The Agatha Christie Challenge – The Moving Finger (1943)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

plymstockRegular readers will know I like to have a look at the place names in Christie’s books to see to what extent they’re genuine, or just a figment of her imagination. Sadly, there’s no such place as Lymstock, although there is a Plymstock, which is an outer suburb of Plymouth, which is where I expect she got the inspiration. Combeacre, home of Colonel Appleton, Nether Mickford, where Rose the cook lives, and Exhampton, where Mildmay is a solicitor, are also fictional towns, although it’s not hard to see how they could be concatenations of other better-known places. Of course, when Jerry goes to London, he visits Harley Street which is most definitely real.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Funny lines out of context:

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

Memorable characters:

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

Christie the Poison expert:

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

Class/social issues of the time:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Towards ZeroThanks for reading my blog of The Moving Finger and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment in the space below. Next up in the Agatha Christie Challenge is Towards Zero, the final appearance of Superintendent Battle, in a story where the murder comes towards the end. I remember being frustrated by the lack of crime when I have read it in the past – it will be interesting to see if I still feel the same! As usual, I’ll blog my thoughts about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!

The Agatha Christie Challenge – Five Little Pigs (1943)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Memorable characters:

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

Christie the Poison expert:

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

Class/social issues of the time:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Funny lines out of context: Disappointingly absent.

Memorable characters:

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

Christie the Poison expert:

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

Class/social issues of the time:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Class/social issues of the time:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Memorable characters:

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

Christie the Poison expert:

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

Class/social issues of the time:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Theatre Censorship – 29: More real people and national stereotypes

Anyone for Denis?John Wells’ farce Anyone for Denis? (1981) was set in the Prime Minister’s country residence, Chequers, and was supposed to show a typical hair-raising weekend with Russian spies and insulted delegates… you know the kind of thing. The play was notable for its highly topical script which changed daily – which of course would have been impossible under the Lord Chamberlain’s regime – and actually it was the Falklands campaign which caused the play to close because, basically, topical references on that subject simply weren’t funny. There was a minor publicity campaign founded on Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher’s visit to see the show – with photographs afterwards of herself with Angela Thorne, the stage Margaret, and everyone looking distinctly uncomfortable apart from the real Denis Thatcher who seemed to have a whale of a time. To see the Prime Minister of the day standing next to a satirical version of herself would have had Robert Walpole turning in his grave. After all, he had introduced censorship to prevent this kind of thing going on.

Alma Rattenbury

Alma Rattenbury

Other plays that featured “real” people, included two plays, in the late 70s, that were based on the case of Alma Rattenbury who was found guilty of the murder of her husband in 1935; Terence Rattigan’s Cause Celebre (1977) which concentrates on the trial, and Simon Gray’s Molly (1977) which tells the story by means of analogy. Tom Stoppard’s Travesties (1974) brings together Lenin, James Joyce and Tristan Tzara as well as the less well-known Henry Carr for a skit on “The Importance of Being Earnest”, and Robert David Macdonald’s Summit Conference (1978) shows Eva Braun and Clara Petacci (Mussolini’s mistress) holding an imagined conversation in 1941.

Alan Ayckbourn

Alan Ayckbourn

On the subject of national origins – the last of those categories mentioned in the 1968 Theatres Act – despite any acrimony between Britain and Argentina at the time, the Falklands War did not bring about a deluge of anti-Latin American drama. Today we can see that Brexit has shown that there is always scope for – shall we say – international rivalry. Playwrights still satirise whatever nationalities they choose. As an example, and plucked from nowhere in particular, Sven, in Alan Ayckbourn’s Joking Apart (1978) is described as “terribly solemn, terribly Scandinavian, a sweet person but never ever wrong”. In fact, Ayckbourn characterises him as infuriating and pompous, someone who takes the pleasantly Home Counties atmosphere of the play and sours it into something dark, gloomy, and over-serious. Young Mandy, who just likes a bit of painting for relaxation, may just be sketching a drawing of the side of the house for her own enjoyment, but Sven has to turn the whole exercise into an inflated lecture about art: “I would like you to think about this. Art is a lie which makes us realise the truth. Do you know who said that? It was Picasso who said that… I think in some ways you are trying to be too truthful. The result being, at the moment, that your picture has no truth. Think about that.” His instructions sound like those of a part-time art critic who thinks he knows it all but in fact knows nothing; an inflated ego, vain and boorish. Ayckbourn chooses for Sven a particularly unpleasant ending: “one middle-aged mediocrity… who has fought and lost. …The tragedy of life is not that man loses but that he almost wins.” Sven is, of course, an exaggeration of those gloomy Finnish traits – Ayckbourn is actually very popular in Scandinavia – but nevertheless he is a totally believable character.

PlentyIn Plenty (1978) David Hare points out how one associates Scandinavians with gloom and despondency and how people from different Scandinavian countries are indistinguishable from one another, as in this conversation:

Susan: “Apparently it’s about depression, isn’t that so, Mme. Wong?”
Mme Wong: “I do feel the Norwegians are very good at that sort of thing….”
Darwin: “Ingmar Bergman is not a bloody Norwegian, he is a bloody Swede”.

Agatha Christie

Agatha Christie

Unlike Sven, Agatha Christie’s Paravicini from the world’s longest running play The Mousetrap (1952) is a totally larger-than-life creation, an exaggeration of the most ridiculous Mediterranean elements, who creeps around stagily and suspiciously, appears to wear rouge make-up, and makes a big mystery of himself: “I turn up saying that my car is overturned in a snowdrift. What do you know of me? Nothing at all! I may be a thief, a robber, a fugitive from justice – a madman – even – a murderer.” Christie has drawn on legendary Italian lasciviousness and added a touch of camp to accompany her character’s ingratiating and fawning behaviour towards his hostess in a good example of parody over characterisation. Of course, as it was written in 1952, this famous play would have been subject to the old rules of censorship. I’m sure it didn’t trouble the Lord Chamberlain one jot.

In my next post I’ll look at some other plays that might – but probably might not – be considered to “stir up hatred” based on colour or race.

The Edinburgh Fringe One-Weeker 2018 – Agatha is Missing! 20th August 2018

Agatha is MissingAnyone who reads my blog regularly (thank you, faithful reader!) knows that I love my Agatha Christie and am currently re-reading all her works and writing them up for my blog. So I just had to see Fringe Management’s production of Agatha is Missing! at the Billiard Room @ Gilded Balloon Teviot, at 14:30 on Monday 20th. Let’s read the blurb: “Agatha Christie is missing and ace detective, Miss Clarissa Marbles, needs your help in solving the crime. Was it the cook, the husband, the secret admirer… or you? Everyone is a suspect in this fun-filled whodunnit. If you have a criminal record or any skeletons in your closet, she’ll find out. And of course, don’t hesitate to inform on your neighbours. The audience votes on the best solution to this rollicking whodunit and a lovely prize will be awarded to the winner! ‘A winning performance’ (New York Daily News). ‘Outstanding’ (Backstage.com).”

Agatha ChristieThis sounds like it’s going to be a cross between that old off-Broadway hit, Something’s Afoot, and the Mystery of Edwin Drood, where, again, the audience had to vote on who killed Edwin. Ace detective Clarissa Marbles is played by Prudence Wright Holmes and I hope this will be a lot of fun. However, it seems to divide audiences – I’ve seen some audience reviews that don’t rate this show at all! So I’m a bit nervous of this one now. Check back after 4pm to see if booking it was a big mistake. By then the next preview blog should be available to read too.

One of those “only in Edinburgh” experiences. Quaint, eccentric, but thoroughly good fun. Like an Edwardian parlour game. Just remember one thing: Agatha Christie went missing in 1926, but didn’t die until 1976. It’s a clue!