Review – The Snowman, Errol Flynn Filmhouse, Northampton, 21st November 2017

The SnowmanNothing to do with Raymond Briggs or choirboys singing Walking in the Air, this Snowman is a lot more lethal. Based on Jo Nesbø’s book of the same name, it features his detective Harry Hole as he investigates a series of murders where the killer always leaves a calling card in the form of a snowman. A real one, built from snow, with two sticky twigs as arms. Unsurprisingly, he tends to rest during the summer months.

Michael FassbenderConfession time – but I sense I might not be alone here – I’ve neither heard of Harry Hole nor of Jo Nesbø, and had no idea that he was like the Norwegian version of Inspector Morse. I only decided to book for this film because I saw the trailer at an earlier visit to the cinema and it looked gripping. I also had no idea that it had been universally panned by the critics, with reviews that include “a mystery that feels as mashed together and perishable as its title” and “a leaden, clotted, exasperating mess”. High praise indeed.

Michael Fassbender and Charlotte GainsbourgI have to say, I think they’re rather harsh comments, because, on the whole, we enjoyed the film. In its favour: first, the excellent cinematography, with those enigmatic, snowy, mountainous wastes of Norway looming gloomily in the distance. I’ve never been to Oslo, but I have had the experience of visiting Tromso and the generally depressing Norwegian urban scenes in the film largely reflected my memory of that miserable city. Second, the suspense: about fifteen minutes into the film, a lady is sitting reading in bed and you suddenly hear a snowball being thrown at her bedroom window. Mrs Chrisparkle jolted with shock so much she almost knocked the Pinot Grigio out of the man’s hand sitting next to her. That’s how suspenseful it is. Third, the opening ten minutes or so plunge you instantly into the story, ending with a very strong visual image that I think I will remember for a long time!

Rebecca FergusonIn its disfavour, and it very nearly ruined it completely for me: in the final reel, as it were, there’s Harry Hole, injured and unable to move, prostrate on the floor, with the killer lumbering up to him ready to deal the final blow that will send him to the land of Old Norse. Well, it’s no spoiler to tell you that Harry survives the ordeal – after all he features in another four books after this one so that’s in the public domain – but the reason the killer fails to silence him forever? Risible. And pathetic. And nonsensical. I’ll say no more.

Chloe SevignyOverall it’s a decent whodunit, but as the film progresses, the identity of the killer becomes more and more apparent (well it did to me, at least.) The killer is fairly obviously the boy in the first scenes, now grown up to be a man. There are three characters who might most likely be that person. One gets murdered halfway through, and another is seen to be somewhere else when the next murder takes place – and, lo and behold, that third person does indeed turn out to be the killer. Ah well, sometimes it’s satisfying to guess right.

J K SimmonsI enjoyed Michael Fassbender as Harry Hole; he’s low key and somewhat dour, but then, he is playing a Norwegian. Reading up on Harry’s characteristics in the books and on a synopsis of the novel, I’d say it was a pretty good interpretation of the role; the chain-smoking and alcoholism are certainly clear. Having said that, there are huge, interesting-sounding aspects of the original book that are nowhere near touched on in the screenplay – an opportunity missed, methinks. Rebecca Ferguson is convincing as Katrine, the detective who’s been brought in alongside Hole to keep him in check; Charlotte Gainsbourg is authoritative and serious as Harry’s ex, Rakel; and there are a few surprising cameos in the supporting cast, including Toby Jones as a police investigator and Anne Reid, would you believe, as a nosey neighbour. Plus there’s a very rough looking Val Kilmer as a now dead detective, frequently returning to interrupt the flow of the investigation. He also just so happens to be Katrine’s dad. Curious.

Val KilmerHow come no one ever saw the killer building the snowmen outside his victims’ houses? I think it must be asked. And how on earth did he manage to shape a snowman on the roof of a car? The cops need to focus their investigation on a man with his own stepladder and mittens. Despite all its shortcomings, I still found it entertaining enough to stay awake (that, gentle reader, is something one should never take for granted) and I generally enjoyed it in the way, I think, that the creative team wanted me to – in other words, taking it seriously and not taking the mick. I do sense though that this is a film that is going to sink without trace in the annals of movie history.

P. S. If you’ve always wanted to hear the Norwegian version of Cliff Richard’s Congratulations, your prayers are answered.

Review – Young Marx, Bridge Theatre, 19th November 2017

Young MarxFirst of all, a great big stagey welcome to the Bridge Theatre, a new venture on the south side of the Thames, a few minutes from Tower Bridge, opposite the Tower of London, along from HMS Belfast. I don’t think there’s any other theatre with such a selection of iconic views from its front door. Inside, there’s a wide bar/reception area that leads to the circle and galleries, and stairs down to the stalls. Inside it’s very comfortable, with a great rake and terrific sightlines, as the rows are slightly staggered so that you don’t have someone else’s big head right in your line of vision. Our interval glass of Minervois was exceptionally tasty; my only criticism is that the box office was closed at the end of the show, even though it’s an extension of the bar area, where people were still working. There were at least four people, maybe more (including myself) who hung around waiting for someone to come so that we could buy a copy of the playscript (and after all, it’s not until after the show that you really know whether you want to buy a copy or not) – but alas no one appeared. That was at least £40 worth of sales they missed out on. Still, what a great theatre!

YM6Its inaugural production is Young Marx, from the pen of Richard Bean (who seems to be unstoppable with his writing at the moment) in collaboration with Clive Coleman. Yes, even that towering, intimidating, bewhiskered old commie Karl Marx was once a young roister-doister. Penniless and thoroughly amoral, he steals from his wife to get money from the pawnbrokers, sleeps with the maid and then passes her child off as someone else’s, hides from his creditors, and from the law; even causes a fight in the library. He’s an appalling procrastinator; his pal Engels begs him to knuckle down and write his Magnum Opus that will change the lives of working people for ever more; but he’d sooner go out and get drunk. The play lets us into his chaotic life; his relationship with his wife (not good); with Engels (very good); and with his children (extremely good). It emerges that there is a spy in the midst of their political gatherings, but who is it?

YM3To be honest, we don’t particularly care, as the play is much more character-driven than plot-driven, and all the better for it, I feel. Mark Thompson’s gloomy revolving set provides a strong evocation of the poverty-stricken streets of London, and the Marx’s spartan apartment; and contrasts with Grant Olding’s rock-style incidental music, which deliberately clashes anachronistically with the 19th century story, startling and unsettling the audience with its constant interruptions. Messrs Bean and Coleman provide Marx with a couple of farcical fight and flight scenes, just to create a larger than life sense and to distance the story from reality a little bit more – even though almost everything that takes place in the play did actually happen for real. It must be said, that first fight scene was clumsy and ineffective; Mrs Chrisparkle feared she was going to be in for a very tedious afternoon. But she needn’t have worried. Everything else afterwards worked well; and the second fight scene, in the library, is simply hilarious and superbly executed.

YM2Rory Kinnear is perfect casting as Marx. He has that knowing air; that look that weighs up the difference between the sensible and the mischievous but will always go for the mischievous, just because he can. Switching effortlessly between faux-sincerity and childish naughtiness, he manages to keep one step ahead of the law but not necessarily ahead of his wife. He has brilliant comic timing; his scenes with the excellent Laura Elphinstone as Nym, where he’s having to cover up his infidelities, are a joy. Oliver Chris’ Engels is another superb performance, bright, polite and cheery, full of decency to compare with his pal’s lack of it. Nancy Carroll, whom we last saw as the delightfully naughty Maggie in Woyzeck, gives a great portrayal of his long-suffering wife Jenny, dispensing kindness to all and sundry apart from her wretched husband. Tony Jayawardena, hilarious as Mr Bhamra in Bend it Like Beckham, again shows his fantastic ability to get the best humour from throwaway lines as Doc Schmidt. If you think the receptionists at your GP can be occasionally indiscreet when blurting out your symptoms to a full waiting room, just be grateful you don’t have Schmidt treating your venereal disease.

YM4I also really enjoyed the performance of Eben Figueiredo as the servile and over-enthusiastic Konrad Schramm. Mr Figueiredo was one of the few good things about Chichester’s Pitcairn a few years ago, so it’s good to see him in a show worth his talent! And the always entertaining Miltos Yerolemou is on top form as the grumpy French revolutionary, Emmanuel Barthelemy, with his constant translation issues. In the performance we saw, Marx’s children, Qui Qui and Fawksey, were played by Matilda Shapland and Logan Clark and a jolly fine job they did of it too. But the entire cast works extremely well together as a very fluid and entertaining ensemble.

YM1The whole thing is played for laughs from the start to the finish. Serious students of political ideology need not apply. But if you like to see Marx hiding from his enemies in a cupboard or on the roof, or witness Marx and Engels nick a gate from a park and then pee up a wall together like naughty schoolboys, you’re on to a winner. It runs at the Bridge Theatre until 31st December. Good fun, highly entertaining – and a lovely new theatre to explore!

Production photos by Manuel Harlan

Review – Simon Amstell, What is This, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 17th November 2017

what+is+thisI’d only previously come across Simon Amstell in the fantastic TV programme Grandma’s House, which Mrs Chrisparkle and I used to watch with regular and loyal expectation. Not only for Mr Amstell’s contribution, but also Rebecca Front, Samantha Spiro, Linda Bassett and the late Geoffrey Hutchings were all on brilliant form. Mr Amstell also co-wrote it, so that’s got to indicate that he’s a bright spark. I realised he also regularly indulged in a spot of stand-up but for reasons that are too dull to mention here, we never got around to seeing him – until now.

But I’m running before I walk. As a support act, Mr Amstell has engaged the services of another bright spark, Mawaan Rizwan. As soon as I read that he would be starting the show, I instantly remembered where I had seen him before; he made a very illuminating documentary for BBC3 entitled How Gay is Pakistan? Answer: not particularly. Apparently, he’s most famous for being a Youtube sensation, but of course I wouldn’t know anything about that.

Mawaan Rizwan 2There’s a similarity between Mr Amstell and Mr Rizwan – they’re both gay. However, there the similarity ends; Mr Amstell is lugubriously gay, whereas Mr Rizwan is effervescently gay. If Alka-Seltzer could turn you gay, they would market Mr Rizwan in soluble form. But whereas a large amount of Mr A’s material centres on his life as a gay man, Mr R plucks hilarious, surreal routines out of absolutely nothing, with his sexuality being largely irrelevant to the material. He rendered a full house helpless with laughter by pelting us with baby wipes, each time giving us a perfectly good reason why we deserved the pelting. He has another routine where he tries out new (silly) walks – a John Cleese for the 21st century, perhaps? Mr R’s physical comedy is absolutely first rate. He was joined by the very helpful Matt from the end of Row C who then had to spend the rest of the show nursing a bundle of disparate hardware items – don’t ask. He had some great material about using his boyfriend as a therapist, and he created a lovely callback regarding his previous job; get me being all comedy-technical. He had the entire theatre in hysterics, and I expect the cleaners will be hoovering up glitter for months. I thought he was brilliant.

After the interval we’re back for the main event, Simon Amstell asking What is This; this being life, the world around us, the daily treadmill that governs our waking hours. Can’t remember if he came up with an answer; don’t think he did. Mr A has a very diffident manner of delivering his stand up; he’s quiet and unassuming. Mr R bounded on stage and his body shrieked Hey Look at Me, whereas Mr A sidled on, and his body muttered Hey Please Don’t Look at Me; a very interesting pairing. Mr A’s material centred solely on his life experience, how he realised he was gay, and how his general awkwardness in life doesn’t naturally go hand in hand with his sexuality. He had a lovely story about going to Magaluf with a bunch of mates, and how they got on; a slightly less lovely story about going to Paris to find himself as a teenager, but still with a classic punchline.

Simon AmstellHis recollections and accounts are indeed very funny, but the whole hour in his company felt like one massive group therapy session. It’s as though the NHS has granted him one precious appointment to come on stage and talk about himself, to get things off his chest. Of course, most comedians spend their entire act talking about themselves – because, after all, they’re the people they know best – but with Mr Amstell it does tend to feel somewhat egoistical. Not, in any way, big-headed or arrogant, in fact far from it; more in that it’s totally his experiences, his thoughts, and the way life affects him. If you drew a Venn Diagram on how Mr A and the outside world interact, you’d just have a picture of him in a circle.

I did also feel that he lacks a sense of light and shade in his delivery; it’s all recounted at one pace, and in one tone of voice; very much in the style of the therapeutic confessional. Much of his material turned into an analysis of his relationship with his father, which was fascinating, and wry; but you didn’t feel like he’d welcome you laughing at what he was saying, because it would be quite insensitive. Having said that, there were clearly some stony-faced people in the front row who were unsettling Mr Amstell with their arm-folded frostiness. One of them made the tactical error of getting her phone out. Mr A wasn’t having any of that (and quite right too!)

Maawan RizwanI don’t want to give the impression that I didn’t enjoy his set, because I did. It’s just that after about half an hour I found that the initial smile and happy countenance that had greeted his earlier material had started to freeze on my face and I discovered that I just wasn’t giving any laughter back. The smile remained, because I enjoyed hearing what he had to say, but despite my pressing F5 in my head, it wasn’t getting refreshed into laughter. There are just a handful of tour dates remaining up to the end of the month, but Mr Rizwan is doing a full work-in-progress show at Contact, Manchester, on 2nd December. If you’re around, that’s a no-brainer.

Review – Glengarry Glen Ross, Playhouse Theatre, 16th November 2017

Glengarry Glen RossDavid Mamet’s written some cracking plays in the past. Do you remember Sexual Perversity in Chicago? American Buffalo? Duck Variations? (Just how many ways can you do it with a duck?) And then there’s Glengarry Glen Ross. It was only the second play I saw with the then Miss Duncansby (now Mrs Chrisparkle), back in April 1986. The first, the previous December, had been Wife Begins at Forty, a hilarious romp which we both loved. Was I onto a winning streak with the Mamet? With Tony Haygarth, Kevin McNally, and Derek Newark all in the cast, what could possibly go wrong? She hated it.

GGR Christian SlaterFast forward 31 years (yikes!) and this new production of GGR, the prospect of which didn’t titillate her at all. But my friend, the Squire of Sidcup, suggested that it might be fun to go to see it, and I agreed. And I’m very glad I did, because this production wiped the floor with the original one, and is full of meticulous detail, superb performances and a tangible feel for the cut-throat world of Real Estate.

GGR Don WarringtonStructurally, it’s a lopsided play. The first act contains just three short scenes, set in a Chinese Restaurant (absolutely beautifully designed by Chiara Stephenson – you can almost smell the chop suey), where the salesmen go to discuss their nefarious wheeler-dealer activities, concocting plans to outdo the others, agreeing percentage cuts of percentage cuts in return for blind-eyes or insider knowledge; or maybe even a plot to break into the office overnight and steal all the preciously hidden “leads” – which could make a top salesman hundreds of thousands of dollars. The third scene is between the most successful salesman, Ricky Roma, and a poor sap of a geezer who just happened to be sitting in the restaurant. Before he knows it, he is being tempted with property beyond the dreams of avarice.

GGR Kris MarshallThat all takes place in a space of half an hour, and then it’s time for the interval. Originally (I understand) the interval was half an hour long and there were criticisms that it obstructed the natural flow of the story. For Thursday’s matinee, the interval was just twenty minutes, which felt fine. The second act takes place back at the office; there’s been a break-in, the leads are gone, but who stole them? And how will that team of competitive salesmen ever work together again?

GGR Stanley TownsendThe transformation from restaurant to tatty office during the interval is a remarkable feat, as the floor is strewn with papers, loose files, cabinets are overflowing with disturbed documentation; a clock on the back wall keeps time, and twenty minutes in to the act someone says it’s 12:15 and you look at the clock and it precisely is! That’s what I call attention to detail.

GGR Christian Slater and Daniel RyanThe big attraction in this production is the presence of Christian Slater as Ricky Roma. I’m not overly familiar with his work but, boy, is he a classy actor. The confidence, the ease, the charisma that he exudes is so impressive that he’s just a delight to watch and to hear. Roma is a total sleazeball but Mr Slater still makes him incredibly likeable, and even when you know he’s weaving a web of deceit around his victim, strangely, you’re still on his side. That’s a great achievement. His victim is the excellent Daniel Ryan, as Lingk, whom Mrs C and I last saw in Chichester’s The House They Grew Up In; he really is the master in portraying a put-upon underdog. There are also strong performances by Kris Marshall as the angularly unpleasant boss John Williamson, arrogantly patronising all his staff; Oliver Ryan as the impatient, gun-wielding local cop brought in to sort out the mess; and super-sub Mark Carlisle, effortlessly stepping into the role of the snide, cantankerous Dave Moss whilst Robert Glenister is indisposed.

GGR Christian Slater and Kris MarshallI really loved the indomitable Don Warrington as the hapless George Aaronow, perpetually confused and startled by life, almost frozen into stasis by the perplexity of everything around him, seeing the last dregs of what was once a decent career slip through his fingers. The brief Act One scene between Mr Warrington and Mr Carlisle was sheer joy, as they volleyed lines and responses back and forth to each other like a verbal tennis match. But perhaps the big surprise of the show is the brilliant performance by Stanley Townsend as Shelly Levene, glorying in the minutiae of his fabulous sale, getting a truly mellifluous resonance around his words as he proudly revelled in his moment. It’ll be a long time before I forget his recollections of that crumbcake.

Playhouse TheatreIt takes a great production to bring this play to life; and this production is teeming with it. Shocking, surprising, gasp-inducing and littered with laugh out loud moments – a really impressive work. It’s running till 3rd February 2018 and I’d recommend it wholeheartedly!

Review – This Evil Thing, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 14th November 2017

This Evil Thing ProgrammeI have no information about my ancestors’ involvement in World War One. All my grandparents died before I was born. My maternal grandfather was born in 1900 so would have been too young for conscription and didn’t enjoy good health anyway. Of my paternal grandfather I know hardly anything. About World War Two I know a lot more. My father served in the Royal Navy and was totally scarred by his experiences which I researched and wrote about here and here. All I know of my maternal grandfather’s WW2 is that he was stationed at Stirling Castle, saw ghosts and was never the same man again. My mother was in the ATS and told me how she once spent Christmas Day sending out death notices to grieving families. Was she sympathetic to the stance taken by conscientious objectors? Absolutely not. Cowards who made it worse for themselves was her uncompromising attitude; and I’m sure she was in the majority.

TET1As Michael Mears points out, in his exceptionally fascinating one-man play This Evil Thing, in our generation, we have not been tested. If we were called up to go to a war where we’re simply cannon fodder, how would we react? Would we put Queen and Country first? Would we engage in acts of disobedience? It really makes you think hard. If the Falklands Conflict had escalated out of hand and turned into full-scale war between the UK and Argentina, I was the perfect age to be conscripted; and I do remember it being a very active worry.

Michael MearsMichael Mears confesses from the start (if confession is the right word) that he is a pacifist, and he too wonders how strong his resolve would be if faced with the personal challenge in the same way that the brave (there’s no question as to their bravery) conscientious objectors of the First World War. This beautifully constructed work tells us the stories of, amongst others, Bert Brocklesby, schoolteacher and Methodist lay preacher; James Brightmore, a solicitor’s clerk from Manchester; and Norman Gaudie, who played football for Sunderland reserves; they were also CO’s. There were many others like them. We learn how they are abused for their principles, how they were packed off to France, unknown to the British Government, of the methods used to try to persuade them to change their minds, the punishments they received, and what happened after the war to those that survived. We also meet luminaries like Bertrand Russell and Clifford Allen, Chairman of the No-Conscription Fellowship, vigorously campaigning for alternatives to conscription; with Russell dodging both literal and metaphorical bullets in his dealings with Prime Minister Asquith. After 80 quick minutes, you feel so much better informed about this much misunderstood and swept-under-the-carpet aspect of the First World War.

This Evil Thing TextThe production was, by all accounts, a wow at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe, and in many ways it’s the perfect fringe show. A blank stage, with just a few crates and packing cases utilised imaginatively, creates all sorts of settings. I love it when it’s up to the audience to interpret a minimalist set, because not even the world’s finest designers can flesh out the appearance of a stage quite like your own imagination can. It was a charming addition to the staging to have some very realistic props, like the elegant teacup and the incongruous sherry glass, which are brought into sharp focus when juxtaposed with the imaginariness of the set. The text is intelligent and creative, thought-provoking and, from time to time, surprisingly funny. The whole concept of a naked Bertrand Russell addressing Asquith with just a hanky covering his modesty was wonderfully quirky.

TET2But what really makes the theatrical experience so vivid is Mr Mears’ brilliant portrayals of over forty characters, each with their own voice and accent, tone and style. He makes us believe those people are really there. We knew that he’s an excellent actor from his previous appearances in A Tale of Two Cities and The Herbal Bed (actually, he was the best thing about both productions), but in This Evil Thing he steps that acting skill up several notches. Mr Mears’ commitment to his own material – and the verbatim testimonies of many of the people involved – is simply a pleasure to behold.

Michael MearsAnd what of that rhetorical question? If the nations collide again like they did a hundred years ago, would you, a person who respects life and would never commit a crime against another human being, refuse to take arms against your fellow man? Moreover, would you see your friends and relatives die for the nation’s cause whilst you exempted yourself from that responsibility? Brocklesby tosses a coin to help make that decision. I think I’d look at a photo of my dad in his navy uniform and ask his advice. With any luck, it’ll never happen.

This terrific little theatrical nugget is currently on a tour of small theatres, churches and Quakers Meeting Houses in England and Wales. Highly recommended!

The Agatha Christie Challenge – Murder in the Mews (1937)

Murder in the MewsIn which Hercule Poirot takes us on four cases, novella length, where he solves a range of crimes from an apparent suicide to a deathly love triangle. Of course, the usual rules apply; if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I shan’t spoil the surprise of any of the four revelations!

William Morris fabricThe book was first published in the UK in March 1937, and in the US in June 1937, but under the title Dead Man’s Mirror. The stories had all been individually published previously in magazine format. Christie dedicated the collection “to my old friend Sybil Heeley, with affection.” Sybil was the daughter of Wilfred Lucas Heeley, at Cambridge with William Morris, and friend of Rudyard Kipling’s sister Alice. “Ruddy” and Sybil would keep up a correspondence until his death in 1936. Sybil was also the author of Ellie and the China Lady, “A Tibetan Fairy Tale”, published in 1895.

Murder in the Mews

Guy FawkesMurder in the Mews, the first story, was first published in the UK in Woman’s Journal in December 1936. It had previously been published in the US in Redbook magazine in September and October 1936. Poirot and Japp are heading back to Poirot’s flat on Guy Fawkes Night, remarking that, with all the sounds of fireworks all around them, it would be a perfect night on which to commit murder with a pistol. Sure enough, next morning, Mrs Allen is found dead in her flat in the very mews where Poirot and Japp had that conversation. It appears to be a suicide, but the most minor of investigations reveal that it couldn’t possibly be; so Japp and Poirot set about finding the murderer.

It’s a very entertaining and enjoyable read, very much with the feel of a mini-novel, with ten, progressing chapters covering 49 pages. With only a few suspects mentioned and questioned, there’s only a limited number of murder options for the reader to imagine, but even so Christie surprises us with Poirot’s denouement.

ShaverWe have the usual badinage between Japp and Poirot, with Japp’s colleague Inspector Jameson implying that Poirot is going “gaga”. Poirot’s sense of superiority and vanity comes out with his assertion that, if he were to commit a murder, Japp would never find out about it. Jameson is also seen as a figure of stuffy British superiority as he clearly disapproves of Poirot’s involvement in the case. There is some curious use of language, with one character described as a “stuffed fish and a boiled owl”; another is called “a bright kind of shaver” – which sounds like a compliment. Indeed, my OED confirms that “shaver” was a colloquial word for “humorous chap”.

There’s an ironic line when Major Eustace is being interviewed, and asked whether he was smoking during a certain conversation: “yes, and smoked. Anything damaging in that?” I expect in 1937 people weren’t aware of the dangers all that smoking was causing.

Onslow SquareThere are a few locations to check out: the death takes place in Bardsley Gardens Mews; there is a Bardsley Gardens in Sydney, Australia, but I don’t suppose it’s that one. Jane Plenderleith spent the weekend at Laidells Hall, Laidells, Essex, and Laverton-West lives in Little Ledbury, Hampshire; both totally fictitious. His London address is in Onslow Square though, and that’s a real enough part of South Ken.

Standard SwallowMajor Eustace drives a Standard Swallow saloon, which means (according to Wikipedia, so it must be right) that it was one of only 148 cars to be built by the Swallow Coachbuilding Company (later Jaguar) between 1932 and 1936. Very swish and exclusive. Mrs Allen died by means of an automatic pistol – a Webley .25. I know nothing about guns, but Webley and Scott were, and still are, noted manufacturers of air rifles and pistols; the .25, according to Wikipedia again, had a 3-inch barrel and a 6-round magazine. Manufacture was discontinued in 1940.

That £200 that Mrs Allen withdrew that may (or may not) have been to pay a blackmailer, is the equivalent of about £9,500 today. Not chickenfeed by any means.

A good start to the book! What’s next?

The Incredible Theft

SubmarineThis story is a reworking of The Submarine Plans, originally published in The Sketch magazine in November 1923 – fourteen years earlier than the publication of Murder in the Mews (the book). That version was eventually published in Poirot’s Early Cases in 1974. In the US, The Submarine Plans was first published in the Blue Book Magazine in July 1925. In the UK, the revised The Incredible Theft first appeared in serialised form in the Daily Express in April 1937. There was no US magazine edition prior to its publication as part of Dead Man’s Mirror.

spyNot a murder mystery this time, but the theft of some highly sensitive security documents from a politician; and there’s a known spy who’s a guest in the household, so did she take them, and if so, where are they? It’s a pacey story that takes place over no more than about 18 hours by my estimate, with some colourful characters and an intriguing resolution. But there’s some distinctly misogynistic conversations between some of the men in this story, that rather stand out as being at best pompous, at worst pretty unpleasant.

Expensive fragranceWe get an insight into a little more of Poirot’s personality – he doesn’t like being beaten at all. When it looks as though the spy character is going to get away with it, Poirot is not amused: “You wish me success, do you? Ah, but you are very sure I am not going to meet with success! Yes, you are very sure indeed. That, it annoys me very much.” Mind you, Lord Mayfield, whose documents have been stolen, is equally fuming; and not just at the theft. George Carrington gets him to admit that he suspects the spy: “”You don’t doubt, do you, that she’s at the bottom of this?” “No, I don’t. She’s turned the tables on me with a vengeance. I don’t like admitting, George, that a woman’s been too clever for us. It goes against the grain. But it’s true.”” Previously, he’d already commented on her fragrance: “it’s not a cheap scent. One of the most expensive brands in the market, I should say […] I think a woman smothered in cheap scent is one of the greatest abominations known to mankind.” I think Mayfield needs to get out a bit more. Not only are these men sexist, but also xenophobic. At the suggestion that Poirot might be able to solve the case, Mayfield replies “”by the Lord, George, I thought you were too much of an old John Bull to put your trust in a Frenchman, however clever.” “He’s not even a Frenchman, he’s a Belgian,” said Sir George in a rather shamefaced manner.”

maidPoirot’s conversation with the maid Leonie is decidedly creepy too. “Do you know […] I find you very good to look at […] I demand of M. Carlile whether you are or are not good-looking and he replies that he does not know […] I do not believe he has ever looked at a girl in his life, that one”. He is, in fact, testing an alibi, but it’s not one of Poirot’s most eloquent exchanges. Earlier, Poirot had questioned Carlile on this subject, and he had steadfastly refused to pass comment on Leonie’s looks. “Sir George Carrington gave a sudden chuckle. “M. Poirot seems determined to make you out a gay dog, Carlile”, he remarked.” Funny how the change of meaning of the word gay gives that sentence an entirely different inference today.

I was interested to note that a typical office working week is considered cover 48 hours. That’s very different from today’s 35 to 37 hours. The Prime Minister is referred to as Hunberly – of course, in 1937 it was Baldwin, then Chamberlain.

A good story, that holds the interest. Next up:

Dead Man’s Mirror

Dinner gongThis tale is an expanded version of the story The Second Gong which appeared in the Strand Magazine in July 1932 (and in the USA, in Ladies Home Journal in June 1932). It was eventually published in the UK in the book Problem at Pollensa Bay, which wasn’t published until 1991.

Sir Gervase Chevenix-Gore writes to Hercule Poirot to invite him to stay; but when he arrives, his host is already dead. Everything points to his having committed suicide, except Poirot doesn’t believe a word of it. The story develops into a full-blown and thoroughly intriguing mystery, another perfect little whodunit in miniature, with a proper denouement and bags of suspects. It also keeps back a very charming twist right up till the final line. It’s this story that Tom Adams’ cover illustration depicts; the shattered mirror with dripping blood.

Great detectiveWe welcome back Mr Satterthwaite, of The Mysterious Mr Quin fame, whom we also met in Three Act Tragedy. As there was a social gathering at the Chevenix-Gores, it’s not surprising to discover Mr Satterthwaite had an invitation too. Satterthwaite immediately becomes the recipient of some of Poirot’s famous egoism: “It did not seem to occur to this Sir Gervase that I, Hercule Poirot, am a man of importance, a man of infinite affairs! That it was extremely unlikely that I should be able to fling everything aside and come hastening like an obedient dog – like a mere nobody, gratified to receive a commission!” Later, when Poirot bumps into Susan Cardwell as he was checking the footprints in the flower bed, he remarks: “you now behold a detective – a great detective, I may say – in the art of detecting!”

MoraviaThere are a few possibly interesting references; the grandeur of the Chevenix-Gores’ address (Hamborough Close, Hamborough St Mary, Westshire) couldn’t be more imaginary if it tried. Sir Gervase’s chef was formerly employed by the Emperor of Moravia. This land, which is currently the eastern end of the Czech Republic, was up until 1918 part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. So even though the Emperor of Moravia sounds at worst a made-up title and at best a pub, there really would have been an Emperor with that title.

lady of shalottGodfrey Burrows is described as being “slightly hairy at the heel”. I’ve never heard that phrase before, but in many ways it’s rather splendidly descriptive. It means they’re an unmitigated bounder – ill-bred, like a race horse in need of refinement. Another phrase, this time one I have heard before, is spoken by Lady Chevenix-Gore when she sees the broken mirror – “the mirror crack’d from side to side, the curse is come upon me cried, the Lady of Shalott” – taken from Tennyson’s poem of the same name. Twenty-six years later Christie would be using the phrase as the title of a Miss Marple novel.

Sir Gervase’s will left £5000 to his nephew, Hugo, and £6000 to his widow. At today’s value, that would be the equivalent of legacies of £250,000 and £300,000. That’s not that much, given the grandeur of their lifestyle.

Triangle at Rhodes

TriangleTriangle at Rhodes was first published in the UK in the Strand Magazine in May 1936 under the slightly longer title of Poirot and the Triangle at Rhodes, and in the US in the 2 February 1936 issue of the weekly newspaper supplement This Week magazine. Critics have pointed out that there are some similarities with Evil Under the Sun, which Christie would write five years later.

RhodesPoirot’s on holiday in Rhodes where he observes a self-consciously beautiful woman stealing another woman’s husband right from under her nose, but she seems powerless to prevent it. The first woman’s husband is also extremely affronted at their behaviour. Poirot warns the wronged wife that she must “leave this place […] if you value your life”. She doesn’t; and there are catastrophic consequences. But what and how and why? The story includes two of Poirot’s often-found wise old sayings. He maintains that one never does something outside one’s character; this was the basis of his solution to the crime in Cards on the Table. He also uses to his advantage what he calls a criminal’s chief vice: “Conceit. A criminal never believes that his crime can fail.” Using these two guidelines Poirot sees through the play-acting and gets to the truth. It’s an extremely clever and surprising little story.

acokantheraFor the one and only time in this collection, we see Christie the Poisons Expert at work. A murder is committed, by using Strophanthin, which is a fairly unusual compound. It was used by African tribes as an arrow poison. Strophanthin is derived from Acokanthera plants native to east Africa and has similarities to digitalis. It’s exceptionally lethal!

In another of Poirot’s less enlightened moments, he seems to be condoning brutish behaviour towards women. “”It is possible,” said Poirot. “Yes, it is quite possible. But les femmes, they like brutes, remember that!” Douglas muttered: “I shoudn’t be surprised if he ill-treats her!” “She probably likes that too.””

NutsAn interesting reference point: a character hums the tune “here we go gathering nuts and may”. Nuts and may? Not nuts in May? No. Originally it was nuts and may, with “may” being the hawthorn or its blossom. Believed to be a corruption of “knots of may”. Things get confusing when you dig deep.

This is a bumper pack of four excellent stories and I can’t see why it shouldn’t merit a 10/10. Each of them is excellently written, full of characterisation, with surprising storylines and unguessable denouements. Highly recommended!

Dumb WitnessWith the next book in the Agatha Christie Challenge, it’s back to the novel format; and continuing with that vain but brilliant detective, Hercule Poirot, it’s Dumb Witness. I can’t remember that much about it but I know it’s a page turner and that I really enjoyed it in the past. If you’d like to read it too, I’ll blog about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meanwhile, happy sleuthing!

Review – Blade Runner 2049, Errol Flynn Filmhouse, Northampton, 10th November 2017

Blade RunnerI saw the original Blade Runner many, many moons ago. I have a faint memory that I enjoyed it, but I can’t pretend to remember much about it. My friend Lord Liverpool who knows about these things said that he’d seen the new sequel Blade Runner 2049 and described it as a worthy successor to the original. Thus it was that Mrs Chrisparkle and I, together with our friends Mr and Mrs Flying-the-Flag, checked into the Errol Flynn last Friday night to judge for ourselves.

Blade Runner 2049I think there must be such a thing as a Sci-Fi brain. Sadly, I’m not possessed of one. I wish I were, as it would open up a whole new world of literature and entertainment. It would be great to appreciate the comings and goings of Spurgs from the planet Tharg and such like. I don’t think Mrs C, or Mr & Mrs Flag have one either, as after two and half hours of sheer befuddlement we all emerged into the night air with one common question; “what the friggin’ hell was all that about then?” To be fair, Mrs C and Mrs F never had the remotest chance of following it, as they both spent the majority of the film comatose in the land of Nod. Mr F tried to be upbeat about it by saying, “well at least we found out who the father and daughter were”, to which they both replied, “there was a father and daughter?”

Ryan Gosling as KIt’s a shame, because I sense this is probably quite a good film, if only you can fathom out what’s going on. I think it needs to be issued with a set of students’ notes, and then we could sit a test after each sequence to make sure we understood it, with the option of taking a resit before continuing if we’re still confused.

Harrison Ford in Blade Runner 2049There were aspects that I did enjoy. I loved the whole notion of the artificial girlfriend; beautiful, supportive, a great cook – she’s a chauvinist’s dream. Visually, the whole film is very engrossing, and that’s why Mr Flag and I kinda enjoyed it, even though we didn’t have a scooby what it meant. I couldn’t quite work out why everything had to take place against a background of virtual tsunami, when they could just have easily done it on a beach – everything was “virtual” anyway, as far as I could make out, so choose a nice location, why don’t you. There were other aspects I didn’t enjoy. I have a low threshold to violence and it was too violent for my taste. There was a nice girl in white, who suddenly became a horrid, vicious girl in black. Wasn’t sure what that was about.

I can’t really say anything more about it, because I just didn’t get it. You’ll probably love it. Good luck to you.