Review – Sand in the Sandwiches, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 25th May 2017

Sand in the Sandwiches I’ve always been a fan of John Betjeman. My earliest recollections of him are his TV interviews with Michael Parkinson, where he would come across as slightly bumbling, endearing like a favourite uncle, and with a wicked sense of humour. My big connection with him came with his TV film of Metroland. I went to Merchant Taylors’ school, in the heart of that mythical metropolitan county, and remember seeing the film crew at Moor Park station coming to record a sequence of him playing golf and watching the security guard refuse entry to a driver who just wanted to cut through the estate (after all, it was private!) He also filmed in Amersham, where I had many friends, and his Metroland journey ended up north of Aylesbury, where the train ran no more, at the little halt known as Quainton Road Station. That’s now a tourist attraction where Thomas the Tank Engine often comes to entertain, and I don’t know what Betjeman would have made of that.

SITSBetjeman played by Edward Fox? An interesting concept. Like Betjeman, Edward Fox often cuts a larger than life figure on stage, making full use of his extraordinary voice with which he can make magic. His sonorous loquaciousness swirls around his throat like a 20-year-old Tawny coating the sides of an antique cut glass. He can stretch out a sentence, a phrase, even a word, so that it lasts so much longer than it would appear on a page, giving your brain uninterrupted opportunity to appreciate its full significance. I first saw Mr Fox on stage back in 1979 in Michael Elliott’s gripping production of T S Eliot’s The Family Reunion – he was every inch a star then and it has not diminished one iota since.

Edward Fox in SITSBut as Betjeman? Betjeman didn’t sound like Edward Fox. He had quite a thin voice, somewhat tentative and lacking authority; the voice of the quiet, unassuming man that I believe Betjeman truly was. I always thought of Betjeman reading his own work as like listening to someone observing life from the sidelines, rather than participating in it. He would obsess on minor details in the background, and allow the reader/listener to fill in the gaps. But here’s the thing – Sand in the Sandwiches works absolutely! Mr Fox’s Betjeman acquires the patina of age; he is a more rounded personality, not bumbling but resolute. Moreover, Betjeman’s poetry responds beautifully to his interpretation. Miss Joan Hunter Dunn has never been so physically relished as she is in Mr Fox’s eyes; Oscar Wilde has never been so firmly removed from the Cadogan Hotel.

E Fox in SITSHugh Whitemore has taken a number of Betjeman’s works – both popular and less well-known – and woven them seamlessly into a sequential narration of important events in Betjeman’s life, to create this charming and insightful one-man play. There are his well-documented days at Marlborough, and vivid recollections of friends like W H Auden and Tom Driberg; there are also the private experiences like the extraordinary day when his train stopped for ages at the station nearest to his father’s office, and he wondered whether he should visit him. It’s not all whisperingly reverent either. When Mr Fox tells us how it is decided he should address his new father-in-law, or Churchill’s reaction to Driberg’s marriage, or his own reaction to the Manchester Guardian’s opinion of his becoming Poet Laureate, he has us in stitches.

Sir John BetjemanI thought this play could go one of two ways – it would either be serenely terrific, or it would be po-faced and dull. I’m delighted to tell you there’s nothing remotely po-faced nor dull about it. Mr Fox holds your attention from the very start to the very end; his delivery is intricate and exquisite; if he left a long gap of silence, you wouldn’t dare try to fill it. A surprise hit; after its few days in Northampton, the show has a week at the Theatre Royal Haymarket followed by visits to Cambridge, Malvern, Woking, Brighton and Bath. If you’re a fan of Betjeman, you’ll adore the reminiscences and the chance to hear his words again. If you’re a fan of Edward Fox, you’ll wallow in his effortless skill at bringing these words to life. Highly recommended!

The Agatha Christie Challenge – Murder on the Orient Express (1934)

Murder on the Orient ExpressIn which Hercule Poirot travels on the Simplon-Orient Express from Istanbul to Paris but the train is caught in a snowdrift near Vincovci, and when Poirot wakes the next morning, he discovers that one of his fellow passengers has been murdered. With the aid of his friend M. Bouc, a director of the Wagon-lits company, and the Greek Dr Constantine, he sets about questioning the surviving passengers whilst waiting for the Yugoslavian police to arrive. And he works out the whos and hows of the crime before they get there! And if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I promise not to give the game away as to whodunit – although I think the identity of the murderer is very well known in folk mythology!

NinevehThe book is dedicated to “M.E.L.M, Arpachya, 1933”. Max Edgar Lucien Mallowan, Christie’s second husband, the famous archaeologist worked on the dig at Arpachya, four miles from Nineveh in present day Iraq, and Christie accompanied him there for a few weeks, keeping records, and re-assembling and cleaning pottery fragments. She wrote some of the book there, but also, famously, at the Pera Palace Hotel in Istanbul.

Cilician GatesIt’s one of Christie’s best known and best loved novels, and for a very good reason – it’s a wonderful read. The intrigue of the Middle East, the curiosity of Eastern Europe, the glamorous environment on board an exclusive train, an extraordinary crime and a cast of many varied memorable characters from all across the globe, this book has it all. And it’s written from experience; Christie travelled by the Orient Express many times, delayed by adverse weather conditions, meeting grand passengers of many nationalities. The book begins, almost in travelogue mode, at Aleppo station, boarding the Taurus Express, bound for Stamboul, via Konya and the Cilician Gates. It’s the stuff that dreams are made on.

Taurus ExpressThe Taurus Express operated from Istanbul to Baghdad and only ceased operation in 2003 due to the war. Even today it runs part of the journey, from Eskişehir to Adana, with expectation to extend back to Istanbul once track work is complete, and, who knows, to Baghdad again if there is no war. Christie’s autobiography contains passages of her taking in the view of the Cilician Gates, a pass through the Taurus Mountains connecting the low plains of Cilicia to the Anatolian Plateau in southern Turkey. Poirot stays at the Tokatlian Hotel, as did Christie herself, a hotel that even today is still partly in use.

Orient ExpressThe Orient Express, of course, that fine old name in grand railway travel, was very well known, covering a few routes through Europe; the Simplon-Orient Express that features in this book started (or ended, depending on your direction) in Istanbul and journeyed via Sofia, Belgrade, Venice, Milan, Lausanne, and ended up in Paris. Alas this itinerary ceased in 1977, with the journey shortening to Bucharest, and then Vienna, until it finally ceased operating in 2009. Today, other passenger trains may adopt the Orient Express name, but they are not associated with the original company. Seems a pity.

vinkovciThe book is nevertheless scattered with exciting-sounding places that conjure up a forbidden time and place. The last stop before the train crawls to a halt because of snow is at Vincovci, (Vinkovci) now in the easternmost part of modern day Croatia. Colonel Arbuthnot and Miss Debenham first meet during the journey from Kirkuk in northern Iraq to Nissibin in Turkey. Mr Ratchett might have turned his clock back an hour at Tzaribrod (modern day Dimitrovgrad) as it’s on the extreme edge of modern day Serbia near its border with Bulgaria (and would indeed be taken over by Bulgaria for three years during the second world war). All names of excitement, or romance, or danger, that really imbue this book with atmosphere.

Charles LindberghI won’t be giving anything away by stating that at the heart of the book is the Armstrong Kidnapping Case, where three-year-old heiress Daisy Armstrong was kidnapped for a fabulous ransom sum – but nevertheless, once the sum was paid, the child was still murdered. This was based on the true life, 1932, Lindbergh kidnapping case, where the twenty-month-old son of aviator Charles Lindbergh was abducted and later found dead.

planWhat makes this book stand out from all the other Poirots that had gone before is the emphasis on the process of detection. Those little grey cells had never been so exercised. The very factual, totally chronological third-party narration of the story (not by Hastings, who presumably was not around at the time) is designed to present the evidence to the reader at exactly the same time as Poirot receives it, and encourages the reader to work hard to solve the case before the detective does. Christie gives us all the information we require, with the floor plan of the Pullman coach, the sequential conversations in full with all the suspects, and above all, full access to Poirot’s thought processes, with his reactions to M Bouc’s and Dr Constantine’s suggestions and observations. Possibly because of that, you couldn’t call this an action-packed book, like The Secret of Chimneys, for example, where so much activity is poured into the pages that you barely have a chance to think. This is the opposite; there is no activity, everyone is just waiting around for something to happen. It also means that his cast of exciting and glamorous characters each have an opportunity to shine, as each has their own chapter where they give their evidence. It also suggests that an equal weight is given to each response they make, which, at the end of the day, is a good call.

Dress designerAs a result, Poirot’s own characteristics and personality take something of a backseat with this book, as it is the suspects who are primarily under the glare. Of course there are, as always, a few interesting comments concerning Poirot. It’s Miss Debenham who first notices him, at Aleppo: “what an egg-shaped head he had […] A ridiculous-looking little man. The sort of little man one could never take seriously.” Not a great judge of character, then, Miss Debenham. Mr MacQueen is also wrong-footed by his initial appraisal of Poirot: ““I am a detective. My name is Hercule Poirot […] You know the name, perhaps?” “Why, it does seem kind of familiar – only I always thought it was a woman’s dressmaker.” Hercule Poirot looked at him with distaste. “It is incredible!” he said.”

BalzacHowever, in this book I rather like the character of M. Bouc, who to an extent plays the role that Hastings sometimes plays – that of coming up with bright but totally inaccurate ideas off which Poirot can bounce – except that sometimes Hastings just says the right thing. And Bouc says the right thing in this book too, very early on: “It was not till they were eating a delicate cream cheese that M. Bouc allowed his attention to wander to matters other than nourishment. He was at the stage of a meal when one becomes philosophic. “Ah!” he sighed. “If I had but the pen of a Balzac! I would depict this scene. […] All around us are people, of all classes, of all nationalities, of all ages. For three days these people, these strangers to one another, are brought together. They sleep and eat under one roof, they cannot get away from each other. At the end of three days they part, they go their several ways, never, perhaps, to see each other again.” “And yet,” said Poirot, “suppose an accident – […] nevertheless let us just for one moment suppose it. Then, perhaps, all these here are linked together – by death.” “Some more wine,” said M. Bouc, hastily pouring it out. “You are morbid, mon cher. It is, perhaps, the digestion.”

Lady MacbethI also like how M. Bouc has, what can only be described as, a Lady Macbeth moment; when Shakespeare’s Lady Macbeth hears the news that Duncan has been murdered, she exclaims, “what, in our house?” which many commentators have considered to be a psychological slip on her part, accidentally giving away her own guilt. When M. Bouc realises that a murder has been committed on the Orient Express, and that the victim is an evil criminal himself, he exclaims: ““I cannot regret that he is dead – not at all! […] Tout de même, it is not necessary that he should be killed on the Orient Express. There are other places.” Poirot smiled a little. He realised that M. Bouc was biased in the matter.” Does this give away some Bouc guilty secret? You’ll have to read it to find out.

avenue kleberUnlike nearly all the other Christie books, we don’t get to see many of Christie’s usual themes or recurrent issues. This book is so totally plot and evidence driven, there is little time for social commentary. There are however a number of references and moments of “is this true or is Christie making it up” that I’ve been doing some research. Poirot’s luck is in when the gentleman who has reserved the final second-class compartment on the Orient Express appears to be too late to check in: “”An Englishman,” the conductor consulted his list. “A M. Harris.” “A name of good omen,” said Poirot, “I read my Dickens. M. Harris, he will not arrive.” Mrs Harris was a figment of Sarah Gamp’s imagination in Martin Chuzzlewit. Masterman gives his home address as 21, Friar Street, Clerkenwell. Does this address exist? Well, there is a Friar Street near Ludgate Hill, which I suppose at a pinch you could describe as Clerkenwell but it’s a little bit south. Let’s give Christie the benefit of the doubt – she probably wasn’t that au fait with seedier addresses in London. At the other end of the scale, the Princess Dragomiroff says she lives in the avenue Kleber, in Paris. I bet she does.

Glauber’s SaltsMasterman says he spent the evening of the murder reading his current favourite book, Love’s Captive by Mrs Arabella Richardson. Ring any bells with anyone? No, why would it, it’s a Christie invention. It really doesn’t sound like the kind of thing Masterman would enjoy though, does it? In the same conversation: “By the way, are you a pipe smoker?” “No sir, I only smoke cigarettes – gaspers.” We don’t use that word “gaspers” any more. It was a slang term for a high tar cigarette – so given because, when you smoked them, you inevitably had to gasp for breath. You might have guessed that, but what are Glauber’s Salts, such as were found in Mrs Hubbard’s handbag? Here’s a definition straight off the Internet: “A crystalline hydrated form of sodium sulfate, used chiefly as a laxative.” So now you know. And what on earth is a Fallal handkerchief, which is how Mrs Hubbard describes the hanky with the letter H that Poirot is desperate to find an owner for? If you didn’t know – and I certainly didn’t – fallal is a very old-fashioned word (early 18th century) best translated today as bling.

Wagon Lit ConductorAnd finally, whilst M. Bouc is trying to rationalise and imagine which of the train guests might have worn the Wagon Lit uniform – and coming up with no real options – Poirot references “our old friend Euclid”. As you may well know, Euclid was a Greek mathematician, often referred to as the “father of geometry”. Now it may well be that Euclid had a theory that Poirot recollected, but I’m far too much of a maths moron to even try to work out what that might be. I’ll leave it up to your imaginations.

RansomRegular readers will know I like to convert any significant financial sums into what their equivalent would be today – just to get a better feel for the amounts involved. There are only two important sums mentioned in this book – the $20,000 offered by Ratchett to Poirot if he would work for him, and the (gasp) $200,000, which was the ransom demanded for the return of Daisy Armstrong. In today’s figures these would be approximately £18.3m and £183m. I’m more astonished at the former than the latter – if Poirot passed up the opportunity to earn that kind of money merely on principle, then he’s one helluva principled guy.

Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for Murder on the Orient Express:

Publication Details: 1934. Fontana paperback, 8th impression, published in May 1972, priced 25p. The thrillingly evocative cover illustration by Tom Adams of an Eastern European map covered with the multitude of clues that Poirot has to sift through, always made me feel strangely excited as a child.

How many pages until the first death: 29. That’s when the death is reported although it probably happens six pages earlier. Enough time to lay the groundwork, and plenty of time to exercise the little grey cells.

Funny lines out of context: Most unusually, I’ve scoured the book and actually found very little, whereas usually there are plenty of these to enjoy. Sorry to disappoint you this time round.

Memorable characters:
Here’s where it excels. It positively drips with them. You have the grand, slightly scary Princess Dragomiroff; the aggressive-assertive Colonel Arbuthnot; the verbose Mrs Hubbard; the stereotypically loud Italian Foscarelli. I also enjoyed the blundering but well-meaning M. Bouc, and I think it’s a shame that he doesn’t reappear anywhere else in Christie’s works. And of course you have Ratchett, one of the most deserving victims in literature.

Christie the Poison expert:
Not in this book. Death is administered by fatal stabbing.

Class/social issues of the time:

As I suggested earlier, there isn’t much in the way of social issue debate in this book because it would get in the way of the pure facts on which Poirot and his team are purely concentrating. There are some good examples of xenophobia though, many of which feel very contemporary in today’s world of unfortunate distrust between the United Kingdom, the USA and mainland Europe.

The character of Ratchett is blown up to be a really unappealing character and his American-ness, if I can call it that, is very strongly conveyed. When Masterman is asked if he liked his employer, he hesitates to tell the complete truth: “Shall we put it that I don’t care very much for Americans, sir.” Mrs Hubbard too, with her interminably dramatic and self-indulgent speeches also conveys many of the aspects of an American which, dare I suggest, a European might find discourteous: “there isn’t anybody knows a thing on this train. And nobody’s trying to do anything. Just a pack of useless foreigners.” Mr Hardman, too, when asked about the girl in the Armstrong case who threw herself out of the window, remarks: “she was a foreigner of some kind. Maybe she had some wop relations.” Charming. Colonel Arbuthnot is another perpetrator. When interviewing him, “Poirot proceeded: “It is that you come home from India on what is called the leave – what we call en permission?” Colonel Arbuthnot, uninterested in what a pack of foreigners called anything, replied with true British brevity: “Yes.””

But there are a couple of instances when this xenophobia gets turned on its head, with rather enjoyable effects. When Masterman is caught lying, he suddenly gets very protective of his Italian colleague: “I hope, sir, that you’re not suspecting Tonio in any way. Old Tonio, sir, wouldn’t hurt a fly. And I can swear positively that he never left the carriage all last night. So, you see, sir, he couldn’t have done it. Tonio may be a foreigner, sir but he’s a very gentle creature – not like those nasty murdering Italians one reads about.” And, given that this book was published five years before the start of the Second World War, consider this brief conversation between Poirot and Frau Schmidt: “You have heard, perhaps, of who this man who was killed really was – that he was responsible for the death of a little child.” “Yes, I have heard, Monsieur. It was abominable – wicked. The good God should not allow such things. We are not so wicked as that in Germany.”

Classic denouement: Absolutely. All the suspects are there, all the representatives of the law are there, and Poirot propounds two theories. One – the truth. Another – one that fits exactly with the sequence of events and cannot be disproved. He hands both ideas over to M. Bouc and Dr Constantine for their recommendation.

Happy ending? Extremely. There may well be wedding bells between two of the characters, but that is of lesser importance than the suggestion that justice has been done. It’s the justice that really makes this a happy ending.

Did the story ring true? It’s far-fetched, of course, but actually it rings completely true. I’m surprised that crimes like this don’t happen more frequently – maybe they do!

Overall satisfaction rating: 10/10. An absolute gem of a classic!

Listerdale MysteryThanks for reading my blog of Murder on the Orient Express 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, it’s back to the short story format with The Listerdale Mystery; it’s been a long time since I’ve read this and I can’t remember anything about it, so I’m looking forward to getting tucked in to it! As always, 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 Hound of Death (1933)

The Hound of DeathIn which we discover something totally different! Twelve short stories, all apparently unrelated, that aren’t murder mysteries but tales of the supernatural. No Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot here, so it feels like a total departure from anything Christie had written so far. It is notable for the fact that it contains one of Christie’s best known short stories, Witness for the Prosecution, which has since been adapted into just about every media you could imagine.

The collection was not published by Christie’s regular publishers, William Collins & Sons, but by Odhams Press, and was not available to purchase in shops. If that sounds bizarre, it’s because it was part of a promotional deal where you collected coupons from The Passing Show, a weekly magazine published by Odhams, during October 1933. This was just one of six books that you could exchange the coupons for (plus a cost of seven shillings too). That’s why the book was never available in the United States; the short stories within it were published as part of other volumes in the US, variously between 1948 and 1971. Apart from that, some of the stories were published in The Grand Magazine, The Sovereign Magazine and Sunday Chronicle Annual between 1924 and 1927. Others do not appear to have been published before the book itself. One story, The Call of Wings, appears to be one of Christie’s earliest written pieces, probably shortly after the First World War, but it was rejected by all the magazine publishers to which it was sent. Read on, and you’ll realise why!

The Hound of Death

happy_cartoon_dogThe first story, whose name lends itself to the entire volume, concerns a refugee nun who left Belgium following the 1914 invasion by Germany. Her convent was destroyed, not by explosives, but by a lightning bolt that the nun had somehow created through her own faith and belief in other powers. All the soldiers there were killed, and on one of the two surviving walls there was an unexplained mark, in the shape of a giant hound. Now living in Cornwall, she is visited by Anstruther, whose sister had given refuge to the nun, by name Marie Angelique. A young doctor, Dr Rose, wishes to write a monograph on her, fascinated by her continued hallucinations; but it soon becomes clear that Rose’s motivations and involvement with the case are not all as they might seem…

It’s an intriguing and intricate little story, delicately written, that sets a high standard for the rest of the book. For a short story, the characters are engrossing and well-shaped, and the outcome of the story is unexpected. It’s set in the town of Folbridge in Cornwall – there is no such place, of course, but perhaps it is inspired by Falmouth. The only other thing I had to look up was – during the explanation that the convent was destroyed – was the mention of Uhlans; they were one of four cavalry regiments – German, Russian, Polish and Austrian. You live and learn.

The Red Signal

Red signalHaving said these stories are not whodunits, this one almost comes close. It’s a really meaty tale that centres on that feeling we sometimes have when we sense that danger is lurking, even though there’s no real reason to be concerned – that’s the red signal. Dermot West tells a story about how he narrowly avoided being murdered in Mesopotamia and it was only because he recognised the red signal that he survived. What he doesn’t say is that he’s feeling the red signal again at this very moment. There is a séance, at which one unspecified person is told it would not be safe to go home tonight; and what follows is the discovery of a death and a very intriguing revelation of who killed them and how it was done. To give further detail would be to give the game away, and I don’t want to ruin the story for you. Suffice to say, what appears to be supernatural isn’t exactly all it’s thought to be.

Sir Alington West is described as an alienist. If you’re not sure what that is, that was the contemporary term for a psychiatrist. Dr Thompson, in The ABC Murders, which would appear three years later, is also an alienist. By the time of publication, the term was already falling out of popularity.

I’m often struck how unforgiving Christie’s characters and her own language can be when it comes to matters of mental health. In those days, it wasn’t given the recognition it is today – although there’s plenty of scope for more, of course. Sir Alington and another guest, Mrs Eversleigh, approach the topic from different perspectives: “At what particular spot […] shall we erect a post and say “on this side sanity, on the other madness?” It can’t be done, you know. And I will tell you this, if the man suffering from a delusion happened to hold his tongue about it, in all probability we should never be able to distinguish him from a normal individual. The extraordinary sanity of the insane is a most interesting subject.” Sir Alington sipped his wine with appreciation and beamed upon the company. “I’ve always heard they are very cunning, “remarked Mrs, Eversleigh. “Loonies, I mean.”

I did like the observation by Claire Trent that “we go through life like a train rushing through the darkness to an unknown destination” – I’m sure we’ve all had that feeling at some point in our lives. Finally, the Grafton Galleries, which feature in the story, are a real location – an art gallery in Mayfair. Their heyday was in the Edwardian and early Georgian period when they mounted influential exhibitions of impressionist paintings. By the time this book was published, the Galleries were probably closed. 8 Grafton Street, which was the address, now houses a suite of managed offices. How the mighty are fallen.

The Fourth Man

four menFour men occupy a train compartment and three of them – a canon, a lawyer and a physician – begin to discuss delicate issues of mental health, including dual personality disorder and the suggestion that the body can be home to more than one soul. The doctor tells the story of one Felicie Bault, who was alleged to have had no fewer than four personalities, and whose life ended in strangulation, apparently at her own hand. But the fourth man in the compartment stirs at this tale and introduces himself as Raoul, brought up at the same orphanage as Felicie, and also tells them about Annette, another girl there, whose life was also inextricably linked with Felicie.

It’s a bit of a wayward tale, this. It starts very promisingly and with much intrigue but at the end rather falls apart without much of a punchline. Suffice to say, there might be another explanation for Felicie’s personality disorder – and on the other hand, there mightn’t. There aren’t any interesting references to look up – the only thing that stood out for me in the narrative was the intriguing concept of the body being a residence, that may pass through several different hands during the course of a life. Raoul turns that image on its end with his departing comment, which might give you pause for thought. But then again, it might not…

The Gipsy

GipsyDefinitely the best story of the collection so far, this slightly unnerving tale of a man who had an illogical fear of gipsies, but who met and grew quite close to one – Mrs Haworth – who has a firm ability to see both into the future and into the past. She warns the young man against certain actions, but he doesn’t heed her warning and therefore has to face the consequences; his friend also meets her and is entranced by her charisma, and agrees to see her again – although she has a brief vision that the second meeting will not happen…

I really enjoyed this tale, with just the right amount of supernatural undercurrent mixed with one foot firmly placed in reality. Considering we only know her through the confines of a short story, just ten pages long, Mrs Haworth is a memorable character, well fleshed out through Christie’s descriptions and language. I did actually guess the twist at the end of the tale, but that doesn’t really matter – and unlike many of the other stories, it actually has a happy ending. By writing this story, Christie was able to exorcise a condition that she herself had – in her autobiography, she expressed an irrational fear, not about gipsies, but about a gunman who would often appear out of nowhere in her dreams and terrify her.

The first sentence: “Macfarlane had often noticed that his friend, Dickie Carpenter, had a strange aversion to gipsies” doesn’t fill the reader with much hope that Christie will avoid the pitfalls of latent racism – but she does. Even the description of Esther Lawes as “six foot one of Jewish perfection” merely gives you a visual impression of the character and no more. Perhaps the most unusual aspect of the language of this tale is the fact that Mrs Howarth’s first name is Alistair. Today we associate that as being purely a man’s name – and the current Oxford Dictionary of First Names only has it as male. It seems that it can be used for a female too – although extremely rarely!

The Lamp

lampA rather traditional ghost story, full of gloom and doom. A family move into a cheap house whose rent is low because – it was said – it was haunted by the ghost of a child. No nonsense Mrs Lancaster isn’t scared of ghosts so she, her father and her son set up home there, and all was well until the son started reporting that there was another child there, alone and unhappy, with whom he wanted to play. Similarly, her father could hear the crying and footsteps of another child in the house. Would the four of them get on well as a household together?

It’s set in the cathedral town of Weyminster – well your guess is as good as mine as to where that might be. Winchester maybe? And the verse that Mr Winburn quotes in the story is from the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, very popular in the early part of the 20th century.

It is quite an atmospheric and spooky story with an inevitability about the ending which, perhaps, isn’t quite as tragic as you might suspect. It’s very short and not very demanding, but rather gripping in its own way.

Wireless

WirelessAn enjoyable story about an old lady, whose nephew, in order to keep her entertained and diverted in her old age, arranges for the installation of a wireless set, much to the lady’s fear at first, but when she discovers there’s nothing to be scared of about it, she really enjoys it. That is, until one day, the sound from the concert she’s listening to breaks up and she hears the voice of her dead husband, talking to her through the ether, promising her that he will shortly be returning for her. At first she ignores it, sensing it is a warning of some sort, but what could she do about it. But it happens again and again, making her more and more anxious each time…

A deeply moral tale that could have been written to illustrate the old proverb, cheats never prosper; Christie delivers it with a lightness of touch, and although you can second guess the outcome, it’s still a rewarding and satisfying little yarn. It’s another of those stories where it seems like a supernatural event is taking place – whereas in reality, it’s only man’s deviousness at work.

No particular themes at work here; I liked how the old lady is scared of the “waves” of the wireless set, rather in the same way that a number of people were scared of mobile phones when they first came out, that somehow the invisible waves were going to fry our brains, or worse if we kept the phone in our trouser pockets. There’s also the use of the word “josser”, which I’d never heard of before. It meant (indeed, means) chap or fellow, particularly a foolish one.

Elizabeth, the maid, was originally in line for a £50 inheritance. In a fit of generosity, the old lady increases it to £100. In today’s values, that’s the equivalent of doubling £2500 to £5000. In all seriousness, that’s not that generous.

The Witness for the Prosecution

BarristerThis famous story has lost none of its power and ability to shock and surprise, even though it’s now over 90 years old. Leonard Vole stands accused of murdering rich widow Emily French, but he has an alibi – at the time he is alleged to have committed the murder, he is at home with his wife. Can the lawyer Mr Mayherne use his powers of persuasion to convince the jury that his alibi is watertight?

Much of its power comes from the courtroom settings and lawyer/client interview background – no cosy drawing rooms where middle class people sit and reminisce in this story. It also stands out in this collection because there is no pretence to anything supernatural about it – it is pure legal interview, detection and courtroom scene, and any misdemeanour that was committed, was done in cold blood. No wonder this went on to become one of Christie’s most successful individual pieces of writing, spawning plays, films, TV adaptations, and so on. Christie was unhappy at the immorality of the original story and changed its ending for the play, so that the guilty party does pay the ultimate price.

The £200 demanded by Mrs Morgan for vital evidence would be the equivalent of £10,000 today – no wonder Mr Mayherne was reticent to give that much. And her facial scarring was caused by vitriol – or as we know it today, sulphuric acid; the same fate that was to await Tommy (of Tommy and Tuppence fame) in The Adventure of the Sinister Stranger, part of Partners in Crime that had been published four years earlier.

The Mystery of the Blue Jar

Blue JarAn enjoyably written, inventive tale about a young man, living in a hotel, who appears to hear a delusional voice in his head crying out “Murder! Help! Murder!” at the same time every morning whilst playing golf – but when he tries to find out who is calling, he can find no one who either called it, or heard it. An eminent doctor also living at the hotel tries to reassure the young man that there is bound to be a natural – rather than supernatural – explanation for the voice, and the doctor tries to discover the secret behind it….

However, the more you think about this story the less it adds up. Christie doesn’t give you the comfort of a full explanation for how the young man hears the voice, nor why he in particular is singled out. Suffice to say there is subterfuge at play, but the perpetrator of the subterfuge was either incredibly lucky, or it was planned around information that is not shared with the reader. So my reaction to this story goes from an initial buzz of enjoyment to a rather disappointed low caused by a feeling of How Could They Have Known About That.

It is very nicely written though. I did enjoy the opening passage particularly, describing the young man’s dilemma: “it is hard when you are twenty-four years of age, and your one ambition in life is to reduce your handicap at golf, to be forced to give time and attention to the problem of earning your living.” The golf course is said to be located at Stourton Heath – Stourton is a village in Derbyshire but it doesn’t play host to a golf club.

There is a valuation of an antique in this story – £10,000 minimum. At today’s rates that would be a humungous half a million pounds.

The Strange Case of Sir Arthur Carmichael

CatUnhesitatingly I suggest that this is altogether one of the silliest stories I have ever read. I’m not going to say anything much more about it, in case you like it much more than me – and there’s not a lot I can say about it that doesn’t give the game away (although I think it’s pretty obvious as you’re reading it); but I couldn’t believe how fanciful, in a most ridiculous way, it is. Unsurprisingly, this is one of the stories where there are no traces of its having been published before.

A character (I think I can call it that) is killed using Prussic Acid, a sign that Christie the Poisons Expert is at work. Today we know it more as Hydrogen Cyanide.

The Call of Wings

wingsThis early story bears the hallmarks of a writer with a good imagination but still with a very heavy-handed style, as yet properly formed. It’s the story of a rich man who gains an awareness that some form of spirituality is the only way to feel “lifted” – as though on wings – and how he manages to achieve a kind of contentment. It’s actually quite a tedious story to read and if Christie had written it, say fifteen years later, it would have had a much greater lightness of touch. Consider the heaviness of this description: “a battered derelict of the human race rolled drunkenly off the pavement”.

Much is made of some music that reminds the narrator of the overture to Rienzi. This is an early opera by Wagner, rarely performed nowadays. And the main character offers a shilling to a busker. Was this generous? A late 1910s shilling today would be worth about £1.80. So I suppose that’s not an unreasonable sum, even for a millionaire.

The Last Seance

seance2A rather thrilling and totally supernatural tale of Simone, the tired medium having to face one last séance with the demanding Madame Exe, who wants to be reunited with her child Amelie. Raoul, Simone’s intermediary (and lover) insists that Madame Exe must not touch the medium at any time because it could be dangerous for her. Just how dangerous? Well that’s the tale. An unexpected little nugget, with no hidden meaning, clarification or explanation – you just have to take it at face value. At one stage I thought the scene-setting for this story was really preparing the way for an obvious crime to be committed – but the story fools you and goes in a completely different direction.

The character of Raoul Daubreuil shares his surname with characters in The Murder on the Links; there doesn’t appear to be any additional connection between the two stories. There’s also a Raoul in the earlier story in this volume, The Fourth Man. It was obviously a Christie favourite.

SOS

car in rainThe final tale of the book is an atmospheric story of an isolated house, a slightly weird family and the outsider who has to take shelter overnight as his car had two punctures in an eerie storm. Elements of both The Mousetrap and Rocky Horror come to mind. The house is believed to be haunted and that may account for the mysterious message written in the dust on the furniture in the spare bedroom… or it may not…

It’s actually quite a clever story that gives Christie the Poison Expert a chance to shine again; another of these seemingly supernatural tales that are explained by criminal reality. The sum of £60,000, that the outsider overhears the head of the household discussing would be worth approximately £3 million today.

All that remains is for me to give The Hound of Death an overall satisfaction rating of 5/10. Whilst there are a few excellent and memorable stories – for example Witness for the Prosecution and The Gipsy – there are also more than enough that really bring it down – like The Strange Case of Sir Arthur Carmichael and The Call of Wings. The disconnected nature of the stories also means that there is no particular impetus to keep reading. It never goes beyond being wryly entertaining. I doubt whether you’d find this book in anyone’s Top Ten favourites.

Murder on the Orient ExpressWith the next book in the Agatha Christie Challenge, it’s back to the novel format; and it’s back to Hercule Poirot. Next in line is one of the Big Ones, Murder on the Orient Express, and if you’d like to read it too, I’ll blog about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meanwhile, happy sleuthing and keep on Christie-ing!

The Agatha Christie Challenge – Lord Edgware Dies (1933)

Lord Edgware DiesIn which the talented, beautiful but spoilt actress Jane Wilkinson, aka Lady Edgware, challenges Poirot to help her “get rid of my husband”, shortly after which Lord Edgware Dies. Well, the title told you that anyway, so it’s no surprise. Poirot and Hastings investigate this, and other, deaths but it’s only a chance remark that Poirot overhears that alerts his little grey cells to what really happened that fateful night and brings the guilty party to book. Because of this, Poirot counts this case as one of his failures; but Hastings’ narrative shows us that Poirot is being unnecessarily and uncharacteristically modest! And if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I promise not to give the game away as to whodunit!

skeletonThe book is dedicated to Dr. and Mrs. Campbell Thompson. Reginald Thompson, eminent British archaeologist, led an expedition to Nineveh in 1930 on which Max Mallowan worked and Agatha Christie was allowed to accompany him. It was during this dig that she wrote “Lord Edgware Dies”, and in fact, when they discovered a skeleton in a shallow grave they named him Lord Edgware in honour of the late, but fictitious, George Alfred St Vincent Marsh, fourth Baron Edgware.

Red HerringMy initial reaction to this book is that it is a brilliant read, full of great characters, an intriguing plot, a misleading denouement and it all hangs together beautifully. Red herrings abound, and, if you’re tempted to play along with Poirot and make your own guess as to whodunit, you won’t see the wood for the trees until the final few pages. Sadly, there are a few racist comments in the text that today hit you as being wholly inappropriate, but those were the times they lived in.

thirteenThe title to the American edition is Thirteen at Dinner – which was also used as the name of the 1985 film starring Peter Ustinov and Faye Dunaway. Its relevance to the story comes from Donald Ross’ observation that there were thirteen guests at the dinner party, and there are all sorts of superstitions that arise from having thirteen at dinner – arising from the account of the Last Supper in the Bible. It does concentrate on one relatively small part of the story though, and I personally don’t rate it as a title!

moustache2Poirot is on top form with all his vanity and egocentric nature on constant display. It reveals itself from the very start with Lady Edgware’s attention – and of course, Hastings cannot help himself from encouraging his friend to look even more foolish: “”You have made a hit, Poirot. The fair Lady Edgware can hardly take her eyes off you.” “Doubtless she has been informed of my identity,“ said Poirot, trying to look modest and failing. “I think it is the famous moustaches,” I said. “She is carried away by their beauty.” Poirot caressed them surreptitiously. “It is true that they are unique,” he admitted.” On another occasion, all detective work comes to a sudden halt when Poirot discovers a tiny grease spot on his clothing and rushes to procure the cleaning materials to repair his appearance. That manicured look is so important to him, and there are occasions when he picks Hastings up on his dress sense and personal grooming, like a bickering old couple.

waving-handsHowever, Poirot’s self-obsession does not mean he is not self-critical. Far from it; in this book he is devastated that it takes an overheard conversation to direct his thoughts on the right path. He precedes his denouement speech with a self-chastising preamble: “I am going to be humble […] I am going to show you every step of the way – I am going to reveal how I was hoodwinked, how I displayed the gross imbecility, how it needed the conversation of my friend Hastings and a chance remark by a total stranger to put me on the right track.” His anxiety at not being able to see through the crime clearly makes him behave rather peculiarly at times, which gives rise to Inspector Japp (back in Christie-land since we last saw him in Peril at End House) again suggesting that Poirot is losing it: “”When we got back here I started to question him. He waved his arms, seized his hat and rushed out again.” We looked at it each other. Japp tapped his forehead significantly. “Must be”, he said.”

butlerHastings is his usual self, loyal to his friend although not beyond teasing him either; talking about the attractiveness of the women at the party like a couple of (admittedly well-behaved) schoolboys, stunned by the beauty of Lady Edgware. There’s no auburn hair on offer for him to admire, just the effeminacy of Lord Edgware’s butler for him to despise in a lightly homophobic way, which comes across as rather tasteless. Together they continue to be a great team, with Poirot on one hand criticising Hastings for any number of failings (as he sees them) yet also being unusually kind to him: “as we sipped our coffee, Poirot smiled affectionately across the table at me. “My good friend,” he said. “I depend upon you more than you know.” I was confused and delighted by these unexpected words. He had never said anything of the kind to me before.” Working together, there are a number of excellently written passages where they both consider the evidence to hand, asking questions and formulating theories – or ideas, as Poirot would have it; these are the real nuts and bolts of the book that make it so satisfying.

bookstallAs narrator, Hastings offers us a facsimile, as he has done in previous novels – this time of the torn letter that appears to incriminate one particular suspect; and Hastings’ style (as passed on to us by Christie) of having a number of relatively short chapters keeps the pace of the story going at a furious rate, making it a very exciting read. There are, however, a couple of words and phrases that Christie/Hastings overuse, so that they stand out detrimentally. On several occasions, Poirot is described as looking or speaking “dreamily”. The word doesn’t have much of a meaning or much of an impact, but it’s very noticeable through its repetition. Even more annoying, there are at least eight occasions where they phrase “at anyrate” appears. It’s particularly irritating due to the contemporary spelling of “anyrate” as one word – it doesn’t appear in my copy of the OED. However, Christie redeems herself with a nice little joke when the new Lord Edgware is giving his account to Poirot of how he approached his father to ask for money. “”And I went away without getting any. And that same evening – that very same evening – Lord Edgware dies. Good title that, by the way. Lord Edgware Dies. Look well on a bookstall.” He paused. Still Poirot said nothing.” As an aside, I was uncertain in the last book, Peril at End House, whether Captain and Mrs Hastings were back in England for good or if she was still a brave lonely outpost in The Argentine. With the knowledge that a couple of days after Poirot revealed the murderer, Hastings was recalled to The Argentine and therefore missed the trial, we know that he is still only here “on business”.

MadnessA couple of interesting philosophical questions are raised during the course of the book. The opening scene shows new stage star Carlotta Adams performing her act which includes an impersonation of Lady Edgware – because to most people she is the American actress Jane Wilkinson. Hastings muses on this point: “Watching Carlotta Adams’ clever but perhaps slightly malicious imitation, it occurred to me to wonder how such imitations were regarded by the subject selected. Where they pleased at the notoriety – at the advertisement it afforded? Or were they annoyed at what was, after all, a deliberate exposing of the tricks of their trade?” We get to discover Jane Wilkinson’s true reaction to the impersonation later in the book. But that’s certainly a question – in a world of celebrities – that is simply never going to go away. There’s also the question of a murderer’s mental state at the time they commit the crime. Can they possibly be fully sane to commit such an act? “”All murderers are mentally deficient – of that I am assured,” said Mrs Carroll. “Internal gland secretion.”” It’s a subject Christie’s raised in the past and no doubt will do again in the future.

leadpipingThere are a few references to Poirot’s earlier cases. When the redoubtable Duchess of Merton pays a call on Poirot, she informs him that it was Lady Yardly who had told her about him. If that name rings a bell, she featured in the short story The Adventure of “The Western Star” which appears in the book Poirot Investigates. Elsewhere Poirot reminisces on a case: ““I found a clue once,” said Poirot dreamily. “But since it was four feet long instead of four centimetres no one would believe in it.”” That is largely taken to refer to a piece of lead-piping that Poirot found in The Murder on the Links. Whilst Poirot is waiting for evidence to turn up, he helps out in a few other cases, including “the strange disappearance of an Ambassador’s boots”. This sounds very much like The Ambassador’s Boots from Partners in Crime, but it is Tommy and Tuppence who solve that little mystery. Some identity confusion, perhaps?

SavoyUnusually this story takes place entirely within the confines of London. Only Inspector Japp takes a trip outside, to Paris, which he believes was a wasted journey. Apart from that, the locations of the story are at London theatres and restaurants, Poirot’s flat, Lord Edgware’s house in Regent Gate, Jenny Driver’s hat shop in Moffat Street and Jane Wilkinson’s suite at the Savoy. That magnificent building of course exists; there isn’t a Regent Gate in London as such but Prince Regent’s Gate would be about right for the Edgwares’ stately pile; again there is no Moffat Street near Bond Street; I’m not sure Ms Driver’s hats would sell that well in Moffat Road, Tooting.

duckA few references took my interest: the first, brash, appearance of young Ronald Marsh, later to become the fifth Baron Edgware, causes Mrs Widburn to declaim: “You mustn’t take any notice of him. Most brilliant as a boy in the O.U.D.S. You’d hardly think so now, would you?” I recognised that acronym instantly as I, dear reader, was also once a member of the Oxford University Drama Society. And Japp uses a delightful image which was prevalent in the 19th century but has really gone out of fashion: “Sorry M. Poirot […] But you did look for all the world like a dying duck in a thunderstorm.”

elizabeth-canningWhen the detectives are trying to work out how it could be that Jane Wilkinson was seen in more than one place at the same time, Japp recalls: “Reminds me of the Elizabeth Canning Case […] You remember? How at least a score of witnesses on either side swore they had seen the gipsy, Mary Squires, in two different parts of England. Good reputable witnesses, too. And she with such a hideous face there couldn’t be two like it. That mystery was never cleared up.” The Elizabeth Canning case was indeed real, and concerned a famous kidnapping case back in 1753 that you can read about here.

post-boxJenny Driver recollects how Carlotta Adams would send a letter every week to her sister in Washington. But on this occasion she missed the post. “”Then it is here still?” “No sir, I posted it. She remembered last night just as she was getting into bed. And I said I’d run out with it. By putting an extra stamp on it and putting it in the late fee box it would be all right.” Extra stamp? Late fee box? Indeed, this was a common practice so that you could post a letter after the normal final collection time for an extra fee. The boxes were frequently placed in railway stations. I’m not sure when this practice died out – but it must have been jolly useful.

rose-descartesAlso in the world of the hat shop Chez Genevieve, “Mrs. Lester’s coming in about that Rose Descartes model we’re making for her.” Rose Descartes? (Actually my copy reads “Rose Descrates” but I think that’s a misprint). There was an old style of rose called the Rene Descartes – a stunning orangey red. If it’s the same hue, I’m sure the hat will look fab. Anyone of my generation or older will just about remember the wonderful chain of London eateries that was the Lyons Corner House – Carlotta Adams was seen at the Strand branch at 11pm on the night Lord Edgware died. I fondly remember my dad ordering the Super Bingo meal at the branch on Coventry Street, which he enjoyed so much that he had another one for dessert! Apparently they ceased trading in 1977 – I didn’t realise it was that recent. And the evening newspaper that covers the story is called the Evening Shriek. That’s a jazzy title. The London evening papers at the time would have been the Star, News and Standard (as the paper vendors used to shout out). Maybe it’s that shouting that Christie is trying to recreate with this newspaper name.

PoundRegular readers will know I like to convert any significant financial sums into what their equivalent would be today – just to get a better feel for the amounts involved. The £100 cheque that Lord Edgware cashed the day before he died would today be worth about £5000. Moreover, the $10,000 that Carlotta refers to in her letter to her sister comes in at a whopping £146,000 at today’s rates.

Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for Lord Edgware Dies:

Publication Details:
1933. Fontana paperback, 13th impression, published in July 1976, priced 60p. The rather creepy cover illustration by Tom Adams shows an ornate dagger with a claw finial plunged high into the neck of a grey haired male victim – presumably Lord Edgware.

How many pages until the first death: 31. A perfect length really; enough to lay some useful groundwork before getting into the meat, as it were. Of course, Lord Edgware’s death is referred to in the first paragraph, and, indeed, in the title. No one will ever be under the misapprehension that Lord Edgware survives unscathed in this book.

Funny lines out of context: as usual, words and ideas that seemed perfectly reasonably in the 1930s have acquired a different sense today:

“You don’t know my husband, M.Poirot […] He’s a queer man – he’s not like other people.”

“He seems to have taken a fancy to me[…] A man like that behind you means a lot.”

“Unfortunately, he has got a queer sort of prejudice against divorce. I tried to overcome it but it was no good, and I had to be careful, because he was a very kinky sort of person.”

“Finally, after various ejaculations, Poirot spoke.”

Memorable characters:

Jane Wilkinson/Lady Edgware is a very well drawn, very lively and very believable over-the-top character who brings the page to life whenever she appears. In his first description of her, Hastings points out her histrionic character; unusually, she even beats Poirot in the self-obsessed stakes. Mrs Widburn describes her as an egoist; Bryan Martin says she’s amoral. I see her as a real life and slightly more unhinged version of the Muppets’ Miss Piggy. Everything has to be about her or because of her. Hers is the only opinion that is to be counted, hers the only needs to be met.

Young Ronald March, the fifth Baron Edgware, is also a live wire; coming across as a leftover from a 1920s Christie novel of Bright Young Things – maybe his natural home would have been in The Secret of Chimneys. It’s a shame that a lot of what he says when you first meet him is considered so distasteful now. I think Christie intended for us to think of him as a rather charming Jack-the-Lad; however, times change (see below.)

The character of Carlotta Adams is based on the real life American dramatist Ruth Draper, who specialized in character-driven monologues and whom Christie saw give a performance that made her think “how clever she was and how good her impersonations were; the wonderful way she could transform herself from a nagging wife to a peasant girl kneeling in a cathedral” (from Christie’s Autobiography.)

Christie the Poison expert:
There is a noticeable similarity to the murder methods in The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Ackroyd is killed by an antique silver dagger – Edgware by an ornate pin. In the first book, Mrs Ferrars dies through an overdose of veronal – and that is also the method used for a second murder in this book.

Class/social issues of the time:

Perhaps there are not quite so many references to the social issues in this book as in others, although there is unfortunately quite a lot of casual racism.

Lord Edgware’s housekeeper, Miss Carroll, has firm ideas about the kind of person who would and would not commit a murder. “”Had Lord Edgware any enemies?” asked Poirot suddenly. “Nonsense,” said Miss Carroll. “How do you mean – nonsense, Mademoiselle?” “Enemies! People in these days don’t have enemies. Not English people!” “Yet Lord Edgware was murdered.” “That was his wife,” said Miss Carroll. “A wife is not an enemy – no?” “I’m sure it was a most extraordinary thing to happen. I’ve never heard of such a thing happening – I mean to anyone in our class of life.” It was clearly Miss Carroll’s idea that murderers were only committed by drunken members of the lower classes.”

Interestingly, Poirot, who normally understands the British class system so well, gets it severely wrong with his interrogation of the Duke of Merton: “”I should like to ask you outright, your Grace. Are you shortly going to marry Miss Jane Wilkinson?” “When I am engaged to marry anyone the fact will be announced in the newspapers. I consider your question an impertinence.” He stood up. “Good-morning.” Poirot stood up also. He looked awkward. He hung his head. He stammered. “I did not mean…I…Je vous demande pardone..” “Good-morning,” repeated the Duke, a little louder.”

But it’s Hastings who shows the true British class spirit when he discovers Poirot was reading the Duke’s letter upside down at the same time as stammering. “”Poirot!” I cried, scandalised, stopping him […] I felt very upset, He was so naively pleased with his performance. “Poirot,” I cried. “You can’t do at thing like that. Overlook a private letter […] It’s not – not playing the game.”

Let’s turn to a few more unpleasant aspects of the book. There’s a lot of casual antisemitism running through it, from descriptions of Rachel Dortheimer’s “long Jewish nose”, through Sir Montagu’s “distinctly Jewish cast of countenance.” It is Poirot who points out to Hastings, about Carlotta, that: “”You observed without doubt that she is a Jewess?” I had not, But now that he mentioned it, I saw the faint traces of Semitic ancestry.” But Poirot instantly relates the fact that Carlotta is Jewish to her undoubtedly having ““love of money. Love of money might lead such a one from the prudent and cautious path.” “It might do that to all of us,” I said. “That is true, but at anyrate you or I would see the danger involved. We could weigh the pros and cons, If you care for money too much, it is only the money you see, everything else is in shadow.”” Christie takes that theme a step further with Carlotta’s excitement at the $10,000 offer.

In addition to the antisemitism, our first encounter with a rather drunk Captain March includes him referring to “Chinks” and a very unfortunate few lines: “He shook his head sadly, then cheered up suddenly and drank off some more champagne. “Anyway,” he said. “I’m not a damned n*****.” This reflection seemed to cause him such elation that he presently made several remarks of a hopeful character.” Because that language is simply no longer acceptable, it prevents today’s reader from having the sympathetic view of the character of March that I am sure Christie intended us to have.

Classic denouement: Very nearly – the only thing it lacks is the moment of accusation to the guilty party, who isn’t present. But it does lead you down a delightful garden path when you think at least two other people are going to be proved the murderer before Poirot lays his Straight Flush.

Happy ending? Happy enough I think. In what has become a typical Christie finish, two of the characters end up engaged, and there’s nothing particularly bad that happens to any of the other innocent participants.

Did the story ring true? Again, true enough. It relies on one character impersonating another over a prolonged period which is rather far-fetched. Apart from that, very believable characterisation of the main people in the story help to make it feel credible.

Overall satisfaction rating: 9/10. A strong exciting story, with fascinating characters, very nicely written and with a solution that ticks all the boxes. It would have been 10/10 if it hadn’t been for the racist comments!

The Hound of DeathThanks for reading my blog of Lord Edgware Dies 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, it’s back to the short story format with The Hound of Death; but they’re not so much detective stories as tales of the supernatural – so that should be interesting! As always, 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 Thirteen Problems (1932)

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

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

The Tuesday Night Club

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

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

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

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

The Idol House of Astarte

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

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

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

Ingots of Gold

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

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

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

The Bloodstained Pavement

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

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

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

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

Motive v Opportunity

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

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

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

The Thumb Mark of St Peter

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

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

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

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

The Blue Geranium

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

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

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

The Companion

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

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

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

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

The Four Suspects

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

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

A Christmas Tragedy

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

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

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

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

The Herb of Death

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

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

The Affair at the Bungalow

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

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

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

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

Death by Drowning

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

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

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

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

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

The Agatha Christie Challenge – Peril at End House (1932)

Peril at End HouseIn which Poirot and Hastings are reunited on holiday at the Cornish coast and meet Miss Nick Buckley, who has survived several accidents, any or all of which could have been fatal. Whilst Poirot is in conversation with her a bullet whizzes past and makes a hole in her hat! The great detective needs no further invitation to investigate who has got it in for Nick and vows to discover the identity of the would-be murderer before they are successful! Eventually he discovers the truth, but not before there is a fatality… And if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I promise not to give the game away as to whodunit!

garden-of-edenThe book is dedicated to Eden Philpotts, “to whom I shall always be grateful for his friendship and the encouragement he gave me many years ago.” A successful writer in his own right and a family friend, he took an interest in young Agatha’s work and gave her contacts and encouragement. There’s no indication (that I could find) that he continued to play a great part in her life, although this dedication came more than twenty years since he first helped her.

excited-about-readingLet me start by saying what a terrific read this is. I think if I had been around in 1932, and had read all Christie’s books year by year as they had appeared in print, I would have said this was my favourite so far. The characterisation is excellent; the plot is as twisty-turny as you can get; the writing is fluid and un-put-downable; the denouement is genuinely exciting and offers up much more than you were ever expecting; and the final revelations are a huge surprise and very rewarding to the reader. I couldn’t remember who had “dunnit” whilst I was re-reading it, and spent the last forty or so pages holding my breath and trying hard not to race ahead to the conclusion, just so that I could savour the developing story and investigation.

centre-partingPoirot is as self-obsessed as ever. His overweeningly high opinion of himself is already well known: “They say of me: “That is Hercule Poirot! – The great – the unique! – There was never any one like him, there never will be!” Eh bien – I am satisfied. I ask no more. I am modest.” He also has plenty of opportunities to direct vitriolic fury at himself when he perceives he has made a mistake. Poirot wouldn’t be the same without his Hastings, but remains begrudging about his friend’s abilities: “you are that wholly admirable type of man, honest, credulous, honourable, who is invariably taken in by any scoundrel. You are the type of man who invests in doubtful oil fields, and non-existent gold mines. From hundreds like you, the swindler makes his daily bread.” On another occasion, Poirot refers to Hastings’ “romantic but slightly mediocre mind”. At times Poirot comes across as a nagging wife: “If only, Hastings, you would part your hair in the middle instead of at the side! What a difference it would make to the symmetry of your appearance. And your moustache. If you must have a moustache, let it be a real moustache – a thing of beauty such as mine.”

argentine-ranchAs usual, Hastings is quick to note, in his role as narrator, the relative attractiveness of the young women he encounters, even though his beloved Bella is still waiting for him patiently in The Argentine (as it was called then.) At least, that’s what I presume. Christie never actually tells us why Hastings is back in England – maybe they’re both back, having sold the ranch. Perhaps it will become clear in later books. None of the young ladies has auburn hair – if they had it would have triggered Hastings’ libido into making a fool of himself.

alphabetPoirot and Hastings work together extremely well in this case. They hold several deep conversations where they explore the possibilities and consider the suspects, motives and alibis. They make for genuinely entertaining reading and your own understanding of the case grows stronger as you read their own reflections. Poirot sets out a table of suspects from A to J which helps him analyse the characters, and to which he returns late in the case to ensure he solves the crime correctly. Yet despite all this analysis and the workings of the little grey cells, it is, as often is the case, just a chance remark from Hastings that sets Poirot off on the final trek towards the correct answer.

philosophyThis book also allows Poirot the space to consider the whole subject of murder in a slightly more philosophical way. He spends virtually all the book trying to make sure that no one has the opportunity to murder Nick, but this is an unusual challenge for him. “Consider for one little moment, Hastings. How we are handicapped! How are our hands tied! To hunt down a murderer after a crime has been committed – c’est tout simple! Or at least it is simple to one of my ability. The murderer has, so to speak, signed his name by committing the crime. But here there is no crime – and what is more we do not want a crime. To detect a crime before it has been committed – that is indeed of a rare difficulty.” And what of the nature of a murderer? “It is an interesting subject of after-dinner conversation – are all criminals really madmen? There may be a malformation in their little grey cells – yes, it is very likely. That, it is the affair of the doctor. For me – I have different work to perform. I have the innocent to think of, not the guilty – the victim, not the criminal.” It’s clear that Poirot sees his responsibility as the best detective in the world to be not unlike that of a Coroner.

chocolate-boxEven though Christie was to have another forty-four years of Poirot’s escapades to write about, the book already makes a few respectful nods to Poirot’s appearances to date. Remember, Poirot began life as an old man, and presumably he gets older every year! The book begins with Poirot reflecting on his success at solving the murder on the Blue Train heading down to the south of France, and how he missed Hastings not being there to help him; interestingly, I agree, the book suffers from the lack of his trusted companion. The neighbour Mrs Croft also remembers Poirot solving that case in a moment of what we might call fangirling. On another occasion Hastings tells Nick about the time Poirot solved a crime because of his habit of straightening ornaments on a mantelpiece – this is a reference to Christie’s first book, The Mysterious Affair at Styles. When wallowing in self-pity, Poirot recollects the case of the box of chocolates back in 1893, when he failed to bring the criminal to book. This, apparently, is a reference to the short story The Chocolate Box, which didn’t appear in the UK until it features in Poirot’s Early Cases, published in 1974, so it’ll take a good while before I get to re-reading that one. As well as that, the séance that Poirot calls as part of the denouement reminded me strongly of The Sittaford Mystery, and the dragon-decorated kimono that Nick wears when Maggie Buckley arrives is surely a forerunner of a similarly atmospheric garment in Murder on the Orient Express.

looeOnce again Christie has given us an evocative combination of fictional and factual geographic locations to consider. As in The Sittaford Mystery, we are firmly placed in the south west of England, although it’s Cornwall rather than Devon. The story is set in the fictional resort of St. Loo; although it doesn’t exist, with a name like that it really should. It conjures up a mixture of St Austell and Looe, although there certainly isn’t a Majestic Hotel in those parts; commentators associate the Majestic with the Imperial in Torquay – but that’s Devon. Other places mentioned include the real locations of Plymouth and Tavistock, but also the little village of Shellacombe, described as 7 miles from St Loo. There is no such place, of course. Try as I might, I can’t find anywhere in that neck of the woods with a similar name.

amy-johnsonNow it’s time for a quick look at some of those more obscure references and terms that cropped up in this book and gave me the research bug. There aren’t that many this time, to be honest. Perhaps the most obvious is the aviator referred to by Lazarus when they’re considering the fate of the pilot Seton. It is of course Amy Johnson, who flew to Australia in 1930, becoming the first woman to fly the route solo – she enjoyed great fame and celebrity as a consequence.

rubber-tyred-hearsePoirot is trying to make Nick realise the danger she is in from all these attempts on her life. “”Four failures – yes – but the fifth time there may be a success.” “Bring out your rubber-tyred hearses,” murmured Nick.” What was that? It’s a reference to that old American song Frankie and Johnnie: “They brought out the rubber-tyred hearses, they brought out the rubber-tyred hack, thirteen men went to the graveyard, but only twelve came back; he was her man, but he done her wrong.”

nutriaFunny how some words just don’t get mentioned in the English language anymore. Consider this exchange between Nick and the unnamed police inspector: “We came in to fetch her coat – it was rather cold watching the fireworks. I flung off the shawl on the sofa here. Then I went upstairs and put on the coat that I’m wearing now – a light nutria one.” Nutria? What’s that? One must remember that in the time of this book it was very fashionable to wear real fur coats. Nutria is the proper name for the Coypu or River Rat. This would have been a very trendy fur in 1932 but demand for its pelt declined in the 1940s. Poor little coypus.

Mrs GampAs the denouement gets going and Poirot “produces his play”, Hastings arrives at the dining room to discover that all the people on Poirot’s list of suspects were seated together: “every person on Poirot’s list from A to I (J was necessarily excluded, being in the Mrs Harris-like position of “there ain’t no sich person”). Who is Mrs Harris and what has she got to do with it? She’s a character in Dickens’ Martin Chuzzlewit – Mrs Gamp’s imaginary confidante.

artist-with-paintingOnly one financial element to consider in this book – the picture that is worth £20 and for which Lazarus the art dealer offers £50. The equivalent today would be offering about £2500 for an item worth about £1000. But there’s more to that story than meets the eye… Enough said!

Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for Peril at End House:

Publication Details: 1932. Fontana paperback, 7th impression, published in December 1979, priced 85p. The cover illustration by Tom Adams depicts an aviator (presumably Seton) together with an unidentified lady with the backdrop of an early plane and rather hippy skies, but with a lethal looking pistol looming in the clouds. Rather surreal and very effective.

How many pages until the first death: 63. A bit of a wait. Not as late as The Secret Adversary though.

Funny lines out of context: the usual suspects:

“My friend was silent and distrait during our meal. He crumbled his bread, made strange little ejaculations to himself, and straightened everything on the table.”

“She’s had a rotten life. Married to a beast – a man who drank and drugged and was altogether a queer of the worst description.”

“I am hot. My moustaches are limp.”

Memorable characters:

Nick is a good creation. She’s kind of glamorous, kind of at risk, self-effacing, needing protection, but she’s got a few tricks up her sleeve as well. She rather outshines all the other characters, although I rather liked the slightly creepy Australian couple Mr and Mrs Croft; his calling her “mother” feels awkwardly inappropriate!

Christie the Poison expert:

Christie the poison expert has been rather missing of late. Again, this book contains no poisoning – the murder is committed by shooting with a pistol.

Class/social issues of the time:

The book throws up the usual array of class and social issues, plus a couple of other more unusual ones. For example, as indicated earlier, there is an element of excitement in some of the passages regarding the early days of aircraft travel. Amy Johnson is considered a heroine – plucky Nick would love to do what she achieved. And of course, there is the suggestion of a love attachment with a pilot – I’ll say no more.

There are also a couple of interesting fashion observations. Poirot is firmly of the opinion that a hat should sit on top of a fine, high, rigid coiffure, with the hat attached to the head by a battalion of hat pins. But of course, that is an old-fashioned view; and Nick proves it to Poirot by simply taking her hat off “so prettily, so easily.” Another item of clothing that is on the way out are those splendid things, galoshes. Poirot has been walking in the grass. “Poirot lifted first one, then the other foot from the ground with a cat-like motion. “It is the dampness of the feet I fear. Would it, think you, be possible to lay hands on a pair of galoshes?” I repressed a smile. “Not a hope,” I said. “You understand, Poirot, that it is no longer done.”

Apart from that, it’s the usual sexism, racism and xenophobia. When Poirot first comes to End House and tries to speak to Nick, Ellen, the housekeeper is obstructive. “Miss Buckley, she said, had not yet returned. Poirot explained that we had an appointment. He had some little difficulty in gaining his point, she was the type that is apt to be suspicious of foreigners. Indeed, I flatter myself that it was my appearance which turned the scale.” Later, when Maggie first appears on the scene, she’s particularly untrusting of Poirot. “”Nick has been telling me the most amazing things,” she said. “Surely she must be exaggerating? Who ever would want to harm Nick? She can’t have an enemy in the world.” Incredulity showed strongly in the voice. She was looking at Poirot in a somewhat unflattering fashion. I realised that to a girl like Maggie Buckley, foreigners were always suspicious. “Nevertheless, Miss Buckley, I assure you that it is the truth,” said Poirot quietly. She made no reply but her face remained unbelieving.”

There’s an unfortunate description of Jim Lazarus, the art dealer: “rolling in money, of course. Did you see that car of his? He’s a Jew, of course, but a frightfully decent one.” That’s from one of his friends – we’ll not speculate what his enemies might have said. And, as usual, Christie can’t conceal her deep-seated mistrust of women’s abilities. A woman could make a lousy murderer under certain circumstances, thinks Poirot: “The fact that the boulder was dislodged at the wrong minute, and consequently missed Mademoiselle, is more suggestive of feminine agency.” In other words, a woman would be more likely to mess it up.

In the same conversation, Poirot and Hastings compare what course of action Vyse would take, if he were the murderer, in comparison with a woman. “Until last night there was no certitude that Seton was dead. To act rashly, without due assurance, seems very uncharacteristic of the legal mind.” “Yes,” I said. “A woman would jump to conclusions.” “Exactly. Ce que femme veut, Dieu veut. That is the attitude.” Later, the Chief Constable, Colonel Weston, starts considering the crime and discussing it with Poirot. “If Vyse is the chap, well, we’ll have our work cut out. He’s a cautious man and a sound lawyer. He’ll not give himself away. The woman – well, there would be more hope there. Ten to one she’ll try again. Women have no patience.”

Classic denouement: It’s a very strong denouement indeed, and sends you away once you’ve finished the book with a huge sense of satisfaction. It’s full of mini-cliffhangers and revelations, including a séance, and discoveries about other people not directly involved with the murder which obfuscate the plot beautifully. You get the feeling that at least two other people are going to be exposed as the murderer before the guilty party is finally identified. Very enjoyable and a true page-turner.

Happy ending? Moderately so. There are wedding bells for one couple, but to be honest they’re not the most interesting people in the book.

Did the story ring true? Overall, I’d say yes, but there is an enormously far-fetched scene where Poirot witnesses a bullet being shot through Nick’s hat but it misses her; that’s both stupendously hard to believe, and hard to believe that anyone would believe it.

Overall satisfaction rating: 9/10. It’s a brilliant read – very exciting, and very hard to guess whodunit. I’d have given it a 10/10 if there had been more memorable characters.

The Thirteen ProblemsThanks for reading my blog of Peril at End House 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, it’s back to the short story format with Miss Marple holding court in The Thirteen Problems (that’s The Tuesday Club Murders if you’re American!) As always, 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 Sittaford Mystery (1931)

The Sittaford MysteryIn which we meet young Emily Trefusis, determined to prove the innocence of her fiancé Jim for the murder of Captain Trevelyan. With the help of the busybodying news reporter Charles Enderby and the thoroughly decent Inspector Narracott, she does a fine job! And if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I promise not to give the game away as to whodunit!

DartmoorApparently, the book is dedicated “to M.E.M. with whom I discussed the plot of this book to the alarm of those around us.” However, my copy of the text omits this dedication. Perhaps that’s not surprising; my copy has a few misalignments and misspellings, and one sentence is even completely omitted. Poor work from Fontana! M.E.M., by the way, was Max Mallowan, the famous archaeologist whom Christie had married the previous year. It’s set in Dartmoor, which was an area of the country Christie knew well, and that confident local knowledge comes out in the writing – more of which shortly.

detectiveThis is the only book of Christie’s to feature Inspector Narracott, and I think that’s quite a shame. Here’s how she introduces him: “Inspector Narracott was a very efficient officer. He had a quiet persistence, a logical mind and a keen attention to detail which brought him success where many another man might have failed. He was a tall man with a quiet manner, rather far-away grey eyes, and a slow soft Devonshire voice.” A much more pleasant chap to deal with than that dreadful Inspector Slack in The Murder at the Vicarage. Christie allows us to appreciate his observations and thought processes which helps to keep the narrative moving at a good pace.

charlestonIn fact, I think I slightly preferred the chapters where we see Narracott investigating more than those where the amateurs Emily and Charles are let loose on the world – although I’m not sure that was Christie’s intent. Emily and Charles sleuthing together reminded me forcefully of Tommy and Tuppence, full of wisecracking chat which is how you imagine a Charleston would be if it were a conversation and not a dance. The comparison with T&T was sometimes odious. I especially found Charles quite irritating at times, with his relentless cheeriness and almost autistic lack of empathy for the characters involved in the case. Although critical opinion at the time favoured Emily as a new heroine and thought she brought a lot of life and colour to the book, I’m rather glad Christie never re-visited them.

table-turningIn this book Christie has gone back to the third-person narrator and it works very well. It creates a slight distance between the reader and what is taking place and I think in this particular book it also adds to the slight sense of supernatural mystery. You don’t have that instant connection to reality that comes with a first-person narrator. Hence you have a slight disconnect from the table-turning scene – which helps both the atmosphere and the practicality of the story-telling. You also have a sense of melodrama, nowhere more clear than when Emily overhears Mrs Willett in secret: “”My God,” the voice had wailed, “I can’t bear it. Will tonight never come?”” Even the Dartmoor location itself takes on a mysterious mantle, with its brooding and hostile terrain; when Emily appraises the height of Sittaford Tor, she says “one ought […] to see things better when you are high up like this. It ought to be like lifting off the top of a doll’s house and peering in.”

exeter-st-davidsThis brings us to Christie’s intriguing combination of fictional and factual geographic locations in this book. Here, perhaps more than in any of her other books we’ve looked at so far, she creates her own Christie world. There is no village of Sittaford, but there is Sittaford Tor (as we’ve just seen) with its prehistoric stone circle. It’s close to Okehampton, which is represented by Exhampton in the book. Moretonhampstead, Two Bridges, Plymouth, Widecombe (with its fair), Lydford and Chagford are all real places that find a home in Christie’s narrative; and in particular, the prison at Princetown is identified, apparently twelve miles from Sittaford, from where a dangerous criminal escapes – this is of course what we now know as Dartmoor Prison. Jennifer Gardiner lives in Waldon Road, Exeter; Brian Pearson in Cromwell Street, London SW3; and Martin Dering in Surrey Road, Wimbledon. None of these addresses exist. The two railway stations mentioned in Exeter are certainly real – Exeter St David’s and Exeter Queen Street (renamed Exeter Central in 1933).

okehamptonDespite my not being over-enamoured with Emily and Charles, there’s a vivid and very enjoyable colourfulness about this book that is hard to describe. The locations are very realistically observed and portrayed; you get a real feel for the characters and their activities, even though there’s nothing overly extraordinary about most of them. The early table-turning scene adds an extra dimension of eeriness and fun – it’s a beautifully written scene – and your curiosity keeps you going all the way through. It’s a book that you can really see pan out in your mind’s eye as you read it.

british-warmLet’s have a quick look at some of those more obscure references and terms that cropped up in this book and made me reach for Wikipedia. Twice, early in the book, mention is made of a British Warm. I’ve never heard of it referred to in this way before, but, maybe obviously, this was the name given to that specific type of heavy, warm greatcoat that was made famous by Churchill. Major Burnaby recalls playing the game of Up Jenkins, which was also new to me. Here’s Wikipedia’s definition: “also known by the shortened name Jenkins, is a party game in which players conceal a small coin (or ring, button, etc.) in their palm as they slap it on a table with their bare hands. The goal of the game is for the players on the team without the coin to correctly identify which hand the coin is under. The game typically consists of two two- to four-player teams, one on each side of a table. There are no official rules, so rules may vary widely, the game is often played with alcohol beverages with which to drink as a forfeit.” I can’t think that I’ve ever been anywhere where someone has suggested playing that game or a variant of it. You live and learn.

selfridgesMrs Curtis (of whom more later) who offers a B&B service at her little cottage, first greets Emily with: “Yes, of course I can take you in, Miss, and your cousin too, if he can just wait until I shift a few duds.” I only know dud as something that doesn’t work, but, as a plural noun, it was originally a Middle English term meaning clothes, and then, through semantic change to mean just “things”. There is of course, no such shop as Delfridges – it’s Selfridges by implication; and Captain Wyatt accuses James Pearson of being a counter-jumper; an old-fashioned term for a sales assistant.

grocery-bagLet’s also take a look at a few financial references and re-evaluate them for today, I find that a very helpful exercise in understanding the sums involved. Trevelyan’s will bequeaths £100 to his man Emery; that’s about £4700 in today’s money – so that’s a pretty stingy offering. On the other hand, the remaining £80-90k of his estate, which gets divided between his sister and his nephews and nieces equates to approximately £4 million today. The £5000 competition win that Enderby brought for Burnaby is a stonking £238,000 today, and the £8-£9 weekly sum that the Willetts are alleged to spend on their groceries is now the equivalent of about £400 per week. What a profligate pair!

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

Publication Details: 1931. Fontana paperback (in quite poor condition), 5th impression, published in June 1972, priced 25p. The uncredited cover illustration shows a swirling nightmare scene with an older lady (Mrs Willetts?) and an older man (Trevelyan? Burnaby?) mixed up with the séance table and a dog. I don’t recall a dog in the story…

How many pages until the first death: 16. Not too much preamble which always makes a detective story go a bit faster.

Funny lines out of context: Quite a good selection:

“”That’s a rum go,” ejaculated the Superintendent.”

“…I know what I am talking about – a lot of subalterns have passed through my hands in my time.”

“He heard about Miss Percehouse and her tongue and the way she bullied her nephew, and of the rumours of the gay life that same nephew led in London.”

“…he had an awful kick on the head from a horse about fifteen years ago, and since then he has been a bit queer.”

Memorable characters:
It’s interesting because there’s a full range of new characters in this book, including the police and the amateur sleuths but I wouldn’t say any of them are particularly memorable. I liked Mrs Belling, the proprietor of the Three Crowns: “Mrs Belling was fat and excitable, and so voluble that there was nothing to be done but to listen patiently until such time as the stream of conversation should dry up.” When Mrs Belling talks, she sounds like a lost pirate: “Don’t ee worry my dear, we’ll have your young gentleman out of his trouble in no time.” As hotel licensee, Mrs Belling has money but no class (see later) and so instinctively blames people lower than her in the pecking order of the murder. “…Little did any of us think what was happening to the poor dear gentleman. Those nasty tramps – if I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a dozen times, I can’t abear those nasty tramps. Do anybody in they would.”

I also quite liked Mrs and Miss Willetts, because they’re so steeped in subterfuge and tragedy in a terribly over-the-top way. Just one word can cause Miss Willetts to faint; she literally is a drooping Violet.

Christie the Poison expert:
Not in this book. The murder method is being sandbagged to death. Brutal!

Class/social issues of the time:
All the usual bees in Christie’s bonnet come to the fore as usual, including a couple of really stark examples of 1930s light racism that come over as really offensive today. However, the chief recurring theme in this book is that of class issues. There’s a very us-and-them sense of the sophistication and status of the upper middle class characters against the lower classes (in Christie, the working class are always lower class!) Mrs Dering describes Trevelyan as “a regular philistine in every way – devoted to sport. No appreciation […] of literature.” Captain Wyatt tries to waylay Emily as she hurries on by with: “Come in – have a glass of wine or a cup of tea. There’s plenty of time. No need to hurry. That’s the worst of you civilised people.” I would have thought suggesting a glass of wine under those circumstances and in that time, was the height of sophistication.

There’s also some classic condescension from the local people towards the incomers. Here’s Mr Rycroft talking about the Willetts: “Charming, […] quite charming. Colonial, of course. No real poise, if you understand me. A little too lavish in their hospitality. Everything a shade on the ornate side.” And on Mr Duke: “…a very nice man, quite unassuming, but was he, after all, quite – well, quite? Mightn’t he, just possibly, be a retired tradesman?” One can hear the cumulative gasps of class-ridden disgusted Devonians echo throughout the moors.

It’s Emily Trefusis who is guilty of the most sexist comment in the book – but I wonder how much of it she means, and how much is designed to pander to Charles, to whom she speaks these abominable words: “One can’t do anything without a man. Men know so much, and are able to get information in so many ways that are simply impossible to women.” Apart from using feminine guile, of course.

Sadly, there’s a very unpleasant use of the “N” word, which I include here for the sake of completeness, and because of the irony of this being described as a “very discreet” note, sent by Emily to Jim: “Everything’s going to be all right, so cheer up. I am working like the worst kind of n***** to find out the truth. What an idiot you’ve been, darling.” I guess one must accept that times change, but even so this still seems appalling. But it’s probably Mrs Curtis who gets the gold medal for racism in this book: “It’s Captain Wyatt as could do with a spring cleaning […] That nasty native of his – what does he know about cleaning, I should like to know? Nasty black fellow.” Ugh. There are times when it’s uncomfortable to read Christie.

Classic denouement: I wouldn’t say so. Emily reveals that she knows the identity of the murderer earlier on, but not the motive, which means there’s a full 17 pages still to go before the end. Once the murderer has been charged, we don’t hear any more from them, so there’s no account from them of why they did it, or any sense of guilt, repentance, and so on; a little like Iago in Othello, who refuses to say another word once he’s been found out. It’s not a disappointing ending in any way though.

Happy ending? Yes and no. With Emily in the position of the old song Torn Between Two Lovers, there was always one person who was going to face disappointment. But which did she go with?

Did the story ring true? Yes. It doesn’t rely on impossible coincidences and how the murder was committed all makes sense. Even the supernatural elements of the story are explained in a credible way.

Overall satisfaction rating: 8/10. I like this book a lot; it’s a very easy and fast read, one that you don’t want to put down because you’re thoroughly involved in the plot and investigation. Unfortunately, I quickly remembered who the murderer was, but it still didn’t affect my enjoyment of the book.

Peril at End HouseThanks for reading my blog of The Sittaford Mystery 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 return of everyone’s favourite, Hercule Poirot, in Peril at End House. He’s even accompanied by Hastings, so expect some good old boys’ banter and some pretty women for Hastings to fall head over heels in love with. As always, 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!