The Agatha Christie Challenge – Hickory Dickory Dock (1955)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PoundRegular readers will know that I like to consider any significant sums of money in Christie’s books and work out what their value would be today, just to get a feel of the range of sums that we’re looking at. Len Bateson bets Nigel Chapman £5 that he couldn’t obtain three different types of poison by three different methods. Nigel wins his bet. £5 in 1955 would be worth £91 today so that’s quite a lot of money for a spontaneous bet. Superintendent Wilding confirms that “you can pack ten or twenty thousand pounds’ worth of heroin in a very small space”. I’m no expert on the street value of heroin today, but ten to twenty thousand pounds in 1955 equates to a massive £1.8m – £3.6m today. And the five or six thousand pounds’ worth of drugs that Wilding estimates could be easily imported on one simple journey is the equivalent of £91,000 to £110,000 today. Not bad pocket money.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Memorable characters:

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

Christie the Poison expert:

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

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

Class/social issues of the time:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dead Man's FollyThanks for reading my blog of Hickory Dickory Dock and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment in the space below. Next up in the Agatha Christie Challenge is Dead Man’s Folly, and the return of both Hercule Poirot and the redoubtable Mrs Oliver, no doubt festooned with apples. I don’t have much memory of it, so I’m looking forward to tackling this one over the next few weeks. As usual, I’ll blog my thoughts about it as soon as I can. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!

The Agatha Christie Challenge – Destination Unknown (1954)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PoundRegular readers will know that I like to consider any significant sums of money in Christie’s books and work out what their value would be today, just to get a feel of the range of sums that we’re looking at. However, this is not that kind of a book, and there are no sums of any significance mentioned – even though the desire for great richness is a key to the why and wherefore of the plot.

 

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

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

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

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

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

Memorable characters:

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

Christie the Poison expert:

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

Class/social issues of the time:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hickory Dickory DockThanks for reading my blog of Destination Unknown and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment in the space below. Next up in the Agatha Christie Challenge is one of my all-time favourite Christie books, Hickory Dickory Dock, and I can’t wait to get back into its tale of deception and murder within a student’s hostel community. As usual, I’ll blog my thoughts about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!

The Agatha Christie Challenge – After the Funeral (1953)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Memorable characters:

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

Christie the Poison expert:

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

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

Class/social issues of the time:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PoundRegular readers will know that I like to consider any significant sums of money in Christie’s books and work out what their value would be today, just to get a feel of the range of sums that we’re looking at. There’s only one sum mentioned in this book – that of £10,000, which is how much Carrie-Louise is going to leave Miss Bellever in her will. £10,000 in 1952 is worth approximately £200,000 today, which is a tidy sum and no mistake.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Memorable characters:

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

Christie the Poison expert:

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

Class/social issues of the time:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

After The FuneralThanks for reading my blog of They Do it with Mirrors and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment in the space below. Next up in the Agatha Christie Challenge is After the Funeral, and it’s back to the world of Hercule Poirot. I can’t remember much about this book, so I’m looking forward to rediscovering it. As usual, I’ll blog my thoughts about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Memorable characters:

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

Christie the Poison expert:

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

Class/social issues of the time:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

They do it with MirrorsThanks for reading my blog of Mrs McGinty’s Dead and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment in the space below. Next up in the Agatha Christie Challenge is They do it with Mirrors, and the chance to reacquaint ourselves with Miss Marple. This is another book I find it hard to remember, so it will be a journey of discovery re-reading the book. As usual, I’ll blog my thoughts about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Lot of cock”, thought Shrivenham disrespectfully.

Memorable characters:

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

Christie the Poison expert:

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

Class/social issues of the time:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mrs McGinty's DeadThanks for reading my blog of They Came to Baghdad and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment in the space below. Next up in the Agatha Christie Challenge is Mrs McGinty’s Dead, and for some reason I can never recall the plot of this book – so I have no idea what to expect! As usual, I’ll blog my thoughts about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Memorable characters:

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

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

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

Christie the Poison expert:

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

Class/social issues of the time:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Agatha Christie Challenge – Three Blind Mice (1950)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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!