the children go missing. But he is convinced that the children have accidentally got themselves caught up in some crime or other.

Le TriageFollowing a tip-off from an old woman who had seen a fire burning at the gang’s shed every evening, Sinet discovers its whereabouts; and is surprised to be met by the ten children, wearing masks they had found elsewhere in the Billette factory, kicking a cardboard chicken about in some kind of frenzied football game. He doesn’t disclose that he has seen them; it’s useful to him to know where to find them if needed. For several days the gang continue to explore the old factory. It seemed to have stopped, mid-production, with partly made fancy dress clothes and accessories, shortly after the war; and the gang frequently parade around in silly wigs and costumes, making each other laugh with their inventive games.

Scary shadowsWalking home one evening, Marion stops and insists on looking inside the Black Cow, to make sure no one is hiding in there. Everyone thinks she’s joking, but she goes in. And, although she keeps it a secret for a short while, she later reports that there were two men hiding inside. The chapter ends with Marion doing her evening walk with her dogs – and noting that they are unusually restless that night.

More masksChapter Six – All the Dogs in the World. After school on Saturday, all the gang members meet at Marion’s house and then go on into the Clos Pecqueux, ostensibly for a run. But Marion is keeping a look-out; and notices two men get out of the Black Cow once they have walked past. One heads back into the town, the other follows the children. In hiding, Marion and Fernand observe a car drive up in the darkness; then five men emerge and enter the Billette building where the rest of the gang were encamped. Gaby and Fernand attempt to barricade themselves in by shoving old work benches up against the door, whilst Marion remains at the entrance hall, and the younger gang members are still playing with the carnival masks – the barricade looked like the remains of a party, with all the broken boxes of festive items. Room by room, the older gang members make it as difficult as possible for the men to progress, but gradually the men power their way through, somehow or other. When they finally stumble in to the end room, one trips over a pig’s head mask and clatters through some old paint cans. When he gets up the gang all laugh at the fact that he has acquired a false black beard.

MayhemFernand and Gaby can identify three of the men as Ugly, Pépé and Roublot; the other two are masked by the collars of their heavy overcoats. Refusing to respond to the threats of Ugly and Pépé, or the hundred francs bribe offered by one of the other men, Zidore and Juan throw some detonator bangers over the top of the boxes so that it sounds like the men are being attacked by gunshot. The arising confusion allows Gaby and Fernand to rejoin the others. But then the men really do let loose with their pistols and start shooting at the children through the slats. And whilst the gang pelt back with their bangers, Ugly and Roublot drag the bench back from the previous room and use it as a battering ram.

All the dogs in the worldMeanwhile, what was Marion doing? She had whistled and called with all her might, and summoned the presence of no fewer than sixty dogs from all around the neighbourhood! They all run back to the Billette building and lay siege on the helpless crooks from behind.

Railway tracksChapter Seven – A Hundred Million Francs. It’s M. Douin who first notices the noises and lights coming from the disused factory and rings the station-master’s office to warn him. As a result, Sinet and Lamy are sent to find out what’s going on. They discover Marion, with all the dogs holding guard over the crooks; on her command, the dogs all let go of the bedraggled men, leaving them for Sinet to deal with. The other gang members slowly come to light – although Bonbon keeps his hiding place just a little while longer, thereby causing a few worries – and Sinet tasks them with emptying all the cupboards on the look out for… what?

Time to countBut there was no need. “There was the Inspector, standing in the middle of the room with his mouth agape and his arms dangling at this sides, up to his ankles in a carpet of banknotes that shimmered in the flickering light of the torches.” Wads of notes were falling from big grey sacks – Lamy counted eleven sacks of banknotes in all. Sinet, Lamy and the children had located the hundred million francs that had gone missing from the Paris – Ventimiglia Express. And then the bombshell – Sinet rounds on Gaby and asks if they’d not gone into the room where all the money had been stashed, and his reply is: “of course we’ve seen them”; and Marion adds “but Inspector […] there’s so much of it! We thought it was false like all the rest.” Sinet gets the children to pick up all the loose notes and pack them back into a sack whilst he watches them, which really offends Gaby. “Thieves? Us? Not likely”.

Don't mess with usFernand loses his temper with Ugly as he was being taken out by the policemen, “and began to pummel his face with both fists, crying at the top of his voice, “where’s the horse?” Sinet is moved by his frustration, but Fernand confirms that “without the horse we wouldn’t have been here tonight and you’d still be looking for your millions!” “How so?” asked Sinet, astonished. “The key was in the horse,” Fernand proclaimed […] “Dad and I had emptied the horse out a few days before, and Dad put the key aside without thinking.”

In courtChapter Eight – The Sixth Man. In the days that followed, the children were required to accompany Sinet to be questioned by the Examining Magistrate; but they were frustrated by the fact that none of the questions related to the theft of the horse. His prime concern was the identity of the sixth man. Five of the crooks have been accounted for – but who is the sixth? Little Bonbon accuses Sinet, much to the Court’s amusement and Sinet’s embarrassment. The inspector admits he was watching the children – and it was all because of the horse. But as a thank-you, the children give the Inspector five fat gold cigars. And all that matters after that is laughing about what a mockery their Court appearance was.

The MagistrateSinet and the children reconstruct the time when they watched Roublot at the market a fortnight earlier, trying to work out who the man in the blue boiler-suit was. Eventually it tumbles to Sinet – it was the petty thief he’d arrested that evening, Mallart. He’s the sixth man. He had the key – and because Sinet was on his tail, he dropped into the headless horse. And Mallart was already in jail!

Taunt the reportersThen the town is besieged by reporters, trying to build up a story to get maximum newspaper sales. The children are happy to put their side of the story, but didn’t trust the reporters not to make it into something sensational. The chief reporter asks Bonbon how much of the money he took. One by one, each gang member empties his or her pockets in front of the reporter, showing how little they had. And then Gaby reports the news that the bank cashiers had counted all the money and the full hundred million francs was still intact – plus one sou, that Tatave had added in as a joke. Not to be defeated, the reporters asked if the children would pose for a photo for the newspaper with all the dogs. They set the photograph up, and when Marion calls for the dogs – they all chase the reporters and photographers who were never seen in Louvigny again.

ZigonChapter Nine – The Horse with a Head. It’s mid-January, and the gang have met up in the club for a slap-up meal of potatoes and hot chocolate. An unexpected guest surprises them – it’s Inspector Sinet wanting to tell them the story behind the whole adventure. The gang can’t wait to hear it.

It had been a well-planned raid on the Paris-Ventimiglia Express, but the problem was that someone had fenced off the end of the road where Mallart was due to take delivery of the money. This meant that the job would take much longer than expected, which is why Mallart decided to dump the money at the Billette Factory and wait for Roublot to join him at a little house rented nearby for the purpose.

BlacheBut Roublot didn’t come, because he too had had some bad luck. He thought he had received a police summons, and fled to Paris to provide himself an alibi. When he got there, he realised it was only a renewal of his street-trading licence, so he returned to Louvigny but couldn’t find Mallart. Roublot decided to go to the market as usual, and Mallart telephoned him via the local café to arrange a meeting time and place. But Sinet was hot on Mallart’s tail, so he dropped the keys into the horse which had just tripped him up – and the rest is history. However, it looks like there won’t be a reward. The bank never promised one, and the people to whom the money belonged weren’t keen to come to an agreement. The gang members look on the bright side, realising the complications of receiving a lot of money.

But there’s one last surprise. One morning, M. Douin answers the door to discover the horse has been returned. It was old Blache who had found it, miles away, on a rubbish dump. The children are, of course, delighted, and Fernand reunites it with its head. Gaby is chosen to give it its first ride. But as he’s heading down la rue de la Vache Noire, out of control, he collides with Old Zigon and his bottle cart. Sixty bottles smashed – but, good news, there are five hundred down in the Billette Factory that he can take.

However, Gaby is in tears, as he confesses he is twelve years old now and too old to be a gang member. He’s furious with himself that he’s too old even to ride the horse safely. He tells the others they will have to find a replacement for him. But, of course, none of them accepts that. Marion says: “sooner or later we’ll all be twelve, but that’s no reason why we should break away from each other. We’ll grow up together, that’s all.” Old Zigon agrees: “the world’s all right if you’ve got good friends.” The book ends with all the gang members laughing and Sinet watching them – and declining an offer to have a ride on the horse!

To sum up; Paul Berna’s first, and most successful book in terms of his reputation and sales, was and still is an escapist delight. The camaraderie between the youngsters and their willingness to be brave and do the right thing comes across as aspirational – I know that’s how I felt when I read this as a child. It’s no surprise that this is the only Paul Berna book that has never been out of print. 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 in the Paul Berna Challenge is the book he published the following year – The Street Musician. I look forward to re-reading it and sharing my thoughts about it in a few weeks.

The Agatha Christie Challenge – The Labours of Hercules (1947)

The Labours of HerculesIn which Poirot, following an idea planted in his brain by his friend Dr Burton, decides to sniff out and solve twelve cases that mirror the ancient classical labours of Hercules. Each case is written as a short story, preceded by a foreword which explains how Burton gave Poirot the idea.

The book is dedicated “to Edmund Cork of whose labours on behalf of Hercule Poirot I am deeply appreciative this book is affectionately dedicated”. Cork was Christie’s literary agent, “a young man with a slight stammer” as she described him in her autobiography, and someone who became a lifelong friend. All the stories had been previously published in the UK in the Strand Magazine in 1939 and 1940, with the exception of The Capture of Cerberus which was rejected by the magazine and was not published as part of the series. In the US, they were all published between 1939 and 1947 in either This Week magazine or Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. The collection was first published in the format The Labours of Hercules in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company in 1947 and the UK, by Collins Crime Club, in November of that year.

As with Poirot Investigates and The Listerdale Mystery, even though they’re just bite-sized stories, they still contain many of Christie’s usual themes and idiosyncrasies. I’m going to take them one by one and look at each one separately – and, as usual, don’t worry, I won’t reveal the intricacies of whodunit!

The brief, scene-setting foreword reveals Poirot entertaining his friend Dr Burton, Fellow of All Souls, chatting over a glass of Chateau Mouton Rothschild, relaxing in Poirot’s chromium, modernistic furnishings. Burton quizzes Poirot over his unusual first name – and indeed, recollects that Poirot has a brother, Achille, whom we encountered in The Big Four. Burton takes Poirot to task for never having read the Classics, and while Poirot appears to look forward to a retirement cultivating vegetable marrows (“magnificent vegetables – but they lack flavour”), secretly his curiosity is piqued. So he instructs his trusted secretary Miss Lemon to amass as much information about Hercules as possible. Disappointed to discover that Hercules is, for the most part, an unsophisticated brute, he nevertheless decides to seek out twelve cases to be his retirement swansong – and we await the arrival of the first case.

Although only six pages, this is a very entertainingly written introduction to the rest of the book, with some excellent insights into Poirot’s character, and some vague connections to other books. Long ago, in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, we read that Poirot was to retire to cultivate vegetable marrows. It looks as though he still hasn’t got around to starting that yet. In Christie’s previous book, The Hollow, we saw Poirot weekending in a country cottage – whilst still presumably having his flat up in town – and the modern description of his urban surroundings still makes it sound as though his country pursuits aren’t really suitable to his personality. We will see in the first story, The Nemean Lion, how Poirot enjoys both the warmth and the design of his “electric radiator”. There’s progress for you.

We also become reacquainted with Miss Lemon, last seen in Parker Pyne Investigates, as a secretary, “a forbidding-looking young woman with spectacles”. Whilst she had appeared in a 1935 short story, How Does Your Garden Grow, that did not appear in book format in the UK until 1974’s Poirot’s Early Cases. But more of her in the first of these cases shortly.

A couple of brief references to start with: Burton waxes lyrical with his classical quotation: “by skill again, the pilot on the wine-dark sea straightens the swift ship buffeted by the winds”. This comes from Book 2 of Homer’s Odyssey. And Poirot refers to the case of Adolphe Durand, a butcher, tried at Lyon in 1895, “a creature of ox-like strength who had killed several children.” Convincing though M. Durand is, I think this is one of Christie’s mischievous inventions.

The Nemean Lion

The Nemean LionThis first story was originally published in the November 1939 issue of the Strand Magazine in the UK and in September 1944’s edition of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine in the US, under the title, The Case of the Kidnapped Pekinese. It’s a smart little tale, deftly told, of Pekinese dogs being stolen from posh ladies – or rather from their walkers – whilst in the park, and then a heavy ransom being demanded for their return. Christie, being Christie, can’t resist a few of her usual themes, although the direction she’s taking might not quite be what you would expect.

For instance, and unusually, there’s an element of true socialism – communism almost – in the motive for the crimes and, even more unusually, Christie, speaking through the voice of Poirot, is sympathetic to the cause. Although “justice isn’t seen to be done” in this case, a natural kind of justice does take place. Nevertheless, Christie is complicit in siding with the men in the battle of the sexes that takes place with the use of language in this story. “You can’t expect a woman to behave with any sense” avers Sir Joseph, and Poirot doesn’t contradict him. “I know I’ve only got a woman’s brain” says Miss Carnaby, and she means it. Christie belittles the character of Mrs Samuelson by having her declare “men think of nothing but money”, whilst admiring her own bracelet and rings. Fortunately, Miss Lemon is there to redress the balance. When she suggests the case of the missing Pekinese to Poirot as a suitable case for his attention, he assumes the worst: “Poirot was shaken; shaken and embittered. Miss Lemon, the efficient Miss Lemon, had let him down! […] Words trembled on his lips – witty caustic words […]” But after some thought, and some reflection, he reassesses her behaviour: “as usual, Miss Lemon had been right.”

There’s a very unfortunate note of racism in one scene, when a character remarks how some dogs look like each other: “You see, to most people, one Pekinese is very much like another. (Just as we think the Chinese are.)” Oh, no, Mrs Christie, you don’t want to be thinking that.

There are a few London addresses mentioned: Bloomsbury Road Square, Clonmel Gardens, and Rosholm Mansions; all very believable, but none of them exist in real life. Reference is also made to the village of Kellington in Essex; there is a Kellington, but it’s in Yorkshire. There are also a couple of sums mentioned – £200 and £300, being two of the ransom demands made for the return of the Pekinese dogs. Given that the story was first published in 1939, that would be an equivalent of £9100 or £13,700 today. No wonder Mr Samuelson was annoyed.

There’s also a suggestion of poisoning – although I won’t spoil it for you by elaborating further. A gentle, but intriguing start to the Labours.

The Lernean Hydra

The Lernean HydraAn enjoyable little story, originally published in the December 1939 issue of the Strand Magazine in the UK and in the 3rd September 1939 edition of This Week Magazine in the US, under the title, Invisible Enemy. Rumour has it that Dr Oldfield poisoned his wife, which he strenuously denies, although it’s true that there is a romantic frisson between him and his assistant Jean. It goes without saying that it doesn’t take Poirot long to ferret out the truth of the matter.

The story takes place in the wholly believable but entirely made up town of Market Loughborough in Berkshire. We also discover that the town of Darnington is a bus ride away, and that there’s a Woolworths store there. There’s no such place of course, and, sadly, no more Woolworths stores nowadays.

Christie’s interest in poison comes to the fore in this story with the suspicion that Mrs Oldfield died by arsenic, the symptoms of gastric inflammation and arsenical poisoning being – apparently – similar. The character of Jean appears to know a lot about “vegetable alkaloid” poisons, but then again, she is a medical dispenser, which may also be cause for suspicion.

The real world does cross over into this story, with references to Crippen, Le Neve and Armstrong; Crippen, of course, murdered his wife, Ethel le Neve was his mistress; Herbert Rowse Armstrong was the only solicitor ever to have been hanged in Great Britain, for the murder of his wife.

There’s a minor xenophobic remark, when Poirot is called “an exotic little foreigner” – almost a compliment by Christie’s terms – and the sum of £30,000 is mentioned, being the amount that Mrs Oldfield left her husband in her will. That’s a whopping £1.3m in today’s money.

One unintentionally funny line: When Poirot asks Jean if she intends to marry Oldfield, she says he hasn’t asked her – “because I’ve choked him off”. Urban Dictionary attributes a meaning to that phrase that I’m sure Christie never intended.

The Arcadian Deer

The Arcadian DeerThis short and sweet little story was originally published in the January 1940 issue of the Strand Magazine, and in the US in the 19th May 1940 edition of This Week Magazine, under the title Vanishing Lady. Whilst his car is being repaired, Poirot meets the mechanic, Ted Williamson, and is struck by his handsomeness – a Greek God indeed. Knowing Poirot’s fame, Williamson asks him to trace a lady – she was a maid attending on a Russian ballerina staying at a local house – with whom he had instantly fallen in love. But she didn’t keep their second assignation and appears to have gone to ground.

In a heart-warming mission of mercy, Poirot visits many addresses and questions many possible witnesses, including in London, Switzerland and Pisa. Eventually he comes to the truth of the matter; it’s an open-ended affair, but a rather sweet and poignant denouement. It’s a nicely written short story, with plenty of brief, pithy chapters which help Poirot’s chasing down of Nita to gain pace; and at one stage you think it’s actually going to have a very sad ending, whereas, in fact, the opposite is the case.

I don’t know if Poirot was going through some kind of middle-age sexuality crisis, but he appears to be totally besotted with young Ted. “Here, he thought, was one of the handsomest specimens of humanity he had ever seen, a simple young man with the outward semblance of a Greek god […] the young man plunged eagerly into technical details. Poirot nodded his head gently, but he was not listening. Perfect physique was a thing he admired greatly.” He imagines Ted as a “young shepherd in Arcady” – in other words, Arcadia, the ancient district in the Peloponnese.

Other reference points in the story include the village of Hartly Dene, where Poirot’s Messarro Gratz had given up the ghost; both village and car are inventions of Christie. Nita’s last known address was 17 Upper Renfrew Lane, N15, and the ballerina, Madame Samoushenka, now lives in Vagray les Alpes, in Switzerland. Again, both are completely fictitious; although the dancer says her maid was from Pisa, which of course does exist.

There’s a moment of near-xenophobia when the woman who lives at Upper Renfrew Lane can only remember the dancer’s name as Madame Semolina, and describes her as “real Eyetalian”. And there’s one significant sum mentioned in the book – £5 (or maybe even £10) – that’s the amount that Ted is prepared to pay Poirot for his assistance. I rather doubt that Poirot would stoop so low as to ask for such lowly payment – between £200-£400 at today’s value.

The Erymanthian Boar

The Erymanthian BoarThis cunning and clever short story was originally published in the February 1940 issue of the Strand Magazine, and in the US in the 5th May 1940 edition of This Week Magazine, under the title Murder Mountain. Poirot has moved on to the Swiss Alps for a little sightseeing when he is contacted by the local Commissaire of Police to help track down a Parisian gangster, Marrascaud, who has holed himself up in an exclusive and remote mountain resort. There are a few shady characters up there, any one of which could be the criminal at large. By careful deduction Poirot identifies the miscreant who is satisfactorily brought to book.

With a nod to wartime sentiments, the story features a suspicious Jewish doctor who was turfed out of Austria by the Nazis, and there is an American tourist, also with a German name, who might be the target of a wartime reader’s xenophobic concerns. The locations of the story are largely real; Schwartz has visited Paris and has seen all the genuine sights; Poirot has visited Chamonix, Montreux and Aldermatt, all of which exist. As the story takes us higher in the Alps, Poirot travels through Les Avines, Caurouchet and finally Rochers Neiges, where the bulk of the action takes place. These places don’t exist, although there is Rochers-de-Naye, which is almost certainly the inspiration.

Christie refers to the Bertillon photograph of the suspect, which is a term we have heard before in The Murder on the Links; Alphonse Bertillon (1853-1914) was the French criminologist who invented the system of identification of criminals by anthropometric measurements, fingerprints, and so on. Poirot manages to contact the Swiss Police by using a heliograph – which was something we came across in And Then There Were None; it’s a form of morse code.

There’s one of those unintentionally funny moments when Christie’s turn of phrase hasn’t kept up with semantic change: “Schwartz ejaculated: “Marrascaud!””

Nothing much more to be said; a successful little tale that keeps its secret beautifully until the final pages.

The Augean Stables

The Augean StablesThis story was originally published in the March 1940 issue of the Strand Magazine, but there was no US magazine publication until the complete collection was published in 1947. From a really good story to a rather silly one! Poirot is asked for help by none other than the Prime Minister, whose father-in-law, the previous Prime Minister, is about to be revealed as a cheat and a scoundrel by a nasty daily rag. Rumours start about the Prime Minister’s wife, but to what extent are the stories true and who’s manipulating who?

The story starts with a lot of unnecessary and dull detail about the characters which doesn’t really add to our understanding of the situation. There is some talk of the People’s Party, which is clearly an invention of Christie’s, and some unsubtle references to a Herculean task and the Augean Stables, which admittedly is what decides Poirot to take the case but it does come across as very heavy-handed. The repeated phrase “People were talking” introduces some short staccato chapters but it all feels very clumsily written to me.

The village of Little Wimplington, unsurprisingly, doesn’t exist (such a far-fetched name!) and there’s also some latent racism with the use of the phrase, “Dago skunks”.

There’s one financial value mentioned, that of £500, which is the amount paid to Thelma Anderson for her work. That’s the best part of £20,000. No wonder she took the job.

I found this story rather boring, totally predictable and an hour I’ll never get back!

The Stymphalean Birds

The Stymphalian BirdsLet’s hope for better luck with this one. The Stymphalean Birds (sic, as printed in my copy, although it’s usually spelled Stymphalian) was originally published in the April 1940 issue of the Strand Magazine, and in the US in the 17th September 1939 edition of This Week Magazine, under the title The Vulture Women. Under-secretary of state Harold Waring is holidaying in Herzoslovakia, Christie’s made up all-purpose Eastern European state that represents all things non-English (and, by implication, uncivilised), where he encounters mother and daughter Mrs Rice and Elsie Clayton. Elsie is in an abusive relationship with a dreadful husband and Harold begins to feel the urge to protect her. Clayton bursts in on Elsie and Harold having an innocent conversation but suspects the worst. Elsie throws a paperweight at him – and kills him. Scandal! What will this do to Harold’s career? And all along, two ugly, mean-looking Polish sisters are moping around the resort, eavesdropping and preparing to blackmail Harold and Elsie. But all is not as it seems, and Poirot quickly sorts the wheat from the chaff and the villains are brought to justice.

It’s an enjoyable story despite a) being incredibly far-fetched and b) immured in racism. All the way through the Polish ladies are the source of suspicion and dislike, simply because of their looks, their lack of English, and their general foreign-ness. Anything English is good, anything foreign is bad. When the Polish sisters first arrive on the scene, Harold notes “I may be fanciful, but I distinctly felt that there was something evil about them […]” “We’ll find out from the concierge who they are. Not English, I presume?” “Oh no.” When the characters talk of the corruption of the officials of Herzoslovakia, and the amount that has had to be paid to the police to shut them up, Harold says, “”Thank God our police force isn’t like that”. And in a British and superior mood he went down to lunch.” “This isn’t England”, says Mrs Rice. “We’re not in England, worse luck” says Harold. It’s incredibly xenophobic.

It’s also not very forward-thinking when it comes to sexual equality. “Two women living alone are not the best judges of a man’s character,” avows Mrs Rice, and Harold agrees. But it’s rather delightfully old-fashioned in its belief that a simple scandal like the one that Harold unwittingly finds himself immersed would be enough to put an end to a political career. How times have changed!!

It’s a very moral tale; one that I quite easily saw through, primarily because Christie lays the xenophobia on so heavily that it must be a decoy! Enjoyable, despite everything.

The Cretan Bull

The Cretan BullThis curious short story was originally published in the May 1940 issue of the Strand Magazine, and in the US in the 24th September 1939 edition of This Week Magazine, under the title Midnight Madness. Diana Maberly contacts Poirot alarmed that her fiancé Hugh Chandler has broken off their engagement because he is going mad. She’s not convinced of his madness at all, but there are some strange events taking place, like Chandler waking up in the morning covered with blood and overnight someone has attacked and killed livestock, or a cat, and so on. But is there some other evil at large here? Trust Poirot to get to the truth.

Christie seems to have a problem with some of her phraseology here; the phrase “do better to keep his mouth shut” is repeated within a couple of pages and it feels clumsy and poorly thought through. Elsewhere, Poirot is once again impressed by a man’s “magnificent physique” (see The Arcadian Deer above – is he on the turn?) This story doesn’t have much time for the medical profession; Admiral Chandler describes doctors as “humbug merchants” and Poirot himself says “I am not an alienist” (an early term for a psychiatrist). Hugh Chandler mocks Poirot with the quote “Canst thou then minister to a mind diseased?”, which is Macbeth’s plea to the doctor to help his, now insane, wife.

However, Christie the poison expert does come to the fore; Colonel Frobisher mentions a common practice from his Indian days, datura poisoning. Datura is the Latin name for the devil’s trumpet plant, strongly poisonous especially in their seeds and flowers which can cause respiratory depression, arrhythmias, hallucinations, psychosis, and sometimes death. Datura were used to source atropine sulphate which was used for eye treatments. This was fairly specialised knowledge, I suspect!

An interesting story – again, though, brought down by its extremely far-fetched nature. Although you can appreciate the solution, it’s very hard to imagine how this crime worked in practice.

The Horses of Diomedes

The Horses of DiomedesThe Horses of Diomedes was originally published in the June 1940 issue of the Strand Magazine, and in the US, much later, in the January 1945 edition of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, under the title The Case of the Drug Peddler. A young friend of Poirot, Dr Michael Stoddart, is concerned about cocaine taking by a group of people including someone with whom he has amorous intentions, Sheila Grant. Is there anything he can do to help? Well, there is actually – and in doing so, he identifies and brings to justice a drugs ring.

“Drugs ruin people”, says Dr Stoddart, “body and soul. Drink’s a gentle little picnic compared to drugs.” Far be it from me to disagree with the wise doctor, but of all the works of Christie that I have read this is probably the one that has dated the worst. The notion today that a case could be brought about someone coercing someone else to take cocaine is almost sweet in its naivete. How times change. Even so, I still found this a most unlikely and unsatisfactory story.

The story is set in fictional Mertonshire, which had previously housed Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, nicely described thus: “it is practically impossible to live in Mertonshire unless you have an income that runs into four figures, and what with income-tax and one thing and another, five figures is better. At today’s rate, £1000 is the equivalent of £39,000; a five figure sum starts at £390,000. I think we understand Christie’s drift. Two other sum comparators in this story are the £10 that the homeless victim accepted as a bribe – that’s (obviously) £390 in today’s equivalent, and the £50, which is the sum that Mrs Larkin encashed for herself at the bank, which today would be just short of £2000.

The site of the wild parties is 17 Conningby Mews, which, of course, doesn’t exist. There’s a reference to the Brighton Trunk Murders; these took place in 1934 and remained unsolved until the culprit, Tony Mancini, confessed in 1976.

I did enjoy a brief passage, where General Grant describes living in the country: “I liked the country when it was the country – not all this motoring and jazz and that blasted, eternal radio.”

But all in all, this is a very poor effort from Christie.

The Girdle of Hyppolita

The Girdle of HyppolitaAnd this one’s not a lot better! It was originally published in the July 1940 issue of the Strand Magazine, and in the US in the 10th September 1939 edition of This Week Magazine, under the title The Disappearance of Winnie King. The case of a missing schoolgirl and the case of a stolen Rubens come together in this slight, far-fetched, underwhelming and instantly forgettable story. Poirot solves the case, but I can’t help but think he’s boxing below his weight with these tales. It’s unfortunate that he is so attached to his project to complete his own version of the twelve labours of Hercules that it means he has to solve such silly cases, just because they fit in with the title.

The story is written from a very snobbish perspective; with one of the characters referring to “those miserable idiots of unemployed” who had been “pursuing their tactics of lying down on street crossings”. It’s enough to coax the socialist out of anyone! Even Poirot comes out with halfwit statements like “women […] are a miraculous sex” as he considers how ugly ducklings turn into beautiful swans.

The schoolgirl Winnie comes from Cranchester, which doesn’t exist, but really sounds like it ought. Miss Pope’s establishment is in Neuilly, which certainly does exist – a western suburb of Paris.

At least we get the chance to meet Inspector Japp again, which adds a touch of life to this otherwise dull tale.

The Flock of Geryon

The Flock of GeryonThis short story was originally published in the August 1940 issue of the Strand Magazine, and in the US in the 26th May 1940 edition of This Week Magazine, under the title Weird Monster. It’s hello again to Miss Carnaby, whom we met in The Nemean Lion earlier in this book. She is concerned that a friend has been subsumed in some kind of religious sect, as she has willed all her possessions to the cult and previous women who have done that have ended up dead. After some negotiations with Inspector Japp, Miss Carnaby infiltrates the cult. Is she in danger? Will its leader, Andersen, be brought to book? Have a guess.

Not really a whodunit but certainly with elements of thriller, this isn’t a bad story by any means. Christie clearly likes Miss Carnaby, and admires her powers of dissimulation; Poirot describes her as “a woman of great courage and determination […] good histrionic powers” and she shows a lot of spirit and wit in her assistance in this case. She also gives us an amusing insight into anything other than pure English Protestantism: “though I do not approve of Roman Catholics, they are at least recognised”; xenophobia through religion, fascinating! I’m surprised that she never returns in any of Christie’s other works.

Christie the Poison Expert becomes Christie the Spliff Expert with her references to Cannabis Indica, hashish and blang, which seems to have gone completely out of the language relating to this meaning; maybe she was on something when she wrote it.

Newton Woodbury sounds a most pleasant little place; it doesn’t exist, but it really should.

The Apples of The Hesperides

The Apples of The HesperidesThis short story was originally published in the September 1940 issue of the Strand Magazine, and in the US in the 12th May 1940 edition of This Week Magazine, under the title The Poison Cup. Poirot is contacted by Emery Power, a rich antiques collector, trying to find a gold goblet that he had won at auction but which was instantly stolen and never returned. Poirot follows up all the leads in the case and eventually his investigations take him to a convent on the west coast of Ireland…

Rather a moral tale this, not bad, not riveting, but definitely hokey. I like how Christie portrays Poirot so out of place in Ireland, wearing his totally inappropriate patent leather shoes, observing that the Romans had never built a decent road; thinking of it as “a land where common sense and an orderly way of life were unknown.” There’s a little bit of latent racism from Inspector Wagstaffe, who refers to the Italian police as the “Macaronis”; he definitely deserves to be referred to as a rostbif.

Power paid £30,000 for the goblet; that’s almost £1.2 million at today’s value. No wonder he’s keen for it to be returned. Other references in the tale are a story called the “Bust of Napoleon”, which appears to be of Christie’s own invention; Hercules Bicycles, which was a successful bicycle manufacturer in the UK, launched in 1910 but sold to Raleigh in 1960, and now defunct (although the brand lives on in India); and a quote from a song: “The Apple Tree, the Singing and the Gold…” which is from Euripides’ Hippolytus. Poirot has a very eclectic musical taste.

A horse called Hercules wins the Boynan Stakes at 60-1. Now that’s a coincidence.

The Capture of Cerberus

The Capture of CerberusThis final story was first published in the US in the 16th March 1947 edition of This Week Magazine, seven years after most of the others, under the title Meet Me in Hell. It was rejected by the Strand Magazine – which must have been a bold editorial step on their part – because it was too involved in the politics of its time… read on…

Poirot encounters his beloved Countess Vera Rossakoff on the London Underground who invites him to meet her in Hell – which, as the reliable Miss Lemon points out – is a fashionable new nightclub in town. There he meets Vera’s daughter-in-law-to-be, Alice Cunningham, who’s writing a book about criminal psychology, and using the club members as her subject matter. The police, however, know the place as a front for a drugs ring. Can Poirot sort out the good guys from the bad ones, and which side is the Countess on?

This is one of the more entertaining stories in this volume, nicely written and full of lively characterisations. It’s enjoyable for us to watch Poirot become reacquainted with Vera Rossakoff, the only woman he has truly loved. “It is the misfortune of small precise men to hanker after large and flamboyant women”, maintains Christie, cheekily, in this story. Poirot last saw Vera in The Big Four, although his first encounter with her was in the short story The Double Clue, which we didn’t get to read in the UK until the appearance of Poirot’s Early Cases in 1974. Christie clearly loves writing about her, revelling in her sultry appearance, over-emphasising her Russian-ness.

So why was it rejected, on political grounds, by The Strand? Not, surely, because of the amusing observation that “nobody minds a Tory politician spending his own money – but when it’s a Labour man the public feel it’s their money he’s spending” – quite a shrewd observation, in fact. No – the original story, which only came to light when Christie’s secret notebooks were first examined a little over ten years ago, was set in Switzerland and involved the assassination of one August Hertzlein, a thinly disguised characterisation of Hitler. Remember this was 1940!

Other interesting observations include Christie’s description of Miss Lemon as “unbelievably ugly”. That’s not very nice, is it? Poirot observes at length the dowdiness of women on the Underground, and their predilection for knitting; times have changed. Corduroy wearers at the nightclub are described as “Bohemian”; and there’s reference to Peverel, the Battersea murderer, but this is not a real-life case.

Poirot spends the grand sum of £11 8/6 on flowers for the Countess; that’s £447 in today’s money. That’s one helluva bouquet.

Is it just me, or is there something outrageously naughty about the Countess’s description of discovering the emeralds? “I feel through the velvet something hard inside. I slip my hand in, I find what I know by touch to be jewels”. Oh, matron!

And that concludes, at length, (sorry about that) all twelve stories in The Labours of Hercules. At times that was fun, at others incredibly stodgy and unrewarding, not to mention laborious; and, overall, I couldn’t score this book more than 6/10. If you’ve been reading this book as well, I’d love to know your thoughts, please just write something in the comments box.

Taken at the FloodNext up in the Agatha Christie challenge is a book I remember being serialised on BBC Radio when I was about 16, Taken at the Flood, and I’m very much looking forward to re-reading it. 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 – Sparkling Cyanide (1945)

Sparkling CyanideIn which Rosemary Barton, a rather reckless young heiress, dies from cyanide poisoning whilst dining at a posh restaurant – presumably suicide. However, a year later, a very similar fate befalls another member of that dining party. It takes Colonel Race, alongside Inspector Kemp, and a third law enforcement officer, to work out exactly what happened to both victims. As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I promise not to tell you whodunit!

Yellow IrisThe book bears no dedication. Sparkling Cyanide was first serialised in the US in the Saturday Evening Post from July to September 1944 under the title Remembered Death, and in the UK in the Daily Express in a heavily abridged form in July 1945 as Sparkling Cyanide – a year later than its American serialisation. The full book was first published in the US by Dodd, Mead & Co in February 1945, and in the UK in December 1945 by Collins Crime Club. The book is an expansion of the short story Yellow Iris, that was first published in the Strand Magazine in July 1937. It also appeared in the book The Regatta Mystery and Other Stories, that was first published in the US in 1939. Yellow Iris was not published in the UK until its appearance in Problem at Pollensa Bay in 1991.

DInner Party for sixThis book is a curiosity. I found it quite hard to read at first; the characters and the reminiscences didn’t hold my attention, and I found it strangely easy to put down and leave for several days (ahem weeks) before picking it up again and rekindling my interest. It’s separated into three “books”, each with an introductory quotation. The first book lets us share the reminiscences of the six survivors of the first dinner party and I found it, in part, a little confusing and, basically, an unattractive read. Once we reached the point where the second death is being investigated it suddenly seemed to gain life and entertainment and I was keen to read more of it. In fact, I read the final two thirds of it in two days, which is pretty quick and determined for me.

Champagne Afternoon TeaHowever, there is something about it that is strangely unsatisfying. Yes, the gallop to the final post is very exciting, but it’s also (in my humble opinion) hugely far-fetched and relies on a very risky gamble; that a group of people will all act in a certain way if a certain event takes place – sorry to be vague, but I don’t want to give away the game. I’m absolutely convinced that, if I were one of that group of people, I would not have acted in the way that the murderer – or indeed the detectives – predicted. It also suffers a little from the same fate that befalls Five Little Pigs; there is a considerable amount of repetition, particularly in the first section, about things that happened in the past, and you’ve no choice but to wade through it in order to get on with the more interesting things happening in the present.

Truth versus liesThere’s one interesting aspect to this book though, and it’s very appropriate to our own times, that if you tell a lie sufficiently frequently and with sufficient conviction, it’s accepted as the truth. Just as the denouement is about to get underway, the character who has finally worked out what happened and why, gives us this clue: “Consider for yourself how much has been taken for granted on one person’s word.” At that point the reader takes up this challenge and tries to work out to whom this refers, and what facts have been taken for granted that aren’t necessarily true. When I was reading it, I couldn’t remember whodunit from my earlier readings of it; and even this clue didn’t bring me to my senses, despite my trying to solve it. But it’s true; a web of hearsay deceit has been planted under our noses and we never tumble to it. It reminded me with hideous accuracy of the politicians of our day; when no one is held accountable for the truth, preposterous lies are accepted with absolute certainty as fact.

Military colonelIt’s a welcome return to the excellent Colonel Race, whom we first saw in The Man in the Brown Suit, way back in 1924, where he was a spy, a detective, and a wealthy big game hunter, not necessarily in that order. He assists Poirot in Cards on the Table, and Death on the Nile, although his prime interest is in political espionage rather than murder. It’s by means of a letter of introduction from Colonel Race that local police chief Colonel Carbury meets Poirot in Appointment with Death.

AllahabadAs a result of those previous meetings, you get the feeling that if someone has met someone else in another part of the world, Colonel Race will nearly always be a mutual acquaintance. Race only becomes involved in the Sparkling Cyanide case because he is a friend of George Barton, whose wife Rosemary may have taken her own life. When he encounters Mary Rees-Talbot as part of his enquiries, she notes that they haven’t met “since you disappeared so mysteriously from Allahabad that time”. When Inspector Kemp meets the cantankerous General Lord Woolworth alongside Race, the general spits out an anti-police polemic until he espies the Colonel, and breaks off with,”“Seen you somewhere. Now where -?” Race’s answer was immediate and came with a smile. “Badderpore, 1923.” “By Jove,” said the general. “If it isn’t Johnnie Race! What are you doing mixed up in this show?” Race smiled.” Rather like God, Race clearly moves in mysterious ways and is omnipresent.

Good brainIn the Christie canon, Race is a good man; he gets things done, and isn’t afraid to put his head into the lion’s den, so to speak. And although he’s got a good brain, and patiently thinks things through, he’s also not afraid to get things wrong, in public, as he does a couple of times in this book. It’s a shame that this is the last we see of him; Christie never chose to feature him again. Even when we get to consider its original appearance as the short story Yellow Iris, in Problem at Pollensa Bay, which will be right at the end of this Agatha Christie Challenge, it’s a Hercule Poirot story – Christie changed it to Colonel Race for this book.

MahoganyWhat of Chief Inspector Kemp? This is the only book in which he appears. We know that, as an officer from Scotland Yard, he doesn’t usually deal with common or garden murders, but the presence of Stephen and Sandra Farraday (an MP and the daughter of a Lord) numbering among the suspects, the case requires his sensitive touch. Race (naturally) is an old friend. Here’s Christie’s description of him: “Kemp was slightly reminiscent of that grand old veteran, Battle, in type. Indeed, since he had worked under Battle for many years, he had perhaps unconsciously copied a good many of the older man’s mannerisms. He bore about him the same suggestion of being carved all in one piece – but whereas Battle had suggested some wood such as teak or oak, Chief Inspector Kemp suggested a somewhat more showy wood – mahogany, say, or good old-fashioned rosewood.” Coming from a more privileged background, and enjoying the benefits of great wealth, Race is there to smooth out any rough edges that Kemp might have, intelligent, though ploddy, policeman that he is.

Brook StreetAs usual, there are a few references to check out. First: locations. This is a very London-centric story. The Bartons and Iris live in Elvaston Square, which, sadly doesn’t exist in real life, although there is an Elvaston Mews in South Kensington, a stone’s throw from the Royal Albert Hall. Other London locations in the book are Cadogan Square, the home of the Rees-Talbot family, and Brook Street, home of the Woodworths. Both are real; in fact, Brook Street has already been used as a location in Five Little Pigs and Evil Under the Sun; Christie must have had some personal experience of this address.

fairhaven-golf-clubOutside the centre of London, Chloe West lives at 15 Merryvale Court, Maida Vale and 21 Malland Mansions, Earl’s Court, is a flat where, let’s just say, Farraday pays rent but he doesn’t live there. Both of those addresses are fictitious, albeit in real-life suburbs. Ruth meets Victor at the Rupert Hotel, off Russell Square, and the Compradour, Mille Fleurs and the Luxembourg clubs and restaurants are all mentioned; but they’re all totally made up. However, Farraday asks his wife if they could go to Fairhaven for the golf – this is actually an area near Lytham St Annes on the Fylde Coast, where there is still a fine golf club bearing its name. Finally, the little place in the country that the Bartons take for the summer months is in Marlingham, Surrey; it doesn’t exist, but there is a Warlingham – just a slip of an upside-down letter separates them.

HouriAnd now some other references, that I thought were worth investigating. Browne reflects on his meeting with Rosemary Barton, and concludes: “as beautiful as a houri – and probably just about as intelligent!” Maybe you already knew that houris are the virgin companions who await Muslim faithful in paradise, according to the holy Quran. I didn’t. I understand the notion that they would be beautiful; apparently that relieves them from the burden of being intelligent too. I wondered if this was an early example of islamophobia – I sense not, but am open to arguments on this one if you know better!

Master of the HorseAnthony Browne proudly boasts to Rosemary that there was a chamberlain to Henry VIII with the same name. It’s true; Sir Anthony Browne (1500 – 1548) was appointed Master of the Horse in 1539, having proved his loyalty to the king three years earlier when he was sent to contend with the Catholic protesters during the Pilgrimage of Grace. The king so trusted him that, at the end of his life, he gave Browne a dry stamp with which to sign letters in the king’s name. Impressive!

Cachet FaivreRosemary asks Sandra Farraday, whilst in the ladies’ toilets (even in Christie-land ladies all go to the toilets together) for a Cachet Faivre to help with her headache. This was a pain medication containing caffeine and quinine. There’s a scene in Noel Coward’s The Vortex where one of the characters asks the butler to fetch her one; and in Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies, hotel landlady Lottie remarks, “Half the young fellows as come here now don’t have anything except a cachet Faivre and some orange juice.” Sounds like the mid-20th century version of a Red Bull.

EatonsLucilla Drake remembers when Eaton’s Syrup was administered as a health tonic when she was young. At one time, Eaton’s in Winnipeg had the reputation of being the largest department store in the world and was a leader in the world of mail order sales, with a wide range of tonics and medicines, including a kidney cure mixture, a sore throat mixture and a “syrup of Eucalyptus, White Pine and Wild Cherry Compound”. It was clearly a cure-all medicine; I’ve found a 1906 account of treatment of malaria which included Eaton’s syrup during convalescence. The company was acquired by Sears Canada in 1999, and the company closed down in 2018. However, the Eaton Centre in Toronto is still a go-to shopping mall.

wedding rings Iris receives a proposal of marriage. However, she replies, “I’m not of age. I’m only eighteen.” Today, of course, Iris would be well within the legal maturity for marriage. However, back in 1945, you had to be 21 to get married without parental consent. Even today, there are some countries (China and the Central African Republic) where a man has to be 22 to get married, even with parental consent.

AgamemnonLord and Lady Kidderminster are said to look at each other “so might Agamemnon and Clytemnestra have stared at each other with the word Iphigenia on their lips”. Very classical. I’m sure you know, but Agamemnon was the King of Mycenae who commanded the Greek forces in the Trojan War. The goddess Artemis required Agamemnon to kill Iphigenia as a human sacrifice in order for his troops to reach Troy. They were tough times in those mythical days.

Rudyard KiplingColonel Race confronts one of the characters and accuses them of not being who they say they are. That person replies, “for the Colonel’s Lady and Judy O’Grady are sisters under the skin”. I’d heard that reference before but never known its derivation. It’s from a rather crude poem called The Ladies (c.1890) by Rudyard Kipling, where a chap recollects all the women he’s slept with and concludes that, despite their differences in class and race, basically, they’re all the same.

tennysonAs mentioned earlier, quotations introduce each of the three sections that make up the entire book. Part one, entitled Rosemary, begins with “what can I do to drive away remembrance from mine eyes?” which is the opening line from a poem by John Keats written in 1819. Part two, entitled All Souls’ Day, begins “that’s Rosemary, that’s for remembrance”, which even I remembered was a line by Ophelia in Hamlet. Part Three, Iris, begins “for I thought that the dead had peace, But it is not so…” which comes from section sixteen of Tennyson’s Maud, published in 1855.

PoundI’m sure you remember that I like to research the present-day value of any significant sums of money mentioned in Christie’s books, just to get a more realistic feel for the amounts in question. Despite many times alluding to the size of Iris’ inheritance when she comes of age, there’s only one sum mentioned in this book – £200, which is the amount that Victor cons out of Lucilla. That’s around £6000 in today’s value, that the little swine took.

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

Publication Details: 1945. Fontana paperback, 16th impression, published in December 1989, price £3.25. The cover illustration simply shows a popped champagne cork and a calendar page for 2nd November that has been partially burned. Not sure of the significance of the burning.

How many pages until the first death: There are two ways to consider this. We discover that Rosemary died on page one. However, if you’re waiting for a real-time death, you have to wait until page 120. That sounds like a long wait; however, this impression has many more spaces and gaps in its printing than most earlier Christies. Page 120 is about halfway through the book.

Funny lines out of context: One can always rely on Christie’s somewhat archaic use of the “E” word.

“His satisfaction was short-lived, for another thought struck him with the force of a physical blow. He ejaculated out loud.”

“His name soon became known as that of a “coming” young man.”

Memorable characters:

Having been rather spoilt by Christie with her characterisations in her more recent books, this is one area where this book disappoints. You have the strong independence of Ruth Lessing, the devil-may-care bad-boy nature of Anthony Browne, and – perhaps – the political expediency and ambition of Stephen Farraday, but apart from that most of the characters are fairly bland.

Christie the Poison expert:

The clue is in the title! Although cyanide – cyanide of potassium as she refers to it – is the method of poisoning for both deaths in the book, Christie doesn’t go into much detail as to how it works or the effect on its victims. She just points out how it makes anyone who takes it turn blue – “the blue cyanosed face, the convulsed clutching fingers”, as Iris recollects. A third death is averted; however, that wouldn’t have been caused by cyanide poisoning.

Class/social issues of the time:

Most of Christie’s favourite themes crop up in this book, but only occasionally, and without great significance. Take, for instance, feminism and the role of women in society. Most of the women in this book have good social standing but only one, Ruth Lessing, could be described as independent and self-reliant. Rosemary relied on relationships; Sandra Farraday confirms that she couldn’t survive without her husband, no matter what he’d done; Iris demurely waits for life to come to her rather than the other way around. Feeblest of all, Lucilla Drake is depicted as a scatty windbag, powerless against the devious manipulations of her son.

Consider Lucilla’s assessment of George’s domestic lifestyle: “George is very well looked after at present. What more can he want, I should like to know? Excellent meals and his mending seen to. Very pleasant for him to have an attractive young girl like you about the house and when you marry some day I should hope I was still capable of seeing to his comfort and looking after his health. Just as well or better than a young woman out of an office could do – what does she know about housekeeping? Figures and ledgers and shorthand and typing – what good is that in a man’s home?” Clearly she feels that a woman’s role is simply to support a man.

There’s also an amusing interchange between Colonel Race and Inspector Kemp about women in society. “”Do you think she is the type to slip incriminating evidence into a girl’s handbag? A perfectly innocent girl, mind, who has never harmed her in any way? […]” Inspector Kemp squirmed uneasily in his seat and peered into his teacup. “Women don’t play cricket,” he said. “If that’s what you mean.” “Actually, a lot of them do,” said Race, smiling. “But I’m glad to see you look uncomfortable.””

The book was published at the end of the Second World War, when the nations of the world looked to their political leaders for inspiration and help to see them out of the mess of the previous six years. Whether you can tie in the character of Stephen Farraday with that inspiration, I’m not sure; but I did enjoy Christie’s gently savage description of his rise up the ranks: “At twenty-two Stephen came down from Oxford with a good degree, a reputation as a good and witty speaker, and a knack of writing articles. He had also made some useful friends. Politics were what attracted him. […] Though by predilection a Liberal, Stephen realised that, for the moment at least, the Liberal Party was dead. He joined the ranks of the Labour Party. […] But the Labour Party did not satisfy Stephen. He found it less open to new ideas, more hidebound by tradition than its great and powerful rival. The Conservatives, on the other hand, were on the look-out for promising young talent. They approved of Stephen Farraday – he was just the type they wanted. He contested a fairly solid Labour constituency and won it by a very narrow majority. It was with a feeling of triumph that Stephen took his seat in the House of Commons. […]

“Nevertheless, once the excitement of actually being in the House had subsided, he experienced swift disillusionment. The hardly fought election had put him in the limelight, now he was down in the rut, a mere insignificant unit of the rank and file, subservient to the party whips, and kept in his place. It was not easy here to rise out of obscurity. […] One needed something above ability. One needed influence. […] He considered marriage […] some handsome creature who would stand hand in hand with him sharing his life and his ambitions; who would give him children and to whom he could unburden his thoughts and perplexities. Some woman who felt as he did and who would be eager for his success and proud of him when he achieved it.” In other words, a purely self-seeking, self-interested social climber with no thought of service to the nation. It’s not difficult to see in which direction Christie’s political loyalties swung from her description of the three main parties!

There are a couple of minor moments of xenophobia and racial issues, although perhaps not as much as in some of Christie’s books. Christine Shannon explains “that’s why I don’t like Dagoes. When they’ve drunk too much they’re not a bit refined any more – a girl never knows what unpleasantness she may be let in for.” That’s an example of both using a detrimental term and stereotyping an entire range of people to one type of bad behaviour. On another occasion, George Barton tells Race about Rosemary’s death and says that the cabaret was “one of those negro shows”. With the benefit of hindsight, and remembering the popularity of the Black and White Minstrels right up into the late 1980s, that’s actually quite polite for the time.

I was interested by the suggestion that a psychiatrist – or what Christie calls “a nerve specialist […] one of these modern men” advised George that “after a shock of any kind, the trouble must be faced, not avoided” and this is – perhaps – the reason that he calls for the dinner party to be “re-run” as it were at the restaurant where Rosemary died. It’s not often that Christie expresses concern for mental health in her books; it must have been a new consideration of the time. But there’s also some very backward-looking thought processes going on, when Race attributes one of the motives for the crime to “bad blood”. A character is associated with guilt because their mother is “feeble in intellect and incapable of concentration”, their father is “weak, vicious and a drunkard” and their sister is “emotionally unstable.” “A family history of weakness, vice and instability. Predisposing causes.” Talk about judgemental! Wouldn’t go down well in a court of law today.

Classic denouement: The denouement creeps up on the reader and you find you’re at that point of the book without it having been made obvious by the writer. Granted, it’s extremely exciting, but I wouldn’t call it a classic, as the perpetrator is not present at the time and therefore cannot be accused dramatically by the detectives. And there’s also the question of the outrageously unlikely modus operandi of the crime, which I’ll discuss in the next paragraph but one….

Happy ending? Wedding bells in the offing for one couple, although there is a sense of sadness at the end of the book for those who died, which means this book definitely ends in a minor key.

Did the story ring true? NO!!!! As I mentioned earlier on, the whole set-up of the crime relies 100% on a group of people acting in one particular way – like a herd instinct – when presented with a particular set of events. And I just don’t believe it. But I can’t explain that to you without giving away the game.

Overall satisfaction rating: There are a few passages where the writing is highly entertaining, and the detective investigations are highly readable. But it’s also very slow to start and is spoiled by its stupid resolution, so on balance I’m downgrading it to a 6/10.

The HollowThanks for reading my blog of Sparkling Cyanide 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 The Hollow, and the welcome return of Hercule Poirot. I can’t remember much about the book but I do remember that a few years back we saw a stage adaptation of the story – and it was pretty awful! So I’m hoping that the original book is much better. Only one way to find out! 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 – The Body in the Library (1942)

The Body in the LibraryIn which the body of an unknown young woman is found in the library of Arthur and Dolly Bantry’s home, so, naturally, Mrs Bantry doesn’t hesitate to tell her old friend Miss Jane Marple. Several police from a number of forces lend a hand in identifying the culprit, but it is Miss Marple who, as always, follows her unique suspicions to get to the truth. As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I promise not to tell you whodunit!

Bodies in a libraryThe book is dedicated to “my friend Nan.” This was Nan Kon, formerly Nan Pollock, née Nan Watts, whom Agatha Christie knew since they were children and whose friendship remained strong throughout their lives. The Body in the Library was first serialised in the US in The Saturday Evening Post in seven parts in May and June 1941. The full book was first published in the US in February 1942 by Dodd, Mead and Company, and the subsequently in the UK by Collins Crime Club in May the same year. Unusually, the publication in America preceded the publication in the UK.

Majestic HotelI could only remember a little of the story; primarily the opening scene, which Christie herself described as “The best opening I ever wrote”, and some of the scenes at the Majestic Hotel – mainly those involving the professional dancers. Therefore, much of the book came fresh and new to me on this re-reading. And I’m pleased to say it’s pretty good! It’s hugely more entertaining than the dire N or M? which Christie was writing at the same time. There are some entertaining characters, nicely written scenes, enjoyable police banter, and a brief but surprise-packed denouement which contains bombshell after bombshell. Also, unlike N or M?, there is no reference at all to the war going on. This is a timeless tale that could have happened anywhere, anytime.

Old bootsAnd we get re-acquainted with St Mary Mead, and its most famous inhabitant. Arthur and Dolly Bantry, Miss Wetherby, Miss Hartnell, Mrs Price Ridley, and the Reverend and Mrs Clement are also all still in place, twelve years after we met them in The Murder at the Vicarage, and some of them also appeared in The Thirteen Problems. Colonel Melchett is still Chief Constable, with the irascible Inspector Slack at his heels. Even though she’s absent for a lot of the book, this is undoubtedly one of Miss Marple’s Greatest Hits, were she to record that rather dubious album! We learn a lot more about her style and her Modus Operandi; she is ridiculed and insulted, and people talk about her behind her back; she comes up with some very wise insights; and when push comes to shove she’s as resilient as old boots.

HagDespite the fact that Miss Marple is very senior in years – “a bit funny in the head”, suggests Josephine – the police hold her in high regard. Melchett welcomes her wherever she goes because of her genius in Murder at the Vicarage, and Sir Henry Clithering, ex-Scotland Yard, convinces his friend Conway Jefferson that she brings to the table more than mere “women’s intuition”. “Specialised knowledge is her claim”, he says; “we use it in police work. We get a burglary and we usually know pretty well who did it – of the regular crowd, that is. We know the sort of burglar who acts in a particular sort of way. Miss Marple has an interesting, though occasionally trivial, series of parallels from village life.” Not everyone holds her in that high esteem though; during the first series of accusations at the end of the book, one of the suspects tells her: “be quiet, you old hag”. Well. That’s not very nice, is it?

trustMiss Marple tells us that she knows who the murderer is long before the police have an inkling, and at least 35 pages before the denouement. She convinces the police to allow a trap to be set in order to catch the killer – which is a degree of trust that Poirot could only dream of. Does Miss Marple have an additional skill that the others don’t? Clithering, Harper and Melchett all want to know the same thing. Her response: “I’m afraid you’ll think my “methods”, as Sir Henry calls them, are terribly amateurish. The truth is, you see, that most people – and I don’t exclude policemen – are far too trusting for this wicked world. They believe what is told them. I never do. I’m afraid I always like to prove a thing for myself […] In this case […] certain things were taken for granted from the first – instead of just confining oneself to the facts…” She’s very wise.

level headedMiss Marple has another observation that she makes during a conversation with Dolly Bantry, Mark Gaskell, Adelaide Jefferson and Sir Henry. ““Gentlemen,” she said with her old-maid’s way of referring to the opposite sex as though it were a species of wild animal, “are frequently not as level-headed as they seem.”” That certainly seems an apt description for Conway Jefferson.

butlerBecause the crime is investigated by officers from more than one county – due to the various remote locations of the action – Christie allows us to watch some very entertaining interaction between police officers. Melchett, as we already know, is something of a bully and miserable so-and-so, liable to lose his temper and with a tendency towards impatience. His interrogation of the wheedling George Bartlett, for example, would certainly fail PACE rules today. But how does he get on with his fellow officer Inspector Slack? Not well! Consider when Slack is telling Melchett about his questioning the staff at Gossington Hall, including Lorrimer, the butler: “”they all seemed very shocked and upset. I had my suspicions of Lorrimer – reticent, he was, if you know what I mean – but I don’t think there’s anything in it”. Melchett nodded. He attached no importance to Lorrimer’s reticence. The energetic Inspector Slack often produced that effect on people he interrogated.”

Make upChristie is at pains to point out how Melchett can’t get on with Slack’s vigour. “The diligent Inspector Slack slid across to his superior officer a page torn from his notebook […] Melchett looked up and met the Inspector’s eye. The Chief Constable flushed. Slack was an industrious and zealous officer and Melchett disliked him a good deal.” On another occasion, Melchett is nonplussed by the amount of make-up and lotions on Josie’s dressing table. “”Do you mean to say?” he murmured feebly, “that women use all these things?” Inspector Slack, who always knew everything, kindly enlightened him.”

Make upAnd what about Melchett and Harper, the superintendent from another county? Again you get the sense of some tension. They’re trying to work out how the body got into the library: “”oh, yes, Harper, it’s all perfectly possible. But there’s still one thing to be done. Cherchez l’homme.” “What? Oh, very good, sir.” Superintendent Harper tactfully applauded his superior’s joke, although, owing to the excellence of Colonel Melchett’s French accent, he almost missed the sense of the words.” This implies that class difference might well cause some uncomfortable moments between them. Class is, of course, one Christie’s favourite topics, as we will see later!

Upper ClassAt least Constable Palk knows his social status; here’s what happens when Mrs Bantry tries to show Miss Marple the library: “She led the way rapidly along the long corridor to the east of the house. Outside the library door Constable Palk stood on guard. He intercepted Mrs Bantry with a show of authority. “I’m afraid nobody is allowed in, madam. Inspector’s orders.” “Nonsense, Palk,” said Mrs Bantry. “You know Miss Marple perfectly well.” Constable Palk admitted to knowing Miss Marple. “It’s very important that she should see the body,” said Mrs Bantry. “Don’t be stupid, Palk. After all, it’s my library, isn’t it?” Constable Palk gave way. His habit of giving in to the gentry was lifelong. The Inspector, he reflected, need never know about it.”

St Johns WoodThis is one of Christie’s better-written books, with some nice observations and amusingly creative passages. There’s an entertainingly bizarre conversation between the redoubtable Mrs Price Ridley and the mild Reverend Clement where the former is clearly starting to spread rumours about Colonel Bantry, taking the making of mountains out of molehills to a fine art: ““No wonder you can’t believe it! I couldn’t at first. The hypocrisy of the man! All these years! […] oh, dear vicar, you are so unworldly! […] last Thursday […] I was going up to London by the cheap day train. Colonel Bantry was in the same carriage. He looked, I thought, very abstracted. And nearly the whole way he buried himself behind The Times. As though, you know, he didn’t want to talk.” The vicar nodded with complete comprehension and possible sympathy. “At Paddington I said goodbye. He had offered to get me a taxi, but I was taking the bus down to Oxford Street – but he got into one, and I distinctly heard him tell the driver to go to – where do you think? […] an address in St John’s Wood!” Mrs Price Ridley paused triumphantly. The vicar remained completely unenlightened. “That, I consider, proves it”, said Mrs Price Ridley.”

libraryWhen it’s become obvious that Colonel Bantry has been shunned by the local community because of his implied involvement in the crime, there’s a heart-warming sequence where his wife Dolly stands by his side. She’s so distracted that she cuts up her gloves as she listens in fury to the way he has been treated during her absence. But she encourages him to face the challenge directly when she suggests they spend the evening in the library: “her steady eye met his. Colonel Bantry drew himself up to his full height. A sparkle came into his eye. He said: “You’re right, my dear. We’ll sit in the library!”” A simple act of assertiveness that you know will put him back on track.

Dorothy L SayersWhilst thinking about Christie’s style with this book, I enjoyed the two tongue-in-cheek moments when she drew herself into the story; one obvious, one hinted. “Mark Gaskell looked at Miss Marple in a somewhat puzzled fashion. He said doubtfully: “Do you – er – write detective stories?” The most unlikely people, he knew, wrote detective stories. And Miss Marple, in her old-fashioned spinster’s clothes, looked a singularly unlikely person. “Oh, no, I’m not clever enough for that.”” And when young Peter Carmody enthusiastically tries to help the police, he offers: “do you like detective stories? I do. I read them all, and I’ve got autographs from Dorothy L Sayers, and Agatha Christie and Dickson Carr and H C Bailey.” Cheeky Mrs Christie! Dorothy L Sayers is of course still well known as the writer of the Lord Peter Wimsey stories. But Dickson Carr and H C Bailey are not so well known today. Dickson Carr was an American, whose most popular fictional detectives were Dr. Fell and Sir Henry Merrivale. He died in 1977. H C Bailey created a medical detective, Doctor Reggie Fortune. He died in 1961.

DevonshireRegular readers will know I like to have a look at the place names in Christie’s books to see to what extent they’re genuine, or just a figment of her imagination. Nearly all the places in this book are in the locale of either St Mary Mead, or the Majestic Hotel in Danemouth. I can safely say that the only place that isn’t an invention of Christie’s is Devonshire, where Raymond Starr says he originates. Everywhere else – including Stane and Alsmonston in Devon, is fictional.

Brighton Trunk MurdersLet’s have a look at some of the other references in the book. At the beginning, Dolly Bantry is reading The Clue of the Broken Match, featuring ace detective Lord Edgbaston; sadly, although it sounds like a thrilling read, it doesn’t exist. Miss Marple refers to the Cheviot Murderer; this probably refers to a case back in 1896 in Ohio. She also brings up the Brighton trunk murders, two murders linked to Brighton, in 1934, in which the body of a murdered woman was placed in a trunk. Miss Marple is clearly well read in her true crime stories.

Alfred RouseGeorge Bartlett drives a Minoan 14, a very common car so that its presence in any car park or location would not stand out. Interestingly, this seems to be a completely fictitious model! I can’t find any reference to them apart from featuring in this novel. Superintendent Harper, on hearing of the burnt-out car, mentions Alfred Arthur Rouse, who was known as the Blazing Car Murderer, convicted and subsequently hanged in Bedford for the November 1930 murder of an unknown man in Hardingstone, Northamptonshire.

CophetuaMiss Marple likens Mr Jefferson to King Cophetua, who famously fell in love with a beggar-maid and together they lived “happily ever after” as the phrase goes. Copethua is a much-quoted figure in literature. Mark Gaskell also makes a quote, singing “but she is dead and in her grave, and oh the difference to me!” Christie has used this quote before, in Sad Cypress. This is from Wordsworth’s poem “She dwelt among the untrodden ways” and is about a young woman, unnoticed, unloved, all apart from by the author.

PoundI’m sure you remember that I like to research the present-day value of any significant sums of money mentioned in Christie’s books, just to get a more realistic feel for the amounts in question. There’s only one sum mentioned in this book: £50,000, which is the amount Conway Jefferson has announced will be left to Ruby Keene. The amount left for Mark and Addie to scramble over would be in the region of £5-10,000. That £50,000 in today’s terms would be £1.6 million; and the remainder to be shared between Mark and Addie equates to £165,000-300,000. So they’re all quite substantial sums.

Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for The Body in the Library:

Publication Details: 1942. Pan paperback, 3rd printing of the new edition, published in 1982. The cover illustration shows a woman’s legs lying on a fluffy rug, feet in extravagantly showy sandals; a rather salacious aspect of one part of the story. This edition omits Christie’s original foreword.

How many pages until the first death: 2. Straight in there. Wham bam, thank you Ma’am.

Funny lines out of context: Disappointingly absent.

Memorable characters:

There’s a charming relationship between Arthur and Dolly Bantry, which is poignantly written and gently amusing. The clashes between the policemen, especially Melchett and Slack, are also very enjoyable. In fact, in many ways, Melchett is probably the most memorable character in this book. The Jefferson family and their hangers-on are generally quite bland. Young Peter is quite a jolly lad though!

Christie the Poison expert:

Very little reference to anything to do with poison, as the murders are due to strangulation and being burnt alive in a car crash. However, a planned final murder, which does not take place, involves a syringe of digitalin, a poisonous mixture of digitalis glycosides, extracted from the leaves or seeds of the common foxglove.

Class/social issues of the time:

Two or three of Christie’s usual bêtes-noir crop up. Firstly, class. I’ve already mentioned how Constable Palk is prepared to disobey orders because he’s dealing with his social superiors. Much is made of how the character of the dead girl is clearly from a lower class. Everyone is critical of her cheap, trashy clothing, and of her bitten nails; in fact, no one is more critical than Miss Marple herself: “The sensible thing to do would be to change into trousers and a pullover, or into tweeds. That, of course (I don’t want to be snobbish, but I’m afraid it’s unavoidable), that’s what a girl of – of our class would do. A well-bred girl […] is always very particular to wear the right clothes for the right occasion […] Ruby, of course, wasn’t – well, to put it bluntly – Ruby wasn’t a lady. She belonged to the class that wear their best clothes however unsuitable to the occasion.” Ruby’s dress had already reminded Miss Marple of “Mrs Chetty’s youngest […] Edie was fond of what I call cheap finery too.” Mrs Bantry chips in with the remark “I know. One of those nasty little shops where everything is a guinea.” I have to point out, Mrs Bantry, that 76 years later we still have pound-shops; and in fact, a guinea in 1942 is worth £35 today. So, I think we know precisely the kind of shop to which Mrs Bantry objected.

As usual, we have one or two xenophobic remarks; Hugo McLean refers to exhibition dancer Raymond Starr as looking like a “dago”. No wonder Raymond explains why he changed his name from Ramon: “Ramon was my original professional name. Ramon and Josie – Spanish effect, you know. Then there was rather a prejudice against foreigners – so I became Raymond – very British”. But Sir Henry’s face lights up when he says he comes from a good Devonshire family, instantly changing his opinion of him. Sir Henry ought to know better.

Christie has an uneasy relationship with the notion of feminism. Most of the time, she’s devoutly against it; occasionally, she sees it may have some justification. In this book, I found one telling phrase that I thought suggested a social awakening. Colonel Melchett is interviewing Josie to find out how it was that Ruby started working at the Majestic. ““I do a couple of exhibition dances every evening with Raymond […] as it happens, this summer I slipped on the rocks bathing one day and gave my ankle a nasty turn […] naturally that put the stop to dancing for a bit and it was rather awkward. I didn’t want the hotel to get someone else in my place. That’s always a danger” – for a minute her good-natured blue eyes were hard and sharp; she was the female fighting for existence.” Female fighting for existence; a recognition of the difficulties a woman faced in the world of employment.

There’s one more curious aspect to the social issues of the time, that of marriage, and of couples being suspected of not being married, who are, and vice versa. I won’t go into much more detail on that one as it’s too spoilerish, but it’s an interesting elaboration that shows just how important perception can be over the truth.

Classic denouement: For me, the classic denouement is one where all the suspects are lined up in a room and the detective slowly goes through all the possibilities, lays a suspicious eye on a few people who object outrageously, and then finally accuses one, otherwise unsuspected, person of the crime, who then furiously retaliates in either fight or flight. From that point of view, this isn’t a classic denouement. However, it is a superb ending to the book, with a number of truly surprising revelations left right to the very last minute. Even when the murderer is about to strike a third time, Christie calls an end to the chapter without revealing their name. And when Miss Marple goes through the assumptions that we’ve all made throughout the book, our collective jaws drop in amazement.

Happy ending? Moderately so. Someone who desperately needs a cash boost gets one, and wedding bells are in the offing for one couple; however, that also means that another person misses out.

Did the story ring true? Yes! Unusually, this crime seems perfectly believable, including the activities of third parties who were not directly involved in it, but whose actions affected it.

Overall satisfaction rating: Good characters, good story-telling, a believable (albeit contorted) plotline and a humdinger of an ending. It just sags a little for me during the middle, otherwise I’d have given it top points. 9/10.

Five Little PigsThanks for reading my blog of The Body in the Library 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 Five Little Pigs, and the welcome return of Hercule Poirot to sort out which of five possible suspects is the killer. 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 – Sad Cypress (1940)

Sad CypressIn which Elinor Carlisle is on trial for the murder of Mary Gerrard, and honestly – I haven’t given the game away, you discover that fact in the first sentence of the book! All the evidence is stacked up against her, but is Hercule Poirot convinced? As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I promise not to tell you whodunit!

Mosul mosqueThe book is dedicated to Peter and Peggy McLeod, doctors who ran the hospital in Mosul, in present day Iraq, when Agatha and her husband were there on archaeological digs. They became friends and kept in touch when the McLeods returned to England and settled on the east coast. Christie was godmother to their daughter Crystal. At the time the book was published, the McLeods were under a lot of stress as their children were being evacuated due to the war, and I think the dedication was Christie’s gift of friendship during this difficult time. Sad Cypress was first serialised in the UK in the Daily Express in March and April 1940; and in the US in Colliers’ Weekly from November 1939 to January 1940. The full book was first published in the UK in March 1940 by Collins Crime Club (interestingly, before the Express serialisation had finished) and then subsequently in the US by Dodd, Mead & Co later that year.

CypressFirst things first: the title comes from a passage from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. But how do you pronounce it?! Sigh-press? Sea-press? Sigh-prus? Sea-prus? I’ve done some research online and everyone seems to think that it should be pronounced the same way as the country. So Sighprus it is. Then why do I always instinctively call it Seapress? I’m annoyed at myself for doing it! My Arden Shakespeare tells me that the phrase means a coffin of cypress wood, by the way.

Courtroom JudgeThis book is structured very differently from most of Christie’s works. There’s a prologue, where we see Elinor in court, being asked whether she pleads guilty or not guilty to the murder of Mary Gerrard. Then we go back in time, and see the lead up to Mary’s death; the introduction of Poirot into the story and his additional investigations; and then finally back to the court to see the witnesses being cross-examined and to see Elinor in the witness box. It has a much more theatrical feel than most of her other books; we know right from the very start that Mary is going to die so there’s considerable use of dramatic irony as we see her make her fateful plans and live her daily life. And there’s always a buzz from a courtroom sequence, which certainly sets this book apart from most.

letterAs the opening conversations between Elinor and Roddy develop, you feel this is more like a romantic novel than a thriller – and I must say after about thirty or so pages I was getting thoroughly fed up with this book. But it’s definitely worth sticking with it! You sometimes sense that Christie is trying her hand at different styles of writing, to see if they work. Part One, Chapter Six is purely epistolary in style, which cleverly moves the narrative forward without having to give a lot of background information to slow it down.

detectiveAs the book progresses, and it reverts to its detective genre, it sneakily introduces ideas to put us off the scent. The thought that Elinor could take the opportunity to murder is carefully dripfed to us in a very theatrical way; and the awkward, stilted conversation between Elinor and Mary shortly before her death is almost painfully believable.

PoirotIt’s a welcome back to Hercule Poirot after a brief absence of a couple of years, but to be fair we don’t see Poirot at his absolute best. He’s there purely to act as a detective, but we get to see very little of his character. He’s not particularly meddlesome, or vain, or dandyish; we don’t get any extra insights into what makes those little grey cells tick. I think this is largely because he is deprived of a confidant; Hastings has been off the scene for ages, and there is neither Japp, nor Race, nor even Battle with whom he can chew the sleuthing cud. He has a slightly different relationship with Dr Lord than with everyone else in the book because it is Dr Lord who has engaged him to look at the case; but Poirot can hardly take that as an invitation to share all his suspicions with him. No, Poirot is definitely flying solo in this book and it shows it.

rakeHe does have one brilliant moment of invention though; when he suspects that everyone he talks to is holding something back, he pretends that he knows what it is, and that draws out the truth. In conversation with Nurse O’Brien: “”You and Nurse Hopkins, you have agreed together, have you not, that there are some things which are best not brought out into the light of day.” Nurse O’Brien said: “What would you be meaning by that?” Poirot said quickly: “Nothing to do with the crime – or crimes. I mean – the other matter.” Nurse O’Brien said, nodding her head: “What would be the use of raking up mud and an old story, and she a decent elderly woman, with never a breath of scandal about her, and dying respected and looked up to by everybody.”” Before that, Poirot had no clue what “the other matter” might be.

StamfordRegular readers will know I like to have a look at the place names in Christie’s books to see if they’re genuine, made up, or a blur between the two. They’re a curious mix in this book: Dr Lord refers to a diphtheria epidemic in Stamford, which of course is a fine old Lincolnshire town with a population of approximately 20,000. Poirot ingratiates himself with the xenophobic Mrs Bishop with talk of a recent visit to Sandringham, which along with some fawning comments about the Royal Family, does the trick. Edward John Marshall, who is called to give evidence in court, gives his address as 14 Wren Street, Deptford; and even if the street doesn’t exist, the London suburb certainly does.

Clark GableHowever, the majority of the story is centred on Hunterbury House at Maidensford, neither of which exist; Ted Bigland saw Clark Gable (who definitely did exist, and would have been 39 at the time of publication) at the pictures in Alledore, which doesn’t exist. Dr Lord was in Withenbury on the day of the murder (which doesn’t exist); nor does Boonamba, the fictional part of Auckland where Amelia Sedley lives. The expert gardener, Alfred Wargrave, lives at Emsworth, which is a real town near Portsmouth; in the book, however, it’s in Berkshire, near Maidensford. Maybe this suggests that Maidensford is based on Maidenhead?

Little EaseSome other references that I thought I’d look into… Nurse Hopkins suggests Mary Gerrard should try to qualify in massage or in Norland. I’d not heard of that before, but apparently it is a college in Bath that specialises in training for childcare roles. Dr Lord mentions the Little Ease in conversation with Mrs Welman about having the will to live. That, if you didn’t know, was the torture cell in the dungeon of the White Tower at the Tower of London. When Roddy watches Mary run, with a sigh he murmurs “Atalanta…” and that’s the second time Christie has invoked this Greek myth to describe an energetically beautiful woman – the first time was in The Murder on the Links, so I’ve explained the Atalanta myth in that blog post.

It - Clara BowI’d never heard the word stertorously before – yet in this book it appears twice. Just in case it’s new to you too, it’s a mid-19th century word meaning “like a snore”. Nurse Hopkins refers to seeing the film The Good Earth – commenting that women in China have a lot to put up with. Like the place names, it’s not often that Christie uses genuine film or book titles, but “The Good Earth” was a 1937 film based on Pearl S Buck’s 1931 book of the same name. It was nominated for five Oscars. She also refers to Mary as not “one of these girls who are all S. A. and IT.” That’s sex appeal (gasp!) and being an It girl – which is a reference that stretches back to a Clara Bow film of 1927, would you believe.

Eleanor of AquitainePoirot quotes melodramatically from Wordsworth when he is in conversation with Roddy: “But she is in her grave, and oh, the difference to me!” This comes from his poem “She dwelt among the untrodden ways” and is about a young woman, unnoticed, unloved, all apart from by the author. In another historical allusion, Elinor compares herself to her namesake, Eleanor of Aquitaine, wife of King Henry II, who offered a choice of a dagger or a bowl of poison to her rival in his love, Fair Rosamund. It’s not an unreasonable comparison.

The StrandIn another, cheekier, literary reference, Dr Lord is recommended to Poirot by Dr John Stillingfleet, who said Poirot had done great work in the case of Benedict Farley. The majority of Christie’s readers at the time would not have had a clue what he was referring to, unless they had read the short story The Dream which had appeared in The Strand magazine in February 1938, and in the book The Regatta Mystery which had been published in 1939 but only in the USA. Most of her British readers would have had to wait until the story’s appearance in the 1960 collection, The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding.

Zéphirine DrouhinA couple of other things to mention: Dr Lord drives a Ford Ten; they were built between 1934 and 1937, and were a fairly standard sort of car to have – nothing too flashy. And the rose growing up the trellis at the Lodge was a Zephyrine Drouhin; first cultivated in 1868 and still readily available today. And yes, the type of rose is indeed relevant to the story.

PoundYou’ll know, gentle reader, that I like to research the present-day value of any significant sums of money mentioned in Christie’s books, just to get a more realistic feel for the amounts in question. There are a few such sums mentioned in this book. Elinor proposes to make a gift of £2,000 to Mary from the estate of her mother. That’s approximately £78,000 in today’s money. No wonder she was staggered with the generosity. The other amounts to be paid were £500 to Mrs Bishop, £100 to the cook, £50 to the maids, and £5 to anyone else. That’s £19,500, £4,000, £2,000 and £200 at today’s rate. Major Somervell offers £12,500 to buy Hunterbury – and Elinor is strongly recommended to accept the offer. That’s just short of £500,000 at today’s money. Seems a bargain. And how much did Elinor stand to gain from Mrs Welman’s death, according to Nurse O’Brien? £200,000. Today that would be £7.8 million. Probably worth murdering for.

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

Publication Details:
1940. Fontana paperback, 25th impression, published in November 1989, priced £3.25. The cover illustration shows some half-eaten sandwiches, some roses, a framed sepia photograph and a few iffy looking tablets. All the clues are there!

How many pages until the first death: Depends on your definition! We know that Mary Gerrard has died on Page 1. However, as the story unfolds in retrospect, the first death comes on page 46. These more modern print Fontana paperbacks had a larger font and generally used more pages than the 60s/70s editions; so comparisons (should you wish to do such a thing!) are unreliable.

Funny lines out of context: Disappointingly none that I could identify.

Memorable characters:

None in particular. The important characters are somewhat one-dimensional and it’s hard to get much of an impression of most of them. However, we do see inside Elinor’s mind quite a bit, especially when she’s in court, so we may have a greater understanding of her than most of the others. Roddy is a weed, taking every opportunity to step away from trouble or emotion whilst profusely thanking Elinor for her thoughtfulness. Dr Lord’s description of him is helpfully apt: “a long-nosed supercilious ass with a face like a melancholy horse”. No love lost there, then.

Christie the Poison expert:

This is a book fairly dripping with poison, as that is not only its chosen murder method but also poison frequently pops up in other ways. When Elinor buys the fish paste she remarks to the grocer that there have been many cases of ptomaine poisoning from the product – and the grocer is horrified to think that he would be selling such a thing. In this context, Christie is describing what today we would simply describe as food poisoning; but it can still be lethal.

The charge against Elinor is that of poisoning Mary with morphine hydrochloride – again, today, more commonly known simply as morphine. The deceased had taken four grains of morphine, according to the distinguished analyst Dr Alan Garcia. Apparently, that’s the equivalent to more than a grain of heroin. There’s also a substance I’d never heard of called apomorphine, used here to mitigate against the effects of morphine, but a little research shows it has a very wide range of clinical uses, including treatment for Parkinson’s Disease and fighting addiction to smoking and alcohol. The police surgeon in court suggests that the morphine used might have been “foudroyante” – violent, in French – but my researches also suggest that, as a technical term at least, this might be a bit of Christie-style fantasy. Poirot, in conversation with Lord, wonders why atropine was not used, instead of morphine.

Class/social issues of the time:

There’s plenty of evidence of Christie’s usual themes although perhaps they’re not dwelt on in quite so strong a fashion as she’s sometimes tempted. Just like in her previous book, And Then There Were None, there is some unnecessary emphasis on Jewish traits and appearances; Sir Samuel Attenbury, Counsel for the Prosecution is described as “the horrible man with the Jewish nose”, and his affect on the court is that everyone was “listening with a kind of slow, cruel relish to what that tall man with the Jewish nose was saying” about Elinor. The word usage very much associates the adjectives “horrible” and “cruel” with being Jewish. Given the fact that the Second World War was in its early stages, I can’t help but think that’s particularly insensitive. Fascinatingly, much is made of the fact that Mary had gone to finishing school in Germany; by all accounts, this was quite the fashionable thing to do, as many young British ladies had a whale of a time living the High Life in Nazi Germany – like the Mitford girls, for example – providing they weren’t Jewish.

It’s no surprise to find at least one instance of xenophobia in this book – perhaps the surprise is that there’s only one. Mrs Bishop, the redoubtable ex-housekeeper at Hunterbury eyes Poirot with enormous suspicion until he starts chatting about the Royal Family (as I mentioned earlier). There’s a little nod to Christie’s political slant, with Mrs Bishop’s proud claim that Major Somervell, the new MP, was “returned unopposed […] We’ve never had anyone but a Conservative for Maidensford”.

And of course, there are always class issues. There’s a lot of latent criticism in the book about how Mary has been removed from her class – such as attending the finishing school in Germany – and how that now makes her a fish out of water. Roddy observes: “People never dream what harm they may do by “educating” someone! Often it’s cruelty, not kindness!” Her boyfriend Ted – a garage mechanic – observes how Mary has changed and she herself realises that he no longer suits her idea of what a boyfriend should be like. When Mrs Bishop regrets Roddy’s falling for Mary, “Men, they are all alike: easily caught by flattery and a pretty face”, even Poirot asks her, “she had, I suppose, admirers of her own class?” As ever with Christie, it’s not so much being in the wrong class that’s the problem, it’s meddling one’s emotional affairs in another class that gains her disapproval!

One other interesting subject that gets mentioned – although not in so many words – is euthanasia. Mrs Welman would welcome it: “if they went the proper way about things, my life could be ended here and now – none of this long-drawn-out tomfoolery with nurses and doctors.” Roddy and Elinor tend to agree. ““One does feel, Roddy, that people ought to be set free – if they themselves really want it.” Roddy said: “I agree. It’s the only civilised thing to do. You put animals out of their pain.”” The Voluntary Euthanasia Legalisation Society had only been formed in Britain a few years before the book was written. Added to the stories that must have been coming out of Germany about the Nazi use of euthanasia, it was a hot topic in many respects.

Classic denouement: No, not at all – a very different kind of denouement. As all the final scenes (apart from a short conversation featuring Poirot) take place in court, the great detective is not in a position to point a finger at a guilty party, he can merely explain things in private afterwards. Fascinatingly – and with some frustration too – the fate of the guilty party is never followed up, because, obviously, this is Elinor’s trial, not theirs. It’s quite excitingly written, but it doesn’t have the same impact as one of the classic denouements, and in the end you sense that part of the story hasn’t been told.

Happy ending? Probably, but it’s not a dead cert. And definitely not within the confines of the book, but maybe sometime in the future. Poirot thinks so, at any rate, and he’s usually right.

Did the story ring true? Personally, I have a problem with the credibility of Roddy’s infatuation with Mary. Admittedly, men are capable of doing silly things from time to time, when they become aware of a new person who pulls their strings. But he really does throw everything away on a complete whim. There’s no evidence that he had any real encouragement from Mary. I’m not sure I can believe all that story.

Overall satisfaction rating: Very much a curate’s egg. Slow to start, few if any Poirotisms, and a drippy and irritating character in the form of Roddy. That said, it’s a strong surprise revelation, and the courtroom scenes have their own buzzy life about them. So I’m going for a 7/10.

One Two Buckle My ShoeThanks for reading my blog of Sad Cypress and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment in the space below. Next up in the Agatha Christie Challenge is One Two Buckle My Shoe, the second of three Hercule Poirot novels in a row. Again I can’t remember much about this one, so I’m looking forward to revisiting it. As usual, I’ll blog my thoughts about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!

The Agatha Christie Challenge – And Then There Were None (1939)

And then there were NoneIn which ten strangers receive a summon to visit a rocky island off the coast of Devon, expecting either a holiday, a reunion or an offer of work; and then one by one each of them is murdered by the mysterious U. N. Owen. As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I promise not to tell you whodunit!

lexiconFirstly, a warning. Acceptable words in the English language change over the decades, and when this was published in 1939, Agatha Christie’s original title referred to no more than a 19th century minstrel song. There was no sense of racism or offence. I’ve photographed my original copy of the story, which bears the original British name, simply because that’s the book that’s on my bookshelves. However, I’m not going to use that word in this blog post. Interestingly, even back in 1939, the N word was not acceptable in the US, where it has always been known as And Then There Were None.

SoldierThe book bears no dedication. It was first serialised in the UK in the Daily Express in June and July 1939; and in the US in The Saturday Evening Post over the same period; significantly the last chapter, which contains the explanation for the puzzle, was published on exactly the same day in both the UK and the US – July 1st, 1939. The full book was first published in the UK on 6th November 1939 by Collins Crime Club and then subsequently in the US by Dodd, Mead & Co in December 1939. Over the years, the British title has changed to Ten Little Indians, (which was also the name of a 1946 play adaptation), then Ten Little Soldiers, and since 1985 it has been called And Then There Were None.

The last pageMy first comment has to be that if you haven’t picked it up yet, please PLEASE PLEASE do not do that silly thing and read the last page first. That’s what the ten-year-old me did and in doing so I deprived myself of the excitement of finding out whodunit in what must be one of the most fascinating and gripping mystery stories ever written. If you read the last page first you will very clearly and instantly see the name of the murderer, and it isn’t worth it!

the last judgementAs far as whodunits go, this is a stunner. Re-reading it now, you appreciate how beautifully it is written (racist language aside). The crime is so carefully planned and immaculately carried out and, although the clues are there, it would be a major achievement for the general reader to solve it. It’s written as purely third-person narrative, completely sticking to the facts apart from one short catastrophe-laden comment near the beginning of the book. When Mr Blore arrives by train and meets an old man with Old Testament leanings, “he looked up at Mr Blore and said with immense dignity: “I’m talking to you, young man. The day of judgment is very close at hand.” Subsiding on to his seat Mr Blore thought to himself: “He’s nearer the day of judgment than I am!” But there, as it happens, he was wrong…” That’s Christie’s only personal aside to the reader in the whole book.

EpilogueChristie’s own observations about this book in her autobiography are worth mentioning here. I quote: “I had written the book […] because it was so difficult to do that the idea fascinated me. Ten people had to die without it becoming ridiculous or the murderer being obvious. I wrote the book after a tremendous amount of planning, and I was pleased with what I had made of it. It was clear, straightforward, baffling and yet had a perfectly reasonable explanation; in fact it had to have an epilogue to explain it. It was well received and reviewed, but the person who was really pleased with it was myself, for I knew better than any critic how difficult it had been.”

China soldiersStylistically, it’s an exciting read; take the second chapter, for example. It’s divided into twelve parts, each one getting shorter and shorter as the chapter progresses. It’s almost like a fugue of thoughts; each character involved in the story is given their chance to express their feelings about the forthcoming stay on the island, so that they overlay each other, creating a cacophony of unspoken anxieties. The continued use of short divisions within each chapter add urgency to the narration; no sooner have we observed one character absorbed in one activity, we move on to another, piling up the considerations for the reader to deal with. The device of the constant discovery that each of the china figures is smashed one by one as each death is discovered, adds to the sense of inevitability that they’re all going to get murdered, and also to an almost mystic or supernatural feeling that an invisible hand is doing the killing. I don’t know about you, but if I’d found myself on that island, after a few deaths I’d simply go looking for the rest of the china figures and smash the lot of them. At least that way you’d ruin part of the murderer’s fun. Of course, the powers of psychology end up playing a very big part in this story – if Poirot had read about it afterwards he would have been so jealous not to have been there, to apply his little grey cells to it. As the numbers of survivors dwindle to five, then four, then three, then finally two, the surviving suspects simply know that the only person who could have done it, is/are the other one(s). It’s then a straightforward battle to survive.

999Because everyone is cut off on the island, there’s a tremendous sense of claustrophobia permeating every aspect of the book. There’s also a rather intense and stagey drama to the whole thing; a nice example of this is when the pre-recorded message on a record is played from a side room, accusing all the inmates of former crimes. It’s very much a story of its era; the crime could not have been committed in this way today, with the availability of mobile phones and the Internet. For the story to come true, it’s essential that there is no way that the inhabitants of the island can be in contact with anyone on the mainland. Today, all you’d need to do is dial 999 from your mobile. Or at least get the local fisherman to come on over with his boat.

fly-in-ointmentOK, so we’ll have to deal with the language in the book now. At some point, I think in the 1980s, someone, probably an editor, had to go through this book with a fine tooth-comb and eliminate all the N words, and similarly offensive phrases. In almost every case, the N word has been replaced by the word Soldier; so for example, the poem reads Ten Little Soldiers, it takes place on Soldier Island, the smashed ornaments are china soldiers, and so on. A few other changes that were seen fit to make were: “Soldier Island […] had got its name from its resemblance to a man’s head – a man with negroid lips”; in the current version, that final phrase has simply been removed. A later reference to the strange shape of the rock formation of the island also simply describes it as “the boldly silhouetted rock with its faint resemblance to a giant head”, whereas the original described it as a “giant negro’s head”. There are only two other, now unacceptable, references in Christie’s original, both times using the phrase “N in the woodpile”. On the first occasion that has been changed to “fly in the ointment” and in the second, “the unknown soldier”.

Burgh IslandLet’s have a look at the locations that the book mentions. Soldier Island is meant to be a nod to Burgh Island off the south coast of Devon, which is also, apparently, the inspiration for the location of Christie’s 1941 book Evil Under The Sun. Therefore, Bigbury-on-Sea, which is the nearest town to Burgh Island must be the real life version of Sticklehaven. The nearest train station for Soldier Island is at Oakbridge, and it’s no great leap of the imagination to think of this as real life Okehampton. I see that not far from Okehampton lies the village of Sticklepath (which again suggests the fictional Sticklehaven) and Belstone (which perhaps suggests the Belhaven Guest House, where Emily Brent had stayed with Mrs Oliver). There’s also the village of South Brent which might be where Emily gets her name! Mere, where Tony Marston drives recklessly, is the name of a real place in Wiltshire, but maybe there is also the suggestion of Bere Alston or Bere Ferrars, both near Plymouth. There is no such place as St Tredennick, the seaside spot where Vera recollects her tragic memories with Hugo and Cyril, but there is a Tredinnick, not far from Wadebridge. For once, Christie has made it easy for us to identify the sources of her place names!

Super Sports DalmainLet’s also have a look at a few other references. All the gossip about the ownership of Soldier Island was found in the salacious articles in Busy Bee and Merryweather magazines. Busy Bee appears to be an American journal relating to the antiques industry, and Merryweather seems to bear no resemblance to any kind of publication, so I presume these are both fictitious, as is the Regina Agency in Plymouth, who supplied the services of Mr and Mrs Rogers. Tony Marston drives a Super-Sports Dalmain; I can’t find out too much about that particular vehicle but, if it existed, I think it was made by Alfa Romeo, so it sounds pretty sporty.

Echo and NarcissusEver come across a person with the first name Ulick? That’s the first name of U. N. Owen. It’s a fairly antiquated name nowadays, probably of Irish extraction, and rather noble. Talking of old-fashioned terminology, Lombard tries to work out the possibility of heliographing the mainland. Heliographing? It’s a form of communication, a little like Morse code, using the flash of the sun against a mirrored device. “Echo answers where” says Lombard on another occasion – this is a quote from Lord Byron that refers to the Latin myth of Echo, the nymph tricked by Juno and lover of Narcissus.

Septimus WinnerAnd of course, there’s the famous rhyme. Ten Little Soldiers – or originally, Ten Little Injuns, a song written by Septimus Winner for a minstrel show in 1868. It was then adapted and rewritten by Frank J Green the following year, who renamed it using the same title that Christie did for the book in Britain. Christie’s words for the rhyme are pretty similar to Green’s, with just a little modernising. Today, the structure of the poem is still used throughout the world for satirical purposes: Ten little Country-boys, and Ten little Banker Boys, for instance.

Seven StarsThere are a few names mentioned that also crop up in other Christie books, both before and after. Miss Brent is convinced that Mrs Oliver had invited her to Soldier Island, having met her at the Belhaven Guest House, as mentioned earlier. Mrs Oliver is of course the name of one of the assistants in Parker Pyne Investigates, and would go on to play a much greater role in the Christie’s later books as an associate of Poirot. Marston has a friend called Badger, just like Bobby has in Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? I suppose at a pinch it could be the same chap. The pub in Sticklehaven where the guests assemble before crossing to the island is The Seven Stars, which was also the name of the rather nefarious establishment in Murder is Easy where Harry Carter was the proprietor. I also thought the story of Emily Brent’s maid was reminiscent of the plot of J B Priestley’s An Inspector Calls – although Christie’s work predates Priestley’s by six years.

PoundYou’ll recollect, gentle reader, that I like to research the present-day value of any significant sums of money mentioned in Christie’s books, just to get a more realistic feel for the amounts in question. There’s only one instance of money being mentioned in this book; the fee offered by Morris to Lombard for his attendance on the Island – one hundred guineas. In today’s values that translates to about £4800, not bad for a few days’ work… if he were to get out alive, that is.

Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for And Then There Were None:

Publication Details: 1939. Fontana paperback, 16th impression, published in January 1973, priced 30p. The cover illustration by (presumably) Tom Adams shows a hanged golly in the foreground, representing the death of the final little soldier boy left in the rhyme. There’s an abstract display of the sea and coastline, with a rather large and, frankly irrelevant, iguana. Nevertheless, it’s a disturbing and eerie image, and one I remember I had to keep face down under the bed when I was a kid so I couldn’t accidentally see it.

How many pages until the first death: 45. There’s a sensible amount of scene-setting before the bloodbath ensues; and it’s full of intrigue and suspense even before the first death.

Funny lines out of context: “One fancied things sometimes – fancied a fellow was looking at you queerly”. “That fellow Lombard now, he was a queer chap. Not straight. He’d swear the man wasn’t straight.”

Memorable characters:

I’m not sure it’s in the characters themselves that the strength of this book is to be found; it’s more in the growing suspense and the inevitability that the mysterious U. N. Owen will work his way inexorably through the entire cast. The characters of the pompous old lawyer and the puritanical old maid are rather “stock”; that said, there is an interesting relationship growing between Vera and Lombard.

Christie the Poison expert:

Potassium Cyanide is the cause of two of the deaths; but Veronal and Trional are also discussed during the course of the book, and the role of amyl nitrite in preventing a cardiac arrest is also considered.

Class/social issues of the time:

Maybe because this book is totally plot-driven rather than character-driven, Christie’s usual themes take more of a back seat – providing you ignore the constant use of the N word. There is of course some racism: the character of Morris is described as a “little Jew”, with “thick Semitic lips”. Lombard reflects on Morris that “that was the damnable part about Jews, you couldn’t deceive them about money – they knew!”

Lombard is also the source of another thread of racism. When all the guests are assembled and the recorded voice announces its accusations against each one, Lombard’s alleged crime was that he was “guilty of the death of twenty-one men, members of an East Africa tribe”. Lombard doesn’t deny it: “self-preservation’s a man’s first duty. And natives don’t mind dying, you know. They don’t feel about it as Europeans do.” He clearly values the life of a white Englishman more highly over an African tribesman. When recollecting this account, in a later conversation with Miss Brent, Vera makes an excuse for Lombard’s behaviour: “they were only natives…” That’s a thoroughly unpleasant attitude to take. Lombard has obviously been a bad influence on her.

I’m not sure how current a theme it was at the time – particularly just before the start of the Second World War – but I enjoyed observing how Rogers, the manservant, carries on with his duties, with hardly a thought to his own predicament. He’s been accused of a crime too, plus his wife has died, and yet he’s splendidly making up breakfasts, fetching coffees and chopping up firewood. Christie – or, perhaps more accurately, Miss Marple – always had an appreciative eye for a domestic servant who knew her place and carried on through thick and thin. I think Rogers is a marvel, frankly. Miss Brent had already held a brief conversation with Vera where they wondered how anyone could live on the island during the winter months. “I’ve no doubt the house is shut up in winter,” she said. “You’d never get servants to stay here for one thing.” Vera murmured: “It must be difficult to get servants anyway.”

Classic denouement: In one sense, yes, in another no. No, because the very structure of the book means there are no detectives on the island in a position to point the finger of accusation at the guilty party. Yes, because it’s a complete one-off. When the police do arrive, they are left to piece together whatever they can, but it’s totally inconclusive and they’ve no idea who the perpetrator was. However, the murderer wrote a confession which was sealed in a bottle and chucked into the ocean, in that time-honoured traditional fashion. And the denouement is simply the reader digesting all the ins and outs of the confession, without any professional or police input. Don’t worry, if you like the old-fashioned denouements, you won’t be disappointed with this one!

Happy ending? No. It’s an apocalyptic wipe-out.

Did the story ring true? There are two aspects of the story that, to me, don’t ring true, but it will be hard for me to describe them to you without giving the game away. The final death – that is, the one before the confession was written – strikes me as possible but not probable, and I have a sense that it is included to keep the perfection of the structure of the story. As for the other one… no, I can’t tell you!

Overall satisfaction rating: It’s a brilliant read. Fast, exciting, suspenseful, and totally impossible to solve. No reason not to give it a 10/10.

Sad CypressThanks for reading my blog of And Then there were None and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment in the space below. The next book that Christie wrote was The Regatta Mystery and Other Stories. However, it was the only book of hers to be published in the United States but not in the UK. The stories in that volume weren’t printed in the UK until The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding (1960) and later. So, as I am a Brit, and I’m doing it Brit-style, we won’t come to those stories until we reach their UK publication. Therefore, next up in the Agatha Christie Challenge is Sad Cypress, and the welcome return of Hercule Poirot. I’m afraid I can’t remember anything about this one, so I’m looking forward to my memory being jogged. 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 – Murder is Easy (1939)

Murder is EasyIn which Luke Fitzwilliam, ex-police officer returned from the East, finds himself at the heart of a village where a number of people have recently died – and maybe not by natural causes. He goes undercover researching for a make-believe book and stays with his friend’s cousin Bridget, passing himself off as her cousin. But as murder becomes more and more obvious, he eventually stumbles into discovering who really killed all these people. As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I promise not to tell you whodunit!

CriticsThe book is dedicated to: “Rosalind and Susan, the first two critics of this book”. Rosalind Hicks, formerly Prichard, née Christie, was Agatha Christie’s only child, born in 1919 and died in 2004. Susan was Susan North, Rosalind’s best friend. The book was first serialised in the US in The Saturday Evening Post in November and December 1939, at the same time as Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, under the title Easy to Kill (which are the last three words of the second chapter). In the UK it was serialised in the Daily Express in January and February 1939, also as Easy to Kill. The full book was first published in the UK on 5th June 1939 by Collins Crime Club as Murder is Easy; and then subsequently in the US by Dodd, Mead & Co in September 1939, but still retaining the original title of Easy to Kill.

detectiveThis is an unpredictable, lively and thoroughly entertaining read, dotted with eccentric characters, fast-paced and full of surprises. I remember that when I first read it I was completely bowled over by the surprise revelation of the murderer – I would never have guessed it. Reading it this time, I quickly remembered who the guilty party was, but that didn’t diminish the enjoyment as you witness the very clever tricks that Christie plays to lead you away from working it out for yourself. But she does give you the clues fair and square, if only you can sort them, wheat-like, from the chaff.

Luke Skywalker meditatingIt’s written as a third-person narrative but very much from the point of view of Luke, the gentlemanly, rather bumbling, occasionally snobbish hero, who only just realises the identity of the murderer in time to prevent yet another death. Christie describes Bridget following one sequence of activity which culminates in a situation of danger, whilst Luke is off on another track. Then, with our heroine in peril, Christie abandons her to follow Luke’s adventures, which both raises tension, but loses momentum. However, the two characters do come together to meet (literally) at a vital moment at the end. This creates a relatively unusual, highly dramatic, and very effective denouement scene. Among the most entertaining parts of the book are those where we see Luke trying hard to understand what’s happening: the chapter entitled Meditations of Luke helpfully runs through all his theories at the time, one by one considering the likelihood of guilt of each of the characters in the story. He doesn’t have little grey cells so much as big vacuous blobs, but he means well. Christie provides the return of Superintendent Battle to act as an official figure of authority, to cross the legal t’s and dot the legal i’s, but he really has very little to do with solving the crime.

PoirotOne of the criticisms of the book at the time was that the reader missed Poirot; but I don’t feel that way at all. I rather felt that Christie had exhausted Poirot’s characteristics by the time that she wrote Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, to the extent that the great man was rather thinly drawn in that book. Instead she created Fitzwilliam, an amenable and rather daring chap who acts on whims and jumps to conclusions; in many ways he’s as useless a sleuth as the reader would be, and the reader rather identifies with his bewilderment whilst envying him his courage. Battle, of course, doesn’t have much in the way of personality, and his few brief pages of appearance in this book don’t lend many further insights into his detecting methods. We will only meet him one more time, in Towards Zero.

NastyThe relatively large cast of characters in this book suitably recreates the hustle and bustle of a busy village, with considerable class delineation between the nice people and places and the nasty people and places. In fact, Christie goes to town with the use of the word “nasty”. Right from the start Luke dismisses the sight of “nasty little houses” from the train; Lord Whitfield is described as a “nasty little man” who owns a string of “nasty little weekly papers”. The much despised Ellsworthy is branded as a “nasty sort of fellow”, having “a nasty mind and nasty habits”, with “nasty friends” who conduct orgies (in the village! Gosh!), whilst the irrepressible and mischievous young Tommy was considered “a nasty little boy”. It strikes me that anyone who isn’t of the right social set was condemned as “nasty” in some way or other. More on the social and class elements of the book later on.

Fenny StratfordThis book has an unusually large number of references to trace and obscure textual points to investigate – so here goes! The place names of Fenny Clayton and Wychwood under Ashe are both inventions of Christie but I’m sure you can think of places that they sound like (Buckinghamshire boasts both Fenny Stratford and Steeple Claydon within about ten miles of each other, for example). Luke says he has returned from the Mayang Straits, which is also not a clearcut location, even though it sounds it. There is a small town by the name of Mayang Imphal in the Indian state of Manipur, and there is also a district, associated with black magic, named Mayong in the state of Assam. There is even a county called Mayang in the Hunan state in China, but it’s unlikely that Luke would have been working there in the 1930s. Mayang Straits sounds as though it should be near Malaysia or Singapore… but no.

RavenThere are several quotations to explore. When we first meet Luke he’s a mass of quotations: “The wrong is done, past all recall – weep we never so bitterly we can never bring back the dead past – Quoth the raven “Nevermore” – The moving finger writes; and having writ moves on, etc, etc and so on and so forth.” Not that easy to extricate: working backwards, the moving finger comes from Fitzgerald’s translation of the Omar Khayyam; Quoth the raven comes from Poe’s poem The Raven; weep we never so bitterly is reminiscent of a passage from Jeremiah 22:10; the wrong is done currently escapes me. Any ideas, team?

Doctor Fell“Fiddle dee dee, fiddle dee dee, the fly has married the humble bee” hums Luke, as he thinks of the character of Dr Humbleby. This is apparently an old-fashioned nursery song; but as no one ever sang it to me in my nursery, I’ve never heard of it. When interviewing Miss Humbleby, she explains her father didn’t like Dr Thomas. “I do not like thee Dr Fell, the reason why I cannot tell” is his response. This is a nursery rhyme, apparently written by the satirist Tom Brown in 1680 in response to the Dean of Christ Church’s expulsion of Brown with the caveat that if he could translate a Martial epithet, he would be re-admitted. Brown decided to damn Fell for ever more with his response.

Frances CornfordOne chapter is entitled “Oh Why do you walk through the Fields in Gloves?” This is a quotation from Frances Cornford’s 1910 poem, “To a Fat Lady Seen from the Train”. The verse sparked a lot of light-hearted criticism at the time from worthies such as G K Chesterton and A E Housman. It’s an appropriate title for this particular chapter, but I’ll say no more. Towards the end of the book, one character quotes Kipling with the words “he travels the fastest who travels alone”. This is from his poem The Winners, published in 1888.

blue-moneyThere are also some words and phrases that I had never encountered: Luke is initially described as recently back in England with money to blue. To blue? Is that the same as money to burn? Basically yes. It’s mid-19th century slang (so it must have been old-fashioned when Christie used it) with the definition of blue as “to spend, waste, squander go through lavishly, recklessly, or extravagantly, especially with regard to money”. Think of it as sounding like the past tense of to blow. When Luke is first going around asking questions about rural folkloric practices, he cites “ill-wishing or overlooking, there’s another interesting subject”. Overlooking? Today we think of that as simply meaning accidentally to forget to do something. But it’s also a late 16th century term meaning to bewitch. Mrs Church describes Harry Carter as “a low class fellow and half-seas over most of the time”. Half-seas over? This is a 16th century term for being drunk. I’m beginning to wonder if Christie had swallowed an extremely old dictionary.

PeplumDescribing Ellsworthy’s friends at the Bells and Motley (there’s a pub of the same name in The Mysterious Mr Quin – it’s not that common a name to bear such regular repetition), Lord Whitfield describes: “a female with no eyebrows, dressed in a peplum, a pound of assorted sham Egyptian beads and sandals”. A peplum? It comes from the Greek word for a tunic and is a short overskirt that is usually attached to a fitted jacket, blouse or dress. You knew that already? Well, I didn’t.

The DerbyThere are yet still more references to clarify. Two publications are mentioned, the Daily Clarion and Good Cheer. The Daily Clarion continues to publish – in Princeton, Indiana, so I doubt it’s the same one. Good Cheer is an international magazine for people who are DeafBlind written by people who are DeafBlind; so again, I think we’re talking about inventions by Christie. The book starts with Luke having a bet on the Derby, with the winner coming in at 40-1. In those days, the Derby was always run on the first Wednesday of June – so that was the 7th June 1939 or 1st June 1938, depending on which race Christie might have been referring to. Alas, there is no such horse as Jujube II winning either of those races; Bois Roussel won in 1938 and Blue Peter in 1939.

Standard SwallowLavinia Pinkerton laments the fact that Second Class carriages had been abolished, leaving only 1st class and 3rd class. Most railways had abolished 2nd class at the latter end of the 19th century – although apparently the Great Western Railway kept them going until 1910. Mrs Pinkerton also concerns herself with people not getting a dog licence (abolished in 1987) and strict observation of lighting-up time (half an hour after sunset, but becoming rapidly antiquated as more and more cars have their lights on permanently.) On the subject of cars, Luke’s friend Jimmy Lorrimer drives a Ford V 8, a popular car launched in 1932, whilst Luke has bought a second hand Standard Swallow, like Major Eustace in Murder in the Mews, so that must be one of only 148 cars to be built by the Swallow Coachbuilding Company (later Jaguar) between 1932 and 1936 (according to Wikipedia).

Nevinson witchWhen Luke first sees Bridget, he is instantly put in mind of the picture of Nevinson’s Witch. That meant nothing to me, so I researched, and discovered the artist Christopher Nevinson. He was a pacifist, working as a volunteer for the Red Cross on the front line as a driver, stretcher-bearer and hospital orderly between 1914-15. Gifted, but unpopular, the critic Charles Hind observed “It is something, at the age of thirty one, to be among the most discussed, most successful, most promising, most admired and most hated British artists.” Among his most celebrated works was An Inexperienced Witch – and if that’s how Bridget first appeared to him, I don’t think she’d be that flattered.

EuclidLuke’s initial reflections on the evidence he’d garnered (in the chapter, “Possibilities”) results in his dismissing his own opinions and reflecting “how nicely Euclid put things”. I wasn’t sure what that referred to. Euclid, of course, was a Greek mathematician, often referred to as the “father of geometry”, born around 325 BC. But as to his work, you’ll have to ask someone else. Wikipedia advises that among his legacies is a system of rigorous mathematical proofs that remains the basis of mathematics to this day – so maybe that’s what Luke’s thinking about.

Sabbatic-GoatDr Thomas is a keen reader; on his latest list is Kreuzhammer’s Inferiority and Crime which he offers to lend Luke. Sadly this riveting read seems to have been an invention, as does the equally Germanic sounding Wellerman Kreitz Research Laboratories, which Lord Whitfield had recently graced with his presence. Shame – they both sound highly authentic. One of the characters is often likened to a goat in appearance, which gives rise to discussion about why the goat is often linked to evil. It’s because of the “Sabbatic Goat” of Eliphas Levi. Again, in case you haven’t read the book, I’ll say no more.

PoundYou may well know that I like to research the present-day value of any significant sums of money mentioned in Christie’s books, just to get a more realistic feel for the amounts in question. There aren’t very many instances of it in this book, but a couple bear examination. Luke’s win on the horses came in at £100. In today’s values that translates to over £4500 – that’s quite some win. The value of being married to Lord Whitfield is estimated as receiving a £100,000 settlement; instead of earning £6 a week as his secretary. The settlement figure is the equivalent today of £4.5 million; the secretary wage a paltry £275 a week. That’s an annual salary of about £14,000. Not very generous, is he? Johnnie Cornish left Bridget for a plump widow and an income of £30,000 a year – that’s a very tempting £1.3 million a year, plus a bit more. You can’t really blame him, can you?

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

Publication Details: 1939. Fontana paperback, 4th impression, published in February 1966, in an era too tasteful to list a sale price on the back cover. The cover illustration by (presumably) Tom Adams shows two direct clues and one indirect one: a dead canary (which is almost too appropriate), some spilt medicine (presumably meant for Amy Gibbs) and a spider – by which I can only infer that he’s pointing out the spider’s web of intrigue that the book contains. It’s quite effective and sufficiently intriguing to draw a casual reader in.

How many pages until the first death: 10, but that’s misleading. Miss Pinkerton has already told us about four previous deaths, assumed by her to be murders. One thing’s for sure, in this book you’re never too far from a dead body.

Funny lines out of context: Remarking on Ellsworthy’s Bohemian friends arriving for the weekend, Bridget affirms: “Says the gossip writer: “Someone has whispered that there will be gay doings in the Witches’ Meadow tonight.””

Memorable characters:

This book is littered with interesting characters, some of whom only play a very small role. Lavinia Pinkerton, for example, is portrayed as something of a dotty old lady but there is something of the Miss Marple about her, with her suspicions, if not her solutions.

I like the accounts of Major Horton and his wife – with their (probably) stormy marriage. As Christie states: “Luke thought that Major Horton’s married life must have been more like a military campaign than an idyll of domestic bliss.”

Christie goes to town on painting Ellsworthy as unpleasant a character as possible, primarily by dwelling on his apparent effeminacy. Miss Humbleby says he staged a “queer ceremony” with some “queer-looking people”. Luke describes him as a dilliettante, and a poseur; whereas Major Horton calls him “Miss Nancy”. I think his opinion is pretty clear.

Bizarrely, some of the more interesting people are those we never meet because they’re already dead! I bet Harry Carter and Tommy Pierce had a few tales to tell.

Christie the Poison expert:

There are so many deaths in this book, it was beyond doubt that poison would play its part. Luke’s friend Jimmy refers to the Abercrombie case, “for feeding the local vet with arsenic, then they dug up his wife and she was full of it, and it’s pretty certain his brother-in-law went the same way […] the unofficial view was that Abercrombie had done away with at least fifteen people in his time.” Although this sounds remarkably believable, I can’t find any reference to it in real life, so I guess Christie invented it. Luke correctly guesses that Mrs Horton was killed by arsenic poisoning, and not acute gastritis. Amy Gibbs drank hat paint (whoever heard of that? It was already a very archaic concept when this was written) instead of cough linctus, which resulted in oxalic acid poisoning. Today it’s mainly used in bleaching and cleaning products and it can be found in rhubarb leaves. That’s why your mother taught you only to eat rhubarb sticks.

Class/social issues of the time:

As usual, class rears its ugly head, but in a number of subtle ways. Luke’s initial observation of the “nasty little houses” he sees from the train show his innate snobbery towards anything less than posh and refined. In conversation with the working-class Mrs Pierce, her description of “a lovely lot of new houses, some of them with green roofs and stained-glass in the windows” causes him to shudder. Wychwood-under-Ashe is an immensely class-ridden community, with Dr Humbleby described by the vicar Mr Wake as “greatly beloved by the poorer classes”; he also considers Mrs Church to be “not, I fear, a very estimable woman”, and indeed, when we meet her, Mrs Church wants to find out if there is a reward on offer before offering any information – how base of her. Snobby Luke concludes that he will have to “move in lower social spheres” to ascertain the information he wants; and even Bridget bemoans the fact that her previous beau dumped her for someone with “a North Country accent” – how humiliating. Miss Waynflete says of Ellsworthy, “he keeps the new antique shop but he is actually a gentleman”, with that old-fashioned, upper middle-class, mild scorn for anyone in trade or with new money.

Another of Christie’s developing themes is the role of women in society. As we’ve seen in her earlier works, she’s no feminist. In this book, when Luke tries to praise Miss Waynflete’s intelligence, the older lady gently corrects him: “that’s very nice of you, Mr Fitzwilliam, but I’m afraid women are never quite such deep thinkers as men”. Luke is also taken by the quiet beauty and vulnerability of Miss Humbleby, and wrestles (briefly) with his own desire to protect her: “It was true that Rose Humbleby had recently lost her father, but she had a mother, and she was engaged to be married to a decidedly attractive young man who was fully adequate to anything in the protection line. Then why should he, Luke Fitzwilliam, be assailed by this protection complex? Good old sentimentality to the fore again, thought Luke. The protective male! Flourishing in the Victorian era, going strong in the Edwardian, and still showing signs of life despite what our friend Lord Whitfield would call the rush and strain of modern life”. Christie never challenges Luke on this position. Indeed, in conversation with Mrs Church, when he asks her whether Amy had any boyfriends, his reaction to her veiled assent is “she preferred the sterner sex.” Sterner sex?! That would have had him laughed out of town in my youth.

As usual, any mention of politics always comes from a right-wing perspective. The “fierce looking Colonel” who gets in Luke’s train becomes incensed at what he reads in The Times and spends half an hour moaning about “these damned Communist agitators”. To be left-wing is to be equated to the criminal fraternity, as in Lord Whitfield’s description of Carter – “a drunken ruffian […] one of these socialistic, abusive brutes”.

A couple of other subjects get the Christie treatment, some of them not found quite so frequently in her works. There’s a sideswipe at modern art: “”I shall have to adopt a disguise,” said Luke with a sudden grin. “What do you suggest? Artist? Hardly – I can’t draw, let alone paint.” “You could be a modern artist,” suggested Jimmy. “Then that wouldn’t matter.”” Christie derides Ellsworthy’s appearance as the height of effeminacy: “Mr Ellsworthy was a very exquisite young man dressed in a colour scheme of russet brown. He had a long pale face with a womanish mouth, long black artistic hair and a mincing walk.” Even vivisection raises its ugly head; Lord Whitfield visits the Wellerman Kreitz Research laboratories, much to the dismay of Mrs Anstruther: “”They use guinea-pigs, I believe – so cruel – though of course not so bad as dogs – or even cats.” “Fellows who use dogs ought to be shot,” said Major Horton, hoarsely. “I really believe, Horton,” said Mr Abbot, “that you value canine life above human life.” “Every time!” said the major. “Dogs can’t turn round on you like human beings can. Never get a nasty word from a dog.”

Classic denouement: Unusual, effective and exciting, but you couldn’t call it a classic. There is an incredibly tense scene, where it looks as though one of our heroes is going to be murdered with no hope of being rescued; and then to make the agony of suspense even stronger, the story cuts away to another character, following their story for a few pages; only for the two threads to come together at the end of the chapter. As a result you have excitement, followed by a slight sense of lost momentum, and then the denouement comes almost in retrospect as Battle explains, to those people still present, what actually happened. But there isn’t a J’accuse moment as such.

Happy ending? Yes. Clearly our sleuthing team have fallen in love and all’s right with their world.

Did the story ring true? The story has perhaps more unlikely coincidences than most, from Jimmy’s connection to Bridget, the murderer’s knowledge that Miss Pinkerton was going to Scotland Yard (wouldn’t she have kept that a secret?) and the fact that the car that killed Miss Pinkerton hadn’t stopped. If it had, then it would have been a very different story!

Overall satisfaction rating: It’s an extremely enjoyable read; pure whodunit escapism, with quite a lot of humour and some memorable characters. And a lot of deaths often lifts a whodunit, in a ghoulish sort of way! 9/10.

And then there were NoneThanks for reading my blog of Murder is Easy 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 And Then There Were None. Apologies that my copy is from the 1970s, so has the original British title. Frequently cited as Christie’s masterpiece, I’m very much looking forward to reacquainting myself with it. As usual, I’ll blog my thoughts about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!

The Agatha Christie Challenge – Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (1938)

Hercule Poirot's ChristmasIn which Hercule Poirot’s plans for a cosy Christmas Eve as guest of Colonel Johnson, Chief Constable of Middleshire, go awry when local bigwig Simeon Lee is found murdered in his locked bedroom that evening (that’s Lee’s bedroom, not Johnson’s – that would have been a very different tale). Poirot joins Johnson and local Superintendent Sugden to work out which of the Lee family Christmas visitors did the heinous deed. As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I promise not to tell you whodunit!

Macbeth kills DuncanThe book is prefaced by a letter in the form of a dedication: “My dear James, you have always been one of the most faithful and kindly of my readers, and I was therefore seriously perturbed when I received from you a word of criticism. You complained that my murders were getting too refined – anaemic, in fact. You yearned for a “good violent murder with lots of blood.” A murder where there was no doubt about its being murder! So this is your special story – written for you. I hope it may please. Your affectionate sister-in-law, Agatha”. The James in question was James Watts, who had married Agatha’s sister Madge in 1902. He owned Abney Hall, in Cheshire, where Christie would later write The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding and After the Funeral, and which she had already used as the inspiration for Chimneys in The Secret of Chimneys and The Seven Dials Mystery. The book also starts with a quotation from Macbeth, that reappears later in the story too: “Yet who would have thought the old man to have so much blood in him?” Of course, Shakespeare was referring to the murder of King Duncan, but it applies just as well to Simeon Lee.

ChristmasHercule Poirot’s Christmas had quite a torturous route to the bookshelves. It was first serialised in the US in Collier’s Weekly from November 1938 to January 1939, under the title Murder for Christmas. In the UK it was serialised in the Daily Express in twenty parts in November and December 1938, under the slightly different title Murder at Christmas. The full book was first published in the UK on 19th December 1938 by Collins Crime Club as Hercule Poirot’s Christmas; and then subsequently in the US by Dodd, Mead & Co in February 1939, again as Murder for Christmas. A 1947 US paperback edition by Avon Books changed the title again to A Holiday for Murder, and it seems to me that both these latter titles are now equally used in America.

1930s CinemaThis is an exciting, well-structured book, taking place over the seven days of a Christmas week, split into seven parts (one per day) and with several smaller sections in each part. The structure gives it extra pace and also an inevitability – you know in advance, just by looking at the chapter breakdown, that everything will be solved by December 28th. What is lacking, however, for the most part, is any sense of Christmas. It’s as though Christie has taken the festive season simply as an excuse to get a warring family together, but nothing happens that would be thought of as “Christmassy”. There isn’t a big meal. There is no talk of presents. The valet goes out on Christmas Eve to the pictures like he does every Friday night, he doesn’t do anything special. Similarly, and oddly, there’s no mention of any Christmas plans by any of the police or the other staff – it’s all just like any other day, or week. Odd.

butlerChristie employs simple, third party narration throughout the whole book apart from a few paragraphs shortly before the body of Simeon Lee is discovered, where Tressilian, the butler, takes over and gives us his thoughts. It’s a very interesting device, to change the perspective and see it all through his eyes, and it breaks up the standard narration technique. But the early part of the book is very heavy with exposition, listening in to conversations between the various Lee sons and their wives, where they appear to be talking about the family structure and relationship difficulties for the first time ever – which is highly unlikely – all for the benefit of filling in some useful facts for the reader before the action really gets underway. I thought that was rather heavy-handed of Christie; she can do better!

detectiveAnother slightly disappointing element to the story is that we see very little of Poirot’s fun and games that he normally can’t resist in his previous cases. There are no conversations where you get a closer understanding of his personality; there’s little humour in his language; there’s none of his usual vanity. The only thing he does that is true to form is to create a truly exciting denouement, where your suspicions hop from suspect to suspect before he finally reveals the truth. You feel that Poirot misses Hastings in this book; he doesn’t really have another person to spark off. Colonel Johnson is a nice enough chap, but the two men don’t have that special understanding that encourages Poirot to be outspoken and candid. Superintendent Sugden is a rather bombastic bruiser of a man with none of the lightness of touch that Poirot would normally admire. So Poirot ends up being quite isolated in this story; and for the most part he could be just any old detective who was good at solving crime. Interestingly, Christie took a break from Poirot for a few years after this book; his next appearance would be in Sad Cypress in 1941. Let’s hope he comes back to form next time out.

FrancoBy late 1938, Franco’s hold on Spain, through the Spanish Civil War, was getting progressively tighter. It would only be a few months later that Barcelona, and then Madrid, would fall and he would assume complete control of the country. There had been massive amounts of bloodshed for over two years; and, of course, the Second World War would start the following year too. It was a fascinating choice on the part of Christie to have her Spanish character, Pilar, so prominent in this book. She is the second character that we meet, and a lot of time is given over to her experiences, her motivations and her personality. She talks about how back in Spain the mayor is pro-government and the priest is pro-Franco. She has seen bombs destroy houses and kill car drivers. Colonel Johnson’s comment: “can’t be very pleasant being in Spain just at present” is the epitome of English understatement. When the family are deciding whether to make a financial allowance for Pilar, Alfred isn’t keen; “he is so British”, says his wife Lydia, “he doesn’t really like Lee money going to a Spanish subject.” Whether that’s typical Christie distrust of foreigners, or a specific reaction to the war, isn’t clear. But Spain was clearly at the forefront of people’s minds at the time. Even the film that Horbury, the valet, goes to see on Christmas Eve is entitled Love in Old Seville. It’s a Christie invention, by the way, no such film exists.

Long DaleThere aren’t many references to follow up in this book. All the place names (apart from Madrid, obviously) are made up by Christie: the Lee family home is Gorston Hall, Longdale, Addlesfield, which bears no similarity to any real place I can find – there is a Long Dale in the Derbyshire Dales (and also a place in Oklahoma with the same name) but that’s about it. Mr Lee was said to have been in contact with the vice consul in Aliquara, trying to locate Pilar; there’s no such place in Spain. Colonel Johnson is the Chief Constable of Middleshire; I suppose at a push one might think that represents Middlesex. Superintendent Sugden says he comes from the nearby county of Reeveshire, which I think is no more than a play on words; reverse the two parts of the name and you get Shire Reeve, which is the derivation of Sheriff, which basically describes Sugden’s role.

Henry Wadsworth LongfellowMuch notice is taken of David Lee’s quote when his father dies: “the mills of God grind slowly, but they grind exceeding small.” I’d never heard this phrase before; apparently it suggests the certainty of eventual divine retribution. It’s a direct quote from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and his translation of a 17th-century poem, Retribution, by Friedrich von Logau. But it seems to be from an original concept by Plutarch. Unusual to find such a cultured family and police force! Colonel Johnson knows of Poirot because of his superb sleuthing in the case of Sir Bartholomew Strange, better known as Three Act Tragedy; but if you can’t remember him from that tale, that’s because actually he doesn’t appear in it.

PoundIf you’re a regular reader, you’ll know that I like to research the present-day value of any significant sums of money mentioned in Christie’s books, just to get a more realistic feel for the amounts in question. In her last book, Appointment with Death, there were no significant sums of money mentioned in this book – so that eliminated the need for that paragraph! However, this time round there are a couple of interesting sums. Just how rich is Simeon Lee? He is described as a millionaire twice over. So if we convert £2 million in 1938, in today’s value that works out as £94 million, give or take a few hundred thousand. So even if his sons all had to share in that inheritance, it’s still an extraordinary amount of money. His diamonds, said to be valued at between £9 – £10,000, today would be worth between £420,000 and £470,000. Definitely worth stealing.

Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for Hercule Poirot’s Christmas:

Publication Details: 1938. Fontana paperback, 14th impression, published in March 1977, price 65p. The cover illustration by Tom Adams shows a miserable old man surrounded by grotesquely ornate candlesticks and what appears to be the front two legs of a prancing horse – don’t quite understand that. Embellishing the picture are some red-berried sprigs of holly dripping with blood. The blood works well in the picture – not sure about the rest, not certain this one of Tom Adams’ best illustrations!

How many pages until the first death: 48. By that stage in the book – Christmas Eve – all the family members have arrived at the house and no further characters are introduced apart from Horbury’s cinema date, although we never actually meet her. As far as the reader is concerned, the death comes along just at the right time.

Funny lines out of context: None that I could discern. It isn’t a particularly funny book, to be fair.

Memorable characters:

In the same way that Mrs Boynton stands out in Appointment with Death, as being the tyrannical ruler of a subjugated family, Simeon Lee takes precisely the same role in this book. To my mind he’s not quite so striking a character because his cruelty is less psychological and more real, as a grumpy shouter of instructions and insulter of sons. But there’s no doubt that, like Mrs Boynton, he deserves everything coming his way.

Pilar is also a strong character; Christie imbues her with the exotic mystery of passionate Spain, and she has none of the English reserve that characterises so many members of the Lee family. She openly talks about how handsome Sugden is, much to his embarrassment. She makes no concession to the delicate subject of money and speaks openly about her desire for an inheritance from Simeon, which is an area where the other characters would fear to tread.

Christie the Poison expert:

Poison doesn’t play a part in this book, apart from Johnson’s recollection of the Three Act Tragedy case. This gives rise to a brief conversation about the pros and cons of solving a case where poisoning is the method. But it has no bearing on this crime.

Class/social issues of the time:

Usually one can find something in a Christie book where she propounds what she feels is the natural British (or English) distrust of foreigners. But there are very few instances of it in this book. In the conversation about poison referred to above, Poirot notes that murder by poison might be thought of as “unEnglish” – “a device of foreigners! Unsportsmanlike!” Elsewhere there’s the strangely ironic conversation between Stephen and Pilar where he says “it’s just a little bit more than tiresome, my dear. Then there’s that lunatic foreigner prowling about. I don’t suppose he’s any good but he makes me feel jumpy”. So let’s just get this straight: here we have a South African man whingeing about a “lunatic foreigner” to a Spanish woman. Funny how when you have a prejudice against someone you never question its reasonableness.

One other thread that is developed here, that you find in some other Christie books of this time, is the role of women in society. In the past Christie has shown herself to be no feminist. But in this book she changes tack halfway through. Consider the motivations of Simeon Lee’s late wife, the mother whose death the character of David can’t quite get over, often comes into question in conversations between the family members.

David remembers her in conversation with his wife Hilda. “”She was so sweet, Hilda, and so patient. Lying there, often in pain, but bearing it – enduring everything. And when I think of my father” – his face darkened – “bringing all that misery into her life – humiliating her – boasting of his love affairs – constantly unfaithful to her and never troubling to conceal it.” Hilda Lee said: “She should not have put up with it. She should have left him.” He said with a touch of reproof: “She was too good for that. She thought is was her duty to remain. Besides, it was her home – where else should she go?” “She could have made a life of her own.” David said fretfully: “Not in those days! You don’t understand. Women didn’t behave like that. They put up with things. They endured patiently. She had us to consider. Even if she divorced my father, what would have happened? He would probably have married again. There might have been a second family. Our interests might have gone to the wall. She had to think of all those considerations. […] No, she did right. She was a saint! She endured to the end – uncomplainingly.””

Sorry about the long quotation. But the detail into which David goes to express his appreciation of his mother’s selflessness suggests (to me) that this is a continuation of Christie’s usual anti-feminist stance. However, there’s an interesting comparison with (who else?) Pilar, who justifies what Stephen calls her “gold-digging”, when he confronts her over her attitude to Simeon’s will. (Slight spoiler alert, although it still doesn’t tell you whodunit) She tells Stephen: ““If that old man had lived, he would have made another will. He would have left money to me – a lot of money! Perhaps in time he would have left me all the money!” Stephen said smiling: “That wouldn’t have been very fair either, would it?” “Why not? He would have liked me best, that is all. […] The world is very cruel to women. They must do what they can for themselves – while they are young. When they are old and ugly no one will help them.”” This approach to a design for life doesn’t really sit comfortably with Christie’s usual moral tone but it does suggest a change in her philosophy about the role of women. For (I believe) the first time in a Christie novel, you might say sisters are doing it for themselves.

One small observation: it’s certainly a different era from today when a Superintendent of Police could be believed to be usefully spending his time visiting houses collecting for the Police Orphanage.

Classic denouement: Yes! All the suspects are present, Poirot goes through a long rigmarole explaining why everyone could have done it, only then to explain how one-by-one they didn’t do it, whilst the reader turns the pages with bated breath not knowing what to believe. It’s an extremely exciting ending, with a classic “J’accuse” moment, and an unrepentant murderer.

Happy ending? Yes. One whirlwind romance culminates in the promise of a marriage, and there’s a general sense that the majority of the family members will be able to put their problems behind them and move on.

Did the story ring true? Chance meetings and coincidences obscure the truth of the case but yes, on the whole, this is one of Christie’s more believable stories.

Overall satisfaction rating: On the plus side, it’s an exciting read, with an excellent denouement and a suitably surprising solution to the crime. On the negative side, Poirot isn’t himself; there are no references to little grey cells, no moments of breathtaking vanity. And the whole idea of the amount of blood involved playing a significant part in the story doesn’t really hold water. So for me this averages out as an 8/10.

Murder is EasyThanks for reading my blog of Hercule Poirot’s Christmas 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 Murder is Easy; my memories of this book are of reading it on holiday in Spain as a teenager and really enjoying it. I think we may be in for lots of murders! And I don’t think I can remember whodunit, which is always a bonus. 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!