The Agatha Christie Challenge – Parker Pyne Investigates (1934)

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

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

The Case of the Middle-aged Wife

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Case of the Discontented Soldier

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

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

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

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

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

The Case of the Distressed Lady

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

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

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

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

The Case of the Discontented Husband

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

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

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

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

The Case of the City Clerk

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

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

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

The Case of the Rich Woman

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

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

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

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

Have You Got Everything You Want?

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

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

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

The Gate of Baghdad

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

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

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

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

The House at Shiraz

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

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

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

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

The Pearl of Price

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

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

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

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

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

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

Death on the Nile

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

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

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

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

The Oracle at Delphi

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

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

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

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

Three Act TragedyWith the next book in the Agatha Christie Challenge, it’s back to the novel format; and a welcome return to Hercule Poirot for the first of a series of nine books each featuring the famous Belgian detective. It’s Three Act Tragedy, and I can’t remember a thing about it, except that the book is divided into three parts, each one an “act” of the “tragedy”. If you’d like to read it too, I’ll blog about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meanwhile, happy sleuthing and keep on Christie-ing!

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