The Agatha Christie Challenge – A Caribbean Mystery (1964)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

PoundRegular readers will know that I like to consider any significant sums of money in Christie’s books and work out what their value would be today, just to get a feel of the range of sums that we’re looking at. There’s only one in this book – the sum of £50,000. It’s an important sum – and is the amount that one of the characters has willed to another of the characters – I’ll say no more on that front because it might give some of the game away! Anyway, that’s the equivalent of over £700,000 today. A very nice little inheritance!

 

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

 

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

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

Funny lines out of context: Sadly none.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Agatha Christie Challenge – The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side (1962)

The Mirror Crack'dIn which garrulous busybody Heather Badcock corners movie star Marina Gregg at a reception party, boring her to tears; and the next minute, she’s dead! But did the murderer intend the harmless Heather as the victim, or the wealthy and influential Marina? Fortunately for Miss Marple the murder takes place at Gossington Hall in St Mary Mead, and her friend Chief Inspector Craddock is brought in from Scotland Yard to investigate the crime; so Miss Marple has all the necessary access to the facts to crack the case. As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, as always, I promise not to reveal whodunit!

Margaret Rutherford as Miss MarpleThe book is dedicated “to Margaret Rutherford in admiration”. Margaret Rutherford was a seasoned actress, known for many great dramatic and comic film appearances following her first big hit as Madame Arcati in the film of Noel Coward’s Blithe Spirit in 1945. By 1962, she had already appeared as Miss Marple in the film Murder She Said, with three more Marple adaptations to follow in the next couple of years. This was Christie’s first book not to have been serialised in advance of its full publication in either the US or the UK, although an abridged version was serialised in two parts in the Toronto Star Weekly Novel in March 1963, with the shortened title The Mirror Crack’d. Otherwise, the full book was first published in the UK by Collins Crime Club on 12th November 1962, and in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company in September 1963, also with the shortened title The Mirror Crack’d. The title is a quotation from Tennyson’s The Lady of Shalott, which is quoted as an epigraph.

The Mirror Crack'd movieThis is a thoroughly entertaining read, where the old and the new collide, and sparks fly as a result. The clash of traditional and modern is evidenced not only in Miss Marple’s day-to-day life,  but also with the old ladies of the village being confronted by modern day America, by having a film studio on their doorstep. You can also see it in people like Cherry, who has moved into the Development but doesn’t like the new types of people, preferring the gentility of the traditional village residents. You can sense Christie reaching conclusions as she writes the book, uncertain as to how the old and the new will live together until she actually explores it in the narrative. She writes some pacey conversation scenes – those between the Misses Marple and Knight, Miss Marple and Dr Haydock, Miss Marple and Dolly Bantry, for example, come to mind, plus – if you already know whodunit (as I sadly did – I find the 1980 film adaptation really sticks in the mind) – you can see how adeptly she deliberately leads the innocent reader up the garden path, with a wilful narrative deceit that’s a complete joy to identify!

CarerWe’re back in good old St Mary Mead, where Miss Marple seems to have aged considerably since the last time we met her. Although she’s still grumbling about gardeners, she’s not keeping up with the changes that have happened to her beloved village, and it puts her out of sorts. Even worse, she now has to suffer the indignities of what today we would call a live-in carer. Miss Knight fusses around, talks down to Miss Marple as if her brains were slowing down (which they’re undoubtedly not), makes her milky tea, insists on her having an afternoon nap; and, although she does understand the kindness behind the actions, and she appreciates the advice that she does require a certain level of “looking-after”, Miss Marple resents every minute of it. Even though Dr Haydock, whom we first met in The Murder at the Vicarage, encourages her to keep her brain alive, Miss Knight does everything she can to prevent Miss Marple from catching the local gossip or discovering the details of the local murder, because it will tire her out. But Miss Marple is too used to getting her own way, and detection is oxygen to her, so she does, of course, work alongside the police to discover who killed Heather Badcock.

CookAlthough she doesn’t want to be cared for, she does still value a decent housekeeper and cook – so, enter Cherry who becomes Miss Marple’s long-term companion. Cherry and her husband Jim have a house on the New Development, where modern living starts to encroach on the traditionalism of the village. But Cherry doesn’t fit in with the new estates; yes, she likes the gadgets and the convenience, but she doesn’t feel at home there. So when she suggests to Miss Marple that she and Jim could occupy part of the house that never gets used, it’s the perfect solution to Miss Marple’s needs. Miss Knight will be out the door without a moment’s thought!

Modern 60s developmentOther characters from previous novels appear in the book, including Mrs Dolly Bantry, now widowed as her husband Arthur died some time before; they used to live in Gossington Hall, and would host some of the Tuesday Night Club meetings as retold in The Thirteen Problems, and it was on their library floor that The Body in the Library would be found. Miss Hartnell, whom we also first met in The Murder at the Vicarage, is still alive, “fighting progress to the last gasp”. But progress always wins, as evidenced by the Development. And it’s while going for a sneaky walk in the new estate (taking advantage of Miss Knight’s shopping trip) that Miss Marple not only ends up having an unexpected argument with some new residents, but she also trips on the footpath, which is how she meets Heather Badcock, who takes her indoors and looks after her injury. Miss Marple is now definitely of the age where she doesn’t fall, she has a fall.

police inspectorThe other significant person we meet again is Craddock. He’s come a long way since he led the investigation in A Murder is Announced, he’s now a Chief Inspector, but to Miss Marple, and indeed Christie, he’s usually just plain Dermot. I don’t think Christie is ever this familiar with any of her other detectives. Maybe it’s that informality that makes Craddock come across as more of a family friend than a law enforcer. He is brought in to help when it appears that local man, Detective Inspector Frank Cornish, is out of his depth. To be fair, Cornish isn’t given much opportunity to tackle the case before Craddock is called in, and we’re not given much insight into the kind of guy he is.

CoincidenceIt’s an enjoyable, brisk read, with some nice observations and conversations, and a clever solution. It does, unfortunately, employ the device of having at least one whopping great coincidence, which is a little disappointing when you consider the book dispassionately. But it’s very well written, and with a remarkably memorable storyline.

Jerome K JeromeLooking at the references, there are, unusually, few locations for us to consider – by far the majority of the story takes place in and around St Mary Mead, which could be a village in Kent or Hampshire, depending on your own interpretation of distance and direction from real places! Apart from that, there is just the occasional London-based conversation. As for the other references, Christie likens the gardener Laycock’s excuses to those of Captain George in Three Men in a Boat, one of the daring chaps who takes the two week river cruise in Jerome K Jerome’s hilarious and still fresh 1889 novel. Marina Gregg is said to have been great in the films, Carmenella, The Price of Love and Mary of Scotland; the first two of these are fancies of Christie’s imagination – unlike Charlie Chaplin, who was said to be coming to the local Hellingforth studios. But Mary of Scotland was a real film, starring Katherine Hepburn, from 1936 – and a flop. I wonder if Christie simply didn’t do her research or wanted to tantalise us with the possibility that Marina Gregg took a leading part in it?

Sherlock HolmesDr Haydock, encouraging Miss Marple to keep her brain active, suggests she could “always make do with the depth the parsley sank into the butter on a summer’s day […] Good old Holmes. A period piece, nowadays, I suppose. But he’ll never be forgotten.” This is a reference to a vital clue in the Sherlock Holmes story, The Adventure of the Six Napoleons. Interestingly, Christie would use this quote again, in her next book, The Clocks, and in her 1972 novel Elephants Can Remember. It’s also interesting that Haydock, and/or Christie, speculated that the Sherlock Holmes stories might go out of fashion. I don’t think there’s any evidence of that, Holmes remains probably equally as famous in the annals of fictional detectives as Poirot!

PanglossIn further literary references, Hailey Preston is likened to Dr Pangloss, for his belief “that all was for the best in the best of all possible worlds”. Britannica describes him as “the pedantic and unfailingly optimistic tutor of Candide,” from Voltaire’s novel of 1759. Cherry suspects that Arthur Badcock must have murdered his wife Heather, even though he is a very meek chap: “still, the worm will turn or so they say. I’ve always heard that Crippen was ever so nice a man and that man, Haigh, who pickled them all in acid – they say he couldn’t have been more charming”. Crippen, of course, was hanged for the murder of his wife in 1910, and Haigh, the Acid Bath Murderer, killed somewhere between six and nine people for their money. A nice man, indeed.

A High Wind in Jamaica“Othello’s occupation’s gone”, says Mrs Bantry to herself after her conversation with Ella Zielinsky. This is from Act 3 Scene 3 of the play, where Othello is in conversation with Iago and he has fed him the lie about Desdemona’s disloyalty. Later Ella herself quotes, “fly, all is discovered” which, it is alleged, Conan Doyle sent in a telegram for no apparent reason, and the recipient did indeed fly. She also remembers the phrase, “the pitcher goes to the well once too often”, which is a variation on a 14th century proverb which means you can push your luck once too far, or that you shouldn’t repeat a risky action too often. And continuing the literary vein, Miss Marple recalls a book “written by that brilliant writer Mr Richard Hughes […] about some children who had been through a hurricane”. She’s referring to A High Wind in Jamaica, dated 1929, and considered one of the best English language novels of the 20th century.

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 aren’t many in this book – the chief sum mentioned is that of £500 which was deposited into Giuseppe’s bank account, which today would be around £7500. Almost more interesting, although much smaller, is the admission fee to the Gossington Hall fete, which was a shilling. That’s 75p at today’s rate. Pretty cheap, really.

 

Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side:

 

Publication Details: 1962. My copy is a Harper Collins paperback, the twelfth impression of the 2002 Agatha Christie Signature Edition, nineteenth impression, dated 2007, bearing the price of £7.99 on the back cover. The cover illustration merely shows a cracked mirror. That’s not very inventive. I could have done that.

How many pages until the first death: 76, but that’s misleading as this edition has 351 pages, which is a little under twice the normal page count in the Fontana paperbacks. So it’s not a long time to wait before things start getting bloody.

Funny lines out of context: Disappointingly none.

Memorable characters: Most of the characters aren’t particularly memorable with the exception of Marina Gregg, the Hollywood star, who brings glamour and exoticism to the otherwise staid confines of an English village.

Christie the Poison expert:

Heather Badcock is killed by the administration of what Christie, in a rare comic aside moment, describes as “hy-ethyl-dexyl-barbo-quinde-lorytate, or, let us be frank, some such name”. It’s a piece of marketing irony that it’s better known as Calmo. Christie is obviously taking the mickey out of some overly complicated chemical terminology – basically, Heather died of an overdose.

There is also some talk of the effects of poison by arsenic; and another person is killed by cyanide spray. When the deaths eventually come in this book, they come thick and fast!

Class/social issues of the time:

We return to the charming world of St Mary Mead to discover that it’s perhaps not as charming as it used to be. Christie uses this book to explore the effect of “the new development” as a blot on the English landscape, inhabited by some decent people of course, but also those that don’t really deserve to live in a village. At least, that’s the sense you get from this book. Perhaps the most interesting characterisation here is Cherry, who has moved in to the Development, where she has a modern home with modern conveniences, all of which she appreciates, but she identifies much more with the old-style village – to the extent of giving up her own modern home to live in an annex at Miss Marple’s. The divisions between the two levels of living are emphasised much more strongly than any similarities between the two.

Christie and Miss Marple both make a play about the phrase, “coming in Inch”, by which they mean taking the local taxi service. Mr Inch hasn’t run the business for years now, but convention requires that they still call it and the driver by the old name. This highlights the desire of the older members of the community – and those who serve them – to keep with the old practices and terminology. Nothing new would really work for them.

But progress is enforced on St Mary Mead, not only by The Development, but also by the appearance of the Hellingforth Film Studios, dragging the community into the twentieth century to a mixture of curiosity and distaste. The likes of Dolly Bantry and Miss Marple rubbing shoulders with Marina Gregg and Jason Rudd is one of the amusing sideshows of this book, and which help give it a little extra flavour.

Christie uses a few words that we wouldn’t use today, and you sense they were used deliberately to push the envelope of acceptable language to see what would be considered funny, or telling, or, indeed offensive. In a fit of xenophobia more than racism, Cherry refers to Giuseppe dismissively as “you know what these wops are like”. Frank Cornish refers to Margot Bence’s assistant as her “pansy partner” with all its pejorative force. And Dr Haydock and Miss Marple talk in terms of people who aren’t overly intelligent as morons. This use of language really stands out today.

It’s left to Craddock to satisfy Christie’s occasional need to knock feminism, in a conversation he has with Miss Marple about the Good Old Days. He remarks that in Miss Marple’s time, women would have been what he calls, “wonderful wives”.  “I’m sure, my dear boy, [she replies] you would find the young lady of the type you refer to as a very inadequate helpmeet nowadays. Young ladies were not encouraged to be intellectual and very few of them had university degrees or any kind of academic distinction.” “There are things that are preferable to academic distinctions,” said Dermot. “One of them is knowing when a man wants whisky and soda and giving it to him.” You can sense the crackle of old and new values clashing uncomfortably as they speak.

Classic denouement:  Not at all. In fact, it’s not until Miss Marple finally appears at the scene of the crime that she is completely convinced of all aspects of the case, and its solution. There’s no confrontation of the murderer, as that person isn’t present; just a clarification and final understanding of all the details between the investigating team and one of the suspects. There’s no real alternative for Christie than to stage it this way, but you do sense a little potential drama is lost as a result.

Happy ending? The only glint of happiness at the end is that Miss Marple will be rid of Miss Knight and that Cherry will take her place. Apart from that, only sadness remains.

Did the story ring true? There’s one sucker punch of a coincidence, and you get the feeling that if only Miss Marple had visited the scene of the crime earlier, it could have been solved much more quickly. But both the modus operandi of the murder, and the motive struck me as extremely believable.

Overall satisfaction rating: A very enjoyable book, with a good story, and I really like the way Christie uses it to reassess the character of Miss Marple with her passing years, and how old and new lifestyles can (or cannot) co-exist. It’s probably worth more than an 8/10, so I’ll give it the benefit of a 9. Just.

The ClocksThanks for reading my blog of The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side, 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 Clocks, one of the first Christies I ever read, and I remember as a child being thoroughly confused by it – I remember my mother asking me if I understood whodunit and I also remember lying to her that I did! As a result I’ve never quite come to terms with this book and certainly can’t remember anything about it. Therefore I’m very much looking forward to re-reading it and, 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 – 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 – 4.50 from Paddington (1957)

4.50 From PaddingtonIn which Mrs McGillicuddy witnesses a murder from her train window as another train overtakes and she sees the back of a man strangling a woman. However, no murders or missing women have been reported. Is this the result of her overactive imagination? Her friend Miss Marple doesn’t think so, and engages the bright young cook and housekeeper Lucy Eyelesbarrow to do some snooping. With Lucy’s help, and the professional expertise of Detective Inspector Craddock, Miss Marple gets to the bottom of it all eventually! As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I promise not to reveal whodunit – although there are a few plot spoilers I’m afraid!

Agatha ChristieThis is one of Christie’s comparatively rare books that contains no dedication. It was first published in the UK in five abridged instalments in John Bull magazine in October and November 1957, and in the US in thirty-six instalments in the Chicago Tribune from October to December 1957, under the title Eyewitness to Death. With that same title, an abridged version of the novel was also published in the 28 December 1957 issue of the Star Weekly Complete Novel, a Toronto newspaper supplement. The full book was first published the US by Dodd, Mead and Company in November 1957 under the title What Mrs McGillicuddy Saw, and in the UK by Collins Crime Club on 4th November 1957 as 4.50 from Paddington, a complete year since the publication of her previous book, Dead Man’s Folly. The UK version was to be titled 4.54 from Paddington until the last minute, when the title and text references were changed to 4.50 from Paddington. This change was not communicated to Dodd Mead until after the book was being printed, so in that edition the text references to the time show 4:54 rather than 4:50.

Margaret RutherfordAs with After the Funeral, this book was the basis for one of the Margaret Rutherford Miss Marple films; the first in the series, Murder She Said. Much of the original plotline survived into the film, although Miss Marple plays a much more active part than in the book, as she basically assumes the Lucy Eyelesbarrow role.

Paddington Station4.50 from Paddington is a very enjoyable read, with some excellent aspects to it, plus a couple of downsides. It plunges straight into the main story, with Mrs McGillicuddy witnessing the murder on the third page. No faffing around with endless heavy exposition before getting to the meat, which is always a delight for the reader. Christie writes fluidly, amusingly and with some great quirky descriptions, and also creates a few terrific cameo characters. On the downside, some of the suspects aren’t very well drawn, and personally I kept on mixing up the brothers Cedric, Alfred and Harold so that I couldn’t work out what their particular personality traits are. There’s also a ridiculous coincidence set up, which, whilst thoroughly entertaining (it actually takes your breath away when you read the sentence in question) really takes preposterousness to a new dimension. Nevertheless, you forgive Christie because you’re totally enjoying the reading experience. Christie uses her short chapter structure to its fullest benefit, to build momentum and suspense, and give the impression that she’s keeping you up to date with what’s happening in every area of the story.

top-secretWith only a few pages to go, you realise that so many of the story’s secrets are still to be revealed, so you’re really kept on the edge of your seat towards the end. Primarily, we don’t discover who it was who was murdered on the 4.50 from Paddington until three pages before the end; and that’s unavoidable, because, in order for the crime to make sense, you have to know who the murderer is first. Some critics feel this is a downside, as the reader is unable to stretch their own little grey cells to any meaningful extent. Personally, however, I see it as a strength. It’s amazingly skilful that Christie manages to keep those secrets right to the very end!

Joan HicksonAlthough Miss Marple takes a very back seat in this book, by sending in Lucy to do her work for her, you nevertheless still get the sense that her presence is never too far away. She’s very active in the early stages as she encourages Mrs McGillicuddy not to give up her belief that she has genuinely seen a murder. Miss Marple achieves what she can, considering her age and infirmity, and then hands the real work over to Lucy. However, every time that Miss Marple does play a prominent part in the story, you feel you learn a little more about her. Much of the book’s energy stems from the juxtaposition of tradition versus modernity. Tradition is chiefly seen in the thoughts and characteristics of Miss Marple, and the head of the family at Rutherford Hall, Luther Crackenthorpe. I’ll touch on the modernity aspects later in this blog, but let’s think a little more about the fluffy, pink Jane Marple – a sweet little old lady with the mind of a razor.

GardenerWhen we first meet her, she’s surprisingly antagonistic and difficult. She’s always derived a great deal of joy from her garden, but not at the moment. “The garden is not looking at all as it should […] Doctor Haydock has absolutely forbidden me to do any stooping or kneeling – and really, what can you do if you don’t stoop or kneel? There’s old Edwards, of course, – but so opinionated. And all this jobbing gets them into bad habits, lots of cups of tea and so much pottering – not any real work.” She’s not only frustrated by the fact that she can’t tend the garden herself as she used to, she’s also got her claws into her own gardener – opinionated, full of bad habits, lazy. This is not a contented Miss Marple; she’s annoyed, restricted, and thoroughly critical of others. Miss Marple’s traditional stance is also emphasised at the end of the book when she and Craddock both agree that the perpetrator of the crimes deserves to be hanged. None of this mentally unstable nonsense; an eye for an eye is what’s required here.

Victorian GentlemanShe does continue to be very anti-feminist with her general outlook on woman’s place in society. It’s a respectable place, but not too ambitious. “Women have a lot of sense, you know, when it comes to money matters. Not high finance, of course. No woman can hope to understand that, my dear father said.” She’s deferential to “gentlemen”; “”so many gentlemen in the house, coming and going,” mused Miss Marple. When Miss Marple uttered the word “gentlemen” she always gave it its full Victorian flavour – an echo from an era actually before her own time. You were conscious at once of dashing full-blooded (and probably whiskered) males, sometimes wicked, but always gallant.”

PoisonThat paragraph is one of a couple where Christie’s voice comes in and speaks to the reader directly, which is a refreshing narration technique for us to enjoy. I love how, with no prompting, Christie describes Miss Marple’s current maid as “the grim Florence”. More significantly, (and slight spoiler alert!), when Lucy is explaining to Bryan about how the curry might have been poisoned, and tries to convince him that she had nothing to do with it, Christie’s voice comes in again: “Nobody could have tampered with the curry. She had made it – alone in the kitchen, and brought it to table, and the only person who could have tampered with it was one of the five people who sat down to the meal.” And that’s slightly disingenuous of her!

police inspectorSo not only do we get to know a bit more about Miss Marple’s character we also meet Inspector Bacon and Sergeant Weatherall, and get reacquainted with Inspector Craddock. Christie doesn’t spend too much time rounding out the character of Bacon; he’s the local Inspector, “a big solid man – his expression was that of one utterly disgusted with humanity.” Weatherall provides an occasionally comic presence; Christie describes him as “a man who lived in a state of dark suspicion of all and sundry” – which is probably not a bad thing for a police sergeant.

Craddock and MarpleCraddock, however, is a more complicated soul. We met him before when he led the detection in A Murder is Announced. In that book, he revealed the rather unusual characteristics of being able to recognise his own faults and prejudices. He is surprisingly self-aware; scrupulously honest, diligent in his work. In 4.50 from Paddington, he is the Inspector brought in from Scotland Yard. Christie describes him as having “a pleasant manner […] Nobody could make a better show of presenting a very small portion of the truth and implying that it was the whole truth than Inspector Craddock.” He’s delighted to be working with Miss Marple again; and she’s delighted too, and not only because he’s Sir Henry Clithering’s godson, but because she knows he’s a sensible, but also suggestable, detective. She tells Lucy about how they first met; “a case in the country. Near Medenham Spa.” That is indeed A Murder is Announced. He respects her insight, occasionally gently teasing her for having a mind unlike most other fluffy pink old ladies. Craddock’s self-awareness becomes more acute towards the end of the book, when he feels guilty about not having prevented further deaths. “The fact remains that I’ve made the most ghastly mess of things all along the line […] The Chief Constable down here calls in Scotland Yard, and what do they get? They get me making a prize ass of myself!” However, it’s this conversation with Miss Marple that finally gets his brain working in the right direction, so his self-doubt proves to be useful and constructive after all.

BracknellNow we’ll look at some of the references in this book, starting, as usual, with the locations. There’s a good mixture of real and make-believe places. Of prime importance in the early stages of the book are the stations through which the 4.50 from Paddington passes. Brackhampton, Milchester, Waverton, Carvil Junction, Roxeter, Chadmouth, Vanequay; other trains stop at Haling Broadway, Barwell Heath and Market Basing. The 5.00 Welsh Express goes to Cardiff, Newport and Swansea. Well, there’s no doubting the reality of those places. Milchester appears in A Murder is Announced, Market Basing (which one presumes is based on Basingstoke) appears in Crooked House, Dumb Witness and The Secret of Chimneys (amongst others). Brackhampton is presumably Bracknell in disguise.

Cadena CafeOtherwise, locations in London sound highly realistic; Harold has tea at Russell’s in Jermyn Street, (no such tea room, but Russell and Bromley shoe shop is in Jermyn Street), dines at Caterer’s Hall (doesn’t exist), lives at 43 Cardigan Gardens (also doesn’t exist). In Brackhampton, Emma has lunch at the Cadena Café, which was a well-established chain of cafes bought out by Tesco in 1965, shops at Greenford’s and Lyall and Swift’s, (neither of which I can identify) Boots, (obvious) and has tea at the Shamrock Tea Rooms (plenty of those around). Martine Crackenthorpe gives her address as 126 Elvers Crescent, N10. N10 is the Muswell Hill area of London, but there’s no Elvers Crescent. The compact that is found is said to have been sold by shops in the Rue de Rivoli in Paris – that’s a pretty exclusive and real address.

A Horses TaleAnd now for the other references. Miss Marple tells Craddock that her method of thought was based on Mark Twain: “the boy who found the horse. He just imagined where he would go if he were a horse and he went there and there was the horse.” I’m pretty sure that’s A Horse’s Tale, published in 1907. Harold drives a Humber Hawk; that was a Hillman style car that was manufactured from 1945 to 1967. Miss Marple raises the question of tontine; the definition of which I lift shamelessly from Wikipedia: “an investment plan for raising capital, devised in the 17th century and relatively widespread in the 18th and 19th centuries. It enables subscribers to share the risk of living a long life by combining features of a group annuity with a kind of mortality lottery. Each subscriber pays an agreed sum into the fund and thereafter receives a periodical payout. As members die, their payout entitlements devolve to the other participants, and so the value of each continuing payout increases. On the death of the last member, the scheme is wound up.”

Cowboy filmCedric advises that on the afternoon of December 20th he saw a film, Rowenna of the Range. He describes it as a corker of a western, but I’m afraid it’s fresh out of Christie’s imagination, so don’t IMDB it. I think Mrs Stanwich, the woman who poisoned and killed her own child, whose case Miss Marple recollects, is also fictional. And when Craddock asks Dr Morris about cases where people were poisoned without a doctor realising it, mentioning “the Greenbarrow case, Mrs Reney, Charles Leeds, three people in the Westbury family”, I believe these are all fictional too.

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. Most unusually, sums of money are not mentioned in this book. There’s the question of the Crackenthorpe inheritance, but no sum is actually cited. The only mention of a sum I noticed was when Mrs McGillicuddy gives a railway porter a shilling as a tip. Today that would be worth 84p. Not overly generous.

Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for 4.50 from Paddington:

Publication Details: 1957. My copy is a Fontana paperback, sixth impression, dated May 1967, with a price of 3/6 on the front cover. The cover illustration by Tom Adams shows the sarcophagus in the background, with the compact, some fur from a collar and some foliage, neatly and fairly encapsulating a few vital elements of the plot.

How many pages until the first death: 3. There are few things more rewarding than a whodunit where the crime appears so early in the book. You know there’s no waiting around, no lengthy expositions, just the opportunity to dive straight in and solve it!

Funny lines out of context: Regrettably none that I could see.

Memorable characters:

Although some of the characters aren’t very well drawn, there are plenty that are. Lucy Eyelesbarrow is one of Christie’s strong young women, full of gumption and derring-do, a trusty pair of hands into which to entrust a lot of the leg work in solving the crime. At first you get a slight sense of disappointment that Lucy is rather artificially parachuted into the story, rather than having any real organic connection to it, but that quickly passes as she gains importance in the first half of the book. The obvious attraction that Cedric and Alfred feel for her is amusingly described, and the very gentle dalliance between her and Bryan is also rather charming.

Elsewhere, Luther Crackenthorpe also stands out because of his irascibility and belligerence, but you can see the heart within the man, and his approaches to Lucy are also amusing. You can never really decide to what extent he’s shamming his ill health or if the Doctors are right and he is needs lots of rest. Mme Joliet features briefly but entertainingly; “a brisk business-like Frenchwoman with a shrewd eye, a small moustache and a good deal of adipose tissue.” And young Alexander’s fresh-faced and exceedingly proper prep school keenness is amusingly and lovingly drawn. It’s not surprising that they made more out of that role for the film Murder She Said.

Christie the Poison expert:

Dr Quimper underplays the possibility that Crackenthorpe may have been the victim of arsenic poisoning, and there are discussions about how you can introduce arsenic gradually into a diet without anyone realising. And there was arsenic in the curry. Aconite is also used in this book – the first time that Christie employs this poison in her novels. Better known as wolf’s bane, this was the poison that was used in ancient Greece, where a javelin or dart would be dipped in the substance to make it even more lethal when piercing skin. Used in Ayurvedic and Chinese medicine, and also for its attractive floral appearance, it’s extremely effective as a poison.

Class/social issues of the time:

By far and away the biggest social theme of this book is people’s concerns and suspicions about modern progress, juxtaposed with good old-fashioned practices. Take, for example, the new developments in a 1957 kitchen. When Bryan helps Lucy prepare dinner, he’s impressed by the modern oven. Different ingredients have been merrily cooking away, apparently with no human help. “Have all these things been fizzling away in here while we’ve been at the inquest? Supposing they’d been all burnt up.” “Most improbable,” replies Lucy, “there’s a regulating number on the oven.” “Kind of electric brain, eh what?” admires Bryan, whose exposure to modern cooking methods are limited to putting “a steak under the grill or open a tin of soup. I’ve got one of those little electric whatnots in my flat.”

Miss Marple, perhaps unexpectedly, recognises the benefits of modern domestic progress. She accepts her nephew Raymond describing her as having a mind like a sink, “but, as I always told him, sinks are necessary domestic equipment and actually very hygienic.” Harold’s wife, Lady Alice, is less progressive. “I read in the paper the other day […] of forty people in a hotel going down with food poisoning at the same time. All this refrigeration is dangerous, I think. People keep things too long in them.”

It’s not just kitchen developments that rear their head. Miss Marple and Craddock are both suspicious of the modern tendency towards explaining (or excusing) criminal behaviour from a mental health perspective. Old Doctor Morris, too, when asked by Craddock why Crackenthorpe dislikes his sons, replies “you’ll have to go to one of these new-fashioned psychiatrists to find that out.”

Another major bugbear amongst the characters – especially Luther Crackenthorpe – is high taxation. I’m not sure if this was a hangover from the war, or whether Christie’s own tax bill that year was preposterous, but there’s hardly an opportunity missed to criticise the high levels of taxation at the time. Emma says of her father, “he has a very large income and doesn’t actually spend a quarter of it – or used not to until these days of high income tax.” Dr Morris agrees: “it is the root, too, of his parsimony, I think. I should say that he’s managed to save a considerable sum out of his large income – mostly, of course, before taxation rose to its present giddy heights.” Even Miss Marple stirs his anger on the subject in a conversation also with Cedric; “”punctuality and economy. Those are my watchwords.” “Very necessary, I’m sure,” said Miss Marple, “especially in these times with taxation and everything.” Mr Crackenthorpe snorted. “Taxation! Don’t talk to me of those robbers. A miserable pauper – that’s what I am. And it’s going to get worse, not better. You wait, my boy,” he addressed Cedric, “when you get this place ten to one the Socialists will have it off you and turn it into a Welfare Centre or something.” High taxation is even given as one of the motives for the crime (but I don’t want to give away too much!)

A Christie wouldn’t be a Christie if it didn’t have a little gentle xenophobia, and in this book, it’s reserved for the French. Describing someone or something as French, is taken as a cue to roll your eyes, shrug your shoulders, and say, “oh, well, the French….” as if that explains everything that’s wrong with the world.

Classic denouement:  No. Even though Miss Marple sets up a revelation of who the murderer is in front of a large crowd of witnesses, it all happens so quickly and suddenly that you couldn’t possibly describe it as classic. You haven’t got the time mentally to prepare yourself for what’s about to happen. Nevertheless, it’s still very entertaining and enjoyable.

Happy ending? Yes. The final discussions between Miss Marple and Inspector Craddock are light-hearted and friendly, and they concentrate on who might engage Lucy in the matrimonial stakes. Craddock doesn’t know who might become Lucy’s significant other, but Miss Marple is certain. Interestingly, in Christie’s original notes, she made it clear that she felt it would be Cedric. But I don’t think that’s how it will work out!

Did the story ring true? As mentioned earlier, there’s one massive coincidence without which a vital piece of evidence would never have been revealed. It’s a fantastic and thoroughly enjoyable surprise too, but the reader might think the coincidence is just a step too far. Personally, I forgive Christie for it, and therefore I think that, on the whole, the story just about holds together.

Overall satisfaction rating: For me, the good sides outweigh the downsides, and the twists are entertaining enough to warrant a 9/10.

Ordeal by InnocenceThanks for reading my blog of 4.50 from Paddington, 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 Ordeal by Innocence, a mystery novel that includes neither Poirot nor Marple, nor any of Christie’s other long-term detectives. Nothing about this book springs into my mind, so it’s either totally forgettable or my brain has sprung a leak. I guess we’ll find out! 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 – They Do it with Mirrors (1952)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Memorable characters:

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

Christie the Poison expert:

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

Class/social issues of the time:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Memorable characters:

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

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

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

Christie the Poison expert:

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

Class/social issues of the time:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Agatha Christie Challenge – The Moving Finger (1943)

The Moving FingerIn which brother and sister Jerry and Joanna Burton move to the tranquil country town of Lymstock to help with his recovery after a flying accident. But instead of quiet rural life they become embroiled in a hunt for a poison-pen letter writer who appears to have driven one poor resident to suicide. When another body is discovered, the police begin to investigate; and are stumped until one Miss Marple is invited along to consider the evidence. As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I promise not to tell you whodunit!

British MuseumThe book is dedicated “To my friends Sydney and Mary Smith”. He was Keeper of the Department of Egyptian and Assyrian Antiquities at the British Museum; by all accounts a charismatic and thought-provoking man who always stirred Agatha’s imagination and brain, and the two of them loved to exchange intellectual banter together. His wife Mary was a painter; and the couple remained good friends with Agatha and Max throughout their lives. The Moving Finger was first serialised in the US in Collier’s Weekly in eight parts between March and May 1942. It was first serialised in the UK in Women’s Pictorial in an abridged form, in six parts, in October and November 1942 under the slightly shorter title, Moving Finger. The full book was first published in the US in July 1942 by Dodd, Mead and Company, only two months after her previous book, Five Little Pigs. It was published in the UK by Collins Crime Club in June 1943. Like Three Act Tragedy, the American version of the book is abridged by about 9,000 words from the UK version.

village-lifeThis has always been one of my favourite Christie novels. It hits the ground running at a tremendous pace, it has an intriguing and relatively unusual plotline and the central characters of Jerry and Joanna are very well drawn and completely likeable; quirky, mickey-taking, modern young things, Their growing romances as the plot develops are charming to observe, and Christie writes with a humorous flair and a very accurate sense of village life, with some intense characters. Sadly, it didn’t take me long to remember whodunit, but even so it doesn’t disturb one’s enjoyment of the narrative. Christie herself thought that this one of her best books.

after accidentIt’s narrated in the first person by Jerry, an amiable, slightly feckless fellow of sufficient means that it matters not one jot that he’s unable to undertake any form of work or rigorous exercise. Life for him and Joanna is a long round of lunches, afternoon teas and mock sibling rivalry. The reader identifies himself with Jerry so readily that the “I” of the narrative almost becomes the reader’s own perspective of the book, which makes it a quick, easy and comforting read. At one stage he points out a fact that he says, in retrospect, should have stood out as a huge clue to solving the mystery – that the “a” of Barton had been changed to the “u” of Burton, on the envelope containing the letter opened by Joanna. In retrospect, he’s right; but at the time you’re too deep down in the narrative to come up for air and try to work that one out for yourself. Still, it’s very decent of him (and Christie) to telegraph a major clue for us to recognise in that way.

dresden dollPart of the appeal of this book is the superb evocation of country life in a rural backwater. The Burtons rent from Miss Emily Barton, “a charming old lady who matched her house in an incredible way.” She’s often described as looking like a Dresden doll with formal petticoats and all that entails; and clearly her chintziness stems from her upbringing and her environment. “I must confess I did shrink from the idea of having Men here!” squeals Miss Barton, to whom the presence of a man in a house felt no more comfortable than having a horse in the house; probably less so. It’s the invasion of the outside world in the form of Jerry and Joanna that makes the disruption of the country life so interesting. Miss Barton “inquired diffidently if I smoked.” “Like a chimney,” said Joanna. “But then,” she pointed out, “so do I.” “Of course, of course. So stupid of me. I’m afraid, you know, I haven’t moved with the times […] yes, everyone smokes now. The only thing is, there are no ashtrays in the house.” […] “We won’t put down cigarette ends on your nice furniture, that I do promise you” replies Joanna. Times do change; today the Burtons would almost certainly not be allowed to smoke in a rented property.

witchThis is a world and a time when neighbours like Emily Barton “came solemnly and left cards. Her example was followed by Mrs Symmington, the lawyer’s wife, Miss Griffith, the doctor’s sister, Mrs Dane Calthrop, the vicar’s wife, and Mr Pye of Prior’s End. Joanna was very much impressed. “I didn’t know,” she said in an awestruck voice, “that people really called – with cards.” “That is because, my child,” I said, “you know nothing about the country.” At first Joanna can’t adapt to the country style of dress: “she was wearing a skirt of outrageous and preposterous checks. It was skin tight, and on her upper half she had a ridiculous little short sleeved jersey with a Tyrolean effect. She had sheer silk stockings and some irreproachable but brand new brogues.” Jerry advises she should wear “an old tweed skirt, preferably of dirty green or faded brown. You’d wear a nice cashmere jumper matching it, and perhaps a cardigan coat, and you’d have a felt hat and thick stockings and old shoes.” Christie goes to great length to describe the town and its heritage; phrases like “rival butchers” and a “hideous school” tell you so much of the quality and tone of life there. And of course, it wouldn’t be a country town if it didn’t have a witch; so everyone suspects Mrs Cleat, of being the letter-writer. Mrs Cleat may or may not be a witch, but she’s well aware of the usefulness of the reputation. “Mrs Cleat came from a family of ‘wise women’ […] and she’s taken pains to cultivate the legend. She’s a queer woman with a bitter and sardonic sense of humour. It’s been easy enough for her, if a child cut its finger or had a bad fall, or sickened with mumps, to nod her head and say, “yes he stole my apples last week” or “he pulled my cat’s tail”. “

PoliceThe official investigation into the wrongdoings in Lymstock is undertaken by Superintendent Nash, a man who impresses Jerry as “the best type of CID county superintendent. Tall, soldierly, with quiet reflective eyes and a straightforward unassuming manner.” He brings in Inspector Graves from London to assist, because Graves has experience with other anonymous letter cases. “Inspector Graves smiled mournfully. I reflected that a life spent in the pursuit of anonymous letter writers must be singularly depressing. Inspector Graves, however, showed a kind of melancholy enthusiasm. “They’re all the same, these cases,” he said in a deep lugubrious voice like a depressed bloodhound.” However, they wouldn’t get to the bottom of it all without a certain Miss Marple from St Mary Mead.

Magic trick on stageIt had only been a year or so since we had last met Miss Marple, and this will be her final appearance in a Christie novel for seven years. She makes a delayed entrance; it’s not until 117 pages have passed that Jerry makes a mention of “an amiable elderly lady who was knitting something with white fleecy wool”. She is a friend of Mrs Dane Calthrop, the vicar’s wife (whom we will meet again in The Pale Horse, some eighteen years in the future), and is staying as a house guest at the vicarage. She instantly pricks her ears up at the mention of murder and offers us a very incisive comment about the nature of “successful” murder: “To commit a successful murder must be very much like bringing off a conjuring trick […] You’ve got to make people look at the wrong thing and in the wrong place – misdirection, they call it, I believe.” That’s very much at the heart of the crime in this book. No wonder, later on, Mrs Dane Calthrop says of Miss Marple: “that woman knows more about the different kinds of human wickedness than anyone I’ve ever known.” Apart from those little insights, there’s nothing more for us to learn about the character of the old lady in this book.

plymstockRegular readers will know I like to have a look at the place names in Christie’s books to see to what extent they’re genuine, or just a figment of her imagination. Sadly, there’s no such place as Lymstock, although there is a Plymstock, which is an outer suburb of Plymouth, which is where I expect she got the inspiration. Combeacre, home of Colonel Appleton, Nether Mickford, where Rose the cook lives, and Exhampton, where Mildmay is a solicitor, are also fictional towns, although it’s not hard to see how they could be concatenations of other better-known places. Of course, when Jerry goes to London, he visits Harley Street which is most definitely real.

kitkatMoving on to some of the other references in the book; “merely kit-kat” says Jerry to Joanna, as the latter is teasing Dr Griffith for having walked past her rudely in the street. Merely kit-kat? What relevance is a chocolate snack? I’ve tried hard to work out whether this is some form of mid-20th century slang but I came to a standstill. Any ideas? Similarly, “bow at a venture”, which is what Jerry says to Griffith when he questions whether the Symmingtons’ son might have different parentage. To “draw a bow at a venture” is an old saying that comes from the Bible (1 Kings, 22:34), and means to make a random remark which may hit the truth. Well, I never knew that.

sir edward greyJerry defends the art of not working in a brusque conversation with Aimée Griffith, where he cites Sir Edward Grey, who was sent down from Oxford for “incorrigible idleness”. Sir Edward, who had died in 1933, had indeed been a lazy student, but managed to create a career that included being Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs from 1905 to 1916 under Campbell-Bannerman and Asquith, as well as being the MP for Berwick upon Tweed.

winged-victory-of-samothrace-3When Jerry is talking to Elsie Holland about the second death, he notes “as she flashed around the corner of the stairs, I caught my breath. For a minute I caught a glimpse of a Winged Victory, deathless and incredibly beautiful, instead of a conscientiousness nursery governess.” Forgive my ignorance, gentle reader, but I had no idea what Jerry was referring to. But it’s the Winged Victory of Samothrace, on display in the Louvre Museum, a marble Hellenistic sculpture of Nike (the Greek goddess of victory), that was created about the 2nd century BC. You live and learn.

oh fair doveChristie quotes a Shakespeare sonnet: “So are you to my thoughts as food to life, Or as sweet-season’d showers are to the ground” – this is Sonnet 75. Jerry also sings a song to himself: “Oh maid, most dear, I am not here I have no place, no part, No dwelling more, by sea nor shore, But only in your heart” – this is “Oh Fair Dove, Oh Fond Dove” written by Jean Bigelow in the 1860s.

meerschaumDid you know that Meerschaum pipes change colour with age and with use? Nor did I until I read that Jerry broke his by accident when he dropped it in astonishment at something Megan said. Who said that Christie isn’t educational?

PoundRegular readers will know that I like to convert any significant sums of money mentioned in the Christie books to what they would be worth today, in order to gain a greater understanding of quite how large or small they are – it’s not always so easy to assess otherwise. The only meaningful sums of money in this book are both quite small, but they’re interesting, nonetheless. Megan’s allowance is £40 a year – and she says you can’t do much on that. At today’s rate, that’s the equivalent of about £1300, so she’s absolutely right. The other sum is when she asks Jerry for a penny so she can buy some chocolate. How much is one old penny in today’s money? It’s about 30p. There’s inflation for you. That wouldn’t buy you anything!

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

Publication Details: 1943. Fontana paperback, 6th impression, published in March 1971, price 5/-. The cover illustration, presumably by Tom Adams, shows a pestle (but no mortar), with a cranberry coloured glass of… water? on top of an old handwritten piece of vellum. The pestle was probably used to commit the second murder, and the glass could contain dissolved cyanide… but the old scroll? Not a clue.

How many pages until the first death: 43. Sometimes you want a death to occur quite quickly, so as to keep the interest going. However, this is such a well-written book that you don’t think about it!

Funny lines out of context:

“I should imagine the people in these country places tend to be inbred – and so you would get a fair amount of queers.”

Memorable characters:

There are plenty of well fleshed-out characters to enjoy. Jerry and Joanna are a good starting point, townies camping out in the countryside and liable to make loads of mistakes. Prissy Mr Pye, blustering Miss Griffith, domineering Mrs Dane Calthrop, nudge-nudge wink-wink Marcus Kent all leave an enjoyable impression. And Partridge, the unforgiving maid to Miss Barton whom Jerry and Joanna inherit, is a great creation. As Jerry/Christie writes: “it was Partridge who brought the news of the tragedy. Partridge enjoys calamity. Her nose always twitches ecstatically when she has to break bad news of any kind.”

Christie the Poison expert:

The first person to die in the book consumes a solution of cyanide kept in the potting shed, used to destroy wasps’ nests. Today that all seems highly dangerous to keep such things in the household. There is some discussion in the book as to whether one would be more likely to take Prussic Acid – the old name for Hydrogen Cyanide – or some kind of soporific that would kill you more gently. Dr. Griffith describes Prussic Acid as “more dramatic and is pretty certain to do the trick.”

Class/social issues of the time:

A few issues raise their head, as they nearly always do. Much as I like the character of Jerry, from time to time he’s an unutterable snob, and he makes some assumptions that we will agree with him – and I don’t think we do! Trying to establish the writer of the poison-pen letters, Graves is convinced it’s a local woman. “I shouldn’t have thought one of these bucolic women down here would have had the brains” says Jerry. Bucolic is a harsh word to describe a person; and he falls into the trap of assuming country people and stupid people. Wrong, snob! In a later conversation he talks of “hitting miserable little maidservants on the head”; the word miserable shows a deep-seated dislike of working-class people; and later, again, he equates being homeless with being a criminal. Describing an inquest, where it was virtually ruled out that a stranger had committed the murder in question, Jerry notes: “no tramps nor unknown men had been noticed or reported in the district.” The fact that he mentions tramps specifically shows, I think, that he has very deep class issues.

The phrase “black slaves” is mentioned twice; once by Mr Pye as he recollects how the Barton girls had to fetch and carry for their monster of a mother, and once by Joanna as she disapproves of the tradition that a maidservant can’t arrange for friends to visit her at the house where she lives and works. Of course, it stands out today as a very uncomfortable phrase to use; however, at the time of writing it was, dare I say it, relatively enlightened. In another conversation, between Jerry and Aimée, about idleness, he shows her a Chinese picture of an old man sitting beneath a tree. “Aimée Griffith was unimpressed by my lovely picture. She said: “Oh well, we all know what the Chinese are like!”” Sometimes it seems as though Christie, through her characters, never misses a chance to take a dig at a foreign culture.

Being out-of-towners, you might expect Jerry and Joanna to be more forward-looking in their attitude to women’s rights and feminism. Jerry takes the rise out of the practice of keeping unpleasant issues away from the female of the species: “in novels, I have noticed, anonymous letters of a foul and disgusting character are never shown, if possible, to women. It is implied that women must at all cost be shielded from the shock it might give their delicate nervous systems. I am sorry to say that it never occurred to me not to show the letter to Joanna. I handed it to her at once. She vindicated my belief in her toughness by displaying no emotion but that of amusement.”

However, when he comes up against Aimée Griffith in full flow, it’s a different story. Christie never seemed certain of her own attitudes to feminism, and here you can see it in action. Christie has had plenty of likeable heroines (like Tuppence, Bundle, and of course Miss Marple herself) and she liked to see them get into scrapes through their own daring, but she also liked to see them get rescued by men. Here she has created Aimée Griffiths, who is somewhat cantankerous and who dislikes the book’s joint heroines of Joanna and Megan. She rounds on Jerry and what she takes to be his 19th century views with no holds barred. “”Your attitude, Mr Burton, is typical of that of most men. You dislike the idea of women working – of their competing –“ I was taken aback. I had come up against the Feminist. Aimée was well away, her cheeks flushed. “It is incredible to you that women should want a career. It was incredible to my parents. I was anxious to study for a doctor. They would not hear of paying the fees. But they paid them readily for Own. Yet I should have made a better doctor than my brother.”” It will be interesting to see if there is a noticeable change to Christie’s tone regarding feminism as time progresses – and the Second World War is over.

Classic denouement: Good, but not classic. The guilty party is caught in the act of a probable third murder by the police and, rather like Iago in Othello, we never hear from them again. We then pay a return visit to Miss Marple for her to plug the gaps. It’s quite exciting and rewarding, but not heart-pounding like some.

Happy ending? Yes. Marriage bells are heard for one couple, are in the offing for another couple, and a restoration back into acceptance is on the cards for a fifth person. We don’t discover the fate of the murderer, which is perhaps a trifle frustrating.

Did the story ring true? Yes. Unusually for Christie, this story doesn’t rely on some very far-fetched coincidences. The characters are largely credible, as is the motive for the crime. And you can easily appreciate how it would feel to be part of that village community, concerned that one of your number was a poison-pen writer or even a murderer.

Overall satisfaction rating: Despite a couple of tiny rankles it’s such a good read that I’m giving it a 10/10.

Towards ZeroThanks for reading my blog of The Moving Finger 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 Towards Zero, the final appearance of Superintendent Battle, in a story where the murder comes towards the end. I remember being frustrated by the lack of crime when I have read it in the past – it will be interesting to see if I still feel the same! 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 Body in the Library (1942)

The Body in the LibraryIn which the body of an unknown young woman is found in the library of Arthur and Dolly Bantry’s home, so, naturally, Mrs Bantry doesn’t hesitate to tell her old friend Miss Jane Marple. Several police from a number of forces lend a hand in identifying the culprit, but it is Miss Marple who, as always, follows her unique suspicions to get to the truth. As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I promise not to tell you whodunit!

Bodies in a libraryThe book is dedicated to “my friend Nan.” This was Nan Kon, formerly Nan Pollock, née Nan Watts, whom Agatha Christie knew since they were children and whose friendship remained strong throughout their lives. The Body in the Library was first serialised in the US in The Saturday Evening Post in seven parts in May and June 1941. The full book was first published in the US in February 1942 by Dodd, Mead and Company, and the subsequently in the UK by Collins Crime Club in May the same year. Unusually, the publication in America preceded the publication in the UK.

Majestic HotelI could only remember a little of the story; primarily the opening scene, which Christie herself described as “The best opening I ever wrote”, and some of the scenes at the Majestic Hotel – mainly those involving the professional dancers. Therefore, much of the book came fresh and new to me on this re-reading. And I’m pleased to say it’s pretty good! It’s hugely more entertaining than the dire N or M? which Christie was writing at the same time. There are some entertaining characters, nicely written scenes, enjoyable police banter, and a brief but surprise-packed denouement which contains bombshell after bombshell. Also, unlike N or M?, there is no reference at all to the war going on. This is a timeless tale that could have happened anywhere, anytime.

Old bootsAnd we get re-acquainted with St Mary Mead, and its most famous inhabitant. Arthur and Dolly Bantry, Miss Wetherby, Miss Hartnell, Mrs Price Ridley, and the Reverend and Mrs Clement are also all still in place, twelve years after we met them in The Murder at the Vicarage, and some of them also appeared in The Thirteen Problems. Colonel Melchett is still Chief Constable, with the irascible Inspector Slack at his heels. Even though she’s absent for a lot of the book, this is undoubtedly one of Miss Marple’s Greatest Hits, were she to record that rather dubious album! We learn a lot more about her style and her Modus Operandi; she is ridiculed and insulted, and people talk about her behind her back; she comes up with some very wise insights; and when push comes to shove she’s as resilient as old boots.

HagDespite the fact that Miss Marple is very senior in years – “a bit funny in the head”, suggests Josephine – the police hold her in high regard. Melchett welcomes her wherever she goes because of her genius in Murder at the Vicarage, and Sir Henry Clithering, ex-Scotland Yard, convinces his friend Conway Jefferson that she brings to the table more than mere “women’s intuition”. “Specialised knowledge is her claim”, he says; “we use it in police work. We get a burglary and we usually know pretty well who did it – of the regular crowd, that is. We know the sort of burglar who acts in a particular sort of way. Miss Marple has an interesting, though occasionally trivial, series of parallels from village life.” Not everyone holds her in that high esteem though; during the first series of accusations at the end of the book, one of the suspects tells her: “be quiet, you old hag”. Well. That’s not very nice, is it?

trustMiss Marple tells us that she knows who the murderer is long before the police have an inkling, and at least 35 pages before the denouement. She convinces the police to allow a trap to be set in order to catch the killer – which is a degree of trust that Poirot could only dream of. Does Miss Marple have an additional skill that the others don’t? Clithering, Harper and Melchett all want to know the same thing. Her response: “I’m afraid you’ll think my “methods”, as Sir Henry calls them, are terribly amateurish. The truth is, you see, that most people – and I don’t exclude policemen – are far too trusting for this wicked world. They believe what is told them. I never do. I’m afraid I always like to prove a thing for myself […] In this case […] certain things were taken for granted from the first – instead of just confining oneself to the facts…” She’s very wise.

level headedMiss Marple has another observation that she makes during a conversation with Dolly Bantry, Mark Gaskell, Adelaide Jefferson and Sir Henry. ““Gentlemen,” she said with her old-maid’s way of referring to the opposite sex as though it were a species of wild animal, “are frequently not as level-headed as they seem.”” That certainly seems an apt description for Conway Jefferson.

butlerBecause the crime is investigated by officers from more than one county – due to the various remote locations of the action – Christie allows us to watch some very entertaining interaction between police officers. Melchett, as we already know, is something of a bully and miserable so-and-so, liable to lose his temper and with a tendency towards impatience. His interrogation of the wheedling George Bartlett, for example, would certainly fail PACE rules today. But how does he get on with his fellow officer Inspector Slack? Not well! Consider when Slack is telling Melchett about his questioning the staff at Gossington Hall, including Lorrimer, the butler: “”they all seemed very shocked and upset. I had my suspicions of Lorrimer – reticent, he was, if you know what I mean – but I don’t think there’s anything in it”. Melchett nodded. He attached no importance to Lorrimer’s reticence. The energetic Inspector Slack often produced that effect on people he interrogated.”

Make upChristie is at pains to point out how Melchett can’t get on with Slack’s vigour. “The diligent Inspector Slack slid across to his superior officer a page torn from his notebook […] Melchett looked up and met the Inspector’s eye. The Chief Constable flushed. Slack was an industrious and zealous officer and Melchett disliked him a good deal.” On another occasion, Melchett is nonplussed by the amount of make-up and lotions on Josie’s dressing table. “”Do you mean to say?” he murmured feebly, “that women use all these things?” Inspector Slack, who always knew everything, kindly enlightened him.”

Make upAnd what about Melchett and Harper, the superintendent from another county? Again you get the sense of some tension. They’re trying to work out how the body got into the library: “”oh, yes, Harper, it’s all perfectly possible. But there’s still one thing to be done. Cherchez l’homme.” “What? Oh, very good, sir.” Superintendent Harper tactfully applauded his superior’s joke, although, owing to the excellence of Colonel Melchett’s French accent, he almost missed the sense of the words.” This implies that class difference might well cause some uncomfortable moments between them. Class is, of course, one Christie’s favourite topics, as we will see later!

Upper ClassAt least Constable Palk knows his social status; here’s what happens when Mrs Bantry tries to show Miss Marple the library: “She led the way rapidly along the long corridor to the east of the house. Outside the library door Constable Palk stood on guard. He intercepted Mrs Bantry with a show of authority. “I’m afraid nobody is allowed in, madam. Inspector’s orders.” “Nonsense, Palk,” said Mrs Bantry. “You know Miss Marple perfectly well.” Constable Palk admitted to knowing Miss Marple. “It’s very important that she should see the body,” said Mrs Bantry. “Don’t be stupid, Palk. After all, it’s my library, isn’t it?” Constable Palk gave way. His habit of giving in to the gentry was lifelong. The Inspector, he reflected, need never know about it.”

St Johns WoodThis is one of Christie’s better-written books, with some nice observations and amusingly creative passages. There’s an entertainingly bizarre conversation between the redoubtable Mrs Price Ridley and the mild Reverend Clement where the former is clearly starting to spread rumours about Colonel Bantry, taking the making of mountains out of molehills to a fine art: ““No wonder you can’t believe it! I couldn’t at first. The hypocrisy of the man! All these years! […] oh, dear vicar, you are so unworldly! […] last Thursday […] I was going up to London by the cheap day train. Colonel Bantry was in the same carriage. He looked, I thought, very abstracted. And nearly the whole way he buried himself behind The Times. As though, you know, he didn’t want to talk.” The vicar nodded with complete comprehension and possible sympathy. “At Paddington I said goodbye. He had offered to get me a taxi, but I was taking the bus down to Oxford Street – but he got into one, and I distinctly heard him tell the driver to go to – where do you think? […] an address in St John’s Wood!” Mrs Price Ridley paused triumphantly. The vicar remained completely unenlightened. “That, I consider, proves it”, said Mrs Price Ridley.”

libraryWhen it’s become obvious that Colonel Bantry has been shunned by the local community because of his implied involvement in the crime, there’s a heart-warming sequence where his wife Dolly stands by his side. She’s so distracted that she cuts up her gloves as she listens in fury to the way he has been treated during her absence. But she encourages him to face the challenge directly when she suggests they spend the evening in the library: “her steady eye met his. Colonel Bantry drew himself up to his full height. A sparkle came into his eye. He said: “You’re right, my dear. We’ll sit in the library!”” A simple act of assertiveness that you know will put him back on track.

Dorothy L SayersWhilst thinking about Christie’s style with this book, I enjoyed the two tongue-in-cheek moments when she drew herself into the story; one obvious, one hinted. “Mark Gaskell looked at Miss Marple in a somewhat puzzled fashion. He said doubtfully: “Do you – er – write detective stories?” The most unlikely people, he knew, wrote detective stories. And Miss Marple, in her old-fashioned spinster’s clothes, looked a singularly unlikely person. “Oh, no, I’m not clever enough for that.”” And when young Peter Carmody enthusiastically tries to help the police, he offers: “do you like detective stories? I do. I read them all, and I’ve got autographs from Dorothy L Sayers, and Agatha Christie and Dickson Carr and H C Bailey.” Cheeky Mrs Christie! Dorothy L Sayers is of course still well known as the writer of the Lord Peter Wimsey stories. But Dickson Carr and H C Bailey are not so well known today. Dickson Carr was an American, whose most popular fictional detectives were Dr. Fell and Sir Henry Merrivale. He died in 1977. H C Bailey created a medical detective, Doctor Reggie Fortune. He died in 1961.

DevonshireRegular readers will know I like to have a look at the place names in Christie’s books to see to what extent they’re genuine, or just a figment of her imagination. Nearly all the places in this book are in the locale of either St Mary Mead, or the Majestic Hotel in Danemouth. I can safely say that the only place that isn’t an invention of Christie’s is Devonshire, where Raymond Starr says he originates. Everywhere else – including Stane and Alsmonston in Devon, is fictional.

Brighton Trunk MurdersLet’s have a look at some of the other references in the book. At the beginning, Dolly Bantry is reading The Clue of the Broken Match, featuring ace detective Lord Edgbaston; sadly, although it sounds like a thrilling read, it doesn’t exist. Miss Marple refers to the Cheviot Murderer; this probably refers to a case back in 1896 in Ohio. She also brings up the Brighton trunk murders, two murders linked to Brighton, in 1934, in which the body of a murdered woman was placed in a trunk. Miss Marple is clearly well read in her true crime stories.

Alfred RouseGeorge Bartlett drives a Minoan 14, a very common car so that its presence in any car park or location would not stand out. Interestingly, this seems to be a completely fictitious model! I can’t find any reference to them apart from featuring in this novel. Superintendent Harper, on hearing of the burnt-out car, mentions Alfred Arthur Rouse, who was known as the Blazing Car Murderer, convicted and subsequently hanged in Bedford for the November 1930 murder of an unknown man in Hardingstone, Northamptonshire.

CophetuaMiss Marple likens Mr Jefferson to King Cophetua, who famously fell in love with a beggar-maid and together they lived “happily ever after” as the phrase goes. Copethua is a much-quoted figure in literature. Mark Gaskell also makes a quote, singing “but she is dead and in her grave, and oh the difference to me!” Christie has used this quote before, in Sad Cypress. This is from Wordsworth’s poem “She dwelt among the untrodden ways” and is about a young woman, unnoticed, unloved, all apart from by the author.

PoundI’m sure you remember that I like to research the present-day value of any significant sums of money mentioned in Christie’s books, just to get a more realistic feel for the amounts in question. There’s only one sum mentioned in this book: £50,000, which is the amount Conway Jefferson has announced will be left to Ruby Keene. The amount left for Mark and Addie to scramble over would be in the region of £5-10,000. That £50,000 in today’s terms would be £1.6 million; and the remainder to be shared between Mark and Addie equates to £165,000-300,000. So they’re all quite substantial sums.

Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for The Body in the Library:

Publication Details: 1942. Pan paperback, 3rd printing of the new edition, published in 1982. The cover illustration shows a woman’s legs lying on a fluffy rug, feet in extravagantly showy sandals; a rather salacious aspect of one part of the story. This edition omits Christie’s original foreword.

How many pages until the first death: 2. Straight in there. Wham bam, thank you Ma’am.

Funny lines out of context: Disappointingly absent.

Memorable characters:

There’s a charming relationship between Arthur and Dolly Bantry, which is poignantly written and gently amusing. The clashes between the policemen, especially Melchett and Slack, are also very enjoyable. In fact, in many ways, Melchett is probably the most memorable character in this book. The Jefferson family and their hangers-on are generally quite bland. Young Peter is quite a jolly lad though!

Christie the Poison expert:

Very little reference to anything to do with poison, as the murders are due to strangulation and being burnt alive in a car crash. However, a planned final murder, which does not take place, involves a syringe of digitalin, a poisonous mixture of digitalis glycosides, extracted from the leaves or seeds of the common foxglove.

Class/social issues of the time:

Two or three of Christie’s usual bêtes-noir crop up. Firstly, class. I’ve already mentioned how Constable Palk is prepared to disobey orders because he’s dealing with his social superiors. Much is made of how the character of the dead girl is clearly from a lower class. Everyone is critical of her cheap, trashy clothing, and of her bitten nails; in fact, no one is more critical than Miss Marple herself: “The sensible thing to do would be to change into trousers and a pullover, or into tweeds. That, of course (I don’t want to be snobbish, but I’m afraid it’s unavoidable), that’s what a girl of – of our class would do. A well-bred girl […] is always very particular to wear the right clothes for the right occasion […] Ruby, of course, wasn’t – well, to put it bluntly – Ruby wasn’t a lady. She belonged to the class that wear their best clothes however unsuitable to the occasion.” Ruby’s dress had already reminded Miss Marple of “Mrs Chetty’s youngest […] Edie was fond of what I call cheap finery too.” Mrs Bantry chips in with the remark “I know. One of those nasty little shops where everything is a guinea.” I have to point out, Mrs Bantry, that 76 years later we still have pound-shops; and in fact, a guinea in 1942 is worth £35 today. So, I think we know precisely the kind of shop to which Mrs Bantry objected.

As usual, we have one or two xenophobic remarks; Hugo McLean refers to exhibition dancer Raymond Starr as looking like a “dago”. No wonder Raymond explains why he changed his name from Ramon: “Ramon was my original professional name. Ramon and Josie – Spanish effect, you know. Then there was rather a prejudice against foreigners – so I became Raymond – very British”. But Sir Henry’s face lights up when he says he comes from a good Devonshire family, instantly changing his opinion of him. Sir Henry ought to know better.

Christie has an uneasy relationship with the notion of feminism. Most of the time, she’s devoutly against it; occasionally, she sees it may have some justification. In this book, I found one telling phrase that I thought suggested a social awakening. Colonel Melchett is interviewing Josie to find out how it was that Ruby started working at the Majestic. ““I do a couple of exhibition dances every evening with Raymond […] as it happens, this summer I slipped on the rocks bathing one day and gave my ankle a nasty turn […] naturally that put the stop to dancing for a bit and it was rather awkward. I didn’t want the hotel to get someone else in my place. That’s always a danger” – for a minute her good-natured blue eyes were hard and sharp; she was the female fighting for existence.” Female fighting for existence; a recognition of the difficulties a woman faced in the world of employment.

There’s one more curious aspect to the social issues of the time, that of marriage, and of couples being suspected of not being married, who are, and vice versa. I won’t go into much more detail on that one as it’s too spoilerish, but it’s an interesting elaboration that shows just how important perception can be over the truth.

Classic denouement: For me, the classic denouement is one where all the suspects are lined up in a room and the detective slowly goes through all the possibilities, lays a suspicious eye on a few people who object outrageously, and then finally accuses one, otherwise unsuspected, person of the crime, who then furiously retaliates in either fight or flight. From that point of view, this isn’t a classic denouement. However, it is a superb ending to the book, with a number of truly surprising revelations left right to the very last minute. Even when the murderer is about to strike a third time, Christie calls an end to the chapter without revealing their name. And when Miss Marple goes through the assumptions that we’ve all made throughout the book, our collective jaws drop in amazement.

Happy ending? Moderately so. Someone who desperately needs a cash boost gets one, and wedding bells are in the offing for one couple; however, that also means that another person misses out.

Did the story ring true? Yes! Unusually, this crime seems perfectly believable, including the activities of third parties who were not directly involved in it, but whose actions affected it.

Overall satisfaction rating: Good characters, good story-telling, a believable (albeit contorted) plotline and a humdinger of an ending. It just sags a little for me during the middle, otherwise I’d have given it top points. 9/10.

Five Little PigsThanks for reading my blog of The Body in the Library 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 Five Little Pigs, and the welcome return of Hercule Poirot to sort out which of five possible suspects is the killer. 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 Thirteen Problems (1932)

The Thirteen ProblemsIn which we meet again Miss Marple and her detective-fiction writing nephew Raymond West; together with four friends they set up the Tuesday Night Club where each one would tell a story of an unsolved crime and the companions would have a think and come up with the identity of the criminal. Naturally, this is an exercise where they all fail dismally apart from Miss Marple, whose calm and quiet consideration of each narrative instantly sees through the mist and works out what happened and whodunit. Unlike Partners in Crime and The Mysterious Mr Quin, where the books consist of a sequence of short stories that build up to an episodically narrated novel, The Thirteen Problems feels much more like individual short stories gathered together under a simple framework, in order to create something that looks like a novel, but isn’t. Don’t worry if you haven’t read the book, I promise I won’t reveal any of its important secrets!

nash-pall-mallAs in those previous books of short stories, the individual tales first appeared in magazine format, either in The Royal magazine, The Story-Teller, or in Nash’s Pall Mall magazine; all first appearing between 1927 and 1931. The stories are told in largely the same order that they first appeared in those magazines, although one of two skip about a bit. The book was dedicated to Leonard and Katharine Woolley, the famous archaeologist and his wife, whom Mrs Christie met in 1928 in the Middle East, when travelling alone following her divorce. They became friends but they were never easy people, by the sound of it; and Katharine, in particular, is seen as the inspiration for a few of Christie’s more unstable female characters.

The Tuesday Night Club

corn-flour-and-waterThe first story sets the scene for the Tuesday Night Clubbers – along with West and Miss Marple, there are arty Joyce Lemprière, elderly clergyman Dr Pender, wizened little solicitor Mr Petherick, and former Scotland Yard commissioner Sir Henry Clithering, who, because of his police associations, is given the task of providing the first case for the club to get their teeth into. When we first met Raymond West in The Murder at the Vicarage, he was a big-headed dolt with hardly any redeeming features. Here, he is already starting to become a more approachable character; and, although he is rather smug in his surroundings and self-importance, he’s nothing like as abrasive.

However, it is Miss Marple who overshadows them all, both in her mental dexterity and in her physical appearance: “Miss Marple wore a black brocade dress, very much pinched in round the waist. Mechlin lace was arranged in a cascade down the front of the bodice. She had on black lace mittens, and a black lace cap surmounted the piled-up masses of her snowy hair.” Apart from the colour of the lace, the whole description reminds me of Whistler’s Mother.

Miss Marple’s relationship with West is rather interesting. In “The Murder at the Vicarage”, she’s preparing for him to come and stay and she’s very careful to go along precisely with everything that she thinks he will want, in a rather self-denying sort of way. In “The Tuesday Night Club” we’re starting to see that relationship loosen a little, with Miss Marple actually criticising West’s work: “I know, dear,” said Miss Marple, “that your books are very clever. But do you think that people are really so unpleasant as you make them out to be?” This opens the way for the others to have their own say about West’s novels. It will be interesting to watch if this less formal relationship becomes more obvious as the book progresses. Other themes that you feel might develop are the relationships between the individual Tuesday Night Club members, and also the suspicion that the police are idiots. They are, at least, in Raymond West’s own works of fiction, and Sir Henry will have his work cut out to prove it’s not the case.

It’s a relatively simple tale that Miss Marple has absolutely no trouble in solving, although the others’ solutions are way off the mark. There are mentions of both ptomaine and arsenic poisoning, so Christie The Poison Expert is safely in her comfort zone. Mr Jones’ inheritance from the death of his wife amounted to £8000, which you might be interested to know in today’s money equals just under £400,000, described by Sir Henry as a very “solid amount.” Curious though, to discover that someone would eat a “bowl of cornflour” as an invalid remedy. Apparently it would be mixed with milk into some sort of custardy paste. Sounds disgusting. Banting, which is what Miss Clark was doing, was a popular term for losing weight by excluding sugar from your diet. It was named after a Mr Banting.

The Idol House of Astarte

astarteThe next tale in my copy of the Thirteen Problems is The Idol House of Astarte, but according to the Wikipedia breakdown of the stories, next should be Ingots of Gold, with The Idol House of Astarte appearing fifth. Anyway, I digress. Dr Pender it is who tells this atmospheric tale of the apparent transformation of a sweet young thing into a moonlit priestess who warns that approaching her will cause death. Richard Haydon, who is the sweet young thing’s wannabe boyfriend, risks her warning and, as it seems, falls down dead as a result. Of course, it’s not a mystical occult death but straightforward murder and only Miss Marple peers through the web of intrigue to see the obvious solution.

There’s not a lot to add to this story. It’s set on Dartmoor, with various houseguests including a feeble daughter named Violet, thereby conjuring up images of the setting for The Sittaford Mystery. As Dr Pender gets into his stride and tells the tale, Joyce Lemprière turns on the lamps to add a sense of the mystic, and it’s fair to say that the story does come across with a great deal of superstitious atmosphere. Perhaps the background tale of the House of Astarte, the Goddess of the Phoenicians, is an early sign of Christie’s interest in archaeology – no doubt she was there when a few temples were unveiled over the years. Egyptology will get a mention in a later story.

Raymond West is still a little uncertain of how strong-minded his Aunt Jane is, but she quickly asserts herself with a clear and decisive explanation of how the murder took place. As a whole, the story is, of course, far-fetched; but the actual modus operandi of the murder is plain and clear and totally believable.

Ingots of Gold

gold-ingotsThis tale is told by Raymond West and its main contribution to the book as a whole is an excuse for a little bit of family irritation with Miss Marple. On one hand, it’s quite a complicated set up, with West going to Cornwall with a man called Newman who is an expert on sunken Spanish treasure. A ship allegedly carrying a cargo of bullion is discovered to have been attacked and the bullion taken, but no one seems to know how. Naturally Miss Marple is there to solve it in a quick and easy manner, taking the opportunity gently to ridicule her nephew at the same time.

If you like a spot of Treasure Island to your whodunits, then the tone and subject matter of this story might well appeal. It even has an off-putting local yokel who undermines West’s confidence and makes him feel all queasy. I don’t think Miss Marple would have been similarly affected. Its Cornish setting gives rise to a few obvious name changes – Polperran is a mixture of Polperro and Perranporth, Rathole is a rather unsubtle version of Mousehole and Serpent Rocks clearly represent The Lizard. When they’re so easy to interpret, one wonders why Christie bothers changing the names.

When you discover Miss Marple’s interpretation of exactly what has gone on, there is a slight sense of disappointment, as there really isn’t anything much to examine. Something of a potboiler, I would say.

The Bloodstained Pavement

blood-on-concreteThis story, told by Joyce, is an appropriate sequel to the previous tale as it also takes place in Rathole (Mousehole). Christie adds to the sense of the location by filling in her version of the village’s history at the hands of Spanish pillagers five hundred years ago, reflecting the true history of Mousehole and its involvement in the Anglo-Spanish war of 1585-1604. Christie would have us believe that the whole village of Rathole was destroyed apart from the Polharwith Arms; in fact it was just the Keigwin Arms in Mousehole that survived the attack.

It’s an intriguing little tale that blends paranormal activity with hardnosed, devious crime. Artist Joyce is painting a village scene when her view is interrupted, first by a man with a dowdy wife, then by an altogether more glamorous woman. In later conversation with a local fisherman, Joyce believes she sees droplets of blood forming on the pavement, as though the village’s violent past was coming back to haunt her. It must be her imagination, mustn’t it? But when she later learns that someone has suffered a tragic death swept out to sea, she knows that her vision of blood drops must have been a premonition. Miss Marple, naturally, comes to the rescue, with incisive and accurate attention to a minute scrap of detail that holds the key to the murder, despite the complaints by the men of the Tuesday Club that Joyce hasn’t given them anything like enough information to solve the crime – if crime there be.

I liked the description of Rathole: “it is pretty and it is quaint, but it is very self-consciously so”, like a number of those bijou Cornish villages. Raymond West is his usual grumpy self, picking up on Joyce’s inaccurate descriptions of the village’s past, moaning about modern tourists, and then explaining the whole crime as a symptom of indigestion. Miss Marple’s summing up regarding what really happened could almost be her motto of observations of village life: “there is a great deal of wickedness in village life. I hope you dear young people will never realise how very wicked the world is.”

Joyce is satisfied with her picnic lunch that comprises of “a tinned tongue and two tomatoes”. I’m not sure how well that would go down today.

Motive v Opportunity

will1Mr Petherick, solicitor of this parish, is the next to tell his story – is it just me, or is this turning into Christie’s version of The Canterbury Tales? He informs us there will be no blood, just an intellectual puzzle to sort out. And he does weave a very interesting little tale, about a sentimental old man who is obviously being conned out of his estate by a charlatan psychic. With an almost Feydeau level of farce, an incriminating document (the will, of course) is placed in an envelope and then dropped out of pockets over the next couple of hours, more times than you can shake a stick at. No wonder there was plenty of opportunity for it to be tampered with.

The assembled company, as per usual, make reasonable guesses as to what actually happened but only Miss Marple gets it right. However, rather disappointingly, so did I; I think this is a very easy mystery to solve! So it depends on your own personal preference whether you like to be surprised by a mystery story, or if you like to get it right! It’s a very well written little story though – neat and compact, clear and orderly, just as you would expect from Mr Petherick.

Just out of curiosity, I thought I’d check how much the £5000 inheritance that Clode bestows on each of his nieces and nephew would be worth today – bearing in mind this was originally published in magazine format in 1928 – and it’s about £220,000. That’s still not bad.

The Thumb Mark of St Peter

haddockYou learn something every day – and probably no one better to teach you than Miss Marple. Did you know that the dark blotch above the pectoral fin on a haddock was called St Peter’s thumbprint? Did you even know that a haddock had that blotch? Me neither. How did we get so old without knowing that?

Anyway this is the sign from God that enables Miss Marple to solve her own story, which otherwise had all the other members of the Tuesday Night Club not even bothering to hazard a guess. Her niece Mabel had been in an unhappy marriage, and when her husband unexpectedly died from poisoned mushrooms, all the tongues in the village started wagging that she must have bumped him off. But Miss Marple knows Mabel to be incapable of such things, and sets her mind to work to discover the full circumstances of his death.

A number of Christie’s usual themes crop up in the story: her interest in poison is clear, with the poisoned mushrooms, the ptomaine and the pilocarpine all playing a part; the brutality of saying that insanity runs in a family; Miss Marple reprimands Raymond for profanity; and she also expresses some class differences when she points out that Mabel’s cook has a good memory: “there is nothing that class cannot remember if it tries.” Two other Marplesque idiosyncracies might be worthy of note, to see if they recur in future stories: the fact that she has no trust or belief in doctors, and that she’s very risk-averse when it comes to looking after her property. Before travelling to Mabel’s to stay with her, she says “I put Clara on board wages and sent the plate and the King Charles tankard to the bank”.

It’s actually a very well written and intriguing story that hangs together beautifully. It also takes us further into the real lives of Miss Marple’s circle, with some embarrassment for Raymond West and Joyce Lemprière at the beginning of the story, and confirmation that they are engaged at the end of it; framing Miss Marple’s tale inside the growing relationship between Raymond and Joyce works really well. This is the last tale in the “first round” of stories in this book; the next story was first published in magazine format eighteen months later, so there was a genuine break in writing between the two sequences, during which time I presume she concentrated on writing The Seven Dials Mystery.

The Blue Geranium

blue-geraniumA year has passed, and Sir Henry is staying with Colonel and Mrs Bantry, who would return several years later in the book The Body in the Library. Sir Henry suggests that Miss Marple would be a good choice for a sixth dinner party member, much to Mrs Bantry’s surprise, in a start to the story that rehashes some of the introductory nature of the first story in this book, The Tuesday Night Club, including Miss Marple’s black mittens and her fichu. The others present were glamorous actress Jane Helier and local Dr Lloyd with whom Miss Marple has an animated conversation about the workhouse (putting to the back of her mind, obviously, her previously admitted confession that she has no time for doctors.)

Colonel Bantry tells the story of his friend George Pritchard, and his irritating wife Mary, who died, perhaps from shock, when the flowers on her wallpaper turned blue. Yes, it does sound rather contrived, doesn’t it? Of course, Miss Marple has a much more scientific explanation for the death. This is a story very much of its age, it simply couldn’t happen today due to modern manufacture and medical practices; so it is very much a period piece, but rather charming as a result.

Will there be more stories told by these six people chez Bantry? I think there might.

The Companion

hotel-metropoleUnlike the Tuesday Night Club, it’s becoming clear that these six stories will all be told on the same evening, at the Bantrys’ dinner party. Dr Lloyd is next to tell his tale, about two English ladies on holiday in Gran Canaria (or Grand Canary, as Christie knew it), one of whom dies in a swimming accident. It’s a fairly complex little tale that would eventually become the germ for the later book A Murder Is Announced. But it’s a satisfying read, and of course Miss Marple sees through all the red herrings with pinpoint accuracy.

The character of Jane Helier becomes a little more filled out – we now know that she is not only beautiful, but also quite thick, as she becomes confused by Miss Marple’s reference to the villager Mrs Trout, from whose behaviour Miss M extrapolates the solution to the mystery. The main thrust of Miss Marple’s arguments is always that “human nature is much the same in a village as anywhere else, only one has opportunities and leisure for seeing it at closer quarters.” But the story ends with Jane Helier sighing “nothing ever happens in a village, does it? […] I’m sure I shouldn’t have any brains at all if I lived in a village.” Well, quite.

Dr Lloyd’s polite style of speech seems rather dated now – consider how patronising this sentence sits in today’s world: “I used to walk along the mole every morning far more interested than any member of the fair sex could be in a street of hat shops.” “Mole” is an unusual and archaic word for a pier or harbour structure – mid-16th century according to my OED.

It’s quite amusing to see how exotic the Canary Islands are portrayed to the 1920s/30s reader. Jane Helier believes them to be in the South Seas (she would). It was at the Hotel Metropole in Las Palmas that Agatha Christie took refuge after her divorce from Archie, and where she wrote The Mystery of the Blue Train. Today the building acts as Las Palmas Town Hall.

The Four Suspects

fall-downstairsA smart little story, told by Sir Henry, with an introductory consideration on the nature of guilt and innocence in cases that remain unsolved; specifically, how people who are innocent of a crime may still be suspected of committing it, and therefore losing their reputation and status. This story concerns a Dr Rosen, who was found with a broken neck having fallen downstairs. But this is a case of, literally, did he fall or was he pushed? He was expecting to be assassinated by a secret, German society, not unlike the Mafia. There are four suspects, none of whom have alibis, all of whom were alone at the time of the death. Naturally, Miss Marple makes mincemeat of Sir Henry’s unsolvable crime, and Sir Henry assures the dinner guests he will do his best to ensure those who are innocent of the crime are publicly recognised as such.

There are a couple of references in this story worth checking out – Dr Rosen retires to the Somerset village of King’s Gnaton, which is an uncomfortable name and certainly doesn’t exist. There is, however, a Gnaton Hall, in Yealmpton, Devon, with which Christie may have been familiar. She also allows Sir Henry to express an opinion about class; with reference to Rosen’s German maid Gertrud, he says: “elderly women of that class can be amazingly bitter sometimes.”

A Christmas Tragedy

hatThe value of this story is in gaining more insight into the character of Miss Marple, rather than the intrigue of the story itself. Miss Marple, who takes up the story-telling baton, is concerned that she won’t tell her story very well and is likely to start rambling. This is odd, considering she had previously told the story of The Thumb Mark of St Peter in a perfectly readable and enjoyable way. But yes, in this story, Christie makes Miss Marple sound very rambling indeed, and I found it hard to follow the flow of the story, which concerns a man that Miss Marple was certain would try to kill his wife, and then she pins him down when his wife finally dies. I found her judgmental nature in this tale rather unpleasant to be honest.

Christie was obviously keen to stress Miss Marple’s age in this story – whilst she still has all her marbles in perfect working order, her ability to structure a tale was very random, to use the modern vernacular. She also stresses her old-fashioned values and sentiments, like her vehement support of the death penalty: “I’ve no patience with modern humanitarian scruples about capital punishment.” Christie also uses the character of Mrs Bantry to reflect her own anti-women sexism. When Colonel Bantry remarks that none of the women has yet told a story, she replies “we’ve listened with the most intelligent appreciation. We’ve displayed the true womanly attitude – not wishing to thrust ourselves into the limelight!”

There’s also an Egyptology reference which reveals Christie’s own fascination in the subject, and the story takes place in Keston – it’s unlike Christie to set stories in real locations (apart from London of course). Keston is a small village which would have then been in Kent but now is in the London Borough of Bromley.

The story ends with a cryptic interchange between Miss Marple and Jane Helier, where it is obvious that Miss Marple has understood Miss Helier’s unspoken thoughts, which is a whole lot more than the rest of us. Will all be revealed in a later story?

The Herb of Death

foxglove1Not Parsley the Lion on a killing spree, but someone put the foxglove leaves in with the sage and onion, young Sylvia died as a result, and we’ve got to find out whodunit. This is the story told by Mrs Bantry, who feels unable to embellish and present her tale in an interesting manner, so gives us the bare bones of what happened and then the rest of the group play twenty questions trying to get to the facts. A very different approach to telling the story and a very enjoyable one – much more entertaining than Miss Marple’s rambling Christmas Tragedy, for example.

All the characters continue to play their allotted roles – Miss Helier is dim and beautiful, Colonel Bantry is hearty, Sir Henry avuncular, Dr Lloyd polite, Miss Marple ruthless. A self-contained little chapter, but Mrs Bantry’s admission at the end of the story that she has changed the names of the people involved feels like a significant confession. But does it have any knock-on effect elsewhere in the book? We shall see.

The Affair at the Bungalow

parlourmaidThe final tale of the night is told by Jane Helier, pretending at first to be about “a friend”, although she was fooling nobody, and after a while she gives up the pretence. It’s all about her, of course. It’s a story about a jewellery theft from a bungalow and framing an apparently innocent young playwright. The solution confounds everyone, even Miss Marple – but Jane Helier disappoints the group when she confesses she doesn’t know the outcome herself. There’s a good reason for that – not just her lack of intelligence – but that would be too much of a spoiler at this stage!

It’s a good story because it sheds further light on Miss Helier’s vacuous and, frankly, thick brain and how she is steeped in class prejudice; she actually says at one point: “one doesn’t look at parlour maids as though they were people”. The story also allows us to see some of Miss Marple’s kinder instincts, as she offers some secret words of wisdom to Miss Helier before leaving at the end of the evening.

Miss Helier reveals that she will be touring in Mr Somerset Maugham’s play Smith next autumn. For the record, this rather forgotten piece is a comedy in four acts that was produced at the Comedy Theatre in London in 1909.

That wraps up the evening’s excitement at the Bantry household – and it would be another eighteen months before the final story had its first publication in Nash’s Pall Mall magazine (November 1931) – just a few months before The Thirteen Problems made its first full appearance in book form.

Death by Drowning

drowningAnd the final tale is a very good story – certainly one of the best in this collection. Sir Henry is once more at the Bantry household when Miss Marple asks to see him. A local girl, Rose Emmott, has died by drowning in the local river. Everyone assumes it was an accident but Miss M knows better – but she can’t prove it. So she writes down the name of the person she thinks is responsible for the girl’s death and implores Sir Henry to use whatever influence he can to ensure justice is done. And done it is.

Christie still expresses her political and class views – she just can’t keep it in. Sandford, the main suspect, is described as a “Bolshie, you know. No morals”. On another occasion, “his speech was a little too ladylike”. Colonel Melchett, whom we also originally met in The Murder at the Vicarage, agrees that Sandford and Rose were not a good match: “Stick to your own class”, he pompously insists.

The story – and also the book – ends with Miss Marple triumphant again; as if we ever doubted it. That suggestion early on in the book that the police are idiots doesn’t really get played out – and indeed in this last story it is the police, in the form of Sir Henry, who ensures that justice is done.

All that remains is for me to give The Thirteen Problems an overall satisfaction rating of 7/10. The portentous loose ends of a few of the stories never get resolved, which is rather disappointing, and you very much get the feeling that this is a combination of previously published magazine stories rather than a whole, individual work. That said, a number of the stories are very enjoyable, and I think I only solved the case before Miss Marple on one occasion – so that makes it quite exciting.

Lord Edgware DiesWith the next book in the Agatha Christie Challenge, it’s back to the novel format; and it’s back to Hercule Poirot. Next in line is Lord Edgware Dies, and if you’d like to read it too, I’ll blog about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meanwhile, happy sleuthing and keep on Christie-ing!

The Agatha Christie Challenge – The Murder at the Vicarage (1930)

Murder at the VicarageIn which we are first introduced to Miss Jane Marple, busybody spinster of St Mary Mead, and close neighbour of the Reverend Leonard Clement, in whose study a murder takes place that brings scandal and unwelcome attention to the sleepy village. As you would expect, Miss Marple keeps her eyes and ears open and finally presents the police and the vicar with the only solution that satisfies every single loose end in the case. If you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I promise not to give the game away as to whodunit!

village-lifeThe book is dedicated “to Rosalind”, her daughter, who would have been eleven years old at the time. Reviews of the book were mixed, with the New York Times Book Review getting rather bored with the network of old ladies in the village: “the local sisterhood of spinsters is introduced with much gossip and click-clack. A bit of this goes a long way and the average reader is apt to grow weary of it all, particularly of the amiable Miss Marple, who is sleuth-in-chief of the affair”. They also described the denouement and solution as “a distinct anti-climax”. Personally, I think that’s a bit harsh. Admittedly, Christie does take plenty of opportunities to get as close to the workings of Miss Marple’s brain as we need to; and the final solution is both a huge surprise and not a huge surprise, depending on your point of view. But the way in which Christie plays with the reader’s expectations is very enjoyable to revisit, and the resolution makes perfect sense in retrospect.

vicar2Jane Marple is not the only person to be introduced in this book, as the Vicar, Leonard Clement, and his wife Griselda, will re-appear in two later Christie books, The Body in the Library and 4:50 from Paddington. The rather wretched Inspector Slack will also reappear in the first of these books. Although this was Miss Marple’s first appearance in book form, Christie had already written some short stories featuring her that had appeared a few years previously in the Royal and Story-Teller Magazines. These would appear in 1932 in the book The Thirteen Problems – which I will be re-reading and writing about in the near future!

gossipSo what are our first impressions of Miss Jane Marple? The first adjective in the book to describe her (by Griselda counting off her tea party guests) is “terrible”. She goes on to say: “she’s the worst cat in the village […] and she always knows every single thing that happens – and draws the worst inferences from it.” Miss Marple herself would largely agree with this; in her first conversation with the vicar she tells him: “you are so unworldly. I’m afraid that observing human nature for as long as I have done, one gets not to expect very much from it. I dare say the idle tittle-tattle is very wrong and unkind, but it is so often true, isn’t it?” She’s also not above gently teasing the Chief Constable: “I’m afraid there’s a lot of wickedness in the world. A nice honourable upright soldier like you doesn’t know about these things, Colonel Melchett.”

torpedoBut it’s later on in the book, when Miss Marple is very close to having solved the crime, that she really identifies her own personality and raison d’être. “Living alone, as I do, in a rather out-of-the-way part of the world, one has to have a hobby […] my hobby is – and always has been – Human Nature. So varied, and so very fascinating. And, of course, in a small village, with nothing to distract one, one has such ample opportunity for becoming what I might call proficient in one’s study. One begins to class people, quite definitely, just as though they were birds or flowers, group so-and-so, genus this, species that. Sometimes, of course, one makes mistakes, but less and less as time goes on. And then, too, one tests oneself […] It is so fascinating, you know, to apply one’s judgement and find that one is right […] That, I am afraid, is what has made me a little conceited […] but I have always wondered whether, if some day a really big mystery came along, I should be able to do the same thing. I mean – just solve it correctly. Logically, it ought to be exactly the same thing. After all, a tiny working model of a torpedo is just the same as a real torpedo […] the only way is to compare people with other people you have known or come across. You’d be surprised if you knew how very few distinct types there are in all.”

clock-handsBreaking tradition with her two previous novels, The Mystery of the Blue Train and The Seven Dials Mystery, Christie returns to the structure of having a narrator. And personally, I think she really feels at home with this method. Here the narrator is the Reverend Clement, a rather witty and urbane man, with the occasional delectable turn of phrase. Right from the start, his narrative style has an eye for self-deprecation and an ear for the ludicrous. Phrases such as “My wife’s name is Griselda – a highly suitable name for a parson’s wife. But there the suitability ends. She is not in the least meek” instantly give you an insight into how he does not take himself too seriously; he knows what is required from his position and he tries to achieve it, but also knows full well that he frequently fails and will look ridiculous as a result. A fine example of his failing positively is his inability to explain to Inspector Slack about the significance of the clock time. He does his best to get the appalling man’s attention, but when he is constantly thwarted in this attempt, he starts to enjoy withholding information. “Griselda said I ought to make another effort to tell Inspector Slack about it, but on that point I was feeling what I can only describe as “mulish”.”

glass-of-portThere are many great one-liners in this book that I would normally reserve for the “Funny lines out of context” section below, but in this book they serve the double purpose of colouring the personality of the good reverend. Here are some of his highlights:

“Unblushingly, I suggested a glass of old port. I have some very fine old vintage port. Eleven o’clock in the morning is not the usual time for drinking port, but I did not think that mattered with Inspector Slack. It was, of course, cruel abuse of the vintage port, but one must not be squeamish about such things.”

“”It must be a very interesting hobby,” I said. “You know something of it, perhaps?” I was obliged to confess that I knew next to nothing. Dr Stone was not the kind of man whom a confession of ignorance daunts. The result was exactly the same as though I had said that the excavation of barrows was my only relaxation.”

“On the sofa beside Griselda, conversing animatedly, sat Miss Gladys Cram. Her legs, which were encased in particularly shiny pink stockings, were crossed, and I had every opportunity of observing that she wore pink striped silk knickers.”

blancmangeHis wife Griselda is equally liable to be a loose cannon, as she never holds back on her opinions, and consistently proves her husband’s belief that she is most unsuitable for her role in the village. “…It’s Mary’s blancmange that is so frightfully depressing. It’s like something out of a mortuary.” “”What they need,” said Griselda, [of the village’s busybodying spinsters] “is a little immorality in their lives. Then they wouldn’t be so busy looking for it in other people’s.”” Colonel Melchett, too, holds little time for what Christie would describe as these old pussies: “there’s a lot of talk. Too many women in this part of the world.” It’s interesting that many of the ancillary characters in this book are depicted in quite a negative fashion. Inspector Slack, as previously mentioned, is a boor and a bully. The Clements’ cook, Mary, has no style or grace in her food preparation or presentation, and comes across like one of Noel Coward’s doltish and stupid maids. Miss Marple’s talented nephew Raymond West is presented like some bighead with firmly held self-centred views that no one likes. I am sure that characterisation of him changes over the years – I’ll watch out for it.

bibleAs usual, there are a few unusual references and words in a Christie book that made me run for the dictionary and online research tools. Here are a few words and abbreviations that got me foxed. “He wants to go over all the Church accounts – in case of defalcations – that was the word he used. Defalcations! Does he suspect me of embezzling the Church funds?” Well yes it sounds like it. Originally meaning simply to take something away from something, by the mid-19th century it specifically meant misappropriation of money. But this must have been one of its last examples of popular usage. In the same exchange, Griselda retorts: “I wish you’d embezzle the SPG funds. I hate missionaries – I always have.” The SPG (now the USPG) was the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, first incorporated under Royal Charter in 1701. As the title suggests, missionary work was/is its key raison d’être. Still in the same conversation, the good reverend announces “I must finish preparing my talk for the C. E. M. S. today.” This was the Church of England’s Men’s Society; founded in 1899, the society closed in 1985.

embezzlementPart of the village gossip involves the mysterious Mrs Lestrange. “I should imagine Mrs Lestrange to be a déclassée” affirms Clement. Late 19th century – someone who is reduced or degraded in social class or status. It means the same in French too. Who knew? In a letter revealed towards the end of the book, the writer wishes to discuss with Mr Clement “the recent peculations”. Peculations? Does he mean speculations and has misspelled it? No. It’s a mid-17th century term for embezzlement of public money.

stain-on-stairsI’m a little confused over the reference early on in the book to Canon Shirley’s Reality. Canon Shirley appears to have been Fred Shirley, Headmaster of Worksop College at the time and then later of King’s School Canterbury from 1935 to 1962. But I’ve no idea what his Reality is… Do you know? Griselda teases her husband about getting inspiration for a sermon from a Detective Novel – The Stain on the Stairs. It didn’t exist – it was an invention of Christie’s; but it is curious to note that it is also one of the books that were written by the fictional novelist and detective Jessica Fletcher in the TV series Murder She Wrote! There’s a reference to someone taking the cheap Thursday train; that had already been mentioned previously in The Mystery of the Blue Train. They did off-peak differently in those days.

goldcrestMiss Marple notices Dr Stone and Miss Cram walking down the lane because at the time she was observing a golden crested wren. If you were wondering what that is, today we call them Goldcrests. Similarly, the Firecrest was also known as the fire crested wren in those days. And I noticed that when Clement was telling Redding that as a local celebrity, everyone would know what kind of tooth powder he used. Wikipedia tells me that toothpaste was commonly available in the UK from 1909 – so maybe Clement is being a bit behind-the-times.

tazzaThere are just a couple of financial references that it might be helpful to look at from today’s viewpoint; the £1 note that Mrs Price Ridley placed in the offertory bag is now worth a good £45, so she was being very generous. And the tazza that Mr Clement said sold for over £1000 – well you can work it out for yourself – today is worth over £45k.

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

Publication Details: 1930. I used to have a Fontana paperback with a rather elegant old telephone on the cover illustration but it was one of the books stolen from me when I was a teenager. So my current copy is the much less glamorous Harper paperback, 9th printing, published in 2002, priced £6.99. It’s an unimaginative drawing of a graveyard and I also don’t like the paper quality or font size either – I must be getting hard to please in my old age.

How many pages until the first death: 59. But given the large size of the font and the spacing, I expect in other editions it appears to happen earlier than that! For comparison – the final page is Page 380.

Funny lines out of context: I’ve already named a few where I was considering what jovial types the Clements are, but here’s a couple more:

“…we must, of course, have a meat meal tonight. Gentlemen require such a lot of meat, do they not?”

“The – what one used to call the factors at school – are the same. There’s money, and the mutual attraction people of an – er – opposite sex – and there’s queerness of course – so many people are a little queer, aren’t they?”

Memorable characters:
Ignoring Miss Marple – she’s a given – I really like the character of Len Clement; for a vicar he’s totally unstuffy, humorous and very very human. Griselda too, as a loose cannon, is plenty of fun. And I have a rather soft spot for Miss Cram; she’s not as proper as she ought to be, and I rather like that in a girl.

Christie the Poison expert:
Not too much poison in this book. It’s not the method of murder; but there is some side allusion to arsenic – Inspector Slack thinks that would be Mrs Protheroe’s preferred mode de meurtre; and there’s also some picric acid at play – which I’d never heard of, unsurprisingly perhaps, because it’s rather out of fashion.

Class/social issues of the time:
Sexism, xenophobia, class… where should I begin?! Let’s start with sexism.

That first tea party hosted by Griselda, with Misses Marple, Wetherby and the redoubtable Mrs Price Ridley present. Goodness me! They’re talking about women being employed (scandalous!) in jobs (mercy!) working with men (pure filth!) “”No nice girl would do it” […] “Do what?” I inquired. “Be a secretary to an unmarried man,” said Miss Wetherby in a horrified tone. “Oh! My dear,” said Miss Marple. “I think married ones are the worst […]” “Married men living apart from their wives are, of course, notorious,” said Miss Wetherby […] “But surely,” I said, “in these days a girl can take a post in just the same way as a man does.” “To come away to the country? And stay at the same hotel?” said Mrs Price Ridley in a severe voice. Miss Wetherby murmured to Miss Marple in a low voice: “And all the bedrooms on the same floor…”” There’s also a shock in the village that Lawrence Redding’s portrait of Anne Protheroe depicts her in her bathing dress – a delightful level of prudery there.

That was an example of women disapproving of women working. Inspector Slack also has his own views on women, and they don’t leave much space for doubt: “She’s a woman, and women act in that silly way. I’m not saying she did it for a moment. She heard he was accused and she trumped up a story. I’m used to that sort of game. You wouldn’t believe the fool things I’ve known women do. But Redding’s different. He’s got his head screwed on all right.”

There are plenty of opportunities for Christie to deal with her favourite class issues too. Griselda (who else?) is happy to talk about Miss Cram behind her back. “Not such a bad sort, really, […] terribly common, of course…” Archer, too, is the recipient of a lot of class-based dismissiveness. This from Inspector Slack: “It appears he was with a couple of pals all the afternoon. Not, as I say, that that counts much. Men like Archer and his pals would swear to anything. There’s no believing a word they say. We know that. But the public doesn’t, and the jury’s taken from the public, more’s the pity.” Not only does that betray the way Slack looks down at Archer, it also shows his similar condescension towards the general public. Miss Hartnell, too, reveals her deep-seated class distrust. “”The lower classes don’t know who are their best friends,” said Miss Hartnell. “I always say a word in season when I’m visiting. Not that I’m ever thanked for it.”” Miss Marple is not above making assumptions about “men like Archer” when she describes him as “primed with drink”.

There’s actually not quite as much xenophobia in this book as in others, but this exchange between Colonel Melchett and Lawrence Redding stood out when I read it: “”We want to ask you a few questions – here, on the spot,” he said. Lawrence sneered slightly. “Isn’t that a French idea? Reconstruction of the crime?” “My dear boy,” said Colonel Melchett, “don’t take that tone with us.”

But there are some other more fascinating insights into English life in 1930. For example, funerals obviously took place much more quickly than they do today. I would guess the average time for a funeral to take place nowadays is about two weeks after the death. I can imagine the 1930s set being aghast at this delay. “I want a short interview with Mrs Protheroe.” “What about?” “The funeral arrangments.” “Oh!” Inspector Slack was slightly taken aback. “The inquest’s tomorrow, Saturday.” “Just so. The funeral will probably be arranged for Tuesday.” And cigarettes were expected to be set out on a table so that guests could help themselves, like they were cheezy wotsits or some other tasty nibbles. Planning for her nephew Raymond’s visit, Miss Marple reflects: “He brings his own pipe and tobacco, I am glad to say. Glad because it saves me from knowing which kind of cigarettes are right to buy.” Today this would seem completely bizarre! It’s also an age of some innocence – no one locks their houses; it just wasn’t deemed necessary. And Dr Haydock is obviously something of a forward-thinker: “We think with horror now of the days when we burned witches. I believe the day will come when we will shudder to think that we ever hanged criminals.”

Classic denouement: Not quite. Miss Marple drops her bombshell as to who the guilty party is and there’s still three more full chapters for everyone to get over the shock and surprise; plus they also lay a trap to catch the blighter. But there’s no grand pointing finger moment where a detective cries out “j’accuse!”

Happy ending? Yes – although this time it’s not Christie’s usual sub-Shakespearean reality of the two young lovers getting married. This time they’re already married but another “happy event” is foreseen.

Did the story ring true? Absolutely. Everything in this story is well within the bounds of one’s own imagination; there are no silly secret organisations, doppelgangers or ridiculous coincidences. Just plain human motivation with a twist of ingenuity.

Overall satisfaction rating: 8/10. It’s a very enjoyable read. If I could I’d probably give it a 7.5 because the ending could be just a little more riveting. But I was feeling generous.

Floating AdmiralThanks for reading my blog of The Murder in the Vicarage 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 something very different. Christie’s next book was her first writing as Mary Westmacott – the romance “Giant’s Bread” – but I’m not particularly interested in her romance writings, I’m much more up for the detectives! However, in 1931 she contributed to The Floating Admiral, a book where twelve of the greatest crime novelists of the age each wrote one chapter. This sounds intriguing, so I’m going to give it a try! As always, 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!