The Agatha Christie Challenge – Five Little Pigs (1943)

Five Little PigsIn which Hercule Poirot is asked to consider a case that took place sixteen years earlier, where Caroline Crale was found guilty of the murder of her husband Amyas. But her daughter is convinced that her mother was innocent, and wants to reassure her fiancé of that fact. So Poirot exercises his little grey cells and examines the evidence and memories of the five little pigs, who would be the only other people who could have murdered Crale, and proves that you can solve a murder just by thinking. As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I promise not to tell you whodunit!

UCL-University-College-LondonThe book is dedicated “To Stephen Glanville”. He was a friend of Agatha and Max, and, at the time, was Professor of Egyptology at University College London. During the Second World War, he and Max were both in the RAF together. It was Stephen Glanville who challenged Christie to write a detective story set in ancient Egypt – this would result in Death Comes as the End, which would be published in 1945. After the war Glanville became Provost of King’s College Cambridge, and he died in 1956 at the age of 56. Five Little Pigs was first serialised in the US in Collier’s Weekly in ten parts between September and November 1941, under the title Murder in Retrospect. The full book was first published in the US in May 1942 by Dodd, Mead and Company, and the subsequently in the UK by Collins Crime Club in January 1943. So there was over a year between its first appearance in magazine form in the US and in book form in the UK.

This little piggyMy main memory of this book is buying it at a jumble sale when I was about ten! When I came to re-reading it recently, I remembered the structural premise – that it consists of five people giving their evidence in retrospect, but I couldn’t remember if that meant it was a little repetitive, or if the unusual structure kept the interest going. I was pretty sure I remembered whodunit – and I was right, which is always slightly disappointing on a re-read. It is an enjoyable book, but I did feel it was a bit of a bind hearing the story told at least five times from the five different suspects. I see that the critic in the Times Literary Supplement proclaimed: “No crime enthusiast will object that the story of how the painter died has to be told many times, for this, even if it creates an interest which is more problem than plot, demonstrates the author’s uncanny skill. The answer to the riddle is brilliant.” Sadly, I can’t agree. Not that the answer to the riddle is brilliant – there’s no doubt about that, it’s inventive and clever and the facts had been staring us all in the face for ages, but we ignore them. But I did find the repetitive nature of the story meant it was a bit of a slog to work my way through. Interestingly, that wasn’t the case in Murder on the Orient Express, where you also have Poirot questioning a series of people about a death, in a similarly structured manner. Maybe Five Little Pigs lacks glamour! To be honest, I also don’t think aligning the story so closely to the nursery rhyme of the five little pigs adds much to the intrigue; it feels rather forced.

MemoryAs the story was variously published between 1941 and 1943, sixteen years earlier – which is when the crime was committed and much of the action is set – takes us back to somewhere between 1925 and 1927. In those days, Poirot was investigating the Murder of Roger Ackroyd, and coming to terms with the ridiculous The Big Four. That seems a long time ago, even in this little Agatha Christie project! I think a major stumbling block with taking this book seriously is how extraordinarily well everyone remembers the minutest detail from sixteen years ago. I don’t know about you, but if I was asked to recollect details from 2002 I’d be absolutely stumped.

Old ManIt’s been a year or so since we’ve caught up with Poirot, so how is he getting on? “I am old, am I not? Older than you imagined?” he asks Carla Lemarchant on the first page of the book. Nevertheless, he hasn’t lost any of his pride. “”Rest assured”, said Hercule Poirot. “I am the best”.” More than ever now, Poirot understands his trump card, which is his foreignness: “Hercule Poirot shrugged his shoulders. He was at his most foreign today. He was out to be despised but patronised.” And a few paragraphs later, Christie would confirm that his intended effect was working perfectly on Philip Blake: “”Actually, I am a detective.” The modesty of this remark had probably not been equalled before in Poirot’s conversation. “Of course you are. We all know that. The famous Hercule Poirot!” But his tone held a subtly mocking note. Intrinsically, Philip Blake was too much of an Englishman to take the pretensions of a foreigner seriously. To his cronies he would have said: “Quaint little mountebank. Oh well, I expect his stuff goes down with women all right.””

PoirotWhat do the other suspects think of him? “Meredith Blake received Poirot in a state of some perplexity […] here was the man himself. Really a most impossible person – the wrong clothes – button boots! – an incredible moustache! Not his – Meredith Blake’s – kind of fellow at all. Didn’t look as though he’d ever hunted or shot – or even played a decent game. A foreigner. Slightly amused, Hercule Poirot read accurately these thoughts passing through the other’s head.” Miss Williams bristles at some of Poirot’s questioning techniques: “”You mean that they were more like lovers than like husband and wife?” Miss Williams, with a slight frown of distaste for foreign phraseology, said: “You could certainly put it that way”.”

psychologyBut what about the real Poirot, are there any new insights into his character? We already know from previous cases that Poirot likes to understand the psychology of any case. Here, he can meet the five suspects, but he never had the chance to meet either Amyas or Caroline Crale. He specifically needs to know about them to get to the bottom of this mystery. “”Have you ever reflected, Mr Blake, that the reason for murder is nearly always to be found by a study of the person murdered?” “I hadn’t exactly – yes, I suppose I see what you mean.” Poirot said: “Until you know exactly what sort of a person the victim was, you cannot begin to see the circumstances of a crime clearly.””

teacher-strictAnother aspect of Poirot that I don’t think has been pointed out this obviously in Christie’s texts so far, is Poirot’s penchant for not telling the truth. “Clear, incisive and insistent, the voice of Miss Williams repeated its demand. “You want my recollections of the Crale case? May I ask why?” It had been said of Hercule Poirot by some of his friends and associates, at moments when he has maddened them most, that he prefers lies to truth and will go out of his way to gain his ends by means of elaborate false statement, rather than trust to the simple truth. But in this case his decision was quickly made […] Miss Williams had what every successful child educator must have, that mysterious quality – authority! […] So in this case Hercule Poirot proffered no specious explanation of a book to be written on bygone crimes. Instead he narrated simply the circumstances in which Carla Lemarchant had sought him out.”

lonelinessThis is quite a solitary case for Poirot; of course, he meets a number of people during his investigation – not only the suspects, and Miss Lemarchant, but also all the solicitors and police officers involved in the original case. But he has no Hastings or other confidant with whom to discuss his findings. As a result, we don’t really see the little grey cells at work at the time – just the reporting of his suspicions and discoveries as a done deal. He comes up with a brilliant explanation, but – if this was the equivalent of a maths exam – we never get to see his workings out, which is a little disappointing.

AlderburyRegular readers will know I like to have a look at the place names in Christie’s books to see to what extent they’re genuine, or just a figment of her imagination. There aren’t many places named in this book – Philip Blake lives at St. George’s Hill, Meredith and the Crales at Alderbury, and Miss Williams at Gillespie Buildings. St George’s Hill is the name of a private estate in Weybridge, which would be very appropriate for the stockbroker Philip Blake. Alderbury is the name of a village in Wiltshire, near Salisbury. I can’t find any trace of a Gillespie Buildings in London, but Lady Dittisham lives in Brook Street, which has featured in Christie’s books before as a desirable area of London, and Angela Warren lives in Regent’s Park. So this book contains many more “real” locations than most of Christie’s books!

Quintin HoggLet’s have a look at some of the other references in the book. I was intrigued that Christie called the Prosecution counsel Quentin Fogg; I wondered if she was thinking of Quintin Hogg when she named him? The former Lord Hailsham, around the time that this book was written, was MP for Oxford, so would definitely have had a public profile. Amyas Crale’s mother is described as “an admirer of Kingsley. That’s why she called her son Amyas.” The Kingsley in question would be Charles Kingsley, priest, university professor, social reformer, historian and novelist – he wrote Westward Ho! in 1855, a story about a young man named Amyas Leigh who follows Francis Drake to sea.

Romeo and JulietCaleb Jonathan, the Crale’s family solicitor, becomes all maudlin and delivers a lengthy quote that starts “If that thy bent of love be honourable” and ends with “follow thee my lord throughout the world”. That’s the bit of Romeo and Juliet where Juliet agrees to marry Romeo, if his intentions are honourable. He clearly equates Elsa to Juliet. Angela Warren also has a penchant for quotations; in her narrative that she sends to Poirot she recalls walking along the kitchen garden path saying to herself “under the glassy green translucent wave”. That’s Milton, from Comus. She’s very well read.

SocratesMeredith Blake is friends with Lady Mary Lytton-Gore. I was sure I recognised that name from somewhere. I did. She was in Three Act Tragedy; she’s Egg’s mother. I wonder if Egg’s found herself a husband yet. Blake also tells Poirot that he read out to the assembled guests the passage from the Phaedo describing Socrates’ death. That’s because Socrates also used coniine to kill himself.

Darwin TulipsLady Dittisham’s house in Brook Street is decorated with Darwin tulips in the window boxes. According to a gardening site I visited, Darwin tulips are “A very tough tulip type that withstands locations that are not ideal. A perennial favourite mix that’s durable and tough and has the perfect old-fashioned appearance. Planted extensively in parks and communities throughout Europe for centuries.” So now you know.

TomboyMiss Williams describes Angela Warren as hoydenish. It’s a very old-fashioned word. My OED defines it – of course – as behaving like a hoyden. And a hoyden is “a noisy, rude or boisterous girl or woman” late 17th century, Old Dutch. I guess today we’d think of her as being a tomboy.

Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for Five Little Pigs:

Publication Details: 1943. Fontana paperback, 6th impression, published in July 1968. The cover illustration, presumably by Tom Adams, shows a model brass cannon, on some pavement tiles, together with a ball of wool or string and a pipette. To be honest, I’m clueless as to the relevance of nearly all that.

How many pages until the first death: Not a straightforward question in this book, as no one dies during the “present” aspects of the story, only in the past. However, we discover that Amyas Crale had been murdered, and that Caroline Crale had died the following year, on the second page of the book.

Funny lines out of context:
None that I could see.

Memorable characters:

Probably the best drawn characters, and most intriguing people are the late Amyas and Caroline, who seem to have had a very weird relationship from time to time. From the living, I think really only Miss Williams stands out as a strong character, with her no-nonsense bossy governess outlook. I’m not sure the other characters have that much personality between them.

Christie the Poison expert:

Amyas was killed by coniine poisoning; this, as Christie points out, is from the spotted hemlock, and apparently ingesting less than a tenth of a gram of coniine can be fatal for an adult human. Superintendent Hale specifically describes the poison as coniine hydrobromide, as opposed to coniine hydrochloride, but I don’t think we need worry about that too much.

Class/social issues of the time:

Christie doesn’t get too carried away with many of her pet hates in this book, but almost all of them receive a cursory nod from time to time. There’s normally a hint of xenophobia somewhere; she’s already allowed Poirot to act up as foreign as he can, in order to wheedle information out of the suspects. I thought a very nice observation – and to my eyes, absolute nonsense – comes with Meredith Blake’s pejorative comment about foreigners that they “will shake hands at breakfast…” Some people will just get offended at anything!

Christie’s always been uncomfortable with the notion of divorce, no doubt in part due to her own experiences with her first husband Archie. But there’s an interesting observation about the differences between the way divorce was looked at in the 20s, when the Crale story took place, and in the 40s, when Poirot is investigating. Meredith Blake is explaining to Poirot that Amyas, as a married man with a child, ought to have taken his marriage more seriously: ““Amyas had a wife and child – he ought to have stuck to them.” “But Miss Greer thought that point of view out of date?” “Yes. Mind you, sixteen years ago, divorce wasn’t looked on quite so much as a matter of course as it is now.””

Christie has also expressed mixed views about feminism and women’s place in society. Miss Williams, of course, has her own opinion of relationships; how women ought to behave and – good grief – even entertaining the hideous thought of men. Of the Crales, she tells Poirot: “They were a devoted couple. But he, of course, was a man.” Miss Williams contrived to put into that last word a wholly Victorian significance. “Men –“ said Miss Williams, and stopped. As a rich property owner says “Bolsheviks” – as an earnest Communist says “Captialists!” – as a good housewife says “Blackbeetles” – so did Miss Williams say “Men!” From her spinster’s governess’s life, there rose up a blast of fierce feminism. Nobody hearing her speak could doubt that to Miss Williams Men were the Enemy! Poirot said: “You hold no brief for men?” She answered drily: “Men have the best of this world. I hope that it will not always be so.”

Christie allows Poirot a big presumption of misogyny when he deduces that the suggestion that Amyas Crale should pack Elsa’s case is all wrong. “Why should Amyas Crale pack for the girl? It is absurd, that! There was Mrs Crale, there was Miss Williams, there was a housemaid. It is a woman’s job to pack – not a man’s.” Not many shades of grey in that opinion.

I think there’s always been a tendency to view artists with suspicion – the disliked Mr Ellsworthy in Murder is Easy is considered “arty”, and here again, there are plenty of opportunities to deride the lifestyle and skill of Amyas Crale. “Never have understood anything about art myself” confesses Philip Blake. And being an artist becomes an excuse for all sorts of strange behaviours. From Meredith Blake: “If ever there were extenuating circumstances, there were in this case. Amyas Crale was an old friend […] but one has to admit that his conduct was, frankly, outrageous. He was an artist, of course, and presumably that explains it. But there it is – he allowed a most extraordinary set of affairs to arise. The position was one that no ordinary decent man could have contemplated for a moment […] the whole point is that Amyas never was an ordinary man! He was a painter, you see, and with him painting came first […] I don’t understand these so-called artistic people myself – never have.”

There’s one lovely line that is packed with all Christie’s fond awareness of class distinction – here’s Meredith talking about Elsa: “I’ve never seen such grief and such frenzied hate. All the veneer of refinement and education was stripped off. You could see that her father and her father’s mother and father had been millhands. Deprived of her lover, she was just elemental woman.”

Classic denouement: Not far off. All the suspects are gathered, slowly Poirot sums up the evidence, then he allows you to think that X is the murderer, and then he twists it round so that it’s Y. The only thing it lacks is a conclusive ending; the murderer refuses to confess and walks freely away, because there’s no active criminal investigation taking place. We assume that Poirot is going to inform the authorities – he says he will – but we’ve no idea what their reaction will be and what, if any, action will be taken against the presumably guilty party.

Happy ending? No indication one way or the other. One guesses that Carla Lemarchant satisfies her fiancé of the innocence of her mother, so that they can live happily ever after. But this is a book with both feet firmly in the past, and there’s no real interest in what’s going to happen in the future.

Did the story ring true? Yes, in all respects bar one. It’s very believable, not only the manner in which the murder took place, and the motivation, but also in the reasoning why Caroline Crale did not defend herself against the accusation of murder. The only thing I can’t quite accept is the brilliant memory recall of everyone involved!

Overall satisfaction rating: Very clever plotting, an unusual structure, and a good ending. On the other hand, it’s very repetitive. So I think that balances out as an 8/10.

The Moving FingerThanks for reading my blog of Five Little Pigs and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment in the space below. Next up in the Agatha Christie Challenge is The Moving Finger, and the welcome return of Miss Marple to work out who’s been sending poison pen letters around the village of Lymstock. As usual, I’ll blog my thoughts about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!

The Agatha Christie Challenge – The Body in the Library (1942)

The Body in the LibraryIn which the body of an unknown young woman is found in the library of Arthur and Dolly Bantry’s home, so, naturally, Mrs Bantry doesn’t hesitate to tell her old friend Miss Jane Marple. Several police from a number of forces lend a hand in identifying the culprit, but it is Miss Marple who, as always, follows her unique suspicions to get to the truth. As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I promise not to tell you whodunit!

Bodies in a libraryThe book is dedicated to “my friend Nan.” This was Nan Kon, formerly Nan Pollock, née Nan Watts, whom Agatha Christie knew since they were children and whose friendship remained strong throughout their lives. The Body in the Library was first serialised in the US in The Saturday Evening Post in seven parts in May and June 1941. The full book was first published in the US in February 1942 by Dodd, Mead and Company, and the subsequently in the UK by Collins Crime Club in May the same year. Unusually, the publication in America preceded the publication in the UK.

Majestic HotelI could only remember a little of the story; primarily the opening scene, which Christie herself described as “The best opening I ever wrote”, and some of the scenes at the Majestic Hotel – mainly those involving the professional dancers. Therefore, much of the book came fresh and new to me on this re-reading. And I’m pleased to say it’s pretty good! It’s hugely more entertaining than the dire N or M? which Christie was writing at the same time. There are some entertaining characters, nicely written scenes, enjoyable police banter, and a brief but surprise-packed denouement which contains bombshell after bombshell. Also, unlike N or M?, there is no reference at all to the war going on. This is a timeless tale that could have happened anywhere, anytime.

Old bootsAnd we get re-acquainted with St Mary Mead, and its most famous inhabitant. Arthur and Dolly Bantry, Miss Wetherby, Miss Hartnell, Mrs Price Ridley, and the Reverend and Mrs Clement are also all still in place, twelve years after we met them in The Murder at the Vicarage, and some of them also appeared in The Thirteen Problems. Colonel Melchett is still Chief Constable, with the irascible Inspector Slack at his heels. Even though she’s absent for a lot of the book, this is undoubtedly one of Miss Marple’s Greatest Hits, were she to record that rather dubious album! We learn a lot more about her style and her Modus Operandi; she is ridiculed and insulted, and people talk about her behind her back; she comes up with some very wise insights; and when push comes to shove she’s as resilient as old boots.

HagDespite the fact that Miss Marple is very senior in years – “a bit funny in the head”, suggests Josephine – the police hold her in high regard. Melchett welcomes her wherever she goes because of her genius in Murder at the Vicarage, and Sir Henry Clithering, ex-Scotland Yard, convinces his friend Conway Jefferson that she brings to the table more than mere “women’s intuition”. “Specialised knowledge is her claim”, he says; “we use it in police work. We get a burglary and we usually know pretty well who did it – of the regular crowd, that is. We know the sort of burglar who acts in a particular sort of way. Miss Marple has an interesting, though occasionally trivial, series of parallels from village life.” Not everyone holds her in that high esteem though; during the first series of accusations at the end of the book, one of the suspects tells her: “be quiet, you old hag”. Well. That’s not very nice, is it?

trustMiss Marple tells us that she knows who the murderer is long before the police have an inkling, and at least 35 pages before the denouement. She convinces the police to allow a trap to be set in order to catch the killer – which is a degree of trust that Poirot could only dream of. Does Miss Marple have an additional skill that the others don’t? Clithering, Harper and Melchett all want to know the same thing. Her response: “I’m afraid you’ll think my “methods”, as Sir Henry calls them, are terribly amateurish. The truth is, you see, that most people – and I don’t exclude policemen – are far too trusting for this wicked world. They believe what is told them. I never do. I’m afraid I always like to prove a thing for myself […] In this case […] certain things were taken for granted from the first – instead of just confining oneself to the facts…” She’s very wise.

level headedMiss Marple has another observation that she makes during a conversation with Dolly Bantry, Mark Gaskell, Adelaide Jefferson and Sir Henry. ““Gentlemen,” she said with her old-maid’s way of referring to the opposite sex as though it were a species of wild animal, “are frequently not as level-headed as they seem.”” That certainly seems an apt description for Conway Jefferson.

butlerBecause the crime is investigated by officers from more than one county – due to the various remote locations of the action – Christie allows us to watch some very entertaining interaction between police officers. Melchett, as we already know, is something of a bully and miserable so-and-so, liable to lose his temper and with a tendency towards impatience. His interrogation of the wheedling George Bartlett, for example, would certainly fail PACE rules today. But how does he get on with his fellow officer Inspector Slack? Not well! Consider when Slack is telling Melchett about his questioning the staff at Gossington Hall, including Lorrimer, the butler: “”they all seemed very shocked and upset. I had my suspicions of Lorrimer – reticent, he was, if you know what I mean – but I don’t think there’s anything in it”. Melchett nodded. He attached no importance to Lorrimer’s reticence. The energetic Inspector Slack often produced that effect on people he interrogated.”

Make upChristie is at pains to point out how Melchett can’t get on with Slack’s vigour. “The diligent Inspector Slack slid across to his superior officer a page torn from his notebook […] Melchett looked up and met the Inspector’s eye. The Chief Constable flushed. Slack was an industrious and zealous officer and Melchett disliked him a good deal.” On another occasion, Melchett is nonplussed by the amount of make-up and lotions on Josie’s dressing table. “”Do you mean to say?” he murmured feebly, “that women use all these things?” Inspector Slack, who always knew everything, kindly enlightened him.”

Make upAnd what about Melchett and Harper, the superintendent from another county? Again you get the sense of some tension. They’re trying to work out how the body got into the library: “”oh, yes, Harper, it’s all perfectly possible. But there’s still one thing to be done. Cherchez l’homme.” “What? Oh, very good, sir.” Superintendent Harper tactfully applauded his superior’s joke, although, owing to the excellence of Colonel Melchett’s French accent, he almost missed the sense of the words.” This implies that class difference might well cause some uncomfortable moments between them. Class is, of course, one Christie’s favourite topics, as we will see later!

Upper ClassAt least Constable Palk knows his social status; here’s what happens when Mrs Bantry tries to show Miss Marple the library: “She led the way rapidly along the long corridor to the east of the house. Outside the library door Constable Palk stood on guard. He intercepted Mrs Bantry with a show of authority. “I’m afraid nobody is allowed in, madam. Inspector’s orders.” “Nonsense, Palk,” said Mrs Bantry. “You know Miss Marple perfectly well.” Constable Palk admitted to knowing Miss Marple. “It’s very important that she should see the body,” said Mrs Bantry. “Don’t be stupid, Palk. After all, it’s my library, isn’t it?” Constable Palk gave way. His habit of giving in to the gentry was lifelong. The Inspector, he reflected, need never know about it.”

St Johns WoodThis is one of Christie’s better-written books, with some nice observations and amusingly creative passages. There’s an entertainingly bizarre conversation between the redoubtable Mrs Price Ridley and the mild Reverend Clement where the former is clearly starting to spread rumours about Colonel Bantry, taking the making of mountains out of molehills to a fine art: ““No wonder you can’t believe it! I couldn’t at first. The hypocrisy of the man! All these years! […] oh, dear vicar, you are so unworldly! […] last Thursday […] I was going up to London by the cheap day train. Colonel Bantry was in the same carriage. He looked, I thought, very abstracted. And nearly the whole way he buried himself behind The Times. As though, you know, he didn’t want to talk.” The vicar nodded with complete comprehension and possible sympathy. “At Paddington I said goodbye. He had offered to get me a taxi, but I was taking the bus down to Oxford Street – but he got into one, and I distinctly heard him tell the driver to go to – where do you think? […] an address in St John’s Wood!” Mrs Price Ridley paused triumphantly. The vicar remained completely unenlightened. “That, I consider, proves it”, said Mrs Price Ridley.”

libraryWhen it’s become obvious that Colonel Bantry has been shunned by the local community because of his implied involvement in the crime, there’s a heart-warming sequence where his wife Dolly stands by his side. She’s so distracted that she cuts up her gloves as she listens in fury to the way he has been treated during her absence. But she encourages him to face the challenge directly when she suggests they spend the evening in the library: “her steady eye met his. Colonel Bantry drew himself up to his full height. A sparkle came into his eye. He said: “You’re right, my dear. We’ll sit in the library!”” A simple act of assertiveness that you know will put him back on track.

Dorothy L SayersWhilst thinking about Christie’s style with this book, I enjoyed the two tongue-in-cheek moments when she drew herself into the story; one obvious, one hinted. “Mark Gaskell looked at Miss Marple in a somewhat puzzled fashion. He said doubtfully: “Do you – er – write detective stories?” The most unlikely people, he knew, wrote detective stories. And Miss Marple, in her old-fashioned spinster’s clothes, looked a singularly unlikely person. “Oh, no, I’m not clever enough for that.”” And when young Peter Carmody enthusiastically tries to help the police, he offers: “do you like detective stories? I do. I read them all, and I’ve got autographs from Dorothy L Sayers, and Agatha Christie and Dickson Carr and H C Bailey.” Cheeky Mrs Christie! Dorothy L Sayers is of course still well known as the writer of the Lord Peter Wimsey stories. But Dickson Carr and H C Bailey are not so well known today. Dickson Carr was an American, whose most popular fictional detectives were Dr. Fell and Sir Henry Merrivale. He died in 1977. H C Bailey created a medical detective, Doctor Reggie Fortune. He died in 1961.

DevonshireRegular readers will know I like to have a look at the place names in Christie’s books to see to what extent they’re genuine, or just a figment of her imagination. Nearly all the places in this book are in the locale of either St Mary Mead, or the Majestic Hotel in Danemouth. I can safely say that the only place that isn’t an invention of Christie’s is Devonshire, where Raymond Starr says he originates. Everywhere else – including Stane and Alsmonston in Devon, is fictional.

Brighton Trunk MurdersLet’s have a look at some of the other references in the book. At the beginning, Dolly Bantry is reading The Clue of the Broken Match, featuring ace detective Lord Edgbaston; sadly, although it sounds like a thrilling read, it doesn’t exist. Miss Marple refers to the Cheviot Murderer; this probably refers to a case back in 1896 in Ohio. She also brings up the Brighton trunk murders, two murders linked to Brighton, in 1934, in which the body of a murdered woman was placed in a trunk. Miss Marple is clearly well read in her true crime stories.

Alfred RouseGeorge Bartlett drives a Minoan 14, a very common car so that its presence in any car park or location would not stand out. Interestingly, this seems to be a completely fictitious model! I can’t find any reference to them apart from featuring in this novel. Superintendent Harper, on hearing of the burnt-out car, mentions Alfred Arthur Rouse, who was known as the Blazing Car Murderer, convicted and subsequently hanged in Bedford for the November 1930 murder of an unknown man in Hardingstone, Northamptonshire.

CophetuaMiss Marple likens Mr Jefferson to King Cophetua, who famously fell in love with a beggar-maid and together they lived “happily ever after” as the phrase goes. Copethua is a much-quoted figure in literature. Mark Gaskell also makes a quote, singing “but she is dead and in her grave, and oh the difference to me!” Christie has used this quote before, in Sad Cypress. This is from Wordsworth’s poem “She dwelt among the untrodden ways” and is about a young woman, unnoticed, unloved, all apart from by the author.

PoundI’m sure you remember that I like to research the present-day value of any significant sums of money mentioned in Christie’s books, just to get a more realistic feel for the amounts in question. There’s only one sum mentioned in this book: £50,000, which is the amount Conway Jefferson has announced will be left to Ruby Keene. The amount left for Mark and Addie to scramble over would be in the region of £5-10,000. That £50,000 in today’s terms would be £1.6 million; and the remainder to be shared between Mark and Addie equates to £165,000-300,000. So they’re all quite substantial sums.

Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for The Body in the Library:

Publication Details: 1942. Pan paperback, 3rd printing of the new edition, published in 1982. The cover illustration shows a woman’s legs lying on a fluffy rug, feet in extravagantly showy sandals; a rather salacious aspect of one part of the story. This edition omits Christie’s original foreword.

How many pages until the first death: 2. Straight in there. Wham bam, thank you Ma’am.

Funny lines out of context: Disappointingly absent.

Memorable characters:

There’s a charming relationship between Arthur and Dolly Bantry, which is poignantly written and gently amusing. The clashes between the policemen, especially Melchett and Slack, are also very enjoyable. In fact, in many ways, Melchett is probably the most memorable character in this book. The Jefferson family and their hangers-on are generally quite bland. Young Peter is quite a jolly lad though!

Christie the Poison expert:

Very little reference to anything to do with poison, as the murders are due to strangulation and being burnt alive in a car crash. However, a planned final murder, which does not take place, involves a syringe of digitalin, a poisonous mixture of digitalis glycosides, extracted from the leaves or seeds of the common foxglove.

Class/social issues of the time:

Two or three of Christie’s usual bêtes-noir crop up. Firstly, class. I’ve already mentioned how Constable Palk is prepared to disobey orders because he’s dealing with his social superiors. Much is made of how the character of the dead girl is clearly from a lower class. Everyone is critical of her cheap, trashy clothing, and of her bitten nails; in fact, no one is more critical than Miss Marple herself: “The sensible thing to do would be to change into trousers and a pullover, or into tweeds. That, of course (I don’t want to be snobbish, but I’m afraid it’s unavoidable), that’s what a girl of – of our class would do. A well-bred girl […] is always very particular to wear the right clothes for the right occasion […] Ruby, of course, wasn’t – well, to put it bluntly – Ruby wasn’t a lady. She belonged to the class that wear their best clothes however unsuitable to the occasion.” Ruby’s dress had already reminded Miss Marple of “Mrs Chetty’s youngest […] Edie was fond of what I call cheap finery too.” Mrs Bantry chips in with the remark “I know. One of those nasty little shops where everything is a guinea.” I have to point out, Mrs Bantry, that 76 years later we still have pound-shops; and in fact, a guinea in 1942 is worth £35 today. So, I think we know precisely the kind of shop to which Mrs Bantry objected.

As usual, we have one or two xenophobic remarks; Hugo McLean refers to exhibition dancer Raymond Starr as looking like a “dago”. No wonder Raymond explains why he changed his name from Ramon: “Ramon was my original professional name. Ramon and Josie – Spanish effect, you know. Then there was rather a prejudice against foreigners – so I became Raymond – very British”. But Sir Henry’s face lights up when he says he comes from a good Devonshire family, instantly changing his opinion of him. Sir Henry ought to know better.

Christie has an uneasy relationship with the notion of feminism. Most of the time, she’s devoutly against it; occasionally, she sees it may have some justification. In this book, I found one telling phrase that I thought suggested a social awakening. Colonel Melchett is interviewing Josie to find out how it was that Ruby started working at the Majestic. ““I do a couple of exhibition dances every evening with Raymond […] as it happens, this summer I slipped on the rocks bathing one day and gave my ankle a nasty turn […] naturally that put the stop to dancing for a bit and it was rather awkward. I didn’t want the hotel to get someone else in my place. That’s always a danger” – for a minute her good-natured blue eyes were hard and sharp; she was the female fighting for existence.” Female fighting for existence; a recognition of the difficulties a woman faced in the world of employment.

There’s one more curious aspect to the social issues of the time, that of marriage, and of couples being suspected of not being married, who are, and vice versa. I won’t go into much more detail on that one as it’s too spoilerish, but it’s an interesting elaboration that shows just how important perception can be over the truth.

Classic denouement: For me, the classic denouement is one where all the suspects are lined up in a room and the detective slowly goes through all the possibilities, lays a suspicious eye on a few people who object outrageously, and then finally accuses one, otherwise unsuspected, person of the crime, who then furiously retaliates in either fight or flight. From that point of view, this isn’t a classic denouement. However, it is a superb ending to the book, with a number of truly surprising revelations left right to the very last minute. Even when the murderer is about to strike a third time, Christie calls an end to the chapter without revealing their name. And when Miss Marple goes through the assumptions that we’ve all made throughout the book, our collective jaws drop in amazement.

Happy ending? Moderately so. Someone who desperately needs a cash boost gets one, and wedding bells are in the offing for one couple; however, that also means that another person misses out.

Did the story ring true? Yes! Unusually, this crime seems perfectly believable, including the activities of third parties who were not directly involved in it, but whose actions affected it.

Overall satisfaction rating: Good characters, good story-telling, a believable (albeit contorted) plotline and a humdinger of an ending. It just sags a little for me during the middle, otherwise I’d have given it top points. 9/10.

Five Little PigsThanks for reading my blog of The Body in the Library and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment in the space below. Next up in the Agatha Christie Challenge is Five Little Pigs, and the welcome return of Hercule Poirot to sort out which of five possible suspects is the killer. As usual, I’ll blog my thoughts about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!

The Agatha Christie Challenge – N or M? (1941)

N or MIn which we encounter Tommy and Tuppence, frustrated by the fact that no one wants them to help with the war effort, until a trusted contact comes along and offers Tommy a position he can’t resist. Tuppence isn’t to know about it, but of course she finds out and accompanies him. Can they identify the Fifth Columnist working undercover in an English seaside town? Of course they can! As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I promise not to tell you whodunit – or rather, who the undercover agent is!

Common PrayerThe book bears no dedication, and, according to Christie’s autobiography, she saw it as a kind of sequel to her earlier Tommy and Tuppence novel, The Secret Adversary. N or M? was first published in the US in a condensed version in the March 1941 issue of Redbook magazine, and in the UK an abridged version was serialised in Woman’s Pictorial from April to June 1941, under the title Secret Adventure. The full book was first published in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company later in 1941, and in the UK by Collins Crime Club in November the same year. The title is taken from a catechism in the Book of Common Prayer which asks, “What is your Christian name? Answer N. or M.” I’m not sure that the Book of Common Prayer holds the key to this particular case though.

Boring babyI could remember absolutely nothing about this book, and when it came to re-reading it now, I can see why. This is the dullest, most unmemorable book I have encountered on my Agatha Christie Challenge so far. Its plot is thin, and if you’re waiting for a nice juicy murder, you’ll have a long wait. There are several tedious sequences when the reader is subjected to endless reports of the activities and meaningless gurgling of little baby Betty Sprot. True, Betty has a significance to the story as a whole, but Christie dwells on the baby talk for far too long, and I found these scenes thoroughly boring. Interestingly, Christie wrote it at the same time as she was writing The Body in the Library, which would appear the following year. I wonder if she suffered a lack of concentration or commitment as a result? It will be fascinating to re-discover whether The Body in the Library shows any such signs too.

Second World WarThere’s one thing that this book does very well, and that is to suggest to the modern reader what it must have been like to live through the early years of the Second World War; the anxieties, the paranoia, the fears, the restrictions. Christie sets the book in the spring of 1940. Speculation is rife: the current Blitzkrieg is the German’s last effort, Hitler is so deranged the war will be over by August. Characters are thought to be Nazi sympathisers; especially the German refugee who acts so mysteriously. It’s difficult to get from village to village unless you’re a local, because all the signposts have been taken down to make it difficult for German parachutists. Letters arrive in the post bearing a censor’s mark. The people who bought Smuggler’s Rest were all foreigners – they didn’t speak a word of English. “Don’t you agree with me that sounds extremely fishy?” asks Commander Haydock, illustrating the general paranoia of the time.

Bletchley_ParkIn a moment of real-life paranoia, Christie was herself investigated because she named one of the characters in the book Major Bletchley, and it was suspected that she was giving away knowledge of the secret codebreaking work underway at Bletchley Park. Christie always maintained that she chose the name after travelling through Bletchley station on the train; and she died before the nature of the work undertaken at Bletchley Park was revealed to a curious world. Did she have insider knowledge? We’ll never know.

White QueenChristie makes her presence felt in the story on a couple of occasions; when Tuppence first arrives at the guest house “Sans Souci”, and everything seems purely above board and without any suspicion, Christie makes her own observation: “To believe in Sans Souci as a headquarters of the Fifth Column needed the mental equipment of the White Queen in “Alice”.” More annoyingly, there is a scene early on when Tommy and Tuppence, both undercover at the guest house, take time out to compare notes and discuss the characters living there: “”Now,” said Tuppence. “I’ll tell you some of my ideas.” And she proceeded to do so.” But she doesn’t tell us! That’s either deceitful of Christie, withholding observations and information from the reader, or, at best, simply lazy, with her not being bothered. Either way, it irritated me; I didn’t feel that Christie was playing fair with her readers.

KnittingSo how are Tommy and Tuppence getting on? It’s been twelve years since we saw them in Partners in Crime, but somehow since then they have acquired grown-up children and have aged considerably more than twelve years; ah, the magic of fiction. Tommy is too old to be called up, much to his grievance; Tuppence too is only considered good enough to knit for the nation. That’s not how they see themselves. Their erstwhile assistant Albert is still on the scene; he’s now married and runs The Duck and Dog pub in South London.

Be like dad keep mumTommy is still rather plodding and perhaps not the brightest tool in the box, but what he lacks in finesse he makes up for in derring-do. Tuppence is still unpredictable, flighty and playful. When she realises she will have to tell lies in this particular operation, she confesses: “I don’t mind lying in the least. To be quite honest, I get a lot of artistic pleasure out of my lies.” She’s also thoughtful and more understanding than most. Despite the fact that “there’s a war on” she feels sympathy for individuals on the other side. “I hate the Germans myself. “The Germans” I say, and feel waves of loathing. But when I think of individual Germans, mothers sitting anxiously waiting for news of their sons, and boys leaving home to fight, and peasants getting in the harvest, and little shopkeepers and some of the nice kindly German people I know, I feel quite different. I know then that they are just human beings and that we’re all feeling alike.” An unpopular opinion at the time, I’ll wager.

BournemouthThere’s not a lot of interesting material for us to discuss in this book, so let’s move on to having a look at the place names to see to what extent they’re genuine, or just a figment of Christie’s imagination. The story is set in the seaside town of Leahampton, which doesn’t exist but I see from other commentators that it is widely meant to represent Bournemouth. Other nearby locations include Leatherbarrow and Yarrow, neither of which exist as towns or villages but are mentioned in road names in the Maghull/Sefton areas of Merseyside, which is curious. Tuppence’s Aunt Gracie lives in Langherne, Cornwall; again, a completely fictitious location.

dismal desmondLet’s have a look at some of the other references in the book. The wartime setting is enhanced by references to Dismal Desmond and Bonzo; Dismal Desmonds were referred to in Parker Pyne Investigates, and Bonzo was the famous cartoon dog. Tuppence gains her kindness towards others from thinking of Nurse Cavell – Edith Cavell, sentenced to death during the First World War for helping 200 Allied soldiers to escape, and whose watchword was “I must have no hatred or bitterness towards anyone”. Meanwhile, Sheila Perenna tells Tommy that her father was a follower of Casement in the First World War – that would be Roger Casement: poet, Irish nationalist and leader of the Easter Rising.

Sisera“So, Tuppence thought, might Joel have looked, waiting to drive the nail through the forehead of sleeping Sisera.” Who? I can do no better than to refer you to our friends at Wikipedia (so it must be true): Sisera was commander of the Canaanite army of King Jabin of Hazor, who is mentioned in Judges 4-5 of the Hebrew Bible. After being defeated by the forces of the Israelite tribes of Zebulun and Naphtali under the command of Barak and Deborah, Sisera was killed by Jael, who hammered a tent peg into his temple. Nasty.

Nine of diamondsIn that game of Bridge that almost drives Tuppence to distraction, Mrs Cayley lays down the nine of diamonds. “’Tis the Curse of Scotland that you’ve played there!” says Mrs O’Rourke. I’d never heard about the Curse of Scotland as being a nickname for the Nine of Diamonds. Even as far back as 1708, you can find this description in an old book: “Diamonds as the Ornamental Jewels of a Regnal Crown, imply no more in the above-nam’d Proverb than a mark of Royalty, for Scotland’s Kings for many Ages, were observ’d, each Ninth to be a Tyrant, who by Civil Wars, and all the fatal consequences of intestine discord, plunging the Divided Kingdom into strange Disorders, gave occasion, in the course of time, to form the Proverb.” So now you know.

Home GuardMajor Bletchley goes to see the film “The Wandering Minstrel” and Christie is at pains to tell us how he criticises its military inaccuracy. However, the only films bearing that name at that time was a comedy short and this definitely wasn’t the same film that the Major saw. And there are a few mentions of the LDV – nothing to do with vans, this was the Local Defence Volunteers that later became much better known as the Home Guard. “Remember your Dickens? Beware of widders, Sammy”, quotes Major Bletchley to a perplexed Miss Minton. I had no idea to what this referred – it’s a conversation between Pickwick Papers’ Mr Weller Snr and his son (and not a proper quotation!)

BlondelSee if you can spot the word that looks wrong: “They want people who are young and on the spot. Well, as I say, mother got a bit hipped over it all, and so she went off down to Cornwall to stay with Aunt Gracie…” Hipped? It’s actually a really strange word for a young character of the time to say. According to my OED, it means depressed or low-spirited, and is an archaic 18th century colloquialism. (Longfellow: what with his bad habits and his domestic grievances he became completely hipped.) “There is time to weep after the battle” says Mr Grant, encouragingly, to Tuppence. I can’t locate that as being a direct quotation (all these characters are misquoting things, I wonder if that was the characters’ or Christie’s laziness?) but the nearest I can find is good old Ecclesiastes Chapter 3 Verse 4, “a time to weep and a time to laugh”. I’m more sure-footed on the reference to Blondel and Berengaria; Blondel was a troubadour linked to King Richard I, or, perhaps more accurately, his queen Berengaria.

Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for N or M?:

Publication Details: This takes a little research, as my copy does not bear a date, but is clearly a cheap copy with its poor quality paper and print setting. My only clue is to take the list of books by Christie that has been promotionally listed on the inside front cover, and the book with the latest publishing date in that list is They Do It With Mirrors, which was first published in 1952. Her following book, After the Funeral, was published in 1953 but that’s missing from the list. Therefore, I deduce this is either from 1952 or 1953! Published by the Crime Club as a “White Circle Pocket Novel”, the Art Deco inspired cover shows two demonic figures, one armed with a knife and one with a gun. The cover bears absolutely no resemblance to the content of the book at all! But that’s because Christie’s White Circle Pocket novels always had the same design.

How many pages until the first death: A massive 104. And even then, we see at first hand who shoots who, so there’s no element of detective whodunitry.

Funny lines out of context: Showing the importance of differentiating between an adverbial clause and an unhyphenated noun.

“Tea was the next move and hard on that came the return…”

Memorable characters: Frankly, none of the characters interested me in the slightest, I thought they were all very vacuous.

Christie the Poison expert: No references to poison made either!

Class/social issues of the time:

As mentioned earlier, the strength (if any!) of this book is its commentary on living in wartime Britain, which is interesting to the modern reader who has never lived through such days. Given the fact that it was largely seen as a battle between democracy and fascism, Major Bletchley’s observation about how the army is run is curious: “How are we gong to win the war without discipline? Do you know, sir, some of these fellows come on parade in slacks – so I’ve been told […] it’s all this democracy […] you can overdo anything. In my opinion, they’re overdoing the democracy business. Mixing up the officers and the men, feeding together in restaurants – faugh! – the men don’t like it…”

The other Christie bête-noir, that of sexism, continues to rear its ugly head. At the beginning of the book, Tommy laments that he is of no use to the war effort. Tuppence sympathises, but Tommy adds: “it’s worse for a man. Women can knit, after all – and do up parcels and help at canteens”. Talk about sexual stereotyping! Mind you, Major Bletchley is no better: “Women are all very well in their place, but not before breakfast.”

And here’s a generalisation to consider: “Albert was not given to the exercise of deep reasoning. Like most Englishmen, he felt something strongly, and proceeded to muddle around until he had, somehow or other, cleared up the mess.”

Classic denouement: No, it’s very straggly. In our search of N and M, one of them is identified with still 40 pages (over 20%) of the book still to be read. The two other revelations are more of a surprise, but I think I was so bored by the rest of the book that they didn’t impress me much.

Happy ending? Yes. Tommy and Tuppence resume their continued wedded bliss and there’s no doubt they are a devoted and affectionate old couple. And there are two other characters who will clearly be “getting it together” in the near future.

Did the story ring true? There appears to be one massive coincidence that stretches your credibility beyond a joke; but once you understand the full picture you realise it wasn’t a coincidence at all. And in fact, in many ways, this is one of the most believable Christie books. It’s dull in the same way that real life is dull. So you may well find yourself wishing it was less believable!

Overall satisfaction rating: Despite a few positive aspects, I generally did not enjoy this book at all, and if it had been the first Christie I ever picked up, I doubt I would have ever read another. I’m going to be generous and give it a 3/10.

The Body in the LibraryThanks for reading my blog of N or M? and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment in the space below. Next up in the Agatha Christie Challenge is The Body in the Library and the welcome return of Miss Marple in what was at the time only her second full-length case. As usual, I’ll blog my thoughts about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!

The Agatha Christie Challenge – Evil Under The Sun (1941)

Evil under the SunIn which Hercule Poirot is enjoying a quiet holiday in a discreet island off the coast of Devon, when one of his fellow holidaymakers is found strangled on a beach. Naturally the local police ask Poirot to assist – and just before they call in Scotland Yard his little grey cells come to the rescue. As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I promise not to tell you whodunit!

holy BibleThe book is dedicated to “John in memory of our last season in Syria.” This was John Rose, who befriended Agatha and her husband Max at an archaeological dig at Ur, in 1928. She would also dedicate her later book, A Caribbean Mystery, to him. Evil Under the Sun was first serialised in the US in Colliers’ Weekly from December 1940 to February 1941. The full book was first published in the UK in June 1941 by Collins Crime Club and then subsequently in the US in October the same year. The title is a quotation from the Book of Ecclesiastes, Chapter 6, Verses 1-2: “There is an evil which I have seen under the sun, and it is common among men. A man to whom God hath given riches, wealth, and honour, so that he wanteth nothing for his soul of all that he desireth, yet God giveth him not power to eat thereof, but a stranger eateth it: this is vanity, and it is an evil disease.” My guess is that the observation is that the character of Arlena has everything that money could buy, but is she happy?

Film SoundtrackI could only remember a few hints of the story as I was re-reading this book, which meant that the denouement at the end came as a thoroughly enjoyable surprise. I have fond memories of the film; primarily because it had such a brilliant soundtrack of songs by Cole Porter, and the soundtrack album was perfect fodder for whenever you needed a little nostalgic easy listening. The film, however, did take many liberties with the book, and I couldn’t recommend it if you are a Christie purist.

old womanThis is a very enjoyable book but it has a few downsides for me. A few of the characters are deliberately dull and boring people, incessantly jabbering on about nothing in particular (like Mrs Gardener) or constantly referring back to India of old (Major Barry). And the trouble with reading conversations of police-style investigations with these people is that it becomes a boring read. Every time Mrs Gardener started yet again droning on about nothing in particular, my attention wandered. I have a sense it was meant to be funny; no, it’s just boring.

sexismOne is also used to a reasonable amount of sexism in a Christie book; she was never going to be the type to burn her bra, for example, but this book has such an extraordinarily sexist ending that I gasped out loud. I can’t really go into detail too much without giving the game away but, believe me, it really takes the biscuit. It actually ruined (for me, at least) what was otherwise a really exciting conclusion to the book.

early 20th century seasideWhere Evil Under the Sun truly excels is introducing us to the world of early 20th century British seaside holidays. In the first chapter, when explaining how the Jolly Roger hotel came into being, Christie refers to the “great cult of the Seaside for Holidays” when “the coast of Devon and Cornwall was no longer thought too hot in the summer”. Christie paints a lively picture of this quaint, exclusive resort, with its well-to-do holidaymakers who bathe before breakfast (by which she means go for a dip in the sea, not get washed) and discover secluded coves for sketching and sunbathing. Proprietress Mrs Castle is as refined as you can get, with Christie conveying her over-the-top strangulated vowel sounds and ridiculously upper-middle-class language. The one thing that unites all the tourists staying at the hotel is that they are monied; they may not have taste, or class, but they’ve got the wherewithal.

Detective2With this, her third Poirot book on the run, Christie really mastered her thriller-writer-style; longer chapters broken up by shorter, numbered scenes, each of which contained one vital piece of information. That could be an introduction to a character; an account of a detective/police interview with one particular suspect; the discovery of one individual clue, or even one significant observation. This style helps keep you reading; you know the next chapter section is only going to be brief, so there’s always time for just one more chapter – and before you know it, you’re almost at the end. It builds the pace and the suspense very nicely, and Christie even provides the reader with a map of the island, which may, or may not, aid our amateur sleuthing.

PoirotPoirot is once again on excellent form; persistent, unscrupulous, meddling, devious, even cruel – but always in the search for the truth. We first see Poirot disapproving of what he considers the impersonal and deplorable modern practice of lying out in the sun “in rows. What are they? They are not men and women. There is nothing personal about them. They are just – bodies! […] What appeal is there? What mystery? I, I am old, of the old school. When I was young, one saw barely the ankle. The glimpse of a foamy petticoat, how alluring! The gentle swelling of the calf – a knee – a beribboned garter…” Steady Poirot, you’ll have us breaking out in a sweat.

DeauvilleHe is, as he says, old. Blatt says of him, “I thought he was dead…Dash it, he ought to be dead.” Rosamund remarks to Kenneth Marshall that “he’s pretty old. Probably more or less ga ga”. Blatt thinks that Devon would be a hostile environment to the poor old chap, “a man like you would be at Deauville or Le Touquet, or down at Juan les Pins”, and Poirot concedes that in wet weather those resorts would be more welcoming. Christie herself passes comment on one aspect of Poirot’s appearance and personality: “Poirot, in his turn, extracted his cigarette case and lit one of those tiny cigarettes which it was his affectation to smoke.” Affectation – interesting choice of word. Poirot is always concerned about how he looks to the outside world, whether it be a mark on his shoe, or a fleck of dust on a suit, or something not being entirely symmetrical.

ColgateHe’s clearly missing his old pal, Hastings, although, as we discover in a nice little aside, Christie confirms that Poirot updates him on all his escapades sometime in the future. But Poirot always needs someone off whom to bounce an idea or two. In One, Two, Buckle my Shoe it was George, his manservant. In this latest case, Poirot enjoys a good working relationship with both Chief Constable Colonel Weston, with whom he worked in Peril at End House, and on a day-to-day basis with Inspector Colgate. When we first meet them, Christie normally describes her police officers with a few bleak adjectives, but we’re left to make our own mind up about Colgate. He seems dogged but polite, very deferential towards both Weston and Poirot; he speaks “soothingly” to witnesses, and is perfectly happy to sit quietly and listen to everything everyone else says before offering a comment. He’s clearly one who employs his own little grey cells; and this wins Poirot’s trust and friendship. A long way into the case, Christie tells us: “To Hercule Poirot, sitting on the ledge overlooking the sea, came Inspector Colgate. Poirot liked Inspector Colgate. He liked his rugged face, his shrewd eyes, and his slow unhurried manner.” And that’s as near as Poirot gets to finding a replacement for Hastings in this book.

OverhearPoirot shows his lack of scruples by listening in to private conversations; he doesn’t absent himself when Christine and Patrick Redfern are talking about Patrick’s infatuation with Arlena (even Hastings disapproves). He doesn’t flinch from brutally confronting 16-year-old Linda Marshall with a visceral description of her stepmother’s death, the inappropriateness of which shocked even the Chief Constable.

Diana Rigg as ArlenaPoirot gives us an insight into why he questions brutally and relentlessly – and the reason why Poirot admonishes Kenneth Marshall through frustration with the responses he is getting: “there is no such thing as a plain fact of murder. Murder springs, nine times out of ten, out of the character and circumstances of the murdered person. Because the victim was the kind of person he or she was, therefore was he or she murdered! Until we can understand fully and completely exactly what kind of person Arlena Marshall was, we shall not be able to see clearly the kind of person who murdered her.” It’s always the character analysis that most interests Poirot and, of course, that makes it more interesting for the reader.

Jigsaw PuzzleThere’s a further insight into Poirot’s methodology when Mrs Gardener asks him to explain how he goes about solving a crime, whilst she’s wrestling with a jigsaw puzzle. “It is a little like your puzzle, Madame. One assembles the pieces. It is like a mosaic – many colours and patterns – and every strange-shaped little piece must be fitted into its own place. […] And sometimes it is like that piece of your puzzle just now. One arranges very methodically the pieces of the puzzle – one sorts the colours – and then perhaps a piece of one colour that should fit in with – say, the fur rug, fits instead in a black cat’s tail. […] Almost every one here in this hotel has given me a piece for my puzzle. You amongst them.” And when Mrs Gardener is thrilled to find out what she has said to influence his thoughts, he refuses with the ironically amusing response: “I reserve the explanations for the last chapter.”

candlesAs if to make life easier for the reader, Christie lists for us, as she is recounting Poirot’s thoughts, all the clues (for want of a better word) that he accumulates during the course of the investigation, as a challenge to see if we can crack the case before he does: “Gabrielle No 8. A pair of scissors. A broken pipe stem. A bottle thrown from a window. A green calendar. A packet of candles. A mirror and a typewriter. A skein of magenta wool. A girl’s wrist-watch. Bathwater rushing down the waste-pipe. Each of these unrelated facts must fit into its appointed place. There must be no loose ends.” This is the jigsaw puzzle relating to Evil Under the Sun.

Burgh IslandRegular readers will know I like to have a look at the place names in Christie’s books to see to what extent they’re genuine, or just a figment of her imagination. We know from the start that Leathercombe Bay, where the island is located, is in the West Country; although this isn’t firmly stated; it’s an assumption we make after she has already mentioned Devon and Cornwall. There is no such place of course; but, like And Then There Were None, it was based on Burgh Island just by Bigbury-on-Sea. Mr Lane goes for a country walk to Harford; there is a village of that name in the Dartmoor National Park but it would be an awfully long round walk – a good 15 miles each way. Shipley, Sheepstor and Tintagel are mentioned – these are real places; however, St Petrock-in-the-Combe is made up, although there are many churches and roads in the area with St Petroc (no “k”) in the title. Whiteridge, Mr Lane’s Surrey address, doesn’t exist; and although Rosamund’s business address of 622 Brook Street, London, sounds convincing, the numbers in this Mayfair street don’t go anywhere near that high.

Rydal MountThe hotel register lists the addresses of its guests: The Cowans live at Rydal’s Mount, Leatherhead (Leatherhead is real, of course, and Rydal Mount is a house in the Lake District, the home of William Wordsworth, but the two don’t go together). The Mastermans live in Marlborough Avenue, London, NW (there is a Marlborough Avenue in London but it’s in Hackney). The Redferns live at Crossgates, Seldon, Princes Risborough (there’s no such village near Princes Risborough). Major Barry lives in Cardon Street, St James, London (no such street). Rosamund Darnley lives in Cardigan Court, W1 (it doesn’t exist). Emily Brewster lives at Southgates, in Sunbury on Thames (I can’t trace a Southgates there) and the Marshalls live in Upcott Mansions London SW7 (no such place). Poirot’s own address of Whitehaven Mansions London W1 is also a Christie fabrication. Shame.

duck suitLet’s have a look at some of the other references in the book. Do you know what a duck suit is? I didn’t. Our first sight of Poirot is “resplendent in a white duck suit”. It’s nothing to do with ducks. Duck is a heavy, plain woven cotton fabric. The name comes from the Dutch doek, meaning linen canvas. I guessed what was meant by the term “earth closet” (the Gardeners describe the facilities in a guesthouse on the moors in that way) and it is of course the opposite of a water closet.

Marriage of William AsheArlena Marshall was in a revue called Come and Go – that’s another of Christie’s inventions. However, there’s nothing fictional about the characters of Mussolini or Princess Elizabeth (now the Queen) mentioned by Rosamund Darnley when discussing her childhood game of If not yourself, who would you be. Nor are A. E. W. Mason’s The Four Feathers or Mary Augusta Ward’s The Marriage of William Ashe, and the many other distinguished tomes that appear on Linda Marshall’s bookshelves.

Dartmoor PrisonMrs Gardener wants to make a visit to the “convict prison” at Princetown. That’s what we now call HM Dartmoor Prison, built in 1809. And, talking of convicts, the Wallace to whom Colgate refers when reflecting on the cool reaction from Marshall to the fact that his wife has been murdered, was William Herbert Wallace of Anfield, Liverpool, who was found guilty of the murder of his wife but then later had the conviction quashed by the Court of Criminal Appeal. Whilst reflecting on the facts of the case, Colonel Weston concludes that the murderer is “some monomaniac who happened to be in the neighbourhood”. Monomania was the term used to describe a partial insanity, conceived as single pathological preoccupation in an otherwise sound mind. The term fell from favour in the mid-19th century, so Weston’s use of it approximately a hundred years later is very archaic.

AholibahIf you know your Bible (and I confess I am a little weak on parts of it) then you probably know about Aholibah. Reverend Lane compares Arlena to Jezebel and Aholibah in his insistence that she was evil. If you check Ezekiel Chapter 23 you’ll find that Aholibah is from Jerusalem and lusts after Egyptian men whose genitals resemble donkeys’ and whose emission is like that of horses. Funnily enough that passage was excised from my Children’s Bible! And what about Gabrielle No 8 perfume? Gabrielle was the real name of Coco Chanel, whose No 5 was taking the world by storm. I think we can see what Christie was getting up to here.

TriangleChristie also makes a few references to her own books. We’ve already seen that Colonel Weston originally appeared in Peril at End House, which in this book he refers to as “that affair at St. Loo”. Mr and Mrs Gardener are friends with Cornelia Robson who appeared in Death on the Nile. There are also some similarities with the plot of Triangle at Rhodes, which forms part of the Murder in the Mews collection. I’ll say no more, lest I give the game away.

PoundI’m sure you remember that I like to research the present-day value of any significant sums of money mentioned in Christie’s books, just to get a more realistic feel for the amounts in question. There’s only one sum mentioned in this book: £50,000, which is the amount left to Arlena in the will of her old friend Sir Robert Erskine, and which is still assumed to be untouched in her bank accounts. Colgate concludes that Arlena was a rich woman. That £50,000 in today’s terms would be £1.7 million. So, yes, fairly wealthy and worth murdering for!

Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for Evil Under the Sun:

Publication Details: 1941. Fontana paperback, 4th impression, published in November 1967. The cover illustration by Tom Adams shows a voodoo doll of a woman in a bikini, surrounded by shells and seaweed, with pins stuck in her body. That certainly captures one aspect of the story, at least. There’s also some magenta wool, which refers us back to Poirot’s list of clue anomalies that has to be explained before the truth is revealed.

How many pages until the first death: 49. That gives us plenty of time to examine the situation and anticipate a crime before anything actually happens. Maybe if the crime were to have been discovered just a little earlier the book might have felt more punchy?

Funny lines out of context: Perhaps not an accidentally funny line out of context but I loved this early observation from Mrs Gardener, together with Christie’s own icy reaction:

“”These girls that lie out like that in the sun will grow hair on their legs and arms. I’ve said so to Irene – that’s my daughter, M. Poirot. Irene, I said to her, if you lie out like that in the sun, you’ll have hair all over you, hair on your arms and hair on your legs and hair on your bosom, and what will you look like then? I said to her. DIdn’t I, Odell?” “Yes, darling,” said Mr Gardener. Every one was silent, perhaps making a mental picture of Irene when the worst had happened.”

Effective use of language: “Mr Lane was a tall vigorous clergyman of fifty odd. His face was tanned and his dark grey flannel trousers were holidayfied and disreputable.”

“The Reverend Stephen Lane drew in his breath with a little hiss and his figure stiffened.”

Memorable characters:

Arlena Marshall is an enigma; someone who is so beautiful, so charismatic, but yet so thoroughly empty and self-centred at the same time. Kenneth Marshall is also an enigma; his completely passionless response to the murder is hard to comprehend, even if he didn’t like her very much. Emily Brewster, with her gruff voice and her athletic prowess is, I guess, an early attempt by Christie to portray a very manly woman. Mrs Castle’s over-refined speech patterns and voice are quite amusing. But, despite these minor fascinations, as is often the case, the characters don’t stand out in the same way that the story itself does.

Christie the Poison expert:

Kenneth Marshall’s first wife was acquitted of the murder of her husband, who “was proved to have been an arsenic eater”. That’s the only reference to poison I can find. However, an intricate sub-plot in this story involves dealing in heroin, or Diamorphine Hydrochloride, as Dr Neasdon carefully explains. Interestingly, Christie talks of drugs like heroin in terms of their chemical compounds, in the same clinical way in which she views poison.

Class/social issues of the time:

This book is very unusual for its almost complete lack of typical Christie-like observations on class and social issues. Because everyone staying at the Jolly Roger is wealthy, the only working-class character in the book is Gladys the chambermaid, but it’s a very small part. True, Christie condescends a little towards Horace Blatt, who, although rich, has neither taste nor the awareness of personal boundaries of the upper middle-class.

There’s only one area of contention in this book – and that’s Christie’s innate sexism when it comes to equal opportunities for men and women. Rosamund Darnley is depicted as a successful businesswoman; unmarried through choice, although Poirot pussyfoots around the subject with: “Mademoiselle, if you are not married, it is because none of my sex have been sufficiently eloquent.” Poirot, perhaps surprisingly, approves of the way she has carved out her own independent living: “to marry and have children, that is the common lot of women. Only one woman in a hundred – more, in a thousand, can make for herself a name and a position as you have done.” That’s why the appallingly sexist ending – you’ll have to read it for yourself – stands out like the sorest thumb in A&E.

Classic denouement: Yes! This is one of those occasions where the majority of the suspects are gathered around to hear what Poirot has concluded, although it’s actually even more exciting as you don’t realise the denouement is taking place until it’s thoroughly progressed; it sneaks up on you as you actually think you’re there to find out something else. It even has one of those extremely satisfying moments when the accused party loses the plot and goes to attack Poirot.

Happy ending? In a sense. A couple are clearly going to get it together and live happily ever after. However, the terms on which this happens are pretty repulsive from today’s perspective.

Did the story ring true? It’s all very convoluted and highly unlikely; but I can imagine how, with chutzpah and some lucky breaks, the crime was committed.

Overall satisfaction rating:
It’s a very good read, and the crime is very satisfactory, from the reader’s point of view. But as I said earlier, some of the characters are rather boring, and that ending is a killer (and not in a good sense.) So I don’t think I can go higher than 8/10.

N or MThanks for reading my blog of Evil Under the Sun and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment in the space below. Next up in the Agatha Christie Challenge is N or M?, and we leave Hercule Poirot behind to catch up with what Tommy and Tuppence are doing to help the war effort. As usual, I’ll blog my thoughts about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!

The Agatha Christie Challenge – One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (1940)

One Two Buckle My ShoeIn which Hercule Poirot unwillingly attends an appointment at the dentists, only to find out that a murder takes place at the dental surgery later on the same day. Inspector Japp invites him in to help discover what really happened, and soon Poirot is immersed in a web of political intrigue and activists – but is it a crime of passion or of politics? As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I promise not to tell you whodunit!

creamThe book is dedicated to “Dorothy North who likes detective stories and cream, in the hope it may make up to her for the absence of the latter.” Dorothy North, daughter-in-law to the 12th Baron North, was a close member of Christie’s London social circle in the 1930s. North’s daughter, Susan and Christie’s daughter, Rosalind, were best friends in their 20s, and in fact it was Dorothy who presented the eighteen-year-old Rosalind at Court; as Christie was had been divorced, she was not entitled to have the honour herself. And presumably you couldn’t get your hands on cream during the war.

Shoe buckleOne, Two, Buckle my Shoe was first serialised in the US in Colliers’ Weekly in August and September 1940, under the title The Patriotic Murders. Interestingly, and unusually, it does not appear to have been previously serialised in the UK. The full book was first published in the UK in November 1940 by Collins Crime Club and then subsequently in the US by Dodd, Mead & Co in February 1941, still as The Patriotic Murders. A later American edition in 1953 republished the book under the title An Overdose of Death. But I understand that today it is usually known as One, Two, Buckle my Shoe in the US as well.

DentistWhen I started to re-read this book, I instantly remembered the dental surgery scene and that a murder would be committed there. However, I had completely forgotten by whom, and what the whole story was about, so it was very enjoyable to get re-acquainted with it. It’s an enjoyable book, but a highly complex crime, and it takes a lot of concentration for the reader to really get to grips with what’s going on, and not just rely on Poirot to do the work for you. It’s definitely a book of its time, with a number of references and influences relating to the political turmoil at the beginning of the Second World War. The original American title, The Patriotic Murders, both helps and hinders the reader with the motive for the crimes committed within its covers.

One-Two-Buckle-My-ShoeJust like And then there were none, A Pocket Full of Rye, Five Little Pigs and Hickory Dickory Dock, Christie named this book after a nursery rhyme. But it’s in this book that the association with the rhyme is tied in most strongly, as the ten chapters are named after the various lines of the rhyme. However, I’m not entirely satisfied that the association works that well. The significance of the shoe buckle in the first part of the rhyme is strong and immediate, but from then on, the rhyme gets progressively weaker and more irrelevant in its association. In fact the denouement – perhaps the most important part of the book – comes in the chapter Seventeen, Eighteen, Maids in Waiting which title has absolutely no bearing on the story whatsoever!

CalendarHave you noticed how the plots of many of Christie’s books run over quite a short time scale? Frequently it’s only a matter of days that elapse between the beginning of the story and the denouement. One, Two, Buckle my Shoe isn’t like that. I’ve worked out that it takes a good eight weeks, maybe more, between Poirot’s dentist’s appointment and the solution to the crime. Given the complexity of the story, that’s probably not an unreasonable length of time for it all to be sorted out.

ReporterChristie doesn’t adopt one simple narration style in this book. Whilst most of it is in the 3rd person narrative, a few passages are written purely as conversations, almost as though they are lines from a play written in prose format. That gives greater emphasis on the information offered in those passages, and less on the characters involved; and also makes the account feel livelier and up-to-date. By contrast, Poirot’s talk with Mrs Adams isn’t expressed as a conversation but as a reported account. This has a different effect, distancing us from it, increasing a sense of irony and detachment.

Private versus publicWithout giving the game away, a major stumbling block in Poirot’s contemplations over this case is to what extent this is a “private” crime or a “public” crime; in other words a crime motivated by the usual personal reasons like money, greed, love, revenge and so on, or a crime motivated by a desire for political purposes, the right ideology, backing the correct political party, eradicating activists who work against the cause of the party. As a result, the story almost relocates itself half-way through, away from the dentists and the London addresses of all those who were present there on that day, to the private home and offices of the rich banker Alistair Blunt, reflecting the relocation of suspicion away from a domestic situation and towards international affairs. But is that a clever ruse on Christie’s part to blind us from the real motive for the crime, or is it simply natural plot development? You can clearly see how the book is very carefully plotted and structured – in addition to its artificially being tied to the various elements of the nursery rhyme.

PunchIt’s taken a while, but regular Christie readers would have at last rejoiced in a book that brought Poirot back to his usual, meddling, opinionated best. But on our first encounter with him, we have the upper hand. He is terrified of the dentist, and cuts a tragic, if not cowardly figure as he clutches at straws hoping the appointment will be cancelled. It’s a very funny, and recognisable scene, if you too are not completely relaxed when you visit the dentist, right down to the observation that he didn’t find the jokes in Punch funny (who did?) “There are certain humiliating moments in the lives of the greatest of men. It has been said that no man is a hero to his valet. To that may be added that few men are heroes to themselves at the moment of visiting their dentist.” Poirot’s “morale was down to zero. He was just that ordinary, craven figure, a man afraid of the dentist’s chair.” Of course, once he’s reached that nadir, the only way is up. Poirot’s natural vanity is beautifully expressed when Morley, the dentist in question, talks about the important Mr Blunt in one respect and “you and me” in another: “A momentary resentment rose in Poirot at this off-hand coupling of names. Mr Morley was a good dentist, yes, but there were other good dentists in London. There was only one Hercule Poirot.”

spyDo we get any new insights into Poirot in this book? Perhaps. Certainly, his outer appearance gets many a mention, raising the usual Christie spectre of xenophobia, with Miss Sainsbury Seale calling him “a very peculiar looking foreigner”, Mrs Adams says he is a “quaint little foreigner” and Frank Carter swears he is a “ruddy little foreigner”. Not enormously inventive invective there. Jane Oliveira has a very low opinion of him, cornering Poirot with this outburst: “You’re a spy, that’s what you are! A miserable, low, snooping spy, nosing around and making trouble!” It’s not often that Poirot is confronted like that.

cup of teaMind you, Poirot is not above having a low opinion of others, even those of comparable social standing. Whilst he’s waiting, petrified, in the dentist’s waiting room, he observes Colonel Abercrombie eyeing him back. Abercrombie shares the usual distrust of foreigners: “he looked at Poirot with an air of one considering some noxious insect”. Poirot, in response, says to himself: “In verity, there are some Englishmen who are altogether so unpleasing and ridiculous that they should have been put out of their misery at birth.” In truth, Poirot finds many aspects of England depressing; from the lack of chic amongst the girls in Regent’s Park, to the national obsession with its favourite beverage. Consider his thoughts when Gladys Nevill comes to call, and Poirot suggests having a cup of tea. “”Well, really, M. Poirot, that’s very kind of you. Not that it’s so very long since breakfast, but one can always do with a cup of tea, can’t one?” Poirot who could always do without one, assented mendaciously.”

Regent's ParkWe do get a reminder of Poirot’s love interest; memories of the Countess Vera Rossakoff come flooding back whilst he’s watching the young ladies in Regent’s Park; the Countess primarily featured in The Big Four but also in the short story The Double Clue which we won’t get around to reading until we reach Poirot’s Early Cases published in 1974. We also meet Poirot’s manservant George again; in the absence of Hastings, George provides Poirot a board to bounce ideas off, without the professional tension of always needing to be correct in front of Japp. However, in this case, George’s only insight is that Poirot will need to find a new dentist.

Old Father TimeTwo other points directly relating to Poirot in this book; firstly, his age. When he is completely baffled by the “contradictory and impossible problem of Miss Sainsbury Seale”, Poirot asks himself, “with astonishment in the thought: “Is it possible that I am growing old?”” Well, yes, Monsieur Poirot, it is. Poirot’s age is always a matter of some blurring; but if we go back to his first outing, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, it is noted that he and Japp first worked together on the Abercrombie Forgery Case in 1904. That is stated as a fact. But by the time he is working on the Styles case, he is retired. Let’s say he retired at the age of 65 in 1916 – that would make him 89 at the time of One, Two, Buckle my Shoe. Of course, Poirot never ages; not until his final case, Curtain, anyway. But yes, one must always think of Poirot as in that indistinct age bracket between, say, 65 and 85.

Old phoneAnother absolute fact about Poirot: for the first time, he reveals his telephone number! Whitehall 7272 – conveniently similar to Scotland Yard’s Whitehall 1212! The WHI of the exchange converted to the numbers 944, so today that number would be 0207 944 7272. Google searches don’t come up with anything interesting for that number, sadly. It would be great to ring it, only to hear a “funny little foreigner” say “Allo?”

SavoyRegular readers will know I like to have a look at the place names in Christie’s books to see if they’re genuine, made up, or a blur between the two. Much of this book is set in various locations around London, but they are largely fictitious. Amberiotis is living at the Savoy, which is of course real; Japp has been investigating fraud in Wigmore Street (real – but there’s no Lavenhams in Wigmore Street); Chelsea Embankment is real but there’s no Gothic House; Morley’s dental surgery is in Queen Charlotte Street (fictional – but there is a Charlotte Street in Mayfair). All the other London locations are made up. Outside London, Blunt lives in Exsham – completely made up; but the interview with Agnes takes place in a tea shop in Hertford (I bet there’s at least one), and Poirot admires a garden which makes him recollect other orderly gardens in Ostend, which also definitely exists! So, as usual; a mix of the real and not-so-real.

Leopold IIIOn two occasions, mention is made of “unrest in India” in the previous year – and there is an attempt on the life of the Prime Minister in this book by an Indian national. Certainly it was a time of uncertainty in India – with British action in the Second World War having a knock on effect on the government of India, and with Gandhi mobilising the crowds and many internal local governments resigning. In other references, Morley mentions Hitler and Mussolini, and King Leopold of Belgium, all of whom would have been at the forefront of the news. When they are looking for Miss Sainsbury Seale, Japp asks Poirot, “I suppose you’re hinting that she’s been murdered now and that we’ll find her in a quarry, cut up in little pieces like Mrs Ruxton?” This refers to the real-life case of the Bodies Under the Bridge, the murder of Isabella Ruxton and her housemaid Mary Jane Rogerson, by Buck Ruxton in 1935; one of the most significant murder enquiries of the 20th century, and a landmark in the use of forensic techniques.

Agatha ChristieAlfred’s book, Death at 11.45, however, is pure fiction; and the reference to “a thriller by a lady novelist” is very tongue-in-cheek, as the theory Poirot is propounding at the time, the drowning of a woman in the Thames, with weights attached to her body, thrown in to the river from a cellar in Limehouse, is precisely what happens in The Big Four; the second reference to that book in this. Quite apart from those references, I was frequently reminded of The Big Four whilst reading this book, with the constant suggestions that there are organised gangs out there committing crime on a worldwide stage.

mistletoe-boughJapp is not convinced by many of these more outlandish ideas about what might have happened to the missing woman – all my eye and Betty Martin, he says. What? And how come I’ve never heard of that phrase before? It means – as you’ve probably guessed – total and complete nonsense. But where on earth did it come from? Apparently it was first used in 1781 – but is very rare nowadays. There are a few other weird and wonderful expressions in this book: “Mistletoe bough up-to-date!” exclaims Japp at one point. “Na Poo!” he says at another. Again, these are quite beyond me. The first refers to the Legend of the Mistletoe Bough, where a new bride played hide and seek by hiding herself in a chest, but she was unable to escape and died there. The latter is a military slang meaning all finished or dead – probably a corruption of the French “il n′y a plus”.

E._Phillips_OppenheimJapp also says to himself, when he’s thoroughly confused by the crime, “Shades of Phillips Oppenheim, Valentine Williams and William le Queux, I think I’m going mad!” Those three gentlemen were all successful thriller writers in the early part of the 20th century – but where are their fans nowadays? And Christie can’t resist but to promote another of her stories, hidden amongst the lines of this book; Japp comments: ““Who’s the Home Secretary’s little pet? You are. Who’s got half the Cabinet in his pocket? You have. Hushing up their scandals for them.” Poirot’s mind flew for a moment to that case that he had named the Case of the Augean Stables. He murmured, not without complacence: “It was ingenious, yes? You must admit it.”” The Case of the Augean Stables features in the book The Labours of Hercules, which would be published seven years later in 1947, but it had been published in the Strand magazine in March 1940.

PoundYou’ll know, gentle reader, that I like to research the present-day value of any significant sums of money mentioned in Christie’s books, just to get a more realistic feel for the amounts in question. There aren’t many high value sums mentioned in this book, but just for completeness… Morley leaves Gladys £100 in his will – which is the equivalent of no more than £4000. You can therefore extrapolate that the £10 a week that Frank says he’s earning in his new job is no more than £400 today. The £2 15/- that Blunt pays his new gardener is only £108 a week today (that’s not very generous). But the £4000 a year that Barnes believes would be paid to anyone keeping Blunt safe and working on behalf of the good of the country would equate to over £150,000 a year today. Nice work if you can get it.

Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for One, Two Buckle my Shoe:

Publication Details: 1940. Fontana paperback, 5th impression, published in December 1968. The cover illustration by Tom Adams shows a hand (unquestionably a man’s hand, with all those Hobbit-like hairs) pointing a pistol through a tear in a print of the One, Two Buckle my Shoe rhyme. Slightly fanciful, not entirely true to the story, but an intriguing design which will definitely have brought about some sales simply on the strength of the picture!

How many pages until the first death: 14. Nice. No hanging about and waiting for stuff to happen.

Funny lines out of context: Two great examples, involving that favourite old word of Christie’s that has undergone some semantic change over the past fifty years.

“There was a fierce thump on the door. Alfred’s face then appeared round it. His goggling eyes took in each detail of the two visitors as he ejaculated”

“As they went down the stairs again to No. 42, Japp ejaculated with feeling”

Memorable characters:

As in her previous book, Sad Cypress, no one really stands out. I enjoyed how Jane Oliveira stands up to Poirot and tells him what for, and she has no trouble justifying her general rudeness: “I’m rich and I’m moderately good-looking, and I’ve got a lot of influential friends – and none of those unfortunate disabilities they talk about so freely in the advertisements nowadays. I can get along all right without manners”. You wouldn’t want to meet her though. Apart from her, Morley, the dentist, who is despatched early on, amuses us in the first scene with his breakfast grumpiness. It’s a very well written chapter.

Christie the Poison expert:

No poisons as such, but overdoses of medicine. Two people are killed in this way. One with a combination of adrenaline, which is a hormone, and novocaine, which is a drug, also known as procaine. The other is killed with Medinal, which is a long-acting barbiturate that depresses most metabolic processes at high doses. It is used as a hypnotic and sedative; so basically, the victim was, literally, put to sleep.

Class/social issues of the time:

There’s a smattering of all the usual -isms found in Christie’s work of the time. Miss Morley offers us a little anti-Irish sentiment; when asked how her brother got on with Mr Reilly, she replies: “as well as you can ever hope to get on with an Irishman! […] Irishmen have hot tempers and they thoroughly enjoy a row of any kind.” Mr. Blunt’s wife is described as “a very notorious Jewess” – which is unacceptable language today whether you think of it in terms of race or religion. There’s even an unfortunate instance of the N word, when Frank is describing how hard Morley made Gladys work. In modern editions, the phrase in question has been changed to “worked like a dog”.

There’s also a little clash of the classes, as is often the case. When Christie relates anything that the character of Alfred says, she phrases and spells it in what you might call Condescending Cockney: “I can tell you orl right, […] it was orl just as usual, […] if I’d knowed a Mr Morley had done himself in […] oo-er-he wasn’t murdered, was he? […] Cor, I never thought of that”. Rather like happens in Sad Cypress, there’s also an observation that excess education can be a bad thing. Here’s Japp explaining some of the police investigations: “We didn’t really think it would lead to anything. You’ve no idea of how many of these false alarms we’ve had. However, I sent Sergeant Beddoes along – he’s a bright young fellow. A bit too much of this high-class education but he can’t help that. It’s fashionable now.”

But perhaps the most interesting theme of the time – and it’s unsurprising considering it’s 1940 – is the predominance of politics. Japp only gets involved in this case because Alastair Blunt is involved. “Blunt is the kind of person we take care of in this country” says Japp. “You mean that there are people who would like him – out of the way?” asks Poirot. “You bet there are”, he replies. “The Reds, to begin with – and our Blackshirted friends too.”

It was a time of great social and political division. Indeed, a number of the characters in the book may be seen as an embodiment of their “brand” of politics. One hand you have the American Howard Raikes, whom Poirot labels as an “idealist” but in Christie’s eyes is simply a leftie. Consider his attitude to threats made against the banker, Blunt’s, life. “You can’t save him, you know. He’s got to go – and everything he stands for! There’s got to be a new deal – the old corrupt system of finance has got to go – this cursed net of bankers all over the world like a spider’s web […] I’ve nothing against Blunt personally – but he’s the type of man I hate. He’s mediocre – he’s smug […] He’s an obstruction in the way of Progress and he’s got to be removed […] There’s got to be a new world.” On the other hand, you have Frank Carter, a fascist, “he’s one of those Imperial Shirts, you know – they march with banners and have a ridiculous salute” says Gladys. Politically, he’s not so well drawn, just a stock character from the Imperial Fascist League, presumably; but as a character, he is: “he was an unpleasant young bully of the kind that appeals to women.”

And in between you have Mr Barnes, a respectable retired Home Office man, “conservative to the backbone” who considers people like Raikes, “long-haired, earnest-eyed and full of ideals of a better world […] furtive little rats with beards and foreign accents” as enemies of the people. And Blunt himself, three times described as “stodgy”, think of these activists as “long-haired woolly idealists without one practical bit of knowledge in their heads.”

Classic denouement: Not really a classic, but nevertheless very effective; it takes the simple form of a private discussion between Poirot and the guilty party, after which two men come in (presumably police officers) and we know no more. There is however, a really smart little secret that doesn’t get revealed right until the very last page; it has no bearing on the case as such, but it does nicely tie up a very loose end. Although another loose end – that of the telegram that sends Gladys away – is never really addressed.

Happy ending? Just as I said in my Sad Cypress blog, “Probably, but it’s not a dead cert. And definitely not within the confines of the book, but maybe sometime in the future.”

Did the story ring true? Just about – but the plot is very convoluted and has many coincidences and huge complexity. So if it does ring true, it manages it by a thread.

Overall satisfaction rating: In many ways it’s a cracking yarn; very pacey, full of surprises and a tough one for the little grey cells. However, for some reason, it’s not particularly memorable. So I’m going for an 8/10.

Evil under the SunThanks for reading my blog of One, Two, Buckle my Shoe and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment in the space below. Next up in the Agatha Christie Challenge is Evil Under the Sun, yet another escapade with Hercule Poirot, as he grapples with death in an island off the coast of Devon. Aspects of And Then There Were None, perhaps? As usual, I’ll blog my thoughts about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!

The Agatha Christie Challenge – Sad Cypress (1940)

Sad CypressIn which Elinor Carlisle is on trial for the murder of Mary Gerrard, and honestly – I haven’t given the game away, you discover that fact in the first sentence of the book! All the evidence is stacked up against her, but is Hercule Poirot convinced? As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I promise not to tell you whodunit!

Mosul mosqueThe book is dedicated to Peter and Peggy McLeod, doctors who ran the hospital in Mosul, in present day Iraq, when Agatha and her husband were there on archaeological digs. They became friends and kept in touch when the McLeods returned to England and settled on the east coast. Christie was godmother to their daughter Crystal. At the time the book was published, the McLeods were under a lot of stress as their children were being evacuated due to the war, and I think the dedication was Christie’s gift of friendship during this difficult time. Sad Cypress was first serialised in the UK in the Daily Express in March and April 1940; and in the US in Colliers’ Weekly from November 1939 to January 1940. The full book was first published in the UK in March 1940 by Collins Crime Club (interestingly, before the Express serialisation had finished) and then subsequently in the US by Dodd, Mead & Co later that year.

CypressFirst things first: the title comes from a passage from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. But how do you pronounce it?! Sigh-press? Sea-press? Sigh-prus? Sea-prus? I’ve done some research online and everyone seems to think that it should be pronounced the same way as the country. So Sighprus it is. Then why do I always instinctively call it Seapress? I’m annoyed at myself for doing it! My Arden Shakespeare tells me that the phrase means a coffin of cypress wood, by the way.

Courtroom JudgeThis book is structured very differently from most of Christie’s works. There’s a prologue, where we see Elinor in court, being asked whether she pleads guilty or not guilty to the murder of Mary Gerrard. Then we go back in time, and see the lead up to Mary’s death; the introduction of Poirot into the story and his additional investigations; and then finally back to the court to see the witnesses being cross-examined and to see Elinor in the witness box. It has a much more theatrical feel than most of her other books; we know right from the very start that Mary is going to die so there’s considerable use of dramatic irony as we see her make her fateful plans and live her daily life. And there’s always a buzz from a courtroom sequence, which certainly sets this book apart from most.

letterAs the opening conversations between Elinor and Roddy develop, you feel this is more like a romantic novel than a thriller – and I must say after about thirty or so pages I was getting thoroughly fed up with this book. But it’s definitely worth sticking with it! You sometimes sense that Christie is trying her hand at different styles of writing, to see if they work. Part One, Chapter Six is purely epistolary in style, which cleverly moves the narrative forward without having to give a lot of background information to slow it down.

detectiveAs the book progresses, and it reverts to its detective genre, it sneakily introduces ideas to put us off the scent. The thought that Elinor could take the opportunity to murder is carefully dripfed to us in a very theatrical way; and the awkward, stilted conversation between Elinor and Mary shortly before her death is almost painfully believable.

PoirotIt’s a welcome back to Hercule Poirot after a brief absence of a couple of years, but to be fair we don’t see Poirot at his absolute best. He’s there purely to act as a detective, but we get to see very little of his character. He’s not particularly meddlesome, or vain, or dandyish; we don’t get any extra insights into what makes those little grey cells tick. I think this is largely because he is deprived of a confidant; Hastings has been off the scene for ages, and there is neither Japp, nor Race, nor even Battle with whom he can chew the sleuthing cud. He has a slightly different relationship with Dr Lord than with everyone else in the book because it is Dr Lord who has engaged him to look at the case; but Poirot can hardly take that as an invitation to share all his suspicions with him. No, Poirot is definitely flying solo in this book and it shows it.

rakeHe does have one brilliant moment of invention though; when he suspects that everyone he talks to is holding something back, he pretends that he knows what it is, and that draws out the truth. In conversation with Nurse O’Brien: “”You and Nurse Hopkins, you have agreed together, have you not, that there are some things which are best not brought out into the light of day.” Nurse O’Brien said: “What would you be meaning by that?” Poirot said quickly: “Nothing to do with the crime – or crimes. I mean – the other matter.” Nurse O’Brien said, nodding her head: “What would be the use of raking up mud and an old story, and she a decent elderly woman, with never a breath of scandal about her, and dying respected and looked up to by everybody.”” Before that, Poirot had no clue what “the other matter” might be.

StamfordRegular readers will know I like to have a look at the place names in Christie’s books to see if they’re genuine, made up, or a blur between the two. They’re a curious mix in this book: Dr Lord refers to a diphtheria epidemic in Stamford, which of course is a fine old Lincolnshire town with a population of approximately 20,000. Poirot ingratiates himself with the xenophobic Mrs Bishop with talk of a recent visit to Sandringham, which along with some fawning comments about the Royal Family, does the trick. Edward John Marshall, who is called to give evidence in court, gives his address as 14 Wren Street, Deptford; and even if the street doesn’t exist, the London suburb certainly does.

Clark GableHowever, the majority of the story is centred on Hunterbury House at Maidensford, neither of which exist; Ted Bigland saw Clark Gable (who definitely did exist, and would have been 39 at the time of publication) at the pictures in Alledore, which doesn’t exist. Dr Lord was in Withenbury on the day of the murder (which doesn’t exist); nor does Boonamba, the fictional part of Auckland where Amelia Sedley lives. The expert gardener, Alfred Wargrave, lives at Emsworth, which is a real town near Portsmouth; in the book, however, it’s in Berkshire, near Maidensford. Maybe this suggests that Maidensford is based on Maidenhead?

Little EaseSome other references that I thought I’d look into… Nurse Hopkins suggests Mary Gerrard should try to qualify in massage or in Norland. I’d not heard of that before, but apparently it is a college in Bath that specialises in training for childcare roles. Dr Lord mentions the Little Ease in conversation with Mrs Welman about having the will to live. That, if you didn’t know, was the torture cell in the dungeon of the White Tower at the Tower of London. When Roddy watches Mary run, with a sigh he murmurs “Atalanta…” and that’s the second time Christie has invoked this Greek myth to describe an energetically beautiful woman – the first time was in The Murder on the Links, so I’ve explained the Atalanta myth in that blog post.

It - Clara BowI’d never heard the word stertorously before – yet in this book it appears twice. Just in case it’s new to you too, it’s a mid-19th century word meaning “like a snore”. Nurse Hopkins refers to seeing the film The Good Earth – commenting that women in China have a lot to put up with. Like the place names, it’s not often that Christie uses genuine film or book titles, but “The Good Earth” was a 1937 film based on Pearl S Buck’s 1931 book of the same name. It was nominated for five Oscars. She also refers to Mary as not “one of these girls who are all S. A. and IT.” That’s sex appeal (gasp!) and being an It girl – which is a reference that stretches back to a Clara Bow film of 1927, would you believe.

Eleanor of AquitainePoirot quotes melodramatically from Wordsworth when he is in conversation with Roddy: “But she is in her grave, and oh, the difference to me!” This comes from his poem “She dwelt among the untrodden ways” and is about a young woman, unnoticed, unloved, all apart from by the author. In another historical allusion, Elinor compares herself to her namesake, Eleanor of Aquitaine, wife of King Henry II, who offered a choice of a dagger or a bowl of poison to her rival in his love, Fair Rosamund. It’s not an unreasonable comparison.

The StrandIn another, cheekier, literary reference, Dr Lord is recommended to Poirot by Dr John Stillingfleet, who said Poirot had done great work in the case of Benedict Farley. The majority of Christie’s readers at the time would not have had a clue what he was referring to, unless they had read the short story The Dream which had appeared in The Strand magazine in February 1938, and in the book The Regatta Mystery which had been published in 1939 but only in the USA. Most of her British readers would have had to wait until the story’s appearance in the 1960 collection, The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding.

Zéphirine DrouhinA couple of other things to mention: Dr Lord drives a Ford Ten; they were built between 1934 and 1937, and were a fairly standard sort of car to have – nothing too flashy. And the rose growing up the trellis at the Lodge was a Zephyrine Drouhin; first cultivated in 1868 and still readily available today. And yes, the type of rose is indeed relevant to the story.

PoundYou’ll know, gentle reader, that I like to research the present-day value of any significant sums of money mentioned in Christie’s books, just to get a more realistic feel for the amounts in question. There are a few such sums mentioned in this book. Elinor proposes to make a gift of £2,000 to Mary from the estate of her mother. That’s approximately £78,000 in today’s money. No wonder she was staggered with the generosity. The other amounts to be paid were £500 to Mrs Bishop, £100 to the cook, £50 to the maids, and £5 to anyone else. That’s £19,500, £4,000, £2,000 and £200 at today’s rate. Major Somervell offers £12,500 to buy Hunterbury – and Elinor is strongly recommended to accept the offer. That’s just short of £500,000 at today’s money. Seems a bargain. And how much did Elinor stand to gain from Mrs Welman’s death, according to Nurse O’Brien? £200,000. Today that would be £7.8 million. Probably worth murdering for.

Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for Sad Cypress:

Publication Details:
1940. Fontana paperback, 25th impression, published in November 1989, priced £3.25. The cover illustration shows some half-eaten sandwiches, some roses, a framed sepia photograph and a few iffy looking tablets. All the clues are there!

How many pages until the first death: Depends on your definition! We know that Mary Gerrard has died on Page 1. However, as the story unfolds in retrospect, the first death comes on page 46. These more modern print Fontana paperbacks had a larger font and generally used more pages than the 60s/70s editions; so comparisons (should you wish to do such a thing!) are unreliable.

Funny lines out of context: Disappointingly none that I could identify.

Memorable characters:

None in particular. The important characters are somewhat one-dimensional and it’s hard to get much of an impression of most of them. However, we do see inside Elinor’s mind quite a bit, especially when she’s in court, so we may have a greater understanding of her than most of the others. Roddy is a weed, taking every opportunity to step away from trouble or emotion whilst profusely thanking Elinor for her thoughtfulness. Dr Lord’s description of him is helpfully apt: “a long-nosed supercilious ass with a face like a melancholy horse”. No love lost there, then.

Christie the Poison expert:

This is a book fairly dripping with poison, as that is not only its chosen murder method but also poison frequently pops up in other ways. When Elinor buys the fish paste she remarks to the grocer that there have been many cases of ptomaine poisoning from the product – and the grocer is horrified to think that he would be selling such a thing. In this context, Christie is describing what today we would simply describe as food poisoning; but it can still be lethal.

The charge against Elinor is that of poisoning Mary with morphine hydrochloride – again, today, more commonly known simply as morphine. The deceased had taken four grains of morphine, according to the distinguished analyst Dr Alan Garcia. Apparently, that’s the equivalent to more than a grain of heroin. There’s also a substance I’d never heard of called apomorphine, used here to mitigate against the effects of morphine, but a little research shows it has a very wide range of clinical uses, including treatment for Parkinson’s Disease and fighting addiction to smoking and alcohol. The police surgeon in court suggests that the morphine used might have been “foudroyante” – violent, in French – but my researches also suggest that, as a technical term at least, this might be a bit of Christie-style fantasy. Poirot, in conversation with Lord, wonders why atropine was not used, instead of morphine.

Class/social issues of the time:

There’s plenty of evidence of Christie’s usual themes although perhaps they’re not dwelt on in quite so strong a fashion as she’s sometimes tempted. Just like in her previous book, And Then There Were None, there is some unnecessary emphasis on Jewish traits and appearances; Sir Samuel Attenbury, Counsel for the Prosecution is described as “the horrible man with the Jewish nose”, and his affect on the court is that everyone was “listening with a kind of slow, cruel relish to what that tall man with the Jewish nose was saying” about Elinor. The word usage very much associates the adjectives “horrible” and “cruel” with being Jewish. Given the fact that the Second World War was in its early stages, I can’t help but think that’s particularly insensitive. Fascinatingly, much is made of the fact that Mary had gone to finishing school in Germany; by all accounts, this was quite the fashionable thing to do, as many young British ladies had a whale of a time living the High Life in Nazi Germany – like the Mitford girls, for example – providing they weren’t Jewish.

It’s no surprise to find at least one instance of xenophobia in this book – perhaps the surprise is that there’s only one. Mrs Bishop, the redoubtable ex-housekeeper at Hunterbury eyes Poirot with enormous suspicion until he starts chatting about the Royal Family (as I mentioned earlier). There’s a little nod to Christie’s political slant, with Mrs Bishop’s proud claim that Major Somervell, the new MP, was “returned unopposed […] We’ve never had anyone but a Conservative for Maidensford”.

And of course, there are always class issues. There’s a lot of latent criticism in the book about how Mary has been removed from her class – such as attending the finishing school in Germany – and how that now makes her a fish out of water. Roddy observes: “People never dream what harm they may do by “educating” someone! Often it’s cruelty, not kindness!” Her boyfriend Ted – a garage mechanic – observes how Mary has changed and she herself realises that he no longer suits her idea of what a boyfriend should be like. When Mrs Bishop regrets Roddy’s falling for Mary, “Men, they are all alike: easily caught by flattery and a pretty face”, even Poirot asks her, “she had, I suppose, admirers of her own class?” As ever with Christie, it’s not so much being in the wrong class that’s the problem, it’s meddling one’s emotional affairs in another class that gains her disapproval!

One other interesting subject that gets mentioned – although not in so many words – is euthanasia. Mrs Welman would welcome it: “if they went the proper way about things, my life could be ended here and now – none of this long-drawn-out tomfoolery with nurses and doctors.” Roddy and Elinor tend to agree. ““One does feel, Roddy, that people ought to be set free – if they themselves really want it.” Roddy said: “I agree. It’s the only civilised thing to do. You put animals out of their pain.”” The Voluntary Euthanasia Legalisation Society had only been formed in Britain a few years before the book was written. Added to the stories that must have been coming out of Germany about the Nazi use of euthanasia, it was a hot topic in many respects.

Classic denouement: No, not at all – a very different kind of denouement. As all the final scenes (apart from a short conversation featuring Poirot) take place in court, the great detective is not in a position to point a finger at a guilty party, he can merely explain things in private afterwards. Fascinatingly – and with some frustration too – the fate of the guilty party is never followed up, because, obviously, this is Elinor’s trial, not theirs. It’s quite excitingly written, but it doesn’t have the same impact as one of the classic denouements, and in the end you sense that part of the story hasn’t been told.

Happy ending? Probably, but it’s not a dead cert. And definitely not within the confines of the book, but maybe sometime in the future. Poirot thinks so, at any rate, and he’s usually right.

Did the story ring true? Personally, I have a problem with the credibility of Roddy’s infatuation with Mary. Admittedly, men are capable of doing silly things from time to time, when they become aware of a new person who pulls their strings. But he really does throw everything away on a complete whim. There’s no evidence that he had any real encouragement from Mary. I’m not sure I can believe all that story.

Overall satisfaction rating: Very much a curate’s egg. Slow to start, few if any Poirotisms, and a drippy and irritating character in the form of Roddy. That said, it’s a strong surprise revelation, and the courtroom scenes have their own buzzy life about them. So I’m going for a 7/10.

One Two Buckle My ShoeThanks for reading my blog of Sad Cypress and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment in the space below. Next up in the Agatha Christie Challenge is One Two Buckle My Shoe, the second of three Hercule Poirot novels in a row. Again I can’t remember much about this one, so I’m looking forward to revisiting it. As usual, I’ll blog my thoughts about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!

The Agatha Christie Challenge – And Then There Were None (1939)

And then there were NoneIn which ten strangers receive a summon to visit a rocky island off the coast of Devon, expecting either a holiday, a reunion or an offer of work; and then one by one each of them is murdered by the mysterious U. N. Owen. As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I promise not to tell you whodunit!

lexiconFirstly, a warning. Acceptable words in the English language change over the decades, and when this was published in 1939, Agatha Christie’s original title referred to no more than a 19th century minstrel song. There was no sense of racism or offence. I’ve photographed my original copy of the story, which bears the original British name, simply because that’s the book that’s on my bookshelves. However, I’m not going to use that word in this blog post. Interestingly, even back in 1939, the N word was not acceptable in the US, where it has always been known as And Then There Were None.

SoldierThe book bears no dedication. It was first serialised in the UK in the Daily Express in June and July 1939; and in the US in The Saturday Evening Post over the same period; significantly the last chapter, which contains the explanation for the puzzle, was published on exactly the same day in both the UK and the US – July 1st, 1939. The full book was first published in the UK on 6th November 1939 by Collins Crime Club and then subsequently in the US by Dodd, Mead & Co in December 1939. Over the years, the British title has changed to Ten Little Indians, (which was also the name of a 1946 play adaptation), then Ten Little Soldiers, and since 1985 it has been called And Then There Were None.

The last pageMy first comment has to be that if you haven’t picked it up yet, please PLEASE PLEASE do not do that silly thing and read the last page first. That’s what the ten-year-old me did and in doing so I deprived myself of the excitement of finding out whodunit in what must be one of the most fascinating and gripping mystery stories ever written. If you read the last page first you will very clearly and instantly see the name of the murderer, and it isn’t worth it!

the last judgementAs far as whodunits go, this is a stunner. Re-reading it now, you appreciate how beautifully it is written (racist language aside). The crime is so carefully planned and immaculately carried out and, although the clues are there, it would be a major achievement for the general reader to solve it. It’s written as purely third-person narrative, completely sticking to the facts apart from one short catastrophe-laden comment near the beginning of the book. When Mr Blore arrives by train and meets an old man with Old Testament leanings, “he looked up at Mr Blore and said with immense dignity: “I’m talking to you, young man. The day of judgment is very close at hand.” Subsiding on to his seat Mr Blore thought to himself: “He’s nearer the day of judgment than I am!” But there, as it happens, he was wrong…” That’s Christie’s only personal aside to the reader in the whole book.

EpilogueChristie’s own observations about this book in her autobiography are worth mentioning here. I quote: “I had written the book […] because it was so difficult to do that the idea fascinated me. Ten people had to die without it becoming ridiculous or the murderer being obvious. I wrote the book after a tremendous amount of planning, and I was pleased with what I had made of it. It was clear, straightforward, baffling and yet had a perfectly reasonable explanation; in fact it had to have an epilogue to explain it. It was well received and reviewed, but the person who was really pleased with it was myself, for I knew better than any critic how difficult it had been.”

China soldiersStylistically, it’s an exciting read; take the second chapter, for example. It’s divided into twelve parts, each one getting shorter and shorter as the chapter progresses. It’s almost like a fugue of thoughts; each character involved in the story is given their chance to express their feelings about the forthcoming stay on the island, so that they overlay each other, creating a cacophony of unspoken anxieties. The continued use of short divisions within each chapter add urgency to the narration; no sooner have we observed one character absorbed in one activity, we move on to another, piling up the considerations for the reader to deal with. The device of the constant discovery that each of the china figures is smashed one by one as each death is discovered, adds to the sense of inevitability that they’re all going to get murdered, and also to an almost mystic or supernatural feeling that an invisible hand is doing the killing. I don’t know about you, but if I’d found myself on that island, after a few deaths I’d simply go looking for the rest of the china figures and smash the lot of them. At least that way you’d ruin part of the murderer’s fun. Of course, the powers of psychology end up playing a very big part in this story – if Poirot had read about it afterwards he would have been so jealous not to have been there, to apply his little grey cells to it. As the numbers of survivors dwindle to five, then four, then three, then finally two, the surviving suspects simply know that the only person who could have done it, is/are the other one(s). It’s then a straightforward battle to survive.

999Because everyone is cut off on the island, there’s a tremendous sense of claustrophobia permeating every aspect of the book. There’s also a rather intense and stagey drama to the whole thing; a nice example of this is when the pre-recorded message on a record is played from a side room, accusing all the inmates of former crimes. It’s very much a story of its era; the crime could not have been committed in this way today, with the availability of mobile phones and the Internet. For the story to come true, it’s essential that there is no way that the inhabitants of the island can be in contact with anyone on the mainland. Today, all you’d need to do is dial 999 from your mobile. Or at least get the local fisherman to come on over with his boat.

fly-in-ointmentOK, so we’ll have to deal with the language in the book now. At some point, I think in the 1980s, someone, probably an editor, had to go through this book with a fine tooth-comb and eliminate all the N words, and similarly offensive phrases. In almost every case, the N word has been replaced by the word Soldier; so for example, the poem reads Ten Little Soldiers, it takes place on Soldier Island, the smashed ornaments are china soldiers, and so on. A few other changes that were seen fit to make were: “Soldier Island […] had got its name from its resemblance to a man’s head – a man with negroid lips”; in the current version, that final phrase has simply been removed. A later reference to the strange shape of the rock formation of the island also simply describes it as “the boldly silhouetted rock with its faint resemblance to a giant head”, whereas the original described it as a “giant negro’s head”. There are only two other, now unacceptable, references in Christie’s original, both times using the phrase “N in the woodpile”. On the first occasion that has been changed to “fly in the ointment” and in the second, “the unknown soldier”.

Burgh IslandLet’s have a look at the locations that the book mentions. Soldier Island is meant to be a nod to Burgh Island off the south coast of Devon, which is also, apparently, the inspiration for the location of Christie’s 1941 book Evil Under The Sun. Therefore, Bigbury-on-Sea, which is the nearest town to Burgh Island must be the real life version of Sticklehaven. The nearest train station for Soldier Island is at Oakbridge, and it’s no great leap of the imagination to think of this as real life Okehampton. I see that not far from Okehampton lies the village of Sticklepath (which again suggests the fictional Sticklehaven) and Belstone (which perhaps suggests the Belhaven Guest House, where Emily Brent had stayed with Mrs Oliver). There’s also the village of South Brent which might be where Emily gets her name! Mere, where Tony Marston drives recklessly, is the name of a real place in Wiltshire, but maybe there is also the suggestion of Bere Alston or Bere Ferrars, both near Plymouth. There is no such place as St Tredennick, the seaside spot where Vera recollects her tragic memories with Hugo and Cyril, but there is a Tredinnick, not far from Wadebridge. For once, Christie has made it easy for us to identify the sources of her place names!

Super Sports DalmainLet’s also have a look at a few other references. All the gossip about the ownership of Soldier Island was found in the salacious articles in Busy Bee and Merryweather magazines. Busy Bee appears to be an American journal relating to the antiques industry, and Merryweather seems to bear no resemblance to any kind of publication, so I presume these are both fictitious, as is the Regina Agency in Plymouth, who supplied the services of Mr and Mrs Rogers. Tony Marston drives a Super-Sports Dalmain; I can’t find out too much about that particular vehicle but, if it existed, I think it was made by Alfa Romeo, so it sounds pretty sporty.

Echo and NarcissusEver come across a person with the first name Ulick? That’s the first name of U. N. Owen. It’s a fairly antiquated name nowadays, probably of Irish extraction, and rather noble. Talking of old-fashioned terminology, Lombard tries to work out the possibility of heliographing the mainland. Heliographing? It’s a form of communication, a little like Morse code, using the flash of the sun against a mirrored device. “Echo answers where” says Lombard on another occasion – this is a quote from Lord Byron that refers to the Latin myth of Echo, the nymph tricked by Juno and lover of Narcissus.

Septimus WinnerAnd of course, there’s the famous rhyme. Ten Little Soldiers – or originally, Ten Little Injuns, a song written by Septimus Winner for a minstrel show in 1868. It was then adapted and rewritten by Frank J Green the following year, who renamed it using the same title that Christie did for the book in Britain. Christie’s words for the rhyme are pretty similar to Green’s, with just a little modernising. Today, the structure of the poem is still used throughout the world for satirical purposes: Ten little Country-boys, and Ten little Banker Boys, for instance.

Seven StarsThere are a few names mentioned that also crop up in other Christie books, both before and after. Miss Brent is convinced that Mrs Oliver had invited her to Soldier Island, having met her at the Belhaven Guest House, as mentioned earlier. Mrs Oliver is of course the name of one of the assistants in Parker Pyne Investigates, and would go on to play a much greater role in the Christie’s later books as an associate of Poirot. Marston has a friend called Badger, just like Bobby has in Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? I suppose at a pinch it could be the same chap. The pub in Sticklehaven where the guests assemble before crossing to the island is The Seven Stars, which was also the name of the rather nefarious establishment in Murder is Easy where Harry Carter was the proprietor. I also thought the story of Emily Brent’s maid was reminiscent of the plot of J B Priestley’s An Inspector Calls – although Christie’s work predates Priestley’s by six years.

PoundYou’ll recollect, gentle reader, that I like to research the present-day value of any significant sums of money mentioned in Christie’s books, just to get a more realistic feel for the amounts in question. There’s only one instance of money being mentioned in this book; the fee offered by Morris to Lombard for his attendance on the Island – one hundred guineas. In today’s values that translates to about £4800, not bad for a few days’ work… if he were to get out alive, that is.

Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for And Then There Were None:

Publication Details: 1939. Fontana paperback, 16th impression, published in January 1973, priced 30p. The cover illustration by (presumably) Tom Adams shows a hanged golly in the foreground, representing the death of the final little soldier boy left in the rhyme. There’s an abstract display of the sea and coastline, with a rather large and, frankly irrelevant, iguana. Nevertheless, it’s a disturbing and eerie image, and one I remember I had to keep face down under the bed when I was a kid so I couldn’t accidentally see it.

How many pages until the first death: 45. There’s a sensible amount of scene-setting before the bloodbath ensues; and it’s full of intrigue and suspense even before the first death.

Funny lines out of context: “One fancied things sometimes – fancied a fellow was looking at you queerly”. “That fellow Lombard now, he was a queer chap. Not straight. He’d swear the man wasn’t straight.”

Memorable characters:

I’m not sure it’s in the characters themselves that the strength of this book is to be found; it’s more in the growing suspense and the inevitability that the mysterious U. N. Owen will work his way inexorably through the entire cast. The characters of the pompous old lawyer and the puritanical old maid are rather “stock”; that said, there is an interesting relationship growing between Vera and Lombard.

Christie the Poison expert:

Potassium Cyanide is the cause of two of the deaths; but Veronal and Trional are also discussed during the course of the book, and the role of amyl nitrite in preventing a cardiac arrest is also considered.

Class/social issues of the time:

Maybe because this book is totally plot-driven rather than character-driven, Christie’s usual themes take more of a back seat – providing you ignore the constant use of the N word. There is of course some racism: the character of Morris is described as a “little Jew”, with “thick Semitic lips”. Lombard reflects on Morris that “that was the damnable part about Jews, you couldn’t deceive them about money – they knew!”

Lombard is also the source of another thread of racism. When all the guests are assembled and the recorded voice announces its accusations against each one, Lombard’s alleged crime was that he was “guilty of the death of twenty-one men, members of an East Africa tribe”. Lombard doesn’t deny it: “self-preservation’s a man’s first duty. And natives don’t mind dying, you know. They don’t feel about it as Europeans do.” He clearly values the life of a white Englishman more highly over an African tribesman. When recollecting this account, in a later conversation with Miss Brent, Vera makes an excuse for Lombard’s behaviour: “they were only natives…” That’s a thoroughly unpleasant attitude to take. Lombard has obviously been a bad influence on her.

I’m not sure how current a theme it was at the time – particularly just before the start of the Second World War – but I enjoyed observing how Rogers, the manservant, carries on with his duties, with hardly a thought to his own predicament. He’s been accused of a crime too, plus his wife has died, and yet he’s splendidly making up breakfasts, fetching coffees and chopping up firewood. Christie – or, perhaps more accurately, Miss Marple – always had an appreciative eye for a domestic servant who knew her place and carried on through thick and thin. I think Rogers is a marvel, frankly. Miss Brent had already held a brief conversation with Vera where they wondered how anyone could live on the island during the winter months. “I’ve no doubt the house is shut up in winter,” she said. “You’d never get servants to stay here for one thing.” Vera murmured: “It must be difficult to get servants anyway.”

Classic denouement: In one sense, yes, in another no. No, because the very structure of the book means there are no detectives on the island in a position to point the finger of accusation at the guilty party. Yes, because it’s a complete one-off. When the police do arrive, they are left to piece together whatever they can, but it’s totally inconclusive and they’ve no idea who the perpetrator was. However, the murderer wrote a confession which was sealed in a bottle and chucked into the ocean, in that time-honoured traditional fashion. And the denouement is simply the reader digesting all the ins and outs of the confession, without any professional or police input. Don’t worry, if you like the old-fashioned denouements, you won’t be disappointed with this one!

Happy ending? No. It’s an apocalyptic wipe-out.

Did the story ring true? There are two aspects of the story that, to me, don’t ring true, but it will be hard for me to describe them to you without giving the game away. The final death – that is, the one before the confession was written – strikes me as possible but not probable, and I have a sense that it is included to keep the perfection of the structure of the story. As for the other one… no, I can’t tell you!

Overall satisfaction rating: It’s a brilliant read. Fast, exciting, suspenseful, and totally impossible to solve. No reason not to give it a 10/10.

Sad CypressThanks for reading my blog of And Then there were None and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment in the space below. The next book that Christie wrote was The Regatta Mystery and Other Stories. However, it was the only book of hers to be published in the United States but not in the UK. The stories in that volume weren’t printed in the UK until The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding (1960) and later. So, as I am a Brit, and I’m doing it Brit-style, we won’t come to those stories until we reach their UK publication. Therefore, next up in the Agatha Christie Challenge is Sad Cypress, and the welcome return of Hercule Poirot. I’m afraid I can’t remember anything about this one, so I’m looking forward to my memory being jogged. As usual, I’ll blog my thoughts about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!