In which young Gwenda Reed has a vision that she witnessed a murder when she was a child, and Miss Marple helps her and her husband Giles to investigate if she really did see the crime – and if so, who was the murderer! As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, as always, I promise not to reveal what happens and whodunit!
This was the last novel to feature Miss Marple and, like Curtain, was written at some point in the 1940s, then locked away in a vault until such time that Christie wanted it to be published. As it turned out, she died in January 1976, before it was published. Also like Curtain, Christie didn’t dedicate this book to anyone. Sleeping Murder was first published in the UK by Collins Crime Club in October 1976, and in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company shortly afterwards, although it had been previously serialised in the US in two abridged instalments in Ladies Home Journal in July and August 1976.
There are some conflicting opinions as to exactly when the book was written. Originally it was thought to have been around 1940, but other evidence suggests it could be almost a decade later. I note that when the characters all go to the theatre in the early part of the book they go to His Majesty’s Theatre, which obviously dates it as pre-1952. Christie had a number of possible titles for the book; the one she preferred and intended was Cover Her Face – but unfortunately for her, P D James got in there first with her first Inspector Dalgliesh novel published in 1962. Apparently, Christie had to get the manuscript out of the vault in order to change the title.
After the success of Curtain, written when Christie’s creative skills were at their height, the book-buyers of 1976 expected something equally sensational from Miss Marple’s last case, as it had also been written many years before. Alas, this hope was rather misplaced. Much of Sleeping Murder is taken up by Gwenda and Giles painstakingly working their way around the country as amateur sleuths on the track of something they don’t quite understand, with Miss Marple acting as an emotional and cerebral associate, dispensing advice and warnings from a safe distance. Of course, one of the most exciting things about reading a whodunit – Christie or otherwise – is hoping for a big surprise at the final denouement. Unfortunately, that doesn’t happen in this book; the person who (I felt, at least) was the most likely to have done the crime was indeed the murderer. And although it’s nice to pat oneself on the back and bask in the glory of one’s success, one also gets to feel a little cheated out of a final surprise. So you come away from the book not only slightly disappointed by the journey to the big revelation, but also by the revelation itself.
The plot also suffers from being based on a massive coincidence, namely that Gwenda bought the same house for her and Giles to live in that she had briefly lived in as a child. It isn’t as though she’d always lived in the same village, Dillmouth; she didn’t even realise she’d lived in England. Of all the houses in all the towns…. she had to buy the one she already knew (without knowing). Personally, I also find it hard to believe that Gwenda would overreact quite so astonishingly at watching the play The Duchess of Malfi – the line “Cover her face. Mine eyes dazzle, she died young…” sends her into apoplectics. For a young woman who is otherwise firmly in charge of her life, I find that pretty hard to believe.
Nevertheless, it’s very nicely written and acts as a decent swansong and nostalgia trip, celebrating the great lady’s status as a much loved amateur detective. Perhaps oddly, Miss Marple doesn’t seem to have aged in the same way that Poirot has. Whereas Hastings was upset at the sight of his old friend’s failing health, Miss Marple is described much as she always has been: “an attractive old lady, tall and thin, with pink cheeks and blue eyes, and a gentle, rather fussy manner, Her blue eyes often had a little twinkle in them.” Not only unchanged in appearance, but also in behaviour; she is still as independent and wily as ever, popping around all the old-fashioned shops ostensibly to buy wool and suchlike, but really trying to get as much gossip about the past as possible. No one would suspect her cunning ulterior motives.
She’s still socially active too; when we first come across her in the book, she is part of the party going to the London theatre, going out for a meal, and still socialising with her nephew Raymond West, still messing about in her garden, complaining about the unreliability of gardeners, and keeping up to date with her old friend Dolly Bantry. You wouldn’t know that the years have come and gone. It’s quite comforting to see that age has not withered her (well, not more than she was already withered!) Raymond West, however, who in some of the earlier book comes across as an insufferable prig, seems to be a little less annoying now – just generally intimidating, if you’re not used to moving in his circles, as Gwenda wasn’t. Miss Marple’s maid is Evelyn; that’s an anomaly, as in her later years she was looked after by her super-kindly Cherry.
There’s not much more to say about the book at this stage, so let’s take a look at the locations. Most of the book takes place in the Devon town of Dillmouth. You might be forgiven for thinking that this is Christie’s name for Dartmouth, but Aunt Alison’s letter makes it clear elsewhere that Dartmouth is a separate town. It’s a curious blend of fact and fiction; Dr Kennedy lives in Woodleigh Bolton, a fictional location, but there is a village called Woodleigh near Kingsbridge in Devon. Local train stops include Helchester, Lonsbury Bay, Newton Langford and Matchings Halt, all of which are completely charming names and totally fictional. The sanatorium in Norfolk is said to be near the town of South Benham; again, that’s fictional but there is a Banham halfway between Norwich and Thetford that might be the inspiration. Apart from that, Christie uses real-life locations, such as Exeter, Northumberland, and indeed the final chapter takes place in the well-known Imperial Hotel, Torquay.
“Calcutta Lodge was surrounded by a neat trim garden, and the sitting-room into which they were shown was also neat if slightly overcrowded. It smelt of beeswax and Ronuk.” Ronuk? This was a brand of sanitary polish, manufactured in Portland, Dorset, until the 1950s. Miss Marple, meanwhile, in a wool shop remarks: “I always find Storkleg so reliable. It really doesn’t shrink. I think I’ll take an extra two ounces.” I believe this is a type of wool that gives an extra grip to the body, so is suitable for socks. But I could be wrong. Please tell me if I am!
Giles quotes: “I know a hundred ways of love, and each one makes the loved one rue”. This is a slight misquote from Emily Bronte – the original is “I know a hundred ways of love, All made the loved one rue” – it’s from her untitled poem LVII that begins “Were they shepherds who sat all day on that brown mountain’s side”. And, of course, there is a quick gallop through some of Miss Marple’s earlier cases in conversation with Inspector Primer, including a reference to “a little poison pen trouble” (The Moving Finger) and a churchwarden shot in the Vicar’s study (The Murder at the Vicarage.) There’s also a slightly bizarre forward reference, with an old lady at the home in Norfolk asking Gwenda “is it your poor child, my dear?” which had been previously used in By the Pricking of my Thumbs – but which wouldn’t be written for at least another twenty years!
Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for Sleeping Murder:
Publication Details: 1976. My copy is a Fontana Paperback, first Australian paperback edition published in 1978, bearing the price on the back cover of $2.50. I know I had an earlier copy – the original hardback first edition, no less – but it has vanished in the seas of time. The cover illustration by Tom Adams shows a dead woman’s face against an attractive sea- and skyscape, plus a bundle of wool with two knitting needles – which I presume is in homage to Miss Marple.
How many pages until the first death: 150. It’s a long wait, but the reader isn’t frustrated by the delay. You can sense this death coming quite a long way off.
Funny lines out of context: Sadly none.
Memorable characters: Really disappointing on this front.
Christie the Poison expert: Not much here either. There is some mention of the Indian practice of “wives driving their husbands insane by datura poisoning” in the Indian courts, but that’s it. Datura is a form of Deadly Nightshade.
Class/social issues of the time: Once again we have to think of the “time” as being sometime in the 1940s rather than 1976. But there are very few issues of note in this book anyway. There’s the usual sense of xenophobia, with a number of characters repeating the thought that Leonie, the Swiss nanny, was a bit stupid because she was a foreigner; that distrust is also repeated with Mrs Fane’s scorn that her son Robert had married a Roman Catholic.
There’s also the old gardener who deplores change: “Changes all the time. People takes a house nowadays and lives in it ten or twelve years and then off they goes. Restless. What’s the good of that?” And there’s also the common theme of total distrust of anything to do with mental illness, and the sneaking suspicion that it could be inherited.
And I do have to draw your attention to the unfortunate use of the N word in a conversation with Galbraith, the old estate agent, who remembered Major Halliday. I think there was a big difference in the word’s acceptability between the 40s and 70s, so maybe it was odd that it wasn’t amended by the editors.
Classic denouement: No – instead it’s one of those occasions when the murderer reveals themselves by their own activity, attempting to kill another person, which in this particular case is thwarted by a rather comic intervention by Miss Marple.
Happy ending? Yes – in that Gwenda and Giles get to live happy ever after in their chosen home; and Miss Marple is left to carry on carrying on, undeterred by age or infirmity.
Did the story ring true? Most of the plot feels believable. The only thing I find extraordinary is that Gwenda returned unwittingly to the scene of the crime and wanted to buy it for her home.
Overall satisfaction rating: It’s not bad and it’s not great. An entertaining enough read, but it’s a shame the identity of the murderer is so obvious. 7/10
Thanks for reading my blog of Sleeping Murder, and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment in the space below. That was Christie’s last novel to be published, but the Agatha Christie Challenge continues with a posthumous book of short stories, Miss Marple’s Final Cases and Two Other Stories. These had never been published in the UK before, so I’m looking forward to reading them – possibly for the first time! As usual, I’ll blog my thoughts about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!
In which Hercule Poirot and Arthur Hastings are reunited for one final time – back at the scene of their first case, The Mysterious Affair at Styles. The old mansion is now a guest house, where Poirot is a resident, accompanied by a new valet, Curtiss. But Poirot has a surprise up his sleeve – he confides in Hastings that one of the guests is a serial murderer, and he wants Hastings to be his eyes and ears so that they can prevent another murder from taking place. There’s just one main problem: Poirot won’t tell Hastings who the murderer is! Is Hastings perceptive enough to pick up all the vital clues? Can he prevent another murder? And how will Poirot end his distinguished detective career? As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, as always, I promise not to reveal what happens and whodunit!
As the book was written at some point in the early 1940s, when Christie was at her inventive best, but without the future knowledge of exactly when it would be published, it’s perhaps appropriate that, unusually, she didn’t dedicate this book to anyone. Curtain was first published in the UK by Collins Crime Club in September 1975, and in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company shortly afterwards, although it has been previously serialised in the US in two abridged instalments in Ladies Home Journal in July and August 1975.
For the contemporary reader in 1975, Curtain was a breath of fresh air, after the disappointments of Christie’s more recent publications. Much research has taken place to try to establish exactly when it was written, but it’s hard to be more specific other than early in the 1940s. To end Hercule Poirot’s career on a highlight – for the reader, if not for Poirot himself, arguably – must have been Christie’s chief goal, and so she set about writing a superbly plotted, intricate story, full of red herrings and manipulative mind-games, and a classic Christie cast of old soldiers, young whippersnappers, hen-pecked husbands and research-crazed scientists. The result is a riveting read and a denouement finale that’s very different from a traditional Christie but has you on your seat with twists and surprises.
Setting the story back in Styles, where Poirot and Hastings had cemented their friendship back in 1916, provides a very satisfactory circular structure to their detective days together – indeed to Christie’s works as a whole. Of course, the timings mean there are all sorts of inconsistencies regarding their ages, respective health conditions and life experiences. 55 years had elapsed between the publication of The Mysterious Affair at Styles and Curtain, and Poirot was already an old man way back then. Hastings tells us at the beginning of this book, “I had not seen my old friend for nearly a year”; whereas the last book that Hastings narrates is Dumb Witness, published in 1937 – so there’s some inconsistency there. Hastings is now widowed, his late wife buried back in The Argentine where they lived. His daughter Judith, who plays a significant role in Curtain, is only 21, which again requires the reader to have some elasticity of understanding! Hastings is, in his own words, not “Heaven help me, a clever man. I blundered – made mistakes.” Christie paints Hastings as not only a bit of a chump when it comes to helping Poirot solve the case, but also rather Neanderthal in his reaction to his belief that Judith is spending too much time with Allerton, a man whom Hastings instinctively dislikes. We know that fathers can get very possessive of their daughters, but Christie took Hastings down some very torturous paths of personal discovery! Fortunately, All’s Well that Ends Well on that front, although there is a darker aspect to Hastings’ over-the-top reaction, but that’s for further discussion after you’ve read the book!
And what of our much-loved and respected hero, Poirot? Of course, we see him through Hastings’ eyes, as this “limping figure with the large moustache”. But on closer inspection, “crippled with arthritis, he propelled himself about in a wheeled chair. His once plump frame had fallen in. He was a thin little man now. His face was lined and wrinkled. His moustache and hair, it is true, were still of a jet black colour […] only his eyes were the same as ever, shrewd and twinkling”. And of course, age hasn’t taken its toll on Poirot’s vanity: “mercifully, though the outside decays, the core is still sound […] the brain, mon cher, is what I mean by the core, My brain, I still functions magnificently.” Good to see that some things never change. What is occasionally a little distressing is to read how Poirot rounds upon Hastings with frustration and fury at the latter’s denseness. “Go away. You are obstinate and extremely stupid and I wish that there were someone else whom I could trust, but I suppose I shall have to put up with you and your absurd ideas of fair play.” Harsh words, Hercule; particularly as Hastings is still coming to terms with his new widowed status: “I’m not much of a fellow. You’ve said I’m stupid – well, in a way it’s true. And I’m only half the man I was. Since Cinders’ death…” Still, I suppose we can extend Poirot a hand of sympathy as he gets older and more infirm; as Hastings notes, “now, when he was indeed a sick man, he feared, perhaps, admitting the reality of his illness. He made light of it because he was afraid.”
Times may have moved on, but some of Poirot’s views are still firmly in the past (unsurprising, as that’s when the book was written!) In conversation with Judith, he criticises her keenness on working for Dr Franklin at the expense of finding a husband. ““Your middle finger is stained with methyliine blue. It is not a good thing for your husband if you take no interest in his stomach.” “I dare say I shan’t have a husband.” “Certainly you will have a husband. What did the bon Dieu create you for?” “Many things, I hope,” said Judith. “Le marriage first of all.””
There’s one curious inconsistency of Poirot’s philosophy that is at odds with his stated views in other books. Faced with the task of preventing a murder, he asserts that it is impossible to stop a murderer from carrying out their intentions; and he goes into great detail about the only possible methods one can use, and how they are all likely to fail. However, in Poirot’s Early Cases, which was published only a year earlier (albeit the tales were written much earlier), that is more or less exactly what he achieves in the story Wasps’ Nest.
This is a beautifully written book, with an extremely clever set up and tight plotting. Christie manages to achieve a sense of unease at many key moments in the story, which almost lend it a supernatural element; there is much debate, for example, to what extent the previous death that occurred at Styles has left its mark on the fabric of the building. ““The atmosphere of the place […] something wrong, if you know what I mean?” I was silent a moment considering […] Did the fact that death by violence – by malice aforethought – had taken place in a certain spot leave its impression on that spot so strongly that it was perceptible after many years? Psychic people said so. Did Styles definitely bear traces of that event that had occurred so long ago? Here, within these walls, in these gardens, thoughts of murder had lingered and grown stronger and had at last come to fruition in the final act. Did they still taint the air?”
There’s also the scene where Norton fumbles with his binoculars, is embarrassed about what he has accidentally seen and refuses to elucidate further; it’s a very uneasy moment and you feel that something extremely significant has happened – but you’re not quite certain why. It’s all very cunningly written, and when you discover exactly what has happened at the end of the book, all these significant moments make sense. There was a time when Christie would enjoy including what I call a “presaging moment” in her books, which always create tension and nervousness, and Curtain includes a fine example: “How little we realized then that Norton’s hobby might have an important part to play in the events that were to come.” There’s another scene when Franklin upsets a box of chocolates and they spill out on to the floor; as a Christie fan you read much more into such an event than it might necessarily warrant – will this be an opportunity for a murderer to swap a chocolate for a poisoned one, for example? As I said earlier, the book is littered with delightful red herrings.
There are just three locations in the book. It almost exclusively takes place at Styles House, in the village of Styles St Mary, which we know is reached by crossing “flat Essex landscape”. There’s also the setting for the Coroner’s Enquiry, and Boyd Carrington’s house. The only other location mentioned is the Yorkshire town of Tadcaster, where Franklin and Judith drove to get some laboratory supplies. Tadcaster? That’s hardly convenient for Essex! I think the proof-readers didn’t do their job properly there.
Now for the references and quotations in this book. Has tings asks if there were any similarity between this case and the case of Evelyn Carlisle. This is the book Sad Cypress, published in 1940, which perhaps gives us a closer clue as to when Curtain was written. Again, I wonder if the proof-readers took the afternoon off as the character’s name is actually Elinor Carlisle. Poirot also refers to “your Mr Asquith in the last war”. Herbert Asquith was the Prime Minister from 1908 to 1916 – so you wouldn’t think of him as being from the time of “the last war” in 1975!
Hastings wonders who it was who wrote “the darkest day, lived till tomorrow, will have passed away”. This is a slight misquote; the original is “the darkest day, if you live till tomorrow, will have passed away” and is by William Cowper, from The Needless Alarm, 1790. There are more quotes, from Shakespeare; O, beware, my lord, of jealousy… and Not poppy, nor mandragora, nor all the drowsy syrups of the world…, both of which are spoken by Iago in Act Three, Scene Three of Othello. There is also a reference to Judith cutting off the head of Holofernes; he was an invading Assyrian general, and she was a Hebrew widow who beheaded him when he was drunk.
Mrs Franklin wore a negligee of pale eau-de-Nil; this is a pale yellowish-green colour, said to be coined by Flaubert in the mid-19th century when France was obsessed by Egypt. And of the two clues that Poirot leaves to Hastings, one is a copy of John Ferguson by St John Ervine – this is a 1915 play by (according to Wikipedia, so it must be true) the most prominent Ulster writer of the early twentieth century and a major Irish dramatist whose work influenced the plays of W. B. Yeats and Sean O’Casey. So there you go.
Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for Curtain:
Publication Details: 1975. My copy is a Fontana Paperback, first paperback edition published in 1977, bearing the price on the back cover of 70p. I know I had an earlier copy – the original hardback first edition, no less – but it has vanished in the seas of time. The cover illustration simply shows a bowler hat placed atop a walking cane. Classy.
How many pages until the first death: 127. That’s a good two thirds of the way into the book, but it’s such a good read that you’re not remotely impatient for a death to investigate.
Funny lines out of context: Sadly none.
Memorable characters: The book is much more interested in presenting a deeply woven plot rather than memorable characters, so there’s not much meat here. However, Hastings’ daughter Judith is an interesting character, largely because she presents herself as a highly unpleasant person, and not at all what you might expect coming from the kindly loins of Hastings. Consider this little opinion piece: “I don’t hold life as sacred as all you people do. Unfit lives, useless lives – they should be got out of the way. There’s so much mess about. Only people who can make a decent contribution to the community ought to be allowed to live. The others ought to be put painlessly away.” Nice lady.
Christie the Poison expert: A veritable cornucopia of poisons and chemical treatments litter this book – Christie must have had a field day. Arsenic, morphine, cyanide, strychnine; plus the alkaloids of the physostigmine family, and the sleeping draughts veronal and the fictional slumberyl, all play a small or not so small part.
Class/social issues of the time: Bearing in mind that the “time” in question is probably during the Second World War, it’s fascinating to read Hastings’ description of the period – specifically in terms of no longer producing men of the standard of Colonel Luttrell – as “these degenerate days”. You’d say that was an opinion that didn’t bear much optimism for the future.
Hastings has a very tricky relationship with Judith; perhaps that has always been the way for fathers and daughters, but his possessiveness towards her becomes quite aggressive, as does her resistance to his protection. Poirot admits that “the mauvais sujet – always women are attracted to him”. As women were making their way in the workplace with much greater strides than in previous eras, it would be inevitable that they would have to learn the ways to deal with bad boys independently, and not just rush to the protection of Daddy. But all this takes a very hard toll on Hastings.
One of Christie’s traditional bugbears gets a good airing with some major discussions about divorce. There is a passage where Hastings lists and comments on the individual attitudes to divorce of many of the residents at Styles. Hastings describes himself as “essentially an old-fashioned person, yet I was on the side of divorce – of cutting one’s losses and starting afresh.” Boyd Carrington, who had had an unhappy marriage, was nevertheless against divorce. “He had, he said, the utmost reverence for the institution of marriage. It was the foundation of the state. Norton, with no ties and no personal angle, was of my way of thinking, Franklin, the modern scientific thinker, was, strangely enough, resolutely opposed to divorce. It offended, apparently, his ideal of clear-cut thinking and action.” By listing these opposing and perhaps unpredictable attitudes, Christie shows what a state of indecision society was in at the time in respect of divorce.
I did think it was an extraordinary state of affairs that someone who is convinced they have had a heart attack – Poirot, no less – would refuse to see a doctor. Perhaps there was a mistrust of the medical profession at the time? But, on the other hand, this refusal might be a clue as to the final “whodunit” aspect of the book – so I won’t say any more on the subject!
Classic denouement: No – but it’s an absolute humdinger, where Christie reserves one of her very finest solutions till the final moment.
Happy ending? That’s a hard one to call. One couple appear to be looking forward to a happy relationship together, which is a positive result. However, there can be absolutely no doubt at all that this is the end of Hercule Poirot, and you may find that sad!
Did the story ring true? This is one of Christie’s ultimate plotting successes, so yes, it rings absolutely true.
Overall satisfaction rating: It’s one of her undoubted best – no wonder she kept it in a drawer for when it was needed! 10/10
Thanks for reading my blog of Curtain, and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment in the space below. That was the last book to be published in Christie’s lifetime, but that doesn’t mean it’s the end of the Agatha Christie Challenge. Next up is another book that she wrote at an earlier time and is the swansong for Miss Marple – Sleeping Murder. I can remember one vital aspect of this story – but the rest of it is a blank, so I’m looking forward to giving it a re-read. As usual, I’ll blog my thoughts about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!
In which Christie takes us back in time and gives us eighteen early cases solved by Hercule Poirot, in many of which he is helped or hindered by his old pal Hastings. All the stories had been previously published in the UK in journals and magazines between 1923 and 1935; and in the US, they were all published between 1924 and 1961 in book collections. Poirot’s Early Cases was first published in the UK by Collins Crime Club in September 1974, and this collection was first published in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company later in 1974 under the slightly different title Hercule Poirot’s Early Cases. There’s no additional scene-setting or framework, so I’ll take them all individually, and, as always, I promise not to reveal whodunit!
The Affair at the Victory Ball
This first story was originally published in the 7th March 1923 issue of the Sketch Magazine in the UK, and in the book The Underdog and other Stories in 1951 in the US. It was Agatha Christie’s first published short story. At the Victory Ball, a party of six wear the costumes of the Commedia dell’Arte. But a double tragedy ensues when Harlequin is found murdered, and, back at her flat, Columbine dies of an overdose of cocaine.
A simple structure to this story, Poirot and Hastings are idling their time when Inspector Japp arrives with a request for help. We had already met Japp in The Mysterious Affair at Styles, and he will return in three of the other short stories in this collection. He would also go on to feature in six more Christie novels, and the short story Murder in the Mews. As he would do on a few occasions, Poirot solves the puzzle without needing to visit the scene of the crime.
You can see that Christie is still introducing her audience to Poirot, going back to the basics of the man; his egg-shaped head and what Hastings calls his “harmless vanity”; the account of his time in the Belgian police force and how he solved the mystery at Styles. At this stage of his time in England, Poirot still shows some shakiness in his command of the English language: “his dossier […] I should say his bioscope – no, how do you call it – biograph?” He also asks what would always become a vital question in any Christie murder “Who benefits by his death?” and he expressly asks Japp if he will be able to “play out the denouement my own way” – again, another of Poirot’s trademarks. Of Hastings we learn little, except that he is a faithful acolyte, of whom Poirot grieves he has “no method.”
Other aspects that come up in this story: cocaine use plays an important role in this story, which no only would have interested Christie the pharmacist/poison expert, but also points to a very contemporary feel, as that was definitely the drug de choix of the day. The use of the Harlequin character may point to an interest that was to develop into Christie’s short-lived detective Harley Quin. The Colossus Hall, where the Victory Ball took place, appears to be one of Christie’s early inventions.
Christie gives us an honest and massive clue, which certainly led me to guess who the perpetrator was – although I didn’t guess any of the details as to How It Was Done. And that denouement, that Poirot was so keen to keep for himself, is certainly a very theatrical affair and thoroughly entertaining to read.
An enjoyable, clear, and undemanding start to the book.
The Adventure of the Clapham Cook
A preposterous and highly contrived little story, originally published in the 14th November 1923 issue of the Sketch Magazine in the UK and in the book The Underdog and other Stories in 1951 in the US. Mrs Todd arrives unannounced and demands that Poirot investigate the disappearance of her cook; such cases are not normally his purview, but it isn’t long until he proves the connection with the disappearance with a crime reported in that day’s Daily Blare.
The story is of interest as it is one of the rare occasions that Poirot concerns himself with solving a “lower class” crime. At first, he is not inclined to assist, telling Mrs Todd that he “does not touch this particular kind of business”, which infuriates his visitor with his snobbishness. When he changes his mind, his patronising attitude is still unpleasant to read: “This case will be a novelty. Never yet have I hunted a missing domestic.”
However, another of Poirot’s traits comes to the fore in this story; the fact that, once his interest is piqued, nothing will stop him from discovering the truth. He ignores the fact that Mr Todd sends him a guinea for his trouble when he is dismissed from the case. He simply carries on. As Hastings notes, “his eagerness over this uninteresting matter of a defaulting cook was extraordinary, but I realised that he considered it a point of honour to persevere until he finally succeeded.”
Mrs Todd gives us an interesting insight into the world of an upper middle-class woman trying to keep servants in her employ. “It’s all this wicked dole […] putting ideas into servants’ heads, wanting to be typists and what nots. Stop the dole, that’s what I say.”
Christie still reports Poirot’s power of English as uncertain; “if I mistake not, there is on my new grey suit the spot of grease – only the unique spot, but it is sufficient to trouble me. Then there is my winter overcoat – I must lay him aside in the powder of Keatings.” Keating’s Powder, by the way, was a treatment for killing bugs, fleas, beetles and moths in clothing.
Apart from Poirot’s flat, there’s one location mentioned in the story – 88 Prince Albert Road, Clapham, the Todd residence. There are a couple of Prince Albert Roads in London, but neither is in Clapham.
There are a few financial sums mentioned in this story; an income of £300 per year, which today would be worth about £12,500; and the guinea, that the Todds thought would be enough to pay off Poirot for dropping the investigation would be worth about £45 today. No wonder he was insulted. The £50,000 that the newspaper says the bank clerk has taken, would be the equivalent of about £2.1 million today. Now that’s not a bad haul.
I didn’t care for this story; the solution is extremely unlikely and Poirot solves it with a level of vanity that is rather unattractive.
The Cornish Mystery
This enjoyable and surprising little story was originally published in the 28th November 1923 issue of the Sketch Magazine, and in the book The Underdog and other Stories in 1951 in the US. Poirot and Hastings travel to Cornwall to investigate Mrs Pengelley’s suggestion that her husband has been poisoning her. Poirot arrives too late to avert a tragedy but isn’t convinced that the husband is guilty.
It’s Poirot’s idea that he should travel to Cornwall pretending to be Hastings’ “eccentric foreign friend”, playing up his image of eccentricity and unpredictability. He doesn’t hold back when he discovers that he has arrived too late to save Mrs Pengelley: “An imbecile, a criminal imbecile, that is what I have been, Hastings. I have boasted of my little grey cells, and now I have lost a human life, a life that came to me to be saved.” He takes his responsibilities very seriously, but also doesn’t like to show any imperfection or misjudgement. Everything must be perfect in Poirot’s world, including the impeccability of his record at solving cases.
The solution to the case allows Poirot and/or Christie, depending on how you read it, to be judge and jury with the murderer, bluffing them into confession and atonement whilst concealing the fact that he has no proof. Consequently it feels like a very moral ending.
The story moves from Poirot’s London flat to the Cornish village of Polgarwith, where the Pengelleys live. It’s a convincingly sounding Cornish name, but it doesn’t exist. Christie utilises her interest in poison, with the news that a large amount of arsenic was discovered in the corpse. There’s another of those unintentionally funny moments when Christie’s turn of phrase hasn’t kept up with semantic change: ““God bless my soul!” he ejaculated.”
Freda is reported to live on £50 per year, which today would be somewhere in the region of is only a little over £2,100. It’s not a lot.
Concise and diverting.
The Adventure of Johnnie Waverly
This neat and believable short story was originally published in the 10th October 1923 issue of the Sketch Magazine, under the title The Kidnapping of Johnnie Waverly, and in the book Three Blind Mice and Other Stories in the US in 1950. Three-year-old Johnnie Waverly has been kidnapped from his home; his father had received a number of warnings that it would happen but didn’t take them seriously. His parents have sought advice from Poirot, who agrees to take on the case. Waverly Court is home to a priests hole, and Poirot finds unusual footprints inside it; and works forward from that clue to identify what has happened to Johnnie and how he can be safely returned.
Poirot continues to reveal little aspects of his personality; he betrays his rather fiddly prissiness when he complains to Hastings about, of all things, his tie pin. “If you must wear a tie pin, Hastings, at least let it be in the exact centre of your tie. At present it is at least a sixteenth of an inch too much to the right.”
One aspect of this story reveals a great difference between society in the 1920s and today, a hundred years later. The story contains a description of a man and a small boy in a car together, driving through villages. “The man was an ardent motorist, fond of children, who had picked up a small child playing in the streets of Edenswell […] and was kindly giving him a ride.” Kindly giving him a ride? There is no way this would happen today; any man who did that would face instant accusations of being a paedophile; at the very least he would be considered to have abducted the child and would have broken the law. Times change!
The only address other than Waverly Court in the story is the home of Johnnie’s nurse, 149 Netherall Road Hammersmith. Whilst there are a number of Netherall Roads in the country, there are none in London.
The sum demanded for the return of Johnnie was originally £25,000 and then rose to £50,000. The equivalent today would be just over £1 million, rising to just over £2 million. Quite some sum. At the other end of the scale, the ten shillings that were paid to the tramp who delivered the note and parcel to Waverly Court would today just be £20. Not bad payment for a simple courier job!
The Double Clue
This short, slight and rather easily solved story was originally published in the 5th December 1923 issue of the Sketch Magazine, and in the book Double Sin and Other Stories in the US in 1961. Society antiques collector Marcus Hardman consults Poirot over the theft of valuable jewels from his safe during a tea party when only four people who were present could be the thief. A little investigation from Poirot and Hastings and the culprit is very quickly discovered.
This story is of primary interest because it is the first time Poirot (and we, the readers) meet the Countess Vera Rossakoff, the extravagant and alluring Russian refugee, with whom Poirot becomes pretty much instantly entranced. At the end of the story Poirot believes he will meet her again somehow, sometime; and indeed we do. We meet her again in The Big Four, and in The Capture of Cerberus, the final story of The Labours of Hercules. Otherwise, the plot is slight and, once you understand the relevance of the Russian Dictionary consulted by Poirot, very easy to solve. It contains a big clue identical to one of those that litter Murder on the Orient Express.
There’s a suggestion in the story that you can inherit kleptomania from your parents; a theme that recurred a few times in Christie’s work is the idea that mental illness can be passed down between the generations. I always feel that rather dates her work, as I’m not sure it holds any scientific value today. Unless you know different?
The South African millionaire Mr Johnston lives on Park Lane, in London, which is obviously real. Hardman’s assistant and rather dubious friend Parker lives on Bury Street, which is just around the corner, in St James’s – so unusually, Christie chooses to use two real-life locations. If Johnston was a genuine millionaire, £1 million in 1923 equates to over £42 million today, so he really is a rich so-and-so.
Not one of her best works; mildly amusing but nothing to dwell on.
The King of Clubs
This relatively simple and slightly infuriating little tale was originally published in the 21st March 1923 issue of the Sketch Magazine – her second published short story – under the full title The Adventure of the King of Clubs, and in the book The Underdog and Other Stories in the US in 1951. Poirot is called in by Prince Paul of Maurania to solve the case of the murder of a theatrical impresario, Henry Reedburn. The prince’s fiancée, dancer Valerie Saintclair, had burst into the impresario’s neighbours’ house, belonging to the Oglander family, with blood on her dress, shouted “Murder!”, and then collapsed. Meanwhile Reedburn’s body was discovered in his own house. But did she do it? The Prince and Valerie had earlier consulted a clairvoyant who had turned over the King of Clubs card and said it was a warning. Had Valerie interpreted Reedburn as being the King of Clubs? And what is the significance of the fact that the King of Clubs is missing from the pack of cards with which the Oglanders were playing bridge?
The story is significant for two reasons. One is that the resolution is one of those rare occasions were Poirot does not press for the guilty party to be charged, even when murder has been committed. The other is that it is marred by a very hard-to-swallow coincidence involving the card the King of Clubs. I can’t say more, lest I give the game away.
Hastings says of Poirot: “That is the worst of Poirot. Order and Method are his gods. He goes so far as to attribute all his success to them.” Poirot loathes the way that Hastings just casts his read newspaper on the floor, unlike Poirot, who “folded it anew symmetrically.” That little observation goes a long way to illustrate the difference between the two characters.
The story is set in Streatham, which of course exists; Prince Paul is from Maurania, which doesn’t. The name could be a mixture of Mauretania and Ruritania. No other references need explaining!
The Lemesurier Inheritance
This entertaining but slightly dubious short story was originally published in the 18th December 1923 issue of the Sketch Magazine, and in The Under Dog and other Stories in the US in 1951. Years earlier, Poirot and Hastings had met three members of the same family over dinner: Vincent, Hugo and Roger Lemesurier. There was a curse, that the first born of each generation dies, handing over the inheritance to the second born. The next day, Vincent is killed falling off a train. Several years later, Mrs Hugo Lemesurier tracks Poirot down to tell him that their eldest son has had a number of unusual near-death accidents; she feels sure there can be no such thing as the family curse, but Hugo is convinced it is true. So Poirot and Hastings head up to Northumberland to the Lemesurier estate to make some sense of it all. Is there a curse? Or is there a more old-fashioned murderer? An exciting little denouement reveals all!
This is a good early example of a Christie story where supernatural fears and superstitions actually conceal a simple crime. Take away the deliberately misleading framework and you have quite a straightforward crime – or series of crimes. It’s of additional interest as the opening passage is set during the First World War, and is just about the most historical that we get to see Poirot and Hastings together. Mind you, it was very early on in Christie’s career (and indeed Poirot’s and Hastings’) for the latter to describe this crime as an “extraordinary series of events which held our interest over a period of many years, and which culminated in the ultimate problem brought to Poirot to solve.” Big claim, indeed.
Christie the poison expert is in full swing with this story, with mentions being made of ptomaine, atropine and formic acid poisoning. It must have tickled her to be able to distil so much expert information into so short a story.
Christie is sometimes criticised for not making some of her supplementary characters more interesting, and for not giving them their own characterisation to inhabit. She’s certainly guilty of that in this story, where she has Hastings describe the children’s governess, Miss Saunders, as “a nondescript female”. Really, neither Hastings not Christie bothered to try to make her interesting!
Not a bad story, but perhaps a little easy. Christie doesn’t really examine the origins of the Lemesurier curse, but only how it affects the current generations. There again, it is only ten pages or so!
The Lost Mine
This nostalgic little memoir by Poirot was originally published in the 21st November 1923 issue of the Sketch Magazine, and in the US, in the 1924 volume Poirot Investigates – it only appeared in the US edition of this book and not in the British version. Poirot reminisces on how he gained ownership of the only shares he owns – those of the Burma Mines Ltd. With Hastings as his captive audience he tells the tale of one Wu Ling, head of the family who had paperwork referring to a lost, but lucrative mine, and who travelled to London with the papers to sell them. But Wu Ling went missing after leaving his hotel, and the next day his body was found in the Thames. Misadventure or murder? Poirot wouldn’t be telling the story unless it was the latter, would he?!
Christie’s device of having Poirot tell his own story, virtually uninterrupted, is a clever way of obscuring what is, in effect, a very slight story. But it is an entertaining little tale, marred by some mock-Chinese-style language that really makes the modern reader cringe, and with a moral slant against the degradation of one’s mind and body by visits to opium dens.
Poirot teases Hastings for his admiration of ladies with auburn hair – hardly any of Christie’s books featuring Hastings omitted a mention of the latter’s penchant for auburn ladies. As for Poirot himself, his biggest feeling of outrage is when it is suggested, as part of his investigations, that he shaves off his moustache. As if the great man would ever undergo such self-sacrifice!
The story is set in real-life locations around London, with Wu Ling staying at the Russell Hotel in Russell Square (now the Kimpton Fitzroy hotel), and characters being traced to what Poirot describes as “the evil-smelling streets of Limehouse” – an area of London which is now much more gentrified than it was in Poirot’s time.
In an attempt to emphasise Poirot’s affinity with everything symmetrical, he informs us that his bank balance stands at £444, 4 shillings and 4 pence. “It must be tact on the part of your bank manager” sneers Hastings. Today that sum would be worth £18,780. Not so symmetrical, and not so impressive – you’d expect the great man to have amassed a much bigger figure than that!
Another minor piece of writing; moderately entertaining, nothing more.
The Plymouth Express
A rather complicated and contrived story, it was originally published in the 4th April 1923 issue of the Sketch Magazine, under the enhanced title The Mystery of the Plymouth Express, and in The Underdog and Other Stories in the US in 1951. It would become the basis of Christie’s 1928 novel The Mystery of the Blue Train. When the dead body of a woman is found on the Plymouth Express train, her father asks Poirot to investigate. She was due to travel for a house party, but surprises her maid with the instruction to wait at Bristol station and she would return with a few hours. Whatever her plans were, they went seriously wrong. It’s up to Poirot and Hastings to sort the lies from the truth and discover what really happened to the late Mrs Carrington.
Although Poirot would explain it as good psychology, he has a rather pompous view towards the actions that a woman would do under certain circumstances. “Why kill her?” asks Poirot, “why not simply steal the jewels? She would not prosecute.” “Why not?” “Because she is a woman, mon ami. She once loved this man. Therefore she would suffer her loss in silence.”
The story is littered with real West Country locations: Plymouth, Bristol, Weston (super Mare), Taunton, Exeter, Newton Abbot and so on. Mrs Carrington took all her jewels on the train, which her father suggests amounted to something in the region of a hundred thousand dollars. Today the equivalent sum is around £1.35 million. Quite a lot. More interesting though is the fact that it cost Poirot 3d to make a phone call from the Ritz. That’s about 53p today, which is not dissimilar from today’s cost. And the paperboy was given a half-crown for his errand – that’s over £5 – not bad work if you can get it.
I wasn’t overly impressed with this story!
The Chocolate Box
This entertaining short story was originally published in the 23rd May 1923 issue of the Sketch Magazine under the title The Clue of the Chocolate Box, and in the US, in the 1924 volume Poirot Investigates – it only appeared in the US edition of this book and not in the British version. In response to Hastings’ suggestion that Poirot had never had a failure with one of his cases, Poirot confesses that he did have one, and then proceeds to tell him this tale of when he was a detective with the Belgian Police Force. M. Déroulard was a promising governmental minister who unexpectedly died, but family member Virginie Mesnard did not believe the death was due to natural causes. She asked Poirot to investigate. Déroulard had a sweet tooth and was never far from a box of chocolates. It was only when Poirot realised that the lid of the box of chocolates was a different colour from the box that he suspected something might not be quite right. And when poison is found in the possession of one of the suspects, surely he is guilty of the murder. But Poirot is in for another surprise before the guilty party is revealed.
Another Poirot narration but this one works much better than The Lost Mine. It’s full of references to poison: Prussic Acid, morphine, strychnine, atropine, ptomaine and trinitrine – Christie must have had a field day incorporating all those into the story. Déroulard lived on the Avenue Louise in Brussels – a real location about a mile south of the Grand Place.
Christie writes: “he had married some years earlier a young lady from Brussels who had brought him a substantial dot. Undoubtedly the money was useful to him in his career…” Dot? That’s a new word to me in this context. However, it’s an archaic term that describes a dowry from which only the interest or annual income was available to the husband. Who knew?
Hastings says he wouldn’t drink Poirot’s disgusting hot chocolate for £100. I bet he would – that’s a nifty £4,300 in today’s money.
This is another story where Poirot doesn’t act further in bringing a guilty party to book once he has identified them. Perhaps that’s part of his failure. He references this case in Peril at End House, so he clearly has a long memory about it. Nevertheless, he still has his familiar arrogance, which is shown up in an amusing brief exchange with Hastings at the end of the story.
I enjoyed this one!
The Submarine Plans
This short story was originally published in the 7th November 1923 issue of the Sketch Magazine, and in the US in the Under Dog and Other Stories in 1951. It was also the basis for the novella-length story The Incredible Theft, which was published in the 1937 volume Murder in the Mews. Poirot is summoned late at night to meet Lord Allonby, the head of the Ministry of Defence, who reports that some secret plans for a new submarine have just been stolen from his country house Sharples. He reports seeing a mysterious shadow appearing to leave the room where the plans were on a table. Will Poirot find out who the mysterious figure is? Or was Allonby mistaken? You already know the answer.
An enjoyable short story that holds together nicely. Allonby refers to when Poirot helped him with the kidnapping of the Prime Minister during the First World War, which is a story that had been previously published in Poirot Investigates. A couple of red herrings that send you the wrong way, until you realise the solution is extremely simple. There’s a clever finish to the story when Hastings reports that an enemy of the nation came a-cropper with their submarine plans. He also insists that Poirot guessed the solution. That doesn’t seem likely to me!
The Third Floor Flat
This story was first published in the January 1929 issue of Hutchinson’s Adventure & Mystery Story Magazine, and in the US in Three Blind Mice and Other Stories in 1950. After a night out, two men and two women arrive back at the flat of one of the women, but she can’t find the key to get inside her fourth floor flat. The two men offer to use the coal lift to get inside but they accidentally enter the third floor flat. When they eventually emerge at the right place, one of the men has blood on his hands. They go back to check, only to discover that a woman has been murdered in the third floor flat. Fortunately Poirot lives in the fifth floor flat! And it doesn’t take Poirot long to come to the correct conclusion.
Published six years later than all the other stories in the book so far, this has a very different voice and tone from the others. Hastings is not present, and doesn’t narrate the story. Christie’s third person narration is more formal, stiff and distant than when Hastings is “in charge”. You would almost think it was written by a different person. It has an extraordinarily inventive ending, and I found the whole thing totally unbelievable.
The four characters are said to have gone to the theatre to see The Brown Eyes of Caroline. Such a shame it doesn’t really exist as it is a great title.
This enjoyable short story was first published in the 23 September 1928 edition of the Sunday Dispatch, and in the US in Double Sin and Other Stories in 1961. Poirot and Hastings take a business/holiday trip to Devon by bus where they encounter Miss Mary Durrant, taking a set of valuable miniature paintings to a client for his approval and payment. Alas, during the journey, the miniatures are stolen. But it doesn’t take Poirot any time at all to discover what really happened to the miniatures and who is guilty of the crime!
It’s a rather charming and entertaining story, an enjoyable read. Poirot teases Hastings about his perennial fondness for girls with auburn hair; Hastings teases Poirot back for his fear of draughty windows on a bus. Bizarrely, Hastings accuses Poirot of having “Flemish thrift” when he is clearly from the French-speaking part of Belgium, and not Flemish at all. The story takes place in the fictional Devon towns of Ebermouth and Monkhampton, and the miniatures are said to be by the artist Cosway – Maria Cosway was indeed a painter of miniatures in the 18th and 19th centuries. The miniatures are said to be worth £500 – today that would be the equivalent of about £22,000. Doesn’t sound unreasonable.
Miss Penn, the antiques dealer on whose behalf Mary Durrant is taking the miniatures, has all the appearance of a certain Miss Marple, who would maker her first appearance in print a couple of years later.
The Market Basing Mystery
This entertaining short story was first published in the 17th October 1923 edition of The Sketch magazine, and in the US in The Under Dog and Other Stories in 1951. Inspector Japp invites Poirot and Hastings to the market town of Market Basing for the weekend, but there crime catches up with them, as they are called to a mansion where the owner Walter Protheroe has apparently taken his own life but the position of the pistol in his hand suggests that he couldn’t have done – so is it murder? It doesn’t take long for the three sleuths to come to the right solution – not before Japp has leapt to the wrong conclusions, of course.
It’s a very entertaining little tale, simply told, with all the clues fairly open to the reader. We learn something new about Japp, that he is a keen botanist, who knows all the Latin names to the most obscure plants. Hastings quotes an amusing piece of doggerel – “the rabbit has a pleasant face…” This seems to be a well-known but anonymous few lines of verse. Unless Christie made it up?
The story was expanded into the novella Murder in the Mews, published in 1937.
This rather odd short story was first published in the 20th November 1928 edition of the Daily Mail, and in the US in Double Sin and Other Stories in 1961. Poirot arrives at the house of an old friend John Harrison, saying he is investigating a murder that hasn’t yet been committed. Harrison doesn’t believe him, but then Poirot asks more about his forthcoming visit from an acquaintance who will be shortly arriving to remove the wasps nest that has grown on his property. But who is the murderer that Poirot is trying to intercept?
What is particularly odd about this story is that it feels like it has been written by someone else – not only does it not feel like an account by Hastings, it doesn’t feel like Christie either. Nevertheless, there is a poison aspect to this story – the potential use of potassium cyanide, which would have been of interest to Christie.
There is an amusing line taken out of context – and out of its time too, when Poirot explains how he can distract someone so that he can pickpocket them; unfortunately, his turn of phrase is: “I lay one hand on his shoulder, I excite myself, and he feels nothing.”
This story was also was the first Christie story to be adapted for television with a live broadcast on 18 June 1937. It was adapted by Christie herself, and broadcast in and around London, with Francis L Sullivan playing Poirot.
The Veiled Lady
This entertaining short story was first published in the 3rd October 1923 edition of The Sketch magazine, under the title The Case of the Veiled Lady, and in the US in Poirot Investigates in 1924 – it only appeared in the US edition of this book and not in the British version. Poirot and Hastings are visited by a Lady Millicent who once wrote an indiscreet letter to a soldier that she fears would end her engagement to the Duke of Southshire were it to be common knowledge – and she is being blackmailed by a Mr Lavington who has the letter in his possession. Lavington refuses to give the letter to Hastings or Poirot. So Poirot decides to break into Lavington’s house and take it. But what then? Do Lady Millicent’s troubles go away?
This excellent little tale conceals a nice surprise twist right at the end which you don’t see coming, and is one of Christie’s better early short stories. We learn of Poirot that his vanity is such that the believes the whole world is talking about him, much to Hastings’ derision.
Lavington is blackmailing Lady Millicent in the sum of £20,000, which today would be around £850,000. No wonder she’s worried. And there’s another of Christie’s accidental funny sentences, concerning use of the “E” word. ““The Dirty swine!” I ejaculated. “I beg your pardon, Lady Millicent.””
Problem at Sea
This enjoyable short story was first published in issue 542 of the Strand Magazine, in February 1936, under the title, Poirot and the Crime in Cabin 66, and in the US in The Regatta Mystery and Other Stories, in 1939. On a sea trip to Alexandria, Poirot encounters Colonel Clapperton and his difficult, cruel wife, whom Clapperton appears to love despite the way she treats him. Others on board take Clapperton to one side and try to give him an entertaining trip despite his wife’s best efforts. A murder takes place; Poirot quickly sees through the deception and solves the crime.
You can tell at once from the tone of the writing that this story was constructed by a much more mature brain than the majority of the other stories in this volume; it appeared in print at least ten years later than most of the other Early Cases. Nevertheless, the twist in the tale is very easy to guess and the reader works out the solution before Poirot.
Christie the Poison Expert comes to the fore with some detailed information about the effects of taking Digitalin; and sadly the story is marred by an instance of very unfortunate racism (it wouldn’t have been seen that way in 1936, but it is today). Hastings is noticeably absent, his final appearances in Christie’s novels (apart from in Curtain, published many years later) were in The ABC Murders and Dumb Witness, both of which would have been written about the same time.
“How Does Your Garden Grow?”
This short story was first published in issue 536 of the Strand Magazine in August 1935 and in the US in The Regatta Mystery and Other Stories in 1939. Miss Barrowby writes to Poirot asking for his help in a delicate family matter. He instructs Miss Lemon to reply, but hears nothing back. Then Miss Lemon discovers that Miss Barrowby has died, so he decides to visit her house, where she meets a Russian help, and Miss Barrowby’s remaining relatives, the Delafontaines. But did Miss Barrowby die from poison, and, if so, how come no one else in the household suffered the same fate?
Again, another slightly more recent piece of writing, still with Hastings gone (and missed too, by Poirot) and with a much more three-dimensional feel. Christie gives us some great descriptive passages about Miss Lemon, whom Poirot employs as an assistant detective, and her input helps not only him solve the crime but also helps the story along nicely too.
Again, too, there is poison involved, this time strychnine, always one of Christie’s favourites. The story takes place in Charman’s Green, Bucks, said to be about an hour from London – I wonder if that is Christie-speak for Chesham. There’s an ingenious solution to the story, and one which I was certainly nowhere near guessing.
And that concludes all eighteen stories in Poirot’s Early Cases. Many of them are not bad at all, and I’d say the good ones outweigh the bad ones considerably. It’s always difficult to put a rating on a book of short stories, but I’d definitely give it a 7/10. If you’ve been reading this book as well, I’d love to know your thoughts, please just write something in the comments box.
Next up in the Agatha Christie challenge is a book that Christie wrote some time in the 40s, when she was at her peak, designed to be the last ever book featuring Hercule Poirot, Curtain. If you’d like to read it too, we can compare notes when I give you my thoughts on it in a few weeks’ time. In the meanwhile, happy sleuthing and keep on Christie-ing!
In 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!
The 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.
There 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.
The 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”.
That’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!)
The 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.
I 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.
Having 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.”
Albert 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?
There 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.
Now 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.
One 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?
Tuppence 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.
Regular 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.
Thanks 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!
In 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!
The 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.
Elephants 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.
One 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.
Nevertheless, 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.
As 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.
Age 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.”
Just 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.”
There 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.
As 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.
Now 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.
In 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.
Poirot 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.
Thanks 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!
In 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!
The 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.
After 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.
In 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.”
One 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.
At 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.
Professor 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.”
However, 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!
However, 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.
Continuing 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.
Miss 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.
As 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.
Let’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.”
“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?
When 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.
Miss 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.
Regular 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:
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!
Thanks 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!
In 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!
The book is dedicated to “Margaret Guillaume” – and, thanks to the kind information given by reader Jak, I can tell you that she was married to Alfred Guillaume, the renowned Hebrew/Arabic scholar, and that the Guillaumes were family friends of the Mallowans, who had possibly first met as a result of their needing Alfred’s translation advice. Margaret died in 1972. 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.
The 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.
It’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.
Even 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.
One 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.
Consider 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.””
Or 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.””
At 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.
There 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.
The 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.
Let’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).
Lady 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.
“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.
Regular 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.
Thanks 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!
In 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!
The 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.
I 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.
Yet, 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!
There’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”.
It’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.
It’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.”
We 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.
As 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.
All 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.””
Apart 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.
There 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.”
Poirot 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?
“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.
Christie 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!
In 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!
“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.
The 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.
Answering 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.
One 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.
However, 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.
When 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?”
Regular 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!
Thanks 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!
In 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!
The 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.
The 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.
As 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.
You 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.”
He 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.”
Because 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.
Despite 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.
Other 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.
Regular 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.
Thanks 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!