The Agatha Christie Challenge – Partners in Crime (1929)

Partners in CrimeIn which we meet again Tommy and Tuppence Beresford, now six years into their happy ever after marriage – him relaxed, her bored – until their old friend Mr Carter installs them in Blunt’s Brilliant Detectives Detective Agency, where they solve a number of varied crimes whilst keeping a watch out for anything to do with the number 16… Feel free to read this blog even if you haven’t read the book – I shan’t give any of the games away! This is a slightly odd book, as it purports to be a series of separate short stories, but they follow on chronologically to make one novel, just with individual tales told episodically. I’ve split the stories up individually to look at – but in fact, you could just as easily take the whole book as one amorphous blob.

SixteenAs in the earlier collection of short stories, Poirot Investigates, there’s very little time for niceties as our gallant heroes get on with solving sixteen crimes with effortless ease. The stories had all been originally published between 1923 and 1928, principally in The Sketch magazine, which is where the Poirot Investigates stories also first saw the light of day. The twist – if you can call it that – with this selection is that Tommy and Tuppence solve each of the cases in the style of popular fictional detectives of the day – a kind of art recreating art/pop will eat itself situation. I can imagine that, at the time, it would have added to the fun of the book to note the parallels between Christie’s stories and the fictional detectives to whom she pays tribute. 87 years later, however, when very few people know these other detectives, the in-jokes and the references are largely lost and today the structure is sadly a bit of a bore. As I said earler, I’m going to take them one by one and look at each one separately, pointing out any of Christie’s usual themes and idiosyncrasies – and don’t worry, I won’t reveal the intricacies of whodunit!

A Fairy in the Flat/A Pot of Tea

fairyThe first two chapters of the book serve as an introduction and the first case for Blunt’s Brilliant Detectives. This is a very gentle, lightweight introduction indeed, as Tuppence can solve the case of where is the missing Jeanette without getting up from her desk. There’s not a lot for me to comment on really; Albert, their young lad friend who ended up being their assistant in The Secret Adversary, is still on the scene, doing his best to be of service. In this introduction he is said to be recreating the style of a Long Island butler – and I wasn’t quite sure what the reference was. I don’t think it’s anything more than the fact that Long Island was (is?) rather prosperous and posh and that everything would have been done with style and elegance. Scott Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby was written around the same time.

The eponymous fairy refers to the scandal at the time about the Cottingley fairies, which so interested Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – that’s why Tuppence suggests writing to him.

When I wrote my blog about The Secret Adversary, I tried to ascertain if Christie gave us any clues as to the ages of our two heroes. T&T were described as having “united ages” which “would certainly not have totalled forty-five”. That book was written in 1922; and although Partners in Crime wasn’t published in book form until 1929, this short story was first published (with the title Publicity) in The Sketch on 24th September 1924. So when Tommy describes his staff (Tuppence and Albert) as neither of them being over 25 years old, he’s being consistent!

It’s clear that the vast majority of cases that a private detective would have been asked to undertake would be to gain evidence in divorce cases. Tommy and Tuppence make much of the fact that that would be boring. They obviously disapprove, not only because it’s unadventurous work, but also because they find it distasteful. Tuppence comes across as surprisingly ill-tempered when she talks of divorce as the growing “divorce evil”. I expect she is referring to The Matrimonial Causes Act 1923, which put men and women on an equal footing for the first time, enabling either spouse to petition the court for a divorce on the basis of their spouse’s adultery. For a successful case, you had to prove the deed, hence the popularity of the private detective.

Apparently the basis for this first story is Malcolm Sage, Detective, by Herbert Jenkins; a jolly, but essentially flimsy, start to the book.

The Affair of the Pink Pearl

Pink PearlsThe next story concerns the apparent theft of a pink pearl from a well-to-do American lady at a house party. There are plenty of enjoyable red herrings and some wonderfully Christie-esque suspects including a socialist (gasp) and a kleptomaniac member of the aristocracy (double gasp). But of course, not everything is as it seems.

It’s in this story, first published in the Sketch on 1st October 1924, that Tommy and Tuppence start to echo the detective fiction heroes in earnest. Tommy decides he will be Dr Thorndyke, the creation of British detective writer R Austin Freeman. We can consider him an early forensic science detective – a Quincy for the 1920s – and he always had his lab technician, Nathaniel Polton, in tow. I would say that the character is rather out of favour at the moment. However, in an almost “note to self”, Christie calls on Tommy to encourage Tuppence to use her little grey cells – of course Poirot’s catchphrase – and you can just imagine her rather self-conscious delight at doing so.

There are a few references to check out: the scene of the crime is The Laurels, Edgeworth Road, Wimbledon. There is an Edgeworth Road, but it’s nearer to the Oval cricket ground as opposed to Wimbledon. Lady Laura Barton is said to be the daughter of the late Earl of Carrowway – again this appears to be genealogy of pure Christie imagination. Tommy bluffs his way past Colonel Kingston Bruce with a reference to the case of Rex v Bailey, which the Colonel swallows hook, line and sinker. But is this a famous case? Doubtless there will have been Rex v Bailey cases but I don’t think Tommy was that knowledgeable about them.

There are also a couple of delightful lines and a very interesting example of linguistic semantic change: “I must explain […] that the pendant consisted of two small diamond wings and a big pink pearl depending from them.” What a charming old use of “depending” – that must have been pretty archaic even then. The Colonel doesn’t hold back from his description of Mr Rennie: “A most pestilential fellow – an arrant socialist. Good looking, of course, and with a certain specious power of argument, but a man, I don’t mind telling you, whom I wouldn’t trust a yard. A dangerous sort of fellow.” And there’s the lovely overheard quote: “you know perfectly well, Mother […] that she did bring home a teaspoon in her muff.” I sincerely hope the muff in question was a small cylindrical fur cover in which one rests one’s hands for warmth.

An amusing, interesting and nicely written case, with a surprise and sudden ending.

The Adventure of the Sinister Stranger

Russian letterAfter the smartness of the previous story, this is a rather bumbling, uninteresting and obvious story of espionage. It’s the first appearance of one of the blue Russian letters that Carter had told them to expect, which provides much of the purpose and motive for the story. It was first published in the Strand Magazine on 22nd October 1924, showing a deviation in the order of stories from their original magazine publication to their appearance in Partners in Crime. The two stories that follow in the book originally preceded Sinister Stranger in the magazine.

The detective writer to which this story pays homage is Valentine Williams, creator of the young British Officer Desmond Okewood; his book The Man with the Clubfoot is clearly on Tuppence’s mind after Dr Bower has left them. “”Well, Tuppence, old girl, what do you think of it?” “I’ll tell you in one word,” said Tuppence. “Clubfoot!” “What?” “I said Clubfoot! My study of the classics has not been in vain. Tommy, this thing’s a plant. Obscure alkaloids indeed – I never heard a weaker story.””

Just a couple of references to check out: Dr. Bower’s practice is at The Larches, Hangman’s Lane, Hampstead Heath. Hangman’s Lanes are quite common in the UK, but none in Hampstead I’m afraid. This address is contradicted and the new suggestion is 16 Westerham Road, Finsbury Park. Again no luck tracing that, but there is a Westerham Road in Walthamstow.

You don’t often get references to vitriol nowadays. Vitriol today is when someone spouts a lot of angry stuff because things haven’t gone their way. Christie’s vitriol was the real deal – Sulphuric Acid. Yes good old H₂SO₄ was heading Tommy’s way if he didn’t think quick. (He did.)

There’s a little of the contemporary anti-Germanic feel; Dr Bower is revealed as Dr Bauer – the same slip of the typewriter appears in The Seven Dials Mystery – and one of the baddies in the story cries out “Gott! What cowards are these English”. Not very subtle really.

A very bland little tale. Suffice to say, that as I read it, I solved it before Tommy did.

Finessing the King/The Gentleman Dressed in Newspaper

RedherringAn enjoyable little story but not one that really makes you sit up and take notice. Tuppence is bored and wants to go dancing and has seen an advertisement in the newspaper that will justify their appearance at the Three Arts Ball. It then becomes one of those stories where everyone is masked and in fancy dress, so that it’s hard to work out who killed who, and why. Nevertheless, our magnificent duo, with an eye to Isabel Ostrander’s detective Tommy McCarty and his sidekick, Denis Riordan, a fireman, work it out. That’s why Tuppence humiliates Tommy into wearing a fireman’s outfit for the ball.

Not much to discuss here. The cover illustration of my copy of the book (Fontana, 3rd impression, 1971) by Tom Adams depicts the Queen of Hearts with a dagger through her heart, thus representing this story in a manner that gives it more excitement and style than perhaps it merits! The Three Arts Ball certainly existed as an annual event, held more often than not at a swanky London venue.

From a language point of view, we get a rare chance to see in full the “red herring” allusion that we all know and love. “”Aren’t you clever?” said Tuppence. “Especially at drawing red herrings across the track.”” The original idea was that by drawing red herrings across the track you create a false scent to be followed. I’d never come across the full allusion before.

Having agreed in the opening part of the book that neither Tommy nor Tuppence can still be over 25, Tuppence accuses Tommy of being 32 in this book. Whether that was a Christie error, an annoyed suggestion by Tuppence that he’s acting like an old man, or whether he really is 32, I guess we’ll never know.

The Case of the Missing Lady

CarfaxThis little story sees Tommy pretending to be Sherlock Holmes, including excruciating playing on the violin and preposterous guesswork about their client’s background – which all turns out to be true. Soon our heroes are trying to hunt for his inamorata, the missing Lady Hermione. And I shall say no more about the plot because there isn’t really anything else I can say that wouldn’t give the game away. Suffice to say, again it’s mere confection in comparison with some other Christie short stories.

The story has echoes of Conan Doyle’s Disappearance of Lady Frances Carfax, but reading it won’t really prepare you for this story. It does, however, have one classic line: “Fat women and fat dogs are an abomination unto the Lord – and unfortunately they so often go together.” For other references: The Honourable Hermione is said to be the daughter of Lord Lanchester – who doesn’t seem to exist anywhere else other than in a 2012 Mills and Boon romance by Linda Sole. Lady Susan Clonway lives in Pont Street, which does exist – a fashionable address near Harrods. And there is the town of Maldon. Two of them apparently; one in Surrey, and one in Sussex. The one in Surrey is really Malden; the one is Sussex doesn’t exist. However, there is one in Essex to which she doesn’t refer.

Blindman’s Buff

blind_mans_bluffAnd so it goes on; another short story where Tommy is playing at being a fictional detective, this time the Blind Problemist Thornley Colton, the invention of writer Clinton H Stagg who died in 1916 aged just 27. Much of the early part of the story is taken up with Tommy’s learning how to “play blind” which today comes over as being rather unpleasant trivialising of a serious disability. The story doesn’t stand successfully by itself, you would have to have read the entire volume so far to appreciate the references and motivations of the characters – and actually, I found this story immensely tedious, ridiculously fanciful and borderline sick (in the old fashioned sense).

Just a couple of references – a character declares himself to be the Duke of Blairgowrie, a picturesque market town in Perthshire; but of course in real life there is no such dukedom. Tommy and the Duke get into “a smart landaulette”. I’ve never heard of that term before. Of course we all know and love the Royal State Landaus used for pomp and ceremony occasions – so one can guess what a landaulette is. In fact, it’s more like a convertible limousine of the era. Very smart!

Not a story to dwell on, in my humble opinion.

The Man in the Mist

MistFinally, a much more substantial short story, with a proper build up, a proper crime and a lovely piece of light dawning as Tommy tries to solve it. This story is told in the style of G. K. Chesterton’s Father Brown stories – at least, Tommy is dressed like Father Brown for most of the time, and so adopted the good Father for this story.

This gave rise to some anti-Catholic rhetoric from Mrs Honeycott: “To begin with, you’ll excuse me if I say I don’t hold with the Roman Catholic religion. Never did I think to see a Roman Catholic priest in my house. But if Gilda’s gone over to the Scarlet Woman, it’s only what’s to be expected in a life like hers…” The rather stern Mrs H also diatribes against divorce – “Divorce is sinful” she avows, much like Tuppence’s distaste for the subject in the early pages of the book. She also equates theatre with wickedness, so she’s a pretty outdated old stick.

Other interesting observations of the times come from the fact that it’s obviously a good old pea-souper that obscures Morgan’s Avenue in the quaint village of Adlington – we don’t get those anymore. We also don’t get prejudice against people writing “pacifist poems”, even if it does make the hairs on Tuppence’s militaristic back stand on end. It’s also a world where use of the words “Hell” and “Damn” are seen as worthy of apologising to strangers for. How times change.

Adlington Hall really exists! The village of Adlington is near Macclesfield, Cheshire and was certainly in existence at the time Christie wrote the book. However, it’s hardly a short hop back to London, which is what the book implies. It doesn’t boast a Morgan’s Avenue, although there is a Morgan Avenue not too far away in Warrington.

A much more entertaining and rewarding tale than the majority of others so far.

The Crackler

Million DollarsThis story, in the style of Edgar Wallace, isn’t bad, although it’s not exactly riveting either. Our tempestuous twosome are on the hunt for the source of counterfeit currency, and, as usual, Tommy gets lured into a trap but is saved by the bell.

It’s named The Crackler because that’s the name Tommy makes up to describe someone who makes nice fresh, crackly, counterfeit notes. He’s 100% sure the word will end up in the dictionary as a result of his brave sleuthing. He’s wrong – it hasn’t. Tuppence is still confused by “busies” and “noses”. Busies is still certainly a slang term for the police; never actually heard anyone use the word “noses” in this context though – but my OED confirms it’s a late 18th century term for a spy or an informer. Ryder refers to cash as “oof”, which I’d certainly never heard before – and that’s a 19th century word derived from two Yiddish words meaning “cash on the table” – i.e. gambling money.

“Marguerite Laidlaw […] was a charming creature, with the slenderness of a wood nymph and the face of Greuze picture.” Who? That would be Jean-Baptiste Greuze (1725 – 1805), a French painter of portraits, genre scenes, and history painting. Pardon my ignorance.

One of those silly, out-of-context lines that only Christie can write, that sounded perfectly ok back in the day but now takes on a new meaning: “Major Laidlaw is pretty well known […] Men in the know look queer when he’s mentioned.”

The Sunningdale Mystery

SunningdaleAmong the better tales in this book. Tommy takes on the mantle of Baroness Orczy’s Old Man in the Corner, with Tuppence as journalist Polly Burton. I’ve only read one “Old Man in the Corner” story, and Polly didn’t appear in it, so I can’t vouch for Christie’s veracity. This is a tale of a man found stabbed with a hatpin (if ever there was a classic Christie weapon, there’s one) on the links at Sunningdale Golf Club.

It’s unusual for Christie to set a story so firmly in a real location. Sunningdale is, of course, a proper golf club and a pretty swish one to boot. The Christies were actually living in the village at the time, and Archie was a member of the club, so it’s written with a certain insider knowledge. There’s even reference to a footpath that leaves the course and comes out on the road to Windlesham. I reckon you could pinpoint that location with dead accuracy.

Other interesting references to note are that the story takes place in an ABC shop. What’s one of those, I hear you ask? They were a chain of tea shops, first launched in the 1860s, and that died out in the 1950s. The ABC of the title referred to the Aerated Bread Company. Catchy! I’m no golfer, and I didn’t recognise the verb to foozle, as in “not only did he foozle his drive badly…” The OED tells me it was a late 19th century term to make a bad job of something (especially in golf). It’s also rather sweet to think that there was a time when you could get cheap tickets to London on a Wednesday, just because it was a Wednesday. Such innocent times.

Tommy and Tuppence manage to solve the crime without having to get up from their tea and buns.

The House of Lurking Death

ChocolateAnd here comes another pretty good whodunit short story, with a decent crime, a decent motive and a decent (albeit rapid) denouement. Here Tommy envisages himself as A E W Mason’s detective Inspector Hanaud, considered by many to be an influence on Christie in the creation of Hercule Poirot – although apart from them both being francophones, I’m not yet convinced of too much similarity. Tommy’s last words to Tuppence at the end of this story are a direct quote from Mason’s first Hanaud novel, At the Villa Rose. I have to say those first few pages, where Tommy is practising his French style, make pretty cringily embarrassing reading. In a complete aside, Hanaud’s offsider, Ricardo, was played by Austin Trevor in Mr Trevor’s film debut in 1930; and he also went on to be the first ever Poirot on screen – in Alibi, a 1931 film based on The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. I met Mr Trevor when I was 8 years old, as I collected autographs at the stage door of the Lyric Theatre in London, where he was appearing in the play Oh Clarence! I remember him being a charming old gentleman.

Poison in chocolates, how delicious. If you’ve read any of my other Christie blogs, you’ll know that I look for evidence of “Christie the Poisons Expert” in every book, because, deep down, she loves it. This story has plenty of poison. There’s (allegedly) arsenic in the chocolates that made everyone sick at Thurnly House before Lois Hargreaves comes to call on T&T. Later there is a suggestion of ptomaine poisoning in the figs – I’d never heard of ptomaine, and that’s because it’s now recognised not as a poison per se but as part of the general field of food poisoning. However, the real culprit in this story is ricin, the product of the castor oil plant, much favoured by the old KGB. Let’s not go there.

Thurnly. Does it exist? No. An invention of Christie’s. However, I did enjoy the little diatribe against those damn lefties again, ascribing the sending out of poisoned chocolates as “socialist agitation”. I suppose the most in-depth references in this story are those Hell and Brimstone quotations from the Bible that Hannah the maid keeps quoting. The first one is from Psalm 140, verse 10, but Hannah misquotes it slightly; the others are variously from the Psalms and the Gospel of St John.

The Unbreakable Alibi

Clarges StreetBlunt’s Detectives are challenged to prove which of two contradictory alibis is false – how can one person be in London but also in Torquay at the same time? This is a jauntily written, entertaining little tale, but terribly easy to guess the solution that Tommy and Tuppence seem to take ages discovering. And of course, the reader is right, so the mini-denouement becomes a bit of a damp squib.

Tommy takes the guise of Inspector French from the novels of Freeman Wills Crofts, of whom I know nothing, so I can’t tell if it’s well done or not! Apparently French was good at sorting out alibis, hence Tommy’s choice. There is some nice talk of astral travel which is a concept I haven’t come across for decades – I convinced myself that I had done it one night when I was a child. I probably didn’t.

Other than that there are a few references to check out – the Bon Temps Restaurant in London (there isn’t one at the moment, at any rate) ; The Duke’s Theatre (there’s the Duke of York’s but that’s all) ; The Castle Hotel in Torquay (there’s a Castle pub, but I doubt it’s the same) ; and Clarges Street London – that certainly exists, but I don’t think there’s a Number 180.

Montague Jones refers to his mother as “The Mater”, just as John Cavendish does in The Mysterious Affair at Styles and our own Tommy does in The Secret Adversary. All peas from the same pod, I think.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect about this story is that it was written four years after the others, in 1928.

The Clergyman’s Daughter/The Red House

Red HouseAnd this story was the first to be written, published in the Strand magazine in December 1923, only a short while after the publication of The Secret Adversary. In it, Tommy decides to take on the mantle of detective Roger Sheringham from the novels of Anthony Berkeley. Again, I’ve not read his works, so I can’t vouch for the accuracy of the homage.

The story is a relatively lightweight affair about a house that is up for sale, and the reason why people are desperate to buy it is because of buried treasure. The grand total of treasure is £25,200, which in 1923 was the equivalent of a majestic £10.6m. The Clergyman’s daughter who will take ownership of the tidy sum will be doing relatively well.

The story has a cryptogram to solve, which Tommy and Tuppence manage through a combination of hard work and good luck, about as opaque as those old clues on Ted Rogers’ 3-2-1 in the 1980s.

The town of Stourton in the Marsh doesn’t exist, of course, but it certainly makes you think of Moreton in the Marsh.

Apart from that, nothing much more to say about this story. It’s about now that I started to get really bored with this book. If you’re still with me, gentle reader, well done you, I’m not sure how you’re hanging on.

The Ambassador’s Boots

bootsThe penultimate tale in the book is a rather unsatisfactory account of two kit bags being swapped and Tommy allowing himself to be lured (yet again) into the hands of danger, where he will be rescued by Tuppence and the Police. These stories get more and more fanciful as the book progresses. It seems to me that there are loose ends in this story that aren’t properly tied up; it’s as though the story finishes too early.

Tommy here is emulating H. C. Bailey’s sleuth Reggie Fortune, someone else who appears to have gone permanently out of fashion. Perhaps more interesting is the allusion to a Sherlock Holmes story where it was pertinent how far the parsley had sunk into the butter. That’s The Adventure of the Six Napoleons, published in 1904.

In what would today be seen to be a rather unpleasant racial sideswipe, Tommy refers to the Spanish looking chap that bursts into the office as a dago. Remembering that this story was originally written in 1924, that precedes by one year the word’s more thorough usage in The Secret of Chimneys. I’ll watch to see if Christie continues to use it in further books.

The bag swap took place on board the SS Nomadic. You can still visit her at Belfast’s dockyards. You won’t, however, find Cyclamen Ltd at Bond Street.

The Man who was Number 16

behind_sofaAnd finally, we come to the last story that wraps up the book – and not a moment too soon, in my opinion! Christie comes full circle in this story by cocking a snoop at her own The Big Four and the dearly beloved Hercule Poirot. Christie must have revised her original short story somewhat to include the Big Four reference as the short story appeared in the Sketch in December 1924 (it was actually the last story she wrote for The Sketch) and The Big Four was published in 1927. Interesting that she chooses to refer a book that she herself considered to be well below standard.

For the most part this is an exciting end to the book, with some nice touches of “classic” espionage – Tommy has to say “I myself was in Berlin on the 13th of last month” to prove that he’s on the same side as the special agent – and there’s a suspenseful race against time as Tommy and Carter try to rescue Tuppence from the clutches of the Russian Spy. It’s all very camp and cloak and dagger; at one point, Carter reassures Tommy that Tuppence will be alright in the hotel room with the spy: “one of my men’s inside – behind the sofa”. Albert encourages Tommy to engage his little grey cells in a Poirot-like structured and neat examination of the facts in order to solve the case. Which of course he does.

And there is a happy ending – predictably nauseous though it may be!

The only thing that remains is for me to give this an overall satisfaction rating of 6/10. It started well, but I got bored. Still, it’s a clever concept and if you’re a big Tommy and Tuppence fan, you’ll positively wallow in the bright young things’ way of living life and being daring. Contemporary T&T fans would have to wait another twelve years before Christie brought them back, in N or M?

The Mysterious Mr QuinSo there we are at the end of this rather exhaustive look back at what originally looked deceptively straightforward! Thanks for sticking with me, if you did. The next book stays with the short story format and it’s our first meeting with the enigmatic Harley Quin in The Mysterious Mr Quin. 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!

Review – Market Boy, Actors Company, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 22nd July 2016

Market BoyTime for another production from the Royal and Derngate’s Actors Company, whom we have seen a few times now and have always carried off a good show – until now…. This time they gave us a sensationally good show! David Eldridge’s Market Boy, which was produced by the National Theatre in 2006, is a funny, thought-provoking, heart-warming and nostalgic play about growing up in and around Romford Market in the late 1980s, at a time when the impetus to work hard for yourself and be successful was at its Thatcherite height. I know – because even Mrs Chrisparkle and I briefly caught the bug.

The Market Boy himself, Brian, but known by everyone as “Boy”, starts life as a wet behind the ears 12-year-old, who gets taken under the (mainly) affectionate wing of shoe trader (known, you guessed it, as Trader), and his three laddish assistants, who show him how to become both a proper market trader with all the patter and how to chat up girls (with similar skills). Romford Market is a fairly rough-and-ready community, with plenty of aggression and rivalry as well as some (but not many) decent relationships and mutual respect. We see all these various lives intermingle as Boy finally gets round to going out with “Girl”. In the second act Boy gets too big for his boots, throwing his weight around, riding roughshod over those he cares about – as does Snooks, one of the assistants, who gives up the market work to work in the financial markets instead – and both come a-cropper as they fly too close to the sun. Their rise and fall is brought sharply into focus as it mimics that of their great inspiration, Margaret Thatcher, who looms over the market like a free-trade spectre, dispensing dogma and platitudes as she goes.

CastIt’s a great choice of a play because there’s so much going on all the time and the text gives everyone a moment where they can shine. Jesse Jones’ cast grabs it all with relish and brings out both the humour and the dark side of market life and the individual subtleties of the characters who populate it. Meryl Couper’s simple but very effective design draws our eye to the centre of the stage where the Trader’s van (MKT 130Y, nice touch) occupies the centre of his stall. The stalls either side of the stage lurk together to give an impression of tight-knit closeness and everyone being in everybody else’s business, creating a nice illusion of compact claustrophobia.

IbizaIt’s a wonderful production that uses the Royal auditorium at its best, with characters entering from within the auditorium, scenes being acted in front of the safety curtain, characters appearing in the boxes, and so on. It also has fantastic use of music, bringing a huge sense of nostalgia to the show; you just can’t go wrong when you’ve got Frankie Goes To Hollywood appearing as a leitmotif throughout the evening. Mrs C is always a bit iffy when it comes to watching an amateur production but as soon as Relax started up she was tapping her feet up and down to the rhythm; then the curtain opened to reveal twenty other pairs of feet all doing the same, and she beamed with delight at the shared experience. She said later (and I concur) that the beginning and end scenes featuring the entire cast en dansant were amongst the most entertaining moments of individual staging she’d ever seen.

ShoesI could now write at length about everybody in the cast, because absolutely everyone gave an excellent performance and contributed some magic to the entire evening. However, that would probably end up being very repetitive and dull. So I’m just going to mention a few people who I thought made a particular difference to the success of the show as a whole. But, bear in mind, omission here does not mean it was not a fine performance – they all were!

At the heart of the show is a genuinely top class performance by Tom Cocker as Boy. With his early appearances showing his wide-eyed innocence, looking like a very young Daniel Radcliffe or Harry Enfield, he exuded that awful teenage uncertainty tempered with the desperate need to fit in. As the character grows in confidence, Mr Cocker acquires great “market flair”, thus becoming a half-and-half adult – with great self-belief in his ability to do well on the stall, but then shrinking down to be just a little boy when it comes to talking to the girl. Later on, when he oversteps the mark and becomes pig-headed and over-confident, you really want to give him a great big slap. He’s completely believable the whole way through – an excellent performance.

Spanish girlI also really liked Alice McCracken as his “Girl” – conveying all the hard-nosed exterior the character would need in order to survive in that environment, but with all the soft-centre that lurks not that far under the surface. I also thought that, technically, she gave the most perfect performance of the entire cast; every line delivered immaculately, every movement assertively achieved. I’d seen Adam Kozuch in a few productions before, including Town My Town and Our Country’s Good, but here, as Mouse, he performed with even more natural ease and comfort, and he really let us in to the more vulnerable side of the character.

You asked for itI loved Will Adams’ Meat Man, a bit of a fuddy-duddy but obviously a decent sort; he plays a beautiful scene where he comes to Boy’s rescue when he needs advice about buying steak to impress Girl on their big date. The Land of Hope and Glory accompaniment was a touch of genius. The character’s eventual downfall was very movingly portrayed. I also loved Vicky Kelly as Fat Annie from the tea stall, luring with her gently lascivious tone as she tries to get into Boy’s good books (and pants). Zoe Smith’s Thatcher oozed superiority and detachment as she condescended her way across the stage; and Stewart Magrath’s Market Toby was a fantastically ogreish creation, bullying and fleecing his way around the market, terrifying the life out of the front row of the Stalls with his barking warnings. And I enjoyed the smartarse but moving performance of Ben Webb as Snooks, showing off as a shoe trader, arrogantly going off to work in the city full of Thatcherite zeal, returning some time later with his tail between his legs, genuinely broken.

Quite possibly the best amateur production we’ve ever seen – of anything. A shame it only entertained for three performances, but I’m sure if you saw it, you won’t forget it in a hurry! Oh, and if I’ve got anyone’s name wrong, apologies, but it’s difficult matching performers to names without a more detailed programme!

Review – The Last Night of the Derngate Proms, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 17th July 2016

Last Night of the Derngate PromsMrs Chrisparkle and I have always enjoyed our visits to the Last Night of the Proms – Derngate style, that is – although we did once get to see the real thing in the Albert Hall which was indeed a privilege. As usual, I booked for this show as part of our subscription package with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. The Last Night is always a very entertaining – if essentially shallow – flick through some of Classic’s Greatest Hits in the lead up to the usual flag-waving extravaganza of Rule Britannia, Jerusalem and Land of Hope and Glory.

The Derngate Auditorium was packed to the rafters for this final concert in the RPO’s annual season. Our conductor was Gareth Hudson, new to us, and as Mr Hudson himself explained, he was new to Northampton. But I think both Mr Hudson and Northampton got on very well with each other. He’s a charming host, with a reassuring voice of honey, providing an entertaining and informative running commentary on all the pieces we were going to hear. As a conductor, he’s not one of those who over-exerts himself but manages to get the best from the orchestra whilst retaining a simple air of dignity and authority. In honour of the gala occasion, the word had gone out to the ladies of the RPO to wear strikingly coloured gowns, so the stage was awash with beautiful reds, greens, and blues. Mrs C pointed out that if I mentioned what the ladies were wearing, I should, for the sake of equality, also pass comment on the gentlemen’s appearance. They were in their stock penguin suits. They obviously didn’t get the same memo. However, if we are concentrating on appearances, I must congratulate harpist Mr Hugh Webb on his spectacular moustache. His harpistry was pretty spectacular too.

There were eighteen pieces to listen to. Eighteen! Seventeen in the programme and one encore. Given that the concert lasted about 2 hours and 20 minutes, and including 20 minutes for the interval and say 20 minutes for chat and applause, I estimate the average time per musical item to be about 5 and a half minutes. It’s not really long enough to get fully engrossed in any particular piece; but on the plus side, if you don’t like any particular item, it won’t be long before it’s over and the next one has started!

Gareth HudsonThe programme began with the overture to Rossini’s Thieving Magpie – probably one of the longer pieces of the evening as it happens – lively, fun, and full of the joys of orchestration. The RPO were obviously going to be on great form. Then came the Intermezzo from Cavalleria Rusticana, one of my favourite pieces of music, played with lush exquisiteness by the strings. When I was a kid I wanted to write an opera (I know, always had grand plans, me); I often used to think how chuffed Mascagni must have been to win that opera-writing competition, and what a brass neck he had to write the Intermezzo so that his two-act opera became a one-act opera, and therefore eligible for the prize. Clever chap.

So that was two Italians – now for a Czech: Dvořák’s Song to the Moon, from his opera Rusalka. We welcomed soprano Deborah Norman to the stage for the first of four appearances to sing this famous aria, although it’s not one with which I’m that attuned. Miss Norman certainly transported us to a lunar scenario, with her engaging interpretation and glittery voice. Then we had the famous Onedin Line theme from Khachaturian’s Spartacus suite – I know he didn’t strictly write it for the BBC but it’s what every one of my generation associates with it. I thought this was performed absolutely terrifically; incredibly stirring, a full tidal wave of emotion. Khachaturian was to be the first of two Russians – next was Tchaikovsky with the Sleeping Beauty Waltz, a timeless piece of sheer delight, again played beautifully by the orchestra.

Anyone who knows me, understands that I don’t do Gilbert and Sullivan. Yes, I know, it’s a failing on my part; and I have tried, believe me. But, as the old song in Liza of Lambeth goes, nothing is duller than Gilbert and Sullivan, in the British tradition they’re palpably rooted, the music is trivial and far from convivial, the words are appallingly convoluted. (Don’t worry, I won’t quote the whole song.) So I confess I wasn’t looking forward to Deborah Norman’s performance of The Sun Whose Rays Are All Ablaze (even the title is so trite in its need to rhyme) by Sir Arthur Sullivan, an aria (if you can call it that) from The Mikado. But, guess what? I really enjoyed it! I think it was the first time I’ve ever enjoyed any one song from G&S. Don’t get me wrong – I’m never going to be a convert. But I was most surprised to hear its delicacy and sweetness.

After the atrocity in Nice on Friday, Gareth Hudson simply said in his introduction to the next piece that he would like to dedicate it to the people of France. André Caplet’s orchestral arrangement of Debussy’s Clair de Lune received a stunning performance from the orchestra and it was a very moving moment. The first half of the concert wound up with another blistering performance, this time of Bizet’s L’Arlésienne Suite, No 2: Farandole, a piece I can never remember until I hear it, which is when I instantly remember how much I love it.

Deborah NormanIt was after the interval that things just started to get a little weird. Not musically – by any means; the RPO continued to give a fantastic performance. Mrs C and I just got the sense that this year’s flag-waving jingoism had taken on a little more… shall we say, sinister aspect. It all started in the first piece after the interval, the splendid overture to the operetta Light Cavalry by Franz von Suppé. The orchestra really got into its military stride with this, creating a fantastic rhythm; but the elderly lady sitting further along the row from us got totally carried away and started to pretend that she was on a horse, bobbing up and down with the rhythm, swaying the reins, and basically giving us all the giddy-ups. That’s fine. Good music well performed can do this to a person.

We welcomed back Deborah Norman to give us a tender rendition of Je veux vivre, from Gounod’s Romeo et Juliette. This piece was new to me and I found it very touching and full of that youthful enthusiasm we would associate with the young tragic heroine. Then it was time for the Polonaise from Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin. We saw this performed in Bratislava a few years ago and absolutely loved it – but I regret I couldn’t particularly remember the Polonaise. The RPO gave it a full-on rumbustious run for its money and the audience responded really warmly to it. Then came – for me, at least – perhaps the most rewarding performance of the evening – Two Songs Without Words (Country Song and Marching Song) by Gustav Holst. As Mr Hudson mentioned in his introduction, Holst’s back catalogue became completely eclipsed (pardon the pun) by the success of his Planets Suite, reducing the rest of his output to virtual insignificance. So here were two earlier pieces that rarely get performed, and I thought they were sensational. This is the English Folk Music-inspired Holst, rather than the astronomically-inspired version, although I definitely heard a music prequel of Jupiter somewhere in there. A fantastic performance of (for me) an exciting find. This section of the concert wrapped up with (as the RPO often do) those few minutes of intense emotion that constitute Nimrod, from Elgar’s Enigma Variations. Nimrod never does quite give you that same tingle when it’s played outside of the context of a full performance of the Variations, but nevertheless, it’s still a magnificent piece and gives you a few moments to cherish those you love and remember those you’ve lost.

It was Gareth Hudson’s introduction to the final sequence of patriotic numbers that encapsulated whatever it was that had been bothering us. He said (and I paraphrase) that no matter how we all voted in a certain referendum recently, we should take the opportunity to allow the evening’s music to unite us. Now forgive me, gentle reader, for going off piste here, and I know this may alienate many of you to bring politics into music, but Mrs C and I are still very much coming to terms with (what we feel is) the (disastrous) result of the referendum. The wounds have gone very deep; it’s going to be a long time before the healing takes place (indeed, if it ever does). Surrounded by an audience made up of almost entirely white, middle-aged to elderly, middle-class Northamptonians (our town voted 59-41 in favour of Brexit) we suddenly realised the extent to which we were in the minority in that room. The patriotism of our neighbours all waving the flags and standing, Nuremberg rally-like, to Land of Hope and Glory, felt very, very uncomfortable. I can’t help it – at the moment I’m not proud of our country, so I couldn’t permit myself to get up and join the others. I was happy to sing it, as I always am. But there was a swelling of nationalistic pride going on in that hall on Sunday night with which I really did not want to associate myself.

Back on piste. Our final sequence of music was as unchanging as the waning moon, starting with Tom Bowling and the Hornpipe from Sir Henry Wood’s Fantasia on British Sea Songs. Mr Hudson introduced lead cellist Tim Gill for the Tom Bowling and he was exceptional as usual, bringing out all that deep-seated sadness and searing emotion from its lamentation-like theme. The Hornpipe, of course, couldn’t be a greater juxtaposition, with Mr Hudson already encouraging us to clap along, even if, (of course), we all did it too loudly, too enthusiastically, and too early. Ms Norman returned for the final time (a little early in fact, as Mr Hudson was still humiliating us with My Bonnie Lies Over The Ocean, making us stand, then sit, each time a word beginning with a B comes along – think about it, it gets exhausting) for Rule, Britannia! And I really appreciate it when all three verses are sung in full. Jerusalem, which followed, has much claim to be my own personal favourite song of all time, and nothing’s going to stop me from bellowing each syllable as if I were still in Morning Assembly in 1973. And finally, a lively and fun performance of the Pomp and Circumstance March No 1, which got our Cavalry overture lady up on her feet at the first whiff of a land of Hope and Glory. All credit to her, when no one else got up so early she didn’t budge but held her ground. Classic rule – if you ovate and no one else does, it looks appalling if you sit down again. Have the courage of your convictions! Reservations (as per the previous paragraph) aside, it was a wonderful performance.

Royal Philharmonic OrchestraAnd it was also with great pleasure that I realised it wasn’t to be quite the final number of the night. As an encore, and once again with a respectful nod to France and maybe something to assuage the Bremainers, Mr Hudson returned to the podium to crack out a fun and frolicsome performance of Offenbach’s Infernal Galop from Orpheus in the Underworld – the Can Can. Now that did deserve an ovation.

No more Royal Philharmonic Orchestra here in Northampton until much later in the year – and unfortunately we can’t make that concert! Still we’ll look forward to re-acquainting ourselves with the RPO next February.

Review – Present Laughter, Milton Keynes Theatre, 16th July 2016

Present LaughterA last minute change of plan meant that I was able to make a sneaky booking for Mrs Chrisparkle and me to see this touring production of Present Laughter, which I’d had my eye on for a few months but couldn’t see how to schedule it in. I’m extremely glad we did, because it’s an elegant, classy, sophisticated and intelligent production of a play that neither of us had seen before. I read a number of Coward’s plays when I was about 15 years old, and this was one of them; and I remember at the time that it really didn’t jump off the page for me. I could see how it was an account of the trials and tribulations that beset light-comedy-actor Garry Essendine, but, unlike all the other Coward plays I read at the time, I found it heavy-going. So I was very interested to see how a decent production would make it come to life.

Joanna and GarryI don’t think there was ever any pretence, since the play first hit the boards in 1943, that its protagonist Garry Essendine is Noel Coward. He wrote it as a semi-autobiographical frippery purely to give himself a star role. Many of the other characters are based on members of his “set” (makes him sound like a badger), and Essendine’s constant inclination to overact or underempathise reflects Coward’s own intolerance and impatience with his celebrity status, which you sense drove him mad with its interminable impingement on his freedom but without which he would have been bereft.

MonicaIn brief, over the course of a few days, the actor is at the centre of a (largely self-induced) whirlwind of activity that includes two women throwing themselves at him, coping with the relationship indiscretions of his closest friends, beating off the advances of a young playwright hopelessly obsessed with him, and facing the no-nonsense discipline of his secretary and his ex-wife, all whilst he’s preparing to take a company of actors on a tour of Africa. At times it’s quite gentle comedy, at others almost Feydeau-esque in its farcical deceptions.

GarryAll the essential requirements of an impeccable Coward production are here. Simon Higlett’s graceful set comfortably accommodates all the exit and entry points needed for the farcical elements, whilst reflecting Essendine’s immaculate taste in all the furnishings and accoutrements of fine living. The costumes are beautiful; indeed, I rather hankered after the smart dressing gown that Liz bought Essendine in Paris. A proper piano; very comme il faut. The spiral staircase direct to Essendine’s boudoir adds a touch of extravagance. When can we move in?

Garry and DaphneStephen Unwin directs his hugely enjoyable cast at a smart pace, encouraging everyone to get meaningful characterisation out of even the minor parts, thus providing a superb backbone to support the main characters. For example, Martin Hancock as Fred, the valet, is brilliant at bringing out all his egalitarian cheeriness, naturally offering his rightyo’s and be good’s to everyone in his orbit, no matter their estate. Sally Tatum brings the house down with her self-contortions and Scandinavian impishness as the psychic housekeeper Miss Erikson, as does Patrick Walshe McBride with his slightly unhinged, slightly menacing interpretation of the appalling Roland Maule; two roles that could so easily descend into mere caricature, but here performed with perfect judgment to present real people out of these nightmare creations. Toby Longworth’s Henry is a delightfully blustering idiot who loses his cool magnificently when he thinks Essendine is having an affair with his wife; Jason Morell is hilarious with his over-reactions to… well, to anything; and Elizabeth Holland brings some splendid dignity to her don’t put your daughter on the stage Mrs Worthington moment.

LizAt the heart of the production is an immaculate performance by Samuel West as Garry Essendine. As with some of the smaller roles, it could be easy to go over-the-top and caricaturise Essendine as a merely waspish spoilt brat and arch manipulator. But Mr West digs deeper into the character and reveals someone with whom you can actually have a lot of sympathy; he presents Essendine’s weaknesses with a hint of affection, so that, although he certainly isn’t more sinned against than sinning, the dividing line between the two isn’t quite so clear as you might think it is. Essendine’s characteristic switching between (in)sincerity and acting is intelligently but mischievously handled by Mr West so that it’s hardly surprising that Daphne hilariously misinterprets his intentions; an excellent performance.

HenryDaisy Boulton’s Daphne is wide-eyed and toe-curlingly in love with Garry and is wonderfully easy fodder to his patter and pretence. Rebecca Johnson is first rate as his wife/ex-wife (you choose) Liz, with a fine blend of hard-nosed toughness to keep Garry out of trouble and an indulgent forgiveness of his misconduct. Zoe Boyle gives a great performance as the bed-hopping Joanna, allowing the mask of steely self-assurance to drop perfectly when she’s cornered; and there’s a wonderful performance by Phyllis Logan as Essendine’s much put-upon secretary Monica, protecting him from the worst excesses of his own behaviour with all the warmth and understanding of a senior Matron who’s seen it all and didn’t like much of what she saw.

Garry againImpeccably performed throughout, the play still has insightful observations to make about the nature of celebrity, loyalty and pretence versus reality. It’s not Coward at his most searing, but it still has great entertainment value and we both really enjoyed it! This Theatre Royal Bath production continues to tour to Cambridge, Richmond, Brighton and Malvern until 20th August. Go see it!

Production photos by Nobby Clark.

The Agatha Christie Challenge – The Seven Dials Mystery (1929)

Seven Dials MysteryIn which we pay a return visit to the grand country mansion of Chimneys and get re-acquainted with “Bundle” Brent, that typical Christie bold adventuress who, with her friends, helps to expose the activities of the secret “Seven Dials” society, uncover the identity of its head, the mysterious No. 7, and in so doing discovers a murderer. As usual, you can read at ease, I promise I won’t reveal those secret identities if you haven’t read it yet!

detectiveIn her autobiography, Christie described this book as one of her “light-hearted thriller types”, saying it was easy to write as it didn’t require too much plotting or planning. I have to say, I think it shows; as I found re-reading this book much more of a bind than a pleasure. I found it really hard work, leaving it to one side for days and days with no interest in picking it back up. It’s not a question of the characters, I just found the plot immensely tedious. Interestingly, it wasn’t particularly well received critically at the time; in particular, the New York Times Book Review was very damning: “She has held out information which the reader should have had, and, not content with scattering false clues with a lavish hand, she has carefully avoided leaving any clues pointing to the real criminal. Worst of all, the solution itself is utterly preposterous. This book is far below the standard set by Agatha Christie’s earlier stories.”

dancingThe book is described as a sequel to The Secret of Chimneys and re-introduces us to our heroine Bundle, her slightly eccentric father Lord Caterham, our trusty police officer Superintendent Battle, Under-Secretary for State for Foreign Affairs George Lomax and his assistant Bill, and the ever-reliable butler Tredwell. The good superintendent will come back to solve three more mysteries before his time is out; the other characters never return to Christie-land. The tone of the book is once more that of jolly trendy young things making the most of their 1920s opportunities, dancing to the wireless, driving recklessly, getting their man to buy them guns, that sort of thing. Christie does reflect that world extremely convincingly and you can just see in your mind’s eye those rather vacuous characters having the time of their lives, with authority figures like Battle trying to keep them on the straight and narrow with affectionate indulgence. There’s not a lot of character development for the six “return” characters; you don’t learn much more about them than what you would have gathered in The Secret of Chimneys. However, for me, where this book falls down is its general lack of plot. I’m not surprised that I couldn’t remember much about it before re-reading it – there isn’t that much to remember.

libraryIt’s also very unevenly written. There are a few genuinely exciting, page-turning scenes which completely grip your imagination and you really enjoy the ride – for example the sequence where Jimmy, Bill, Bundle and Loraine split up and the narrative follows each of them in turn; then they all come back together again in the library, having experienced gunshots, police presence, creaking floorboards and door handles silently turning. But there are some other sequences that, when you look back you realise do have relevance to the crime and its solution, but are extraordinarily boring to read: an example of that is the interminable conversations with Lord Caterham (who really is very dull in this book) and Bundle about left-handed golf-playing. Nevertheless, the proof of the pudding, etc, tells its own story. There are some good red herrings littered everywhere, and I suspected two different people of being the murderer at different stages of the book and I was wrong on both counts – and the revelation of the identity of the murderer – and indeed of No 7 – is a very good surprise indeed. It just feels like it takes ages to get there!

secretLike her previous book, The Mystery of the Blue Train, there is no narrator to guide us through the investigations, but Christie’s own voice comes through occasionally with some slightly wry asides about the way the story is unfolding: “Now it may be said at once that in the foregoing conversation each one of the three participants had, as it were, held something in reserve. That “Nobody tells everything” is a very true motto. It may be questioned, for instance, if Loraine Wade was perfectly sincere in the account of the motives which had led her to seek out Jimmy Thesiger. In the same way, Jimmy Thesiger himself had various ideas and plans connected with the forthcoming party at George Lomax’s which he had no intention of revealing to – say, Bundle. And Bundle herself had a fully-fledged plan which she proposed to put into immediate execution and which she had said nothing whatever about.“ There is also a scene where two people are locked away in a room and it is revealed that they have fallen in love. Christie deals with that situation very nicely: “There is no need to describe in detail the conversation of the next ten minutes. It consisted mainly of repetitions.”

alarm clockWhen one of the clocks goes missing, at the scene of the first crime, was anyone else expecting them to continue going missing, in the style of And Then There Were None? This book precedes the latter by ten years, but you often catch Christie trying ideas out that she re-uses to greater effect later in her career. This, however, wasn’t one of them.

Seven DialsThere are a few locations in this book, and, unusually for Christie, they are quite specifically identified. The title itself gives rise to the Seven Dials area of London, described, amusingly, as a “rather slummy district of London”. Perhaps this is one of the best examples of how an area can be smartened up over the years. This is how the Seven Dials website describes the location: “the intriguing network of seven atmospheric streets that link Covent Garden to Soho. Always buzzy, packed with independent boutiques, international fashion labels, heritage brands, beauty salons, men’s grooming specialists, traditional pubs, cool cocktail bars, cafés, restaurants, theatres and smart hotels; historic Seven Dials is modern London’s most original shopping and lifestyle destination.” How times have changed. Christie’s Seven Dials club is located at 14 Hunstanton Street; however, I’m sorry to say, there’s no such street. There is however a genuine Seven Dials Club, based at 42 Earlham Street. Jimmy Thesiger lives at 103 Jermyn Street – a very fine and respectable address indeed. And there really is a 103! It’s the London home of that fine shirtmaker T. M. Lewin. However, when Christie wrote the book, I think Lewin’s were based at 18 Jermyn Street. Sir Oswald and Lady Coote move to “the Duke of Alton’s place, Letherbury”. No such title, I’m afraid, although there was a Marquis of Alton in the late 17th century (the Alton in question being the Staffordshire village now best known for Alton Towers). Letherbury itself appears to be a complete invention of Christie’s.

rachel-mourningThere are always a few unusual references and words in a Christie book that make me think twice and delve into their meanings – and this book is no exception. On the very first page, Christie introduces us to Lady Coote. “An artist looking for a model for “Rachel mourning for her children” would have hailed Lady Coote a delight.” Rachel? Mourning for her children? I guessed this was a Bible story of which I was unaware but I had to go check. Of course – married to Jacob. Jeremiah 31:15 is your friend.

Hispano““Father,” said Bundle […], “I’m going up to town in the Hispano. I can’t stand the monotony down here any longer.”” I wasn’t sure what a Hispano was, so I checked. The Hispano-Suiza company was a Spanish manufacturer of luxury cars, founded in 1904, defunct in 1968. At the time of this book, the company was enjoying a good position in the luxury car market. Once the Spanish Civil War kicked in, the company was forced to be part of the war effort, and after 1950 worked almost exclusively in the aerospace industry.

gimletI thought it was fascinating that at the time of writing this book, Christie called alarm clocks “alarum clocks”. I reckon this must have been a pretty archaic use of the term even in the 1920s. When Bundle first visits the Seven Dials Club she asks Alfred for a gimlet. “You must have a gimlet – perhaps you’ve got an auger as well”. I’ve never been into DIY much, but, in case you didn’t know, a gimlet is one of those little tools that looks like a screwdriver but has a screw-type ending rather than the angular flat edge ending. An auger is a bigger version. In one of Christie’s duller passages, Lady Coote reminisces about some old wallpaper she admired. “Satin stripes, you know, not moiré”. I’ve never heard of moiré – but it’s when you superimpose a line pattern on top of another. How clever of Lady Coote.

PoundUnusually for Christie, this isn’t a book where large sums of money are being mentioned, either in the form of the value of expensive jewellery, or property or blackmail sums. I always like to translate money values into what they’re worth today to get a better understanding of the amounts involved. But there are only a couple of instances, both involving Alfred. Bundle offers him £10 to scarper from the Seven Dials Club and avoid getting involved with the police; which happens to be exactly one tenth of the sum he was offered by Mosgorovsky (£100) in order to leave Chimneys and work at the Seven Dials. That tenner today is worth £444 – that’s some generosity in Bundle’s purse, for sure. And £4440 isn’t a bad sum for a footman to be poached to another employer. No wonder he did it.

I think it’s now time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for The Seven Dials Mystery:

Publication Details: 1929. My copy is a Fontana paperback, 4th impression published in September 1967, priced 3/6. The atmospheric cover picture is by an uncredited artist and depicts a gloved hand wielding a pistol in a most menacing manner, with somewhat ethereal alarm clocks serving as the background. And yes, the artist did get the most important detail about the gloved hand right!

How many pages until the first death: 15. That’s just about perfect. No hanging around, and it keeps you locked into the story – at least for a while.

Funny lines out of context: I liked these extracts for their pithiness and ability to amuse:

“She had reckoned without the predominant trait of a good head gardener, which is to oppose any and every suggestion made to him.”

(Lady Coote playing bridge) “She was very fond of her husband, but she had no intention of allowing him to cheat her out of ten shillings.” (That’s £20 today!)

“Mrs Howell […] was full of pitying ejaculations”.

”I went to Harrods and bought a pistol.”

Memorable characters:
Jimmy Thesiger is quite a lovable rogue in many respects, with his constantly cheeky repartee with authority figures; he was probably seen as quite a fascinating young cove in those days. The characterisation of Lady Coote starts well, but then she fades.

Christie the Poison expert:
The first victim dies from an overdose of chloral, just as in The Secret Adversary. Please feel free to read more about chloral in that blog post!

Class/social issues of the time:

What kind of life is valued in this book? For all that she’s a go-ahead, go-getting girl, Bundle is very much a traditionalist and, although she rails at boredom, what she really wants is the old-fashioned, stick-in-the-mud world of her father, where tradition beats plumbing. “”That’s a fine place of yours, Chimneys, “ remarked the great man. “I’m glad you liked it”, said Bundle meekly. “Wants new plumbing,” said Sir Oswald. “Bring it up to date, you know.” He ruminated for a minute or two. “I’m taking the Duke of Alton’s place. Three years. Just while I’m looking round for a place of my own. Your father couldn’t sell if he wanted to, I suppose?” Bundle felt her breath taken away. She had a nightmare vision of England with innumerable Cootes in innumerable counterparts of Chimneys – all, be it understood, with an entirely new system of plumbing installed.”

Aside from that, Christie’s is, as we have seen in previous books, a sexist world; and there’s plenty of evidence of that in this book. There are endless references to discussions between Jimmy and Bill to the effect that “the girls have done their bit” and are to stay behind whilst the men do the risky business. Interestingly though, Bundle and Loraine show no signs of wishing to obey by staying in and washing their hair whilst the men have adventures. Bill Eversleigh reports that George Lomax “doesn’t really believe in women standing for Parliament”; and in her brief appearance in the book, Bundle’s Aunt Marcia gives her appraisal of Mrs Macatta: “A most estimable woman with a brilliant brain. I may say that as a general rule I do not hold with women standing for Parliament. They can make their influence felt in a more womanly fashion.”

It’s also a xenophobic, if not racist world, as the following insights bear out. Here’s some antisemitism: Bill is telling Bundle about the beautiful actress Babe St Maur…: “”I wonder how she got that name?” said Bundle sarcastically. Bill replied literally. “She got it out of Who’s Who. Opened it and jabbed her finger down on a page without looking. Pretty nifty, eh? Her real name’s Goldschmidt or Abrameier – something quite impossible.” “Oh, quite”, agreed Bundle.” And here’s some anti German sentiment: Bundle tries to find out about John, the new footman, from Tredwell the butler. “”What’s his name, Tredwell?” “Bower, my lady”. […] Apparently he was the perfect servant, well trained, with an expressionless face. He had, perhaps, a more soldierly bearing than most footmen and there was something a little odd about the shape of the back of his head. […] “Tredell, how is the name Bower spelt?” “B-A-U-E-R, my lady”. “That’s not an English name.” “I believe he is of Swiss extraction, my lady.” “Oh! That’s all, Tredwell, thank you.” Swiss extraction? No. German! That martial carriage, that flat back of the head. And he had come to Chimneys a fortnight before Gerry Wade’s death.” I guess we must accept that we are in 1929 and tensions are building.

As usual, the class system is very much at large in Christie’s world. Pompous politician George feels it is incumbent on him and his ilk to preserve England’s traditions – the traditional view of life that Bundle has a soft spot for, as shown earlier: “In these days of changed and unsettled conditions […] when family life is at a premium – all the old standards falling! It becomes our class to set an example to show that we, at least, are unaffected by modern conditions. They call us the Die Hards – I am proud of the term […] There are things that should die hard – dignity, beauty, modesty, the sanctity of family life, filial respect – who dies if these shall live?” At the other end of the scale, when Bill considers if Bundle has a future in politics he sees it in terms of having to “kiss dirty babies in Bermondsey”. I expect the Mayfair babies aren’t dirty.

Classic denouement: No. It’s quite brief and it takes place in retrospect, with the guilty party already having been arrested, so you never get to see their reaction to the long arm of the law and if they try to wriggle out of it, which is a little disappointing. Nevertheless, the identity of the murderer is only one of number of good surprises, so that’s a mitigating factor.

Happy ending? Yes! Two of the major younger characters find love and you just know they’re going to settle down to a happy ever after.

Did the story ring true? If you believe that the criminal mastermind behind this case could genuinely carry off all the subterfuge and misleading behaviour that it would require, then there’s no reason not to believe the whole thing. There is, however, a lot of coincidence, perhaps most significantly the fact that Bundle was driving past at the very moment that the second victim is discovered.

Overall satisfaction rating: 5/10. It’s not all bad by any means – with some exciting passages, a good surprise ending and some enjoyable characterisation. It’s just a bit boring. Interesting that Christie never sought to revisit Chimneys for any future books.

Partners in CrimeThanks for reading my blog of The Seven Dials 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. Next up in the Agatha Christie Challenge we are still in 1929, but going back to the short story genre as we catch up with Tommy and Tuppence as private investigators in Partners in Crime. If I remember rightly, this is a very entertaining read! 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!

Review – Sarah Millican, Outsider, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 2nd July 2016

Sarah MillicanWe’re lucky enough to see a lot of comedy but it’s not often we go back to see big names a second time because once is generally enough to know whether you like them and whether they make you laugh. Of course, you might want to go back and see them again sometime in the future, just not too quickly – it keeps things varied and interesting that way. However, there are a few notable exceptions where we will always book to see their latest show: Dara O’Briain, Julian Clary, and now Sarah Millican.

Ms Millican commands the box office with a ferocious loyalty that I can’t see with any other comedian. Not only did I have to book those tickets over a year ago – 26th March 2015 to be exact – but demand for her performance has resulted in her doing three shows over three consecutive nights. That’s some demand. What is it about her that makes her so popular?

Sarah MShe’s tremendously funny, that’s what. From the moment she comes on stage till the moment she leaves, you’re aching with laughter. What I particularly like about her style is that you get the sense that everything she tells you is 100% true. She would be the most effective politician if she wanted, and you’d never need to vote her out because she would simply never lie. She also, bravely, shares fairly intimate personal details; from the reason why she never uses bath crystals to the catastrophic nature of her Irritable Bowel Syndrome farts. If you’re looking for someone demure and tasteful, you’ve probably come to the wrong place.

Unusually she started off the show by coming on, giving us about ten minutes of introductory hilarity, and then handing over to her warmup act. In a sense, that meant that she was acting as his warmup, which, when you think about it, is remarkably generous! As a result, we were well and truly warmed up already, which actually meant that we could really enjoy our twenty minutes with Geoff Norcott. Mr Norcott comes over as a truly affable bloke, with great comic observations about married life, teetering girls in high heels and the civil war between the old and the young. He gained an instant rapport with the audience and he went down extremely well.

Geoff NorcottSarah Millican is certainly enraptured by the animal kingdom and gets a lot of excellent comic material from stories about her pets. She extends the conversation to getting the audience to call out any great sights in nature that any of us had seen. This is obviously a device that works well, for when we last saw her she wanted our suggestions for what you would take with you for a dirty weekend. This time round, I’m not sure our audience was quite as much at one with nature as Ms Millican might have hoped, but at least one chap said he’d seen a squirrel eating a KitKat.

After the interval, we were treated to more ace routines including the sheer horror of undergoing one of those “relaxing” spa massages, which resonated loudly with Mrs Chrisparkle’s and my one-and-only experience of an expensive, side-by-side, relaxing full body massage which was one of the most stressful things we’ve ever endured. But the main element of the second half is the most superb example of revenge being a dish best served cold that you’ve ever heard. There’s nothing quite so sweet in life as that moment when you know you’ve got your own back on a bully. I’ll say no more – except that it’s toe-curlingly divine.

S MillicanAt the end you could collect your free badge – to add to your collection of Sarah Millican free badges. You could be a flower or a pet, depending on your personal assessment of how needy or otherwise you are. I chose to be a flower – but the queue to collect it was vast, so I will just continue to be a flower in my own mind’s eye. She had the entire full house in hysterics for the best part of two and a half hours. Mrs C was literally crying – and she doesn’t do that very often, at least over comedy. Sarah Millican’s tour continues right through to September but you have to be very quick to secure a ticket. She’s great though, so you really should!!