The Agatha Christie Challenge – The Thirteen Problems (1932)

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

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

The Tuesday Night Club

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

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

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

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

The Idol House of Astarte

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

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

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

Ingots of Gold

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

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

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

The Bloodstained Pavement

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

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

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

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

Motive v Opportunity

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

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

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

The Thumb Mark of St Peter

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

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

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

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

The Blue Geranium

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

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

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

The Companion

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

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

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

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

The Four Suspects

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

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

A Christmas Tragedy

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

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

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

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

The Herb of Death

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

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

The Affair at the Bungalow

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

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

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

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

Death by Drowning

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

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

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

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

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

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