The Agatha Christie Challenge – Postern of Fate (1973)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Prisoner of Zenda by Anthony Hope Hopkins (1894)

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

G A Henty (1832 – 1902)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Funny lines out of context:

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

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

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

Class/social issues of the time:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Poirot's Early CasesThanks for reading my blog of Postern of Fate, and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment in the space below. Next up in the Agatha Christie Challenge is a return to the short story format, with Poirot’s Early Cases, eighteen tales published in periodicals between 1923 and 1935 and which had never (with a couple of exceptions) been published in book form in the UK before. So it will be odd but enjoyable to go back in time and revisit the early days of Poirot and Hastings. As usual, I’ll blog my thoughts about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!

The Agatha Christie Challenge – Elephants Can Remember (1972)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Funny lines out of context:

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

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

Christie the Poison expert: Nothing to see here.

Class/social issues of the time:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Postern of FateThanks for reading my blog of Elephants Can Remember, and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment in the space below. Next up in the Agatha Christie Challenge is Postern of Fate, which is the last new work by Christie to feature Tommy and Tuppence, and indeed, the last new work she was to write. Again, I can remember nothing about this book, but I understand that I shouldn’t have high hopes! As usual, I’ll blog my thoughts about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!

The Agatha Christie Challenge – Nemesis (1971)

NemesisIn which Miss Marple is contacted “from beyond the grave” (via a solicitor’s letter, not a Ouija board) by the late Mr Rafiel with whom she worked in A Caribbean Mystery. He asks her to investigate a crime but gives no other indication of what it is or how she should do it. Piqued with curiosity, Miss Marple accepts his challenge, which results in her taking a coach tour of Famous Houses and Gardens of Great Britain. But are all the other passengers genuine, and what crime will Miss Marple stumble upon?  As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, as always, I promise not to reveal what happens and whodunit!

Max and AgathaThe book is dedicated to Daphne Honeybone, who was Agatha Christie’s private secretary; after Christie’s death in 1976, she continued working for Max Mallowan.  Nemesis was first published in the UK in seven abridged instalments in Woman’s Realm magazine from September to November 1971, and in Canada in two abridged instalments in the Star Weekly Novel, a Toronto newspaper supplement, in October 1971. The full book was first published in the UK by Collins Crime Club in November 1971, and in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company later that year.

Dilapidated greenhouseAfter the massive disappointment of Passenger to Frankfurt, one might have thought that Christie had run out of good stories and her usual slick storytelling style. But whilst Nemesis is far from her best work, it’s even further from her worst. With similarities to other works where a crime from the past is investigated in the present, there are some extremely good passages of writing, and some difficult subject matter is treated with delicacy and sensitivity. There are a number of hark-backs to previous books, both thematically and in the re-use of characters; but it succeeds in being a good story, with a central plot puzzle that unfolds organically and ends with an eerie, exciting denouement. There are a few moments that rather require a suspension of credibility – but it’s not as bad as some, from that perspective. A couple of the vital clues are telegraphed heavily – much as happened with Hallowe’en Party two years earlier – and as a result it’s quite easy to work out not only whodunit but their modus operandi. Nevertheless it’s an enjoyable read, and never feels like the chore that the previous book did.

GardenerIn what would be the last book that Christie wrote featuring Miss Marple (although not the last book published that included her), our redoubtable inhabitant of St Mary Mead is still living relatively independently, with housekeeper Cherry acting slightly more in the role of carer, which, at 81, is something Christie would herself have been sensitive to. She still has a bee in her bonnet about the difficulty of finding reliable gardeners, although it’s the new neighbour Miss Bartlett, who moans about these “elderly chaps who say they know all about gardening […] they come and have a lot of cups of tea and do a little very mild weeding.”

Red Black PulloverOne of the great things about Christie’s characterisation of Miss Marple is that we never stop learning more about her. Often in Miss Marple books, she’s sitting quietly on the sidelines, listening to conversations, gathering her thoughts together and coming to a wise conclusion, before hitting us with a big reveal. With Poirot, on the other hand, we tend to see him going over the evidence, exercising his little grey cells, and watching and listening to him putting two and two together. In this book however, we get to see Miss Marple’s thought processes, and it’s a rare insight; for example discussing the evidence of the red and black check pullover with Professor Wanstead.

CVAt the end of the first day of the coach tour, Miss Marple decides to write down her thoughts and opinions about what Rafiel had expected of her. Although I don’t think she ever goes back to writing this daily journal, it provides an excellent insight into her qualities and detective abilities. In fact, in part it reads like a CV. “Murders as reported in the press have never claimed my attention. I have never read books on criminology as a subject or really been interested in such a thing. No, it has just happened that I have found myself in the vicinity of murder rather more often that would seem normal. My attention has been directed to murders involving friends or acquaintances. These curious coincidences of connections with special subjects seem to happen to people in life.” As such, she defines herself as the opposite of Poirot, who often seeks out murder to solve, providing it’s of a sufficient degree of interest for him. He loves to read of murders in the press and never stops learning more about it through books both fiction and non-fiction.

evilProfessor Wanstead reports that Rafiel had told him that Miss Marple has “a very fine sense of evil.” “Would you say that was true?” he asks her. She replies: “Yes, perhaps. I have at several different times in my life been apprehensive, have recognized that there was evil in the neighbourhood, the surroundings, that the environment of someone who was evil was near me, connected with what was happening […] it’s rather […] like being born with a very keen sense of smell […] I had an aunt once […] who said she could smell when people told a lie. She said there was quite a distinctive odour came to her. Their noses twitched, she said, and then the smell came.”

Joan Hickson as Miss MarpleHowever, I’m not entirely certain that Miss Marple’s final reaction in the book – which is how she’s going to spend the £20,000 that Rafiel gives her – is entirely true to her character as we have previously known it. It is quite an amusing surprise though. I think it’s more likely to have been the kind of thing Poirot would have done. It confirms my feelings that, whilst writing this, Christie rather merged the personalities of her two most famous characters, and that this Miss Marple is something of a blended detective!

Miss Marple FencingHowever, I’d like to point you in the direction of that initial conversation in Chapter 11 between Miss Marple and Professor Wanstead, when both are tiptoeing around their subject, trying to find out how much the other one knows without revealing their own hand. Given that Christie was now 81 years old, it’s as fine a piece of conversation as she had ever written, like a gentle fencing match between two elderly guarded opponents, with very polite lunges met by a parry and a riposte. It’s a joy to read.

CaribbeanContinuing the trend that Christie had started in both Hallowe’en Party and Passenger to Frankfurt, there are a few characters whom we have met in previous books. I don’t know if this was a sign that Christie had basically run out of new characters to play with, or whether it was simply easier for her to re-use work that she’d already done. Despite being obviously absent from the book, the character of Jason Rafiel from A Caribbean Mystery is ever-present, with Miss Marple constantly trying to second-guess what it is that he wants her to do. It works really well as a story device because it provides Miss M with the double challenge of finding her way towards a crime of the past as well as then having to solve it. As part of her early investigations she meets up with his old secretary Esther Walters, for whom Rafiel has provided handsomely with a very generous inheritance – but she feels it doesn’t get her very far in working out what it was that he wanted from her.

Craddock and MarpleMiss Marple also calls on the services of taxi driver Inch, even though Inch has long retired, as she had done in The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side. Elizabeth Temple reveals that she and Miss Marple had a mutual old friend in the figure of Sir Henry Clithering, the former Scotland Yard Commissioner, whom we first met as one of the Tuesday Club Members in The Thirteen Problems, way back in 1932, but who also reappeared in A Murder is Announced, and she worked alongside his godson, Inspector Craddock, in 4.50 from Paddington and the aforementioned Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side. Clithering also appears in The Body in the Library, which Miss Marple recalls in this book, when she’s passing the time of day with Miss Cooke and Miss Barrow. Thus Nemesis integrates nicely into the rest of the Marple oeuvre.

Berkeley StreetAs usual, the book contains a mixture of real and fictional locations. The offices of solicitors Broadribb and Schuster are in Berkeley Street, Mayfair, a very elegant location near Green Park. The Old Manor House, where the Bradbury-Scotts live is in the charmingly named Jocelyn St Mary, which really ought to exist but is one of Christie’s rural inventions. Mrs Glynne lived thirty miles away in Little Herdsley with her late husband – also invented – and I was amused by Mrs Merrypit remembering she’d once seen the treasures at Luton Loo. I reckon she means Sutton Hoo – which although is in the east of the country as she recollects, is nowhere near Luton.

LongfellowLet’s check out the references and quotations in this book. As Christie gets older she finds the need to provide us with more and more literary quotations. At the beginning of the book Miss Marple thinks of her friendship with the late Mr Rafiel as being ships that pass in the night. That’s a saying that has won a firm place in everyone’s language. I always thought it was a proverb, but it’s actually a quote from Longfellow, from Tales of a Wayside Inn: “Ships that pass in the night, and speak each other in passing, Only a signal shown and a distant voice in the darkness; So on the ocean of life we pass and speak one another, Only a look and a voice, then darkness again and a silence.”

Solon“Call no man happy until he is dead” murmurs Miss Marple in her conversation with Esther. According to Herodotus (so it must be true) these were the wise words of Ancient Greek statesman Solon. The gist of the full quotation is “Call no man happy until he is dead, but only lucky.” Elizabeth Temple quotes T S Eliot: “The moment of the rose and the moment of the yew tree are of equal duration”. This is from the final section of Eliot’s fourth Quartet, Little Gidding. Chapter Ten is titled “Oh! Fond, Oh! Fair, The Days that Were” – this must be a quote, but I’m blowed if I can find what it’s from. Anyone out there know?

Thomas-ChattertonWhen Miss Marple sees a newspaper placard saying that a second girl’s body had been found in the Epsom Downs Murder case, “some lines of forgotten verse came haltingly into her brain: Rose white youth, passionate, pale, A singing stream in a silent vale, A fairy prince in a prosy tale, Oh there’s nothing life so finely frail As Rose White Youth.” This is a short poem by Thomas Chatterton.

Whatever Happened to Baby JaneMiss Marple catches sight of a book in a shop – Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, and says “oh dear, it’s a sad world one lives in.” That was a 1960 book by Henry Farrell that famously was made into a film starring Bette Davis and Joan Crawford. And there’s a final quote that Miss Marple cites regarding Mr Rafiel’s sense of Justice: “Let Justice roll down like waters And Righteousness like an everlasting stream.” It is from the Bible; it’s Chapter 5, Verse 24 of the Book of Amos.

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 two sums mentioned in the book – both fairly significant sums; the £20,000 that Rafiel promises Miss Marple if she completes his task, and the £50,000 that Esther Walters inherited from him. In today’s money, Miss Marple gets the equivalent of just under £200,000 and Esther got £500,000!

 

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

 

Publication Details: 1971. My copy is a Fontana Paperback, the first impression, proudly boasting the words first time in paperback, published in 1974, bearing the price on the back cover of 35p. The young me also wrote my name in the front and dated it August 1974! The cover illustration by Tom Adams shows a young woman’s face obscured by a flower, and a ruined greenhouse covered by foliage. All pretty appropriate!

How many pages until the first death: 68 pages until the first reported death, 107 until the first death that happens during the course of the current story. That’s quite a long time to wait for a Christie death, but it doesn’t feel like it.

Funny lines out of context:

Sadly none.

Memorable characters: Perhaps the most memorable are the two unmarried Bradbury-Scott sisters, the scatty Anthea and the strong Clotilde. But for the most part this book is dominated by Miss Marple, with the second big influence being Rafiel from beyond the grave.

Christie the Poison expert: There is an unconfirmed suggestion that Hemlock might have been administered as part of a crime – but it’s only lightly touched upon. That’s only the second time it’s mentioned in all Christie’s works to date – the first time being in Five Little Pigs.

Class/social issues of the time:

One doesn’t tend to think of Miss Marple having latent racism or xenophobia, because she needs to keep an open mind in order to solve a crime. However, in this book she occasionally recognises it in herself. When she first joins the coach trip, she looks around her fellow passengers to see who arouses her suspicions – and none of them does, except Mr Caspar, who is described as an “excitable foreigner”. “Nobody appeared to Miss Marple likely to be a murderer except Mr Caspar, and that was probably foreign prejudice.” She recognises it for what it is.

After a conversation with him and the Misses Cooke and Barrow, her suspicions have not been allayed. “Mr Caspar, now, it would have been much easier to imagine that he might be dangerous. Did he understand more English than he pretended to? She began to wonder about Mr Caspar. Miss Marple had never quite succeeded in abandoning her Victorian view of foreigners. One never knew with foreigners. Quite absurd, or course, to feel like that – she had many friends from various foreign countries. All the same…?” And of course, there are Mr and Mrs Butler, of whom she says “such nice Americans – but perhaps – too good to be true?” Americans are also foreigners, although not on the same level of suspicion as Europeans.

I did like Christie’s description of the Bradbury-Scotts’ garden. “It had the elements of an ordinary Victorian garden”. Once more Miss Marple is reflecting back to the good old days of the Victorian era. But if this was an ordinary Victorian garden, one can only imagine an extraordinary one! “A shrubbery, a drive of speckled laurels, no doubt there had once been a well kept lawn and paths, a kitchen garden of about an acre and a half, too big evidently for the three sisters who lived here now.”

Part of Christie’s unhappiness with the world today which was seen very strongly in her previous book Passenger to Frankfurt, stems from a disapproval of the way the young people of today behave and dress. This started being most evident in Third Girl. When Dr Stokes is questioning Miss Crawford at the inquest, she is uncertain whether the figure she saw near the boulders was a man or a woman. “”There was longish hair at the back of a kind of beret, rather like a woman’s hair, but then it might just as well have been a man’s.” “It certainly might,” said Dr Stokes, rather drily. “Identifying a male or female figure by their hair is certainly not easy these days.””

There’s also a continuation of the rather uncomfortable theme today of the promiscuity of youngsters, and the sexualisation of children. The character of Nora Broad is pretty much assassinated throughout the whole of the book with the villagers’ comments about and attitudes towards her general behaviour, bearing in mind she was a schoolgirl. For example, Mrs Blackett’s view: “it was something terrible the way she went on with all the boys. Anyone could pick her up. Real sad it is. I’d say she’ll go on the streets in the end”. Or the unnamed neighbour: “She was boy mad, she was […] I told her she’d do herself no good going off with every Tom, Dick or Harry that offered her a lift in a car or took her along to a pub where she told lies about her age.”

Wanstead is guilty of uttering a terrible line about the girls of today, that would be pretty much unthinkable nowadays. “He had assaulted a girl. He had conceivably raped her, but he had not attempted to strangle her and in my opinion – I have seen a great many cases which come before the Assizes – it seemed to me highly unlikely that there was a very definite case of rape. Girls, you must remember, are far more ready to be raped nowadays than they used to be. Their mothers insist, very often, that they should call it rape. The girl in question had had several boy-friends who had gone further than friendship. I did not think it counted very greatly as evidence against him.”

Solicitor Broadribb is not much better. “Suspected of having done away with perhaps three other girls during the past year, Michael was. But evidence wasn’t so good in the other deaths – so the police went all out on this one – plenty of evidence – bad record. Earlier cases of assault and rape. Well, we all know what rape is nowadays. Mum tells the girl she’s got to accuse the young man of rape even if the young man hasn’t had much chance, with the girl at him all the time to come to the house while mum’s away at work, or dad’s gone on holiday. Doesn’t stop badgering him until she’s forced him to sleep with her. Then, as I say, mum tells the girl to call it rape.”

One other theme, that I can only touch on very lightly without issuing a major spoiler, is that one of the characters is gay and that plays a vital role in the crime. It’s never explicitly said, but it makes sense that that’s the case. I can say no more!

Classic denouement:  Reading the book, it occurred to me that the denoument might have been heavily influenced by the 1960s Miss Marple films, because Miss M gets herself into a near-death scrape that is just like the kind of thing Margaret Rutherford would have escaped from in the final reel. It’s not a classic denouement, but it is a very exciting one, where actions reveal the truth of about the crime more than words. Having said that, there are some extremely wordy passages in the post-denouement chapter, where all the explanations are made; that could have been written a little more animatedly, I feel.

Happy ending? You’d have to say yes. Justice is seen to be done, and an innocent party is released from prison – although there’s no suggestion that the innocent party is now going to live a life of law-abiding decency; quite the reverse. There’s also the happy ending of Miss Marple becoming £20,000 the richer. But I’m still not remotely convinced that what she says she’s going to do with the money is credible in the slightest.

Did the story ring true? Despite its ornate and unusual set-up, there are plenty of Christies that are more incredible than this one! Suspend your sense of disbeliefs and you can completely accept this book on face value.

Overall satisfaction rating: 8/10. It has its faults but it’s a pretty satisfying book overall and I enjoyed reading it enormously!

Elephants Can RememberThanks for reading my blog of Nemesis, 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 Elephants Can Remember, which is the last new work by Christie to feature Hercule Poirot, although the master detective would still appear a couple more times. I can remember nothing about this book, so I go into it with no preconceived ideas! 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 – Passenger to Frankfurt (1970)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PoundRegular readers will know that I like to consider any significant sums of money in Christie’s books and work out what their value would be today, just to get a feel of the range of sums that we’re looking at. There’s only one sum mentioned in this book, five guineas, which is the suggested donation for a seat at “the Charity Variety performance which Royalty would attend” (in other words, the Royal Variety Performance.) By 1970 guineas were becoming a bit old hat, and the introduction of decimal currency the following year largely put paid to them. A guinea was a pound and a shilling, so five guineas was £5.25 – and that sum today would be £57. I think it’s highly unlikely that you’d get a plum seat in the Palladium for that price nowadays!

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

 

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

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

Funny lines out of context:

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

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

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

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

Class/social issues of the time:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

NemesisThanks for reading my blog of Passenger to Frankfurt, and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment in the space below. Next up in the Agatha Christie Challenge is Nemesis, the final appearance of Miss Marple in Christie’s lifetime. I can remember no details, but I have a feeling it’s going to be pretty good! As usual, I’ll blog my thoughts about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

Funny lines out of context: sadly none.

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

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

Class/social issues of the time:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks for reading my blog of Hallowe’en Party, and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment in the space below. Next up in the Agatha Christie Challenge is Passenger to Frankfurt, a spy story of which I have absolutely no recollection, and published to mark Christie’s eightieth birthday. As usual, I’ll blog my thoughts about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Halloween PartyThanks for reading my blog of By the Pricking of my Thumbs, and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment in the space below. Next up in the Agatha Christie Challenge is Hallowe’en Party, which I remember enjoying enormously on previous readings. However, all I can remember from those previous reads is that the book features a fatal bobbing-for-apples scene; and if there are apples, there’s bound to be the return of Mrs Oliver as well as our old friend Hercule Poirot. As usual, I’ll blog my thoughts about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!

The Agatha Christie Challenge – Endless Night (1967)

Endless NightIn which young Michael Rogers narrates his own tale of acquiring a property at Gipsy’s Acre, despite the warnings of local people that the property and land is cursed; and how he also gets to meet the girl of his dreams. They build a fabulous architect-designed house on the land; but do they live happy ever after, or does the gipsy curse ruin their lives ahead? As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, as always, I promise not to reveal what happens and whodunit!

Vale-of-GlamorganThe book is dedicated “to Nora Prichard from whom I first heard the legend of Gipsy’s Acre.” Nora Prichard was the paternal grandmother of Mathew Prichard, Christie’s only grandson, and Gipsy’s Acre was a field located on a Welsh moorland near Pentre-Meyrich in the Vale of Glamorgan. Mathew’s grandmother lived in this location, where many years earlier a nearby gypsy encampment was cleared and the head gypsy cursed the land. Either as a result or by coincidence, it became the site of several road accidents. Endless Night was first published in the UK by Collins Crime Club on 30th October 1967, and in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company the following year. In the US it was also first serialised in two parts in The Saturday Evening Post from 24 February to 9 March 1968.

William BlakeThe book begins with an epigraph – a quotation from William Blake’s Auguries of Innocence: “Every Night and every Morn Some to Misery are born. Every Morn and every Night Some are born to Sweet Delight, Some are born to Sweet Delight, Some are born to Endless Night.” This quotation – or at least parts of it – are repeated at times throughout the book, almost as a leitmotif; its relevance is never clear until the end.

WriterAs she entered her final decade (not that she knew it, of course!) Christie hit the ground running with this magnificent book, that you might describe as “late-flowering genius”. On average, it took her three or four months to write a novel, but she said she wrote Endless Night in six weeks. And you can tell; not because it’s slapdash or lacking in detail or finesse, but because it flows immaculately as a stream of thought. Christie must have planned this book to the minutest degree because it’s full of fake clues that the reader picks up and thinks must be significant; and full of real clues that the reader never notices. The result is an extraordinarily engrossing, deceptively simple, un-put-downable read that makes it unquestionably a Christie Classic. As I mentioned in my blog about Third Girl, I’ve never been familiar with Endless Night because we were reading it as a family at the time my father died. Whether it’s simply because I associate it with sadness, or because I (understandably) couldn’t concentrate on it properly, it’s a book that has never stayed in my consciousness; indeed, for many years, I believe I didn’t have a copy of it. I suspect that when I read it recently as part of my Christie Challenge, that might well have been the first time I’ve properly read and appreciated it. And that’s definitely been my loss, because it’s an absolutely brilliant book and probably one of her top ten.

chauffeursYou couldn’t really class this as a whodunit, more a whatshappening. It doesn’t feature any of Christie’s usual detectives, and the only police presence is a minor character who receives reports of certain strange goings-on. It’s written, crucially, in the first person; and the narrator, Michael Rogers, is a complicated guy. He’s not particularly gifted or remarkable; he hasn’t got much money, but nor does he have a work ethic. Recently he’s been working as a chauffeur, but he’s used to having many jobs, that he chucks in as soon as he gets fed up with them – one of those things that was very common in the 1960s when work was plentiful. He neither respects work nor workers: “I’ve driven a lot of people who’ve made money, who’ve worked hard and who’ve got ulcers and coronary thrombosis and many other things as a result of working hard. I didn’t want to work hard. I could do a job as well as another but that was all there was to it.”

1960s DollybirdHe has a poor, distant relationship with his mother; he serially dallies with several girlfriends none of whom come to anything; like most young men he’s much more interested in sex than relationships, and he just moves on to the next young woman when he’s bored – rather like his relationship with jobs. Despite all these faults, he’s strangely likeable, primarily from what you feel is the overwhelming openness and honesty of his narration. He has no misgivings about his own nature; he knows precisely who he is and what his interests are, and, unlike most men, he’s not afraid to express what he feels. In fact, he’s charmingly self-effacing: “I don’t know much about writing things down – not, I mean, in the way a proper writer would do.” He’s also surprisingly fanciful and dreamy in his imagination: “build me a house […] and I’d find a girl, a wonderful girl, and we’d live in it together happy ever after. I often had dreams of that kind.”

Question MarkBecause of the nature of this book, it’s difficult to discuss it without giving way important aspects of the story, and I really don’t want to spoil it for you. The plot has distinct parallels with two of Christie’s previous novels, which I won’t identify at this stage, but you’ll easily see it for yourself when you read it. That’s not to say it’s in any way unoriginal; it’s very much its own book, with a slow, fascinating build to a crescendo that overwhelms the reader. Once you’ve started to work out exactly what is happening, Christie deftly makes you suspect a whole raft of characters of masterminding whatever plot there is, until you realise you were wrong all along. From that point of view, it’s extraordinary.

PlymouthDespite the setting of Gipsy’s Acre being in Wales, this story is firmly Devon-based, with Michael and Ellie getting married in Plymouth; the other locations – Kingston Bishop (the village where The Towers/Gipsy’s Acre is located), Helminster and Market Chadwell, despite sounding rurally plausible, are all inventions of Christie; but we do know from Michael’s narration that the whole area is near the sea. Some of the story takes place in New York, and there are some characters in the book who are truly citizens of the world, being located in Paris, San Francisco, and so on.

Robert Louis StevensonOther references to investigate are primarily quotations from poems or songs. We’ve already seen that Blake’s “some are born to Endless Night” is a recurring theme. Ellie likes to a sing a song about a fly: “Little fly, thy summer’s play My thoughtless hand has brushed away”. This is another work by Blake, simply called The Fly, taken from his Songs of Experience. And when Michael is finally coming home from his gruelling spell in New York, he quotes “Home is the sailor, home from the sea And the hunter home from the hill”, which is from Robert Louis Stevenson’s poem Requiem – although Stevenson’s original line is “home from sea” rather than “home from the sea”, but it frequently gets misquoted.

PoundRegular readers will know that I like to consider any significant sums of money in Christie’s books and work out what their value would be today, just to get a feel of the range of sums that we’re looking at. Money plays an important part in this book, so it’s not surprising that there are several sums that are quoted. When Michael is wandering down Bond Street, he spies a pair of shoes in a shop window that he quite likes – £15 the pair. Out of his league financially, the equivalent today would be £190. That’s expensive but probably not bad for Bond Street. Even more out of his league is the painting that he enquires about, only to discover it costs £25,000. That pretty sum is well over £300,000 today – no wonder he admired it! When Ellie bought a picture on her honeymoon in Venice, it cost the equivalent of £6, which today would be £75 or so – still quite pricey for a piece of tourist trash, but then again Venice is always expensive. Philpott is knowledgeable about the cost of domestic linen: “do you know what a linen pillow case costs? Thirty-five shillings”. That’s of course £1.75 in decimal currency, and the equivalent today would be £22. I suppose that’s not too bad if it’s top quality material. The sum of £300 was found under the floorboards in someone’s property (I shan’t mention whose at this stage) and that today would be worth £3,800. That’s quite a lot to hide under the floorboards. Ellie mentions that they paid off the oil heiress Minnie Thompson’s first boyfriend the vast sum of $200,000. Today that would be $1.6 million – or, in sterling, £1.15 million. Probably worth being bought off!

 

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

 

Publication Details: 1967. My copy is a Harper Collins Paperback, the eighth impression of the Agatha Christie Signature Edition collection, published in 2007, bearing the price on the back cover of £6.99. The cover illustration by David Wardle shows a crow flying across the moon and with some blood spattered on the white lettered title. Not that relevant, really. The Tom Adams illustration on the Fontana paperback is much more telling, with a dead owl and a knife plunged into it, with a message attached.

How many pages until the first death: 212 – but that’s misleading because the Agatha Christie Signature Edition books have much more spacing; the book is 302 pages long whereas most Christie’s normally come around the 190 mark.

Funny lines out of context: The first one for a long time. When Michael tells us that he helped Ellie get on her horse for her morning ride, what he actually says is: “I mounted her.”

Memorable characters: Far and away the most interesting and memorable character is the narrator Michael, with his complex motivations and psychological hang-ups. Ellie is inversely fascinating in that she is a very rich young woman with all the power in the world, but she is content to be a mild-mannered, undemanding person; maybe it’s a rebellion against her brash family and associates. Mrs Lee, the gipsy who is full of prophecies of doom, is memorable, although her characterisation (and that of the hedge-cutting chap Michael meets at the beginning of the book) is pure pantomime. I also liked the character of Andrew Lippincott, with his lawyerly reticence to say anything that could possibly compromise any situation; you can never be absolutely sure you know where you are with him.

Christie the Poison expert: As you read this book you don’t think that poison is going to play a part in it at all; but you’d be wrong. Cyanide is employed, but I shan’t say how or by whom!

Class/social issues of the time: Following on from Third Girl, and Poirot and Mrs Oliver grappling with the Swinging Sixties, there are a couple of references to Michael’s love- (sex-)life that continue to explore that theme of how young people live today. When he and Ellie are starting to learn about each other’s past, he says “I don’t want to know anything about what you’ve done or who you’ve been fond of” and she comes straight out with “there’s nothing of that kind. No sex secrets.” I can’t imagine the likes of Bundle (The Secret of Chimneys) or Anne Beddingfield (The Man in the Brown Suit) having that kind of conversation. As Art gained some rather louche connotations in the previous book, it continues here, with Michael describing the presentation of pictures in a window, “artily arranged with a drape of limp velvet” as “cissy”; with the best will in the world, I can’t imagine Michael being an advocate for gay rights.

Some of Christie’s own personal hang-ups come through Michael’s personality; as a young working-class man with little regard for work it’s nevertheless curious that he should hold an opinion like “not just all this tame security, the good old welfare state limping along in its half-baked way”.

Michael refers to the space race: “a world where man has been able to put satellites in the sky and where men talk big about visiting the stars”. 1967, when Endless Night was published, saw both Apollo 1 and Soyuz 1 missions; two years later man walked on the moon.

The usual low-level xenophobia/racism that can be found in most Christie books is here replaced with an anti-gipsy sentiment. Mrs Lee is seen as a money-grabbing hypocrite who is only in the game for the “cross my palm with silver” aspect of fortune-telling. No opportunity is left untaken to denounce gipsies as thieves. Whilst no one ostensibly believes that the gipsy curse is to be taken seriously, there’s a devilment provided by the gipsy warnings that hangs gloomily – sometimes stagily – over the entire book.

Classic denouement:  There is no denouement in the traditional sense of the word. The story just reaches its astonishing climax organically, in its own time and manner.

Happy ending? No!

Did the story ring true? There are a number of minor loose ends that never get tied up, and a serious coincidence that is never really explored; but somehow, they don’t matter at all. Despite all the reasons why this story really shouldn’t ring true, it does. Michael’s honest, confiding and open narrative style that lulls you into accepting all the events of the book without questioning them; so the reader has absolutely no problem taking the story at face value.

Overall satisfaction rating: I very nearly read this book in one extended sitting, over the course of one day. That never happens to me! If I hadn’t had other commitments, I would have done. But I read it over two days and found it absolutely gripping. I’m very glad to have re-discovered it! 10/10 no question.

By the Pricking of my ThumbsThanks for reading my blog of Endless Night, 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 By the Pricking of my Thumbs, and a chance to catch up with Tommy and Tuppence in their later years. Our last encounter with them was in 1941’s N or M? which I currently have as my least favourite Christie book – so I’m hoping for some improvement here!  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 – Third Girl (1966)

Third GirlIn which Hercule Poirot’s breakfast is disturbed by the arrival of a young lady who confesses that she might have committed a murder – but, then again, she might not! With Poirot’s curiosity piqued, he decides to find out more about this strange confession – but when the girl goes to ground, what can he usefully find out? Fortunately, Mrs Oliver knows the family, and she assists by trailing suspects around London – until she herself is attacked! Will Poirot discover whether a murder has been committed, and if so, by whom? Of course he will! And, as usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, as always, I promise not to reveal whodunit!

DedicationThe book is dedicated “to Nora Blackborow.” She was the secretary of Edmund Clark, Christie’s Literary Agent, and, apparently, she was the first point of contact for permission to use Christie’s works. Third Girl was first published in the UK by Collins Crime Club in November 1966, and in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company the following year. A condensed version of the novel was published in the US in April 1967 in Redbook Magazine.

TwiggyAfter a very intriguing and entertaining start, the reader’s disbelief in this book stacks up quickly, with a highly unlikely preponderance of coincidences that simply make it hard to accept. Important clues aren’t dropped unassumingly with her usual flair, but heavily telegraphed, so that even if you don’t quite get what they mean, you certainly know that they are clues. Whilst it is diverting to see Poirot and Mrs Oliver caught up in the seedier side of trendy London 60s life, with drug taking, louche arty tastes and can’t tell the boys from the girls fashions, a lot of the book feels very ploddy. Whilst we, as always, admire Poirot for his ability to think a solution through from the bare bones of the evidence, Christie spends an inordinate amount of time sifting through his little grey cells, without much in the way of action taking place. It also feels quite repetitive, with Mrs Oliver twice ringing him up to disturb his thoughts, almost Groundhog Day-style, but neither time does this achieve anything except to irritate Poirot. Christie also uses the device of Poirot employing Mr Goby (whom we’ve seen before in The Mystery of the Blue Train and After the Funeral), as a rather easy, shorthand way of cutting corners with her writing, in order to come up with a lot of evidence without Poirot having to do any work. In the final analysis, although the crime itself is ingenious, it lacks credibility, and the loose ends get tied up far too easily for my liking.

Talking to each otherAnd that’s all a shame, because there’s plenty in the book to enjoy, including the return of many regular characters, some fascinating new ones, and a few genuinely exciting scenes. Unusually, Poirot takes centre stage in this book right from the start, where we find him winding up his magnum opus – an analysis of the great writers of detective fiction – a work in which he was deeply involved in his last appearance, The Clocks. Third Girl doesn’t really tell us anything new about Poirot, but it underlines a few aspects of his personality that we’ve noted before. His ability to gain people’s confidence comes in very useful with Norma Restarick – “for some reason, Poirot had always been a person it was easy to talk to” – and Mary Restarick – “Poirot had the capacity to attract confidences. It was as though when people were talking to him they hardly realised who it was they were talking to.” Poirot has always been quick to admire a well turned-out woman, but even quicker to show dismay at a poorly turned-out one. Poirot’s first meeting with Norma: “anyone of Poirot’s age and generation would have had only one desire. To drop the girl into a bath as soon as possible. He had often felt this same reaction walking along the streets. There were hundreds of girls looking exactly the same. They all looked dirty.”

Old ManBut Norma really hits Poirot in his weakest spot – his age. Poirot was an old man at the time of The Mysterious Affair at Styles, so he’s an exceedingly old man now. Rather cleverly, Christie does not pass judgement on Poirot’s age when we first meet him in this book – she leaves that to Norma. “You’re too old. Nobody told me you were so old.  I really don’t want to be rude but – there it is. You’re too old. I’m really very sorry.” This observation knocks Poirot’s self-esteem back by what feels like several decades. Later that day he gives Mrs Oliver an outpouring of self-pity, culminating in the simple, but devastated, “it wounded me.” Later, when he is failing to make sense of everything he has found out about the case, he returns to an unexpected self-doubt. ““Perhaps I am too old,” said Hercule Poirot, at the bottom depths of despair.”

Frustrated writerAnd what of Mrs Oliver, the character that Christie invented to bring herself closer into her own books? She seems to have progressed into a less sympathetic direction than before. Whereas in the past we might have seen her struggling to write, or being eccentric with her fondness for apples, here those aspects have given way to a short temper and even an element of hatred. She sends off her latest book to her publishers whilst scolding herself for its shortcomings. ““I hope you like it! I don’t. It think it’s lousy! […] You just wait and see,” said Mrs Oliver vengefully.” And when she’s chasing Poirot up for news of developments in the case, she is appallingly impatient. ““What are you doing? What have you done? […] Is that all? {…] What progress have you made? […] Really, M. Poirot, you really must take a grip on yourself […] What about that woman who threw herself out of a window. Haven’t you got anything out of that? […] Well? […] Really!” At a loss for further comment, Mrs Oliver rang off.”

Union JackGeorge is still his incomparable self, and Miss Lemon is possibly even more po-faced than usual, with her rigorous attention to administration. “She asked no questions and she displayed no curiosity. She did not tell Poirot how she would occupy her time whilst he was away. She did not need to tell him. She always knew what she was going to do and she was always right in what she did.” On the one occasion Poirot asks her opinion – of the young lady Sonia who accompanied Sir Roderick – her first reaction was merely to answer “foreign”; when pressed, she explains “I always say that it’s better to know where you are when you are employing someone, and buy British.” Miss Lemon is obviously an early Brexiteer. Other repeat characters appear in the form of the aforementioned Mr Goby, who has an inability to look Poirot in the eye, Chief Inspector Neele (merely Inspector Neele when he took charge of the case in A Pocket Full of Rye) and Dr Stillingfleet, that rather gung ho and outspoken psychiatrist who featured in The Dream in The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding and in Sad Cypress. Amusingly, when Poirot is bluffing with Sir Roderick, to make him think they were old colleagues, Poirot lets drop his acquaintanceship with Colonel Race (Cards on the Table, Death on the Nile, Sparkling Cyanide and The Man in the Brown Suit) and M. Giraud (The Murder on the Links). An unusual number of Christie cross-references pepper this story!

Mermaid TheatreLike Christie’s previous book, At Bertram’s Hotel, this is a very London-centric book, with just occasional references to the Restarick family home in the village of Long Basing – presumably this is somewhere close to Market Basing, which appears as a location in many Christie books. Otherwise, the action of the book takes place either at Poirot’s flat in London, the flat at 67 Borodene Mansions where the three girls live (an invention of Christie’s) or in the murky back streets of London where Mrs Oliver attempts to trail David Baker. When she phones Poirot to say she has spotted Norma and Baker, she says she is somewhere between St. Paul’s and the Mermaid Theatre – Calthorpe Street. There is a Calthorpe Street in London, but it’s not in that locale – it’s off Gray’s Inn Road. The Mermaid Theatre – alas, now a mere conference centre – was located at Puddle Dock, Blackfriars.

Bohemian girlThere are only a few other references to consider; Mrs Oliver recalls a string of song quotes when she’s trying to remember Norma’s name. “Thora? Speak to me, Thora […] Myra? Oh Myra my love is all for thee […] I dreamt I dwelt in marble halls. Norma?” One by one: that’s a 1905 song by Fred Weatherly and Stephen Adams called Thora; the Myra song appears to be a complete invention; and the last is an aria from Balfe’s 1843 opera The Bohemian Girl. Ten points if you knew that!

MontgomerySir Roderick also does some name-dropping when it comes to famous war folk who have been writing their memoirs; Montgomery, Alanbrooke, Auchinleck and Moran. Again, one by one: Bernard Montgomery, 1st Viscount Montgomery of Alamein (we all know him); Field Marshal Alan Brooke; Field Marshal Claude Auchinleck, Supreme Commander India and Pakistan 1947-8; and I haven’t a clue who Moran is!

M'NaughtenStillingfleet refers to the M’Naughten Act – this is a ruling concerning a plea of insanity in a criminal case, and I refer you to those wise people at Wikipedia, who describe it thus: “every man is to be presumed to be sane, and … that to establish a defence on the ground of insanity, it must be clearly proved that, at the time of the committing of the act, the party accused was labouring under such a defect of reason, from disease of the mind, as not to know the nature and quality of the act he was doing; or if he did know it, that he did not know he was doing what was wrong”.

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 in this book – the sum of £5, which is given by Miss Reece-Holland to Mr Goby’s informant to help him forget about the presence of blood in the courtyard. Today that would be worth £65. Quite a generous tip!

 

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

 

Publication Details: 1966. My copy is a Fontana Paperback, fourth impression, published in October 1970, bearing the price on the back cover of 5/- (25p). The cover illustration, presumably by Tom Adams, shows the loose house numbers 6 and 7, together with a hand holding a bloodied dagger, surrounded by peacock feathers. All very appropriate, but not quite giving the game away.

How many pages until the first death: Slightly difficult to answer, as there is the report of a death which may, or may not be part of the crime (the reader must decide at the time), which is given after 46 pages. Otherwise, the first obvious murder doesn’t take place until page 159, which is a long wait.

Funny lines out of context: These seem to come less and less regularly as Christie got older and the times grew more modern – so none.

Memorable characters: As I have written quite often recently, most of the characters are not particularly interesting or well-drawn. Amongst the very minor characters, she created a couple of amusing battle-axes in the form of Miss Battersby, the principal at Norma’s school, and Miss Jacobs, who lives in one of the neighbouring flats and discovers a gruesome sight. Apart from these, the character of David Baker is interesting in that he is what Mrs Oliver refers to as the peacock, because of his fine clothes and strutting air; a young man in the Dedicated Follower of Fashion style. The reader can play with his appearance in their mind’s eye and make this character as fanciful and foppish as they like. But the interest in him is only skin-deep (or, clothing-deep).

Christie the Poison expert: Poison doesn’t play a massive role in this book, but there is a suggestion that Mrs Restarick might be receiving a regular slow dose of arsenic, and one of the unexpected things that Norma found hidden in her own desk drawer was a bottle of weed killer.

Class/social issues of the time:

It’s very much a book of its time, with a lot of descriptions of swinging sixties’ lifestyles, fashions, drug taking and so on. As I mentioned earlier, David Baker is often referred to as a beautiful young man, but it’s not meant to be complimentary. “”Beautiful?” said Mrs Oliver, “I don’t know that I like beautiful young men.” “Girls do,” said Poirot. “Yes, you’re quite right. They like beautiful young men. I don’t mean good-looking young men or smart-looking young men or well-dressed or well washed looking young men. I mean they either like young men looking as though they were just going on in a Restoration comedy, or else very dirty young men looking as though they were just going to take some awful tramp’s job.””

It’s not just the personal clothing fashions that are criticised; I like the way Christie takes a side-swipe at the gaudy wallpaper of the day. “As for the wallpaper… “these cherries – they are new?” he waved a teaspoon. It was, he felt, rather like being in a cherry orchard. “Are there too many of them, do you think?” said Mrs Oliver. “So hard to tell beforehand with wallpaper. Do you think my old one was better?” Poirot cast his mind back dimly to what he seemed to remember as large quantities of bright coloured tropical birds in a forest. He felt inclined to remark, plus ça change, plus c’est le meme chose, but restrained himself.”

The respectable/authority types are very critical and surprised by all the drug taking. But even the younger ones are in two minds about it. Frances was at Basil’s party: “Basil would make us try some new pills – Emerald Dreams. I don’t think it’s really worth trying all these silly things.” Stillingfleet remarks how Norma is “full of drugs. I’d say she’d been taking purple hearts, and dream bombs, and probably LSD”. Neele’s observation about Baker is that “he’s one of the usual mob. Riff-raff – go about in gangs and break up night clubs. Live on purple hearts – heroin – coke – girls go mad about them.”

There’s a recurrence of the more recent theme that mental illness might be an inherited factor, and much is made of inquiring into Norma’s past and parentage to see if there could be any links. There’s a long conversation between Norma and Stillingfleet about suicide that today you might suggest warrants a trigger warning.

Elsewhere, there is an interesting observation about how the elderly are prejudiced against the young – which probably largely stems from condemnation of the “permissive society” and the hippie clothing and lifestyle that the older generation just couldn’t understand. There’s a little combination of xenophobia and homophobia from Sir Roderick, describing Poirot as “a thorough frog […], you know, mincing and dancing…”. And Restarick reveals himself as no true feminist when he describes his wife as “as good as a man in some ways.”

Classic denouement:  It’s an unconventional denouement, in that it grows organically out of what appears to be some quite routine questioning of the witness, Miss Jacobs. You wouldn’t necessarily know that Poirot had planned it. Although, knowing him, he probably did.

Happy ending? Yes, but it feels extremely artificial and forced.

Did the story ring true? No. Again, this book relies too heavily on coincidences. The first is that Mrs Oliver should have chanced upon Norma Restarick because friends took her over there for drinks. Without that chance meeting there would have been no book. The next is that she should, amazingly, discover her and David in a café when they were trying to track her down. In all the cafes, in all the cities, she should just walk into the same one. Wow. The third is that the nature of the crime involved a degree of impersonation. That’s not the first time that Christie has pulled this trick in one of her books. But never has the amount of impersonation carried on for such a long time. It simply stretches credibility too far.

Overall satisfaction rating: It’s a shame that the book starts so promisingly, with an intriguing character presenting an intriguing case, but then it quickly turns into a Hunt the Lady game, which kind of goes nowhere, and gets quite dull in parts. It’s lifted by the revelation of fairly extraordinary and creative crime activity; but which also quickly palls when you realise how unlikely it is. I’m not sure I can give this more than a 6/10, I’m afraid.

Endless NightThanks for reading my blog of Third Girl, 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 her next book, Endless Night, of which I have no recollection at all apart from remembering it being around in the house at the time that my father died – either I or my mother must have been reading it at the time – and so I always associate the book with personal sadness. I’m not actually sure I’ve read it since then, so I’m looking forward to putting that right, and hopefully eradicating sad memories. 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 Caribbean Mystery (1964)

A Caribbean MysteryIn which Miss Marple has been sent on a rest holiday to the Caribbean island of St Honoré, where she is cornered by an old bore named Major Palgrave, who tells her a story about a murder and offers to show her a photo of the murderer; however, at the last minute he thinks better of it. Nevertheless, murders follow, and Miss Marple is up for the challenge to find out the culprit is and prevent more deaths. As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, as always, I promise not to reveal whodunit!

ArpachiyahThe book is dedicated “to my old friend John Cruikshank Rose with happy memories of my visit to the West Indies”. John Rose worked on the dig at Ur under Leonard Woolley, and when Max Mallowan oversaw a dig in Arpachiyah in Syria in 1932, he recruited Rose as his draughtsman. A Caribbean Mystery was first published in the UK by Collins Crime Club on 16th November 1964, and in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company in 1965. It was also published, in two abridged instalments, in the Toronto Star Weekly Novel in January 1965.

Craddock and MarpleAlthough some significant contemporary reviewers saw this book as a return to form for Christie, personally I found it rather disappointing. As does sometimes happen with Christie, it gets off to a cracking start, but then it seems to lose its way in the middle, before gathering all its bits and pieces and getting its act together for a decent ending. Unlike most Miss Marple books that had been published by this date, A Caribbean Mystery places Miss Marple firmly in the heart of things, without a Detective Inspector Craddock or similar copper to do the majority of the donkey work, which normally leaves Miss M to hover in the wings and turn up for a few crucial blows.

police inspectorNo, in this book, the local Caribbean detectives play a very minor role and it’s up to Miss Marple to mastermind the investigation. She wastes no time starting her detective work, well before any of the authorities suspect that something might be amiss. But you quickly realise it’s a role with which she isn’t actually that familiar. Unlike Poirot, who lies with the greatest of ease, you see her go through pangs of guilt about telling porkies to suspects in order to find out what she wants. Moreover, she has to team up with the offensive Mr Rafiel, who treats most people like slaves; he’s a crude and offensive conversationalist at the best of times. We’re simply not used to seeing Miss Marple put up with impolite behaviour, and, without a decent English police superintendent or a polite environment to work in, this just doesn’t feel like The Real Miss Marple. Maybe we miss St Mary Mead too much, but sometimes it’s as though another character has invaded the book and taken over Miss M’s personality. That might account for the fact that once she had started her investigations in earnest, rather than finding it unputdownable, I found hardtopickupable.

modern novelsLet’s take a further look at what more we learn about Miss Marple in this book; as she takes central stage throughout, there’s a lot of material to consider. Right at the beginning we hear her views on “modern novels” – “so difficult – all about such unpleasant people, doing such very odd things and not, apparently, enjoying them.” It maybe comes as no surprise that Miss Marple wouldn’t like that kind of book; one thinks of her with her Bible and maybe a Jane Austen if she wanted something racy. But Christie goes on with something that may come as a surprise: ““Sex” as a word had not been mentioned in Miss Marple’s young days; but there had been plenty of it – not talked about so much – but enjoyed far more than nowadays, or so it seemed to her. Though usually labelled Sin, she couldn’t help feeling that that was preferable to what it seemed to be nowadays – a kind of Duty.”” Miss Marple! Are we discovering that you’re not quite the maiden aunt we always presumed? Sometime later her mind goes back to the past. “A young man she had met at a croquet party. He had seemed so nice – rather gay, almost Bohemian in his views […] he had been suitable, eligible, […] and Miss Marple had found that, after all, he was dull. Very dull.” It doesn’t sound like they had a passionate affair, so it’s hard to know what to make of her romantic past.

Bread and butter puddingAway from her natural environment, she’s not enjoying her holiday as much as she ought, and certainly not as much as her nephew Raymond would have expected. She’s bored by the weather always being fine: “no interesting variations”. Tim Kendal is alert to her slight unhappiness, and somewhat erroneously offers her bread and butter pudding to make her feel more at home. “Miss Marple smiled and said that she thought she could do without bread and butter pudding very nicely for the present.” But she doesn’t like the steel bands; “she considered they made a hideous noise, unnecessarily loud.” She doesn’t like the way young people dance; “flinging themselves about, seeming quite contorted.” She’s critical of Lucky: ““forty, if she’s a day, and looks it this morning,” thought Miss Marple.” She feels sorry for Esther: “Miss Marple sighed, a sigh that any woman will give however old at what might be considered wasted opportunities” – but in this instance it’s the fact that she doesn’t know how to make herself attractive. Miss Marple never was bound to the cause of feminism. All this amounts to the fact that there isn’t much joy in Miss Marple in this book – she’s out of sorts, out of place and the twinkle in her eye is missing.

NurseOne other aspect to the narrative that didn’t entirely feel comfortable to me was the side plot about Molly’s health. Without giving too much away, so I must pick my words carefully, it did feel at times as though Christie considered it a separate story, not properly integrated into the rest of the book. But that may be a deliberate ploy by Christie to mask an important part of the plot. I’ll leave you to decide!

HoletownOtherwise it’s quite a straightforward book; it all takes place in the one location, the Caribbean island of St Honoré, which is an invention of Christie’s, whose chief town appears to be Jamestown. That’s the original name of Holetown, the capital of Barbados, so maybe that’s where Christie is setting it in her imagination. Like Evil Under the Sun, And Then There Were None and the next book she was to write, At Bertram’s Hotel, a hotel plays a prominent part, which always lends a sense of confinement and claustrophobia to a story.

SereniteIn other references, Miss Marple wonders if she made up the quote “the many splendoured weather of an English day”.  It looks like she did, as I can’t find any other instances of that phrase online. The bottle that was found in Major Palgrave’s room, Serenite, is a natural medication extracted from herbs and is a non-addictive sleep aid. It’s also the new name given to a gemstone found in Oregon, USA! There is also a magnesium-based drug called Serenight.

bibleMiss Marple advises us that as a child they were told to put cobwebs on a cut. Really? I’ve never heard of that before. But apparently, it’s true. Spider webs supposedly have natural antiseptic and anti-fungal properties, which can help keep wounds clean and prevent infection. Who knew?! There’s also a couple of instances where Miss M appears to call on the Almighty to help. “Who will go for me? Whom shall I send?” she asks. This is taken from the Book of Isaiah, Chapter 6 Verse 8. And she misquotes the Bible in her sleepiness, “and the evening and the morning were the last day”; it should be the first day, not the last day, and that comes from the creation story, Genesis Chapter 1 Verse 5.

KiplingTalking of the Bible, one of the chapters is entitled “Without Benefit of Clergy”, which is a short story by Rudyard Kipling; and Miss Marple says that she once worked for “the Armenian relief”, which I presume meant working with refugees. There is an Armenian Relief Society, founded in 1910 and based in Boston, Massachusetts. Another tantalising insight into Miss M’s back story that is only lightly touched on. We want to know more!

SuetoniusMr Rafiel comes out with some Latin: “Ave Caesar, nos morituri te salutamus”. Miss Marple apologises for not knowing much Latin; but it means, those who are about to die salute you – and is taken from Suetonius’ Life of the Caesars. Basically, Rafiel is telling Miss M that he’s not got long to go; and, indeed, by the time Christie was to write Nemesis, in 1971, Rafiel has died.

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 in this book – the sum of £50,000. It’s an important sum – and is the amount that one of the characters has willed to another of the characters – I’ll say no more on that front because it might give some of the game away! Anyway, that’s the equivalent of over £700,000 today. A very nice little inheritance!

 

Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for A Caribbean Mystery:

 

Publication Details: 1964. My copy is a Fontana Paperback, twelfth impression, published in March 1972, bearing the price on the back cover of 25p. The cover illustration, presumably by Tom Adams, depicts the dead face of Major Palgrave, his bulbous glass eye staring out hideously at us. There’s also a snapshot – which is a Very Big Clue.

How many pages until the first death: 16. Another very quick death, which always gets the reader’s juices flowing!

Funny lines out of context: Sadly none.

Memorable characters: Most of the characters are not particularly memorable, or individually well drawn. I’d say the standout character is Mr Rafiel, because of his charismatic stature and ruthless domination of his staff and the other characters – even Miss Marple. He’s a shouting bully, used to getting his own way through a lifetime of successful business deals and with no sensitivity to other people’s feelings. But you can tell that there is a lot of intelligence there too, and he and Marple form a pretty useful detective team.

Christie the Poison expert: Poison is involved in the first death, and in another attempted murder that is frustrated just in time. There’s a suggestion that arsenic is involved, also Belladonna Atropine, and Datura, which is not just a pretty flower.

Class/social issues of the time: I said earlier on that I felt this was a very straightforward book in some respects, and that’s certainly reflected in the lack of social issues discussed in the book. Nevertheless, there are still a few interesting things to consider.

The book predates Roy Jenkins’ Permissive Society, but you can see some of the more modern ways of speech and behaviour appearing. Miss Marple’s nephew Raymond has a friend who wanted somewhere quiet to write a book – he’s going to stay in Miss Marple’s house whilst she is in the Caribbean. ““He’ll look after the house all right. He’s very house proud. He’s a queer. I mean –“ He had paused, slightly embarrassed, but surely even dear old Aunt Jane must have heard of queers.” I’m pretty sure that back in 1963 this was disrespectful, but common, terminology.

It’s also interesting how Molly seems to expect to have to put up with behaviour that today we’d consider unacceptable sexual harassment. The drunken Gregory, for example: ““now then, Molly my lovely, have a drink with me […] now don’t run away.” His arm fastened round her arm. “You’re a lovely girl, Molly […] I could go for you, you know, in a big way.” He leered at her.” Clearly, she looks on this kind of incident as just one of the down sides of the job.

Given Christie’s propensity for a little latent xenophobia, if not racism, it was always going to be unlikely that a story that takes place on a Caribbean island would get off scot-free in this department. There are, for example, some assumptions made about the local Caribbean staff, that, sexually, their morals are not all they should be. Miss Marple reflects: “nice natures, all these girls, and a pity they were so averse to getting married. It worried Canon Prescott a good deal. Plenty of christenings, he said, trying to console himself, but no weddings.”

There is also an uncomfortable moment where Dyson laughs at the sight of Victoria’s face; “it had looked like a faceless apparition but that was because, though the dress was white, the face was black”. Admittedly Dyson was drunk, but still I didn’t care for that sentence. Even more uncomfortable is when Tim tries to explain Molly’s anxiety: “Coming out here to the West Indies. All the dark faces.” There is, however, one paragraph where Rafiel appreciates how hard Molly and Tim have worked to get the hotel up and running, and his choice of language is very much of its day but now feels simply racist. I’m going to leave you the quote with no further discussion on the subject: “They’ve both worked like blacks, though that’s an odd term to use out here, for blacks, don’t work themselves to death at all, so far as I can see. Was looking at a fellow shinning up a coconut tree to get his breakfast, then he goes to sleep for the rest of the day. Nice life.”

Classic denouement:  The culprit is uncovered when Miss Marple and Rafiel step in to prevent another murder, and thus there is no time for a grand gathering of suspects in the best Poirot tradition. As a result the revelation is a little hurried, but, without question, it’s dramatic and exciting. Then there is a final chapter, where everything falls into place, followed by an epilogue, which makes the end feel a little lopsided. I should, however, say, that I couldn’t remember whodunit when I started to read the book, but about two thirds of the way through I successfully guessed who it was. And if I can do it, I expect most people can!

Happy ending? Not a traditional Christie happy ending – more a wistful one. Some people get a raw deal out of it.

Did the story ring true? There are two glaring aspects to the story which for me are entirely far-fetched. Palgrave is about to show a photo of a murderer and then stops in his tracks because he sees something/someone presumably involved in that old murder. There’s no way that that could have been the first time that Palgrave saw that thing or that person – so why would he start the conversation in the first place? That doesn’t make sense to me. There’s also a moment where Miss Marple just happens to find a book concealed underneath a mattress, which certainly provides something of a clue. Again, how did she know to look there? No, for me this book is one of those to be filed under Too Much Coincidence and Too Far-Fetched, sadly.

Overall satisfaction rating: A good start and a good end but it sags in the middle; and you also feel Miss Marple isn’t depicted in quite the same way that she has been before, which feels disappointing. Added to the coincidences discussed above, I can’t give this book more than a 7/10.

Third GirlThanks for reading my blog of A Caribbean Mystery, and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment in the space below. The next book that Christie wrote was At Bertram’s Hotel, but I’ve already written about that book, as my first few Christie blogs appeared in the order that I originally read them! Therefore next up in the Agatha Christie Challenge is the book after that, Third Girl, of which I only have a vague recollection – Hercule Poirot feeling very much out of place in Swinging Sixties’ London. I’m really looking forward to re-reading this one! As usual, I’ll blog my thoughts about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!

The Agatha Christie Challenge – The Clocks (1963)

The ClocksIn which young Colin Lamb (not his real surname) is tasked to unearth an espionage hub, at the same time that he accompanies his pal Inspector Hardcastle in solving the mystery of the murder of an unidentified man found in someone else’s house, surrounded by clocks! Colin decides to enlist the help of his old friend Hercule Poirot – as a challenge to the revered (but elderly) detective to solve the crime from afar without meeting the suspects. And without his help, Hardcastle would have been lost. As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, as always, I promise not to reveal whodunit!

CapriceThe book is dedicated “to my old friend Mario with happy memories of delicious food at the Caprice”. The Caprice was a much-loved restaurant in St James’s London, opened in 1947 by Mario Gallati, who was formerly a Maitre D’ at the Ivy. A haven for celebrities and superstars, it was one of Diana, Princess of Wales’ favourite restaurants, along with Mick Jagger and Elizabeth Taylor. Mario Gallati ran the restaurant until 1975, and it closed in 2020 due to the Coronavirus pandemic. The Clocks was published in the UK in six abridged instalments in Woman’s Own magazine in November and December 1963, and in the US a condensed version of the novel appeared in the January 1964 issue of Cosmopolitan. The Woman’s Own publication coincided with the full book being first published in the UK by Collins Crime Club on 7th November 1963, and in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company in 1964.

ClocksThe book had unorthodox origins. In 1949, Christie set a competition where she wrote the start of a short story, and competitors were invited to complete it. Her start involved a typist named Nancy who let herself into the front room of a house, to discover a dead man, a blind woman and a collection of clocks. The competition was to work this up into a tale and a solution. Whilst there are a number of differences between what she wrote for the competition and what appears in The Clocks, clearly she went back to this idea to start her new novel. Maybe the fact that she originally thought of the presence of the clocks in the room as a jumping-board for others to come up with an interesting story accounts for the fact that Christie herself didn’t really know what to make of all those clocks herself, as is revealed in the ending to the book.

Cuppa teaThis is an unusual read in many respects. I’m sure I’m not alone in that I’ve read this book several times over my life and each time I cannot remember a thing about it apart from its riveting opening scene, one of Christie’s paciest and most rewarding starts. Once the crime has been established, and we understand that Colin is working on two projects side by side, the first part of the book becomes a rather friendly, popping round for tea at the neighbours’ sequence of conversations, as Colin and Hardcastle try to identify what’s gone on. As we slowly realise that we’re being introduced to all the potential suspects in the book, we gain a sense of claustrophobia, as the world of The Clocks is firmly rooted in Wilbraham Crescent and its off-shoot streets.

DiminuendoIt’s a tremendously engaging book, and one of her more difficult-to-put-down works, and the excitement and suspense continues to rise as it proceeds, and you feel whatever external powers of evil there are, close in on our detective heroes. Yet at the end it all seems to peter out; the solution is relatively hard to follow and comprehend, there’s a jump of logic/intelligence that I think I understand – but it’s weak, and one of the book’s most intriguing aspects – that of the clocks themselves – at the end comes to absolutely nothing. Thus a crescendo of interest soars as the book progresses, all to become a last minute diminuendo in the final analysis.

police inspectorThe narrative approach to the book is a mix of Colin Lamb’s own account of his activity and Christie’s narrative voice. It’s not obvious why Christie has structured it in this way; indeed, at one point I wondered whether Colin’s involvement was going to have something of the Roger Ackroyd’s about it. Unfortunately, Colin isn’t that well drawn a character to make his narration stand out beside Christie’s; but as the two are telling precisely the same story, within precisely the same timescale, it doesn’t add or detract either way. In Christie’s universe, Colin is one of Superintendent Battle’s children; she confirmed it as such in a 1967 interview. This explains why he conceals his real surname and why such a young man might be such good friends with such an old one – Poirot. Detection running through his veins may also explain why he has such an incredible but fanciful insight into the parentage of Sheila.

BrailleBut it’s Colin’s friend Inspector Dick Hardcastle, whose job it is, to detect who the dead man is, and by whom he was killed. Hardcastle doesn’t have Colin’s flashes of inspiration; in fact, he comes across as rather cumbersome and slow of mind. Christie describes him as “a tall, poker-faced man with expressive eyebrows”, who appears on the scene “godlike, to see that all he had put in motion was being done, and done properly.” When he realises that Miss Pebmarsh is blind, he is clumsy and unintentionally offensive with his language, challenging her ability “to see those clocks”. “”See?”  Hardcastle was quick to query the word. “Examine would be a better word, “  said Miss Pebmarsh, “but even blind people, Inspector, use conventional modes of speech that do not exactly apply to their own powers.”” Nevertheless, when he realises that if he had reacted differently in another scene then he might have averted another death, he blames no one but himself; “left alone he made an effort to subdue his rising anger and self-condemnation.”

PoirotAnd what of Poirot? It’s been three years since we’ve seen him – four, if you exclude his presence in The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding, where the stories were actually written decades before that publication. His servant George advises Colin that “sometimes he gets a little depressed”, and we first see him seated in front of an electric bar heater, surrounded by books that he reads to keep his little grey cells active. He is desperate to be captivated by an intellectual challenge, and reels off classic whodunit after classic, admiring the methods of their famous detectives. It feels a little as though old age has relegated Poirot to sleuthing from a distance, second-guessing detective fiction, rather than being allowed to become actively involved in any cases – and it’s a rather sad feeling. Christie has Poirot going on at length about these writers, which, although has a relevance later on in the book, comes across as rather obsessive and, frankly, dull.

Agatha ChristieIt is, however, amusing when Poirot criticises the works of his friend and ours, Ariadne Oliver, because, by doing so, we know that it’s actually Christie criticising herself – as Mrs Oliver is how Christie portrayed herself in some of her later novels. Whilst she doesn’t actually appear in this story, she is referred to a number of times. Miss Martindale has her signed photograph on her office wall. Colin likens some of the more fanciful aspects of the case to a typical Oliver book (very tongue in cheek). And Poirot hates the way she over-uses the convention of coincidence, and scorns the fact that she doesn’t know the first thing about the foreign country from whence her detective hails. Sounds familiar! Miss Lemon is still Poirot’s secretary, writing the letters that he instructs; and he also refers to two of his previous cases, the tale of the kidnapped Pekinese dog that was The Nemean Lion from The Labours of Hercules, and “the Girl Guide murder case” that was Dead Man’s Folly.

HumanAt the end of the book Poirot loses his temper with Colin, as the latter presses him for a reason why he decides to come to Crowdean and explain his solution to the crime there, rather than staying in London. “Since you are too stupid to guess […] I am human, am I not? I can be the machine if it is necessary. I can lie back and think. I can solve the problems so. But I am human, I tell you. And the problems concern human beings […] I came out of human curiosity.” Poirot misses his old life more than he is prepared to say.

Residential CrescentAs just mentioned, we’re in Crowdean, a seaside town of moderate size and holiday interest, and the pages of the book are set in a warren of suburban anonymity. Wilbraham Crescent features so much in the book that it’s almost a character of its own. Given Christie’s earlier propensity for adding maps and plans to some of her books, I think she missed an opportunity to provide a helpful street plan of the area in its early chapters, which would explain more clearly why people get lost on that street trying to locate some of the numbers.

Tower blockI very much enjoyed the way Christie has all the locals talking about the case and inventing wild assumptions about it that have absolutely no grounds in truth – rather like Rumour in an old Greek tragedy. However, the discovery of the child Geraldine, observing everything going on in the neighbourhood from her tower block window, and the easy way that Colin pumps her for information and evidence, feels too convenient for words, and is obviously not one of Christie’s best devices. Nevertheless, despite a few failings in the structure and the logic of its deductions, it’s a cracking read, and, rather like The Pale Horse, you’ve still got no idea whodunit with less than 20 pages to go.

Curry RivelNow for the references, starting with the locations. The book is almost entirely set within the confines of Crowdean, Sussex; a fictional place with fictional roads, but whose names might suggest that Crowdean is an amalgam of Brighton, Newhaven and other small seaside towns. It is ten miles from another fictional town, Portlebury. The only other places mentioned are the fictional Shipton Bois, a one-horse market town in Suffolk, and some obviously real locations in London near Beck’s office. Sheila Webb’s London address – 17 Carrington Grove – is made up. Miss Pebmarsh works at the Aaronberg Institute, which sounds like a splendid organisation, but it’s purely the result of Christie’s fevered brain. With a nod to the writer’s tendency to make up names based on geographical locations, Poirot draws our attention to the fact that the dead man had a card in the name of Mr Curry and the person who identified the body was Mrs Rival – and that Curry Rival is the name of a village in Somerset. Actually he’s wrong – it’s Curry Rivel – but we get the picture.

Tea GownIn other references, Mrs Hemming emerges at her front door wearing a tea gown. I’ve never heard of one of those before, and by 1963 they would have been very out of date. Popular in the mid-19th century, they were designed to be worn whilst entertaining informally (maybe at dinner) indoors. It was wrong to be seen wearing a tea gown outside. According to Wikipedia, they were characterised “by unstructured lines and light fabrics”.

Sherlock HolmesPoirot makes the same reference to Sherlock Holmes’ Adventure of the Six Napoleons, (“the depth at which the parsley has sunk into the butter”) as Dr Haydock in The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side. He also cites the Charles Bravo and Lizzie Borden cases, both of which Christie referred to in Ordeal by Innocence. Colin refers to Adelaide Bartlett, who may have murdered her husband in the Pimlico Poisoning case of 1886, and Poirot mentions the child murderer Constance Kent, who is also mentioned in Crooked House.

Gaston LerouxIn further literary references, Poirot has a range of books that he is enjoying, some of which are real, and some are fictional. He’s sharpening his little grey cells on The Leavenworth Case, an American detective novel and the first novel by Anna Katharine Green, dated 1878. He loves The Adventures of Arsene Lupin, Maurice Leblanc’s turn of the century French equivalent of Sherlock Holmes. He finds The Mystery of the Yellow Room a classic, Gaston Leroux’s 1908 locked-room mystery. He admires Cyril Quain as the master of the alibi – commentators identify Quain as Freeman Willis Crofts; Florence Elks and Louisa O’Malley are also cited, and various opinions abound as to whom they could refer. Garry Gregson, whose writing plays a slightly more important role in the book than everyone else’s, is pure invention. Dickson Carr, G K Chesterton and Conan Doyle also get the odd look-in.

walrus-and-the-carpenterFew readers wouldn’t recognise Poirot quoting The Walrus and the Carpenter in Chapter XIV, but his quote “dilly dilly dilly – come and be killed” is not so recognisable to a modern readership. This is from Samuel Foote’s two-act farce The Mayor of Garret (1763), and became both a nursery rhyme and a music hall song. The dilly in the quote is a duck, with a Mrs Bond going out into the farmyard to catch herself a duck for dinner. “Dilly, dilly, dilly, dilly, come to be killed, / For you must be stuffed and my customers filled!”

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 in this book – the sum of £7 10/- is found on the dead man’s body. That’s the equivalent of about £110 today. Just about the amount of money you might take out with you to cover you for most needs on a day out.

 

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

 

Publication Details: 1963. My copy is the Crime Club hardback first edition, but lacking the dust jacket. I bought it for 25p at a fete in about 1970 – about £2.50 at today’s rates. Not bad for a Christie first edition. It’s probably held its value!

How many pages until the first death: 5. One of the paciest and most entertaining starts to a Christie novel, and that early death really lets you get on with the important business of solving the crime.

Funny lines out of context: Some funny lines, both in and out of context.

“Its painstaking eroticism left her uninterested – as indeed it did most of Mr Levine’s readers, in spite of his efforts. He was a notable example of the fact that nothing can be duller than dull pornography.” (Not a line one would normally associate with Christie!)

“”Edna sighed and put in a fresh sheet of paper: “Desire had him in its grasp. With frenzied fingers he tore the fragile chiffon from her breasts and forced her down on the soap.” “Damn,” said Edna and reached for the eraser.””

(Imagine you’re at a Julian Clary pantomime) “It was just after two o’clock that I walked into the station and asked for Dick.”

Memorable characters:

The major characters aren’t that memorable, regrettably, with neither Colin nor Hardcastle being particularly interesting. I liked the portrayal of the mad cat woman Mrs Hemming, and Miss Pebmarsh is well drawn, with her crystal clear thought processes and no-nonsense attitude. The dopey Edna and the inebriated Mrs Rival are also entertainingly written. Curiously, one of the most interesting characters is that of Wilbraham Crescent itself, a constant presence in the book and one that takes on human force from time to time, such as when Colin wished the stones of the street could speak. “Wilbraham Crescent remained silently itself. Old-fashioned, aloof, rather shabby, and not given to conversation. Disapproving, I was sure, of itinerant prowlers who didn’t even know that they were looking for.”

Christie the Poison expert:

Knifing and strangling are the favoured methods of murder in this book, but chloral hydrate is also used as part of the story. At the time of writing it was often used as a sedative before minor medical or dental treatment, or to treat insomnia, but is currently unlicensed within either the UK, the EU or the USA.

Class/social issues of the time:

Following on from the in-depth look at modern living that strongly characterised Christie’s previous book, The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side, it’s perhaps surprising that it isn’t developed more in this book. There are, however, a couple of references to modern housing about which, despite the comfort they bring, Christie still manages to cast aspersions. She describes the quirkiness of Wilbraham Crescent with a kind regard, calling it a Victorian fantasy; “the houses were neat, prim, artistically balconied and eminently respectable. Modernisation has as yet barely touched them – on the outside, that is to say, kitchens and bathrooms were the first to feel the wind of change.”

It’s when Colin is walking through Wilbraham Crescent that he notes “in one or two houses I could see through the uncurtained windows a group of one or two people round a dining table, but even that was exceedingly rare. Either the windows were discreetly screened with nylon netting, as opposed to the once popular Nottingham lace, or – which was far more probable – anyone who was at home was eating in the “modern” kitchen, according to the custom of the 1960s.” Remember Colin is a young man in his early 20s. This is not the kind of observation one would expect him to make. Rather, it’s Christie’s disapproval of abandoning the dining room for the kitchen that is being voiced.

It’s notable that the residents were being pestered by the Press. Hardcastle defends the Press, saying they have their job to do; but Mrs Lawton, who has clearly been pestered already, has no sympathy. “It’s a shame to worry private people as they do […] saying they have to have news for the public. The only thing I’ve ever noticed about the news that they print is that it’s a tissue of lies from beginning to end. They’ll cook up anything so far as I can see.” I don’t know if Christie had an unfortunate relationship with the Press – maybe they pestered her at the time of her disappearance and her divorce. She featured the busybodying journalist Charles Enderby in The Sittaford Mystery. Anyway, it looks like there’s no love lost there – and the concerns she raises about the freedoms of the Press are definitely as valid today as they were then.

That also applies to another political hot potato that rears its ugly head in this book – Europe! The Common Market (aka the EEC) had started in 1957, and by the time of The Clocks was a familiar framework in Europe, if not the UK. Hardcastle’s interview with Miss Pebmarsh’s cleaning lady, Mrs Curtin, reveals her to be very suspicious of it. When he questions her about the cuckoo clock, she leaps to some assumptions: “Must have been foreign […] Me and my old man went on a coach trip to Switzerland and Italy once and it was a whole hour further on there. Must be something to do with the Common Market. I don’t hold with the Common Market and nor does Mr Curtin. England’s good enough for me.” Mrs Curtin there, revealing how a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.

Apart from Mrs Curtin’s European prejudices, there aren’t too many examples of the usual Christie xenophobia in this book. Mrs Bland avows that she wouldn’t “care at all for a foreign doctor. I wouldn’t have any confidence in him” – and at her husband’s suggestion they go on a Greek island cruise, she worries “there’d be a proper English doctor on board, I suppose”. Similarly, Mrs Ramsay rejects Colin’s idea that “ one of those foreign girls” would help her domestically; “au pair, don’t they call it , come and do chores here in return for learning English”. ““I suppose I might try something of that kind,” said Mrs Ramsay, considering, “though I always feel that foreigners may be difficult.”” Elsewhere there is an example of that occasional Christie theme that the police aren’t really quality people. Mrs Head tells Miss Waterhouse, “a couple of gentlemen want to see you […] leastways […] they aren’t really gentlemen – it’s the police.” She further explains that she didn’t take them to the drawing room, but the dining room. “I’d cleared away breakfast and I thought that that would be more proper a place. I mean, they’re only the police after all.”

Classic denouement:  There are elements of a classic denouement, but it doesn’t quite make it. For one thing, it’s a highly complicated solution – even though Poirot maintains it is simplicity itself. Secondly, the suspects are not there – just Poirot, Colin and Hardcastle. However, Poirot still unveils his solution stage by stage, piece by piece, revelation by revelation, and it’s an incredibly exciting reveal. Some of the drama is lost by there being a further chapter that ties up Colin’s espionage case, and also two letters from Hardcastle to Poirot, informing him of additional discoveries and confessions after the event. Whilst we need that information for completeness, it does detract from the grand denouement.

Happy ending? There is a marriage – so we wish the happy couple well. Apart from that, and the fact that the guilty parties are dealt with, one senses that nothing will change in Wilbraham Crescent, which may, or may not, be a happy outcome.

Did the story ring true? There’s a surprising ordinariness to the environment that makes a strong contrast with the fanciful nature of the crime, and that, for the most part, helps to make the story pretty believable on the whole.

Overall satisfaction rating: It’s an excellent read, and was certainly heading for a 10/10 all the way through, but the final solution is both a little overcomplicated and under-delivering, so it drops to a 9 in the final analysis. But it’s a very enjoyable book.

A Caribbean MysteryThanks for reading my blog of The Clocks, 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 Caribbean Mystery, and Miss Marple on holiday in the West Indies – but of course, she’s never far away from crime. I can’t remember anything about it, so I’m looking forward to re-reading it and, 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!