The Agatha Christie Challenge – Curtain (1975)

CurtainIn which Hercule Poirot and Arthur Hastings are reunited for one final time – back at the scene of their first case, The Mysterious Affair at Styles. The old mansion is now a guest house, where Poirot is a resident, accompanied by a new valet, Curtiss. But Poirot has a surprise up his sleeve – he confides in Hastings that one of the guests is a serial murderer, and he wants Hastings to be his eyes and ears so that they can prevent another murder from taking place. There’s just one main problem: Poirot won’t tell Hastings who the murderer is! Is Hastings perceptive enough to pick up all the vital clues? Can he prevent another murder? And how will Poirot end his distinguished detective career? As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, as always, I promise not to reveal what happens and whodunit!

1940s calendarAs the book was written at some point in the early 1940s, when Christie was at her inventive best, but without the future knowledge of exactly when it would be published, it’s perhaps appropriate that, unusually, she didn’t dedicate this book to anyone. Curtain was first published in the UK by Collins Crime Club in September 1975, and in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company shortly afterwards, although it has been previously serialised in the US in two abridged instalments in Ladies Home Journal in July and August 1975.

Red HerringFor the contemporary reader in 1975, Curtain was a breath of fresh air, after the disappointments of Christie’s more recent publications. Much research has taken place to try to establish exactly when it was written, but it’s hard to be more specific other than early in the 1940s. To end Hercule Poirot’s career on a highlight – for the reader, if not for Poirot himself, arguably – must have been Christie’s chief goal, and so she set about writing a superbly plotted, intricate story, full of red herrings and manipulative mind-games, and a classic Christie cast of old soldiers, young whippersnappers, hen-pecked husbands and research-crazed scientists. The result is a riveting read and a denouement finale that’s very different from a traditional Christie but has you on your seat with twists and surprises.

The Mysterious Affair at StylesSetting the story back in Styles, where Poirot and Hastings had cemented their friendship back in 1916, provides a very satisfactory circular structure to their detective days together – indeed to Christie’s works as a whole. Of course, the timings mean there are all sorts of inconsistencies regarding their ages, respective health conditions and life experiences. 55 years had elapsed between the publication of The Mysterious Affair at Styles and Curtain, and Poirot was already an old man way back then. Hastings tells us at the beginning of this book, “I had not seen my old friend for nearly a year”; whereas the last book that Hastings narrates is Dumb Witness, published in 1937 – so there’s some inconsistency there. Hastings is now widowed, his late wife buried back in The Argentine where they lived. His daughter Judith, who plays a significant role in Curtain, is only 21, which again requires the reader to have some elasticity of understanding! Hastings is, in his own words, not “Heaven help me, a clever man. I blundered – made mistakes.” Christie paints Hastings as not only a bit of a chump when it comes to helping Poirot solve the case, but also rather Neanderthal in his reaction to his belief that Judith is spending too much time with Allerton, a man whom Hastings instinctively dislikes. We know that fathers can get very possessive of their daughters, but Christie took Hastings down some very torturous paths of personal discovery! Fortunately, All’s Well that Ends Well on that front, although there is a darker aspect to Hastings’ over-the-top reaction, but that’s for further discussion after you’ve read the book!

PoirotAnd what of our much-loved and respected hero, Poirot? Of course, we see him through Hastings’ eyes, as this “limping figure with the large moustache”. But on closer inspection, “crippled with arthritis, he propelled himself about in a wheeled chair. His once plump frame had fallen in. He was a thin little man now. His face was lined and wrinkled. His moustache and hair, it is true, were still of a jet black colour […] only his eyes were the same as ever, shrewd and twinkling”. And of course, age hasn’t taken its toll on Poirot’s vanity: “mercifully, though the outside decays, the core is still sound […] the brain, mon cher, is what I mean by the core, My brain, I still functions magnificently.” Good to see that some things never change. What is occasionally a little distressing is to read how Poirot rounds upon Hastings with frustration and fury at the latter’s denseness. “Go away. You are obstinate and extremely stupid and I wish that there were someone else whom I could trust, but I suppose I shall have to put up with you and your absurd ideas of fair play.” Harsh words, Hercule; particularly as Hastings is still coming to terms with his new widowed status: “I’m not much of a fellow. You’ve said I’m stupid – well, in a way it’s true. And I’m only half the man I was. Since Cinders’ death…” Still, I suppose we can extend Poirot a hand of sympathy as he gets older and more infirm; as Hastings notes, “now, when he was indeed a sick man, he feared, perhaps, admitting the reality of his illness. He made light of it because he was afraid.”

CookTimes may have moved on, but some of Poirot’s views are still firmly in the past (unsurprising, as that’s when the book was written!) In conversation with Judith, he criticises her keenness on working for Dr Franklin at the expense of finding a husband. ““Your middle finger is stained with methyliine blue. It is not a good thing for your husband if you take no interest in his stomach.” “I dare say I shan’t have a husband.” “Certainly you will have a husband. What did the bon Dieu create you for?” “Many things, I hope,” said Judith. “Le marriage first of all.””

private detectiveThere’s one curious inconsistency of Poirot’s philosophy that is at odds with his stated views in other books. Faced with the task of preventing a murder, he asserts that it is impossible to stop a murderer from carrying out their intentions; and he goes into great detail about the only possible methods one can use, and how they are all likely to fail. However, in Poirot’s Early Cases, which was published only a year earlier (albeit the tales were written much earlier), that is more or less exactly what he achieves in the story Wasps’ Nest.

scaredThis is a beautifully written book, with an extremely clever set up and tight plotting. Christie manages to achieve a sense of unease at many key moments in the story, which almost lend it a supernatural element; there is much debate, for example, to what extent the previous death that occurred at Styles has left its mark on the fabric of the building. ““The atmosphere of the place […] something wrong, if you know what I mean?” I was silent a moment considering […] Did the fact that death by violence – by malice aforethought – had taken place in a certain spot leave its impression on that spot so strongly that it was perceptible after many years? Psychic people said so. Did Styles definitely bear traces of that event that had occurred so long ago? Here, within these walls, in these gardens, thoughts of murder had lingered and grown stronger and had at last come to fruition in the final act. Did they still taint the air?”

BinocularsThere’s also the scene where Norton fumbles with his binoculars, is embarrassed about what he has accidentally seen and refuses to elucidate further; it’s a very uneasy moment and you feel that something extremely significant has happened – but you’re not quite certain why. It’s all very cunningly written, and when you discover exactly what has happened at the end of the book, all these significant moments make sense. There was a time when Christie would enjoy including what I call a “presaging moment” in her books, which always create tension and nervousness, and Curtain includes a fine example: “How little we realized then that Norton’s hobby might have an important part to play in the events that were to come.” There’s another scene when Franklin upsets a box of chocolates and they spill out on to the floor; as a Christie fan you read much more into such an event than it might necessarily warrant – will this be an opportunity for a murderer to swap a chocolate for a poisoned one, for example? As I said earlier, the book is littered with delightful red herrings.

TadcasterThere are just three locations in the book. It almost exclusively takes place at Styles House, in the village of Styles St Mary, which we know is reached by crossing “flat Essex landscape”. There’s also the setting for the Coroner’s Enquiry, and Boyd Carrington’s house. The only other location mentioned is the Yorkshire town of Tadcaster, where Franklin and Judith drove to get some laboratory supplies. Tadcaster? That’s hardly convenient for Essex! I think the proof-readers didn’t do their job properly there.

AsquithNow for the references and quotations in this book. Has tings asks if there were any similarity between this case and the case of Evelyn Carlisle. This is the book Sad Cypress, published in 1940, which perhaps gives us a closer clue as to when Curtain was written. Again, I wonder if the proof-readers took the afternoon off as the character’s name is actually Elinor Carlisle. Poirot also refers to “your Mr Asquith in the last war”. Herbert Asquith was the Prime Minister from 1908 to 1916 – so you wouldn’t think of him as being from the time of “the last war” in 1975!

CowperHastings wonders who it was who wrote “the darkest day, lived till tomorrow, will have passed away”. This is a slight misquote; the original is “the darkest day, if you live till tomorrow, will have passed away” and is by William Cowper, from The Needless Alarm, 1790. There are more quotes, from Shakespeare; O, beware, my lord, of jealousy… and Not poppy, nor mandragora, nor all the drowsy syrups of the world…, both of which are spoken by Iago in Act Three, Scene Three of Othello. There is also a reference to Judith cutting off the head of Holofernes; he was an invading Assyrian general, and she was a Hebrew widow who beheaded him when he was drunk.

St John ErvineMrs Franklin wore a negligee of pale eau-de-Nil; this is a pale yellowish-green colour, said to be coined by Flaubert in the mid-19th century when France was obsessed by Egypt. And of the two clues that Poirot leaves to Hastings, one is a copy of John Ferguson by St John Ervine – this is a 1915 play by (according to Wikipedia, so it must be true) the most prominent Ulster writer of the early twentieth century and a major Irish dramatist whose work influenced the plays of W. B. Yeats and Sean O’Casey. So there you go.

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

Publication Details: 1975. My copy is a Fontana Paperback, first paperback edition published in 1977, bearing the price on the back cover of 70p. I know I had an earlier copy – the original hardback first edition, no less – but it has vanished in the seas of time. The cover illustration simply shows a bowler hat placed atop a walking cane. Classy.

How many pages until the first death: 127. That’s a good two thirds of the way into the book, but it’s such a good read that you’re not remotely impatient for a death to investigate.

Funny lines out of context: Sadly none.

Memorable characters: The book is much more interested in presenting a deeply woven plot rather than memorable characters, so there’s not much meat here. However, Hastings’ daughter Judith is an interesting character, largely because she presents herself as a highly unpleasant person, and not at all what you might expect coming from the kindly loins of Hastings. Consider this little opinion piece: “I don’t hold life as sacred as all you people do. Unfit lives, useless lives – they should be got out of the way. There’s so much mess about. Only people who can make a decent contribution to the community ought to be allowed to live. The others ought to be put painlessly away.” Nice lady.

Christie the Poison expert: A veritable cornucopia of poisons and chemical treatments litter this book – Christie must have had a field day. Arsenic, morphine, cyanide, strychnine; plus the alkaloids of the physostigmine family, and the sleeping draughts veronal and the fictional slumberyl, all play a small or not so small part.

Class/social issues of the time: Bearing in mind that the “time” in question is probably during the Second World War, it’s fascinating to read Hastings’ description of the period – specifically in terms of no longer producing men of the standard of Colonel Luttrell – as “these degenerate days”. You’d say that was an opinion that didn’t bear much optimism for the future.

Hastings has a very tricky relationship with Judith; perhaps that has always been the way for fathers and daughters, but his possessiveness towards her becomes quite aggressive, as does her resistance to his protection. Poirot admits that “the mauvais sujet – always women are attracted to him”. As women were making their way in the workplace with much greater strides than in previous eras, it would be inevitable that they would have to learn the ways to deal with bad boys independently, and not just rush to the protection of Daddy. But all this takes a very hard toll on Hastings.

One of Christie’s traditional bugbears gets a good airing with some major discussions about divorce. There is a passage where Hastings lists and comments on the individual attitudes to divorce of many of the residents at Styles. Hastings describes himself as “essentially an old-fashioned person, yet I was on the side of divorce – of cutting one’s losses and starting afresh.” Boyd Carrington, who had had an unhappy marriage, was nevertheless against divorce. “He had, he said, the utmost reverence for the institution of marriage. It was the foundation of the state. Norton, with no ties and no personal angle, was of my way of thinking, Franklin, the modern scientific thinker, was, strangely enough, resolutely opposed to divorce. It offended, apparently, his ideal of clear-cut thinking and action.” By listing these opposing and perhaps unpredictable attitudes, Christie shows what a state of indecision society was in at the time in respect of divorce.

I did think it was an extraordinary state of affairs that someone who is convinced they have had a heart attack – Poirot, no less – would refuse to see a doctor. Perhaps there was a mistrust of the medical profession at the time? But, on the other hand, this refusal might be a clue as to the final “whodunit” aspect of the book – so I won’t say any more on the subject!

Classic denouement:  No – but it’s an absolute humdinger, where Christie reserves one of her very finest solutions till the final moment.

Happy ending? That’s a hard one to call. One couple appear to be looking forward to a happy relationship together, which is a positive result. However, there can be absolutely no doubt at all that this is the end of Hercule Poirot, and you may find that sad!

Did the story ring true? This is one of Christie’s ultimate plotting successes, so  yes, it rings absolutely true.

Overall satisfaction rating: It’s one of her undoubted best – no wonder she kept it in a drawer for when it was needed! 10/10

Sleeping MurderThanks for reading my blog of Curtain, and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment in the space below. That was the last book to be published in Christie’s lifetime, but that doesn’t mean it’s the end of the Agatha Christie Challenge. Next up is another book that she wrote at an earlier time and is the swansong for Miss Marple – Sleeping Murder. I can remember one vital aspect of this story – but the rest of it is a blank, so I’m looking forward to giving it a re-read. As usual, I’ll blog my thoughts about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!

The Agatha Christie Challenge – Poirot’s Early Cases (1974)

Poirot's Early CasesIn which Christie takes us back in time and gives us eighteen early cases solved by Hercule Poirot, in many of which he is helped or hindered by his old pal Hastings. All the stories had been previously published in the UK in journals and magazines between 1923 and 1935; and in the US, they were all published between 1924 and 1961 in book collections. Poirot’s Early Cases was first published in the UK by Collins Crime Club in September 1974, and this collection was first published in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company later in 1974 under the slightly different title Hercule Poirot’s Early Cases. There’s no additional scene-setting or framework, so I’ll take them all individually, and, as always, I promise not to reveal whodunit!

The Affair at the Victory Ball

1920s ballThis first story was originally published in the 7th March 1923 issue of the Sketch Magazine in the UK, and in the book The Underdog and other Stories in 1951 in the US. It was Agatha Christie’s first published short story. At the Victory Ball, a party of six wear the costumes of the Commedia dell’Arte. But a double tragedy ensues when Harlequin is found murdered, and, back at her flat, Columbine dies of an overdose of cocaine.

A simple structure to this story, Poirot and Hastings are idling their time when Inspector Japp arrives with a request for help. We had already met Japp in The Mysterious Affair at Styles, and he will return in three of the other short stories in this collection. He would also go on to feature in six more Christie novels, and the short story Murder in the Mews. As he would do on a few occasions, Poirot solves the puzzle without needing to visit the scene of the crime.

You can see that Christie is still introducing her audience to Poirot, going back to the basics of the man; his egg-shaped head and what Hastings calls his “harmless vanity”; the account of his time in the Belgian police force and how he solved the mystery at Styles. At this stage of his time in England, Poirot still shows some shakiness in his command of the English language: “his dossier […] I should say his bioscope – no, how do you call it – biograph?” He also asks what would always become a vital question in any Christie murder “Who benefits by his death?” and he expressly asks Japp if he will be able to “play out the denouement my own way” – again, another of Poirot’s trademarks. Of Hastings we learn little, except that he is a faithful acolyte, of whom Poirot grieves he has “no method.”

Other aspects that come up in this story: cocaine use plays an important role in this story, which no only would have interested Christie the pharmacist/poison expert, but also points to a very contemporary feel, as that was definitely the drug de choix of the day. The use of the Harlequin character may point to an interest that was to develop into Christie’s short-lived detective Harley Quin. The Colossus Hall, where the Victory Ball took place, appears to be one of Christie’s early inventions.

Christie gives us an honest and massive clue, which certainly led me to guess who the perpetrator was – although I didn’t guess any of the details as to How It Was Done. And that denouement, that Poirot was so keen to keep for himself, is certainly a very theatrical affair and thoroughly entertaining to read.

An enjoyable, clear, and undemanding start to the book.

The Adventure of the Clapham Cook

ClaphamA preposterous and highly contrived little story, originally published in the 14th November 1923 issue of the Sketch Magazine in the UK and in the book The Underdog and other Stories in 1951 in the US. Mrs Todd arrives unannounced and demands that Poirot investigate the disappearance of her cook; such cases are not normally his purview, but it isn’t long until he proves the connection with the disappearance with a crime reported in that day’s Daily Blare.

The story is of interest as it is one of the rare occasions that Poirot concerns himself with solving a “lower class” crime. At first, he is not inclined to assist, telling Mrs Todd that he “does not touch this particular kind of business”, which infuriates his visitor with his snobbishness. When he changes his mind, his patronising attitude is still unpleasant to read: “This case will be a novelty. Never yet have I hunted a missing domestic.”

However, another of Poirot’s traits comes to the fore in this story; the fact that, once his interest is piqued, nothing will stop him from discovering the truth. He ignores the fact that Mr Todd sends him a guinea for his trouble when he is dismissed from the case. He simply carries on. As Hastings notes, “his eagerness over this uninteresting matter of a defaulting cook was extraordinary, but I realised that he considered it a point of honour to persevere until he finally succeeded.”

Mrs Todd gives us an interesting insight into the world of an upper middle-class woman trying to keep servants in her employ. “It’s all this wicked dole […] putting ideas into servants’ heads, wanting to be typists and what nots. Stop the dole, that’s what I say.”

Christie still reports Poirot’s power of English as uncertain; “if I mistake not, there is on my new grey suit the spot of grease – only the unique spot, but it is sufficient to trouble me. Then there is my winter overcoat – I must lay him aside in the powder of Keatings.” Keating’s Powder, by the way, was a treatment for killing bugs, fleas, beetles and moths in clothing.

Apart from Poirot’s flat, there’s one location mentioned in the story – 88 Prince Albert Road, Clapham, the Todd residence. There are a couple of Prince Albert Roads in London, but neither is in Clapham.

There are a few financial sums mentioned in this story; an income of £300 per year, which today would be worth about £12,500; and the guinea, that the Todds thought would be enough to pay off Poirot for dropping the investigation would be worth about £45 today. No wonder he was insulted. The £50,000 that the newspaper says the bank clerk has taken, would be the equivalent of about £2.1 million today. Now that’s not a bad haul.

I didn’t care for this story; the solution is extremely unlikely and Poirot solves it with a level of vanity that is rather unattractive.

The Cornish Mystery

CornwallThis enjoyable and surprising little story was originally published in the 28th November 1923 issue of the Sketch Magazine, and in the book The Underdog and other Stories in 1951 in the US. Poirot and Hastings travel to Cornwall to investigate Mrs Pengelley’s suggestion that her husband has been poisoning her. Poirot arrives too late to avert a tragedy but isn’t convinced that the husband is guilty.

It’s Poirot’s idea that he should travel to Cornwall pretending to be Hastings’ “eccentric foreign friend”, playing up his image of eccentricity and unpredictability. He doesn’t hold back when he discovers that he has arrived too late to save Mrs Pengelley: “An imbecile, a criminal imbecile, that is what I have been, Hastings. I have boasted of my little grey cells, and now I have lost a human life, a life that came to me to be saved.” He takes his responsibilities very seriously, but also doesn’t like to show any imperfection or misjudgement. Everything must be perfect in Poirot’s world, including the impeccability of his record at solving cases.

The solution to the case allows Poirot and/or Christie, depending on how you read it, to be judge and jury with the murderer, bluffing them into confession and atonement whilst concealing the fact that he has no proof. Consequently it feels like a very moral ending.

The story moves from Poirot’s London flat to the Cornish village of Polgarwith, where the Pengelleys live. It’s a convincingly sounding Cornish name, but it doesn’t exist. Christie utilises her interest in poison, with the news that a large amount of arsenic was discovered in the corpse. There’s another of those unintentionally funny moments when Christie’s turn of phrase hasn’t kept up with semantic change: ““God bless my soul!” he ejaculated.”

Freda is reported to live on £50 per year, which today would be somewhere in the region of is only a little over £2,100. It’s not a lot.

Concise and diverting.

The Adventure of Johnnie Waverly

adventureThis neat and believable short story was originally published in the 10th October 1923 issue of the Sketch Magazine, under the title The Kidnapping of Johnnie Waverly, and in the book Three Blind Mice and Other Stories in the US in 1950. Three-year-old Johnnie Waverly has been kidnapped from his home; his father had received a number of warnings that it would happen but didn’t take them seriously. His parents have sought advice from Poirot, who agrees to take on the case. Waverly Court is home to a priests hole, and Poirot finds unusual footprints inside it; and works forward from that clue to identify what has happened to Johnnie and how he can be safely returned.

Poirot continues to reveal little aspects of his personality; he betrays his rather fiddly prissiness when he complains to Hastings about, of all things, his tie pin. “If you must wear a tie pin, Hastings, at least let it be in the exact centre of your tie. At present it is at least a sixteenth of an inch too much to the right.”

One aspect of this story reveals a great difference between society in the 1920s and today, a hundred years later. The story contains a description of a man and a small boy in a car together, driving through villages. “The man was an ardent motorist, fond of children, who had picked up a small child playing in the streets of Edenswell […] and was kindly giving him a ride.” Kindly giving him a ride? There is no way this would happen today; any man who did that would face instant accusations of being a paedophile; at the very least he would be considered to have abducted the child and would have broken the law. Times change!

The only address other than Waverly Court in the story is the home of Johnnie’s nurse, 149 Netherall Road Hammersmith. Whilst there are a number of Netherall Roads in the country, there are none in London.

The sum demanded for the return of Johnnie was originally £25,000 and then rose to £50,000. The equivalent today would be just over £1 million, rising to just over £2 million. Quite some sum. At the other end of the scale, the ten shillings that were paid to the tramp who delivered the note and parcel to Waverly Court would today just be £20. Not bad payment for a simple courier job!

The Double Clue

ClueThis short, slight and rather easily solved story was originally published in the 5th December 1923 issue of the Sketch Magazine, and in the book Double Sin and Other Stories in the US in 1961. Society antiques collector Marcus Hardman consults Poirot over the theft of valuable jewels from his safe during a tea party when only four people who were present could be the thief. A little investigation from Poirot and Hastings and the culprit is very quickly discovered.

This story is of primary interest because it is the first time Poirot (and we, the readers) meet the Countess Vera Rossakoff, the extravagant and alluring Russian refugee, with whom Poirot becomes pretty much instantly entranced. At the end of the story Poirot believes he will meet her again somehow, sometime; and indeed we do. We meet her again in The Big Four, and in The Capture of Cerberus, the final story of The Labours of Hercules. Otherwise, the plot is slight and, once you understand the relevance of the Russian Dictionary consulted by Poirot, very easy to solve. It contains a big clue identical to one of those that litter Murder on the Orient Express.

There’s a suggestion in the story that you can inherit kleptomania from your parents; a theme that recurred a few times in Christie’s work is the idea that mental illness can be passed down between the generations. I always feel that rather dates her work, as I’m not sure it holds any scientific value today. Unless you know different?

The South African millionaire Mr Johnston lives on Park Lane, in London, which is obviously real. Hardman’s assistant and rather dubious friend Parker lives on Bury Street, which is just around the corner, in St James’s – so unusually, Christie chooses to use two real-life locations. If Johnston was a genuine millionaire, £1 million in 1923 equates to over £42 million today, so he really is a rich so-and-so.

Not one of her best works; mildly amusing but nothing to dwell on.

The King of Clubs

King of ClubsThis relatively simple and slightly infuriating little tale was originally published in the 21st March 1923 issue of the Sketch Magazine – her second published short story – under the full title The Adventure of the King of Clubs,  and in the book The Underdog and Other Stories in the US in 1951. Poirot is called in by Prince Paul of Maurania to solve the case of the murder of a theatrical impresario, Henry Reedburn. The prince’s fiancée, dancer Valerie Saintclair, had burst into the impresario’s neighbours’ house, belonging to the Oglander family, with blood on her dress, shouted “Murder!”, and then collapsed. Meanwhile Reedburn’s body was discovered in his own house. But did she do it? The Prince and Valerie had earlier consulted a clairvoyant who had turned over the King of Clubs card and said it was a warning. Had Valerie interpreted Reedburn as being the King of Clubs? And what is the significance of the fact that the King of Clubs is missing from the pack of cards with which the Oglanders were playing bridge?

The story is significant for two reasons. One is that the resolution is one of those rare occasions were Poirot does not press for the guilty party to be charged, even when murder has been committed. The other is that it is marred by a very hard-to-swallow coincidence involving the card the King of Clubs. I can’t say more, lest I give the game away.

Hastings says of Poirot: “That is the worst of Poirot. Order and Method are his gods. He goes so far as to attribute all his success to them.” Poirot loathes the way that Hastings just casts his read newspaper on the floor, unlike Poirot, who “folded it anew symmetrically.” That little observation goes a long way to illustrate the difference between the two characters.

The story is set in Streatham, which of course exists; Prince Paul is from Maurania, which doesn’t. The name could be a mixture of Mauretania and Ruritania. No other references need explaining!

The Lemesurier Inheritance

John LeMesurierThis entertaining but slightly dubious short story was originally published in the 18th December 1923 issue of the Sketch Magazine, and in The Under Dog and other Stories in the US in 1951. Years earlier, Poirot and Hastings had met three members of the same family over dinner: Vincent, Hugo and Roger Lemesurier. There was a curse, that the first born of each generation dies, handing over the inheritance to the second born. The next day, Vincent is killed falling off a train. Several years later, Mrs Hugo Lemesurier tracks Poirot down to tell him that their eldest son has had a number of unusual near-death accidents; she feels sure there can be no such thing as the family curse, but Hugo is convinced it is true. So Poirot and Hastings head up to Northumberland to the Lemesurier estate to make some sense of it all. Is there a curse? Or is there a more old-fashioned murderer? An exciting little denouement reveals all!

This is a good early example of a Christie story where supernatural fears and superstitions actually conceal a simple crime. Take away the deliberately misleading framework and you have quite a straightforward crime – or series of crimes. It’s of additional interest as the opening passage is set during the First World War, and is just about the most historical that we get to see Poirot and Hastings together. Mind you, it was very early on in Christie’s career (and indeed Poirot’s and Hastings’) for the latter to describe this crime as an “extraordinary series of events which held our interest over a period of many years, and which culminated in the ultimate problem brought to Poirot to solve.” Big claim, indeed.

Christie the poison expert is in full swing with this story, with mentions being made of ptomaine, atropine and formic acid poisoning. It must have tickled her to be able to distil so much expert information into so short a story.

Christie is sometimes criticised for not making some of her supplementary characters more interesting, and for not giving them their own characterisation to inhabit. She’s certainly guilty of that in this story, where she has Hastings describe the children’s governess, Miss Saunders, as “a nondescript female”. Really, neither Hastings not Christie bothered to try to make her interesting!

Not a bad story, but perhaps a little easy. Christie doesn’t really examine the origins of the Lemesurier curse, but only how it affects the current generations. There again, it is only ten pages or so!

The Lost Mine

MineThis nostalgic little memoir by Poirot was originally published in the 21st November 1923 issue of the Sketch Magazine, and in the US, in the 1924 volume Poirot Investigates – it only appeared in the US edition of this book and not in the British version. Poirot reminisces on how he gained ownership of the only shares he owns – those of the Burma Mines Ltd. With Hastings as his captive audience he tells the tale of one Wu Ling, head of the family who had paperwork referring to a lost, but lucrative mine, and who travelled to London with the papers to sell them. But Wu Ling went missing after leaving his hotel, and the next day his body was found in the Thames. Misadventure or murder? Poirot wouldn’t be telling the story unless it was the latter, would he?!

Christie’s device of having Poirot tell his own story, virtually uninterrupted, is a clever way of obscuring what is, in effect, a very slight story. But it is an entertaining little tale, marred by some mock-Chinese-style language that really makes the modern reader cringe, and with a moral slant against the degradation of one’s mind and body by visits to opium dens.

Poirot teases Hastings for his admiration of ladies with auburn hair – hardly any of Christie’s books featuring Hastings omitted a mention of the latter’s penchant for auburn ladies. As for Poirot himself, his biggest feeling of outrage is when it is suggested, as part of his investigations, that he shaves off his moustache. As if the great man would ever undergo such self-sacrifice!

The story is set in real-life locations around London, with Wu Ling staying at the Russell Hotel in Russell Square (now the Kimpton Fitzroy hotel), and characters being traced to what Poirot describes as “the evil-smelling streets of Limehouse” – an area of London which is now much more gentrified than it was in Poirot’s time.

In an attempt to emphasise Poirot’s affinity with everything symmetrical, he informs us that his bank balance stands at £444, 4 shillings and 4 pence. “It must be tact on the part of your bank manager” sneers Hastings. Today that sum would be worth £18,780. Not so symmetrical, and not so impressive – you’d expect the great man to have amassed a much bigger figure than that!

Another minor piece of writing; moderately entertaining, nothing more.

The Plymouth Express

1920s plymouthA rather complicated and contrived story, it was originally published in the 4th April 1923 issue of the Sketch Magazine, under the enhanced title The Mystery of the Plymouth Express, and in The Underdog and Other Stories in the US in 1951.  It would become the basis of Christie’s 1928 novel The Mystery of the Blue Train. When the dead body of a woman is found on the Plymouth Express train, her father asks Poirot to investigate. She was due to travel for a house party, but surprises her maid with the instruction to wait at Bristol station and she would return with a few hours. Whatever her plans were, they went seriously wrong. It’s up to Poirot and Hastings to sort the lies from the truth and discover what really happened to the late Mrs Carrington.

Although Poirot would explain it as good psychology, he has a rather pompous view towards the actions that a woman would do under certain circumstances. “Why kill her?” asks Poirot, “why not simply steal the jewels? She would not prosecute.” “Why not?” “Because she is a woman, mon ami. She once loved this man. Therefore she would suffer her loss in silence.”

The story is littered with real West Country locations: Plymouth, Bristol, Weston (super Mare), Taunton, Exeter, Newton Abbot and so on. Mrs Carrington took all her jewels on the train, which her father suggests amounted to something in the region of a hundred thousand dollars. Today the equivalent sum is around £1.35 million. Quite a lot. More interesting though is the fact that it cost Poirot 3d to make a phone call from the Ritz. That’s about 53p today, which is not dissimilar from today’s cost. And the paperboy was given a half-crown for his errand – that’s over £5 – not bad work if you can get it.

I wasn’t overly impressed with this story!

The Chocolate Box

box-of-chocolateThis entertaining short story was originally published in the 23rd May 1923 issue of the Sketch Magazine under the title The Clue of the Chocolate Box, and in the US, in the 1924 volume Poirot Investigates – it only appeared in the US edition of this book and not in the British version. In response to Hastings’ suggestion that Poirot had never had a failure with one of his cases, Poirot confesses that he did have one, and then proceeds to tell him this tale of when he was a detective with the Belgian Police Force. M. Déroulard was a promising governmental minister who unexpectedly died, but family member Virginie Mesnard did not believe the death was due to natural causes. She asked Poirot to investigate. Déroulard had a sweet tooth and was never far from a box of chocolates. It was only when Poirot realised that the lid of the box of chocolates was a different colour from the box that he suspected something might not be quite right. And when poison is found in the possession of one of the suspects, surely he is guilty of the murder. But Poirot is in for another surprise before the guilty party is revealed.

Another Poirot narration but this one works much better than The Lost Mine. It’s full of references to poison: Prussic Acid, morphine, strychnine, atropine, ptomaine and trinitrine – Christie must have had a field day incorporating all those into the story. Déroulard lived on the Avenue Louise in Brussels – a real location about a mile south of the Grand Place.

Christie writes: “he had married some years earlier a young lady from Brussels who had brought him a substantial dot. Undoubtedly the money was useful to him in his career…” Dot? That’s a new word to me in this context. However, it’s an archaic term that describes a dowry from which only the interest or annual income was available to the husband. Who knew?

Hastings says he wouldn’t drink Poirot’s disgusting hot chocolate for £100. I bet he would – that’s a nifty £4,300 in today’s money.

This is another story where Poirot doesn’t act further in bringing a guilty party to book once he has identified them. Perhaps that’s part of his failure. He references this case in Peril at End House, so he clearly has a long memory about it. Nevertheless, he still has his familiar arrogance, which is shown up in an amusing brief exchange with Hastings at the end of the story.

I enjoyed this one!

The Submarine Plans

SubmarineThis short story was originally published in the 7th November 1923 issue of the Sketch Magazine, and in the US in the Under Dog and Other Stories in 1951. It was also the basis for the novella-length story The Incredible Theft, which was published in the 1937 volume Murder in the Mews.  Poirot is summoned late at night to meet Lord Allonby, the head of the Ministry of Defence, who reports that some secret plans for a new submarine have just been stolen from his country house Sharples. He reports seeing a mysterious shadow appearing to leave the room where the plans were on a table. Will Poirot find out who the mysterious figure is? Or was Allonby mistaken? You already know the answer.

An enjoyable short story that holds together nicely. Allonby refers to when Poirot helped him with the kidnapping of the Prime Minister during the First World War, which is a story that had been previously published in Poirot Investigates. A couple of red herrings that send you the wrong way, until you realise the solution is extremely simple. There’s a clever finish to the story when Hastings reports that an enemy of the nation came a-cropper with their submarine plans. He also insists that Poirot guessed the solution. That doesn’t seem likely to me!

The Third Floor Flat

THird floor flatThis story was first published  in the January 1929 issue of Hutchinson’s Adventure & Mystery Story Magazine, and in the US in Three Blind Mice and Other Stories in 1950. After a night out, two men and two women arrive back at the flat of one of the women, but she can’t find the key to get inside her fourth floor flat. The two men offer to use the coal lift to get inside but they accidentally enter the third floor flat. When they eventually emerge at the right place, one of the men has blood on his hands. They go back to check, only to discover that a woman has been murdered in the third floor flat. Fortunately Poirot lives in the fifth floor flat! And it doesn’t take Poirot long to come to the correct conclusion.

Published six years later than all the other stories in the book so far, this has a very different voice and tone from the others. Hastings is not present, and doesn’t narrate the story. Christie’s third person narration is more formal, stiff and distant than when Hastings is “in charge”. You would almost think it was written by a different person. It has an extraordinarily inventive ending, and I found the whole thing totally unbelievable.

The four characters are said to have gone to the theatre to see The Brown Eyes of Caroline. Such a shame it doesn’t really exist as it is a great title.

Double Sin

double sinThis enjoyable short story was first published in the 23 September 1928 edition of the Sunday Dispatch, and in the US in Double Sin and Other Stories in 1961. Poirot and Hastings take a business/holiday trip to Devon by bus where they encounter Miss Mary Durrant, taking a set of valuable miniature paintings to a client for his approval and payment. Alas, during the journey, the miniatures are stolen. But it doesn’t take Poirot any time at all to discover what really happened to the miniatures and who is guilty of the crime!

It’s a rather charming and entertaining story, an enjoyable read. Poirot teases Hastings about his perennial fondness for girls with auburn hair; Hastings teases Poirot back for his fear of draughty windows on a bus. Bizarrely, Hastings accuses Poirot of having “Flemish thrift” when he is clearly from the French-speaking part of Belgium, and not Flemish at all. The story takes place in the fictional Devon towns of Ebermouth and Monkhampton, and the miniatures are said to be by the artist Cosway – Maria Cosway was indeed a painter of miniatures in the 18th and 19th centuries. The miniatures are said to be worth £500 – today that would be the equivalent of about £22,000. Doesn’t sound unreasonable.

Miss Penn, the antiques dealer on whose behalf Mary Durrant is taking the miniatures, has all the appearance of a certain Miss Marple, who would maker her first appearance in print a couple of years later.

The Market Basing Mystery

Market BasingThis entertaining short story was first published in the 17th October 1923 edition of The Sketch magazine, and in the US in The Under Dog and Other Stories in 1951. Inspector Japp invites Poirot and Hastings to the market town of Market Basing for the weekend, but there crime catches up with them, as they are called to a mansion where the owner Walter Protheroe has apparently taken his own life but the position of the pistol in his hand suggests that he couldn’t have done – so is it murder? It doesn’t take long for the three sleuths to come to the right solution – not before Japp has leapt to the wrong conclusions, of course.

It’s a very entertaining little tale, simply told, with all the clues fairly open to the reader. We learn something new about Japp, that he is a keen botanist, who knows all the Latin names to the most obscure plants. Hastings quotes an amusing piece of doggerel – “the rabbit has a pleasant face…” This seems to be a well-known but anonymous few lines of verse. Unless Christie made it up?

The story was expanded into the novella Murder in the Mews, published in 1937.

Wasps’ Nest

wasps nestThis rather odd short story was first published in the 20th November 1928 edition of the Daily Mail, and in the US in Double Sin and Other Stories in 1961. Poirot arrives at the house of an old friend John Harrison, saying he is investigating a murder that hasn’t yet been committed. Harrison doesn’t believe him, but then Poirot asks more about his forthcoming visit from an acquaintance who will be shortly arriving to remove the wasps nest that has grown on his property. But who is the murderer that Poirot is trying to intercept?

What is particularly odd about this story is that it feels like it has been written by someone else – not only does it not feel like an account by Hastings, it doesn’t feel like Christie either. Nevertheless, there is a poison aspect to this story – the potential use of potassium cyanide, which would have been of interest to Christie.

There is an amusing line taken out of context – and out of its time too, when Poirot explains how he can distract someone so that he can pickpocket them; unfortunately, his turn of phrase is: “I lay one hand on his shoulder, I excite myself, and he feels nothing.”

This story was also was the first Christie story to be adapted for television with a live broadcast on 18 June 1937. It was adapted by Christie herself, and broadcast in and around London, with Francis L Sullivan playing Poirot.

The Veiled Lady

veiled ladyThis entertaining short story was first published in the 3rd October 1923 edition of The Sketch magazine, under the title The Case of the Veiled Lady, and in the US in Poirot Investigates in 1924 – it only appeared in the US edition of this book and not in the British version. Poirot and Hastings are visited by a Lady Millicent who once wrote an indiscreet letter to a soldier that she fears would end her engagement to the Duke of Southshire were it to be common knowledge – and she is being blackmailed by a Mr Lavington who has the letter in his possession. Lavington refuses to give the letter to Hastings or Poirot. So Poirot decides to break into Lavington’s house and take it. But what then? Do Lady Millicent’s troubles go away?

This excellent little tale conceals a nice surprise twist right at the end which you don’t see coming, and is one of Christie’s better early short stories. We learn of Poirot that his vanity is such that the believes the whole world is talking about him, much to Hastings’ derision.

Lavington is blackmailing Lady Millicent in the sum of £20,000, which today would be around £850,000. No wonder she’s worried. And there’s another of Christie’s accidental funny sentences, concerning use of the “E” word. ““The Dirty swine!” I ejaculated. “I beg your pardon, Lady Millicent.””

Problem at Sea

CruiseThis enjoyable short story was first published in issue 542 of the Strand Magazine, in February 1936, under the title, Poirot and the Crime in Cabin 66, and in the US in The Regatta Mystery and Other Stories, in 1939. On a sea trip to Alexandria, Poirot encounters Colonel Clapperton and his difficult, cruel wife, whom Clapperton appears to love despite the way she treats him. Others on board take Clapperton to one side and try to give him an entertaining trip despite his wife’s best efforts. A murder takes place; Poirot quickly sees through the deception and solves the crime.

You can tell at once from the tone of the writing that this story was constructed by a much more mature brain than the majority of the other stories in this volume; it appeared in print at least ten years later than most of the other Early Cases. Nevertheless, the twist in the tale is very easy to guess and the reader works out the solution before Poirot.

Christie the Poison Expert comes to the fore with some detailed information about the effects of taking Digitalin; and sadly the story is marred by an instance of very unfortunate racism (it wouldn’t have been seen that way in 1936, but it is today). Hastings is noticeably absent, his final appearances in Christie’s novels (apart from in Curtain, published many years later) were in The ABC Murders and Dumb Witness, both of which would have been written about the same time.

“How Does Your Garden Grow?”

Mistress MaryThis short story was first published in issue 536 of the Strand Magazine in August 1935 and in the US in The Regatta Mystery and Other Stories in 1939. Miss Barrowby writes to Poirot asking for his help in a delicate family matter. He instructs Miss Lemon to reply, but hears nothing back. Then Miss Lemon discovers that Miss Barrowby has died, so he decides to visit her house, where she meets a Russian help, and Miss Barrowby’s remaining relatives, the Delafontaines. But did Miss Barrowby die from poison, and, if so, how come no one else in the household suffered the same fate?

Again, another slightly more recent piece of writing, still with Hastings gone (and missed too, by Poirot) and with a much more three-dimensional feel. Christie gives us some great descriptive passages about Miss Lemon, whom Poirot employs as an assistant detective, and her input helps not only him solve the crime but also helps the story along nicely too.

Again, too, there is poison involved, this time strychnine, always one of Christie’s favourites. The story takes place in Charman’s Green, Bucks, said to be about an hour from London – I wonder if that is Christie-speak for Chesham. There’s an ingenious solution to the story, and one which I was certainly nowhere near guessing.

And that concludes all eighteen stories in Poirot’s Early Cases. Many of them are not bad at all, and I’d say the good ones outweigh the bad ones considerably. It’s always difficult to put a rating on a book of short stories, but I’d definitely give it a 7/10. If you’ve been reading this book as well, I’d love to know your thoughts, please just write something in the comments box.

CurtainNext up in the Agatha Christie challenge is a book that Christie wrote some time in the 40s, when she was at her peak, designed to be the last ever book featuring Hercule Poirot, Curtain. If you’d like to read it too, we can compare notes when I give you my thoughts on it in a few weeks’ time. In the meanwhile, happy sleuthing and keep on Christie-ing!

The Agatha Christie Challenge – Elephants Can Remember (1972)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Funny lines out of context:

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

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

Christie the Poison expert: Nothing to see here.

Class/social issues of the time:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

Funny lines out of context: sadly none.

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

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

Class/social issues of the time:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Agatha Christie Challenge – 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!