The Agatha Christie Challenge – Problem at Pollensa Bay and Other Stories (1991)

Problem at Pollensa BayIn which Christie gives us eight short stories, comprising two with Hercule Poirot, two with Parker Pyne, two with Harley Quin and two other tales. None of the stories had been published in book form in the UK before. Problem at Pollensa Bay was first published in the UK by Harper Collins in November 1991, and this collection was not published in the US as the stories had all been published in magazines there before. I’ll take them all individually, and, as always, I promise not to reveal whodunit!

Problem at Pollensa Bay

Pollensa BayThis modest little story was originally published in the November 1935 issue of the Strand Magazine, and on 5th September 1936 in the US in Liberty Magazine, under the title Siren Business. Mr Parker Pyne is holidaying in Majorca when he is asked by English woman tourist for his help in stopping her son marrying someone she feels is unsuitable for him.

Six of the stories in Parker Pyne Investigates involve Mr P trying to avoid working with people whilst he’s on holiday, and Problem at Pollensa Bay fits perfectly into that category. Published a couple of years after the other Parker Pyne stories, we don’t learn very much extra about the unwilling detective, although he’s very forthright telling Mrs Chester to stop meddling in her son’s affairs.

The plot is very straightforward and simple, and totally compatible with Parker Pyne’s modus operandi in his previous stories. The situation is set up entertainingly and simply, Parker Pyne’s solution to the problem arrives discreetly and totally under our radar, and when you realise the garden path down which you’ve been lead, you realise how superbly Christie has misled you.

Pollensa is introduced as a very arty environment; you can feel it in her description: “Girls strolled about in trousers with brightly coloured handkerchiefs tied round the upper halves of their bodies. Young men in berets with rather long hair held forth in “Mac’s Bar” on such subjects as plastic values and abstraction in art.” All very self-indulgent, but rather charmingly so. It makes a nice juxtaposition with the conversations between the Chesters and Parker Pyne, which are a model of middle class politeness: “they talked about flowers and the growing of them, of the lamentable state of the English pound and of how expensive France had become, and of the difficulty of getting good afternoon tea.”

There is also a beautiful moment between the over-reacting Mrs Chester and the more laid back Parker Pyne: ““You must do something! You must do something! My boy’s life will be ruined.” Mr Parker Pyne was getting a little tired of Basil Chester’s life being ruined.”

However, the story is definitely damaged by a whopping coincidence that makes Christie’s life easy but makes us doubt the veracity of her yarn, when the gushing Nina Wycherley, who just happens to be staying at a nearby hotel and who just happens to know both Mrs Chester and Mr Pyne separately, just happens to meet those two people in a teashop. Sorry, I’m not buying it.

There’s also the unfortunate use of the D word, which was one of Christie’s favourite derogatory terms in the 1930s and 1940s: “the creature’s a dago. She’s impossible.”

Christie gives us loads of Majorcan locations to accentuate the realism of the story – not only Pollensa, but Palma, Soller, Alcudia, and the always hideously expensive (it was then, and is still now) Formentor. The hotels Pino D’Oro and Mariposa don’t exist, sadly, but were probably based on the Illa D’Or and the Mar i Cel, which did (and still do.)

Nothing too mentally strenuous, and no crime; but pleasant enough.

The Second Gong

J Arthur Rank GongPoirot goes out full throttle in this entertaining little story, originally published in the UK in issue 499 of the Strand Magazine in July 1932, and in  Ladies Home Journal in June 1932 in the US. It was also the basis for the novella Dead Man’s Mirror, first published in the UK as part of the 1935 collection Murder in the Mews. Poirot has been invited to meet Hubert Lytcham Roche, but when he arrives it appears that his host has taken his own life, a bullet through the head that also shattered a mirror in the room. The room is fully locked, and Inspector Reeves is sure it is suicide. But Poirot suspects foul play…

This is a pacy, no-nonsense full-on detective story in miniature, that whizzes along with an imaginative plot and ends with a classic denouement of the type that Christie fans love. There are many similarities with Dead Man’s Mirror, but Christie developed the characters more into a fuller story. But the basic structure of both stories, including the manner of the murder and the identity of the murder, is pretty much the same. It also ends with the same twist, which is here given away rather by the title The Second Gong – a little bit of Christie magic, an unexpected event that brings a smile to your face but is perfectly credible.

“I’m modern, you know, M. Poirot. I don’t indulge in sob stuff” avers Diana Cleves, the adopted daughter of the dead man. That’s an interesting character point for this decidedly tough cookie who knows her own mind and is most definitely a product of her own times.

Mrs Lytcham Roche informs Poirot that the terms of her husband’s will allows her an annual income of £3000. From today’s perspective that’s the equivalent of £150,000. I mean, she’d be comfortable, but it’s not enough to murder someone – is it?

An easy, exciting read that gets your imagination going and gives you a nice surprise ending.

Yellow Iris

Yellow IrisThis slightly odd little tale was originally published in issue 559 of the Strand Magazine in July 1937, and in the 10 October 1937 edition of the Hartford Courant newspaper under the title “The Case of the Yellow Iris” in the US. Christie would later reuse the basis of this story to expand into the full-length novel, Sparkling Cyanide. Poirot is phoned late at night with the request to attend a table at a restaurant where yellow irises are the floral centrepiece. The mysterious caller believes she is in great danger. But from what? And can Poirot get there in time to prevent foul play?

I found this story slightly odd because it sets up an apparent crime, which is then revealed to have been averted but which makes another previous non-suspicious death now a murder (perhaps) but the murderer wanders off scot-free and then the story continues for four more pages of indifferently interesting resolution. Structurally, I didn’t care for this story at all.

I was also uncertain of the timeline of the story; Poirot is telephoned at 11:30pm but then goes out to a restaurant where the Maître D’ enquires whether he would like a table for dinner – and clearly the restaurant is full of people mid-meal, mid-dance, mid-enjoying themselves. Either in those days people ate very late in London (not really a British way of doing things) or Christie didn’t really think that through.

Nevertheless, there are some entertaining moments. It starts with a pure piece of Poirotism, with his appreciation of the electric bar heater because of its symmetry rather than a “shapeless and haphazard” coal fire. We discover, through an unusual moment of embarrassment for Poirot, that he dyes his hair: ““Señora, I would not date to ask you to dance with me. I am too much of the antique.” Lola Valdez said: “Ah, it ees nonsense that  you talk there! You are steel young. Your hair, eet is still black.” Poirot winced slightly.”” And I really enjoyed this understatement: ““at once… it’s life or death…” […] There was a pause – a queer kind of gasp – the line went dead. Hercule Poirot hung up. His face was puzzled. He murmured between his teeth: “There is something here very curious.””

Poirot meets up with an old friend, Tony Chappell, at the restaurant. Christie writes their initial encounter as if Chappell were someone who might have featured regularly in her books; but I believe this is his only appearance in her works. Christie the Poison Expert comes to the fore with the use of potassium cyanide as the weapon of choice. And the song with which the cabaret singer stuns the restaurant into silence appears to be an invention of Christie’s – which is a shame really, sounds like it could be rather good!

Not the best Poirot story, if truth be told.

The Harlequin Tea Set

Harlequin Tea SetIt is not thought that this fascinating, mystic short story ever received magazine publication in either the UK or US. In book form, its first appearance was in Macmillan’s Winter’s Crimes No 3, published in 1971; and in the US it was first published in a short story collection – The Harlequin Tea Set and Other Stories – by Putnams in April 1997. This collection contained the short stories that would be published in the UK in 1997 in the collection While the Light Lasts.

Mr Satterthwaite’s car breaks down en route to stay with an old friend and his family, and whilst he is waiting for the mechanic to fix the problem, he goes in to the Harlequin Café that he noticed as he was driving by. He wondered if his old friend Mr Quin might turn up – and sure enough, he does. Satterthwaite tells Quin about the friend whom he is going to stay with – and invites Quin to come too, but Quin refuses, trusting Satterthwaite entirely to do something “for someone else […] I have the utmost faith in you.” When he reaches his destination, he becomes engrossed in his friend’s family and their comings and goings. But somehow, he knows something is going to happen – and then something that Quin said before they parted finally makes sense. And Mr Satterthwaite definitely does do the right thing.

This is a curious short story without question. As a whole, you come away from it feeling very satisfied, your mystic curiosity piqued by the extraordinary symbiotic relationship between Quin and Satterthwaite. More than ever, you’re sure that Quin is Satterthwaite’s alter ego, a side of himself that he’s never allowed to express, a side that wants to come out and enable himself to do extraordinary things. At the same time, you also feel that quite a lot of this story is mere filler. Satterthwaite dithers and fusses and achieves nothing over several pages and I confess he was trying my patience severely during the first half of this tale; although I did enjoy the amusing car-based introduction to the story.

Satterthwaite refers to the last time that he saw Quin – “a very tragic occasion” he calls it. The last story in the volume The Mysterious Mr Quin is Harlequin’s Lane; however, the last to have been originally published in magazine format is The Man from the Sea. However, I do believe it is Harlequin’s Lane to which they refer. The lack of earlier magazine publication makes it more difficult to date the writing of this story. An awareness that smoking gives you cancer and a reference to smoking “pot” might suggest that this was written in the 1960s. Characters have lived in but returned from Kenya because, “well you know what happened in Kenya”. This could refer to the Mau Mau Uprising of the 1950s or the declaration of independence in 1963.

A key clue to the solution of this particular story is “daltonism”, which was a term used for colour-blindness named after John Dalton (1766 – 1844) who was one of the first researchers into the condition. The story takes place in the villages of Doverton Kingsbourne and Kingsbourne Ducis, both of which sound tremendous but neither of which is real.

Unsettling, intriguing – but occasionally dithery and slow.

The Regatta Mystery

RegattaThis simple and perhaps predictable story originally featured Hercule Poirot, but was rewritten by Christie to feature Parker Pyne instead, originally appearing in May 3, 1936 edition of the Hartford Courant in the US, and in the Strand Magazine, in the UK, later that year. Hatton Garden diamond trader Isaac Pointz entertains a group of people in Dartmouth, and all goes well until 15 year old schoolgirl Eve tells him she has discovered the perfect way to steal his priceless jewel, the Morning Star. Everyone humours the child with her imaginings, until she fumbles the diamond whilst handling it – and no one can find where it landed!

Probably the most entertaining aspect of this story is the speed and ease with which Mr Parker Pyne solves the mystery. No detailed investigation or visit to the scene of the crime for him; merely listening and running the facts of the case through his computer of a brain is all it takes. At the same time that’s a weakness, because there’s no sense of investigation, no first hand interrogation of the suspects, which is what makes most crime thrillers enjoyable. The story is all build up and no denouement.

It all takes place in Dartmouth, at the Royal George Hotel – in real life, the Royal Castle Hotel, where Christie was but one of several notable guests. Very little more needs to be said about this story – except that, perhaps, the Morning Star diamond, that Pointz carries around with him, which is valued at £30,000 in 1936, would today have an equivalent value of around £1.5 million. No wonder it was desirable to unscrupulous souls.

The Love Detectives

private detectiveThis underwhelming little tale was first published in issue 236 of The Story-Teller magazine in the UK in December 1926 under the title of At the Crossroads. This was the first of a series of six stories in consecutive issues of the magazine titled The Magic of Mr. Quin. The remaining five would later form part of the book, The Mysterious Mr. Quin in 1930. The plot has similarities to 1930 Miss Marple novel The Murder at the Vicarage. The story was first published in the US in Flynn’s Weekly in October 1926, with the title The Love Detectives.

Whilst visiting his friend Colonel Melrose, who also happens to be the local Chief Constable, Mr Satterthwaite and he are called out to the scene of a murder – and, on the way, their car has a minor altercation with another vehicle driven, apparently, by none other than Mr Harley Quin. Quin accompanies them to the scene of the crime and encourages Satterthwaite to play an active role in the investigation. Sir James has been killed, and both his wife and her friend confess to the crime, in an attempt to protect the other. But they are both wrong as to the method with which Sir James was dispatched. So it must have been his valet or his butler?

The story starts well and even with the hugely coincidental meeting between Satterthwaite and Quin, which is always par for the course, the set up of the crime is intriguing and enjoyable. But the investigation comes across as slight and hurried, and I didn’t really enjoy it much.

There are several Colonel Melroses in Agatha Christie’s works, and they are all Chief Constables, but it’s generally felt that they’re not all the same person. I rather liked the characterisation of this Colonel Melrose; a no-nonsense, sporty type. When Lady Dwighton and Delangua are comforting each other, Christie writes of him: “Colonel Melrose cleared his throat. He was a man who disliked emotion and had a horror of anything approaching a “scene”.” He’s rather the opposite of Satterthwaite, who’s at home with emotions, and regarded the fact that the murdered man was killed by a statue of Venus as “food for poetic meditation.”

Satterthwaite introduces Quin to Melrose by reminding the latter of the Derek Capel case. This is the first story in The Mysterious Mr Quin collection – The Coming of Mr Quin.

Not a lot to entertain the reader here, I don’t think.

Next to a Dog

happy_cartoon_dogThis very slight tale was first published in The Grand Magazine in the UK in September 1929 and in the compilation The Golden Ball and Other Stories in the USA in 1971.

Widow Joyce Lambert seeks a job as a governess but won’t give up her dog, Terry, who was given to her by her late husband. Her only option appears to be to marry the rich but horrible Arthur Halliday. She agrees to do so, provided she can bring Terry with her. But Terry has an accident and is badly injured…

A very nondescript story, to be honest. It shows the unconditional love between loyal dog and loyal owner, but that’s about it!

Magnolia Blossom

Magnolia blossomThis interesting little story was first published in the UK in issue 329 of the Royal Magazine in March 1926. The story first appeared in book form in the UK in the 1982 collection The Agatha Christie Hour, to tie in with a dramatisation of the story in the television series of the same name. It was first published in the US, like Next to a Dog, in the compilation The Golden Ball and Other Stories in the USA in 1971.

Vincent Easton is hoping that Theodora Darrell will leave her husband and run away with him to a new life in the Transvaal. She keeps her appointment to meet him at Victoria Station, and all seems to be going Vincent’s way until she sees a newspaper headline reporting that her husband’s business was facing a financial crisis – sudden crash – serious revelations – and she tells Vincent she must go back to him. But what happens when she does return to her husband?

This story is a little more promising than Next to a Dog, but not much. It sets up a very interesting dilemma for Theodora, and you think it’s just going to be a woman having to choose between her husband and her lover. But it goes in a darker direction than that; betrayal can work in more than one direction. But the resolution of the story is sadly underdeveloped and hits you with all the force of a damp lettuce.

And that concludes all eight stories in Problem at Pollensa Bay and Other Stories. In comparison with the previous volume, Miss Marple’s Final Cases, despite a couple of stronger stories, they’re overall rather disappointing and slight, and I cannot give this selection more than a 6/10 rating. If you’ve been reading this book as well, I’d love to know your thoughts, please just write something in the comments box.

Next up in the Agatha Christie challenge is the final collection of nine short stories that were never published in book form in the UK – While the Light Lasts and Other Stories. The stories were originally published in magazine format between 1923 and 1932. If you’d like to read it too, we can compare notes when I give you my thoughts on it in a few weeks’ time. In the meanwhile, happy sleuthing and keep on Christie-ing!

The Agatha Christie Challenge – Parker Pyne Investigates (1934)

Parker Pyne InvestigatesIn which we meet a new Christie creation, Parker Pyne, placer of advertisements in newspapers seeking clients who are unhappy, in the promise of making them happy again. In the first six stories we see him at work in London; in the second he’s on holiday in Europe and the Middle East but clients keep throwing themselves at him. As always, you can read this blog without discovering any of the whodunits in all the stories!

The publication of this collection is a little unusual in that the original magazine editions – or at least those that can be traced – were published in the US before they appeared in the UK. The first six were published in Cosmopolitan in America in August 1932 (UK – October/ November 1932) and the second six in America in April 1933 (UK – June/July 1933). No magazine printing of The Case of the Middle-aged Wife has yet been traced in either country. The collection was published by Collins in book form in the UK in November 1934, and in the US a few weeks later under the title Mr. Parker Pyne, Detective. As an aside, I notice it’s just the shortest book of Christie’s that I’ve re-read so far – 158 pages (just beating The Big Four, which has 159.)

The Case of the Middle-aged Wife

penfoldSo welcome, James Parker Pyne. This is how Christie describes him in this first story: “he was large, not to say fat; he had a bald head of noble proportions, strong glasses and little twinkling eyes.” I instantly envisaged him as Dangermouse’s sidekick, Penfold, but they are very dissimilar characters. He brings happiness – in which light I also saw him as a kind of Harley Quin character, although he’s not remotely ethereal, he’s very real. He’s a statistician – he can’t resist relying on his previous work experience to analyse the likely outcome of any situation. This is his first case – or at least the first we know about, his practice is obviously very well established and he’s probably been doing this work for a few years now. In The Case of the Discontented Soldier he reveals that his house, Whitefriars, has been “the scene of eleven exciting dramas”, so that’s at least eleven previous cases.

In this first story, Mr Packington has been spending his time and his money on treating and looking after a sweet young thing from the office and has been ignoring Mrs Packington as a result. Mrs Packington, unsurprisingly miffed, consults Mr PP, who arranges her to be pampered and pandered to by a handsome gigolo so that she regains her youth and self-esteem, and Mr Packington begins to get jealous. You can guess how this ends. Mr PP only has one failure in this book – and it’s not this one! It’s a very enjoyable story, with Parker Pyne as a distant mastermind, almost playing chess with his cast of characters as the pieces, securing the marriage of the Packingtons as his prize, whilst no doubt enjoying a tidy profit.

There’s a number of references to be checked out. Parker Pyne’s office is at 17 Richmond Street. There is a Richmond Street in London; however, it’s a residential address in Plaistow and I just don’t get the feeling that this is where PP would operate! Claude, the gigolo, takes Mrs Packington to the Lesser Archangel and Red Admiral nightclubs – the Red Admiral features in The Case of the Distressed Lady too – but again I think they’re Christie inventions. There is an Archangel nightclub in Kensington – would probably be the right part of town too – but I doubt it’s the same. I loved the reference to “Mrs Hattie West, the Californian Cucumber King’s wife”, but sadly I don’t think she was real.

As we will see during the stories, Parker Pyne asks different fees from different people according to the job and their circumstance. In this case he asks for 200 guineas up front. That’s a lot of money – the equivalent of around £10,500 today.

I was surprised to read that Mr Packington takes the 8:45 train into London. That strikes me as being very late. I wonder if offices generally opened later in the morning than they do today? It’s true that when I worked at the Arts Council in 1983, work started at 9:30am. I remember getting there five minutes early one day – and it was like the Marie Celeste.

Amongst Parker Pyne’s staff there lurks one Miss Lemon! The very same secretary who would go on to work for Hercule Poirot. Here we see her in her younger days, “a forbidding-looking young woman with spectacles”. Christie has her working for Poirot as early as in 1935, in the short story How Does Your Garden Grow, which would not appear in book format in the UK until 1974’s Poirot’s Early Cases. As far as Christie’s UK novel-reading public were concerned, they would next meet her in The Labours of Hercules, published in 1947. She isn’t the only character that would appear in this book, only to crop up as part of Poirot’s world in later years.

The Case of the Discontented Soldier

elephantMajor Charles Wilbraham has retired from serving the Empire in East Africa, and is now back in England and bored; desperate for an adventure. He consults Parker Pyne and adventure comes his way, although he never associates PP with what actually happens to him. It’s a very amusing set-up and works very well, with a few delightful turns of phrase, although there are a couple of unfortunate non-PC references to overcome, more of which shortly…

Parker Pyne’s original solution to the problem was to invite Wilbraham to take a gorgeous lady out for lunch, but she terrifies him, so that doesn’t work. However, the lady informs PP of the kind of girl the Major really goes for, and so can successfully introduce her to him by means of this extravagant adventure. But PP’s brain can’t quite create those stories, so he consults a novelist – enter Mrs Ariadne Oliver. Mrs Oliver is another character who reappears in the Poirot books, sporadically over many years; readers would next encounter her in Cards on the Table a couple of years later. Christie would admit, in a 1956 interview, that “the character of Ariadne Oliver does have a strong dash of myself.” In this story, she is said to have written “forty-six successful works of fiction, all best sellers in England and America, and freely translated into French, German, Italian, Hungarian, Finnish, Japanese and Abyssinian.” As far as published books are concerned, by that stage Christie had only written twenty-four such books, but no doubt she was ambitious! I admired the fact that Mrs Oliver responded to PP’s remit by including something translated into Swahili that only the Major would understand – an excellent example of how Parker Pyne tailors his solutions individually to his clients. And whereas today Mrs Oliver would have found her translation by using Google Translate, she actually used Delfridge’s Information Bureau. No doubt this was meant to suggest Selfridge’s. The only Delfridges I can find is a watch and clock manufacturer in Birmingham.

There’s a slightly laborious introduction to the story, where PP’s advert, his promotional spiel and Christie’s description of him are all repeated, verbatim, from the first story. However, this is the first of the stories known to have been originally published in a magazine; and without revision, these descriptions were simply repeated.

As for the non-PC elements, the adventure requires Wilbraham discovering (or he had hoped to) a cache of ivory: “elephants, you know. There’s a law about the number you’re allowed to shoot. Some hunter got away with breaking that law on a grand scale. They were on his trail and he cached the stuff. There’s a thundering lot of it – and this gives fairly clear directions how to find it […] quite a nice little fortune for you.” So our hero is celebrating making a lot of money from finding ivory that had been obtained illegally – that’s quite uncomfortable these days. Perhaps more predictably, the two thugs that are Wilbraham discovers attacking Freda are described as “two enormous Negroes”, and there’s a detailed description of the fight where Wilbraham sends them “reeling backwards” by “a violent punch on the jaw”. Later Mrs Oliver, when working out the expenses for the whole charade, describes them as “two darkies” who “wanted very little” for their effort. Yes, even then, they were putting a positive spin on discrimination by having the black characters earn less than the white ones.

Parker Pyne only asks Major Wilbraham for £50 payment for this job, that’s £2500 today. Given that he lives happily ever after as a result, that’s got to be a bargain.

The Case of the Distressed Lady

dismal desmondMrs Daphne St John arrives at Parker Pyne’s office with a great problem – she has stolen an expensive diamond but needs to give it back but cannot find a way of doing so without making the situation worse, and losing friendships into the bargain. PP, of course, has a solution, involving presenting two members of his entourage as a pair of exhibition dancers at a party, where they would replace the diamond. But can you imagine an Agatha Christie story being as straightforward as that?

Not too much to examine in this story. Mrs St John talks about Parker Pyne’s advertisement as being “probably just a ramp”; I’d never come across that word in that context before, but it is early 19th century slang for a swindle or a fraudulent action. You live and learn! She also refers to a game played at the Le Touquet casino: “chemmy”, which perplexed me at first (as I pronounced it my mind with a hard “ch”) but of course is slang for chemin de fer, or baccarat. The last line of the book refers to a gentleman selling Dismal Desmonds. Never heard of those – but that was the name of a cartoon film series that first started in 1926, and so presumably the gentleman was selling Dismal Desmond toys – a lugubrious looking dog rather like the more famous Droopy but not so distinguished.

The stolen diamond was valued at £2000, which in today’s value would be £100,000. A pretty penny indeed.

That’s three stories in so far, each one keeping back a nice twist, and each a satisfying read. I must say I am very much enjoying this book!

The Case of the Discontented Husband

lawyerThis story has the hallmarks of The Case of the Middle-Aged Wife, Mark II. A similar set up has Mr Wade, the discontented husband, coming to Parker Pyne for advice, and he suggests a dalliance with his very own Miss de Sara will make Mrs Wade jealous and come to her senses. However, Mr Wade ends up a little more attached to Miss de Sara than PP expected, with its own consequences…

There’s a lot of humour in this story, with some delightfully bitchy exchanges between Miss de Sara and Mrs Wade, and an almost farcical final scene when everything comes crashing down around everyone’s ears. The story also fills out further understanding of the character of Parker Pyne, who has become just a little one-dimensional over the course of the first three stories, enjoyable though they are. He can fail, after all.

Christie’s negative view of divorce, which we have seen in other works, is highlighted here with Mr Wade, self-esteem at an all-time low, nevertheless willing to allow his wife to divorce him if that will make her happy, rather than the other way around, because “a fellow’s so helpless […] one’s got to play the game […] I couldn’t let her be dragged through the divorce court.” Mr Wade’s doubts about entering into an affair, albeit a false one, probably also echo Christie’s own experience of her first husband Archie playing away from home.

An unexpected end, and a funny turn of phrase make this a very enjoyable story.

The Case of the City Clerk

St StanislausIf The Case of the Discontented Husband is The Case of the Middle-Aged Wife, Mark II, then The Case of the City Clerk is The Case of the Discontented Soldier, Mark II. Once again, Parker Pyne is approached by an older man in need of some adventure, just to prove to himself that he can do it and that there’s still life in the old dog yet. But this isn’t of a romantic nature, this is a full-on mystery and intrigue spy job in which PP lets Mr Roberts play his part. This story reminded me in part of the shenanigans involved in The Secret Adversary, and in part of the glamour of Murder on the Orient Express.

The scene setting of this story is very entertaining, if a little hard for the reader to appreciate fully at first. You ask yourself, what on earth is going on here, and then it all falls into place. There are some agreeable turns of phrase: “a pleasant thrill shot down his spine, slightly adulterated by a thrill that was not quite so pleasant”. At the end, Mr Roberts is awarded the Order of St Stanislaus – tenth class with laurels, which adorns the front cover of the book as part of Tom Adams’ illustration. And yes, there really is a St Stanislaus.

Mr Roberts can only afford to pay Parker Pyne £5 for his adventure, but he gets £50 back as a reward. In today’s money that’s £250 out to get £2500 back. Not a bad piece of work.

The Case of the Rich Woman

wash stand and jugThe rich Mrs Rymer seeks advice from Parker Pyne as to how to spend her money so that she can get the most entertainment out of it. A very strange request, but PP is always up for a challenge…

A strange request, and a strange story. This is the first story in the book that I didn’t enjoy. It has too much of a surreal air, and is just too weird to believe. Even though it still falls under the general heading of “Parker Pyne Makes People Happy”, it just doesn’t fit in. I also found the character of Mrs Rymer distinctly unappealing. Interestingly, this is the only story that was published in the American magazine Cosmopolitan that wasn’t subsequently published in Woman’s Pictorial in the UK.

The story contains a further reference to Mrs Oliver, where Parker Pyne describes her as “the most conventional of all of us”. No doubt that is indeed how Agatha Christie saw herself. When Mrs Rymer wakes up in the strange bedroom, Christie tells us the room had “a deal wash-stand with a jug and basin up on it […] there was a deal chest of drawers and a tin trunk.” I’d never heard of deal in this context. My OED defines it as “a piece of sawn timber (now always fir or pine wood) of standard size; a plank of board of fir or pine; timber in such planks or boards.” It’s a Middle English term; no wonder I hadn’t heard of it! And the £1000 that PP sees fit to charge the rich Mrs Rymer is the equivalent of £50,000 today.

There’s one minor instance of a funny line today that wasn’t a funny line at the time: “”Ah!” The ejaculation was fraught with meaning.”

Have You Got Everything You Want?

TokatlianThe scene changes now from 17 Richmond Street to a travelogue around Europe and the Middle East. At the Gare de Lyon Elsie Jeffries board a train to Stamboul, and encounters fellow traveller Parker Pyne, no doubt enjoying the financial fruit of his labours. Elsie’s husband is on business in Stamboul, but she deciphered some writing on a blotting paper that suggests something weird would happen just before Venice – and riven with curiosity, she asks PP to help in working out what it would be. This story marks a change from Mr Pyne’s usual remit of making people happy, as he starts solving crimes in a more generic, detectively manner.

There’s a very strong Murder on the Orient Express vibe in this story, whose original magazine appearance pre-dated Christie’s famous work. The story itself is quite a good one of the jewel thief genre, but with a nice twist. What is most interesting about it is what it says of the morals of the time. A male character is blackmailed because he spent an innocent night in the same hotel room as a woman as he was giving her shelter as she was trying to escape her abusive husband. Today you’d be praised and lauded for your kindness; at worst you’d be admired as a bit of a lad. In 1934 it was scandal and would have to be suppressed. It’s clear from Parker Pyne’s advice to Elsie that he approves of telling lies within a marriage; it strikes me that this little story has its own system of morality, set apart from the mainstream.

When the story reaches Stamboul, the characters use the Hotel Tokatlian as their base; this shouldn’t come as a surprise, as Christie herself stayed there, and Poirot uses it in Murder on the Orient Express. The Slav lady cries out: “scélérat!” as PP refuses to allow her to leave Elsie’s cabin; I’d never heard this insult before, but it means scoundrel, or villain.

The Gate of Baghdad

araqParker Pyne finds himself as one of a small group of people traversing the Syrian Desert from Damascus to Baghdad in a Pullman Motor Coach. The newspapers are full of a story of a financial swindler, Samuel Long, who has escaped justice, and one of the party gradually becomes uncomfortable and talks about not wanting to “go back on a pal”. It turns out that Long is masquerading as one of the travelling party, but which one? Fortunately Mr PP is there to solve the case.

This book contains the first – but not the only – murder of the book, so if you’ve been waiting for one, your time has come! There’s also a bit of non-PC name calling – when one fellow buys some girls some drinks, he gets annoyed when they go off with “some dago”; and on another occasion, a foreign outsider is described as an “Armenian rat”. Christie the Poison expert is on hand, with one of the deaths in the story being caused by Prussic Acid – hydrogen cyanide to give it its modern name.

There are a few interesting references here; the story starts with a quotation from Gates of Damascus by James Elroy Flecker, including the Postern of Fate, which of course is the name Christie gave to the last book she was to write in 1973. Parker Pyne had been staying at the Oriental Hotel in Damascus, which was one of the city’s finest bijou character residences; hopefully one day it will be again. Smethurst offers Pyne some araq – a kind of Persian Pernod – I’ve seen some photos online and it looks lethal. When the coach gets going across the desert they head for Rutbah – a town in present day Iraq – which has had a colourful past and is currently being fought over by Isis and the Iraqi Army.

A very enjoyable little whodunit – but to my disappointment, I guessed who the perpetrator was! Always annoying when you’re right!

The House at Shiraz

Hester_StanhopeParker Pyne arrives in Kermanshah, where he hears the tale of a Lady Esther Carr and her companion Muriel King, told by the pilot Herr Schlagal. Muriel King died and Lady Carr started living as a recluse. PP decides to pay a visit to Lady Carr, and discovers all is not as it seems to be.

Christie revels in her own Middle East experiences in this story, with many far-flung romantic names bandied about: Tehran, Ispahan, Shiraz; Kermanshah, which I confess I hadn’t heard of, is a city of over 800,000 people in western Iran. PP is there during the Nan Ruz festival, which is the Iranian New Year, five days of public holiday between 20-24 March. Christie clearly doesn’t have a high opinion of the local police officials: “The German pilot had come up and was standing by smiling as Mr Parker Pyne finished answering a long interrogation which he had not understood. “What have I said?” he asked of the German. “That your father’s Christian name is Tourist, that your profession is Charles, that the maiden name of your mother is Baghdad, and that you have come from Harriet.” “Does it matter?” “Not the least in the world. Just answer something; that is all they need.””

When considering the life that Lady Esther leads, Parker Pyne refers to Lady Hester Stanhope. Shamelessly lifted from Wikipedia: “Lady Hester Lucy Stanhope (12 March 1776 – 23 June 1839) was a British socialite, adventurer and traveller. Her archaeological expedition to Ashkelon in 1815 is considered the first modern excavation in the history of Holy Land archaeology.” Doubtless she was a heroine of Christie’s.

An enjoyable little story, with a nice twist; Christie really does use the last-minute twist to its best advantage in this book!

The Pearl of Price

PetraParker Pyne has now moved on to Petra, in Jordan, along with a motley crew of fellow tourists including a rich American father and daughter, an archaeologist and a British MP, amongst others. The daughter’s priceless earrings have this unfortunate habit of falling off, and one day, one of them falls off for good – but a thorough search of all the suspects shows that no one has secreted it about their person. PP though applies his little grey cells and comes up with a solution.

I make the comparison with Poirot deliberately, because Parker Pyne is beginning to out-Poirot him! The speed with which he sees through the red herrings and applies logic to the puzzle is very rapid – I don’t think Poirot would have solved this crime this rapidly. It’s a good story, with an amusingly surprise ending, although there is one unfortunate non-PC moment, as you will read shortly.

This is one of those short stories where Christie devotes a few minutes to considering the psychology of crime. In this case, whether people are fundamentally honest or not, and whether sudden temptation could make anyone commit a crime – or only people with a generally dishonest behavioural pattern. Parker Pyne believes, under the right circumstances, virtually anyone is capable of a crime: “there’s the breaking point, for instance […] the brain is adjusted to carry so much weight. The thing that precipitates the crisis – that turns an honest man into a dishonest one – may be a mere trifle. That is why most crimes are absurd. The cause, nine times out of ten, is that trifle of overweight – the straw that breaks the camel’s back […] when you think that of ten people you meet, at least nine of them can be induced to act in any way you please by applying the right stimulus.” PP goes on to suggest bullying, and generally suggestible people can be easily manipulated. And he applies that thought when solving this crime.

There are a few geographical references to consider. Most people know Petra, the incredible home of stunning red rock formations in southern Jordan. There are references to the Nabatean people, a cultured people who inhabited Petra, and to Hammurabi, the sixth king of the First Babylonian Dynasty, who lived approximately from 1810 BC – 1750 BC. Doctor Carver mentions that he wants to work on a dig in Baluchistan, an ancient region whose land now falls within the countries of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran.

And now for that unfortunate, Christie-esque, mid 30s, moment. When the rich American calls on the group’s servants to move his belongings from a cave and into a tent, in order to escape mosquitoes, he calls out: “Say, you n***ers!” Of course, in those days, it was just a word. Nowadays, it’s just not acceptable.

Those priceless earrings of Miss Blundell cost her father $80,000. That’s a helluva lot of money. In today’s terms they’d probably be worth the best part of $1.5million. If that were the case, I really don’t think you’d wear them for a walk around the plateaus of Petra. I’m not one for blaming the victim, but, I mean, come on.

Death on the Nile

strychnineNot the famous novel – that would come three years later, but Christie obviously fancied it as a good title. Parker Pyne is taking a cruise on the Nile, on board the SS Fayoum, which, as far as I can ascertain, is purely an invention of Christie’s. The only other passengers on the vessel are Sir George and Lady Grayle, her niece, his secretary, and her nurse. Lady Grayle, a grumpy hypochondriac who makes everyone’s life a misery – maybe a first draft of Mrs Boynton in Appointment With Death – tells Parker Pyne she is convinced her husband is trying to poison her; and sure enough, in due course, she dies. But is her husband really to blame?

A fairly standard story – not at all bad, but nothing exceptional. Christie the Poison Expert comes to the fore with Lady Grayle’s dying with all the expected symptoms of strychnine poisoning, although the possibilities of arsenic and antimony are also discussed with her nurse. True enough, her husband is found to have quantities of strychnine on or about his person, so he must be guilty, right?

In a very nice turn of phrase, Christie sums up everything that’s wrong about the horrendous Lady Grayle: “she had suffered since she was sixteen from the complaint of having too much money.” A few pages later, her nurse Miss MacNaughton remarks: “when I left England with Lady Grayle, she was a straightforward case. In plain language, there was nothing the matter with her. That’s not quite true, perhaps. Too much leisure and too much money do produce a definite pathological condition. Having a few floors to scrub every day and five or six children to look after would have made Lady Grayle a perfectly healthy and a much happier woman.” Not only does she repeat Christie’s own observation of the character, she also gives us an insight into the kind of manual work most women would have had to do at the time – scrubbing floors, and looking after half a dozen children. There probably aren’t many people who have to deal with those two particular problems nowadays.

Parker Pyne initially refuses Lady Grayle’s invitation to consider her case but when she offers him £100 to do so, he can’t resist. Unsurprisingly, as that is the equivalent of £5000 today.

The Oracle at Delphi

byzantine mosaicRich widow Mrs Peters and her intellectual son Willard are travelling through Greece – him lapping up the history, her enjoying his enjoyment but secretly hating every minute of it. She declines Willard’s invitation to accompany him on a trip to view some Byzantine mosaics, but is horrified later when he doesn’t come home as expected and she receives a hostage demand for him, in the sum of £10,000. Fortunately, Parker Pyne is also in the environs, as is a reserved British gentleman by name of Mr Thompson. In a really surprising and very cleverly written twist, Willard is returned without any ransom being paid; but you may have to re-read it, to appreciate entirely how this was done!

Whilst her son is being erudite, Mrs Peters settles down to read The River Launch Mystery, which, I am sure it will come as no surprise, is a complete fiction, if you’ll pardon the pun. The ransom demand is written by one Demetrius, the Black Browed, and refers to the Kyria – this means “Lord”. I don’t know whether this particular Demetrius was familiar with his Shakespeare – Demetrius is a character in A Midsummer Night’s Dream – and in it Puck talks of “black-browed night”. I don’t think there’s any particular further relevance to the ransomer’s pen-name.

That £10,000 Demetrius is demanding – that’s the equivalent of £500,000 today. No wonder Mrs Peters was worried.

And those are the twelve stories that make up Parker Pyne Investigates! It’s a very enjoyable read and I’m happy to give it an 8/10 which is a very good score for a book of short stories. It’s written so that you can almost take it as a novel, which certainly helps. We don’t meet Mr Pyne again, apart from in the two short stories, Problem at Pollensa Bay and The Regatta Mystery, neither of which were published in the UK in book form until 1991, so it will be a good while before I get around to writing about those!

Three Act TragedyWith the next book in the Agatha Christie Challenge, it’s back to the novel format; and a welcome return to Hercule Poirot for the first of a series of nine books each featuring the famous Belgian detective. It’s Three Act Tragedy, and I can’t remember a thing about it, except that the book is divided into three parts, each one an “act” of the “tragedy”. 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!