The Agatha Christie Challenge – The Labours of Hercules (1947)

The Labours of HerculesIn which Poirot, following an idea planted in his brain by his friend Dr Burton, decides to sniff out and solve twelve cases that mirror the ancient classical labours of Hercules. Each case is written as a short story, preceded by a foreword which explains how Burton gave Poirot the idea.

The book is dedicated “to Edmund Cork of whose labours on behalf of Hercule Poirot I am deeply appreciative this book is affectionately dedicated”. Cork was Christie’s literary agent, “a young man with a slight stammer” as she described him in her autobiography, and someone who became a lifelong friend. All the stories had been previously published in the UK in the Strand Magazine in 1939 and 1940, with the exception of The Capture of Cerberus which was rejected by the magazine and was not published as part of the series. In the US, they were all published between 1939 and 1947 in either This Week magazine or Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine. The collection was first published in the format The Labours of Hercules in the US by Dodd, Mead and Company in 1947 and the UK, by Collins Crime Club, in November of that year.

As with Poirot Investigates and The Listerdale Mystery, even though they’re just bite-sized stories, they still contain many of Christie’s usual themes and idiosyncrasies. I’m going to take them one by one and look at each one separately – and, as usual, don’t worry, I won’t reveal the intricacies of whodunit!

The brief, scene-setting foreword reveals Poirot entertaining his friend Dr Burton, Fellow of All Souls, chatting over a glass of Chateau Mouton Rothschild, relaxing in Poirot’s chromium, modernistic furnishings. Burton quizzes Poirot over his unusual first name – and indeed, recollects that Poirot has a brother, Achille, whom we encountered in The Big Four. Burton takes Poirot to task for never having read the Classics, and while Poirot appears to look forward to a retirement cultivating vegetable marrows (“magnificent vegetables – but they lack flavour”), secretly his curiosity is piqued. So he instructs his trusted secretary Miss Lemon to amass as much information about Hercules as possible. Disappointed to discover that Hercules is, for the most part, an unsophisticated brute, he nevertheless decides to seek out twelve cases to be his retirement swansong – and we await the arrival of the first case.

Although only six pages, this is a very entertainingly written introduction to the rest of the book, with some excellent insights into Poirot’s character, and some vague connections to other books. Long ago, in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, we read that Poirot was to retire to cultivate vegetable marrows. It looks as though he still hasn’t got around to starting that yet. In Christie’s previous book, The Hollow, we saw Poirot weekending in a country cottage – whilst still presumably having his flat up in town – and the modern description of his urban surroundings still makes it sound as though his country pursuits aren’t really suitable to his personality. We will see in the first story, The Nemean Lion, how Poirot enjoys both the warmth and the design of his “electric radiator”. There’s progress for you.

We also become reacquainted with Miss Lemon, last seen in Parker Pyne Investigates, as a secretary, “a forbidding-looking young woman with spectacles”. Whilst she had appeared in a 1935 short story, How Does Your Garden Grow, that did not appear in book format in the UK until 1974’s Poirot’s Early Cases. But more of her in the first of these cases shortly.

A couple of brief references to start with: Burton waxes lyrical with his classical quotation: “by skill again, the pilot on the wine-dark sea straightens the swift ship buffeted by the winds”. This comes from Book 2 of Homer’s Odyssey. And Poirot refers to the case of Adolphe Durand, a butcher, tried at Lyon in 1895, “a creature of ox-like strength who had killed several children.” Convincing though M. Durand is, I think this is one of Christie’s mischievous inventions.

The Nemean Lion

The Nemean LionThis first story was originally published in the November 1939 issue of the Strand Magazine in the UK and in September 1944’s edition of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine in the US, under the title, The Case of the Kidnapped Pekinese. It’s a smart little tale, deftly told, of Pekinese dogs being stolen from posh ladies – or rather from their walkers – whilst in the park, and then a heavy ransom being demanded for their return. Christie, being Christie, can’t resist a few of her usual themes, although the direction she’s taking might not quite be what you would expect.

For instance, and unusually, there’s an element of true socialism – communism almost – in the motive for the crimes and, even more unusually, Christie, speaking through the voice of Poirot, is sympathetic to the cause. Although “justice isn’t seen to be done” in this case, a natural kind of justice does take place. Nevertheless, Christie is complicit in siding with the men in the battle of the sexes that takes place with the use of language in this story. “You can’t expect a woman to behave with any sense” avers Sir Joseph, and Poirot doesn’t contradict him. “I know I’ve only got a woman’s brain” says Miss Carnaby, and she means it. Christie belittles the character of Mrs Samuelson by having her declare “men think of nothing but money”, whilst admiring her own bracelet and rings. Fortunately, Miss Lemon is there to redress the balance. When she suggests the case of the missing Pekinese to Poirot as a suitable case for his attention, he assumes the worst: “Poirot was shaken; shaken and embittered. Miss Lemon, the efficient Miss Lemon, had let him down! […] Words trembled on his lips – witty caustic words […]” But after some thought, and some reflection, he reassesses her behaviour: “as usual, Miss Lemon had been right.”

There’s a very unfortunate note of racism in one scene, when a character remarks how some dogs look like each other: “You see, to most people, one Pekinese is very much like another. (Just as we think the Chinese are.)” Oh, no, Mrs Christie, you don’t want to be thinking that.

There are a few London addresses mentioned: Bloomsbury Road Square, Clonmel Gardens, and Rosholm Mansions; all very believable, but none of them exist in real life. Reference is also made to the village of Kellington in Essex; there is a Kellington, but it’s in Yorkshire. There are also a couple of sums mentioned – £200 and £300, being two of the ransom demands made for the return of the Pekinese dogs. Given that the story was first published in 1939, that would be an equivalent of £9100 or £13,700 today. No wonder Mr Samuelson was annoyed.

There’s also a suggestion of poisoning – although I won’t spoil it for you by elaborating further. A gentle, but intriguing start to the Labours.

The Lernean Hydra

The Lernean HydraAn enjoyable little story, originally published in the December 1939 issue of the Strand Magazine in the UK and in the 3rd September 1939 edition of This Week Magazine in the US, under the title, Invisible Enemy. Rumour has it that Dr Oldfield poisoned his wife, which he strenuously denies, although it’s true that there is a romantic frisson between him and his assistant Jean. It goes without saying that it doesn’t take Poirot long to ferret out the truth of the matter.

The story takes place in the wholly believable but entirely made up town of Market Loughborough in Berkshire. We also discover that the town of Darnington is a bus ride away, and that there’s a Woolworths store there. There’s no such place of course, and, sadly, no more Woolworths stores nowadays.

Christie’s interest in poison comes to the fore in this story with the suspicion that Mrs Oldfield died by arsenic, the symptoms of gastric inflammation and arsenical poisoning being – apparently – similar. The character of Jean appears to know a lot about “vegetable alkaloid” poisons, but then again, she is a medical dispenser, which may also be cause for suspicion.

The real world does cross over into this story, with references to Crippen, Le Neve and Armstrong; Crippen, of course, murdered his wife, Ethel le Neve was his mistress; Herbert Rowse Armstrong was the only solicitor ever to have been hanged in Great Britain, for the murder of his wife.

There’s a minor xenophobic remark, when Poirot is called “an exotic little foreigner” – almost a compliment by Christie’s terms – and the sum of £30,000 is mentioned, being the amount that Mrs Oldfield left her husband in her will. That’s a whopping £1.3m in today’s money.

One unintentionally funny line: When Poirot asks Jean if she intends to marry Oldfield, she says he hasn’t asked her – “because I’ve choked him off”. Urban Dictionary attributes a meaning to that phrase that I’m sure Christie never intended.

The Arcadian Deer

The Arcadian DeerThis short and sweet little story was originally published in the January 1940 issue of the Strand Magazine, and in the US in the 19th May 1940 edition of This Week Magazine, under the title Vanishing Lady. Whilst his car is being repaired, Poirot meets the mechanic, Ted Williamson, and is struck by his handsomeness – a Greek God indeed. Knowing Poirot’s fame, Williamson asks him to trace a lady – she was a maid attending on a Russian ballerina staying at a local house – with whom he had instantly fallen in love. But she didn’t keep their second assignation and appears to have gone to ground.

In a heart-warming mission of mercy, Poirot visits many addresses and questions many possible witnesses, including in London, Switzerland and Pisa. Eventually he comes to the truth of the matter; it’s an open-ended affair, but a rather sweet and poignant denouement. It’s a nicely written short story, with plenty of brief, pithy chapters which help Poirot’s chasing down of Nita to gain pace; and at one stage you think it’s actually going to have a very sad ending, whereas, in fact, the opposite is the case.

I don’t know if Poirot was going through some kind of middle-age sexuality crisis, but he appears to be totally besotted with young Ted. “Here, he thought, was one of the handsomest specimens of humanity he had ever seen, a simple young man with the outward semblance of a Greek god […] the young man plunged eagerly into technical details. Poirot nodded his head gently, but he was not listening. Perfect physique was a thing he admired greatly.” He imagines Ted as a “young shepherd in Arcady” – in other words, Arcadia, the ancient district in the Peloponnese.

Other reference points in the story include the village of Hartly Dene, where Poirot’s Messarro Gratz had given up the ghost; both village and car are inventions of Christie. Nita’s last known address was 17 Upper Renfrew Lane, N15, and the ballerina, Madame Samoushenka, now lives in Vagray les Alpes, in Switzerland. Again, both are completely fictitious; although the dancer says her maid was from Pisa, which of course does exist.

There’s a moment of near-xenophobia when the woman who lives at Upper Renfrew Lane can only remember the dancer’s name as Madame Semolina, and describes her as “real Eyetalian”. And there’s one significant sum mentioned in the book – £5 (or maybe even £10) – that’s the amount that Ted is prepared to pay Poirot for his assistance. I rather doubt that Poirot would stoop so low as to ask for such lowly payment – between £200-£400 at today’s value.

The Erymanthian Boar

The Erymanthian BoarThis cunning and clever short story was originally published in the February 1940 issue of the Strand Magazine, and in the US in the 5th May 1940 edition of This Week Magazine, under the title Murder Mountain. Poirot has moved on to the Swiss Alps for a little sightseeing when he is contacted by the local Commissaire of Police to help track down a Parisian gangster, Marrascaud, who has holed himself up in an exclusive and remote mountain resort. There are a few shady characters up there, any one of which could be the criminal at large. By careful deduction Poirot identifies the miscreant who is satisfactorily brought to book.

With a nod to wartime sentiments, the story features a suspicious Jewish doctor who was turfed out of Austria by the Nazis, and there is an American tourist, also with a German name, who might be the target of a wartime reader’s xenophobic concerns. The locations of the story are largely real; Schwartz has visited Paris and has seen all the genuine sights; Poirot has visited Chamonix, Montreux and Aldermatt, all of which exist. As the story takes us higher in the Alps, Poirot travels through Les Avines, Caurouchet and finally Rochers Neiges, where the bulk of the action takes place. These places don’t exist, although there is Rochers-de-Naye, which is almost certainly the inspiration.

Christie refers to the Bertillon photograph of the suspect, which is a term we have heard before in The Murder on the Links; Alphonse Bertillon (1853-1914) was the French criminologist who invented the system of identification of criminals by anthropometric measurements, fingerprints, and so on. Poirot manages to contact the Swiss Police by using a heliograph – which was something we came across in And Then There Were None; it’s a form of morse code.

There’s one of those unintentionally funny moments when Christie’s turn of phrase hasn’t kept up with semantic change: “Schwartz ejaculated: “Marrascaud!””

Nothing much more to be said; a successful little tale that keeps its secret beautifully until the final pages.

The Augean Stables

The Augean StablesThis story was originally published in the March 1940 issue of the Strand Magazine, but there was no US magazine publication until the complete collection was published in 1947. From a really good story to a rather silly one! Poirot is asked for help by none other than the Prime Minister, whose father-in-law, the previous Prime Minister, is about to be revealed as a cheat and a scoundrel by a nasty daily rag. Rumours start about the Prime Minister’s wife, but to what extent are the stories true and who’s manipulating who?

The story starts with a lot of unnecessary and dull detail about the characters which doesn’t really add to our understanding of the situation. There is some talk of the People’s Party, which is clearly an invention of Christie’s, and some unsubtle references to a Herculean task and the Augean Stables, which admittedly is what decides Poirot to take the case but it does come across as very heavy-handed. The repeated phrase “People were talking” introduces some short staccato chapters but it all feels very clumsily written to me.

The village of Little Wimplington, unsurprisingly, doesn’t exist (such a far-fetched name!) and there’s also some latent racism with the use of the phrase, “Dago skunks”.

There’s one financial value mentioned, that of £500, which is the amount paid to Thelma Anderson for her work. That’s the best part of £20,000. No wonder she took the job.

I found this story rather boring, totally predictable and an hour I’ll never get back!

The Stymphalean Birds

The Stymphalian BirdsLet’s hope for better luck with this one. The Stymphalean Birds (sic, as printed in my copy, although it’s usually spelled Stymphalian) was originally published in the April 1940 issue of the Strand Magazine, and in the US in the 17th September 1939 edition of This Week Magazine, under the title The Vulture Women. Under-secretary of state Harold Waring is holidaying in Herzoslovakia, Christie’s made up all-purpose Eastern European state that represents all things non-English (and, by implication, uncivilised), where he encounters mother and daughter Mrs Rice and Elsie Clayton. Elsie is in an abusive relationship with a dreadful husband and Harold begins to feel the urge to protect her. Clayton bursts in on Elsie and Harold having an innocent conversation but suspects the worst. Elsie throws a paperweight at him – and kills him. Scandal! What will this do to Harold’s career? And all along, two ugly, mean-looking Polish sisters are moping around the resort, eavesdropping and preparing to blackmail Harold and Elsie. But all is not as it seems, and Poirot quickly sorts the wheat from the chaff and the villains are brought to justice.

It’s an enjoyable story despite a) being incredibly far-fetched and b) immured in racism. All the way through the Polish ladies are the source of suspicion and dislike, simply because of their looks, their lack of English, and their general foreign-ness. Anything English is good, anything foreign is bad. When the Polish sisters first arrive on the scene, Harold notes “I may be fanciful, but I distinctly felt that there was something evil about them […]” “We’ll find out from the concierge who they are. Not English, I presume?” “Oh no.” When the characters talk of the corruption of the officials of Herzoslovakia, and the amount that has had to be paid to the police to shut them up, Harold says, “”Thank God our police force isn’t like that”. And in a British and superior mood he went down to lunch.” “This isn’t England”, says Mrs Rice. “We’re not in England, worse luck” says Harold. It’s incredibly xenophobic.

It’s also not very forward-thinking when it comes to sexual equality. “Two women living alone are not the best judges of a man’s character,” avows Mrs Rice, and Harold agrees. But it’s rather delightfully old-fashioned in its belief that a simple scandal like the one that Harold unwittingly finds himself immersed would be enough to put an end to a political career. How times have changed!!

It’s a very moral tale; one that I quite easily saw through, primarily because Christie lays the xenophobia on so heavily that it must be a decoy! Enjoyable, despite everything.

The Cretan Bull

The Cretan BullThis curious short story was originally published in the May 1940 issue of the Strand Magazine, and in the US in the 24th September 1939 edition of This Week Magazine, under the title Midnight Madness. Diana Maberly contacts Poirot alarmed that her fiancé Hugh Chandler has broken off their engagement because he is going mad. She’s not convinced of his madness at all, but there are some strange events taking place, like Chandler waking up in the morning covered with blood and overnight someone has attacked and killed livestock, or a cat, and so on. But is there some other evil at large here? Trust Poirot to get to the truth.

Christie seems to have a problem with some of her phraseology here; the phrase “do better to keep his mouth shut” is repeated within a couple of pages and it feels clumsy and poorly thought through. Elsewhere, Poirot is once again impressed by a man’s “magnificent physique” (see The Arcadian Deer above – is he on the turn?) This story doesn’t have much time for the medical profession; Admiral Chandler describes doctors as “humbug merchants” and Poirot himself says “I am not an alienist” (an early term for a psychiatrist). Hugh Chandler mocks Poirot with the quote “Canst thou then minister to a mind diseased?”, which is Macbeth’s plea to the doctor to help his, now insane, wife.

However, Christie the poison expert does come to the fore; Colonel Frobisher mentions a common practice from his Indian days, datura poisoning. Datura is the Latin name for the devil’s trumpet plant, strongly poisonous especially in their seeds and flowers which can cause respiratory depression, arrhythmias, hallucinations, psychosis, and sometimes death. Datura were used to source atropine sulphate which was used for eye treatments. This was fairly specialised knowledge, I suspect!

An interesting story – again, though, brought down by its extremely far-fetched nature. Although you can appreciate the solution, it’s very hard to imagine how this crime worked in practice.

The Horses of Diomedes

The Horses of DiomedesThe Horses of Diomedes was originally published in the June 1940 issue of the Strand Magazine, and in the US, much later, in the January 1945 edition of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, under the title The Case of the Drug Peddler. A young friend of Poirot, Dr Michael Stoddart, is concerned about cocaine taking by a group of people including someone with whom he has amorous intentions, Sheila Grant. Is there anything he can do to help? Well, there is actually – and in doing so, he identifies and brings to justice a drugs ring.

“Drugs ruin people”, says Dr Stoddart, “body and soul. Drink’s a gentle little picnic compared to drugs.” Far be it from me to disagree with the wise doctor, but of all the works of Christie that I have read this is probably the one that has dated the worst. The notion today that a case could be brought about someone coercing someone else to take cocaine is almost sweet in its naivete. How times change. Even so, I still found this a most unlikely and unsatisfactory story.

The story is set in fictional Mertonshire, which had previously housed Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, nicely described thus: “it is practically impossible to live in Mertonshire unless you have an income that runs into four figures, and what with income-tax and one thing and another, five figures is better. At today’s rate, £1000 is the equivalent of £39,000; a five figure sum starts at £390,000. I think we understand Christie’s drift. Two other sum comparators in this story are the £10 that the homeless victim accepted as a bribe – that’s (obviously) £390 in today’s equivalent, and the £50, which is the sum that Mrs Larkin encashed for herself at the bank, which today would be just short of £2000.

The site of the wild parties is 17 Conningby Mews, which, of course, doesn’t exist. There’s a reference to the Brighton Trunk Murders; these took place in 1934 and remained unsolved until the culprit, Tony Mancini, confessed in 1976.

I did enjoy a brief passage, where General Grant describes living in the country: “I liked the country when it was the country – not all this motoring and jazz and that blasted, eternal radio.”

But all in all, this is a very poor effort from Christie.

The Girdle of Hyppolita

The Girdle of HyppolitaAnd this one’s not a lot better! It was originally published in the July 1940 issue of the Strand Magazine, and in the US in the 10th September 1939 edition of This Week Magazine, under the title The Disappearance of Winnie King. The case of a missing schoolgirl and the case of a stolen Rubens come together in this slight, far-fetched, underwhelming and instantly forgettable story. Poirot solves the case, but I can’t help but think he’s boxing below his weight with these tales. It’s unfortunate that he is so attached to his project to complete his own version of the twelve labours of Hercules that it means he has to solve such silly cases, just because they fit in with the title.

The story is written from a very snobbish perspective; with one of the characters referring to “those miserable idiots of unemployed” who had been “pursuing their tactics of lying down on street crossings”. It’s enough to coax the socialist out of anyone! Even Poirot comes out with halfwit statements like “women […] are a miraculous sex” as he considers how ugly ducklings turn into beautiful swans.

The schoolgirl Winnie comes from Cranchester, which doesn’t exist, but really sounds like it ought. Miss Pope’s establishment is in Neuilly, which certainly does exist – a western suburb of Paris.

At least we get the chance to meet Inspector Japp again, which adds a touch of life to this otherwise dull tale.

The Flock of Geryon

The Flock of GeryonThis short story was originally published in the August 1940 issue of the Strand Magazine, and in the US in the 26th May 1940 edition of This Week Magazine, under the title Weird Monster. It’s hello again to Miss Carnaby, whom we met in The Nemean Lion earlier in this book. She is concerned that a friend has been subsumed in some kind of religious sect, as she has willed all her possessions to the cult and previous women who have done that have ended up dead. After some negotiations with Inspector Japp, Miss Carnaby infiltrates the cult. Is she in danger? Will its leader, Andersen, be brought to book? Have a guess.

Not really a whodunit but certainly with elements of thriller, this isn’t a bad story by any means. Christie clearly likes Miss Carnaby, and admires her powers of dissimulation; Poirot describes her as “a woman of great courage and determination […] good histrionic powers” and she shows a lot of spirit and wit in her assistance in this case. She also gives us an amusing insight into anything other than pure English Protestantism: “though I do not approve of Roman Catholics, they are at least recognised”; xenophobia through religion, fascinating! I’m surprised that she never returns in any of Christie’s other works.

Christie the Poison Expert becomes Christie the Spliff Expert with her references to Cannabis Indica, hashish and blang, which seems to have gone completely out of the language relating to this meaning; maybe she was on something when she wrote it.

Newton Woodbury sounds a most pleasant little place; it doesn’t exist, but it really should.

The Apples of The Hesperides

The Apples of The HesperidesThis short story was originally published in the September 1940 issue of the Strand Magazine, and in the US in the 12th May 1940 edition of This Week Magazine, under the title The Poison Cup. Poirot is contacted by Emery Power, a rich antiques collector, trying to find a gold goblet that he had won at auction but which was instantly stolen and never returned. Poirot follows up all the leads in the case and eventually his investigations take him to a convent on the west coast of Ireland…

Rather a moral tale this, not bad, not riveting, but definitely hokey. I like how Christie portrays Poirot so out of place in Ireland, wearing his totally inappropriate patent leather shoes, observing that the Romans had never built a decent road; thinking of it as “a land where common sense and an orderly way of life were unknown.” There’s a little bit of latent racism from Inspector Wagstaffe, who refers to the Italian police as the “Macaronis”; he definitely deserves to be referred to as a rostbif.

Power paid £30,000 for the goblet; that’s almost £1.2 million at today’s value. No wonder he’s keen for it to be returned. Other references in the tale are a story called the “Bust of Napoleon”, which appears to be of Christie’s own invention; Hercules Bicycles, which was a successful bicycle manufacturer in the UK, launched in 1910 but sold to Raleigh in 1960, and now defunct (although the brand lives on in India); and a quote from a song: “The Apple Tree, the Singing and the Gold…” which is from Euripides’ Hippolytus. Poirot has a very eclectic musical taste.

A horse called Hercules wins the Boynan Stakes at 60-1. Now that’s a coincidence.

The Capture of Cerberus

The Capture of CerberusThis final story was first published in the US in the 16th March 1947 edition of This Week Magazine, seven years after most of the others, under the title Meet Me in Hell. It was rejected by the Strand Magazine – which must have been a bold editorial step on their part – because it was too involved in the politics of its time… read on…

Poirot encounters his beloved Countess Vera Rossakoff on the London Underground who invites him to meet her in Hell – which, as the reliable Miss Lemon points out – is a fashionable new nightclub in town. There he meets Vera’s daughter-in-law-to-be, Alice Cunningham, who’s writing a book about criminal psychology, and using the club members as her subject matter. The police, however, know the place as a front for a drugs ring. Can Poirot sort out the good guys from the bad ones, and which side is the Countess on?

This is one of the more entertaining stories in this volume, nicely written and full of lively characterisations. It’s enjoyable for us to watch Poirot become reacquainted with Vera Rossakoff, the only woman he has truly loved. “It is the misfortune of small precise men to hanker after large and flamboyant women”, maintains Christie, cheekily, in this story. Poirot last saw Vera in The Big Four, although his first encounter with her was in the short story The Double Clue, which we didn’t get to read in the UK until the appearance of Poirot’s Early Cases in 1974. Christie clearly loves writing about her, revelling in her sultry appearance, over-emphasising her Russian-ness.

So why was it rejected, on political grounds, by The Strand? Not, surely, because of the amusing observation that “nobody minds a Tory politician spending his own money – but when it’s a Labour man the public feel it’s their money he’s spending” – quite a shrewd observation, in fact. No – the original story, which only came to light when Christie’s secret notebooks were first examined a little over ten years ago, was set in Switzerland and involved the assassination of one August Hertzlein, a thinly disguised characterisation of Hitler. Remember this was 1940!

Other interesting observations include Christie’s description of Miss Lemon as “unbelievably ugly”. That’s not very nice, is it? Poirot observes at length the dowdiness of women on the Underground, and their predilection for knitting; times have changed. Corduroy wearers at the nightclub are described as “Bohemian”; and there’s reference to Peverel, the Battersea murderer, but this is not a real-life case.

Poirot spends the grand sum of £11 8/6 on flowers for the Countess; that’s £447 in today’s money. That’s one helluva bouquet.

Is it just me, or is there something outrageously naughty about the Countess’s description of discovering the emeralds? “I feel through the velvet something hard inside. I slip my hand in, I find what I know by touch to be jewels”. Oh, matron!


And that concludes, at length, (sorry about that) all twelve stories in The Labours of Hercules. At times that was fun, at others incredibly stodgy and unrewarding, not to mention laborious; and, overall, I couldn’t score this book more than 6/10. If you’ve been reading this book as well, I’d love to know your thoughts, please just write something in the comments box.

Taken at the FloodNext up in the Agatha Christie challenge is a book I remember being serialised on BBC Radio when I was about 16, Taken at the Flood, and I’m very much looking forward to re-reading it. If you’d like to read it too, we can compare notes when I give you my thoughts on it in a few weeks’ time. In the meanwhile, happy sleuthing and keep on Christie-ing!

The Agatha Christie Challenge – The Hollow (1946)

The HollowIn which devoted doctor John Christow is found dead by the swimming pool, with his wife Gerda holding a gun in her hand. An open and shut case, surely? But as investigations start to take shape, it’s a much murkier affair than first thought. It takes Hercule Poirot, retired Belgian detective, to have the brains to sort the wheat from the chaff and identify the real murderer. As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I promise not to tell you whodunit!

Francis L SullivanThe book is dedicated “for Larry and Danae, with apologies for using their swimming pool as the scene for a murder”. Larry was better known as Francis L Sullivan, an actor who had played Hercule Poirot on the London stage in the plays Black Coffee and Peril at End House, and would go on to appear in Witness for the Prosecution on Broadway, for which he received a Tony Award. He died in 1956. The Hollow was first serialised in the US in a four-part shortened version in Collier’s Weekly in May 1946 under the title The Outraged Heart. There was no serialisation in the UK. The full book was first published in the US by Dodd, Mead & Co in 1946, and in the UK in November of that year by Collins Crime Club. A later paperback edition in the US by Dell Books in 1954 changed the title to Murder after Hours, but the book is primarily known as The Hollow in the US too.

Slow to startRe-reading this book was rather an odd experience. I found it very slow to start, and I felt little or no interest in any of the characters for several pages until the whole crime element gained traction and the story really got going. Once we’d met Poirot and he was taking an active interest in the crime alongside Inspector Grange, it became unputdownable; before then it had been the reverse! Critical opinion at the time praised this book highly, and it was largely thought to be one of Christie’s best works. However, I think much of it succeeds or fails on how endearing or otherwise you find the character of Lady Angkatell; can anyone be that daft as a brush and remain a functioning individual? Ironically, Christie herself thought she had ruined the book by including Poirot in it; my own feeling is that, on the contrary, he makes it.

SculptorStructurally, this book feels at odds with most of Christie’s output to date. It starts, with no explanatory introduction, with a relatively in-depth and confusing conversation between two characters, about whom you know nothing except their names. Christie plunges us straight into the nitty-gritty of these characters, without any background insights. The second chapter again confuses us with the account of Henrietta Savernake making a sculpture of Doris Saunders; again with no explanation as to who these characters are and why this should be happening. Knowing that Christie rarely wastes words, it’s unclear why she spent so much effort on explaining the creative process behind sculpting; and, even when you’ve finished the book, it still strikes me as unnecessary padding. True, there is an element of bookending the story – starting with an artistic creative process and ending with a complementary process, which you may consider makes a satisfying whole. But the final moments of the book are also rather weird, ending, in my humble opinion, with more than a whimper than a bang.

Pretty Country CottageThis is our first catch-up with Hercule Poirot for four years (he was last seen in 1943’s Five Little Pigs). Four years on, he’s even older (naturally) and more withdrawn from work than he was before. He has now retired to the country – for weekends at least – living at Resthaven, a neatly symmetrical little place that satisfies his need for order, with just a Belgian gardener, Victor, and his wife/cook, Françoise. You sense that Poirot decided on this move against his better judgement. There’s nothing in the English countryside, with its great variety of wildness, discomfort and lack of sophistication, that’s going to make him happy. He’d be much better off in a warm apartment in London, with all its distractions and people to stimulate his little grey cells.

PoirotNevertheless, he is delighted to receive the lunch invitation to the Angkatells because he is, as he says, “un peu snob”; he walks the long way round to their front door rather than cutting through the back shortcut because of his sense of formality and because he is a “stickler for etiquette”. The snob in Poirot is very easily flattered – even though he indeed recognises it for what it is. Consider the reasons why Henrietta comes to him, rather than Inspector Grange, to discuss the case. “”Well, M. Poirot, what does one do? Go to Inspector Grange and say – what does one say to a moustache like that? It’s such a domestic, family moustache.” Poirot’s hand crawled upwards to his own proudly borne adornment. “Whereas mine, Mademoiselle?” “Your moustache, M. Poirot, is an artistic triumph. It has no associations with anything but itself. It is, I am sure, unique.” “Absolutely.” “And it is probably the reason why I am talking to you as I am.””

private-detectiveIt’s during this conversation with Henrietta that Poirot discusses the kind of clues that he is interested in – always a good insight into his modus operandi. Poirot speaks first: “”That is one of Inspector Grange’s men. He seems to be looking for something.” “Clues, I suppose. Don’t policemen look for clues? Cigarette ash, footprints, burnt matches.” Her voice held a kind of bitter mockery. Poirot answered seriously. “Yes, they look for these things – and sometimes they find them. But the real clues, Miss Savernake, in a case like this, usually lie in the personal relationships of the people concerned.” “I don’t think I understand you.” “Little things,” said Poirot, his head thrown back, his eyes half-closed. “Not cigarette ash, or a rubber heel mark – but a gesture, a look, an unexpected action…” And with that he verbally pounces on Henrietta with a challenging and difficult question.

Down drooping moustacheAs mentioned earlier, in this book we meet Inspector Grange, a stalwart from the Wealdshire Police Force, “a large, heavily built man, with a down-drooping, pessimistic moustache”. He speaks, “without excitement, just with knowledge and quiet pessimism”. He doesn’t have time for his Chief Constable, whom he believes to be a “fussy despot”. Grange is efficient, well-meaning, courteous to Poirot, calm and (for a Christie policeman) relatively wise. His film heroine is Hedy Lamarr. Christie completely side-steps Grange when it comes to the denouement and the official police have no part in the story after the Coroner issues his verdict.

Garden swimming poolOne aspect of the case that really perplexes Poirot is how he suspects that he has been presented with a staged scene. Invited to the Angkatells, the first thing he sees after Gudgeon the butler has shown him through to the swimming pool pavilion is a frozen tableau. Indeed, he thinks the Angkatells are teasing him, presenting him with an artificial murder game for him to pretend-investigate, as it were. Poirot’s little grey cells are not to be mocked so lightly. “By the side of the pool was the body, artistically arranged with an outflung arm and even some red paint dripping gently over the edge of the concrete into the pool […] Standing over the body, revolver in hand, was a woman, a short powerfully-built middle-aged woman with a curiously blank expression […] On the far side of the pool was a tall young woman […] she had a basket in her hand full of dahlia heads. A little farther off was a man […] carrying a gun. And immediately on his left, with a basket of eggs in her hand, was his hostess, Lady Angkatell […] It was all very mathematical and artificial […] Really, the whole thing was very stupid – not spirituel at all! […] And suddenly, with a terrific shock, Hercule Poirot realised that this artificially-set scene had a point of reality. For what he was looking down at was, if not a dead, at least a dying man.” Poirot’s continued suspicion throughout the book that he was looking at an artificial scene, even though it’s known that a real murder took place, partly makes one suspect a Murder on the Orient Express type solution. I’ll say no more on that topic.

Shovel DownAs usual, there are a few references to check out. Firstly, let’s look at the locations, to see how real or imaginary they are. The route from London to The Hollow goes via Shovel Down, which sounds more like gardening terminology than a place name. Shovel Down does exist – it’s an area of Dartmoor with some standing stones and other Bronze Age monuments. If Wealdshire (which obviously doesn’t exist) is meant to represent Cornwall, then I guess it’s possible that this is where Christie intends us to think. However, the journey that John Christow proposes, from Albert Bridge, to Clapham Common, Crystal Palace, Croydon, Purley Way, (all of which are real) then Metherly Hill and Haverston Ridge (both of which aren’t), doesn’t seem to take us towards Devon. Market Depleach, convincing though it sounds, is an invention of Christie’s, and as for the much mentioned and longed-for Ainswick, that too isn’t real, although there is of course a Painswick in Gloucestershire. And, of course, John’s and Veronica’s memories take them back to their romance in San Miguel, which could be anywhere. The most significant San Miguel is in the Philippines; again, Christie probably chose it because it’s a good name.

Ulysses and NausicaaAnd now some other references, that I didn’t recognise so thought I should check. When we first meet Henrietta she’s sculpting the head of Nausicaa. In Homer’s Odyssey, she is the daughter of King Alcinous and Queen Arete of Phaeacia. Amongst other things, Nausicaa was the first person in literature to be described playing with a ball. Who knew? Dr Christow devotes his time to finding a cure for Ridgeway’s Disease; that, in itself, does not exist by that name, but commentators associate Christie’s description of it with Multiple Sclerosis. Henrietta also reflects on Peer Gynt, referring to the Button Moulder’s ladle. He’s a character in Ibsen’s Peer Gynt, who threatens to melt Peer’s soul unless he gives him a list of his sins. All very dark and complex.

DelageThere are a couple of cars that were new to me; Henrietta drives a Delage, which was a classic, luxury French car – the Delage company ceased operation in 1953. And the police trail Henrietta in a Ventnor 10, but I’m blowed if I can find any information about that model. Can you help? When playing cards Lady Angkatell suggests a round of Animal Grab. This was an early 20th century card game like snap, but you had to make the sound of the animal who’s card you laid down. For example, if you laid a dog card you had to say “bow-wow”. It must have been… hilarious. Veronica Cray is said to have appeared in the film Lady Rides on Tiger. No such film exists, however, its title comes from an old Chinese proverb which says, he who rides a tiger is afraid to dismount. No prizes for understanding why.

detectiveOne of the reasons Grange doesn’t like his Chief Constable is because he considers him to be a tuft-hunter. I’ve never heard that expression before, but it means a snob, someone who seeks association with persons of title or high social status. So now you know.

MaudChristie must have been reading her poetry anthologies when she wrote this book because there are a couple of allusions to poems. Henrietta quotes to Poirot: “The days passed slowly one by one. I fed the ducks, reproved my wife, played Handel’s Largo on the fife, and took the dog a run.” It’s from Harry Graham’s poem, Creature Comforts. He was a popular writer of comic verse in the early part of the 20th century, a kind of Edwardian Pam Ayres. Poirot himself quotes the much better known “I hate the dreadful Hollow behind the little wood”, which not only gives the book its title but is also from Tennyson’s Maud, published in 1855. As for The Clue of the Dripping Fountain, a gripping read that John Christow had been devouring, alas there is no trace. But what a sensational book it must be.

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, the very precise amount of £342, which is the cost of a certain engagement ring that a character buys for another – I won’t tell you who, because I don’t want to spoil the surprise. That’s around £10,000 in today’s value, so he must have thought a lot of her.

Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for The Hollow:

Publication Details: 1946. Fontana paperback, 14th impression, published in May 1973, price 30p. The cover illustration by Tom Adams clearly shows the gun that’s sitting in the basket of eggs, that features in the story. No confusion there.

How many pages until the first death: 64. That’s a reasonably long wait, and I must say the book gets much more interesting once there is a murder to investigate.

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

Memorable characters:

Christie is on better form with her characters in this book, with the decidedly batty Lady Angkatell leading the field; a woman whose conversations are a list of non-sequiturs, and who, Poirot realises, has a dangerous ability to make people remember things in a different way because of her bizarre spin on facts. Funny or irritating, you decide, but she’s definitely memorable. I also liked the description of Gerda’s hopelessness; her inability to carve a joint of meat or to drive properly, simply because she’s always under the watchful eye of her husband. I think we all know someone like that. Henrietta’s a cool customer, maybe a little too perfectly drawn to be properly memorable; and I also enjoyed David’s quiet Socialist condemnation of everyone around him.

Christie the Poison expert:

She’s both a poison expert and a general chemistry expert in this book, with John and Gerda’s son Terence keen to construct a nitro-glycerine bomb with his pal Nicholson Minor, and a deadly, unspecified substance that laces a cup of tea and turns the victim’s lips blue – so probably cyanide.

Class/social issues of the time:

A couple of Christie’s favourite themes crop up just once or twice in this book; and one another theme makes a few unwelcome appearances. First, class. There’s an early scene where John Christow, contemplating his treatment of Mrs Crabtree, is surprised to learn that she wants to fight her disease. “She was on his side, she wanted to live – though God knew why, considering the slum she lived in, with a husband who drank and a brood of unruly children, and she herself obliged to work day in day out, scrubbing endless floors of endless offices. Hard unremitting drudgery and few pleasures! […] It wasn’t the circumstances of life they enjoyed, it was life itself – the zest of existence. Curious – a thing one couldn’t explain.” With those words Christow reveals himself to be a patronising, unempathetic snob, disgusted by the lives of the working class.

There’s also another example of Christie’s inability to understand mental illness, with Lady Angkatell’s account of why they read the News of the World. “”We pretend we get it for the servants, but Gudgeon is very understanding and never takes it out until after tea. It is a most interesting paper, all about women who put their heads in gas ovens – an incredible number of them!” “What will they do in the houses of the future which are all electric?” asked Edward Angkatell with a faint smile. “I suppose they will just have to decide to make the best of things – so much more sensible.”” It’s a thoroughly unpleasant exchange, laughing at people considering suicide.

The other recurrent theme is that of xenophobia/racism. There are mild elements of it in Inspector Grange’s belief that “foreigners […] don’t know how to make tea” and the reason Miss Cray admits she didn’t call on Poirot the first time: “I just thought he was some little foreigner and I thought, you know, he might become a bore.” When Lady Angkatell is denying that she set up the death scene, she avows – picking a race out of the blue to patronise – “one can’t ask someone to be your guest and then arrange accidents. Even Arabs are most particular about hospitality.”

There’s a whole lot more unpleasant exchange about Madame Alfrege, Midge’s boss at the upmarket shop. Not only does Christie give Madame Alfrege an outrageous speech defect, she also indulges in some anti-Semitism: “Midge set her chin resolutely and picked up the receiver. It was all just as unpleasant as he had imagined it would be. The raucous voice of the vitriolic little Jewess came angrily over the wires. “What wath that, Mith Hardcathle? A death? A funeral? Do you not know very well I am short-handed? Do you think I am going to stand for these excutheth? Oh, yeth, you are having a good time, I dare thay!”” And so the conversation continues. Later, Midge describes Madame Alfrege as “a Whitechapel Jewess with dyed hair and a voice like a corncrake”.

There’s also some very unfortunate use of the N word. Mrs Crabtree, her words carefully chosen by Christie to emphasise her working class accent and language, describes what it was like to have her hair permed: “It wasn’t ‘alf a difficult business then. Looked like a n*****, I did. Couldn’t get a comb through it.” But also titled people used that word; Lady Angkatell says she hoped her cook, Mrs Medway, “would make a really rich N***** in his Shirt […] chocolate, you know, and eggs – and then covered with whipped cream. Just the sort of sweet a foreigner would like for lunch.” This wasn’t an accepted name for a dessert at the time, but purely an invention of Christie’s. All I can say is, hmmm. Sir Henry describes the problems that Lady Angkatell can cause with her foot-in-mouth language: “she’s put deadly enemies next to each other at the dinner table, and run riot over the colour question!” I bet she has. It was about this time that Christie’s American readers began to disapprove of this latent racism in her books; I believe her American publisher’s simple solution to this problem was to remove these references from her new books without her knowledge. Seems wise to me.

Classic denouement: Not classic, but unusual; Poirot arrives just in time to prevent a murder taking place, and as a result, the unfolding of the details of the crime all takes place in retrospect, and justice isn’t seen to be done.

Happy ending? Although there is a wedding ahead, there’s also an intense air of gloom, with one character’s life doomed to die through illness, and another unable to come to terms with everything that’s happened. So, no, not happy at all.

Did the story ring true? One of the strengths of this book is that although the plot is unlikely – naturally – it does ring true, and you can completely understand how the characters would act in the way that they did.

Overall satisfaction rating: It’s clever, it’s believable, and once it gets going it’s very exciting. However, it is dull to start, and the latent racism is unpleasant. Structurally, it also feels strangely anti-climactic. So, after much reflection, I’m giving it 7/10. If you think that’s harsh, I do understand your concern.

The Labours of HerculesThanks for reading my blog of The Hollow 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 Labours of Hercules, twelve short stories which were expected to be Hercule Poirot’s swansong – but of course, that didn’t happen! I can’t remember any of the stories, so this should be a lot of fun. 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 – Sparkling Cyanide (1945)

Sparkling CyanideIn which Rosemary Barton, a rather reckless young heiress, dies from cyanide poisoning whilst dining at a posh restaurant – presumably suicide. However, a year later, a very similar fate befalls another member of that dining party. It takes Colonel Race, alongside Inspector Kemp, and a third law enforcement officer, to work out exactly what happened to both victims. As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I promise not to tell you whodunit!

Yellow IrisThe book bears no dedication. Sparkling Cyanide was first serialised in the US in the Saturday Evening Post from July to September 1944 under the title Remembered Death, and in the UK in the Daily Express in a heavily abridged form in July 1945 as Sparkling Cyanide – a year later than its American serialisation. The full book was first published in the US by Dodd, Mead & Co in February 1945, and in the UK in December 1945 by Collins Crime Club. The book is an expansion of the short story Yellow Iris, that was first published in the Strand Magazine in July 1937. It also appeared in the book The Regatta Mystery and Other Stories, that was first published in the US in 1939. Yellow Iris was not published in the UK until its appearance in Problem at Pollensa Bay in 1991.

DInner Party for sixThis book is a curiosity. I found it quite hard to read at first; the characters and the reminiscences didn’t hold my attention, and I found it strangely easy to put down and leave for several days (ahem weeks) before picking it up again and rekindling my interest. It’s separated into three “books”, each with an introductory quotation. The first book lets us share the reminiscences of the six survivors of the first dinner party and I found it, in part, a little confusing and, basically, an unattractive read. Once we reached the point where the second death is being investigated it suddenly seemed to gain life and entertainment and I was keen to read more of it. In fact, I read the final two thirds of it in two days, which is pretty quick and determined for me.

Champagne Afternoon TeaHowever, there is something about it that is strangely unsatisfying. Yes, the gallop to the final post is very exciting, but it’s also (in my humble opinion) hugely far-fetched and relies on a very risky gamble; that a group of people will all act in a certain way if a certain event takes place – sorry to be vague, but I don’t want to give away the game. I’m absolutely convinced that, if I were one of that group of people, I would not have acted in the way that the murderer – or indeed the detectives – predicted. It also suffers a little from the same fate that befalls Five Little Pigs; there is a considerable amount of repetition, particularly in the first section, about things that happened in the past, and you’ve no choice but to wade through it in order to get on with the more interesting things happening in the present.

Truth versus liesThere’s one interesting aspect to this book though, and it’s very appropriate to our own times, that if you tell a lie sufficiently frequently and with sufficient conviction, it’s accepted as the truth. Just as the denouement is about to get underway, the character who has finally worked out what happened and why, gives us this clue: “Consider for yourself how much has been taken for granted on one person’s word.” At that point the reader takes up this challenge and tries to work out to whom this refers, and what facts have been taken for granted that aren’t necessarily true. When I was reading it, I couldn’t remember whodunit from my earlier readings of it; and even this clue didn’t bring me to my senses, despite my trying to solve it. But it’s true; a web of hearsay deceit has been planted under our noses and we never tumble to it. It reminded me with hideous accuracy of the politicians of our day; when no one is held accountable for the truth, preposterous lies are accepted with absolute certainty as fact.

Military colonelIt’s a welcome return to the excellent Colonel Race, whom we first saw in The Man in the Brown Suit, way back in 1924, where he was a spy, a detective, and a wealthy big game hunter, not necessarily in that order. He assists Poirot in Cards on the Table, and Death on the Nile, although his prime interest is in political espionage rather than murder. It’s by means of a letter of introduction from Colonel Race that local police chief Colonel Carbury meets Poirot in Appointment with Death.

AllahabadAs a result of those previous meetings, you get the feeling that if someone has met someone else in another part of the world, Colonel Race will nearly always be a mutual acquaintance. Race only becomes involved in the Sparkling Cyanide case because he is a friend of George Barton, whose wife Rosemary may have taken her own life. When he encounters Mary Rees-Talbot as part of his enquiries, she notes that they haven’t met “since you disappeared so mysteriously from Allahabad that time”. When Inspector Kemp meets the cantankerous General Lord Woolworth alongside Race, the general spits out an anti-police polemic until he espies the Colonel, and breaks off with,”“Seen you somewhere. Now where -?” Race’s answer was immediate and came with a smile. “Badderpore, 1923.” “By Jove,” said the general. “If it isn’t Johnnie Race! What are you doing mixed up in this show?” Race smiled.” Rather like God, Race clearly moves in mysterious ways and is omnipresent.

Good brainIn the Christie canon, Race is a good man; he gets things done, and isn’t afraid to put his head into the lion’s den, so to speak. And although he’s got a good brain, and patiently thinks things through, he’s also not afraid to get things wrong, in public, as he does a couple of times in this book. It’s a shame that this is the last we see of him; Christie never chose to feature him again. Even when we get to consider its original appearance as the short story Yellow Iris, in Problem at Pollensa Bay, which will be right at the end of this Agatha Christie Challenge, it’s a Hercule Poirot story – Christie changed it to Colonel Race for this book.

MahoganyWhat of Chief Inspector Kemp? This is the only book in which he appears. We know that, as an officer from Scotland Yard, he doesn’t usually deal with common or garden murders, but the presence of Stephen and Sandra Farraday (an MP and the daughter of a Lord) numbering among the suspects, the case requires his sensitive touch. Race (naturally) is an old friend. Here’s Christie’s description of him: “Kemp was slightly reminiscent of that grand old veteran, Battle, in type. Indeed, since he had worked under Battle for many years, he had perhaps unconsciously copied a good many of the older man’s mannerisms. He bore about him the same suggestion of being carved all in one piece – but whereas Battle had suggested some wood such as teak or oak, Chief Inspector Kemp suggested a somewhat more showy wood – mahogany, say, or good old-fashioned rosewood.” Coming from a more privileged background, and enjoying the benefits of great wealth, Race is there to smooth out any rough edges that Kemp might have, intelligent, though ploddy, policeman that he is.

Brook StreetAs usual, there are a few references to check out. First: locations. This is a very London-centric story. The Bartons and Iris live in Elvaston Square, which, sadly doesn’t exist in real life, although there is an Elvaston Mews in South Kensington, a stone’s throw from the Royal Albert Hall. Other London locations in the book are Cadogan Square, the home of the Rees-Talbot family, and Brook Street, home of the Woodworths. Both are real; in fact, Brook Street has already been used as a location in Five Little Pigs and Evil Under the Sun; Christie must have had some personal experience of this address.

fairhaven-golf-clubOutside the centre of London, Chloe West lives at 15 Merryvale Court, Maida Vale and 21 Malland Mansions, Earl’s Court, is a flat where, let’s just say, Farraday pays rent but he doesn’t live there. Both of those addresses are fictitious, albeit in real-life suburbs. Ruth meets Victor at the Rupert Hotel, off Russell Square, and the Compradour, Mille Fleurs and the Luxembourg clubs and restaurants are all mentioned; but they’re all totally made up. However, Farraday asks his wife if they could go to Fairhaven for the golf – this is actually an area near Lytham St Annes on the Fylde Coast, where there is still a fine golf club bearing its name. Finally, the little place in the country that the Bartons take for the summer months is in Marlingham, Surrey; it doesn’t exist, but there is a Warlingham – just a slip of an upside-down letter separates them.

HouriAnd now some other references, that I thought were worth investigating. Browne reflects on his meeting with Rosemary Barton, and concludes: “as beautiful as a houri – and probably just about as intelligent!” Maybe you already knew that houris are the virgin companions who await Muslim faithful in paradise, according to the holy Quran. I didn’t. I understand the notion that they would be beautiful; apparently that relieves them from the burden of being intelligent too. I wondered if this was an early example of islamophobia – I sense not, but am open to arguments on this one if you know better!

Master of the HorseAnthony Browne proudly boasts to Rosemary that there was a chamberlain to Henry VIII with the same name. It’s true; Sir Anthony Browne (1500 – 1548) was appointed Master of the Horse in 1539, having proved his loyalty to the king three years earlier when he was sent to contend with the Catholic protesters during the Pilgrimage of Grace. The king so trusted him that, at the end of his life, he gave Browne a dry stamp with which to sign letters in the king’s name. Impressive!

Cachet FaivreRosemary asks Sandra Farraday, whilst in the ladies’ toilets (even in Christie-land ladies all go to the toilets together) for a Cachet Faivre to help with her headache. This was a pain medication containing caffeine and quinine. There’s a scene in Noel Coward’s The Vortex where one of the characters asks the butler to fetch her one; and in Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies, hotel landlady Lottie remarks, “Half the young fellows as come here now don’t have anything except a cachet Faivre and some orange juice.” Sounds like the mid-20th century version of a Red Bull.

EatonsLucilla Drake remembers when Eaton’s Syrup was administered as a health tonic when she was young. At one time, Eaton’s in Winnipeg had the reputation of being the largest department store in the world and was a leader in the world of mail order sales, with a wide range of tonics and medicines, including a kidney cure mixture, a sore throat mixture and a “syrup of Eucalyptus, White Pine and Wild Cherry Compound”. It was clearly a cure-all medicine; I’ve found a 1906 account of treatment of malaria which included Eaton’s syrup during convalescence. The company was acquired by Sears Canada in 1999, and the company closed down in 2018. However, the Eaton Centre in Toronto is still a go-to shopping mall.

wedding rings Iris receives a proposal of marriage. However, she replies, “I’m not of age. I’m only eighteen.” Today, of course, Iris would be well within the legal maturity for marriage. However, back in 1945, you had to be 21 to get married without parental consent. Even today, there are some countries (China and the Central African Republic) where a man has to be 22 to get married, even with parental consent.

AgamemnonLord and Lady Kidderminster are said to look at each other “so might Agamemnon and Clytemnestra have stared at each other with the word Iphigenia on their lips”. Very classical. I’m sure you know, but Agamemnon was the King of Mycenae who commanded the Greek forces in the Trojan War. The goddess Artemis required Agamemnon to kill Iphigenia as a human sacrifice in order for his troops to reach Troy. They were tough times in those mythical days.

Rudyard KiplingColonel Race confronts one of the characters and accuses them of not being who they say they are. That person replies, “for the Colonel’s Lady and Judy O’Grady are sisters under the skin”. I’d heard that reference before but never known its derivation. It’s from a rather crude poem called The Ladies (c.1890) by Rudyard Kipling, where a chap recollects all the women he’s slept with and concludes that, despite their differences in class and race, basically, they’re all the same.

tennysonAs mentioned earlier, quotations introduce each of the three sections that make up the entire book. Part one, entitled Rosemary, begins with “what can I do to drive away remembrance from mine eyes?” which is the opening line from a poem by John Keats written in 1819. Part two, entitled All Souls’ Day, begins “that’s Rosemary, that’s for remembrance”, which even I remembered was a line by Ophelia in Hamlet. Part Three, Iris, begins “for I thought that the dead had peace, But it is not so…” which comes from section sixteen of Tennyson’s Maud, published in 1855.

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. Despite many times alluding to the size of Iris’ inheritance when she comes of age, there’s only one sum mentioned in this book – £200, which is the amount that Victor cons out of Lucilla. That’s around £6000 in today’s value, that the little swine took.

Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for Sparkling Cyanide:

Publication Details: 1945. Fontana paperback, 16th impression, published in December 1989, price £3.25. The cover illustration simply shows a popped champagne cork and a calendar page for 2nd November that has been partially burned. Not sure of the significance of the burning.

How many pages until the first death: There are two ways to consider this. We discover that Rosemary died on page one. However, if you’re waiting for a real-time death, you have to wait until page 120. That sounds like a long wait; however, this impression has many more spaces and gaps in its printing than most earlier Christies. Page 120 is about halfway through the book.

Funny lines out of context: One can always rely on Christie’s somewhat archaic use of the “E” word.

“His satisfaction was short-lived, for another thought struck him with the force of a physical blow. He ejaculated out loud.”

“His name soon became known as that of a “coming” young man.”

Memorable characters:

Having been rather spoilt by Christie with her characterisations in her more recent books, this is one area where this book disappoints. You have the strong independence of Ruth Lessing, the devil-may-care bad-boy nature of Anthony Browne, and – perhaps – the political expediency and ambition of Stephen Farraday, but apart from that most of the characters are fairly bland.

Christie the Poison expert:

The clue is in the title! Although cyanide – cyanide of potassium as she refers to it – is the method of poisoning for both deaths in the book, Christie doesn’t go into much detail as to how it works or the effect on its victims. She just points out how it makes anyone who takes it turn blue – “the blue cyanosed face, the convulsed clutching fingers”, as Iris recollects. A third death is averted; however, that wouldn’t have been caused by cyanide poisoning.

Class/social issues of the time:

Most of Christie’s favourite themes crop up in this book, but only occasionally, and without great significance. Take, for instance, feminism and the role of women in society. Most of the women in this book have good social standing but only one, Ruth Lessing, could be described as independent and self-reliant. Rosemary relied on relationships; Sandra Farraday confirms that she couldn’t survive without her husband, no matter what he’d done; Iris demurely waits for life to come to her rather than the other way around. Feeblest of all, Lucilla Drake is depicted as a scatty windbag, powerless against the devious manipulations of her son.

Consider Lucilla’s assessment of George’s domestic lifestyle: “George is very well looked after at present. What more can he want, I should like to know? Excellent meals and his mending seen to. Very pleasant for him to have an attractive young girl like you about the house and when you marry some day I should hope I was still capable of seeing to his comfort and looking after his health. Just as well or better than a young woman out of an office could do – what does she know about housekeeping? Figures and ledgers and shorthand and typing – what good is that in a man’s home?” Clearly she feels that a woman’s role is simply to support a man.

There’s also an amusing interchange between Colonel Race and Inspector Kemp about women in society. “”Do you think she is the type to slip incriminating evidence into a girl’s handbag? A perfectly innocent girl, mind, who has never harmed her in any way? […]” Inspector Kemp squirmed uneasily in his seat and peered into his teacup. “Women don’t play cricket,” he said. “If that’s what you mean.” “Actually, a lot of them do,” said Race, smiling. “But I’m glad to see you look uncomfortable.””

The book was published at the end of the Second World War, when the nations of the world looked to their political leaders for inspiration and help to see them out of the mess of the previous six years. Whether you can tie in the character of Stephen Farraday with that inspiration, I’m not sure; but I did enjoy Christie’s gently savage description of his rise up the ranks: “At twenty-two Stephen came down from Oxford with a good degree, a reputation as a good and witty speaker, and a knack of writing articles. He had also made some useful friends. Politics were what attracted him. […] Though by predilection a Liberal, Stephen realised that, for the moment at least, the Liberal Party was dead. He joined the ranks of the Labour Party. […] But the Labour Party did not satisfy Stephen. He found it less open to new ideas, more hidebound by tradition than its great and powerful rival. The Conservatives, on the other hand, were on the look-out for promising young talent. They approved of Stephen Farraday – he was just the type they wanted. He contested a fairly solid Labour constituency and won it by a very narrow majority. It was with a feeling of triumph that Stephen took his seat in the House of Commons. […]

“Nevertheless, once the excitement of actually being in the House had subsided, he experienced swift disillusionment. The hardly fought election had put him in the limelight, now he was down in the rut, a mere insignificant unit of the rank and file, subservient to the party whips, and kept in his place. It was not easy here to rise out of obscurity. […] One needed something above ability. One needed influence. […] He considered marriage […] some handsome creature who would stand hand in hand with him sharing his life and his ambitions; who would give him children and to whom he could unburden his thoughts and perplexities. Some woman who felt as he did and who would be eager for his success and proud of him when he achieved it.” In other words, a purely self-seeking, self-interested social climber with no thought of service to the nation. It’s not difficult to see in which direction Christie’s political loyalties swung from her description of the three main parties!

There are a couple of minor moments of xenophobia and racial issues, although perhaps not as much as in some of Christie’s books. Christine Shannon explains “that’s why I don’t like Dagoes. When they’ve drunk too much they’re not a bit refined any more – a girl never knows what unpleasantness she may be let in for.” That’s an example of both using a detrimental term and stereotyping an entire range of people to one type of bad behaviour. On another occasion, George Barton tells Race about Rosemary’s death and says that the cabaret was “one of those negro shows”. With the benefit of hindsight, and remembering the popularity of the Black and White Minstrels right up into the late 1980s, that’s actually quite polite for the time.

I was interested by the suggestion that a psychiatrist – or what Christie calls “a nerve specialist […] one of these modern men” advised George that “after a shock of any kind, the trouble must be faced, not avoided” and this is – perhaps – the reason that he calls for the dinner party to be “re-run” as it were at the restaurant where Rosemary died. It’s not often that Christie expresses concern for mental health in her books; it must have been a new consideration of the time. But there’s also some very backward-looking thought processes going on, when Race attributes one of the motives for the crime to “bad blood”. A character is associated with guilt because their mother is “feeble in intellect and incapable of concentration”, their father is “weak, vicious and a drunkard” and their sister is “emotionally unstable.” “A family history of weakness, vice and instability. Predisposing causes.” Talk about judgemental! Wouldn’t go down well in a court of law today.

Classic denouement: The denouement creeps up on the reader and you find you’re at that point of the book without it having been made obvious by the writer. Granted, it’s extremely exciting, but I wouldn’t call it a classic, as the perpetrator is not present at the time and therefore cannot be accused dramatically by the detectives. And there’s also the question of the outrageously unlikely modus operandi of the crime, which I’ll discuss in the next paragraph but one….

Happy ending? Wedding bells in the offing for one couple, although there is a sense of sadness at the end of the book for those who died, which means this book definitely ends in a minor key.

Did the story ring true? NO!!!! As I mentioned earlier on, the whole set-up of the crime relies 100% on a group of people acting in one particular way – like a herd instinct – when presented with a particular set of events. And I just don’t believe it. But I can’t explain that to you without giving away the game.

Overall satisfaction rating: There are a few passages where the writing is highly entertaining, and the detective investigations are highly readable. But it’s also very slow to start and is spoiled by its stupid resolution, so on balance I’m downgrading it to a 6/10.

The HollowThanks for reading my blog of Sparkling Cyanide 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 Hollow, and the welcome return of Hercule Poirot. I can’t remember much about the book but I do remember that a few years back we saw a stage adaptation of the story – and it was pretty awful! So I’m hoping that the original book is much better. Only one way to find out! 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 – Death Comes as the End (1945)

Death Comes as the EndIn which Renisenb, a young widow from an ancient Egyptian family of 4,000 years ago, returns to her home, having buried her young husband, and hoping everything will be as it once was. However, she finds herself at the heart of a family torn apart by bitter jealousy, rivalry, tyranny, and, eventually, murder. 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 Professor S. R. K. Glanville. Dear Stephen, it was you who originally suggested to me the idea of a detective story set in Ancient Egypt, and but for your active help and encouragement, this book would never have been written. I want to say here how much I have enjoyed all the interesting literature you have lent me and to thank you once more for the patience with which you have answered my questions and for the time and trouble you have expended. The pleasure and interest which the writing of the book has brought to me you already know. Your affectionate and grateful friend, Agatha Christie.” Stephen Glanville was Professor of Egyptology at University College London, and Christie had already dedicated one book to him – Five Little Pigs, in 1943. In her autobiography, Christie relates how she wanted to describe the minutiae of daily living in Ancient Egypt with as much accuracy as possible, so she would pester Stephen Glanville with endless questions of domestic practices, seemingly much to his irritation; but they survived the experience, and were still friends at the end. Death Comes as the End was first published in the US in October 1944 by Dodd, Mead and Company, and in the UK by Collins Crime Club in March the following year.

ThebesThis book is a one-off. It’s the only book by Agatha Christie not to take place in the 20th century; it contains no European characters; and has the second highest death count after And Then There Were None. Distanced from her usual trappings of the British class system, genteel old ladies with parlourmaids, wartime fallout, and without access to Poirot, Miss Marple, Tommy and Tuppence or any of her repertoire of familiar characters, Christie had to fall back on characterisation to make this book come alive. And, boy, does she succeed! This is Christie at her best; psychology, suspense, romance, humour, and a completely unguessable but totally reasonable solution to the crime.

egyptian godsI remember the first time I read it, I struggled with it at first, because there are so many unrecognisable elements. The strange-sounding first names of the characters. The chapter structure, which follows the Egyptian agricultural calendar. The ancient Egyptian gods, religious practices and superstitions, which mean nothing to the modern reader. The notion of how a concubine should be treated within a household, which is completely alien to our culture today. But once you get past these little difficulties, what you’re left with is a riveting domestic drama of jealousy, love, hate, and ambition which is bound to tickle our emotional responses.

CalendarIn her explanatory note at the beginning of the book, Christie introduces the reader to the agricultural calendar: “the dates here used as Chapter headings are stated in terms of the agricultural year of the time, i. e. Indundation – late July to late November; Winter – late November to late March; and Summer – late March to late July.” It’s true that, when reading the book, you don’t get a sense of the passage of time. In fact, the twenty-three chapters cover what we would recognise as a period of nine months, starting on roughly 6th September. Much of the early part of the book covers the time up till when Nofret, the concubine, dies, which is around 31st December. After that, there are no more deaths until about 1st April, after which they come thick and fast, over a period of five to six weeks, the story ending on approximately 8th May. It’s interesting to note that, despite the very different times in which the two novels are set, Christie largely followed the same dating structure that she did in her previous novel Towards Zero, where we see a virtual countdown over the months from the early planning stages of a crime to its conclusion.

LuxorReturning to Christie’s introduction, she tells us that “the inspiration of both characters and plot was derived from two or three Egyptian letters of the XI Dynasty, found about 20 years ago by the Egyptian Expedition of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, in a rock tomb opposite Luxor, and translated by Professor (then Mr.) Battiscombe Gunn in the Museum’s bulletin.” These letters were written by one Heqanakhte to his family, complaining about their behaviour and treatment of his concubine. Although the societal norms may change over the centuries, human emotions don’t.

egyptian widowIt’s a traditional third person narrative; however, we very much see the story unfold through Renisenb’s eyes. She is a beautifully crafted character; even though I wouldn’t have a clue how to pronounce her name, I feel I know her very well. She’s a quiet, reflective soul; very traditional, dependant on kindness from her family and friends; she’s also popular, because she doesn’t make a fuss and life has been cruel to her, despite her happiness in the past with her late husband Khay – who frequently re-enters her imagination – and her devotion to her child Teti. As time goes by, she starts to long for married happiness again, but will it be with the reliable, older scribe Hori, who guided her as a child, or the dazzling, exotic Kameni, with whom life could be very exciting. Renisenb’s personal journey, from mourning widow, resenting change, to someone who wants another bright future, is the thread that runs through the book, and I think she’s one of Christie’s great creations. More on the other characters later in this blog post!

ThebesThe story takes place in Thebes, in 2000 BC; a location of which Christie had a good understanding following her archaeological digs with her husband Max Mallowan. The ruins of Thebes are found within modern day Luxor. So Death Comes as the End benefits from a sophisticated, wealthy setting; this is a place where slaves taste your food before you do, so that if it’s poisoned, they die first. Here, it’s vital to impress other people with your wealth when it comes to financing extremely grand funerals; only the finest, brand new sheets are used for the bodies; and more than once we hear complaints about the high prices charged by the embalmers Ipi and Montu.

MemphisThe local people have a high opinion of their illustrious home and a distrust of people from elsewhere. Henet, the old family retainer, blames all the problems on the family on the arrival of the antagonistic Nofret, Imhotep’s concubine: “this house is bewitched. The work of a she-devil who came to us from the North. No good ever came from out of the North.” Nofret’s family is from Memphis, situated 20 kilometres south of Giza. She describes it as “gay and amusing […] there is music and singing and dancing.” No wonder she doesn’t like Thebes’ more stately and sedate atmosphere.

NebhepetreFollowing Nofret’s burial, Christie describes the conversations between the powerful local people: “Thebes was rapidly becoming a very powerful city […] Montu spoke with reverence and approval of the King Neb Hepet-Re. A first-class soldier and a man of piety also. The corrupt and cowardly North could hardly stand against him. A unified Egypt, that was what was needed. And it would mean, undoubtedly, great things for Thebes.” King Neb Hepet-Re, of whom Montu was such a fan, is known more easily today as Nebhepetre Mentuhotep II. He was a Pharaoh of the 11th Dynasty who reigned for 51 years from c. 2061 BC – 2010 BC. Around his 39th year on the throne he reunited Egypt, thus ending the First Intermediate Period. Consequently, he is considered the first pharaoh of the Middle Kingdom.

HeracleopolisThere’s only one other place (I think) that is mentioned in the book: when Hori reads the letter sent from Imhotep whilst he is away on business, Christie describes it thus: “the letter was couched in the ornate style of the professional letter writer of Heracleopolis.” That city, named (obviously) after Heracles, was located 15 kilometres west of the modern city of Beni Suef.

CornelianThe book is positively littered with other references. Esa quotes: “men are made fools by the gleaming limbs of women, and lo, in a minute they are become discoloured cornelians […] a trifle, a little, the likeness of a dream, and death comes as the end.” It appears that Esa is remembering a quotation from an earlier work of some sort, but if you try to search that phrase online all you come up with is this Agatha Christie book. Does anyone know if it really is a quote from an earlier work?

NomarchIn conversation with Hori, Renisenb argues a point about Satipy changing her behaviour; impressed with her skills, he replies “you should argue in the Nomarch’s courts.” Who or what was a Nomarch? They were Ancient Egyptian administration officials responsible for the provinces, or nomes, which are also mentioned in the book. Nofret tempts Imhotep with the prospect of fruit and Keda beer. Keda beer? Not quite sure what that is. I can’t see that keda is any kind of plant from which you can make beer, so maybe it’s beer that was imported from Keda; there’s a Keda in Afghanistan, and one in Georgia. I’ve no idea if either of the are famous for beer! Again, can you help, gentle reader?

HathorImhotep swears “by Hathor” how noisy his grandchildren are. Hathor is an ancient Egyptian goddess associated, who was considered the primeval goddess from whom all others were derived. She is usually depicted as a woman with the head of a cow, ears of a cow, or simply in cow form. Hathor also came to be regarded as the mother of the sun god Ra and held a prominent place in his barge as it sailed across the night sky, into the underworld, and rose again at dawn. Montu, who conducts the funeral services for the family, is a Divine Father of the Temple of Hathor. He sweeps the floor of the burial chamber with a broom of heden grass, before it is sealed up forever; this seemed to be a common practice, but I’ve been unable to discover exactly what heden grass is.

EnneadHenet, also, swears; her cry is to “the Nine Gods of the Ennead”. I didn’t know what this referred to; but the Ennead was a group of nine deities in Egyptian mythology worshipped at Heliopolis: the sun god Atum; his children Shu and Tefnut; their children Geb and Nut; and their children Osiris, Isis, Seth, and Nephthys. On another occasion, when Esa is trying to fathom out a motive for the murders, she says “we have here either enmity against the family as a whole, or else there lies behind all these things that covetousness against which the Maxims of Ptahotep warn us.” The Maxims of Ptahhotep is an ancient Egyptian literary composition based on the Vizier Ptahhotep’s wisdom and experiences, a text that was discovered in Thebes in 1847. One of the quotes from the work is: “Think of living in peace with what you possess, and whatever the Gods choose to give will come of its own accord.” Maybe that’s what Esa was remembering.

Natron“Then the Tomb was sealed, and all that remained of the embalmers’ work, pots full of natron, salt and rags that had been in contact with the body, were placed in a little chamber nearby”. Natron? I’d never heard of it. Wikipedia tells me (so it must be right) that Natron is a naturally occurring mixture of sodium carbonate decahydrate and around 17% sodium bicarbonate along with small quantities of sodium chloride and sodium sulphate. It was harvested directly as a salt mixture from dry lake beds in ancient Egypt and has been used for thousands of years as a cleaning product for both the home and body. So it must have been used to clean the dead bodies.

LuxorRenisenb challenges Nofret with an accusation of evil, adding “when you come to deny the forty-two sins at the hour of judgment you will not be able to say “I have done no evil”.” Part of their ancient beliefs was that man was subject to forty-two sins, each of which was examined by forty-two heavenly assessors, who were waiting on the edge of the lake that the dead had to cross. And another of their beliefs: Esa reminds Renisenb that her late husband Khay “sails his boat now in the Field of Offerings”. This was one of the names given to their equivalent of heaven, a place that mirror-images earth, where the dead lived happily and contented, providing they had passed the examinations to get there.

thirteenWhat really does come across in this book is how the characters all have absolute religious adherence to their beliefs; there isn’t one non-believer, nor someone who simply toes the religion line for social convenience. They all believe in it absolutely, and it is interwoven with their day to day lives to an inextricable degree. There’s a very thin line between belief and superstition.

Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for Death Comes as the End:

Publication Details: 1945. Fontana paperback, 8th impression, published in April 1972, price 25p. The cover illustration, presumably by Tom Adams, simply shows a dead, embalmed Egyptian lady – quite attractive, so presumably Nofret – surrounded by hieroglyphics, torn sheeting, and a watchful ornamental figure. It certainly covers one aspect of the book.

How many pages until the first death: 64. Given that eight people die in all, you can see how the deaths are concentrated into the second half of the book!

Funny lines out of context:

“Yahmose flushed quickly with pleasure. He drew himself a little more erect.”

Memorable characters:

One of the outstanding aspects of this book. I’ve already talked about how real and believable Renisenb is, but so many of them are. Consider the brash Sobek versus the introverted Yahmose, and the shrewish Satipy versus the distant Kait. Then you have Kameni, who woos Renisenb with his song, the vicious, catty Nofret, the lofty and pompous Imhotep, the vain braggart Ipy, and the cackling busybodies Esa and Henet. Each of them is really easy to imagine in the reader’s mind’s eye, because they are such colourful and lively characters.

Christie the Poison expert:

With so many deaths, unsurprisingly some of them are through poison! However, as this is not the 20th century, and there’s no detective to send samples off to a laboratory, we don’t have an insight into which poisons are used. The only clue given is that one of the victims is said to have drunk “the poppy juice”.

Class/social issues of the time:

I wouldn’t like to assume that Christie has taken a couple of her own usual social themes and deposited them in Ancient Thebes, or whether these two subjects were of particular interest to the Ancient Egyptians – but race and the social position of women do crop again, as usual.

It’s interesting that the slaves are frequently referred to by their colour. Satipy moans about “that hippopotamus of a black slave”; Esa possesses “two little black slave girls”, whom she scolds “in a characteristic, friendly fashion.” Esa is actually very fond of her slaves, a relationship which today feels quite unlikely. Later in the book, Christie describes one of Esa’s slaves as a “little maid”, whom she sends off on an errand. However, when she returns, Christie again describes her simply as “the black girl”. The only other use of the word “black” when describing one of the characters, is when Sobek is furious at the influence that Nofret has acquired over Imhotep: “she has bewitched him – that black, jeering serpent has put a spell on him!” Don’t know about you but this feels more than borderline racist to me.

However, there are many more references to women in this book. We’ve seen before how Christie has an uncomfortable relationship with the notion of feminism. You sense she feels that it’s generally a good idea but awfully unbecoming of a nice young lady. Yahmose’s vituperative wife Satipy is constantly complaining at his attitude. “You drive me mad, Yahmose […] you have no spirit. You’re as meek as a woman!” Touch of the Lady Macbeth’s there, maybe? The narration talks of the sequence of accidents and mishaps that befall Nofret, as a deliberate act of vengeance against her. Christie, in the form of the narrator, tells us “it was a quiet, relentless, petty persecution – nothing overt, nothing to lay hold of – it was essentially a woman’s campaign.” That doesn’t really equate women to Being Able To Do Great Things, does it?

Esa’s got worse up her sleeve. When she complains to Renisenb about Satipy’s bullying behaviour, she actually advocates violence against her. “I hoped Yahmose had come to his senses at last and given his wife a good beating. It’s what she needs – and she’s the kind of woman who would probably enjoy it.” That really makes the modern reader cringe. Even kind-hearted and level-headed Hori shows traces of misogyny; his description of Satipy is phrased: “like most bullying women, she was a coward.” If he’d said “like most bullies, she was a coward” I don’t think there’d be any objection. But this phrasing doesn’t feel quite equable. It implies that bullying men aren’t cowards (which is not true.)

Let’s give the final words on the subject to Kait, Sobek’s quiet and remote wife. Kait advises Renisenb to remarry because “you are strong and young, Renisenb, and you can have many more children.” “Is that all a woman’s life, Kait?” asks Renisenb, to which Kait replies, “it is all that matters to a woman.” And later, when Renisenb is talking to Kait about Sobek, she replies, “what are men anyway? They are necessary to breed children, that is all. But the strength of the race is in the women. It is we, Renisenb, who hand down to our children all that is ours, As for men, let them breed and die early…” So despite having what sounds to us a very backward attitude to the relevance of women in their society, Kait is adamant that their own special brand of feminism is the power of the nation. It perfectly sums up Christie’s ambivalence on the subject!

Classic denouement: Although it’s an exciting denouement, it’s not exactly classic, with only three people present – the murderer, the next intended victim, and the victim’s saviour. All the details are then back-filled afterwards. It’s interesting that Stephen Glanville persuaded Christie to change the ending, much to her annoyance with herself for letting him do so. She avowed thereafter never to let anyone interfere with her plotting ever again! Tantalisingly, we don’t know what ending she had originally proposed.

Happy ending? Yes; although there aren’t many people left to get on with their own lives, a future wedding is on the horizon.

Did the story ring true? With its foreign, distant setting, in another culture at a point much earlier in history, it’s hard to gauge exactly how realistic or credible the story is. In many respects, this is the closest Christie got to writing a pantomime, in that it’s full of vibrant characters and a somewhat over-the-top death count suggests a murderer who is much larger than life.

Overall satisfaction rating: For me it’s unhesitatingly a 10/10, because I’ve always found it riveting – and on re-reading I found I could almost verbatim remember many of the conversations; that’s how much it gets under your skin.

Sparkling CyanideThanks for reading my blog of Death Comes as the End 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 Sparkling Cyanide, and our final meeting with Colonel Race; I can’t remember anything else about it though, so I shall look forward to re-reading 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 – Towards Zero (1944)

Towards ZeroIn which tennis star Nevile Strange takes his new wife Kay to stay with his late guardian’s widow, Lady Tressilian, when his first wife, Audrey, is also visiting. Tempers flare, old flames are kindled, and old scores are settled. After one apparently accidental death and another that’s definitely murder, Superintendent Battle, together with his nephew Inspector Leach, questions the suspects and gets to the bottom of what actually happened. As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I promise not to tell you whodunit!

robert gravesThe book is dedicated “To Robert Graves. Dear Robert, since you are kind enough to say you like my stories, I venture to dedicate this book to you. All I ask is that you should sternly restrain your critical faculties (doubtless, sharpened by your recent excesses in that line!) when reading it. This is a story for your pleasure and not a candidate for Mr. Graves’ literary pillory! Your friend, Agatha Christie.” Robert Graves was, of course, a famous and successful writer, who created works such as Goodbye to All That, I Claudius, and Claudius the God. I’m not sure what the recent excesses that Christie refers to in this dedication are. They were clearly good friends anyway! Towards Zero was first serialised in the US in Collier’s Weekly in three parts in May 1944, under the title Come and Be Hanged! The book was first published in the US in June 1944 under its usual title of Towards Zero by Dodd, Mead and Company, and in the UK by Collins Crime Club in one month later.

zeroI remember reading this book as a youngster and being frustrated that there wasn’t a nice juicy murder for me to get my teeth into right from the start. In fact, you have to wait till just over halfway through the book before anyone dies. I confess, that was my immature reaction to the book. Today, I can see that its charm and power come from all the trails that it creates in the run up to the murder taking place. Not only are you trying to identify possible motives for murder, you’re also working out who the likely victims might be as well as who is likely to have done the deed. It gets you thinking and operating your own little grey cells, even though Hercule Poirot isn’t present to supervise you – although Superintendent Battle, on this final occasion that we have dealings with him, remembers the old man at one point and gets some sleuthing inspiration from him.

old family solicitorIt’s narrated in the third person but still has quite a complicated structure. We start off with a brief prologue, dated November 19th, where old Mr Treves discusses an unrelated legal case with his colleagues and points out what he sees is a fault with crime fiction: “they begin in the wrong place! They begin with the murder. But the murder is the end. The story begins long before that – years before sometimes – with all the causes and events that bring certain people to a certain place at a certain time on a certain day […] all converging towards a given spot […] Zero Hour.” And that is the structure of this book, gathering those threads together that lead their way towards a crime being committed.

cliff edgeThe next part of the book, “Open the Door and Here are the People” introduces us to the rest of the cast of the story, in the sequence in which their involvement begins – and with each section dated, in chronological order. Thus, on January 11th, we meet Angus MacWhirter, having failed at an attempt at suicide, trying to work out how to piece his life together – as well as hiding from the law as suicide was illegal in those days. A little later we see him get a job, but then MacWhirter then disappears from the narrative for 110 pages, because he has no active role in the lead up to the crime. February 14th sees a nameless hand write a plan; presumably the murderer working out the deviousness of their plot. Come March, and Superintendent Battle hits our radar, with a domestic problem of his daughter in school. Nice to know that Battle has a family life, I don’t think that’s something that was ever addressed before. No information is wasted in this very tight book, and Battle’s experience with his daughter does play a part in his detection in due course.

women-arguingOn April 19th we see Nevile and Kay together for the first time and form a strong opinion on how they spend their daily life together. In May we meet to Audrey, and Thomas Royde, whose late brother was in love with Audrey before she married Nevile; and we become reacquainted with Mr Treves, planning to visit Lady Tressilian. By the time August comes around, we’ve met all the dramatis personae and nothing can change the eventual outcome. By this gradual introduction of characters, plots and relationships, you can see how the separate threads of this story merge together; unusual for Christie, and it keeps your attention throughout.

PoliceAs I mentioned earlier, Towards Zero marks the point where Agatha Christie and Superintendent Battle part company; and Christie takes the opportunity to fill in some gaps where it comes to Battle, his life and personality. Up till now we’ve only ever seen him as the totally solid, slightly slow, playing-by-the-book, highly traditional character. Christie has thrown out a few clues in his previous cases about his character, but nothing much. From The Secret of Chimneys: “Detective stories are mostly bunkum,” said Battle unemotionally. “But they amuse people.” From Cards on the Table, talking to Miss Burgess: “I don’t want to say anything against your sex but there’s no doubt that a woman, when she’s rattled, is apt to lash out with her tongue a bit”. Now in Towards Zero, Battle seems to have much more space to be himself. He’s very much a mentor to his nephew, Inspector Leach, who is almost pathetically grateful to his uncle for any help: “You’ll give me a hand, won’t you, Uncle, over this? First case of this kind I’ve had.”

suspiciousBattle controls the investigation with a fair hand and an open mind. But Christie is keen to point out that Battle is actually full of his own little prejudices, and whilst Inspector Leach is introducing themselves to the wider Strange family, Battle is silently judging them all from his own preconceptions: “his view of them might have surprised them had they known it. It was a sternly biased view. No matter what the law pretends as to regarding people as innocent until they are proved guilty, Superintendent Battle always regarded everyone connected with a murder case as a potential murderer […] These were Superintendent Battle’s thoughts: Suppose that’s Miss Aldin. Cool customer – competent woman, I should say. Won’t catch her off her guard easily. Man next to her is a dark horse – got a groggy arm – poker face – got an inferiority complex as likely as not. That’s one of these wives, I suppose – she’s scared to death – yes, she’s scared all right. Funny about that coffee cup. That’s Strange, I’ve seen him before somewhere. He’s got the jitters all right – nerves shot to pieces. Red-headed girl’s a tartar- devil of a temper. Brains as well as temper, though.”

PoirotBattle can’t place why he can’t stop thinking of Poirot, although he suspects it must be something to do with the psychology of the case. Leach considers Poirot to be a “comic little guy”, but Battle’s having none of that. “Comic my foot […] about as dangerous as a black mamba and a she-leopard! […] Keep a murderer talking – that’s one of his lines. Says everyone is bound to speak what’s true sooner or later – because in the end it’s easier than telling lies. And so they make some little slip they don’t think matters – and that’s when you get them.” In fact, Poirot comes into Battle’s head because of a very revealing instance of non-symmetry; following that through gives Battle a big clue as to whodunit and how.

juan les pinsRegular 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. In this book, the majority of places are certainly made up. The book’s setting of Saltcreek, opposite Easterhead, not far from Saltington, is purely fictional. There is a Saltcreek – but it’s in Australia; there is also a River Tern, but this is a tributary of the River Severn and so never meets the sea. St. Loo is mentioned; this is the setting for Peril at End House, but it doesn’t exist – although I have read commentators who equate St Loo with Torquay. However, Hindhead, of course, where Nevile Strange lives, does exist, in Surrey; as does Juan les Pins, on the French Riviera, where Kay and Ted Latimer had met on holiday when they were young. “I see they’ve detained a man in the Kentish Town trunk case” says Mary Aldin. Kentish Town, of course, does exist, but I don’t think it’s ever seen a “trunk case”.

hanging-judgeThere are just a couple of other interesting references in the book; Mr Treves conducts a conversation about child murderers, never an easy subject, but one that inevitably stirs strong emotions. There weren’t any famous cases of child murders in the UK around the time that Christie wrote this book, but it may well be she was in part exploring the way for one of her later books where a child, indeed, is shown to be the murderer. Looking forward to re-reading that one in due course!

elegant handwritingOne lengthy section of the book is entitled “A fine Italian hand”. This phrase has often been used to describe the change of handwriting in parts of Europe away from the Gothic script of the 17th century and before. As a figure of speech, it implies a skill in a distinct field. So when Kay tells Battle that Nevile “quite honestly thinks it was his idea, but I’ve seen Audrey’s fine Italian hand behind it from the first” she means Audrey has skilfully manipulated the situation to come about.

PoundRegular readers will know that I like to convert any significant sums of money mentioned in the Christie books to what they would be worth today, in order to gain a greater understanding of quite how large or small they are – it’s not always so easy to assess otherwise. The only meaningful sums of money in this book relate to the amount of money that Nevile and Audrey might inherit. There’s £100,000 washing about in the late Sir Matthew’s trust – that was a tidy sum in 1944, and converts to the even tidier £3.1 million today.

Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for Towards Zero:

Publication Details: 1944. Fontana paperback, 6th impression, published in April 1973, price 30p. The cover illustration by Tom Adams shows a dead, decaying fish on some rocks in the middle of a beach, whilst a coil of rope lies nearby. The rope is key to the crime; the dead fish, I feel, is mere window-dressing.

How many pages until the first death: 89. The structure of this book is that everything hurtles towards zero hour. Don’t worry that there hasn’t been a murder yet, just wallow in all the developing possibilities.

Funny lines out of context:

“Rather late, wasn’t it, to go off to Easterhead Bay?” “Oh, it’s a gay spot – they keep it up till all hours.”

Memorable characters:

This book is textured with a number of memorable characters. Camilla, Lady Tressilian, is a grande dame of the old tradition, who enjoys ill health and its trappings. You can just imagine her demanding an audience in her boudoir with anyone she wishes to beam kindly on; and ignoring anyone she wants to put the boot in. Mr Treves is also a well-rounded character; intelligent, experienced, not afraid of upsetting people even at his grand old age; “a little malice […] adds a certain savour to life” he says at one point to Lady Tressilian. But it’s the warring factions of Kay and Audrey Strange that really sit high in your memory once the book is over; Kay, with her hot-headed over-reactions, and Audrey with her infuriating calmness.

Christie the Poison expert:

No particular references to poison in this book. Just not that kind of book!

Class/social issues of the time:

The role of women is once more shown to be precarious, particularly amongst the older characters. Lady Tressilian snobbishly looks down on Kay as being arriviste and with “no background, no roots.” “”Her mother was notorious on the Riviera. What a bringing up for the girl. Nothing but Hotel life – and that mother! Then she meets Nevile on the tennis courts, makes a dead set at him and never rests until she gets him to leave his wife – of whom he was extremely fond – and go off with her! I blame her entirely for the whole thing!” Mary smiled faintly. Lady Tressilian had the old-fashioned characteristic of always blaming the woman and being indulgent toward the man in the case.”

On another occasion, Lady Tressilian is singing the praises of her companion Mary Aldin, and, spoken as a compliment, exclaims: “she has really a first-class brain – a man’s brain.” Christie felt very comfortable with these traditional old anti-feminist viewpoints. I’m sure that’s one of the reasons she never felt comfortable writing about divorce, because it enabled a woman to go her own way and make her own decisions in life, instead of being meekly dictated to. Of course, manners and etiquette regarding divorce were in their relatively early stages. Lady Tressilian has her own views about how it should be conducted: “if husbands and wives have to advertise their difficulties in public and have recourse to divorce, then they might at least part decently. The new wife and the old wife making friends is quite disgusting in my mind. Nobody has any standards nowadays!”

There’s a lovely example of how the times they are a-changin’. In a world where people divorce and the class system is challenged, a few old habits still die hard. Mr Treves, newly arrived from a different area, is to come to dinner at Lady Tressilian’s. In preparation for this visit, he brings a letter of introduction from a mutual acquaintance. Perfectly charming. I don’t think that practice has survived into the 21st century!

There’s normally a reference or two in a Christie novel to either xenophobia or racism. I could only see one such reference in Towards Zero – when “unsympathetic old colonels were wont to say” of Ted Latimer, “touch of the Dago”.

Another more unusual social issue, that I don’t think Christie had addressed before, is that of suicide. With the character of Angus MacWhirter having attempted suicide before the book starts, but having survived it, he is faced “with the prospect of being hauled up in a police court for the crime of trying to take his own life. Curse it, it was his own life, wasn’t it?” Suicide ceased to be a criminal act in England and Wales in 1961. Interestingly, today we would consider that most people who attempt suicide have poor mental health when they do so. MacWhirter, though, proclaims that “he’d never been saner! And to commit suicide was the most logical and sensible thing that could be done by a man in his position.”

The nurse attending MacWhirter holds no sympathy for him other than her nurselike duty of getting him well again. Her phrases: “we know what’s best for you”, “it’s wrong”, “haven’t you got any relations?” “but you’ve got friends, surely?” and “you won’t kill yourself now […] they never do”, are all reactions that help the person who didn’t try to take their life, rather than the person who did. Today, they’d all be rather inadvisable things to say to someone considering suicide.

Classic denouement: Pretty much! All the suspects are gathered, and it looks very much like one person is clearly the murderer until a last-minute twist turns our attention to someone else. Christie allows Battle to finish his swansong with a bang!

Happy ending? Largely. There’s a slight element of disappointment that the murderer is only brought to justice on the grounds of causing one death, rather than two, or possibly even three. However, apart from that, there’s an engagement between one couple and the suggestion of a second with another.

Did the story ring true? On the whole, yes. The murderer was unlucky that there was, basically, an eye-witness to a major part of the crime set-up, which, had that not been the case, might never have come to light.

Overall satisfaction rating: My memory of reading this book in the past suggested that I wouldn’t be giving this more than about 6/10. But, on this re-read, I have no hesitation in giving it a 10/10, because the tension grows so deliciously.

Death Comes as the EndThanks for reading my blog of Towards Zero 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 Death Comes As The End, where Christie transports us back 4,000 years to ancient Egypt. I remember this as being one of my all-time favourite Christies, and I can’t wait to get cracking on 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 – The Moving Finger (1943)

The Moving FingerIn which brother and sister Jerry and Joanna Burton move to the tranquil country town of Lymstock to help with his recovery after a flying accident. But instead of quiet rural life they become embroiled in a hunt for a poison-pen letter writer who appears to have driven one poor resident to suicide. When another body is discovered, the police begin to investigate; and are stumped until one Miss Marple is invited along to consider the evidence. As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I promise not to tell you whodunit!

British MuseumThe book is dedicated “To my friends Sydney and Mary Smith”. He was Keeper of the Department of Egyptian and Assyrian Antiquities at the British Museum; by all accounts a charismatic and thought-provoking man who always stirred Agatha’s imagination and brain, and the two of them loved to exchange intellectual banter together. His wife Mary was a painter; and the couple remained good friends with Agatha and Max throughout their lives. The Moving Finger was first serialised in the US in Collier’s Weekly in eight parts between March and May 1942. It was first serialised in the UK in Women’s Pictorial in an abridged form, in six parts, in October and November 1942 under the slightly shorter title, Moving Finger. The full book was first published in the US in July 1942 by Dodd, Mead and Company, only two months after her previous book, Five Little Pigs. It was published in the UK by Collins Crime Club in June 1943. Like Three Act Tragedy, the American version of the book is abridged by about 9,000 words from the UK version.

village-lifeThis has always been one of my favourite Christie novels. It hits the ground running at a tremendous pace, it has an intriguing and relatively unusual plotline and the central characters of Jerry and Joanna are very well drawn and completely likeable; quirky, mickey-taking, modern young things, Their growing romances as the plot develops are charming to observe, and Christie writes with a humorous flair and a very accurate sense of village life, with some intense characters. Sadly, it didn’t take me long to remember whodunit, but even so it doesn’t disturb one’s enjoyment of the narrative. Christie herself thought that this one of her best books.

after accidentIt’s narrated in the first person by Jerry, an amiable, slightly feckless fellow of sufficient means that it matters not one jot that he’s unable to undertake any form of work or rigorous exercise. Life for him and Joanna is a long round of lunches, afternoon teas and mock sibling rivalry. The reader identifies himself with Jerry so readily that the “I” of the narrative almost becomes the reader’s own perspective of the book, which makes it a quick, easy and comforting read. At one stage he points out a fact that he says, in retrospect, should have stood out as a huge clue to solving the mystery – that the “a” of Barton had been changed to the “u” of Burton, on the envelope containing the letter opened by Joanna. In retrospect, he’s right; but at the time you’re too deep down in the narrative to come up for air and try to work that one out for yourself. Still, it’s very decent of him (and Christie) to telegraph a major clue for us to recognise in that way.

dresden dollPart of the appeal of this book is the superb evocation of country life in a rural backwater. The Burtons rent from Miss Emily Barton, “a charming old lady who matched her house in an incredible way.” She’s often described as looking like a Dresden doll with formal petticoats and all that entails; and clearly her chintziness stems from her upbringing and her environment. “I must confess I did shrink from the idea of having Men here!” squeals Miss Barton, to whom the presence of a man in a house felt no more comfortable than having a horse in the house; probably less so. It’s the invasion of the outside world in the form of Jerry and Joanna that makes the disruption of the country life so interesting. Miss Barton “inquired diffidently if I smoked.” “Like a chimney,” said Joanna. “But then,” she pointed out, “so do I.” “Of course, of course. So stupid of me. I’m afraid, you know, I haven’t moved with the times […] yes, everyone smokes now. The only thing is, there are no ashtrays in the house.” […] “We won’t put down cigarette ends on your nice furniture, that I do promise you” replies Joanna. Times do change; today the Burtons would almost certainly not be allowed to smoke in a rented property.

witchThis is a world and a time when neighbours like Emily Barton “came solemnly and left cards. Her example was followed by Mrs Symmington, the lawyer’s wife, Miss Griffith, the doctor’s sister, Mrs Dane Calthrop, the vicar’s wife, and Mr Pye of Prior’s End. Joanna was very much impressed. “I didn’t know,” she said in an awestruck voice, “that people really called – with cards.” “That is because, my child,” I said, “you know nothing about the country.” At first Joanna can’t adapt to the country style of dress: “she was wearing a skirt of outrageous and preposterous checks. It was skin tight, and on her upper half she had a ridiculous little short sleeved jersey with a Tyrolean effect. She had sheer silk stockings and some irreproachable but brand new brogues.” Jerry advises she should wear “an old tweed skirt, preferably of dirty green or faded brown. You’d wear a nice cashmere jumper matching it, and perhaps a cardigan coat, and you’d have a felt hat and thick stockings and old shoes.” Christie goes to great length to describe the town and its heritage; phrases like “rival butchers” and a “hideous school” tell you so much of the quality and tone of life there. And of course, it wouldn’t be a country town if it didn’t have a witch; so everyone suspects Mrs Cleat, of being the letter-writer. Mrs Cleat may or may not be a witch, but she’s well aware of the usefulness of the reputation. “Mrs Cleat came from a family of ‘wise women’ […] and she’s taken pains to cultivate the legend. She’s a queer woman with a bitter and sardonic sense of humour. It’s been easy enough for her, if a child cut its finger or had a bad fall, or sickened with mumps, to nod her head and say, “yes he stole my apples last week” or “he pulled my cat’s tail”. “

PoliceThe official investigation into the wrongdoings in Lymstock is undertaken by Superintendent Nash, a man who impresses Jerry as “the best type of CID county superintendent. Tall, soldierly, with quiet reflective eyes and a straightforward unassuming manner.” He brings in Inspector Graves from London to assist, because Graves has experience with other anonymous letter cases. “Inspector Graves smiled mournfully. I reflected that a life spent in the pursuit of anonymous letter writers must be singularly depressing. Inspector Graves, however, showed a kind of melancholy enthusiasm. “They’re all the same, these cases,” he said in a deep lugubrious voice like a depressed bloodhound.” However, they wouldn’t get to the bottom of it all without a certain Miss Marple from St Mary Mead.

Magic trick on stageIt had only been a year or so since we had last met Miss Marple, and this will be her final appearance in a Christie novel for seven years. She makes a delayed entrance; it’s not until 117 pages have passed that Jerry makes a mention of “an amiable elderly lady who was knitting something with white fleecy wool”. She is a friend of Mrs Dane Calthrop, the vicar’s wife (whom we will meet again in The Pale Horse, some eighteen years in the future), and is staying as a house guest at the vicarage. She instantly pricks her ears up at the mention of murder and offers us a very incisive comment about the nature of “successful” murder: “To commit a successful murder must be very much like bringing off a conjuring trick […] You’ve got to make people look at the wrong thing and in the wrong place – misdirection, they call it, I believe.” That’s very much at the heart of the crime in this book. No wonder, later on, Mrs Dane Calthorp says of Miss Marple: “that woman knows more about the different kinds of human wickedness than anyone I’ve ever known.” Apart from those little insights, there’s nothing more for us to learn about the character of the old lady in this book.

plymstockRegular 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. Sadly, there’s no such place as Lymstock, although there is a Plymstock, which is an outer suburb of Plymouth, which is where I expect she got the inspiration. Combeacre, home of Colonel Appleton, Nether Mickford, where Rose the cook lives, and Exhampton, where Mildmay is a solicitor, are also fictional towns, although it’s not hard to see how they could be concatenations of other better-known places. Of course, when Jerry goes to London, he visits Harley Street which is most definitely real.

kitkatMoving on to some of the other references in the book; “merely kit-kat” says Jerry to Joanna, as the latter is teasing Dr Griffith for having walked past her rudely in the street. Merely kit-kat? What relevance is a chocolate snack? I’ve tried hard to work out whether this is some form of mid-20th century slang but I came to a standstill. Any ideas? Similarly, “bow at a venture”, which is what Jerry says to Griffith when he questions whether the Symmingtons’ son might have different parentage. To “draw a bow at a venture” is an old saying that comes from the Bible (1 Kings, 22:34), and means to make a random remark which may hit the truth. Well, I never knew that.

sir edward greyJerry defends the art of not working in a brusque conversation with Aimée Griffith, where he cites Sir Edward Grey, who was sent down from Oxford for “incorrigible idleness”. Sir Edward, who had died in 1933, had indeed been a lazy student, but managed to create a career that included being Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs from 1905 to 1916 under Campbell-Bannerman and Asquith, as well as being the MP for Berwick upon Tweed.

winged-victory-of-samothrace-3When Jerry is talking to Elsie Holland about the second death, he notes “as she flashed around the corner of the stairs, I caught my breath. For a minute I caught a glimpse of a Winged Victory, deathless and incredibly beautiful, instead of a conscientiousness nursery governess.” Forgive my ignorance, gentle reader, but I had no idea what Jerry was referring to. But it’s the Winged Victory of Samothrace, on display in the Louvre Museum, a marble Hellenistic sculpture of Nike (the Greek goddess of victory), that was created about the 2nd century BC. You live and learn.

oh fair doveChristie quotes a Shakespeare sonnet: “So are you to my thoughts as food to life, Or as sweet-season’d showers are to the ground” – this is Sonnet 75. Jerry also sings a song to himself: “Oh maid, most dear, I am not here I have no place, no part, No dwelling more, by sea nor shore, But only in your heart” – this is “Oh Fair Dove, Oh Fond Dove” written by Jean Bigelow in the 1860s.

meerschaumDid you know that Meerschaum pipes change colour with age and with use? Nor did I until I read that Jerry broke his by accident when he dropped it in astonishment at something Megan said. Who said that Christie isn’t educational?

PoundRegular readers will know that I like to convert any significant sums of money mentioned in the Christie books to what they would be worth today, in order to gain a greater understanding of quite how large or small they are – it’s not always so easy to assess otherwise. The only meaningful sums of money in this book are both quite small, but they’re interesting, nonetheless. Megan’s allowance is £40 a year – and she says you can’t do much on that. At today’s rate, that’s the equivalent of about £1300, so she’s absolutely right. The other sum is when she asks Jerry for a penny so she can buy some chocolate. How much is one old penny in today’s money? It’s about 30p. There’s inflation for you. That wouldn’t buy you anything!

Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for The Moving Finger:

Publication Details: 1943. Fontana paperback, 6th impression, published in March 1971, price 5/-. The cover illustration, presumably by Tom Adams, shows a pestle (but no mortar), with a cranberry coloured glass of… water? on top of an old handwritten piece of vellum. The pestle was probably used to commit the second murder, and the glass could contain dissolved cyanide… but the old scroll? Not a clue.

How many pages until the first death: 43. Sometimes you want a death to occur quite quickly, so as to keep the interest going. However, this is such a well-written book that you don’t think about it!

Funny lines out of context:

“I should imagine the people in these country places tend to be inbred – and so you would get a fair amount of queers.”

Memorable characters:

There are plenty of well fleshed-out characters to enjoy. Jerry and Joanna are a good starting point, townies camping out in the countryside and liable to make loads of mistakes. Prissy Mr Pye, blustering Miss Griffith, domineering Mrs Dane Calthrop, nudge-nudge wink-wink Marcus Kent all leave an enjoyable impression. And Partridge, the unforgiving maid to Miss Barton whom Jerry and Joanna inherit, is a great creation. As Jerry/Christie writes: “it was Partridge who brought the news of the tragedy. Partridge enjoys calamity. Her nose always twitches ecstatically when she has to break bad news of any kind.”

Christie the Poison expert:

The first person to die in the book consumes a solution of cyanide kept in the potting shed, used to destroy wasps’ nests. Today that all seems highly dangerous to keep such things in the household. There is some discussion in the book as to whether one would be more likely to take Prussic Acid – the old name for Hydrogen Cyanide – or some kind of soporific that would kill you more gently. Dr. Griffith describes Prussic Acid as “more dramatic and is pretty certain to do the trick.”

Class/social issues of the time:

A few issues raise their head, as they nearly always do. Much as I like the character of Jerry, from time to time he’s an unutterable snob, and he makes some assumptions that we will agree with him – and I don’t think we do! Trying to establish the writer of the poison-pen letters, Graves is convinced it’s a local woman. “I shouldn’t have thought one of these bucolic women down here would have had the brains” says Jerry. Bucolic is a harsh word to describe a person; and he falls into the trap of assuming country people and stupid people. Wrong, snob! In a later conversation he talks of “hitting miserable little maidservants on the head”; the word miserable shows a deep-seated dislike of working-class people; and later, again, he equates being homeless with being a criminal. Describing an inquest, where it was virtually ruled out that a stranger had committed the murder in question, Jerry notes: “no tramps nor unknown men had been noticed or reported in the district.” The fact that he mentions tramps specifically shows, I think, that he has very deep class issues.

The phrase “black slaves” is mentioned twice; once by Mr Pye as he recollects how the Barton girls had to fetch and carry for their monster of a mother, and once by Joanna as she disapproves of the tradition that a maidservant can’t arrange for friends to visit her at the house where she lives and works. Of course, it stands out today as a very uncomfortable phrase to use; however, at the time of writing it was, dare I say it, relatively enlightened. In another conversation, between Jerry and Aimée, about idleness, he shows her a Chinese picture of an old man sitting beneath a tree. “Aimée Griffith was unimpressed by my lovely picture. She said: “Oh well, we all know what the Chinese are like!”” Sometimes it seems as though Christie, through her characters, never misses a chance to take a dig at a foreign culture.

Being out-of-towners, you might expect Jerry and Joanna to be more forward-looking in their attitude to women’s rights and feminism. Jerry takes the rise out of the practice of keeping unpleasant issues away from the female of the species: “in novels, I have noticed, anonymous letters of a foul and disgusting character are never shown, if possible, to women. It is implied that women must at all cost be shielded from the shock it might give their delicate nervous systems. I am sorry to say that it never occurred to me not to show the letter to Joanna. I handed it to her at once. She vindicated my belief in her toughness by displaying no emotion but that of amusement.”

However, when he comes up against Aimée Griffith in full flow, it’s a different story. Christie never seemed certain of her own attitudes to feminism, and here you can see it in action. Christie has had plenty of likeable heroines (like Tuppence, Bundle, and of course Miss Marple herself) and she liked to see them get into scrapes through their own daring, but she also liked to see them get rescued by men. Here she has created Aimée Griffiths, who is somewhat cantankerous and who dislikes the book’s joint heroines of Joanna and Megan. She rounds on Jerry and what she takes to be his 19th century views with no holds barred. “”Your attitude, Mr Burton, is typical of that of most men. You dislike the idea of women working – of their competing –“ I was taken aback. I had come up against the Feminist. Aimée was well away, her cheeks flushed. “It is incredible to you that women should want a career. It was incredible to my parents. I was anxious to study for a doctor. They would not hear of paying the fees. But they paid them readily for Own. Yet I should have made a better doctor than my brother.”” It will be interesting to see if there is a noticeable change to Christie’s tone regarding feminism as time progresses – and the Second World War is over.

Classic denouement: Good, but not classic. The guilty party is caught in the act of a probable third murder by the police and, rather like Iago in Othello, we never hear from them again. We then pay a return visit to Miss Marple for her to plug the gaps. It’s quite exciting and rewarding, but not heart-pounding like some.

Happy ending? Yes. Marriage bells are heard for one couple, are in the offing for another couple, and a restoration back into acceptance is on the cards for a fifth person. We don’t discover the fate of the murderer, which is perhaps a trifle frustrating.

Did the story ring true? Yes. Unusually for Christie, this story doesn’t rely on some very far-fetched coincidences. The characters are largely credible, as is the motive for the crime. And you can easily appreciate how it would feel to be part of that village community, concerned that one of your number was a poison-pen writer or even a murderer.

Overall satisfaction rating: Despite a couple of tiny rankles it’s such a good read that I’m giving it a 10/10.

Towards ZeroThanks for reading my blog of The Moving Finger 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 Towards Zero, the final appearance of Superintendent Battle, in a story where the murder comes towards the end. I remember being frustrated by the lack of crime when I have read it in the past – it will be interesting to see if I still feel the same! 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 Real Chrisparkle meets M. R. Carey (again!)

Someone like meGreetings gentle reader and welcome to another interview session with M. R. Carey, famous for his Girl With All The Gifts and Felix Castor novels – and now with a new book out, published today! Welcome Mike – perhaps you’d like to give us a little introduction to your new book – no spoilers, of course!

M R Carey: Thanks, Chris. This novel is a stand-alone, not part of a series. It’s set in Pittsburgh, in the US. The protagonist, Liz Kendall – or one of the two protagonists, arguably – is a domestic abuse survivor. She’s finally managed to get out of an abusive marriage, but her ex-partner Marc is still very much in her life because he has visitation rights over their two children, Zac and Molly. One day he gets into a vicious argument with Liz after bringing the kids back late from a trip, and he assaults her, as he has many times before. But this time is different. Out of nowhere, Liz is suddenly filled with the strength and will to resist Marc, and to fight back. She has no idea where this has all come from. It’s as though she’s been possessed by something bigger and stronger than herself.

Which is fine, at first. She’s frightened and shaken, but she doesn’t look too far down the gift horse’s mouth. But then that other, stronger entity keeps coming back, and its instincts are always violent and subversive. Eventually Liz realises that she has to find out what it is and where it came from.

Real Chrisparkle: Which is also the set-up for a brilliantly exciting story, Mike. I have to say this is probably my favourite book of yours! And also very difficult to talk about without giving away too many spoilers!

MRC: Thanks! Yeah, spoilers are an issue. It’s a story with a lot of big reveals at different points. I’ll try to be vague where necessary…

RC: Me too! I’d love to know what gave you the inspiration to write it. Is this your 21st century Jekyll and Hyde?

Jekyll and HydeMRC: That’s a really good reference point, but it wasn’t explicitly in my mind when I was writing. I think the initial seed was just thinking about might-have-beens. The road we didn’t take in the forest, the choice we didn’t make. Our lives have a shape, but it’s a fairly ragged and asymmetrical shape for most of us, and as you get older you realise more and more how few of the turning points were things you actually did or choices you made. A lot of them were external events – happenstance. I was mulling over some of this stuff, and I hit on an idea for a story about a woman who in some ways has made all the wrong choices, but then seemingly gets the chance to get out of a bad situation and re-invent herself. But of course there’s always a price to be paid for those monkey’s paw kind of bargains.

RC: So like J B Priestley’s Dangerous Corner? I think many people will have been in a situation where they think to themselves, if I’d made THAT decision rather than THIS, life would be so much better, or if only I was stronger I could deal with this much better… But Liz is in a very different position than just being a bit weak when challenged, right?

MRC: Yeah, absolutely. Nothing in that initial set-up is quite what it seems. The early part of the book has Liz trying to figure out what’s happening, and settling on a rationalistic explanation that makes a kind of sense. But there are wheels within wheels, and ultimately it’s not just something that’s happening to her. Other characters get drawn in. Her children, especially her son, a local police officer, and a teenaged girl named Fran Watts who lives nearby.

It’s actually Fran’s story as much as it is Liz’s. She wasn’t in the original plan, but she came to me early in the process and she got more and more important as I wrote.

RC: That’s really interesting, because for me, a major strength of this book is how recognisable so much of it is. The lone woman struggling to make ends meet whilst looking after her loving family. The gently growing first love between two young people. And then, by contrast, there are scenes of domestic violence, and a young person who had something horrendous happen to them in their early years. All human life is there! Would you say this is your most family-oriented story?

MRC: I think everything I write is about families, to a really huge extent. It became the core of Lucifer when I was writing it. I cast that story in terms of a rebellious son’s attempt to shake off his father’s influence and be his own person, which is particularly difficult to do if your father is god. But then, there’s a sense in which all parents are gods to their kids at first, and then a lot of people reach a point where that unconditional love and worship hits a bump and has to be re-evaluated.

Family is a very important theme in this story, as you say. And there are a lot of internal echoes. Fran’s one-parent family resembles Liz’s in some ways and is very different in others. They’ve both got a weight of past trauma on them, and they’re both trying to cope in the face of that. Fran’s father, Gil, is like Liz in that he wants to protect his daughter from the world, but he knows he can’t because the world isn’t something you can bolt the door on. It’s always already inside.

RC: Going back to something you said earlier…. you say Fran got bigger and bigger as you started to write, was that because her family set-up became an interesting comparison with Liz’s family?

MRC: She started out as a sort of repetition of Liz’s story in a different key. I wanted to expand the scope of the story, building to the reveal as to the actual source of Liz’s alternate self, and Fran seemed like an effective way to do that. But she grew as I wrote her. I got more and more interested in her story in its own right, and gave it more space to develop.

The correspondences are important, but so are the contrasts. Where Liz has a sort of possessing, controlling other self, Fran has an imaginary friend – Lady Jinx – who is entirely benign. But as Fran starts to investigate her own past, she becomes more and more convinced that there’s a link between herself and Liz, and that Jinx may be a part of that link.

It’s a case of using one story to unlock the other. But the narrative weight keeps shifting between the two of them. And then at the end all the various strands of the story come together in a way that I hope is satisfying.

RC: I can guarantee it’s very satisfying! The threads all mesh perfectly. And the characters themselves are really well drawn so that the reader feels they know them really well. I wonder if these people have been haunting your imagination for some time? All the major players in the book are female too, I note!

MRC: Yeah, that’s true. And that seems to be part of the equation for the M. R. Carey novels, as opposed to the stuff I write as Mike. It’s not something I go out of my way to do, as a conscious choice, but it keeps happening nonetheless. I suppose I’m writing into a space that’s partly defined by the earlier books. Writing into it, and at the same time writing against it. I don’t ever want to fall into the trap of deliberately working to a formula.

As to where the characters came from, I’m going to throw my hands in the air and confess that they’re all more or less stolen. Whenever you write a fictional character, I think you draw on real people you know. You don’t usually do it in an explicit, focused way. Well, I don’t. But as a character comes together I’ll find myself becoming aware of correspondences and using them when they seem to be fruitful or appropriate. That’s certainly the case for Liz and Fran in this book, and to some extent for Marc – although Marc is much less of a character and we never really get into his inner life. Which is not something I regret…

RC: You heard it here first, character thief! No, obviously, one’s own experience must influence the characters one creates, I’m sure we’ll let you off! I’m guessing Lady Jinx is not based on a real person. She’s a terrific character. I don’t know what we can say about her without giving away the game too much. But if you were in Fran’s position, who would be your imaginary friend?

Rikki Tikki TaviMRC: That’s a tough question! I think it would depend on how old I was when I started doing the imagining. If I were to do what Fran did, and grab a character from an existing story – and if I was doing it at the age of six, when she did it – I’d probably have gone for Rikki-tikki-tavi, the brave little warrior mongoose from the Just So Stories. Later on, after I’d read Watership Down, it would have been Hazel or Fiver.

I did actually have a lot of imaginary friends as a kid. But I shared them, which I know is weird. My brother Dave and I had an entire phalanx of imaginary characters who we used to send on insane adventures. Then when I had my own kids, the same thing happened. I invented imaginary characters to talk to them, and they invented imaginary characters to talk back. Some of those characters still visit occasionally.

RC: I think that explains why Jinx feels so real – your own life has been populated with a bunch of Jinxes! Rikki-tikki-tavi would be a brilliant choice, I reckon he’ll be mine. I was going to ask you, but I think you’ve answered it just now, that of all your other books, I feel this bears a relationship with Fellside, where the central character is also linked to, what you might call, an “other self”, or maybe, even, an imaginary friend, like Jinx. This is clearly an area that you like to explore!

MRC: Yeah, it is. Very much so. When it comes down to it, I think everyone is pretty much broken into separate pieces. There’s a line from a Wallace Stevens poem: “Can one man be one thing, and be it long?” We like to think of our personality as a single thing, unified and consistent, but there’s very little evidence to support that idea. We’re more like pearls – layer after layer built around the original piece of grit that was our childhood self. Our other selves are built in, is what I’m trying to say.

RC: Do you think those ever-increasing layers, that build up around our original grit, could be where Liz has acquired her other self? Sometimes when I read passages from the book where she is trying to work out what’s happening, I got the feeling that she was suffering from mental health issues, rather than some kind of external force working on her. Maybe it’s those layers that can sometimes upset our mental balance?

MRC: Hell, yes. I mean, in the book, not so much. I’m definitely committed to the explanation that Fran finally gives to Zac after it’s all over. But in real life, yeah. And this is where the pearl analogy breaks down, because pearls are solid and shiny and robust. We’re not. For us, there’s flexibility and instability. The layers can chafe against each other, and they can swap places in terms of which ones are allowed to come to the surface.

Plus, identity isn’t something that exclusively belongs to us, although we tend to think it is. It’s socially mediated. We’re constantly seeing ourselves reflected in other people’s eyes, in their definitions of us and their treatment of us. I read an article a while back by a clinical psychiatrist who was essentially saying that madness is an attribute of the family rather than the individual. It’s what happens when the gap between those different definitions of you gets too big to bridge.

RC: Sounds like a basis for a new book, maybe?! One thing that, for me, shone through this book was a sense of true optimism. Even in the darkest days, there’s somehow always a way out of your problems, if only you can find it. Did it feel that way to you? An optimistic view of human and/or animal nature?

Girl With All The GiftsMRC: Yeah, it did. I think all the novels I’ve written since The Girl With All the Gifts kind of do that. Viewed from one perspective, they could easily be tragedies. There’s certainly no shortage of horror and loss. But horror and loss aren’t the point, in themselves. The point is what we do with them. How we fight back.

I go back and forth when it comes to human nature. We’re so awesome, as a species, and so awful. It’s hard to keep the two things in focus at once, but they’re both true.

RC: Awesome and awful – the opposite ends of the same semantic stem I guess! From a different angle, so far (if I remember rightly) all your novels have been firmly located in the UK; the Castor books are very London-centric, and the Melanie books hug the M1 corridor! But Someone Like Me is based in the US. Have you always wanted to write an American novel?

MRC: It wasn’t an itch that needed to be scratched. Most of my comics work has been set in the US. It was more that this story seemed to make better sense in an American setting. Liz’s treatment, in the wake of that first incident, would have been handled very differently here in the UK. And the idea of dissociative identity disorder – the myths and the realities of it – are built into the American consciousness in a way that has no exact parallel here. And I really wanted to sneak in a little Native American folklore, to achieve a particular perspective on the events we’re seeing. So I decided on Pittsburgh right out of the gate, and stuck with it.

It helped that we have good friends there, and have visited the city often. I felt I knew it well enough to do it justice.

RC: Ah yes, the Skadegamutc, which I’d certainly never heard of before. At first I thought it was something you’d invented, but then I Googled it!

MRC: It required a little fudging, to bring it in. The myth belongs to the American North-East, but not so much to Pennsylvania. The Abanaki’s annual range generally wouldn’t have extended further south than Maine and New England. So I was careful not to say it was a local legend. It was just something that Bruno Picota heard about when he was a child, and was mightily impressed by. One of the layers, for him…

RC: Oh those layers…. they get us into all sorts of trouble… one more technical, if you like, question that fascinated me about the book was that the chapters are not numbered, or titled, but illustrated. A little drawing or symbol at the beginning of each new section, reflecting the main character in each part. It reminded me of a pictorial version of William Faulkner’s As I Lay Dying, where we see the name of the person whose viewpoint we’re next going to read about. Was this an homage to Faulkner, or did you have another reason for this?

MRC: I remembered that device in As I lay Dying. It’s also something that Philip Pullman does in The Subtle Knife, to keep his various worlds straight in the reader’s head, and I liked very much how it worked there. As you turned the page, you’d see the little graphic of the alethiometer and you knew you were going to get another Lyra scene. So your anticipation would soar.

I wanted to do something similar here. It’s a book about identity, and the symbols allowed me to play some sneaky tricks with perspective – especially at the point where Jinx becomes a POV character for the first time. That’s meant to come as a surprise, but I enjoyed putting the reveal right up there in the chapter heading. And of course there are the chapters that have multiple symbols because… well, because point of view gets muddied and identity starts to be a slippery concept.

In the first draft, I used portraits of the characters’ faces, but that was maybe a step too far. It was fine for the human characters, but the way you draw Jinx potentially tells you a lot about what Jinx is.

RC: And I think it’s very important for the reader to have their own impression of Jinx, because we all shape our own imaginary friends! So now that Someone Like Me has hit the bookshelves, what else is on your horizon at the moment, Mike? Another novel? More comics? Castor #6?

MRC: Another novel, definitely. I’ve already delivered a draft, and I’m working on revisions. The working title at the moment is Koli Faceless, and it has a male protagonist – so that’s a first for M. R. Carey. In comics, I’ve got the first Barbarella trade and the collected edition of Highest House both coming out this month, and I’m very excited for both of those. And I’m working on a number of TV and movie projects, including a TV adaptation of Someone Like Me, with Hillbilly Films.

RC: With all that activity, do you ever get time to rest?

MRC: Seldom. 🙂 But I’m doing something I love, which is an incredible privilege.

RC: Which means you’re in a good place, so we’d better stop now so that you can do some more creating! Thanks for your time Mike, or M. R., I suppose that should be, and best of luck with this and all your future endeavours!

MRC: Thanks, Chris. RC? Great to talk, as always!

RC: Rikk-tikk-tikki-tikki-tchk!