The Agatha Christie Challenge – Third Girl (1966)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PoundRegular readers will know that I like to consider any significant sums of money in Christie’s books and work out what their value would be today, just to get a feel of the range of sums that we’re looking at. There’s only one in this book – the sum of £5, which is given by Miss Reece-Holland to Mr Goby’s informant to help him forget about the presence of blood in the courtyard. Today that would be worth £65. Quite a generous tip!

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

Class/social issues of the time:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Endless NightThanks for reading my blog of Third Girl, and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment in the space below. Next up in the Agatha Christie Challenge is her next book, Endless Night, of which I have no recollection at all apart from remembering it being around in the house at the time that my father died – either I or my mother must have been reading it at the time – and so I always associate the book with personal sadness. I’m not actually sure I’ve read it since then, so I’m looking forward to putting that right, and hopefully eradicating sad memories. As usual, I’ll blog my thoughts about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!

The Agatha Christie Challenge – The Clocks (1963)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PoundRegular readers will know that I like to consider any significant sums of money in Christie’s books and work out what their value would be today, just to get a feel of the range of sums that we’re looking at. There’s only one in this book – the sum of £7 10/- is found on the dead man’s body. That’s the equivalent of about £110 today. Just about the amount of money you might take out with you to cover you for most needs on a day out.

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Memorable characters:

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

Christie the Poison expert:

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

Class/social issues of the time:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Caribbean MysteryThanks for reading my blog of The Clocks, and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment in the space below. Next up in the Agatha Christie Challenge is A Caribbean Mystery, and Miss Marple on holiday in the West Indies – but of course, she’s never far away from crime. I can’t remember anything about it, so I’m looking forward to re-reading it and, as usual, I’ll blog my thoughts about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!

The Agatha Christie Challenge – The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding (1960)

Adventure of the Christmas PuddingA selection of five short stories, five with Hercule Poirot and one with Miss Marple, solving a miscellany of crimes. Of course, the usual rules apply; if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I shan’t spoil the surprise of any of the six revelations!

Abney HallThe book was first published in the UK on 24th October 1960; however, this particular selection was not published in the US. The stories had all been individually published previously in magazine format, two of them re-written and expanded versions of the originals. The book doesn’t begin with the usual dedication, but rather a foreword where Christie remembers the Christmases of her childhood, staying with her brother-in-law at Abney Hall, previously the inspiration for the settings of The Secret of Chimneys and After the Funeral. At the end of the foreword she dedicates the book “to the memory of Abney Hall – its kindness and its hospitality.” And you can certainly recognise Christie’s account of her own Christmassy fun in the antics of the fictional children Colin, Michael and Bridget, in the first story, The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding, which we’ll look at first!

The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding

Christmas PuddingThis is an expanded version of the story of the same name which appeared in The Sketch magazine on 12 December 1923 – so it took 37 years to get from stage one to stage two! It would first appear in the US in 1961 in the collection Double Sin and Other Stories (this collection not published in the UK) under the title The Theft of the Royal Ruby. Poirot is invited to the grand old house Kings Lacey, ostensibly to celebrate a traditional English Christmas with a traditional English family, but it is a front for him to investigate the disappearance of a priceless ruby, stolen from an eastern prince whilst sowing one last wild oat before committing to marriage.

It’s an entertaining little tale, with some interesting characters, and sense of fun; but I felt the two separate threads of the theft and the traditional Christmas didn’t sit particularly comfortably with each other, and for a long time you’re wondering how on earth Kings Lacey could possibly hold the key to solving the crime. There’s a nice piece of double-crossing by Poirot, as well as the occasional connection with a couple of other Christie books – the murder game in Dead Man’s Folly springs to mind. Whilst we know that Abney Hall was in Cheshire, the location of Kings Lacey is not mentioned, although the fictional town of Market Ledbury is close enough to go to the pub, and Desmond suggests leaving early and going on to Scarborough.

The story succeeds strongly in evoking the memories of long gone Christmases – especially the food. Mrs Lacey revels in continuing the traditions. “All the same old things, the Christmas tree and the stockings hung up and the oyster soup and the turkey – two turkeys, one boiled and one roast – and the plum pudding with the ring and the bachelor’s button and all the rest of it in it. We can’t have sixpences nowadays because they’re  not pure silver any more. But all the old desserts, the Elvas plums and Carlsbad plums and almonds and raisins, and crystallized fruit and ginger. Dear me, I sound like a catalogue from Fortnum and Mason!” I confess I’d never heard of the tradition of the bachelor’s button; if a single man found it in his pudding, he would stay single for the following year. Similarly, the tradition of the spinster’s thimble, which is also mentioned in the book, and the ring, which indicated that you would get married during the course of the following year.

There are a few unmistakably Poirot/Christie observations and uses of language. Poirot is only convinced to go to Kings Lacey when he discovers there is central heating. Colonel Lacey gruffly disapproves of the Christmas invitation to Poirot: “can’t think why you want one of those damned foreigners here cluttering up Christmas? Why can’t we have him some other time? Can’t stick foreigners!” And twice Christie makes us smile with her use of the word “ejaculated”, as when the Colonel discovers the glass in his mouth.

The story includes one of Christie’s most famous sentences: “Mr Jesmond made a peculiar noise rather like a hen who has decided to lay an egg and then thought better of it.” I also loved the description of the old retainer Peverell; “he noticed nothing that he was not asked to notice”. And Poirot gives Mrs Ross, the cook, a five pound note as an expression of his gratitude. £5 in 1960 is worth £80 today, and at 1923, when the story was originally written, the equivalent would be over £200!

Overall, a decent little story. Not a classic, but not bad.

The Mystery of the Spanish Chest

Spanish ChestThis is an expanded version of the story The Mystery of the Baghdad Chest which appeared in the Strand Magazine in January 1932. In the US, the shorter version was published in the Ladies Home Journal in the same month and the expanded version appeared in the US in The Harlequin Tea Set (not a collection published in the UK) in 1997. Poirot’s attention is drawn to a case where a Major Rich has been accused of murdering a Mr Clayton, whose bloody body was discovered in an antique Spanish chest. Mrs Clayton is a friend of socialite Lady Chatterton who encourages Poirot to speak to her about the case, because she insists Rich is innocent. Poirot can’t resist but employ his little grey cells to get to the heart of the matter. This is a well-written, nicely crafted little tale, a detective novel in miniature, with clearly defined exposition, detection and denouement sections. On the face of it, only two people could possibly have committed the murder – neither of which is a satisfactory solution for Poirot; but, right at the end, he sees how there might be a third possibility.

The book features Poirot’s secretary Miss Lemon, a terrifying creature with no imagination but boundless efficiency. It’s interesting that this story was published out of sequence in respect of Hickory Dickory Dock, which also includes Miss Lemon – but this time making mistakes, and also Miss Lemon’s sister, Mrs Hubbard. However, in The Mystery of the Spanish Chest, Miss Lemon’s sister in an unnamed lady who once bought a Spanish chest at a sale and keeps her linen in there. You don’t get the sense at all that they are the same person.

We are reminded of Poirot’s earlier inamorata, the exotic Russian Countess Vera Rossakoff, and of Poirot’s admiration for ladies with curves – unlike Miss Lemon, who’s treated in a rather sexist way by Christie. Mrs Clayton, it emerges, lives in Cardigan Gardens, precisely the same address as Harold Crackenthorpe in 4.50 from Paddington. It was obviously an address with which Christie felt comfortable! Lady Chatterton, however, lives in Cheriton Street, which sounds like it should be a fine London street, but is in fact a Christie invention.

We meet Inspector Miller, who’s in charge of the case; he’s described as “not one of Poirot’s favourites. He was not, however, hostile on this occasion, merely contemptuous.” Mrs Spence has a nice turn of phrase to describe Mrs Clayton: “she’s one of my best friends and I wouldn’t trust her an inch”. There’s an Othello motif to the story, which puts an interesting complexion on one’s own attempts to solve the crime before Poirot, plus there is the unusual situation in a Christie story where a servant is actually one of the chief suspects in the case. All this, plus a final denouement that reveals a clever and totally unexpected detective solution. I thought this was a cracking little story.

The Under Dog

UnderdogThis entertaining story was first published in the US in The Mystery Magazine in April 1926, and in the UK in The London Magazine in October 1926. Its first appearance in book form was in the UK in 2 New Crime Stories, published by The Reader’s Library in September 1929. Again, it would be more than thirty years before it was published as part of a wholly Christie collection. Bullying, angry Sir Reuben is found dead and his nephew is arrested for his murder. Sir Reuben’s widow, Lady Astwell is convinced they have arrested the wrong person and that his secretary is to blame. She hires Hercule Poirot to discover the truth.

This murder mystery in miniature contains everything you would expect from a full length work of detective fiction: lively characters, a full-scale denouement where the emphasis shifts from a pretend guilty party to the real one, unexpected motives and false clues. There’s also a surprisingly big hint from Christie in the name of the story – so try not to dwell on that if you haven’t read it yet!

The background structure to the story reminded me very strongly of that which precedes this one in the collection – The Mystery of the Spanish Chest – where one of the suspects hires Poirot to prove that one of the other suspects isn’t guilty. Indeed, we meet Inspector Miller again too, from that same story. There’s no love lost between him and Poirot. Poirot describes him: “he is what they call the sharp man, the ferret, the weasel.” Lady Astwell simply considers him “a bumptious idiot”. As for Miller, he “was not particularly fond of M. Hercule Poirot. He did not belong to that small band of inspectors at the Yard who welcomed the little Belgian’s cooperation. He was wont to say that Hercule Poirot was much overrated.” He clearly resents Poirot being brought into the case at the whim of Lady Astwell. “Of course, it is all right for you M. Poirot […] you get your fees just the same, and naturally you have to make a pretence of examining the evidence to satisfy her ladyship. I can understand all that.”

Poirot works with George his valet more than I have seen in any other of the stories so far. George, whom Christie describes as “an extremely English-looking person. Tall, cadaverous and unemotional” allows himself to be used by Poirot as a spy or as a dummy dead body; the relationship reminded me a little of that of Bunter to Dorothy L Sayers’ Lord Peter Wimsey. Poirot is particularly irritating in this story to the people around him, staying on longer than required, ostensibly making overwhelmingly thorough searches everywhere – but there is a method to his madness, as you can imagine. He calls on the assistance of a Dr Cazalet to run a hypnosis session on one of the suspects, which is nicely written and a thoroughly enjoyable diversion. His practice is at 384 Harley Street – in real life, Harley Street numbers don’t go that high.

At one point, Poirot makes use of a “thumbograph”, which was a book in which you kept the thumb print of someone you admired or were friends with – a little like an autograph book, but just for thumbs. I’d never heard of that before. The story is set in the fictional town of Abbots Cross – there is an Abbots Cross, but it’s in Northern Ireland, so it can’t be that one! And there is talk of a gold mine in Mpala; this is actually a wildlife reserve in Kenya.

There’s one sum of money that’s of interest – Victor accuses Poirot of hanging around so that he can continue to charge “several guineas a day”. One guinea in 1926 is worth an impressive £45 today; even so, Poirot’s charge out rate isn’t that expensive on the whole! And Christie gives us another of her hilarious comedy lines taken out of context. When Poirot is thinking deeply about a problem, then instantly comes out of his deep thoughts, she says “he came out of his brown study with a jerk”. That’s not a nice thing to say about someone!

A very good story – I’d say the best of the selection so far.

Four and Twenty Blackbirds

BlackbirdThis little tale was first published in the US in November 1940 in Collier’s magazine and in the UK in the Strand Magazine in March 1941 under the title of Poirot and the Regular Customer. Christie describes this story as a sorbet in her introduction, but to be honest, it’s barely that; it’s a very slight tale and strikes you as a disappointment after the stronger stories that have preceded it. Poirot and a friend are dining at a restaurant, and remarking on how most diners – men at least – will always choose their same, favourite meals. But one day, an old man. who dines at the restaurant every Tuesday and Thursday, not only dines on a Monday but goes for completely different courses from his usual choice. Poirot smells a rat – and he’s right!

The London locations are all for real – the restaurant is on the Kings Road Chelsea, Mr Gascoigne lives on Kingston Hill; Dr Lorrimer lives on Dorset Road, which is in South East London rather than South West. Sadly there’s no such restaurant as the Gallant Endeavour, which is a terrific name for one. However, Augustus John dined there, and he was real enough!

Rather like The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding, this story emphasises the importance of food, in particular, the importance that Poirot places on it – he’s never one to cut a course or not give it his full attention. It’s an interest that is associated with older men; women, it is decided, tend to like variety, whereas men don’t. The trouble with this story is that it relies on an extremely unlikely event that stretches credibility to the nth degree, and when you realise how the crime balances on that fact, you simply can’t take it seriously. The solution feels rushed, too. All in all, an unsatisfactory sorbet!

The Dream

DreamThis story was first published in the UK in the Strand Magazine in February 1938. This curious tale starts a little uncertainly, then builds up to a very exciting detective section, when Poirot asks all the right questions and winkles out the truth – and then truth itself turns out to be a little disappointing, with a denouement not unlike that in the previous story, Four and Twenty Blackbirds. Poirot received a letter to visit the reclusive millionaire businessman Benedict Farley; and when he finally gets to meet the great man, Farley tells him of a recurring dream he has, where, at precisely the same time every day, he is required to take a revolver out of his desk drawer, load it, and shoot himself. Then he wakes up. Is this just a recurring nightmare, or something more sinister? Poirot does eventually get to the bottom of it all, but everything is not as it seems right from the start.

This is a difficult story to discuss without giving the whole game away; suffice to say that it is an enjoyable read, once it gets going; let down only by the fanciful ending. The case is handled by Inspector Barnett, “a discreet, soldierly-looking man” according to Christie, but his personality doesn’t shine through. Much more interesting is Dr Stillingfleet, a young doctor who looks after the Farley family, but was sidestepped when Farley appears to have consulted other doctors about his dream. Stillingfleet was mentioned in Sad Cypress, and will return in the much later Christie novel, Third Girl.

One or two interesting references; Stillingfleet wonders if Poirot would ever commit a crime. Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case was probably written a few years later; I’ll say no more. Mrs and Miss Farley apparently went to see The Little Dog Laughed at the theatre on the night in question; there is a play of that name – but it wasn’t produced until 2006. And Miss Farley says that her inheritance in the event of her father’s death would be approximately a quarter of a million pounds – the rest going to her stepmother. £250,000 in 1938 would be approximately £10.5 million today – that’s quite a tidy sum.

All in all, not a bad story. I really wanted it to have a more satisfying ending. But the getting there is good!

Greenshaw’s Folly

FollyThis Miss Marple story was first published in the UK in the Daily Mail, in December 1956; as such it is a much more recently written story than any of the others in the collection.  Miss Marple’s nephew Raymond West takes his friend Horace to view an architectural monstrosity, Greenshaw’s Folly, and in so doing bumps into Miss Greenshaw who lives there – the last of the Greenshaws. She requests that the two men witness her will; she has decided to leave all her money to her faithful housekeeper Miss Cresswell. But when Raymond’s wife’s niece Louise starts working for Miss Greenshaw a few days later, a very peculiar thing happens… And I can say no more without giving too much of the story away.

Sadly this is yet another story in this collection which relies on one particular trick – involving the use of disguise; and again, the fanciful nature of the crime truly beggars belief! There is a moment of high drama where one character sees another in distress, but, with the benefit of hindsight, how could that character not have realised the trick that was being played? It’s a shame, because it was building up to being a rather enjoyable tale, with Miss Marple dishing out the insights like a woman possessed. I did like the opening scene where Raymond West knowingly plays on his celebrity status to get what he wants, and his friend Horace is an amusing caricature of someone with an artistic bent. Interesting how the plays of J M Barrie come into the story too – all perfectly genuine, and the clue that Miss Marple gets from the mention of the play A Kiss for Cinderella is completely fair in retrospect! Lady Audley’s Secret is also a genuine novel of the Victorian era, and Paul and Virginia is an 18th century book by Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, but there is no such place as Boreham on Sea (sounds very dull).

It strikes me that the decision to group these short stories together in one volume must have largely derived from most of them sharing the same plot elements, which makes for an overall disappointing read. Whilst The Under Dog and The Mystery of the Spanish Chest have a lot of entertainment value within them, and The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding is a decent stab at a short story, the others are underwhelming in varying ways. I think my average score for the book as a whole works out as 6/10.

The Pale HorseThanks for reading my blog of The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding, and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment in the space below. Next up in the Agatha Christie Challenge is The Pale Horse, something more of a supernatural novel with neither a Poirot nor a Marple to guide the way. I know I’ve read it, but I can’t remember a thing about it, so I’m looking forward to rediscovering it. As usual, I’ll blog my thoughts about it as soon as I can. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!

The Agatha Christie Challenge – Cat Among the Pigeons (1959)

Cat Among the PigeonsIn which murder comes to the exclusive girls’ school Meadowbank, run by the redoubtable Miss Bulstrode, and Middle Eastern espionage clashes with young ladies’ tennis practice. The police don’t seem to have much of an idea until one of the girls escapes to London to ask the help of family friend Hercule Poirot. And he sees through the lies and offers a thrilling solution. As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, as always, I promise not to reveal whodunit!

archaeologistThe book is dedicated “for Stella and Larry Kirwan”. Sir Archibald Laurence “Larry” Patrick Kirwan was an archaeologist who worked mainly in Egypt and Arabia. Although Christie doesn’t directly mention the Kirwans in her autobiography, one presumes they all knew each other from their shared interest in archaeology. The book was first published in the UK in six abridged instalments in John Bull magazine in September and October 1959, and in the US a condensed version of the novel appeared in the November 1959 issue of the Ladies Home Journal. The full book was first published in the UK by Collins Crime Club on 2nd November 1959, and in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company in March 1960.

Posh girls schoolI had looked forward to re-reading this book because I’ve always thought of it as my favourite Christie. And, despite realising a few whopping great coincidences, sighing at a few too many xenophobic remarks, and a couple of downright flaws, my opinion hasn’t changed. This is a breeze of a delight to read. Christie is on top form with her lightness of touch, some dramatic asides and confiding moments to the reader, some well-placed comedy, plenty of activity and very nicely dovetailing the posh school/Middle Eastern revolution/50s teenagers/well-meaning but ambitious teacher elements.

Ramat_GanUsing short chapters, short chapter parts, even copying us into the letters sent out by some of the characters, Christie presents all the aspects of the book early on, so our head is bombarded with lots of fascinating information right from the start. The return to Meadowbank for the summer term is seen from the points of view of the teachers, the non-teaching staff, the pupils and the parents. Then we’re whisked away to Ramat for the opening salvos of the revolution, and we see how it overlaps with the school, with one of the parents being the sister to the Prince’s pilot and best friend, taking one of the schoolchildren on an extravagant holiday before term starts. We meet the diplomatic staff left to handle the revolution and the British involvement as best they can, again returning to see the way the school is caught up in the events. As a result, when the murders start happening, the investigations become a joint operation between the local CID and Secret Service staff. And that’s before Poirot becomes involved!

PoirotAnd, unusually, Poirot doesn’t appear until 70% of the way through the book. He’s very much brought into the case so that he can employ his little grey cells (although he doesn’t mention them), and Poirot as a character doesn’t particularly develop in this book. His attributes are those which we already know, and the only time his personality really stands out is when he takes full charge of a super-powerful classic denouement, more of which later. It’s up to Inspector Kelsey to make sense of the facts of the case, alongside “Adam Goodman” (not his real name), who’s masquerading as a junior gardener at the school. To be honest, we get a greater feeling for Adam’s characteristics – “he was tall, dark, muscular, and had a gay and rather impertinent manner”. Of Kelsey, all we know is Christie’s description that he “was a perceptive man. He was always willing to deviate from the course of routine if a remark struck him as unusual or worth following up.” He also – apparently – worked with Poirot in the past, in a case when a Chief Inspector Warrender as in charge. “I was a fairly raw sergeant, knowing my place” he explained. This doesn’t appear to refer to a previous Poirot story, it’s just a bit of filler.

HotelWhilst Christie’s on great form with her style and her delivery, I can’t help but think she’s made a couple of errors. Firstly, when considering everyone’s alibi for the second murder, Kelsey mentions that Miss Rich was staying that night at the “Alton Grange Hotel, twenty miles away.” Twenty-two pages later,  he tells Poirot she was staying at the “Morton Marsh Hotel, twenty miles away.” Which is it?! There’s no suggestion that Miss Rich made an error in her alibi and has since corrected it. This is just an inconsistency error.

logicI’d also take Poirot to task for an unaccountable lapse of logic during the denouement. It’s going to be difficult for me to express this without giving too much of a game away, but I’ll try. Poirot maintains: “[A] could, of course, have killed [B] but she could not have killed [C], and would have had no motive to kill anybody, not was such a thing required of her.” However, a few paragraphs earlier he had clarified that “[A] was set down by the car in the first large town where she at once resumed her own personality.” So, in fact, she was totally at liberty in a nearby town when B was murdered! Not being watched by the police or secret service staff, I contend she certainly had the opportunity to murder B if she wished. I agree though that she had no motive. But I think Poirot had something of a lucky break there.

BrassiereBut we forgive Christie these trespasses, because the flow of the writing is exceptional. From portentous comments at the end of chapters foreboding ill, to an amusing exposé of Princess Shaista’s bra situation, to the totally convincing Julia/Jennifer conversations that really get into the mindset of that kind of jolly hockey-stick young girl, to a suspenseful scene where Julia is in bed and someone is trying to creep into her room, to absolute honesty with the clues – there’s at least a couple of scenes where Christie virtually tells us who is guilty but still we don’t pick it up – it’s just a beautifully written book.

ServantsOne thing that occurred to me during this book, and I realise has been an assumption in virtually every book of hers, is the dismissal of the possibility that domestic staff will have played a part in the crime. When Kelsey and Miss Bulstrode are considering the alibis of the staff, he adds, as an afterthought, ““As for your servants, frankly I can’t see any of them as murderers. They’re all local too…” Miss Bulstrode nodded pleasantly. “I quite agree with your reasoning.”” What reasoning?! It’s pure assumption. “I can’t see any of them as murderers” is hardly forensic detection. Yet wherever there are servants or domestic staff in one of Christie’s books, they only ever get asked basic witness questions and are never in the running to do a crime. Only perhaps in Murder on the Orient Express and And Then There Were None does this not apply. Odd that!

GardenerIt was when reading 4.50 from Paddington recently that I picked up on Christie’s rather curious antipathy towards gardeners. The usually pleasant Miss Marple really gets her teeth into criticising them for being lazy or doing generally poor quality work. In Cat Among the Pigeons, Miss Bulstrode laments the fact that they have been left “short-handed except for local labour.” Mrs Upjohn is equally critical. “Of course the trouble nowadays […] is that what one calls a gardener usually isn’t a gardener, just a milkman who wants to do something in his spare time, or an old man of eighty”. Christie allows us to see this argument from the other side, with Head Gardener Briggs moaning to Adam about Miss Bulstrode’s interference with what he sees as his domain. “Now, along this here […] we’ll put some nice asters out. She don’t like asters – but I pay no attention. Females has their whims, but if you don’t pay no attention, ten to one they never notice. Though I will say She is the noticing kind on the whole. You’d think she ‘ad enough to bother her head about, running a place like this.” Christie rather cleverly gives us a little insight into Briggs’ attitude that backs up both the gardener’s and the employer’s issue with each other. Each one always knows best.

VanNow we’ll look at some of the references in this book, starting, as usual, with the locations. This is largely a book of fictional localities; apart from Poirot’s London residence, and a ransom note that’s postmarked Portsmouth, all the other places are Christie inventions. Ramat is the most interesting; it’s a Hebrew word, meaning Heights, and there are dozens of places in Israel that have Ramat as part of its name. Christie names the main hotel there, the Ritz Savoy, which is a combination of two very separate hotel entities, but we get the flavour of the place. The local tourist site appears to be the Kalat Diwa Dam, but that is another Christie invention – in fact, Google Translate suggests that Kalat Diwa is Arabic for she called, which sounds rather unlikely. A plane wreck is discovered in the Arolez Mountains, which is also fictional; if you search on Arolez, however, you find a Turkish manufacturer of pastries and ice creams! However, Julia believes that her mother’s Anatolian bus journey will take her to Van, which is a real life city in the east of Turkey.

LittleportCloser to home, Miss Johnson’s alibi was that she was staying with her sister at Limeston on Sea, and Miss Blake’s that she was with friends in Littleport. There is of course a Littleport in real life – it’s a large village in Cambridgeshire. Limeston on Sea doesn’t exist though; and the location where the ransom money was to be handed over, Alderton Priors, is also fictional, although there is a village called Alderton near Tewkesbury, which has a road named Prior’s Hill. Unlike the majority of Christie books, you don’t get a sense of whereabouts in the country the book is set. Normally there are some clues, but in this book you draw a blank. Alderton Priors is said to be in Wallshire; where that is, is anyone’s guess.

Balenciaga dressAnd now for the other references. Miss Bulstrode butters up the difficult Mrs Hope by admiring her “Balenciaga model.” Cristobal Balenciaga was a Spanish couturier for over fifty years from 1917 – and after he died, and the brand name ceased, it was taken up again in 1986, and the brand is now owned by the French multinational holding company Kering. Mrs Sutcliffe and Jennifer return to England on board the Eastern Queen; that was a passenger/cargo ship built in Scotland; but in 1959 it was being used by the French Government. It was broken up in 1974.

Joyce GrenfellShaista admires the American tennis champion Ruth Allen, primarily for her smart sportswear; sadly she’s a concoction of Christie’s. Unlike Neil Cream, whom Mrs Sutcliffe remembers as being a multi-murderer; he was real enough, and is better known colloquially as the Lambeth Poisoner. Joyce Grenfell, whom Julia likens to Miss Vansittart, however, was certainly alive and kicking; a much loved actress and comedian who died in 1979. When Julia sees the hidden treasure, she has a vision of “Marguerite and her casket of jewels” – a scene from Gounod’s Faust – and also The Hope Diamond, a stunning blue jewel currently housed by the National Museum of Natural History in Washington DC, with an estimated value of $350 million.

Mrs McGinty's DeadJulia Upjohn uses the fact that her mother and Poirot have a mutual friend in order to gain access to meet the great man. The mutual friend is Mrs Summerhayes, in whose guest house Poirot spent an awkward but not unfriendly time whilst solving the case of Mrs McGinty’s Dead.

PoundRegular readers will know that I like to consider any significant sums of money in Christie’s books and work out what their value would be today, just to get a feel of the range of sums that we’re looking at. There are two sums mentioned in this book, one of which is of vital importance; the value of the property that Bob Rawlinson passes on to Mrs Sutcliffe and which Julia Upjohn eventually finds – approximately three quarters of a million pounds. That’s a lot of money even in today’s terms, but back in 1959 that was the equivalent of  £12.2 millions today. The ransom note – which rather gets forgotten about, oddly – demands the sum of £20,000 which is also no feeble sum, equalling £325,000 at today’s rate.

 

Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for Cat Among the Pigeons:

 

Publication Details: 1959. My copy is a Fontana paperback, eighth impression, dated July 1969, with no price on the covers – this may have been because it was sold in Spain (I bought it on holiday in the Costa Dorada in 1972!) The cover illustration, presumably by Tom Adams, is extremely simple considering some of his work – it just shows a tennis ball, some priceless jewels, and a pistol; all extremely relevant to the plot.

How many pages until the first death: Strictly speaking, 23 – but although this isn’t a death by natural causes, it isn’t a death that’s being examined by the British police (or indeed, Poirot). For the first “murder”, we have to wait a little longer – 59 pages. But there’s a lot to take in and be entertained by whilst we’re waiting.

Funny lines out of context: Not a classic, but a wryly amusing example of Christie’s use of the E word. ““Nom d’un nom d’un nom” ejaculated Poirot in an awe-inspired whisper.”

Miss Bulstrode is also guilty of making the understatement of the year. “”I’m very sorry about this, Miss Bulstrode, very sorry indeed,” said the Chief Constable. “I suppose it’s – well – a bad thing for you.” “Murder’s a bad thing for any school, yes,” said Miss Bulstrode. “It’s no good dwelling on that now though.”

“Miss Bulstrode had her rules, she did not accept morons.”

Memorable characters:

There are many strong personalities at work here, but they’re all cast in the shade by Miss Bulstrode herself. Bully, or The Bull by nickname, exudes inner strength and the ability to command, and hardly ever gets thrown off course. She inspires love and respect from teachers and pupils alike – and even Adam is mindblown by her abilities. Jennifer Sutcliffe takes after her mother’s prejudices and sounds like a little Brexit Party member with her scorn for foreign countries and their dishonest inhabitants. Jennifer and Julia make a very interesting partnership.

Christie the Poison expert:

No mention of poison in this book; the murders are committed either by shooting or being coshed over the head.

Class/social issues of the time:

Meadowbank is a very upmarket and high class school, so, as you might expect, class issues are discussed, but with some maturity and care. Miss Bulstrode is planning her retirement and initially considers Miss Vansittart as her most suitable successor, because she is a safe pair of hands who will run the school exactly on Miss Bulstrode’s terms. Miss Rich, on the other hand, who is clearly of a lower social standing, would have different ideas, more progressive and more challenging. Rich’s idea of the future of the school would try to minimise class differentiation, whereas Bulstrode and Vansittart would maintain the status quo.

Jennifer Sutcliffe, too, wasn’t inclined to go to Meadowbank because it was too exclusive and she didn’t feel as though she would fit in; nevertheless, she quickly does. Perhaps the biggest exposure of class difference is revealed right at the end of the book, where we find out a little more about Prince Ali Yusuf – but I can’t tell you that without spoiling a big surprise!

Otherwise there’s the usual dollop of xenophobia/racism; perhaps slightly more than usual. For some reason, the French really get it in the neck in this book. Julia Upjohn tells her mother that Mlle Blanche doesn’t keep order very well; “Jennifer says French people can’t”. Miss Chadwick, the older teacher, didn’t like Mlle Blanche, nor her predecessor, calling them sly. “Miss Bulstrode did not pay very much attention in this criticism. Chaddy always accused the French mistresses of being sly.” Kelsey picks up on this later, and considers Mlle Blanche’s slyness in her potential for being a suspect, but Miss Bulstrode interrupts him. “Miss Bulstrode waved that aside impatiently. “Miss Chadwick always finds the French Mistresses sly. She’s got a thing about them.”” Even Kelsey’s assistant, Sgt Bond, agrees, after they’ve interviewed Mlle Blanche. “”Touchy”, said Bond. “All the French are touchy.”” It makes you wonder if Christie has had an unfortunate incident with a French person.

Miss Bulstrode doesn’t hold with these xenophobic assumptions. Wondering whether one of the girls might have made an assignation to meet someone, Miss Johnson gasps. ““One of our Italian girls, perhaps. Foreigners are much more precocious than English girls.” “Don’t be so insular,” said Miss Bulstrode. “We’ve had plenty of English girls trying to make unsuitable assignations.””

Generally, there’s a little of the usual racist language of the era. Briggs refers to “Eye-ties”, and Adam refers to the Emir as “Wog Notable”, which feels particularly uncomfortable today. The systemic racism of the time is emphasised at the end of the book when we discover that Alice’s child is called Allen, and not the original name Ali. She explains: “it was the nearest name to Ali. I couldn’t call him Ali – too difficult for him, and the neighbours and all.” There’s also some of Christie’s sexism, which she often finds difficult to conceal. Inspector Kelsey’s immediate reaction to meeting Miss Rich was “ugly as sin” which does him no credit at all. Christie also has a tongue-in-cheek description of another of Miss Bulstrode’s strengths: “Miss Bulstrode had another faculty which demonstrated her superiority over most other women. She could listen.” Such strengths lead Adam to think of her as “remarkable”. Women were definitely underestimated in 1959!

Other minor themes and comments give us an indication of what life was like in those days. Kelsey says there will be as little publicity as possible, and that they’ll “let it get about that we think it was a local affair. Young thugs – or juvenile delinquents, as we have to call them nowadays – out with guns among them, trigger happy.” So Kelsey clearly disapproves of the use of what we would think of today as the more PC terminology. “I don’t know what England’s coming to”, grumbles Mr Sutcliffe like an old Colonel from the last days of the Raj, when he hears about the murders at the school. And as a forerunner of the more sexually liberated 60s that were just around the corner, Colonel Pikeaway warns Adam about his conduct when he’s working at the school. “If any oversexed teenagers make passes at you, Heaven help you if you respond.”

Classic denouement:  100% – this is up there with the absolute cream of the crop. Poirot assembles everyone, makes us think that an innocent person is the guilty party to take us down one dead end – then reveals a surprise witness and the guilty person explodes with fury. It’s very dramatic, and very exciting; one of those denouements you can read again and again. There’s another twist too – the first time that Christie ever employs this particular device, but I can’t say more if you haven’t read it!

Happy ending? A grey area – but it’s a happy ending in some respects. Christie happy endings are usually rather Shakespearean, with any number of couples getting engaged or getting married, but there’s no suggestion of any of that here. However, we do see how the prospects for Meadowbank might improve; and unexpected wealth is bestowed on two surprised recipients.

Did the story ring true? Yes and no. Yes, in that all the events that take place in Meadowbank are totally believable and make logical sense. However, there are a few extraordinary coincidences. Why would one of the other mistresses be in Ramat at the same time as the Sutciffes and the Revolution? (And the mistress in question’s response of “why shouldn’t I go to Ramat?” doesn’t quite cut it.) Worse, is the coincidence that Mrs Upjohn worked in undercover missions in Switzerland during the war, and recognises one of the “enemy” at least fifteen years later, going about their business at home. And to cap it all, Christie puts Mrs Upjohn on a bus around Anatolia for three weeks, totally uncontactable, simply to extend the length of time it takes to solve the crime. Had she stayed at home, this could all have been done and dusted over the course of a weekend. But then, of course, there would have been no novel!

Overall satisfaction rating: Despite all its flaws I am a huge fan of this book and it’s one of the most accessible, understandable and exciting of all her works.  10/10 with no hesitation.

Adventure of the Christmas PuddingThanks for reading my blog of Cat Among the Pigeons, and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment in the space below. Next up in the Agatha Christie Challenge is The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding, a selection of six stories – three short, three not so short – five of them featuring Hercule Poirot and one with Miss Marple. As usual, I’ll blog my thoughts about it as soon as I can. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!

The Agatha Christie Challenge – Dead Man’s Folly (1956)

Dead Man's FollyIn which that eccentric detective novelist Mrs Oliver is called in to organise a Murder Hunt at a village fete but she suspects all is not as it should be and so asks Hercule Poirot to make sense of her suspicions. All seems well at first until an unexpected murder takes place in the boathouse! Even though the victim provides Poirot a huge clue at first hand before their death, Poirot can’t see the wood for trees until the final few chapters, when all is explained. As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I promise not to reveal whodunit!

Humphrey TrevelyanThe book is dedicated “To Humphrey & Peggie Trevelyan”. Humphrey Trevelyan – also known as Baron Trevelyan, was a British diplomat and author, and, at the time of the publication of Dead Man’s Folly, was the British Ambassador to Egypt, which is doubtless how Agatha and Max Mallowan came to know him and his wife Peggie. Dead Man’s Folly was first published in the US in three abridged instalments in the Collier’s Weekly in July and August 1956, and in the UK in six abridged instalments in John Bull magazine in August and September 1956. The full book was first published the US by Dodd, Mead and Company in October 1956, and in the UK by Collins Crime Club on 5th November 1956.

FollyDead Man’s Folly is a curious book in a number of ways. At first, it strongly reminded me of The Hollow, with Lady Stubbs taking on the latter-day role of Lady Angkatell. But then the story goes in a different direction, and for many pages in the centre sections of the book, it appears to lose its way, as we wait for something specific to happen. The thing we’re waiting for never actually materialises either, which also feels a bit of a disappointment. Poirot, unforgivably, ignores a vital clue which the reader picks up on immediately; it’s not often that we outsmart Poirot, and it simply doesn’t sit well. When we finally understand the truth of the case, the plot feels overwhelmingly complex and intricate. Many of the characters, too, are just lightly sketched in, and even the return of Mrs Oliver doesn’t portray her as exciting and vivid as we remember her from before. Even the title isn’t particularly suitable; yes, there is the double meaning of the word folly but I’m blowed if I can work out who the Dead Man might be.

Toast and JamNevertheless, there are some very enjoyable sequences, and, if not well-written characters, then well-written conversations. There’s a light comic touch, for example, to Poirot’s lengthy interrogation of Miss Brewis, punctuated by him slowly looking for the breakfast toast and jam.  As I said just now, the return of Mrs Oliver is enjoyable, but not outstanding; but a few further insights are made into Hercule Poirot’s character which redress the balance somewhat on the otherwise sketchy characterisations. In fact, we probably learn more about him in this book than in any other, save, perhaps for the first couple of books where the character was first introduced. We’ve seen before his disapproval of how some young women don’t make the best of their appearance. It’s elaborated on more in this book. When he meets a couple of girls from the local youth hostel, “he was reflecting, not for the first time, that seen from the back, shorts were becoming to very few of the female sex. He shut his eyes in pain. Why, oh why, must young women array themselves thus? Those scarlet thighs were singularly unattractive!” Before you call him a sexist pig, remember he is from a different era. But sexist pig does somewhat come to mind.

Red RosePossibly Poirot’s problem is that he is an old romantic. We already know of his passion for the Countess Vera from previous books. In Dead Man’s Folly, Poirot tells Sally Legge where English husbands get it wrong, and “foreigners are more gallant”. ““We know,” said Poirot, “that it is necessary to tell a woman at least once a week, and preferably three or four times, that we love her; and that it also wise to bring her a few flowers, to pay her a few compliments, to tell her that she looks well in her new dress or her new hat.”” When Sally asks him if he practices what he preaches, he replies, “I, Madame, am not a husband […] alas! […] it is terrible all that I have missed in life.”

World War 1 EndsSome more of Poirot’s homespun philosophy: in conversation with Alec Legge, who believes that “in times of stress, when it’s a matter of life or death, one can’t think of one’s own insignificant ills or preoccupations”, Poirot takes the opposite view. “I assure you, you are quite wrong. In the late war, during a severe air-raid, I was much less preoccupied by the thought of death than of the pain from a corn on my little toe. It surprised me at the time that it should be so. “Think”, I said to myself, “at any moment now, death may come,” But I was still conscious of my corn – indeed I felt injured that I should have that to suffer as well as the fear of death. It was because I might die that every small personal matter in my life acquired increased importance. I have seen a woman knocked down in a street accident, with a broken leg, and she has burst out crying because she sees that there is a ladder in her stocking.” I guess this very much sums up Poirot’s belief that people always behave like people – and that’s how they give themselves away when it comes to matters of crime. It also surprises one that Poirot should have been actively at war during the First World War – The Mysterious Affair at Styles confirms that Poirot arrived as a refugee in England after the war and had been an active member of the Belgian Police Force – but we know of no military involvement. Maybe he was unlucky in a street somewhere.

JigsawChristie brings our attention back to Poirot’s need and desire for symmetrically ordered design. “Hercule Poirot sat in a square chair in front of the square fireplace in the square room of his London flat. In front of him were various objects that were not square: that were instead violently and almost impossibly curved. Each of them, studied separately, looked as if they could not have any conceivable function in a sane world. They appeared improbable, irresponsible, and wholly fortuitous […] Assembled in their proper place in their particular universe, they not only made sense, they made a picture. In other words, Hercule Poirot was doing a jigsaw puzzle.” Thus Christie emphasises Poirot’s obsession with neatness and regularity, and also shows that a jigsaw is the perfect metaphor for how he pieces together the individual facts of a case in order to create the whole picture.

frenchmanInspector Bland, one of a team of policemen that we meet in this book for the one and only time, is perhaps less insightful regarding his opinion of Poirot – initially, at least. PC Hoskins asks him who Poirot is; his response: “you’d describe him probably as a scream […] Kind of music hall parody of a Frenchman, but actually he’s a Belgian. But in spite of his absurdities, he’s got brains.” High praise indeed! For me, the most interesting insight into Poirot’s mentality is his disappointment not to have solved the case earlier. “He went slowly out of the boathouse, unhappy and displeased with himself. He, Hercule Poirot, had been summoned to prevent a murder – and he had not prevented it. It had happened. What was even more humiliating was that he had no real ideas even now, as to what had actually happened. It was ignominious. And tomorrow he must return to London defeated. His ego was seriously deflated – even his moustaches drooped.”

telephoneOne final thing on Poirot – we get to find out his phone number! It’s Trafalgar 8137. When those London area names became numbers, that would have changed to 872-8137; then in 1968 the codes changed and Poirot’s number would have become 01 839 8137 – and now, 0207 839 8137. Hugely disappointing to discover that the number appears to be currently unused.

ApplesEnough of Poirot! Let’s move on to Mrs Oliver, if I can put it like that. You’ll remember from her previous appearances that her trademark symbol is the apple, and once again, when we meet Mrs O for the first time in this book, “several apples fell from her lap and rolled in all directions”. She’s obsessed with the things. I can’t wait to re-read Hallowe’en Party, where Mrs Oliver discovers that apples can have a more sinister side. Poirot values Mrs Oliver’s company and instinct – it’s on her say-so that he ups and leaves the comfort of his London flat for Devon. Whilst we may feel she represents Christie herself, with her insights into writing detective novels, Poirot sees her as a replacement Hastings. Towards the end of the book she makes an innocent comment about hats being a symbol, and Poirot sees the light on one aspect of the crime that’s been bothering him. Mrs Oliver hasn’t a clue that she’s helped. “It is extraordinary,” said Poirot, and his voice was awed. “Always you give me ideas. So also did my friend Hastings whom I have not seen for many, many years. You have given me now the clue to yet another piece of my problem.” Unfortunately she fades out of the book for a long spell in the middle and only reappears right at the end, which I feel is rather unbalanced.

dead bodyLet’s look at some of Mrs Oliver’s insights into the writing process. When Poirot is impressed at her ingenuity in planning a torturously complicated story for the Murder Hunt, she replies, “it’s never difficult to think of things […] the trouble is that you think of too many, and then it all becomes too complicated, so you have to relinquish some of them and that is rather agony.” Later she admits that it’s possible to make a mistake. “”Don’t bother about me,” she said to Poirot. “I’m just remembering if there’s anything I’ve forgotten.” Sir George laughed heartily. “The fatal flaw, eh?” he remarked. “That’s just it,” said Mrs Oliver. “There always is one. Sometimes one doesn’t realise it until a book’s actually in print. And then it’s agony!” Her face reflected this emotion. She sighed. “The curious thing is that most people never notice it. I say to myself, “but of course the cook would have been bound to notice that two cutlets hadn’t been eaten,” but nobody else thinks of it at all.”” I believe Christie herself admitted that there are a few errors in her books; there are chronology discrepancies in Crooked House and Murder in Mesopotamia, I think; and the murder weapon in Death in the Clouds was the wrong size for an aeroplane!

Giving a talkWhen Mrs Oliver returns to the story towards the end of the book, she has been preparing for – or rather not preparing for – a talk she had been asked to give entitled “ How I Write My Books”. But it’s a question she can’t answer. “I mean, what can you say about how you write books? What I mean is, first you’ve got to think of something, and when you’ve thought of it you’ve got to force yourself to sit down and write it. That’s all. It would have taken me just three minutes to explain that, and then the Talk would have been ended and everyone would have been very fed up. I can’t imagine why everybody is always so keen for authors to talk about writing. I should have thought it was an author’s business to write, not talk.” I’m guessing Mrs Christie didn’t much like giving talks.

Woman in the woodOne last observation about Mrs Oliver – Christie wryly mentions that three years after the case “Hercule Poirot read The Woman in the Wood by Ariadne Oliver, and wondered whilst he read it why some of the persons and incidents seemed to him vaguely familiar.” As Pablo Picasso once said, “good artists copy, great artists steal.”

police inspectorThis book is surprisingly full of other police types. Normally Poirot solves a case either on his own or in company with the local police inspector or someone from Scotland Yard. Occasionally they also involve the Chief Constable. Dead Man’s Folly, however, features at least five other police officers. It’s almost as though Christie was trying them out for size to see if they were worth resurrecting in future books. I’ve already referred to Inspector Bland; bland by name, bland by nature. Christie primarily uses him as an all-purpose cop, programmed to ask questions of suspects, rather than an individual with his own personality. “You’re so damned respectable, Bland”, says Major Merrell, his Chief Constable. All we know of Merrell is that Christie tells us he “had irritable tufted eyebrows and looked rather like an angry terrier. But his men all liked him and respected his judgment.” There’s also Superintendent Baldwin, Bland’s immediate superior (we presume), of which we know that he is “a large comfortable-looking man”, whatever that means. We briefly meet Sergeant Cottrell, “a brisk young man with a good opinion of himself, who always managed to annoy his superior officer.” And there’s PC Hoskins, who’s not that PC after all. Hoskins is one of those lesser police officers who listen to the local gossip, and mistrust anyone who wasn’t born in the same village that he was. But we do understand that he is “a man of inquisitive mind with a great interest in everybody and everything”. If there’s a suspect, he’s bound to be a “”foreigner of some sort”, “one of those that stop up to the Hostel at Hoodown, likely as not, There’s some queer ones among them – and a lot of goings-on […] you never know with foreigners. Turn nasty, they can, all in a moment […]” Bland reflected that the local verdict seemed to be the comfortable and probably age-long one of attributing every tragic occurrence to unspecified foreigners.”

DartmouthNow we’ll look at some of the references in this book. Starting with the locations, this book is set primarily in Devon, but bookended with Poirot’s flat in London. Nasse House, the prime location for the story, is in the appropriately named Nassecombe, other local towns and villages to appear are Helm, Helmmouth, Brixwell and Gitcham. All of these place names are fictitious; however, I think it’s likely that the setting is very much inspired by Christie’s own home Greenaway near Dartmouth, and that Helmmouth is Dartmouth, Brixwell is Brixham, Gitcham is Dittisham, and Nasse House and Nassecombe are equated with Noss near Dartmouth.

painted fingernailsThere are a few other references, mostly pretty well known or guessable, with just a couple that foxed me. When Poirot observes Lady Stubbs’ immaculate fingernails, he thinks “they toil not, neither do they spin…” which is taken from the Bible, the gospel of Matthew, Chapter 6, verses 28-29: “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not, neither do they spin: and yet I say unto you, that even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these.” I remember having to read that at a school assembly once. When Sally tells Sir George that he reminded her of Betsy Trotwood shouting at donkeys, he doesn’t get the reference, but you and I both know that’s David Copperfield’s aunt.

George SangerMrs Folliat quotes some lines of Spenser to Poirot: “Sleep after toyle, port after stormie seas, ease after war, death after life, doth greatly please…” which are the last two lines of his poem Sleep After Toyle, from his collection of short poems entitled Complaints, published in 1591, which I confess I had never come across. Mrs Masterton tells Poirot that Sir George’s name was possibly taken from Lord George Sanger’s Circus. George Sanger was a travelling showman and circus proprietor active in the 19th century, who established his circus at an amphitheatre on Westminster Bridge Road in London.

Jacques Fath“When lovely woman stoops to folly” quotes Mrs Oliver, without knowing where she’s heard it before. It’s the title and first line of a short poem by Oliver Goldsmith – I wonder if Christie was punning on the name Oliver as a private joke? When Weyman is asked if he had seen Lady Stubbs on the afternoon of the fete, he replies “Of course I saw her, Who could miss her? Dressed up like a mannequin of Jacques Fath or Christian Dior?” Dior, of course, is very familiar. But Fath? He was a French fashion designer, whose clients included Ava Gardner, Greta Garbo and Rita Heyworth, and he even dressed Eva Peron. He died of leukaemia at the age of 42, two years before Dead Man’s Folly was published. Finally, Major Merrall concludes that Lady Stubbs was not a wealthy woman, in fact “she’s not got a stiver of her own”. I’d never come across the word stiver before. It derives from the Dutch, stuiver, which was an old coin, the equivalent of five Dutch cents, a 20th of a guilder. My OED tells me it came into use in English in the early 17th century. Who knew?

PoundWhich brings me nicely to the question of money, and 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 no grand values bandied about in this book, rather the opposite in fact. Admission to the fete cost half-a-crown (that’s 12.5p to you youngsters) – at today’s rate that would be just over £2. Bargain, I’d say. And Lady Stubbs tells Poirot that she once won sixty thousand francs at Monte Carlo on the roulette wheel. Unfortunately, she doesn’t tell us exactly when, but even in 1956 that would have been the equivalent of over £8000 today – so not a bad win at all.

 

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

 

Publication Details: 1956. My copy is a Fontana paperback, fourth impression, dated September 1974, with a price of 35p on the back cover. The cover illustration by Tom Adams shows a dead girl clutching a scarf, lying on a bed of daisies under a folly and with a yacht in the distance. That basically brings together many elements of the book although it takes liberties with what actually happened!

How many pages until the first death: 64. It feels like quite a long wait, but you do get a sense of pre-murder suspense; you know something evil is going to happen to someone but you don’t know what and you don’t know to whom.

Funny lines out of context: A classic use of the E word, in a conversation between Mrs Oliver and Hercule Poirot.

“I beg your pardon, M. Poirot, did you say something?” “It was an ejaculation only.”

Memorable characters:

Unfortunately, this is one aspect in which this book falls down badly, and is one reason why it becomes a curious re-read, in that it’s so unmemorable, it’s like you’re reading it for the first time!

Christie the Poison expert:

Again, nothing to see here. Christie’s chosen methods of murder in this book are garrotting and drowning.

Class/social issues of the time:

This book isn’t as rooted in social issues as much as many of Christie’s other works, but there are a few interesting points of note. The growth of Communism continues to vex Christie, a theme she introduced in Destination Unknown and which continued in Hickory Dickory Dock. Here it’s not so strongly alluded to, and is also conflated with Christie’s regular observations about “foreigners”. The siting of the Youth Hostel at Hoodown upsets many of the villagers with its inevitable influx of young people from abroad. Sir George is not happy at this arrangement, especially as many of the young people try to use his land as a short cut. ““Trespassers are a menace since they’ve started this Youth Hostel tomfoolery. They come out at you from everywhere wearing the most incredible shirts – boy this morning had one all covered with crawling turtles and things – made me think I’d been hitting the bottle or something. Half of them can’t speak English – just gibber at you…” He mimicked: “ ‘Oh, plees – yes, haf you – tell me – iss way to ferry?” I say no, it isn’t, roar at them, and send them back where they’ve come from, but half the time they just blink and stare and don’t understand. And the girls giggle. All kinds of nationalities, Italian, Yugoslavian, Dutch, Finnish – Eskimos I shouldn’t be surprised! Half of them Communists, I shouldn’t wonder”, he ended darkly. “Come now, George, don’t get started on communists,” said Mrs Legge.”

But there’s also the curious incident of Alec Legge and the young man in the turtle shirt. The true significance of this is never made absolutely plain, but Poirot confronts the scientist over his deduction that “some years ago you had an interest and sympathy for a certain political party. Like many other young men of a scientific bent” – which takes us straight back to the Communist “paradise” in Destination Unknown. Poirot realises that there was an assignation between Legge and this young man in the boathouse. There is some suggestion, maybe, of espionage, or blackmail; we just don’t know. But whatever the reality, it’s clear that this is another reference to what was perceived to be the growing threat from the east.

There’s also a reiteration of an idea that I’ve seen in other Christie novels, and one which Poirot often employs to his own benefit. Miss Brewis doesn’t hold back from telling Poirot what she thinks about Lady Stubbs. ““Lady Stubbs knows perfectly well exactly what she is doing. Besides being, as you said, a very decorative young woman, she is also a very shrewd one.” She had turned away and left the room before Poirot’s eyebrows had fully risen in surprise. So that was what the efficient Miss Brewis thought, was it? Or had she merely said so for some reason of her own? And why had she made such a statement to him – to a newcomer? Because he was a newcomer, perhaps? And also because he was a foreigner. As Hercule Poirot had discovered by experience, there were many English people who considered that what one said to foreigners didn’t count!” For this to be true, it implies that the English consider foreigners to be less important, or intelligent, or relevant. Whatever, it’s a sign of international disrespect. Poirot recognises latent xenophobia in conversation with Mrs Masterton too. “”By the way, you’re a friend of the Eliots, I believe?” Poirot, after his long sojourn in England, comprehended that this was an indication of social recognition. Mrs Masterton was in fact saying: “Although a foreigner, I understand you are One of Us.” She continued to chat in an intimate manner.” Apart from that, there’s the usual, minor xenophobic banter you find in a typical Christie, including Sir George referring to De Sousa as a “dago”, as well as PC Hoskins’ non-PC comments I mentioned earlier.

Even though the book was published more than ten years after the end of the war, there are still traces of its after-effects. Mrs Masterton doesn’t trust Warburton; “silly the way he sticks to calling himself “Captain”. Not a regular soldier, and never within miles of a German.” Like Christopher Wren in Three Blind Mice (and by association, The Mousetrap) and Laurence Brown in Crooked House, people are still suspicious of any man without an immaculate war record.

But time marches on, and the 1950s bring with them the first signs of creature comforts that we have come to love and appreciate over the past seventy years. Mrs Folliat reflects on how the top cottage at Nasse House has been “enlarged and modernised […] it had to be; we’ve got quite a young man now as head gardener, with a young wife – and these young women must have electric irons and modern cookers and television, and all that. One must go with the times.” I think that’s the first time that Christie has mentioned such modern inventions – although I think we may have seen Poirot blissfully warmed by central heating in an earlier book. By 1956 I would have thought it would have been commonplace to have at least one of these modern items in your household. But then again, Mrs Folliat does rather live in the past.

Trust PC Hoskins to bring up the subject of Lady Stubbs’ IQ, suggesting it might be on the low side. “The inspector looked at him with annoyance. “Don’t bring out these new-fangled terms like a parrot. I don’t care if she’s got a high IQ or a low IQ.” Bland might consider IQ to be a new-fangled idea but in fact the concept of IQ had been around for decades. Maybe at this time it was just starting to gain popular traction.

Classic denouement:  No. As in Hickory Dickory Dock before it, the identity of the murderer is revealed in a quiet private discussion purely between Poirot, Bland and Merrell; but then Christie cuts away from the scene before Poirot can explain to his colleagues How They Did It. Poirot then moves on to a discussion with a third party to seek clarification on certain points of his theories. Apart from that, we never see the culprit confronted with their crime, or see other witnesses find out what actually happened, or their reaction to the truth. Not at all satisfactory, I fear.

Happy ending? Unusually, there’s no reason to expect any happy ending here. No last-minute engagements, no rightful inheritances; in fact, there is a suspicion that one of the characters might end their own life after the end of the book. Very downbeat.

Did the story ring true? Whilst it’s not an impossible solution to the crime it’s a highly implausible one. Very complicated, very elaborate (and totally unguessable!) So, no, it doesn’t ring that true.

Overall satisfaction rating: It’s a complex plot, full of smoke and mirrors, and impossible to guess; it has a dull middle part where nothing much happens, and the characters and story aren’t particularly memorable. To its credit, it fleshes out Poirot a lot more, and there are some entertaining passages. But, overall, a slightly disappointing 7/10.

4.50 From PaddingtonThanks for reading my blog of Dead Man’s Folly 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 4.50 from Paddington, and the return of Miss Marple. The Margaret Rutherford Marple film Murder She Said is based on this book, and I’ve recently seen the film again so I can clearly remember whodunit. We’ll see if that spoils the book at all. As usual, I’ll blog my thoughts about it as soon as I can. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!

The Agatha Christie Challenge – Hickory Dickory Dock (1955)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Memorable characters:

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

Christie the Poison expert:

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

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

Class/social issues of the time:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Agatha Christie Challenge – After the Funeral (1953)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Memorable characters:

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

Christie the Poison expert:

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

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

Class/social issues of the time:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Memorable characters:

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

Christie the Poison expert:

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

Class/social issues of the time:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Agatha Christie Challenge – Taken at the Flood (1948)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Memorable characters:

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

Christie the Poison expert:

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

Class/social issues of the time:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Crooked HouseThanks for reading my blog of Taken at the Flood and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment in the space below. Next up in the Agatha Christie Challenge is Crooked House, which I remember reading on the lawn at school when I was about 12. One of Christie’s shock solutions – I instantly remember the identity of the murderer – so it will be interesting to re-read and see if everything hangs true. As usual, I’ll blog my thoughts about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Nemean Lion

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

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

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

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

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

The Lernean Hydra

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Arcadian Deer

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

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

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

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

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

The Erymanthian Boar

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

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

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

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

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

The Augean Stables

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

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

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

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

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

The Stymphalean Birds

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

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

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

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

The Cretan Bull

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

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

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

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

The Horses of Diomedes

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Girdle of Hyppolita

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

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

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

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

The Flock of Geryon

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

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

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

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

The Apples of The Hesperides

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

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

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

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

The Capture of Cerberus

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Taken at the FloodNext up in the Agatha Christie challenge is a book I remember being serialised on BBC Radio when I was about 16, Taken at the Flood, and I’m very much looking forward to re-reading it. If you’d like to read it too, we can compare notes when I give you my thoughts on it in a few weeks’ time. In the meanwhile, happy sleuthing and keep on Christie-ing!