The Agatha Christie Challenge – Sad Cypress (1940)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Memorable characters:

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

Christie the Poison expert:

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

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

Class/social issues of the time:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Memorable characters:

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

Christie the Poison expert:

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

Class/social issues of the time:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Agatha Christie Challenge – Murder is Easy (1939)

Murder is EasyIn which Luke Fitzwilliam, ex-police officer returned from the East, finds himself at the heart of a village where a number of people have recently died – and maybe not by natural causes. He goes undercover researching for a make-believe book and stays with his friend’s cousin Bridget, passing himself off as her cousin. But as murder becomes more and more obvious, he eventually stumbles into discovering who really killed all these people. As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I promise not to tell you whodunit!

CriticsThe book is dedicated to: “Rosalind and Susan, the first two critics of this book”. Rosalind Hicks, formerly Prichard, née Christie, was Agatha Christie’s only child, born in 1919 and died in 2004. Susan was Susan North, Rosalind’s best friend. The book was first serialised in the US in The Saturday Evening Post in November and December 1939, at the same time as Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, under the title Easy to Kill (which are the last three words of the second chapter). In the UK it was serialised in the Daily Express in January and February 1939, also as Easy to Kill. The full book was first published in the UK on 5th June 1939 by Collins Crime Club as Murder is Easy; and then subsequently in the US by Dodd, Mead & Co in September 1939, but still retaining the original title of Easy to Kill.

detectiveThis is an unpredictable, lively and thoroughly entertaining read, dotted with eccentric characters, fast-paced and full of surprises. I remember that when I first read it I was completely bowled over by the surprise revelation of the murderer – I would never have guessed it. Reading it this time, I quickly remembered who the guilty party was, but that didn’t diminish the enjoyment as you witness the very clever tricks that Christie plays to lead you away from working it out for yourself. But she does give you the clues fair and square, if only you can sort them, wheat-like, from the chaff.

Luke Skywalker meditatingIt’s written as a third-person narrative but very much from the point of view of Luke, the gentlemanly, rather bumbling, occasionally snobbish hero, who only just realises the identity of the murderer in time to prevent yet another death. Christie describes Bridget following one sequence of activity which culminates in a situation of danger, whilst Luke is off on another track. Then, with our heroine in peril, Christie abandons her to follow Luke’s adventures, which both raises tension, but loses momentum. However, the two characters do come together to meet (literally) at a vital moment at the end. This creates a relatively unusual, highly dramatic, and very effective denouement scene. Among the most entertaining parts of the book are those where we see Luke trying hard to understand what’s happening: the chapter entitled Meditations of Luke helpfully runs through all his theories at the time, one by one considering the likelihood of guilt of each of the characters in the story. He doesn’t have little grey cells so much as big vacuous blobs, but he means well. Christie provides the return of Superintendent Battle to act as an official figure of authority, to cross the legal t’s and dot the legal i’s, but he really has very little to do with solving the crime.

PoirotOne of the criticisms of the book at the time was that the reader missed Poirot; but I don’t feel that way at all. I rather felt that Christie had exhausted Poirot’s characteristics by the time that she wrote Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, to the extent that the great man was rather thinly drawn in that book. Instead she created Fitzwilliam, an amenable and rather daring chap who acts on whims and jumps to conclusions; in many ways he’s as useless a sleuth as the reader would be, and the reader rather identifies with his bewilderment whilst envying him his courage. Battle, of course, doesn’t have much in the way of personality, and his few brief pages of appearance in this book don’t lend many further insights into his detecting methods. We will only meet him one more time, in Towards Zero.

NastyThe relatively large cast of characters in this book suitably recreates the hustle and bustle of a busy village, with considerable class delineation between the nice people and places and the nasty people and places. In fact, Christie goes to town with the use of the word “nasty”. Right from the start Luke dismisses the sight of “nasty little houses” from the train; Lord Whitfield is described as a “nasty little man” who owns a string of “nasty little weekly papers”. The much despised Ellsworthy is branded as a “nasty sort of fellow”, having “a nasty mind and nasty habits”, with “nasty friends” who conduct orgies (in the village! Gosh!), whilst the irrepressible and mischievous young Tommy was considered “a nasty little boy”. It strikes me that anyone who isn’t of the right social set was condemned as “nasty” in some way or other. More on the social and class elements of the book later on.

Fenny StratfordThis book has an unusually large number of references to trace and obscure textual points to investigate – so here goes! The place names of Fenny Clayton and Wychwood under Ashe are both inventions of Christie but I’m sure you can think of places that they sound like (Buckinghamshire boasts both Fenny Stratford and Steeple Claydon within about ten miles of each other, for example). Luke says he has returned from the Mayang Straits, which is also not a clearcut location, even though it sounds it. There is a small town by the name of Mayang Imphal in the Indian state of Manipur, and there is also a district, associated with black magic, named Mayong in the state of Assam. There is even a county called Mayang in the Hunan state in China, but it’s unlikely that Luke would have been working there in the 1930s. Mayang Straits sounds as though it should be near Malaysia or Singapore… but no.

RavenThere are several quotations to explore. When we first meet Luke he’s a mass of quotations: “The wrong is done, past all recall – weep we never so bitterly we can never bring back the dead past – Quoth the raven “Nevermore” – The moving finger writes; and having writ moves on, etc, etc and so on and so forth.” Not that easy to extricate: working backwards, the moving finger comes from Fitzgerald’s translation of the Omar Khayyam; Quoth the raven comes from Poe’s poem The Raven; weep we never so bitterly is reminiscent of a passage from Jeremiah 22:10; the wrong is done currently escapes me. Any ideas, team?

Doctor Fell“Fiddle dee dee, fiddle dee dee, the fly has married the humble bee” hums Luke, as he thinks of the character of Dr Humbleby. This is apparently an old-fashioned nursery song; but as no one ever sang it to me in my nursery, I’ve never heard of it. When interviewing Miss Humbleby, she explains her father didn’t like Dr Thomas. “I do not like thee Dr Fell, the reason why I cannot tell” is his response. This is a nursery rhyme, apparently written by the satirist Tom Brown in 1680 in response to the Dean of Christ Church’s expulsion of Brown with the caveat that if he could translate a Martial epithet, he would be re-admitted. Brown decided to damn Fell for ever more with his response.

Frances CornfordOne chapter is entitled “Oh Why do you walk through the Fields in Gloves?” This is a quotation from Frances Cornford’s 1910 poem, “To a Fat Lady Seen from the Train”. The verse sparked a lot of light-hearted criticism at the time from worthies such as G K Chesterton and A E Housman. It’s an appropriate title for this particular chapter, but I’ll say no more. Towards the end of the book, one character quotes Kipling with the words “he travels the fastest who travels alone”. This is from his poem The Winners, published in 1888.

blue-moneyThere are also some words and phrases that I had never encountered: Luke is initially described as recently back in England with money to blue. To blue? Is that the same as money to burn? Basically yes. It’s mid-19th century slang (so it must have been old-fashioned when Christie used it) with the definition of blue as “to spend, waste, squander go through lavishly, recklessly, or extravagantly, especially with regard to money”. Think of it as sounding like the past tense of to blow. When Luke is first going around asking questions about rural folkloric practices, he cites “ill-wishing or overlooking, there’s another interesting subject”. Overlooking? Today we think of that as simply meaning accidentally to forget to do something. But it’s also a late 16th century term meaning to bewitch. Mrs Church describes Harry Carter as “a low class fellow and half-seas over most of the time”. Half-seas over? This is a 16th century term for being drunk. I’m beginning to wonder if Christie had swallowed an extremely old dictionary.

PeplumDescribing Ellsworthy’s friends at the Bells and Motley (there’s a pub of the same name in The Mysterious Mr Quin – it’s not that common a name to bear such regular repetition), Lord Whitfield describes: “a female with no eyebrows, dressed in a peplum, a pound of assorted sham Egyptian beads and sandals”. A peplum? It comes from the Greek word for a tunic and is a short overskirt that is usually attached to a fitted jacket, blouse or dress. You knew that already? Well, I didn’t.

The DerbyThere are yet still more references to clarify. Two publications are mentioned, the Daily Clarion and Good Cheer. The Daily Clarion continues to publish – in Princeton, Indiana, so I doubt it’s the same one. Good Cheer is an international magazine for people who are DeafBlind written by people who are DeafBlind; so again, I think we’re talking about inventions by Christie. The book starts with Luke having a bet on the Derby, with the winner coming in at 40-1. In those days, the Derby was always run on the first Wednesday of June – so that was the 7th June 1939 or 1st June 1938, depending on which race Christie might have been referring to. Alas, there is no such horse as Jujube II winning either of those races; Bois Roussel won in 1938 and Blue Peter in 1939.

Standard SwallowLavinia Pinkerton laments the fact that Second Class carriages had been abolished, leaving only 1st class and 3rd class. Most railways had abolished 2nd class at the latter end of the 19th century – although apparently the Great Western Railway kept them going until 1910. Mrs Pinkerton also concerns herself with people not getting a dog licence (abolished in 1987) and strict observation of lighting-up time (half an hour after sunset, but becoming rapidly antiquated as more and more cars have their lights on permanently.) On the subject of cars, Luke’s friend Jimmy Lorrimer drives a Ford V 8, a popular car launched in 1932, whilst Luke has bought a second hand Standard Swallow, like Major Eustace in Murder in the Mews, so that must be one of only 148 cars to be built by the Swallow Coachbuilding Company (later Jaguar) between 1932 and 1936 (according to Wikipedia).

Nevinson witchWhen Luke first sees Bridget, he is instantly put in mind of the picture of Nevinson’s Witch. That meant nothing to me, so I researched, and discovered the artist Christopher Nevinson. He was a pacifist, working as a volunteer for the Red Cross on the front line as a driver, stretcher-bearer and hospital orderly between 1914-15. Gifted, but unpopular, the critic Charles Hind observed “It is something, at the age of thirty one, to be among the most discussed, most successful, most promising, most admired and most hated British artists.” Among his most celebrated works was An Inexperienced Witch – and if that’s how Bridget first appeared to him, I don’t think she’d be that flattered.

EuclidLuke’s initial reflections on the evidence he’d garnered (in the chapter, “Possibilities”) results in his dismissing his own opinions and reflecting “how nicely Euclid put things”. I wasn’t sure what that referred to. Euclid, of course, was a Greek mathematician, often referred to as the “father of geometry”, born around 325 BC. But as to his work, you’ll have to ask someone else. Wikipedia advises that among his legacies is a system of rigorous mathematical proofs that remains the basis of mathematics to this day – so maybe that’s what Luke’s thinking about.

Sabbatic-GoatDr Thomas is a keen reader; on his latest list is Kreuzhammer’s Inferiority and Crime which he offers to lend Luke. Sadly this riveting read seems to have been an invention, as does the equally Germanic sounding Wellerman Kreitz Research Laboratories, which Lord Whitfield had recently graced with his presence. Shame – they both sound highly authentic. One of the characters is often likened to a goat in appearance, which gives rise to discussion about why the goat is often linked to evil. It’s because of the “Sabbatic Goat” of Eliphas Levi. Again, in case you haven’t read the book, I’ll say no more.

PoundYou may well know that I like to research the present-day value of any significant sums of money mentioned in Christie’s books, just to get a more realistic feel for the amounts in question. There aren’t very many instances of it in this book, but a couple bear examination. Luke’s win on the horses came in at £100. In today’s values that translates to over £4500 – that’s quite some win. The value of being married to Lord Whitfield is estimated as receiving a £100,000 settlement; instead of earning £6 a week as his secretary. The settlement figure is the equivalent today of £4.5 million; the secretary wage a paltry £275 a week. That’s an annual salary of about £14,000. Not very generous, is he? Johnnie Cornish left Bridget for a plump widow and an income of £30,000 a year – that’s a very tempting £1.3 million a year, plus a bit more. You can’t really blame him, can you?

Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for Murder is Easy:

Publication Details: 1939. Fontana paperback, 4th impression, published in February 1966, in an era too tasteful to list a sale price on the back cover. The cover illustration by (presumably) Tom Adams shows two direct clues and one indirect one: a dead canary (which is almost too appropriate), some spilt medicine (presumably meant for Amy Gibbs) and a spider – by which I can only infer that he’s pointing out the spider’s web of intrigue that the book contains. It’s quite effective and sufficiently intriguing to draw a casual reader in.

How many pages until the first death: 10, but that’s misleading. Miss Pinkerton has already told us about four previous deaths, assumed by her to be murders. One thing’s for sure, in this book you’re never too far from a dead body.

Funny lines out of context: Remarking on Ellsworthy’s Bohemian friends arriving for the weekend, Bridget affirms: “Says the gossip writer: “Someone has whispered that there will be gay doings in the Witches’ Meadow tonight.””

Memorable characters:

This book is littered with interesting characters, some of whom only play a very small role. Lavinia Pinkerton, for example, is portrayed as something of a dotty old lady but there is something of the Miss Marple about her, with her suspicions, if not her solutions.

I like the accounts of Major Horton and his wife – with their (probably) stormy marriage. As Christie states: “Luke thought that Major Horton’s married life must have been more like a military campaign than an idyll of domestic bliss.”

Christie goes to town on painting Ellsworthy as unpleasant a character as possible, primarily by dwelling on his apparent effeminacy. Miss Humbleby says he staged a “queer ceremony” with some “queer-looking people”. Luke describes him as a dilliettante, and a poseur; whereas Major Horton calls him “Miss Nancy”. I think his opinion is pretty clear.

Bizarrely, some of the more interesting people are those we never meet because they’re already dead! I bet Harry Carter and Tommy Pierce had a few tales to tell.

Christie the Poison expert:

There are so many deaths in this book, it was beyond doubt that poison would play its part. Luke’s friend Jimmy refers to the Abercrombie case, “for feeding the local vet with arsenic, then they dug up his wife and she was full of it, and it’s pretty certain his brother-in-law went the same way […] the unofficial view was that Abercrombie had done away with at least fifteen people in his time.” Although this sounds remarkably believable, I can’t find any reference to it in real life, so I guess Christie invented it. Luke correctly guesses that Mrs Horton was killed by arsenic poisoning, and not acute gastritis. Amy Gibbs drank hat paint (whoever heard of that? It was already a very archaic concept when this was written) instead of cough linctus, which resulted in oxalic acid poisoning. Today it’s mainly used in bleaching and cleaning products and it can be found in rhubarb leaves. That’s why your mother taught you only to eat rhubarb sticks.

Class/social issues of the time:

As usual, class rears its ugly head, but in a number of subtle ways. Luke’s initial observation of the “nasty little houses” he sees from the train show his innate snobbery towards anything less than posh and refined. In conversation with the working-class Mrs Pierce, her description of “a lovely lot of new houses, some of them with green roofs and stained-glass in the windows” causes him to shudder. Wychwood-under-Ashe is an immensely class-ridden community, with Dr Humbleby described by the vicar Mr Wake as “greatly beloved by the poorer classes”; he also considers Mrs Church to be “not, I fear, a very estimable woman”, and indeed, when we meet her, Mrs Church wants to find out if there is a reward on offer before offering any information – how base of her. Snobby Luke concludes that he will have to “move in lower social spheres” to ascertain the information he wants; and even Bridget bemoans the fact that her previous beau dumped her for someone with “a North Country accent” – how humiliating. Miss Waynflete says of Ellsworthy, “he keeps the new antique shop but he is actually a gentleman”, with that old-fashioned, upper middle-class, mild scorn for anyone in trade or with new money.

Another of Christie’s developing themes is the role of women in society. As we’ve seen in her earlier works, she’s no feminist. In this book, when Luke tries to praise Miss Waynflete’s intelligence, the older lady gently corrects him: “that’s very nice of you, Mr Fitzwilliam, but I’m afraid women are never quite such deep thinkers as men”. Luke is also taken by the quiet beauty and vulnerability of Miss Humbleby, and wrestles (briefly) with his own desire to protect her: “It was true that Rose Humbleby had recently lost her father, but she had a mother, and she was engaged to be married to a decidedly attractive young man who was fully adequate to anything in the protection line. Then why should he, Luke Fitzwilliam, be assailed by this protection complex? Good old sentimentality to the fore again, thought Luke. The protective male! Flourishing in the Victorian era, going strong in the Edwardian, and still showing signs of life despite what our friend Lord Whitfield would call the rush and strain of modern life”. Christie never challenges Luke on this position. Indeed, in conversation with Mrs Church, when he asks her whether Amy had any boyfriends, his reaction to her veiled assent is “she preferred the sterner sex.” Sterner sex?! That would have had him laughed out of town in my youth.

As usual, any mention of politics always comes from a right-wing perspective. The “fierce looking Colonel” who gets in Luke’s train becomes incensed at what he reads in The Times and spends half an hour moaning about “these damned Communist agitators”. To be left-wing is to be equated to the criminal fraternity, as in Lord Whitfield’s description of Carter – “a drunken ruffian […] one of these socialistic, abusive brutes”.

A couple of other subjects get the Christie treatment, some of them not found quite so frequently in her works. There’s a sideswipe at modern art: “”I shall have to adopt a disguise,” said Luke with a sudden grin. “What do you suggest? Artist? Hardly – I can’t draw, let alone paint.” “You could be a modern artist,” suggested Jimmy. “Then that wouldn’t matter.”” Christie derides Ellsworthy’s appearance as the height of effeminacy: “Mr Ellsworthy was a very exquisite young man dressed in a colour scheme of russet brown. He had a long pale face with a womanish mouth, long black artistic hair and a mincing walk.” Even vivisection raises its ugly head; Lord Whitfield visits the Wellerman Kreitz Research laboratories, much to the dismay of Mrs Anstruther: “”They use guinea-pigs, I believe – so cruel – though of course not so bad as dogs – or even cats.” “Fellows who use dogs ought to be shot,” said Major Horton, hoarsely. “I really believe, Horton,” said Mr Abbot, “that you value canine life above human life.” “Every time!” said the major. “Dogs can’t turn round on you like human beings can. Never get a nasty word from a dog.”

Classic denouement: Unusual, effective and exciting, but you couldn’t call it a classic. There is an incredibly tense scene, where it looks as though one of our heroes is going to be murdered with no hope of being rescued; and then to make the agony of suspense even stronger, the story cuts away to another character, following their story for a few pages; only for the two threads to come together at the end of the chapter. As a result you have excitement, followed by a slight sense of lost momentum, and then the denouement comes almost in retrospect as Battle explains, to those people still present, what actually happened. But there isn’t a J’accuse moment as such.

Happy ending? Yes. Clearly our sleuthing team have fallen in love and all’s right with their world.

Did the story ring true? The story has perhaps more unlikely coincidences than most, from Jimmy’s connection to Bridget, the murderer’s knowledge that Miss Pinkerton was going to Scotland Yard (wouldn’t she have kept that a secret?) and the fact that the car that killed Miss Pinkerton hadn’t stopped. If it had, then it would have been a very different story!

Overall satisfaction rating: It’s an extremely enjoyable read; pure whodunit escapism, with quite a lot of humour and some memorable characters. And a lot of deaths often lifts a whodunit, in a ghoulish sort of way! 9/10.

And then there were NoneThanks for reading my blog of Murder is Easy 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 And Then There Were None. Apologies that my copy is from the 1970s, so has the original British title. Frequently cited as Christie’s masterpiece, I’m very much looking forward to reacquainting myself with it. As usual, I’ll blog my thoughts about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!

The Agatha Christie Challenge – Hercule Poirot’s Christmas (1938)

Hercule Poirot's ChristmasIn which Hercule Poirot’s plans for a cosy Christmas Eve as guest of Colonel Johnson, Chief Constable of Middleshire, go awry when local bigwig Simeon Lee is found murdered in his locked bedroom that evening (that’s Lee’s bedroom, not Johnson’s – that would have been a very different tale). Poirot joins Johnson and local Superintendent Sugden to work out which of the Lee family Christmas visitors did the heinous deed. As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I promise not to tell you whodunit!

Macbeth kills DuncanThe book is prefaced by a letter in the form of a dedication: “My dear James, you have always been one of the most faithful and kindly of my readers, and I was therefore seriously perturbed when I received from you a word of criticism. You complained that my murders were getting too refined – anaemic, in fact. You yearned for a “good violent murder with lots of blood.” A murder where there was no doubt about its being murder! So this is your special story – written for you. I hope it may please. Your affectionate sister-in-law, Agatha”. The James in question was James Watts, who had married Agatha’s sister Madge in 1902. He owned Abney Hall, in Cheshire, where Christie would later write The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding and After the Funeral, and which she had already used as the inspiration for Chimneys in The Secret of Chimneys and The Seven Dials Mystery. The book also starts with a quotation from Macbeth, that reappears later in the story too: “Yet who would have thought the old man to have so much blood in him?” Of course, Shakespeare was referring to the murder of King Duncan, but it applies just as well to Simeon Lee.

ChristmasHercule Poirot’s Christmas had quite a torturous route to the bookshelves. It was first serialised in the US in Collier’s Weekly from November 1938 to January 1939, under the title Murder for Christmas. In the UK it was serialised in the Daily Express in twenty parts in November and December 1938, under the slightly different title Murder at Christmas. The full book was first published in the UK on 19th December 1938 by Collins Crime Club as Hercule Poirot’s Christmas; and then subsequently in the US by Dodd, Mead & Co in February 1939, again as Murder for Christmas. A 1947 US paperback edition by Avon Books changed the title again to A Holiday for Murder, and it seems to me that both these latter titles are now equally used in America.

1930s CinemaThis is an exciting, well-structured book, taking place over the seven days of a Christmas week, split into seven parts (one per day) and with several smaller sections in each part. The structure gives it extra pace and also an inevitability – you know in advance, just by looking at the chapter breakdown, that everything will be solved by December 28th. What is lacking, however, for the most part, is any sense of Christmas. It’s as though Christie has taken the festive season simply as an excuse to get a warring family together, but nothing happens that would be thought of as “Christmassy”. There isn’t a big meal. There is no talk of presents. The valet goes out on Christmas Eve to the pictures like he does every Friday night, he doesn’t do anything special. Similarly, and oddly, there’s no mention of any Christmas plans by any of the police or the other staff – it’s all just like any other day, or week. Odd.

butlerChristie employs simple, third party narration throughout the whole book apart from a few paragraphs shortly before the body of Simeon Lee is discovered, where Tressilian, the butler, takes over and gives us his thoughts. It’s a very interesting device, to change the perspective and see it all through his eyes, and it breaks up the standard narration technique. But the early part of the book is very heavy with exposition, listening in to conversations between the various Lee sons and their wives, where they appear to be talking about the family structure and relationship difficulties for the first time ever – which is highly unlikely – all for the benefit of filling in some useful facts for the reader before the action really gets underway. I thought that was rather heavy-handed of Christie; she can do better!

detectiveAnother slightly disappointing element to the story is that we see very little of Poirot’s fun and games that he normally can’t resist in his previous cases. There are no conversations where you get a closer understanding of his personality; there’s little humour in his language; there’s none of his usual vanity. The only thing he does that is true to form is to create a truly exciting denouement, where your suspicions hop from suspect to suspect before he finally reveals the truth. You feel that Poirot misses Hastings in this book; he doesn’t really have another person to spark off. Colonel Johnson is a nice enough chap, but the two men don’t have that special understanding that encourages Poirot to be outspoken and candid. Superintendent Sugden is a rather bombastic bruiser of a man with none of the lightness of touch that Poirot would normally admire. So Poirot ends up being quite isolated in this story; and for the most part he could be just any old detective who was good at solving crime. Interestingly, Christie took a break from Poirot for a few years after this book; his next appearance would be in Sad Cypress in 1941. Let’s hope he comes back to form next time out.

FrancoBy late 1938, Franco’s hold on Spain, through the Spanish Civil War, was getting progressively tighter. It would only be a few months later that Barcelona, and then Madrid, would fall and he would assume complete control of the country. There had been massive amounts of bloodshed for over two years; and, of course, the Second World War would start the following year too. It was a fascinating choice on the part of Christie to have her Spanish character, Pilar, so prominent in this book. She is the second character that we meet, and a lot of time is given over to her experiences, her motivations and her personality. She talks about how back in Spain the mayor is pro-government and the priest is pro-Franco. She has seen bombs destroy houses and kill car drivers. Colonel Johnson’s comment: “can’t be very pleasant being in Spain just at present” is the epitome of English understatement. When the family are deciding whether to make a financial allowance for Pilar, Alfred isn’t keen; “he is so British”, says his wife Lydia, “he doesn’t really like Lee money going to a Spanish subject.” Whether that’s typical Christie distrust of foreigners, or a specific reaction to the war, isn’t clear. But Spain was clearly at the forefront of people’s minds at the time. Even the film that Horbury, the valet, goes to see on Christmas Eve is entitled Love in Old Seville. It’s a Christie invention, by the way, no such film exists.

Long DaleThere aren’t many references to follow up in this book. All the place names (apart from Madrid, obviously) are made up by Christie: the Lee family home is Gorston Hall, Longdale, Addlesfield, which bears no similarity to any real place I can find – there is a Long Dale in the Derbyshire Dales (and also a place in Oklahoma with the same name) but that’s about it. Mr Lee was said to have been in contact with the vice consul in Aliquara, trying to locate Pilar; there’s no such place in Spain. Colonel Johnson is the Chief Constable of Middleshire; I suppose at a push one might think that represents Middlesex. Superintendent Sugden says he comes from the nearby county of Reeveshire, which I think is no more than a play on words; reverse the two parts of the name and you get Shire Reeve, which is the derivation of Sheriff, which basically describes Sugden’s role.

Henry Wadsworth LongfellowMuch notice is taken of David Lee’s quote when his father dies: “the mills of God grind slowly, but they grind exceeding small.” I’d never heard this phrase before; apparently it suggests the certainty of eventual divine retribution. It’s a direct quote from Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and his translation of a 17th-century poem, Retribution, by Friedrich von Logau. But it seems to be from an original concept by Plutarch. Unusual to find such a cultured family and police force! Colonel Johnson knows of Poirot because of his superb sleuthing in the case of Sir Bartholomew Strange, better known as Three Act Tragedy; but if you can’t remember him from that tale, that’s because actually he doesn’t appear in it.

PoundIf you’re a regular reader, you’ll know 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. In her last book, Appointment with Death, there were no significant sums of money mentioned in this book – so that eliminated the need for that paragraph! However, this time round there are a couple of interesting sums. Just how rich is Simeon Lee? He is described as a millionaire twice over. So if we convert £2 million in 1938, in today’s value that works out as £94 million, give or take a few hundred thousand. So even if his sons all had to share in that inheritance, it’s still an extraordinary amount of money. His diamonds, said to be valued at between £9 – £10,000, today would be worth between £420,000 and £470,000. Definitely worth stealing.

Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for Hercule Poirot’s Christmas:

Publication Details: 1938. Fontana paperback, 14th impression, published in March 1977, price 65p. The cover illustration by Tom Adams shows a miserable old man surrounded by grotesquely ornate candlesticks and what appears to be the front two legs of a prancing horse – don’t quite understand that. Embellishing the picture are some red-berried sprigs of holly dripping with blood. The blood works well in the picture – not sure about the rest, not certain this one of Tom Adams’ best illustrations!

How many pages until the first death: 48. By that stage in the book – Christmas Eve – all the family members have arrived at the house and no further characters are introduced apart from Horbury’s cinema date, although we never actually meet her. As far as the reader is concerned, the death comes along just at the right time.

Funny lines out of context: None that I could discern. It isn’t a particularly funny book, to be fair.

Memorable characters:

In the same way that Mrs Boynton stands out in Appointment with Death, as being the tyrannical ruler of a subjugated family, Simeon Lee takes precisely the same role in this book. To my mind he’s not quite so striking a character because his cruelty is less psychological and more real, as a grumpy shouter of instructions and insulter of sons. But there’s no doubt that, like Mrs Boynton, he deserves everything coming his way.

Pilar is also a strong character; Christie imbues her with the exotic mystery of passionate Spain, and she has none of the English reserve that characterises so many members of the Lee family. She openly talks about how handsome Sugden is, much to his embarrassment. She makes no concession to the delicate subject of money and speaks openly about her desire for an inheritance from Simeon, which is an area where the other characters would fear to tread.

Christie the Poison expert:

Poison doesn’t play a part in this book, apart from Johnson’s recollection of the Three Act Tragedy case. This gives rise to a brief conversation about the pros and cons of solving a case where poisoning is the method. But it has no bearing on this crime.

Class/social issues of the time:

Usually one can find something in a Christie book where she propounds what she feels is the natural British (or English) distrust of foreigners. But there are very few instances of it in this book. In the conversation about poison referred to above, Poirot notes that murder by poison might be thought of as “unEnglish” – “a device of foreigners! Unsportsmanlike!” Elsewhere there’s the strangely ironic conversation between Stephen and Pilar where he says “it’s just a little bit more than tiresome, my dear. Then there’s that lunatic foreigner prowling about. I don’t suppose he’s any good but he makes me feel jumpy”. So let’s just get this straight: here we have a South African man whingeing about a “lunatic foreigner” to a Spanish woman. Funny how when you have a prejudice against someone you never question its reasonableness.

One other thread that is developed here, that you find in some other Christie books of this time, is the role of women in society. In the past Christie has shown herself to be no feminist. But in this book she changes tack halfway through. Consider the motivations of Simeon Lee’s late wife, the mother whose death the character of David can’t quite get over, often comes into question in conversations between the family members.

David remembers her in conversation with his wife Hilda. “”She was so sweet, Hilda, and so patient. Lying there, often in pain, but bearing it – enduring everything. And when I think of my father” – his face darkened – “bringing all that misery into her life – humiliating her – boasting of his love affairs – constantly unfaithful to her and never troubling to conceal it.” Hilda Lee said: “She should not have put up with it. She should have left him.” He said with a touch of reproof: “She was too good for that. She thought is was her duty to remain. Besides, it was her home – where else should she go?” “She could have made a life of her own.” David said fretfully: “Not in those days! You don’t understand. Women didn’t behave like that. They put up with things. They endured patiently. She had us to consider. Even if she divorced my father, what would have happened? He would probably have married again. There might have been a second family. Our interests might have gone to the wall. She had to think of all those considerations. […] No, she did right. She was a saint! She endured to the end – uncomplainingly.””

Sorry about the long quotation. But the detail into which David goes to express his appreciation of his mother’s selflessness suggests (to me) that this is a continuation of Christie’s usual anti-feminist stance. However, there’s an interesting comparison with (who else?) Pilar, who justifies what Stephen calls her “gold-digging”, when he confronts her over her attitude to Simeon’s will. (Slight spoiler alert, although it still doesn’t tell you whodunit) She tells Stephen: ““If that old man had lived, he would have made another will. He would have left money to me – a lot of money! Perhaps in time he would have left me all the money!” Stephen said smiling: “That wouldn’t have been very fair either, would it?” “Why not? He would have liked me best, that is all. […] The world is very cruel to women. They must do what they can for themselves – while they are young. When they are old and ugly no one will help them.”” This approach to a design for life doesn’t really sit comfortably with Christie’s usual moral tone but it does suggest a change in her philosophy about the role of women. For (I believe) the first time in a Christie novel, you might say sisters are doing it for themselves.

One small observation: it’s certainly a different era from today when a Superintendent of Police could be believed to be usefully spending his time visiting houses collecting for the Police Orphanage.

Classic denouement: Yes! All the suspects are present, Poirot goes through a long rigmarole explaining why everyone could have done it, only then to explain how one-by-one they didn’t do it, whilst the reader turns the pages with bated breath not knowing what to believe. It’s an extremely exciting ending, with a classic “J’accuse” moment, and an unrepentant murderer.

Happy ending? Yes. One whirlwind romance culminates in the promise of a marriage, and there’s a general sense that the majority of the family members will be able to put their problems behind them and move on.

Did the story ring true? Chance meetings and coincidences obscure the truth of the case but yes, on the whole, this is one of Christie’s more believable stories.

Overall satisfaction rating: On the plus side, it’s an exciting read, with an excellent denouement and a suitably surprising solution to the crime. On the negative side, Poirot isn’t himself; there are no references to little grey cells, no moments of breathtaking vanity. And the whole idea of the amount of blood involved playing a significant part in the story doesn’t really hold water. So for me this averages out as an 8/10.

Murder is EasyThanks for reading my blog of Hercule Poirot’s Christmas 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 Murder is Easy; my memories of this book are of reading it on holiday in Spain as a teenager and really enjoying it. I think we may be in for lots of murders! And I don’t think I can remember whodunit, which is always a bonus. 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 – Appointment with Death (1938)

Appointment with DeathIn which an American family suffer under the malign and cruel tyranny of their matriarch and it comes as no surprise that one afternoon the wretched woman is found dead as a dodo. Hercule Poirot, still continuing his travels in the Middle East (as we saw in Christie’s previous book, Death on the Nile), promises the local military chief in charge of police, Colonel Carbury, that he will solve the crime in a mere twenty-four hours, simply by interviewing the suspects and employing the little grey cells. It’s a big ask, but if anyone can do it, Poirot can. As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I promise not to tell you whodunit!

PetraThe book is dedicated “To Richard and Myra Mallock to remind them of their journey to Petra”. Christie makes no mention of the Mallocks in her autobiography, but a little sleuthing has uncovered that a Richard Mallock married a Myra Tiarks at the Brompton Oratory in 1936. So maybe they went to Petra for their honeymoon? Someone by the name of Richard Mallock (maybe his father, or grandfather) was also the MP for Torquay from 1886 to 1895, so this could be how Christie knew the family, with all her Devon connections. Appointment with Death was first serialised in the US in Colllier’s Weekly from August to October 1937, and in the UK in twenty-eight parts in a very slightly abridged version in the Daily Mail in January and February 1938, under the title A Date with Death. The full book was first published in the UK on 2nd May 1938 by Collins Crime Club; and then subsequently in the US by Dodd, Mead & Co later the same year.

appointmentOut of curiosity, I note that it’s one of Christie’s shortest books – coming in at just 155 pages of paperback-sized text, about the same length as The Big Four. As another aside, it’s a bit of a lame title, I feel. It doesn’t really mean anything; to an extent, any death could be referred to as an appointment with death. It’s not as though the story is littered with medics, or recruitment consultants, with whom you might make a risky appointment which results in your death! I thought I’d check out its title in some other languages; most of them translate literally as “Appointment with Death” but three are a little more expressive: “Der Tod Wartet” (Death Waits) in German; “La Domatrice” (The Tamer) in Italian, and my favourite, “Hänet täytyy tappaa” (She Must be Killed) in Finnish.

Angry MotherI’ve always enjoyed this book, for perhaps a rather alarming reason – there were some similarities between the grotesque Mrs Boynton and my own dear late mother! I certainly didn’t identify them when I first read this as a teenager, but as I grew up, got married and went my own way, I did see some Boyntonesque tendencies in her attempts to control what I did. So did my wife! Don’t get me wrong – my mother was not a cruel harridan. But I bet I’m not the only person who has read this book and has felt some personal twang of sympathy with the plight of the wider Boynton family. However, whilst the situation and atmosphere are memorable, I’ve always found it difficult to recall the details of the story. It wasn’t until I read a vital clue a good two-thirds into the book that I suddenly remembered whodunit. Of course, I wished that I hadn’t remembered, but that’s the problem of re-reading detective fiction!

Caves in PetraThere’s not a lot of action in this book – in fact, all the Boynton family seem to do is to sit around and obey the mother – and I think that gives the book a sense of claustrophobia. There’s a whole world of Middle Eastern excitement out there, and all Mrs Boynton does is sit in a cave, whilst her family stay inside tents reading. All the activity in the book takes place in the mind; truly Christie is delivering us a psychological thriller just as much as a whodunit. Poirot takes us through the characteristics and thought processes of all the suspects just as much as their actual movements, and, come the denouement, it’s by eliminating people because of their psychological profiles that he narrows the field to determine the guilty party. There’s also a sense of isolation in the book, caused by having characters from America, England, France and Belgium all in Jordan, but with little back-knowledge of their origins. It’s like they’ve been transplanted there, everyone far from home, with no particular reason. The only character (apart from Poirot) who has any kind of backstory is Lady Westholme, because we know she has recently been an MP. But we have no home-towns, previous colleagues, college backgrounds, etc, to look into and consider. It’s all very much in the here and now.

24 HoursAs psychology is to the fore, Poirot is absolutely in his element. His promise to Carbury that he will solve the crime before “tomorrow night” speaks to his supreme self-confidence and Christie’s continued exposure of his vanity. Jinny asks him if he is a well-known detective, and he simply replies “the best detective in the world” without a hint of embarrassment. “I know that M. Poirot has great powers” says Dr Gerard at one point. Poirot’s immodest reply? “I am gifted – yes.” When Sarah King queries Poirot’s priorities for solving the case, he has no time for her suggestion. “”Poirot waved a grandiloquent hand. “This is the method of Hercule Poirot”, he announced.” Grandiloquent is a perfect adjective for Poirot. Even Carbury remarks, as Poirot is preparing for his denouement, “funny feller aren’t you Poirot? […] like to dramatise things.”

top-secretThere are no other great insights into Poirot’s character in this book, but Christie concentrates on making certain conversations, confrontations and descriptions come alive to make up for the lack of physical action. There’s a really strong scene between Poirot and Nadine Boynton where it’s so clear that she’s hiding something but she refuses to tell him, pleading with him instead to let well alone. But Poirot is never prepared to turn a blind eye to a murder; no matter how beneficial it is to society as a whole, he will never participate in suppressing the truth. Once the truth is out there, it is up to the authorities to act on it in the best way they see fit; that is not Poirot’s concern. Mrs Boynton is a universally disliked character, her family are mere cruelty fodder with the heart beaten out of them; and the world is a better place for her departure. But Poirot will not look the other way.

Jerusalem Wailing WallJust as in Death on the Nile, Christie litters the book with real-life Middle Eastern locations to increase a sense of the exotic. The opening scene takes place in the Solomon Hotel in Jerusalem, still a landmark hotel of the city. The characters’ Jerusalem travels take them to Solomon’s Stables, an underground vaulted space, converted in 1996 to a Muslim prayer hall; the Mosque of Omar, situated opposite the Church of the Holy Sepulchre; the Haram esh-Sharif, also known as the Temple Mount in the Old City; and the Wailing Wall, still today probably the most visited sight in Jerusalem. The story moves on to the rose city of Petra, via Ma’an and Ain Musa, traditionally the site of Moses’ water spring, from where the Nabateans built channels to irrigate Petra. In 1929, a four-person team, consisting of British archaeologists Agnes Conway and George Horsfield, Palestinian physician and folklore expert Dr Tawfiq Canaan and Dr Ditlef Nielsen, a Danish scholar, excavated and surveyed Petra, which would surely have been of immense fascination to Christie, and may well have determined her to set a book here.

Anthony TrollopeSome other references of interest: the book starts with Poirot reflecting over a story concerning the novelist Anthony Trollope, where he takes the advice of overheard criticism. Is this a true story? Apparently so! It relates to the character of Mrs Proudie in The Last Chronicles of Barset, a character of with whom Trollope was actually very pleased; but he overheard a conversation by people criticising her, and wishing she would be killed off. In Trollope’s own words: “It was impossible for me not to hear their words, and almost impossible to hear them and be quiet. I got up, and standing between them, I acknowledged myself to be the culprit. “As to Mrs. Proudie,’ I said, `I will go home and kill her before the week is over.” And so I did. The two gentlemen were utterly confounded, and one of them begged me not to forget his frivolous observations.” By all accounts, Trollope regretted the action immediately.

Chaucer's KnightIn another literary allusion, when Jefferson Cope is talking to Dr Gerard about his affection for Nadine, and says that if she wants to leave her husband for a better life, he would be there waiting for her, Dr Gerard calls him “the parfait gentil knight”. This refers to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, and the description of the Knight as “a verray parfit, gentil knyght” – the epitome of courtly love.

Neville ChamberlainIn the world of politics, Christie writes of Lady Westholme’s current standing, “it was highly possible that she would be given an under-secretaryship when her party returned to power. At the moment a Liberal Government (owing to a split in the National Government between Labour and Conservatives) was somewhat unexpectedly in power.” In real life, there was a National Government between 1937 – 1939, formed by Neville Chamberlain, with MPs from the Conservative, National Labour and National Liberal parties. And we think our politics are complex today! Looking at how the votes had fallen in the most recent election, a Liberal Government would have been a huge surprise. Lady Westholme also entraps Sarah in a conversation about the Litvania boundary dispute, which doubtless would have referred to the constantly changing boundaries of what is today Lithuania, with the USSR and Poland involved in eating into the territory. Today there is no dispute over Lithuania’s boundaries.

Lord_ByronSarah King asks Poirot if his investigation into the death is “a case of Roman Holiday”. The famous Audrey Hepburn film hadn’t been made yet, but the phrase comes from Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, and relates to the fate of a gladiator in ancient Rome, who expected to be “butchered to make a Roman holiday” while the audience would take pleasure from watching his suffering. So it’s the equivalent to modern day Schadenfreude.

DoncasterAs is often the case, there are a few references to Christie’s other books – or rather, Poirot’s previous cases. Colonel Carbury presents himself to Poirot with a letter of introduction from Colonel Race, whom we first met in The Man in the Brown Suit, then in Cards on the Table and most recently in Death on the Nile. We will also meet him one more time in Sparkling Cyanide. Race describes Poirot’s solution to the Shaitana case as “as neat a bit of psychological deduction as you’ll ever find” – referring to the murder in Cards on the Table. Elsewhere, Nadine refers Poirot to the Murder on the Orient Express when asking him to drop the case, and Miss Pierce remembers all about the ABC Murders as she was living near Doncaster at the time – that’s where Murder D was to be committed.

PoundThis may be a peculiarly anti-fiscal book, but there are no significant sums of money mentioned in this book – so I can’t do my usual trick of converting them into present-day values. Maybe that’s a sign of the psychological element of this book – it’s not a question of who inherits what or who stole which necklace for a change!

Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for Appointment with Death:

Publication Details: 1938. Fontana paperback, 8th impression, published in July 1975, price 50p. The cover illustration by Tom Adams shows the grim figure of Mrs Boynton sitting in the front of a cave with the red rocks of Petra all around her; and in the foreground, a lethal looking syringe. Absolutely in keeping with the story.

How many pages until the first death: 63. Christie allows an appropriate length to depicting the Boynton family at large before removing the main character from the scene. Given that it’s a short book, it’s 40% of the way in before the crime, and 60% for the solution.

Funny lines out of context: These seem to be getting fewer and fewer as we slowly progress through the 20th century. The only mildly amusing line (out of context) that I could find was Carol asking Raymond “shan’t we always be queer and different?”

Memorable characters:

Mrs Boynton stands out, as the arch-bully. In the first scenes we see her controlling her daughter Jinny, telling her that she will be ill, and telling her what she wants to do (even though she wants to do the opposite). Jinny buckles to her mother’s satisfaction. Mrs Boynton manipulates her son Raymond so that he refuses to speak to Sarah, even though he desperately wants to. She does the same to her daughter Carol. A side aspect of Mrs Boynton’s monstrous personality is that Christie slightly under-portrays the rest of the family; it’s almost as though they don’t matter by comparison.

There are also the strong and determined Lady Westholme, who Christie says “entered the room with the assurance of a transatlantic liner coming into dock” and her timid and suggestible friend Miss Pierce. One feels the characters of Sarah King and Dr Gerard ought to stand out, but I’m not certain they do. Sarah King, indeed, ought to follow the fine tradition of jolly, upstanding, go-getting Christie girls like Bundle, Tuppence or Katherine Grey; maybe it’s because she comes into some conflict with Poirot that she doesn’t quite sit at the heart of this book as you might expect her to. And Dr Gerard is, frankly, a boring pontificator. I found it very hard not to skip some of his speeches.

Christie the Poison expert:

Digitoxin is missing from the doctor’s medicine case; and Christie goes into some detail to describe the difference between it and the three other active principles of the foxglove: digitalin, digitonin and digitalein. There’s no question she knows her foxglove poisons! Mention is also made of phenacetin, a very common painkiller up until 1983 when it was largely discontinued worldwide due to its carcinogenic and kidney-damaging effects. It’s now mainly used in research and as a cutting agent in the preparation of cocaine.

Class/social issues of the time:

Distrust of foreigners as usual tops the charts as far as themes of the day are concerned, but there are also exchanges on the role of women in society to consider – if you remember, Mrs Christie is no feminist. After her first meeting with Raymond, Sarah King assumes that he is like all Americans: “merely a rude, stuck up, boorish young American!” Sarah also has little time for the French – thinking of Dr Gerard and his psychological theories, she reflects “Frenchmen were all alike […] obsessed by sex”. Lady Westholme, too, has little time for foreigners; of Mrs Boynton she says “her manner had been fairly normal – for an American of that type”.

Miss Pierce says of the “native servants”, “all these Arabs look alike to me”. But Miss Pierce isn’t the most balanced of characters, believing that political agitators are everywhere: “I suppose Mr Mah Mood – I cannot remember his name – but the dragoman, I mean – I suppose he could not be a Bolshevik agent? Or even, perhaps, Miss King? I believe many quite well-brought-up girls of good family belong to these dreadful Communists!” Miss Pierce is a Reds under the Bed kinda woman.

Perhaps a more meaningful exchange is that between Dr Gerard and Jefferson Cope when discussing how Elmer Boynton arranged it so that his wife had absolute control over the family finances. ““In my country” says Gerard, “it is impossible by law to do such a thing”. Mr Cope rose. “In America”, he said, “we’re great believers in absolute freedoms.” Dr Gerard rose also. He was unimpressed by the remark. He had heard it made before by people of many different nationalities. The illusion that freedom is the prerogative of one’s own particular race is fairly widespread. Dr Gerard was wiser. He knew that no race, no country and no individual could be described as free. But he also knew that there were different degrees of bondage.””

These fascinating few lines not only show Dr Gerard’s possibly anti-American bias, but also look further ahead, maybe to the political tensions that would bring about Second World War the year after publication. As Dr Gerard is critical of Mrs Boynton holding all the purse strings, this also reflects Christie’s own personal form of misogyny that she has shown in previous books. Another telling phrase from Gerard, that supports Christie’s view of women, comes in his first conversation with Sarah: “”To have too much power is bad for women,” Gerard agreed with sudden gravity. He shook his head. “It is difficult for a woman not to abuse power.””

Classic denouement: The denouement (and accompanying epilogue) go on for a good 27 pages, and contain surprise after surprise after surprise. You keep thinking that Poirot has identified the killer and then he goes on to explain why they didn’t do it! So it’s a very exciting read. It’s not quite a classic because you don’t have that amazing moment when Poirot points accusingly at a suspect and they wither in front of him. There’s also a twist, not dissimilar from that in Death on the Nile, which means you may not get the sense of justice being seen to be done. However, psychologically speaking, I’m sure Poirot and Gerard would agree that it’s an entirely appropriate ending.

Happy ending? Without question. In fact, the happy ending starts the moment that Mrs Boynton dies! One marriage that was on the rocks is now back on course, and there are three new marriages to appreciate as well as the birth of a glitteringly unexpected career. It’s almost like a Shakespearean comedy.

Did the story ring true? For the most part, yes, absolutely. As I said at the beginning, I found that I could really relate to the family setup, and that sense of control from the matriarchal character that meant the rest of the family had to struggle to survive. However, I’ve never believed that Lennox would have the strength and ability to break free of Mrs Boynton’s reins sufficiently to marry Nadine, given the pressure that his mother must have put on him. Apart from that, the manner of the crime and the detection all seem perfectly feasible to me.

Overall satisfaction rating:
Despite its being an old favourite, I think the lack of activity might make this not quite Classic Christie, so I’m awarding it an 8/10.

Hercule Poirot's ChristmasThanks for reading my blog of Appointment with Death 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 Hercule Poirot’s Christmas; a story of which I remember very little, except that it features an exotic character called Pilar and spans one week over a very fateful Christmas. As always, I’ll blog my thoughts about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!

Review – Love from a Stranger, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 28th February 2018

Love from a StrangerTime for the last production in the 2017-18 season of Made in Northampton shows at the Royal and Derngate, and Agatha Christie’s Love from a Stranger; probably the one I was looking forward to least. Why least? Because whilst I love to read whodunits, and watch TV detective programmes, I’m not sure murder mysteries transfer to the two-hour stage format that well. Of course, I recognise that Christie is a most bankable name, and that when you could buy tickets for the opening night of The Mousetrap, front stalls only cost two groats. But I was disappointed in the Peter James play The Perfect Murder that we saw a few years ago, and when I took Mrs Chrisparkle to see the Agatha Christie Company’s The Hollow in Milton Keynes in 2006, she threatened divorce if I ever booked for any of their shows again. I haven’t.

Helen BradburyHowever, Love from a Stranger is a very different kettle of intrigue. If the title means nothing to you, it’s adapted from Christie’s 1924 short story Philomel Cottage, that was first published in the UK in the collection The Listerdale Mystery. If you’re a regular reader you might know that I’m currently re-reading all the Agatha Christie detective books and blogging about them as part of my Agatha Christie Challenge – fortunately I couldn’t remember the details of Philomel Cottage before seeing the play, but if you intend to see it, please don’t brush up on the short story beforehand because it will completely ruin it for you!

Helen Bradbury and Sam FrenchumThis is not your regular Christie whodunit with a quaint old English lady or meddlesome Belgian detective poking their noses in other peoples’ business. Whilst it has distinct Christie traits – everything that’s wrong in the world, for example, stems from those dreadful foreigners that Christie’s characters always seem to distrust so much – this is much more of a genuine thriller. You simply don’t know where the story’s going but you sense it’s not going to end well for someone. The original play was a success in 1936 but for Lucy Bailey’s production she has moved it forward to 1958. That’s perhaps a curious, random time setting, but in a sense it proves that the atmosphere and themes of the play are timeless; and, handily, it would still be perfectly reasonable for a photography enthusiast of that time to have their own darkroom. The production has an air of austerity to it, with Mike Britton’s vision of a Bayswater flat being fairly drab and featureless; the settings and costumes, whilst superbly realised, are far less glamorous than you might think the original 1930s version of the play would offer.

Sam Frenchum and Molly LoganHaving been uncertain about this production before seeing it, I can now say that it’s a humdinger of a thriller, packed with suspense and nerve-jangling moments that keep you on your toes from the start to the finish. The whole visual and audio presentation is disconcerting throughout, with eerie music that creeps in at eerie moments; buzzing, vibrating throbs that take the otherwise realistic presentation and invest it with otherworldly significance; lights flashing whenever the camera snaps; and a set that has a mind of its own, enabling the audience to see the play from more than one perspective.

Alice HaigAt the heart of the play are two superbly performed characters – Cecily, played by Helen Bradbury and Bruce played by Sam Frenchum. Ms Bradbury delivers a marvellously controlled performance as the stifled and repressed Cecily, desperate for some excitement in her life and dreading the prospect of a staid life married to Michael. As happiness appears to blossom in her life, her joy expands as she becomes Mistress of Philomel Cottage, benevolently taking charge of her new servants but also getting increasingly concerned at her husband’s deteriorating health. She cuts a dramatic figure on stage and it’s a brilliant performance. Mr Frenchum, too, is superb as the unassuming but strangely charismatic Bruce, deftly stealing Cecily from under the nose of Michael and starting up a new life in the country. As Bruce’s role becomes more complex, Mr Frenchum takes on a truly scary persona, and the 9pm scene (if I can put it that way) between the two of them is terrifying in its suspense, physicality and constantly changing surprises.

Justin AvothBut the whole show is littered with great performances, none more enjoyable than Nicola Sanderson as the appalling but hilarious Aunt Lulu, a social-climbing skinflint who’ll always compromise her principles if it means a free tea at Fortnum’s or being impressed with a mention of the Savoy. Alice Haig also gives great support as Cecily’s friend Mavis, a slightly bland role to which she gives real heart and character. Justin Avoth as Michael is the epitome of a stiff-upper-lip in a breakdown, Molly Logan a humorously enthusiastic domestic servant Ethel, Gareth Williams a faithful old retainer as gardener Hodgson, and Crispin Redman a hearty yet sincere doctor of the old school – I wish someone like him worked at my GP practice.

Crispin RedmanTo say more would be to give away the game and that just wouldn’t be right. It’s a smashing production that builds in intensity to a stonkingly good denouement. It’s on at the Royal and Derngate until 17th March and then embarks on an extensive tour to Oxford, Guildford, Canterbury, Cardiff, Liverpool, Richmond, Leicester, Birmingham, Cambridge, Plymouth, Edinburgh, Newcastle, Cheltenham, Glasgow, Milton Keynes, Salford and Norwich. A great night’s entertainment – don’t miss it!

Production photos by Sheila Burnett

The Agatha Christie Challenge – Death on the Nile (1937)

Death on the NileIn which wealthy socialite Linnet Ridgeway marries Simon Doyle, the fiancé of her best friend Jacqueline de Bellefort, much to the latter’s fury. Miss de Bellefort stalks the newly married couple all round Egypt on holiday just so that she can be a thorn in their flesh. Hercule Poirot, the great Belgian detective is also on holiday in Egypt, where he refuses a commission from the new Mrs Doyle to “do something about it”. However, when one member of the love triangle is found murdered, it is up to Poirot to solve the case, assisted by his friend Colonel Race (whom we met in Cards on the Table). Intrigue piles upon intrigue, and there are many elements to the crime that Poirot identifies and clarifies before finally unveiling the killer. As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I promise not to tell you whodunit!

AlgiersThe book is dedicated “To Sybil Burnett, who also loves wandering about the world”. Sybil Burnett was the wife of Air Vice-Marshal Sir Charles Burnett, and she and Mrs Christie met on a boat trip from Rome to Beirut in 1929. Although they took an instant dislike to one another, they soon became firm friends. As Christie describes her, in her autobiography: “she was a woman of great originality, who said exactly what came into her head, loved travelling and foreign places, had a beautiful house in Algiers, four daughters and two sons by a previous marriage, and an inexhaustible enjoyment of life.” No wonder she merited one of Christie’s dedications. Unlike the majority of Christie’s previous books, Death on the Nile wasn’t originally published in magazine instalments, but was first published in the UK on 1st November 1937 by Collins Crime Club; and then subsequently in the US by Dodd, Mead & Co in 1938.

Peter UstinovI have a slight problem with this book – but it’s a good one; it’s that I cannot put out of my mind the superb film adaptation starring Peter Ustinov as Hercule Poirot that was made in 1978. As a result, I can remember large sections of the story in good detail, including all the machinations regarding whodunit. So, unfortunately, there was little sense of surprise in my re-reading this book; but the snippets from the film that I could see in my mind’s eye were very rewarding to remember. If you haven’t seen the film, I’d definitely recommend it.

Pearl handled gunIt’s a highly action-packed book, with an intricate plot and several sub-plots that, whilst appearing to be relevant to the main murder story, are surprisingly tangential. Even though they have no bearing on identifying the murderer, they are fully explained and make perfect sense and are a vital part of the book as a whole. Without giving too much of the game away, there are also several deaths for the reader to enjoy – if that’s your thing – including a couple of surprises.

moustache2Poirot is on sparkling form, as you would expect; he continues that behaviour of being shockingly nosey that was very noticeable in Dumb Witness, such as when he’s given the opportunity to rifle through private documents or overhear private conversations. In fact, this book would be rather lost Poirot doing some injudicious earwigging. Tim Allerton gives us a memorable brief description of Poirot: “that old mountebank? He won’t find out anything. He’s all talk and moustaches.” Captain Hastings is presumably back in Argentina, but Poirot has learned enough from his old friend when to recognise unexpected behaviour from an Old Etonian, which helps him understand one of the sub-plots. Assisting him in the investigation we welcome back Colonel Race, although, again, Race is not quite so interested in the murder as he is in discovering the identity of a political agitator who’s been causing the government some problems over recent years.

Archaeological digPerhaps the most interesting new insight this book gives us into Poirot’s modus operandi is a fascinating comparison between investigating a crime and working on an archaeological dig. Christie had been on a number of digs by this stage, both with and without her husband, and she must have been thrilled when she saw the similarity between the two, which she used to excellent effect in this book. “Once I went professionally to an archaeological expedition” says Poirot, “and I learnt something there. In the course of an excavation, when something comes up out of the ground, everything is cleared away very carefully all around it. You take away the loose earth, and you scrape here and there with a knife until finally your object is there, all alone, ready to be drawn and photographed with no extraneous matter confusing it. That is what I have been seeking to do – clear away the extraneous matter so that we can see the truth – the naked shining truth.” It’s particularly appropriate to this book, not only because of the Egyptian setting, but because there’s an awful lot of extraneous matter that clouds understanding and perception of the crime in question.

Pyramids from our hotel roomChristie’s knowledge of the digs frequently added local colour to her more exotically located books and there are many references to real locations in Death on the Nile which set the scene. Linnet and Simon spend a week at the Mena House Hotel, just outside Cairo, where I also spent a few days when we went to Egypt – I’ll never forget the fantastic views of the Pyramids from our balcony. The scene then shifts to the Cataract Hotel in Assuan (modern day Aswan), still today a fantastic residence currently run as a Sofitel. The book takes in the legendary locations of Abu Simnel, Wadi Halfa (over the border in Sudan), Philae (an island in the reservoir of the Aswan Low Dam), Shellal and Ez-Sebua. There is no attempt by Christie (unusually!) to mask the locations of where the action of the book takes place.

chez-ma-tanteBy contrast, outside of Egypt and the Nile region, there are some invented locations. There is no such place as Malton-under-Wode, home of Lord Windlesham – at one stage prospected husband of Linnet – although there is a Malton in North Yorkshire. Fanthorp is said to live in Market Donnington, Northants, which I suspect is a conglomeration of Market Harborough and Castle Donington, both of which, interestingly, are in Leicestershire. Nor is there a Bellfield in Connecticut, allegedly the home of Miss van Schuyler. The desirable and trendy bistro Chez Ma Tante doesn’t exist – at least not in London, but there’s a well-respected place of the same name in Brooklyn.

Nile_cruisesAs Captain Hastings is absent, the book doesn’t have a narrator; or at least, not until Mrs Otterbourne describes the decision as to whether to go to Egypt or not as “not a matter of life or death”. Christie then writes: “But there she was quite wrong – for a matter of life and death was exactly what it was.” So Christie herself is the narrator, largely story-telling simply through facts, occasionally casting out a few minor asides. The style works well for this book, which has so much content; there isn’t a lot of room for comment too. The first chapter, which is divided into twelve sub-sections, is a good example of how Christie can give you a series of snapshots, all roughly happening at the same time, to act as a first draft of and introduction to almost all of the main players in the story. Rather like Murder on the Orient Express, she gives us a murder that takes place in an enclosed environment – here a Nile cruiser, there on the luxury train. The murderer must come from within, which gives the story an added excitement, and a sense of slight claustrophobia and imminent danger. Also like Orient Express, Poirot conducts interviews with all the passengers on a one-by-one basis, throwing up clues and red herrings as he goes. This structure drives the reader on to read it with an excitable frenzy.

Scarlet kimonoThere are a few references to Christie’s other books; apart from the reappearance of Colonel Race, Miss van Schuyler is a friend of Rufus van Aldin, who featured in The Mystery of the Blue Train, and Poirot refers to the discovery of a scarlet kimono in his luggage, which was an occurrence on board the Orient Express. Other quotes include a passage from Frankie and Johnny (he was her man and he did her wrong) and La Vie est Vaine, by Leon Montenaeken, after quoting which Poirot confirms he knows whodunit.

NinonTim Allerton uses a term of – not quite abuse but definitely disapproval – horse coper – to describe Sir George Wode. I’ve never heard it before, but it’s the same as a horse-dealer or maybe today we would say horse-trader as a patronising insult. And Mrs Otterbourne is said to wear black draperies made from ninon – another term I hadn’t heard. It’s a lightweight French fabric made from silk of nylon. I thought it sounded more like when a police car drives past.

If you’re a regular reader, you’ll know that I like to research the present-day value of any significant sums of money mentioned in Christie’s books, just to get a more realistic feel for the amounts in question. There are only a few mentioned, but they’re quite relevant in understanding the difference in wealth between Linnet and Jackie. Simon believes that Jackie lives on less than £200 per year. In today’s values that equates to about £9500. She wouldn’t be paying tax, then. By contrast, Mrs Allerton estimates that Linnet’s white dress for dinner alone will have cost 80 guineas, which today would be £4000. Financially the two are miles apart. Linnet’s pearls, which she carelessly just leaves around the house are valued at £50,000. That’s a whopping £2.4m at today’s values.

Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for Death on the Nile:

Publication Details: 1937. Fontana paperback, 8th impression, published in 1972, price 30p. The cover illustration by Tom Adams depicts a pearl-handled pistol in front of a Tutankhamun style mask. Simple, effective, and true to the story.

How many pages until the first death: One of the longest waits for a murder so far – 98 pages. Of the blogs I have already written, only The Secret Adversary and At Bertram’s Hotel make you wait longer. It’s important for the plot development and for the slant that Christie wants the reader to believe, that a particular picture is slowly painted.

Funny lines out of context:
Not a lot really. Christie does tend to have Poirot “ejaculating” a few times in this book, but that’s all.

Memorable characters: This is one aspect in which this book really stands out. You have Mrs Otterbourne, the over-the-top, sex-mad novelist; Miss van Schuyler, the domineering, class-obsessed old harridan; Tim Allerton, the rather effeminate and affected young man (who surprises you by not being gay); Ferguson, the outspoken and aggressive communist; and of course, Jackie, the obsessive and controlling lover.

Christie the Poison expert:

No trace of poison here. Deaths are caused by gunshot or stabbing.

Class/social issues of the time:

A number of Christie’s usual themes get an airing in this book. In a description of Tim’s attitude to Poirot, Christie puts thoughts in his mother’s mind: “Tim was usually so easy-going and good-tempered. This outburst was quite unlike him. It wasn’t as though he had the ordinary Britisher’s dislike – and mistrust – of foreigners.” We’re not all like that, Mrs Allerton. But she is. “Do you think one of those little black wretches rolled it over for fun?” she asks, when trying to understand why the boulder was sent crashing down the hill.

There are mentions of a “negro orchestra” and the fact that, in ancient times, “negroes must pay customs duties” on entering Egypt; but these are just examples of how acceptable language changes over time. However, the word Christie (as narrator) chooses to use to describe the street vendors and bakshish hunters on the river bank at Aswan is “riff-raff”; a very snobbish and patronising term indeed.

There is a character whom Poirot suspects is a blackmailer. His description of this person’s behaviour: “the murderer comes to her cabin, gives her the money, and then […] she counts it. Oh yes, I know that class. She would count the money and while she counted it she was completely off her guard.” Poirot explains the blackmail activity by believing it is typical of “a class”.

Cornelia, who is portrayed as a sympathetic character, has strong views on equality of the sexes – or, rather, inequality. “Of course people aren’t equal. It doesn’t make sense. I know I’m kind of homely-looking, and I used to feel mortified about it sometimes, but I’ve got over that. I’d like to have been born elegant and beautiful like Mrs Doyle, but I wasn’t, so I guess it’s no use worrying.” Christie has often written characters and plot lines where she clearly disapproves of anything approaching feminism. Cornelia’s attitude infuriates Ferguson, but he’s the kind of person Christie will have disapproved of, so she delights in thwarting his romantic interest in the book.

Simon, too, has strong views about relationships between the sexes: “”You see, a man doesn’t want to feel that a woman cares more for him than he does for her.” His voice grew warm as he went on. “He doesn’t want to feel owned, body and soul. It’s that damned possessive attitude! This man is mine – he belongs to me! That’s the sort of thing I can’t stick – no man could stick! He wants to get away – to be free. He wants to own his woman; he doesn’t want her to own him.”” Those are very much the kind of antifeminist sentiments of which Christie would approve.

Classic denouement: Whilst the denouement is without question exciting, I wouldn’t describe it as a classic. There are a number of loose ends and red herrings that need to get cleared up first, and every time you think Poirot is about to start the j’accuse procedure, he ends up going off on another tangent. It also lacks a certain something in that the murderer isn’t present at the time – and all you have is their follow-up reaction, or indeed the reaction related by a third party. Poirot – or Christie – is also extremely naughty with their reader, for holding back a vital piece of evidence that really gives the game away; Poirot only mentions it at the denouement, and I think the reader can be rightly peeved not to have had access to that information in advance.

Happy ending? Somewhat mixed. Although there are clearly two weddings on the way – both of them rather unexpected – another person who did not win the lady’s affections is left out of the love stakes. And a surprise twist at the end means that you don’t really get the sense of justice being seen to be done.

Did the story ring true? In part. But how did Jackie afford to travel to Egypt and stalk Linnet and Simon when she only earns £200 a year? And the manner of two of the three murders are a blend of far-fetched and extraordinary luck. Despite that, and perhaps due to Christie’s use of real life Nile locations, you can really picture the action taking place with surprisingly realistic effectiveness.

Overall satisfaction rating: It’s not quite a 10/10 for me, with the slightly less than classic denouement, and Christie cheating by withholding evidence from the reader; but it’s definitely worth a 9/10.

Appointment with DeathThanks for reading my blog of Death on the Nile 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 Appointment with Death; a story that features an appalling old woman who, if I remember rightly, gets what’s coming to her. More details than that, I cannot recall. As always, I’ll blog my thoughts about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!