The Agatha Christie Challenge – Murder in Mesopotamia (1936)

Murder in MesopotamiaIn which Hercule Poirot encounters an archaeological dig in Iraq, only to discover that the wife of the leader of the dig has been murdered in a seemingly impossible manner. There’s a motley crew of archaeologists and assistants working there – and one of them must have done it! As you would expect, Hercule Poirot gets to the bottom of this case fairly quickly. If you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I promise not to tell you whodunit!

katherine_woolleyChristie dedicated the book to “my many archaeological friends in Iraq and Syria”. The story takes place in the wilds of ancient Babylonia and Assyria, where Christie had visited with her husband Max Mallowan; and it is largely accepted that the character of Louise Leidner is based on Katharine Woolley, stalwart of many archaeological digs, and the person to whom Christie had previously dedicated (along with her husband) The Thirteen Problems. The book was originally published in the US in magazine format in the Saturday Evening Post during November and December 1935; in the UK, an abridged version was published in eight instalments in Women’s Pictorial Magazine under the title No Other Love. This version provided some of the characters with different names: Dr and Mrs Leidner were originally Dr and Mrs Trevor, and Amy Leatheran was Amy Seymour. The full book of Murder in Mesopotamia was first published in the UK in July 1936, and in the US shortly after.

PlanIn this book, Christie returned to the first-person narrator style, the narrator in question being Nurse Amy Leatheran – Captain Hastings, presumably, still occupied in The Argentine. It’s a style that works very well because you get to know the intimate thoughts of another person directly involved in the case, and not just the amazing workings of the Poirot brain. The frontispiece and first chapter being written by Dr Reilly makes the opening structure to the book a little clunky, but by the time the story gets going you completely forget about how it is that Amy gets to write the story in the first place. She warns us that she’s not much of a writer and isn’t very learned in matters of grammar; but this only goes to make us warm to the character even more. In the best Hastings tradition, Amy appends a plan of the dig house so that we can see for ourselves how tight-knit a community it is, and how unlikely it is that the crime could be committed without anyone else knowing. When a second character makes it clear that they have made a great discovery about how the crime was committed, you just know that this character is also going to be murdered within a matter of hours. It’s an off-shoot of the slightly melodramatic style.

police interrogationThere were two particular aspects of this book which struck me as I was reading it. One is that it is just a short space of time from the moment Poirot arrives on the scene to when he delivers his denouement speech – approximately four days by my reckoning. The second is that, for once, for me, Poirot’s long interrogations of all the suspects got a little dull. It felt somewhat repetitive; even though the structure is not that different from Murder on the Orient Express, where Poirot and his team take the suspects one by one, but there you can see it is part of a rigid structure; in Murder in Mesopotamia there is no real sense of structure, it just feels rather ambling.

NurseThere are a few splendid moments of pure Poirotism, however, and the relationship between Amy and him is a fascinating one; usually it’s the typical Poirot-style respect for others, but occasionally he flies off the handle. When Amy believes she is in the firing line during the denouement, she stands up for herself – and Poirot doesn’t like it: “for the moment will you silence yourself. Impossible to proceed while you conduct this argument.” Amy sometimes implies that Poirot has a strong feminine side; on one occasion she says he shows kindness that even a woman couldn’t; on another she notes his interest in gossip: “”I like all the information there is,” was Poirot’s reply. And really, that described his methods very well. I found later that there wasn’t anything – no small scrap of insignificant gossip – in which he wasn’t interested. Men aren’t usually so gossipy.” She could also predict that Poirot would make a grand denouement scene – as his readers know he certainly will. He commences the denouement with what Christie calls “a most theatrical bow”. And when Captain Maitland is impatient for his conclusions, Amy notes “but that wasn’t the way Hercule Poirot did things. I saw perfectly well that he meant to make a song and dance of it.”

Rude sculpturesAmy herself is rather prim and proper, disapproving of some of the ancient pottery: “after that she showed me some queer little terra-cotta figurines – but most of them were just rude. Nasty minds those old people had, I say.” She is slightly amused and slightly repelled by Poirot’s overall foreignness: “Of course, I knew he was a foreigner, but I hadn’t expected him to be quite as foreign as he was, if you know what I mean.” She describes Mrs Mercado as “though she might have what my mother used to call “a touch of the tar brush””, which today comes across as a thoroughly unpleasant example of racism.

plateBut it is Poirot who comes out with the most startling piece of sexism, in his advice to the thwarted Carl Reiter, who allowed Mrs Leidner to treat him like a doormat: “Mon ami, let this be a lesson to you. You are a man. Behave then, like a man! It is against Nature for a man to grovel. Women and Nature have almost exactly the same reactions! Remember it is better to take the largest plate within reach and fling it at a woman’s head than it is to wriggle like a worm whenever she looks at you!” I don’t know about you, but I had to read that twice. That’s an extraordinary thing for Poirot to have said. One can only assume that sometimes Christie liked a bit of rough. Later in the denouement, Poirot propounds: “there is no hatred so great as that of a man who has been made to love a woman against his will.” I can envisage the entire female sex rolling their combined eyeballs at that one.

Tigris Palace BaghdadThe book is absolutely crammed with references – especially place names – that might benefit from a little exploration. It’s the University of Pittstown that organises the expedition to Iraq; there’s no such university, of course, although there are Pittstowns in both New York state and New Jersey. It’s much more likely that Christie wants us to think of the University of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. When we first meet Amy Leatheran she is writing a letter from the Tigris Palace Hotel in Baghdad. This was a very fashionable hotel in the middle of the 20th century. She trained at St. Christopher’s Hospital; there is one such hospital in the UK, in Fareham; there’s also a St. Christopher’s Hospital for Children in Philadelphia – take your choice.

BabyloniaThen there are all the exotic, Iraqi locations for the dig. The main site in the story is at Tell Yarimjah, a tell being an artificial hill created by many generations of people living and rebuilding on the same spot, a short distance from Kirkuk, in north-eastern Iraq. The area is rich in history and archaeological possibilities, although today, sadly, it is at the centre of the ISIS zone. Hassanieh is said to be a day and a half from Baghdad – there is a small village by that name in Syria, and I would guess that time-distance would be about correct. Mrs Kelsey, with whom Amy travels to Iraq, has a house at Alwiyah, which is a suburb of Baghdad – it’s also the name of a famous club that was frequented by ex-pats and locals as recently as the 1980s. Neighbouring frontier posts of Tell Kotchek and Abu Kemal are mentioned, together with Deir ez Zor; Tell Kotchek is on the border between Iraq and Syria, currently under the control of Kurdish forces, Abu Kemal is another border town, part of the Deir ez Zor region of south eastern Syria, currently under the control of ISIS.

Belle dameWe also have some books to research. Amy is reading Death in a Nursing Home which sounds like an alternative version of Ngaio Marsh’s The Nursing Home Murder, which had been published just one year earlier, in 1935. Mrs Leidner’s bookshelves include Linda Condon, a novel by the American Joseph Hergesheimer, first published in 1919, and Crewe Train, a 1926 novel by Rose Macaulay, both of which feature independent women at their core – hence Poirot’s assumptions about Mrs Leidner’s character. Another literary work that is mentioned in connection with Mrs Leidner is La Belle Dame Sans Merci; this is a romantic ballad by John Keats, dated 1819, featuring what the Wikipedia page calls a “destructively beautiful lady”. I need say no more.

The Mystery of the Blue TrainOne other cheeky reference is to a certain Mr Van Aldin; Dr Leidner tells Captain Maitland that he has heard of Hercule Poirot through a mutual acquaintance by name of Van Aldin. Could this be the same Van Aldin whose daughter is murdered in The Mystery of the Blue Train? I think so.

GooseThere are a few interesting turns of phrase that I’d also quickly like to look at: Amy says that Mrs Mercado’s attitude to Mrs Leidner’s first husband is “one way of calling a goose a swan”. It’s a phrase I hadn’t heard before and I think it’s rather amusing. Geese feature quite heavily in Amy’s vernacular as she also refers to “a goose walking over my grave”, which I also hadn’t heard before I came across it in The Mysterious Affair at Styles. Similarly, Bill Coleman refers to cash as “oof”, which was also new to me until I read Partners in Crime. One last new word for me – electrotype. Some articles are described as electrotypes at the end of the book – this was a chemical method for forming metal parts that exactly reproduce a model, invented in 1838 by Moritz von Jacobi in Russia. It’s a useful way of reproducing an original, say for a museum or gallery, so that the art style can be observed without the original needing to be there – for security purposes.

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

Publication Details: 1936. Fontana paperback, 4th impression, published in 1967, price erased but maybe 3/6. Tom Adams’ cover illustration shows us some of the main clues in the story – the scary mask, the bloody rope, a valuable goblet, and one of the notes received by Mrs Leidner, that reads “you have got to die”. It’s an unsettling image, for sure.

How many pages until the first death: 53. There’s a lot of build-up which allows us to get a really good understanding of the character of Mrs Leidner. Poirot doesn’t have that benefit, and has to find out everything in retrospect.

Funny lines out of context: Just one or two, brought about by that funny old word that nowadays has a much more precise meaning than it did in 1936.

““Oh dear, dear”, I ejaculated.”

“Captain Maitland uttered an occasional ejaculation.”

Memorable characters: Christie goes to great lengths to paint as full a picture as possible of Louise Leidner, with many descriptions and many detailed conversations, but, even so, I’m not entirely sure that you could call her a “memorable” character. I think Amy Leatheran is much more memorable, through her role as the narrator; a well-meaning nurse but lacking in some finesse. Many of the men working on the dig aren’t particularly well drawn – it’s easy to mix up your Coleman with your Emmott, for example.

Christie the Poison expert:

There’s no poison element to the first death but the second is caused by drinking hydrochloric acid, one of Christie’s favourite poisons. She even describes its physical effect on the lips of the person who drinks it. Nasty!

Class/social issues of the time:

Because the action of this book doesn’t take place in England, it seems that the day to day issues of England don’t impact so much on this story as they do in others; even though it’s a largely English cast of characters.

As you might expect, there is talk of “dagos” and “coloured people” (which, of course, was extremely polite for 1936). But it’s still a world where it is acceptable to shout at Arabs: ”Arabs don’t understand anything said in an ordinary “English” voice”; and where it is acceptable to refer to someone as “only an Iraqi” – not as important as a white Caucasian person.

As in Death in the Clouds, Christie still doesn’t have much respect – in print at least – for archaeologists. Whereas in that book the Duponts could argue until teatime without noticing anything going on around them, in Murder in Mesopotamia, Mrs Leidner goes in for the killer observation: “Archaeologists only look at what lies beneath their feet. The sky and the heavens don’t exist for them […] oh, they’re very queer people”.

Classic denouement: Yes, and extremely lengthy! You could almost say that the denouement procedure starts within minutes of the second death, which means that it covers approximately 44 pages. Poirot engineers the classic situation of everyone being present whilst he laboriously goes through all the possibilities. Definitely the strongest part of the book, in my humble opinion.

Happy ending? In a sense, yes, but it’s not emphasised. There is a wedding – but it’s between two relatively minor characters so it doesn’t mean that much to the reader. Amy’s narrative ends on something of a low note.

Did the story ring true? Not entirely. There are two facts that the reader is asked to believe – including the method of the murder – that are fairly far-fetched.

Overall satisfaction rating: Whilst it’s interesting to see Poirot operating in a different environment this isn’t an overly successful book in my eyes. I’m going to be generous and give it a 7/10.

Cards on the TableThanks for reading my blog of Murder in Mesopotamia 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 will be Cards on the Table. This is the book where Christie tells us up front that there are just four suspects and one of them is the murderer – so don’t go considering the butler or someone’s second cousin once removed, because they definitely didn’t do it! I’m not sure if she lets Poirot into that secret mind you, I’ll have to re-read it first. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!

The Agatha Christie Challenge – Death in the Clouds (1935)

Death in the CloudsIn which that famous Belgian detective Hercule Poirot travels on board one of those new-fangled aeroplane things and one of his fellow passengers is murdered in plain sight of everyone else. With the help of Inspector Japp and contributions from fellow passengers Jane Grey and Norman Gale, Poirot uncovers the truth of this extremely bold murder. And if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I promise not to tell you whodunit!

OsteopathyChristie dedicated the book to Ormond Beadle. This is likely to be Ormond A. Beadle, 1903 – 1976, osteopathist and writer, but I can find no evidence of a friendship between him and Christie. The book was originally published in the US in magazine format in the Saturday Evening Post during February and March 1935 under the title Murder in the Air; in novel format, again in the US, it first appeared in March 1935, its publication coinciding with the final magazine instalment. In the UK, an abridged version was published at the same time in six instalments in Women’s Pictorial Magazine as Mystery in the Air; the full novel appeared in the UK in July 1935, this time as Death in the Clouds.

Cat-and-MouseThis is a terrifically exciting and entertaining read. Even though I was fairly sure all the way through that I could remember whodunit – and I was right – this didn’t impact on my enjoyment of the book. In fact, in many ways it enhanced it, as you realise what a clever cat-and-mouse game Poirot plays with the murderer on and off throughout the investigations. He tells us early on that he is certain he knows who the murderer is – it’s apparent to him as soon as he receives the list of the contents of everyone’s luggage – but he cannot fathom a motive. “Poirot gathered up the loose typewritten sheets and read them through once again. Then he laid them down with a sigh. “On the face of it,” he said, “it seems to point very plainly to one person as having committed the crime. And yet, I cannot see why, or even how.”” From that point of view, Christie is scrupulously fair with her reader, as she gives us all the same information that Poirot receives, alerting us to the fact that he has already virtually solved the crime under our noses, so it’s easy for us to go back and re-read the information that Poirot found so crucial. Which item(s) is/are so revealing to Poirot? Unless we make our own guess, we do not find out until the very end. And it’s not until he is satisfied with the motive that he calls for one of those exciting showdown denouements.

waspElements of the book examine the subject of the psychology of crime. Much is made of the boldness of the crime; how it was committed in an enclosed environment, and the fact that it must have been witnessed by a number of people who simply didn’t recognise or weren’t aware of what they were looking at. Christie had a similar enclosed environment in Murder on the Orient Express, but in that book, there was always the possibility that someone could have got on, or got off the train, whilst it was stuck in snowdrifts. No one can get off an aeroplane mid-flight! Furthermore, it was committed in front of the great Hercule Poirot, but I’m suspecting that the murderer wasn’t aware he would be on the plane. Fournier, of the Sûreté, is convinced there must have been a psychological moment – either a point in time when everyone was distracted by another event, or when everyone simply forgot to pay attention for whatever reason – when the murderer struck. They may, for example, have been distracted by the wasp. Poirot reflects on the fact that there was such a moment in Three Act Tragedy.

DentistAnother of Poirot’s observations on the psychology of crime addresses a major problem of his trade: “In every case of a criminal nature one comes across the same phenomena when questioning witnesses. Everyone keeps something back. Sometimes – often indeed – it is something quite harmless, something, perhaps, quite unconnected with the crime; but – I say it again – there is always something.” And Christie makes a further observation that I don’t believe had appeared in her books before, that of the societal implication of being associated with a crime. Rumour and gossip work in two directions. Jane Grey, for instance, suddenly becomes much more in demand at Antoine’s, the salon where she works, whereas Norman Gale’s patients at his dentists’ practice start leaving in droves. The same association with the same crime can have very different effects on an individual’s work, socialising, reputation and character. Poirot accepts that this wider effect is something one cannot overlook when trying to solve a crime.

watsonOnce again, there is no named narrator for this book; just Christie’s own voice telling us the story. But she creates a brilliant first chapter by interspersing the third person narration with the first-person thoughts of many of the passengers. We hear the commentaries of Jane Grey, Norman Gale, the Countess of Horbury, Venetia Kerr, Dr Bryant, Mr Ryder and indeed Poirot himself. It’s a quick and effective way for us to get inside the skins of the main characters and it gets the book off to a fast and furious start. Structurally, the book is typical of a number of Christie’s books where Poirot involves some of the younger people in assisting him to solve the murder – here he gets Jane and Norman to accompany him on meetings and act as his eyes and ears in different locations. It’s been a while since we last met Captain Hastings (that was in Lord Edgware Dies) but he would return for Christie’s next book, The ABC Murders, and Poirot seems to lack a degree of male companionship that helps him find the truth. However, in this book he does have Mr Clancy, writer of detective fiction, off whom he can bounce some ideas.

writing at a deskClancy is possibly more like Ariadne Oliver, last seen as part of the Parker Pyne Investigates team, on whom Christie based herself to a large extent. There are a few tongue-in-cheek passages in the book about Clancy where Christie pokes fun at herself; Japp is not a fan, for example. “These detective story writers… always making the police out to be fools… and getting their procedure all wrong. Why, if I were to say the things to my super that their inspectors say to superintendents I should be thrown out of the Force tomorrow on my ear. Set of ignorant scribblers! This is just the sort of damn-fool murder that a scribbler of rubbish would think he could get away with.” Christie also employs her own personal knowledge of the world of archaeology to colour the characteristics of the Duponts, almost ridiculing them as they argue amongst themselves to the extent that they notice nothing else going on around them; a typical archaeologist’s trait, one expects she would argue.

Pile of suitcasesScience and technology are wonderful things, are they not? is a question Poirot might have rhetorically asked during the course of this book. For Christie’s contemporary readers, the thought of travelling in an aeroplane would probably have been an exciting and innovative thing to do, and you can sense more than a little general wonderment at the whole air-travel experience here. “Jane caught her breath. It was only her second flight. She was still capable of being thrilled. It looked – it looked as though they must run into that fence thing – no, they were off the ground – rising – rising – sweeping round – there was Le Bourget beneath them.” For her readers today, it’s fascinating to see the differences between the 1930s and modern day air travel. There’s no obvious weight or baggage restrictions: “The maid passed along the gangway. At the extreme end of the car were some piled-up rugs and cases.” The Countess of Horbury and Venetia Kerr both assume they would be allowed to smoke during take-off, but the steward tells them off – no doubt they could smoke later on though. Seats don’t all face in the same direction, some of them face backwards as in a traditional railway configuration. Stewards provided food and drink to the passengers and expected to be tipped like any other waiter. This is a very different aviation experience from today!

selfieBut it’s not only air travel that makes a technological impact in this book. When the case causes him to interrogate someone in Canada, Fournier remarks “it is romantic, you know, the transatlantic telephone. To speak so easily to someone nearly halfway across the globe.” Poirot’s response: “the telegraphed photograph – that too is romantic. Science is the greatest romance there is.” Today we text each other photos without a second’s thought. But in the 1930s, this was a huge achievement; and the evidence it provides wraps up the case for Poirot: “a photograph of your transmitted by telephone has been recognised” is the killer line he uses to capture the killer.

le Bourget airportThere are many references in this book, that I couldn’t resist but research. The flight of the Prometheus was from Le Bourget to Croydon. Le Bourget airport opened in 1919 and was the only airport to service Paris until the arrival of Orly in 1932. It was at le Bourget that Nureyev defected to the West; and Hitler made his only tour of Paris from le Bourget airport. It closed its doors to international traffic in 1977, but it is still used for domestic and international business aviation. It is also the home of the Paris Air Show. Croydon Airport, on the other hand, opened in 1920 and was the main airport for London at the time. It was the commercial home for Imperial Airways who operated from 1924 to 1939, and it remained in use until 1959.

Tzaribrod stationSeveral of the passengers on board had been to visit either Juan les Pins or Le Pinet. The former is a well-known resort on the French Riviera; the second a small town near Beziers, not far from the French coast. When Mr Clancy was being pestered by the wasp on the plane, he was working out a plot concerning the 19:55 train at Tzaribrod. Christie is playing a little game with us there, as Tzaribrod also featured in Murder on the Orient Express, and no doubt she too had to investigate its train timetables. Modern day Dimitrovgrad, it’s on the extreme edge of modern day Serbia near its border with Bulgaria (and would indeed be taken over by Bulgaria for three years during the second world war).

Bruton StreetChristie gives us the home addresses of all on board the plane, so naturally I have checked to see how many of them are real places. Madame Giselle lived at 3 rue Joliette in Paris; there are two rue Joliettes in France but neither of them is in Paris. Dr Bryant lives at 329 Harley Street; the street of course exists, but in real life only goes up to number 125. Lady Horbury lives at Horbury Chase, Sussex; the village of Horbury exists, but it’s in Yorkshire, near Wakefield. She also has an address at 315 Grosvenor Square, but Grosvenor Square maxes out at number 50. Venetia Kerr is said also to live in Horbury Chase. Norman Gale lives at 14 Shepherd’s Avenue, Muswell Hill; there are plenty of avenues in Muswell Hill – Kings, Queens, Princes and Dukes but no Shepherds. Jane Grey lives at 10 Harrogate Street, NW5, and works at Antoine’s in Bruton Street, which is also the location for Mrs Dacres’ posh shop in Three Act Tragedy – Christie obviously liked the area. NW5 is the Tufnell Park area of London, but there’s no Harrogate Street. Mitchell lives at 11, Shoeblack Lane, Wandsworth (a good old working-class type name for that address) but sadly it doesn’t exist. Mr Clancy lives at 47 Cardington Square; success! This is a real address in Hounslow, just off the Staines Road.

susaSome other references to grapple with – the Duponts have been excavating in Persia (Iran) at a site not far from Susa. According to Wikipedia, so it must be right, this was an ancient city of the Proto-Elamite, Elamite, First Persian Empire, Seleucid, and Parthian empires of Iran, and one of the most important cities of the Ancient Near East. It is located in the lower Zagros Mountains about 250 km east of the Tigris River, between the Karkheh and Dez Rivers. Mr Clancy’s book that features a blowpipe is The Clue of the Scarlet Petal, but sadly such a book does not exist. In other book news, Mr Ryder possesses a copy of Bootless Cup, which Christie tells us is banned in this country. It also doesn’t exist, but it implies that Ryder is a bit of a lad. Miss Kerr has two Tauchnitz novels. Not a writer, but a publisher – Kipling, Galsworthy, Henry James, all published by Tauchnitz.

Alexandre_Stavisky_1926Jane won her holiday by entering the Irish Sweep. Properly known as the Irish Hospitals’ Sweepstake, this was a lottery game based in Ireland before the legalisation of lotteries in the UK, but many British people entered it anyway. Winning tickets were assigned to a horse expected to run in one of several horse races, including the Cambridgeshire Handicap, Derby and Grand National. The sweepstake raised money for hospitals and the health service all over Ireland, and the final sweepstake was held in January 1986. Fournier refers to the Stavisky business, when assessing the honesty or otherwise of the Duponts. Alexandre Stavisky was an embezzler whose death caused a political crisis in France in 1934. You can read all about it here.

FoxhuntingJane and Norman speculate on the kind of person that Lady Horbury and Venetia Kerr might be tempted to murder – and come up with an MFH. This didn’t mean anything to me, and it doesn’t really seem to fit in here either. The nearest I can come to understanding this is Master of Foxhounds. I suppose that might be correct…. Unless you know different!

BlackmailAs usual, I’ve converted any significant financial sums into what their equivalent would be today – just to get a better feel for the amounts involved. The sum of £100 is mentioned twice – it’s the amount that Jane won on the Irish Sweep, and also the amount she is offered by the hound at the Daily Howl for an interview. Today the equivalent would be a little under £5000. When Poirot gets Gale to pretend to be a blackmailer and call on Lady Horbury, he tells him to ask for £10,000. You can probably work out that that tidy sum is the equivalent of nearly half a million pounds. Madame Giselle’s estate is valued at between 8 and 9 million francs. Today this is an astronomical figure – somewhere in the region of £600 million. Worth committing murder for?

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

Publication Details: 1935. Pan paperback, 7th impression, published in 1983, priced £1.25. The simple illustration on the front cover shows the wasp-like dart that Poirot finds on the floor. Quite a dull cover, really.

How many pages until the first death: 8. No messing around.

Funny lines out of context: I drew a blank here. Shame!

Memorable characters: Characterisations aren’t really this book’s strong points. However, Jane Grey and Norman Gale appear like the typical Christie sweet young things, and Jane, in particular, is a well-drawn character. Madame Giselle’s maid Elise is also fiery and solid in support.

Christie the Poison expert:
Christie takes the mickey out of herself for the suggestion that the death is caused by the “infamous arrow poison of the South American Indians”. Dr Bryant confirms that would be curare. The second death is caused by hydrocyanic acid, a solution of hydrogen cyanide in water; better known in the detective books as Prussic Acid.

Class/social issues of the time:

Plenty of examples of Christie’s usual bêtes noires; none more so than that strange xenophobia frequently expressed when it comes to characters from overseas. The coroner’s jury that considers the death of Madame Giselle decides to find Poirot guilty of the crime. “”Foreigners,” said the eyes of the square-faced man, ”you can’t trust foreigners, even if they are hand in glove with the police””. The verdict rather pleases Poirot: “”Mais oui! As I came out I heard one man say to the other, “that little foreigner – mark my words, he done it!” The jury thought the same.” Jane was uncertain whether to condole or laugh. She decided on the latter. Poirot laughed in sympathy.” Later, when Poirot is questioning Mitchell, his wife adds her twopenny worth. “I tell him not to bother his head so. Who’s to know what reason foreigners have for murdering each other; and if you ask me, I think it’s a dirty trick to have done it in a British aeroplane.” Christie adds – as if we couldn’t imagine it ourselves – “She finished her sentence with an indignant and patriotic snort.”

M. Zeropoulos, the antiques dealer, on the other hand, offers quite a low opinion of Americans. “An American – unmistakably an American. Not the best type of American either – the kind that knows nothing about anything and just wants a curio to take home. He is of the type that makes the fortune of bead sellers in Egypt – that buys the most preposterous scarabs ever made in Czecho-Slovakia […] He asks the price and I tell him. It is my American price, not quite as high as formerly (alas, they have had the depression over there). I wait for him to bargain but straightaway he pays my price. I am stupefied. It is a pity; I might have asked for more!”

In some more purely racist moments, at Antoine’s, Jane’s friend Gladys uses the pejorative slang term “Ikey” to refer to their Jewish boss. And when Norman and Jane are finding out about each other on an early date, they discover that they have a mutual dislike of “negroes” (along with loud voices and noisy restaurants) – and there’s no sense of embarrassment or discomfort at this revelation. That’s quite a hard one to take nowadays.

The French also come in for their fair share of the disapprobation. When Jane is engaged in conversation with Jean Dupont she tells herself “he’s French, though. You’ve got to look out with the French, they always say so.”

There are also observations about class; one is almost the reverse of the anti-French sentiment, where a character (Mr Clancy’s housekeeper) is belittled by Christie in a rather Dickensian way, poking fun of her language; she announces Hercule Poirot as “Mr Air Kule Prott”. On another occasion, Christie returns to a subject she’s tackled before, that certain members of the lower classes (that would be her terminology) are intimidated by the police. “Fournier was much excited, though distinctly irate with Elise. Poirot argued the point. “It is natural – very natural. The police? It is always a word frightening to that class. It embroils them in they know not what.””

The 1930s were not a time of great financial security. As Zeropoulos noted, “they have had the depression” in America. One of Christie’s more unusual observations on the world around her comes with Cicely Horbury’s conversation with Poirot about the family finances. “”You have a generous heart, Madame; and besides, you will be safe – oh, so safe – and your husband he will pay you an income.” “Not a very large one”. “Eh bien, once you are free you will marry a millionaire”. “There aren’t any nowadays.” “Ah, do not believe that, Madame. The man who had three millions perhaps now he has two millions – eh bien, it is still enough.””

One last and maybe surprising issue of the day: “Nowadays, we have discovered the beneficial action of the sun on the skin,” notes Poirot. “It is very convenient, that.” People were starting to cover up less in public, even if this was rather shocking to some older fuddy-duddies.

Classic denouement: Yes, although there are a limited number of people present, so unless the murderer is going to be unveiled in absentia – no reason why that can’t be done – Christie has done some narrowing down for us in advance. Once again, there is no indication as to the identity of the murderer in advance. It’s a beautifully written finale to the book and you want to savour every moment of it, as the murderer goes through various self-assured, then anxious phases before Poirot makes his final pronouncement.

Happy ending? Yes. There’s almost a Shakespearian getting together of couples; nothing certain though, Poirot is merely content to have created the possibilities that various people might hit it off. He’s distinctly playing the matchmaker.

Did the story ring true? Absolutely. I can easily imagine how the murder could have been achieved in the way Christie suggests, and the general plot progression all makes perfect sense. It’s a first-class book.

Overall satisfaction rating: Even allowing for a couple of unfortunate, non-PC, racist comments, I still can’t see a reason not to give this a 10/10. Christie achieves a truly fluid and entertaining writing style in this book, and Poirot has never been so manipulative.

Murder in MesopotamiaThanks for reading my blog of Death in the Clouds and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment in the space below. Sequentially, Christie’s next book is The ABC Murders but I’ve already read and written about that here, as it was one of the first three of her books that I read when I were a nipper. So next up in the Agatha Christie Challenge will be Murder in Mesopotamia, featuring Hercule Poirot in among the ruins of Christie’s beloved Middle East archaeological digs. As always, I’ll blog my thoughts about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!

The Agatha Christie Challenge – Three Act Tragedy (1935)

Three Act TragedyIn which we meet dashing actor Sir Charles Cartwright, who falls for the lovely young Miss Hermione Lytton Gore (known, bizarrely, as Egg) and together they amateur sleuth their way through a series of deaths, aided by the redoubtable Mr Satterthwaite and one Hercule Poirot. Whilst the amateur detectives make many useful discoveries it is of course Poirot who finally discovers the reason for the death of an apparently harmless old clergyman and identifies the killer of a respected doctor. And if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I promise not to tell you whodunit!

curtainsChristie dedicated the book to “My friends, Geoffrey and Violet Shipston”. Unfortunately she doesn’t mention the Shipstons in her autobiography so I can’t tell you anything else about them! The book was originally published in the US in magazine format in the Saturday Evening Post during June and July 1934 under the title Murder in Three Acts; in novel format, again in the US, it first appeared later in 1934 under the same name. Christie’s British audience had to wait until January 1935 for it to be published as Three Act Tragedy – I have kept with that year in my title, as I am British! Interestingly this is one of two Christie novels where there are some significant differences between the British and American editions; the American version ascribes a different motive for the killer from that in the British version.

top-secretWhen I came to re-read this book I couldn’t remember any details of it at all, but as it progressed, elements of it started to come back. For whatever reason, this isn’t a book that stays in your mind very long, even though it’s very enjoyable, amusingly written, with some interesting characters and a “three act” structure all of its own. Halfway through I made a stab at remembering whodunit – and it turned out, I was right. To be honest, I don’t think it’s that difficult to work out. Christie is, as usual, very cunning with this structure, in that some vital pieces of information are withheld from the reader, that would make it much more obvious to work out the identity of the criminal. If you’re sleuthing this one, have a think much more about what you’re not being told than what you are being told! She never lies to the reader – but she is economical with the truth.

HarlequinChristie takes the opportunity to flesh out the characters of Poirot and Satterthwaite, so that we understand them a little more. This is only our second meeting with Satterthwaite (after The Mysterious Mr Quin five years earlier) – and we won’t get to meet him again until he appears in a short story, The Harlequin Tea Set, which wasn’t published in the UK until 1991 – so it’ll be a long time before I get around to reading that one.

HepplewhiteMy memory of Satterthwaite is that Christie implied from his great understanding of women that he was perhaps a little effeminate. That’s not the case in this book, where she describes him as “a manly man”. For the first time, we get to visit him at home: “Mr Satterthwaite’s house was on Chelsea Embankment. It was a large house, and contained many beautiful works of art. There were pictures, sculpture, Chinese porcelain, prehistoric pottery, ivories, miniatures and much genuine Chippendale and Hepplewhite furniture. It had an atmosphere about it of mellowness and understanding.” This very much emphasises his artistic and refined character and is exactly what we would expect.

BluebellsIn his conversation with Lady Mary, ostensibly to question her about her knowledge of the Babbingtons, he gets sidetracked with talk of love, being a hopeless old romantic. We discover a little more about his one love affair: “he told her about the Girl, and how pretty she was, and of how they had gone together to see the bluebells at Kew. He had meant to propose to her that day. He had imagined (so he put it) that she reciprocated his sentiments. And then, as they were standing looking at the bluebells, she had confided in him… He had discovered that she loved another. And he had hidden the thoughts surging in his breast and had taken up the role of the faithful Friend. It was not, perhaps, a very full-blooded romance, but it sounded well in the dim-faded chintz of Lady Mary’s drawing-room.”

FrenchmanThere’s also an implication that Satterthwaite and Poirot are old acquaintances. When Satterthwaite spots Poirot at Sir Charles’ dinner party, “Mr Satterthwaite had recalled himself to M. Hercule Poirot’s memory. The little man had been very affable. Mr Satterthwaite suspected him of deliberately exaggerating his foreign mannerisms. His small twinkly eyes seemed to say, “You expect me to be the buffoon? To play the comedy for you? Bien – it shall be as you wish!”” But there is no reference in the earlier works to Satterthwaite and Poirot ever having met. Poirot is not mentioned in The Mysterious Mr Quin, for example.

OEDBut he’s right about Poirot’s speech mannerisms, that they are sometimes an affectation. At the end of the book he confronts Poirot on the subject: “I will explain. It is true that I can speak the exact, the idiomatic English. But, my friend, to speak the broken English is an enormous asset. It leads people to despise you. They say – a foreigner – he can’t even speak English properly. It is not my policy to terrify people – instead I invite their gentle ridicule. Also I boast! An Englishman he says often, “A fellow who thinks as much of himself as that cannot be worth much.” That is the English point of view. It is not at all true. And so, you see, I put people off their guard. Besides,” he added, “it has become a habit.” So Poirot admits that many of his more bizarre affectations are assumed in order to play up to the traditional image of the little-Englander. The typical Brit would have a degree of xenophobia as part of his make up; Poirot uses it to his own advantage.

refugeesAlthough it had only been less than a year since Poirot’s previous appearance in a Christie novel (Murder on the Orient Express), we found out precious little extra about the Belgian detective in that book, and consequently are treated to a quick re-introduction to his back story, as we would call it today, and his attitudes and aspirations. Mr Satterthwaite gets him to reveal: “as a boy, I was poor. There were many of us. We had to get on in the world I entered the Police Force. I worked hard Slowly I rose in that Force. I began to make a name for myself. I made a name for myself. I began to acquire an international reputation. At last, I was due to retire. There came the War. I was injured. I came, a sad and weary refugee, to England. A kind lady gave me hospitality. She died – not naturally; no, she was killed. Eh bien, I set my wits to work. I employed my little grey cells. I discovered her murderer. I found that I was not yet finished. No, indeed, my powers were stronger than ever. Then began my second career, that of a private inquiry agent in England. I have solved many fascinating and baffling problems. Ah, monsieur, I have lived! The psychology of human nature, it is wonderful. I grew rich. Some day, I said to myself, I will have all the money I need, I will realise all my dreams […] My friend, beware of the day when your dreams come true.” This little piece of Poirot history is a potted version of The Mysterious Affair at Styles.

moustache2At one point, to highlight the difference between Poirot and Sir Charles, Christie refers to the detective as “the little bourgeois”; which I suppose is an accurate description, although I’m not sure if it would still have carried the same pejorative overtones that it does today. Sir Charles is a very well drawn character, but often comes across as self-indulgent and lacking grace. I doubt whether Poirot would have appreciated his calling him “Moustachios”; but then again, he might have taken it as a bizarre compliment. Sometimes it’s hard to see what Egg sees in Charles. There’s a moment where Satterthwaite was about to talk about a previous occasion where he was investigating crime: “once when my car broke down and I was staying at lonely inn –“ only to be interrupted by Sir Charles reminiscing in a high clear voice about when he was touring in 1921. Presumably Satterthwaite was going to tell the story of At the Bells and Motley. His story is left hanging in mid-air.

Married couplePoirot often has an interesting outlook on crime, or a philosophy that he likes to share. In this book, he has an observation on crime statistics between married couples. Egg is annoyed that Poirot could even contemplate that Mrs Babbington might have been involved in the murder of her husband: “”But they were devoted to each other,” cried Egg indignantly. “You don’t understand a bit.” Poirot smiled kindly at her. “No. That is valuable. You know, but I do not. I see the facts unbiased by any preconceived notions. And let me tell you something, mademoiselle – in the course of my experience I have known five cases of wives murdered by devoted husbands, and twenty-two of husbands murdered by devoted wives. Les femmes, they obviously keep up appearances better.” “I think you’re perfectly horrid,” said Egg.”

little_dog_laughed_09There are a few references to check out. The playwright Miss Wills had previously written One-Way Traffic, which brought her success and esteem. It’s a great name for a play but it doesn’t appear to exist in real life. However, her next play, that will star Miss Sutcliffe, is The Little Dog Laughed. This was to be the name of a play by Douglas Carter Beane that first appeared in the West End in 2006. When Mr Satterthwaite judges Sir Charles to be acting the role of detective, he sees him as Aristide Duval. As I was reading the book, I thought Duval was a genuine fictional detective from a contemporary writer – but no, he’s a creation of Christie’s. It would be a great name for a detective!

lady of shalottThere’s a poetry quote: “Of more than twice her years, Seam’d with an ancient swordcut on the cheek, And bruised and bronzed, she lifted up her eyes And loved him, with that love which was her doom.” Its source? The clue is in the chapter title, “A Modern Elaine”. It’s from Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, and describes Elaine’s love for the older Lancelot. Satterthwaite is being ironic about Egg though: “Egg […] did not look at all likely to perish of love and drift about rivers on a barge. There was nothing of the lily maid of Astolat about her.”

Rikki-Tikki-TaviSuperintendent Crossfield is a little star-struck when he first meets Sir Charles, as he had seen him play Lord Aintree’s Dilemma at the Pall Mall Theatre. No such play – although it’s a perfect Wildean/Shavian title – and no such theatre either. Captain Dacres takes Egg to the Seventy-Two Club; again it’s an invention of Christie, although it sounds rather swish. At one stage Sir Charles is described as resembling Lord Eaglemount, scornfully looking at his solicitor. He was a character in The Hermit in London published 1819, so even when this book was written that strikes me as being a rather obscure allusion. However, the mongoose who likes to find out, to whom Miss Wills is likened, is clearly children’s favourite Rikki Tikki Tavi, written by Rudyard Kipling in 1893 as part of The Jungle Book.

looeMuch of the action of the book takes place in Loomouth, in Cornwall (although I believe in Nemesis it’s situated just twelve miles from St Mary Mead, which would put it in Kent or Sussex). Loomouth, of course, doesn’t exist, but there is Looe in Cornwall, fifty miles from Falmouth, so the imagination sets that part of the story on the south Cornish coast. Melfort Abbey in Yorkshire is said to be site of Bartholomew Strange’s sanatorium, and is where the second dinner party is held; Melfort is a village in Argyll and Bute, so one can only presume this is another Christie invention. The Babbingtons originally lived in Gilling, in Kent, and Egg visits Mrs Milray there. In real life there are the villages of Gilling West and Gilling East in Yorkshire, but I am sure Christie’s Kentish Gilling is based on Gillingham, even if the directions she gives won’t take you there.

Bruton StreetWhen Superintendent Crossman gives Sir Charles the names and addresses of the party guests, they all have their addresses provided. Lord and Lady Eden live at 187 Cadogan Square (in real life the numbers don’t go that high); Sir Jocelyn and Lady Campbell live at 1256 Harley Street (ditto); Angela Sutcliffe at 28 Cantrell Mansions (does not exist); Captain and Mrs Dacres at 3, St John’s House (ditto); and Miss Muriel Wills at 5 Upper Cathcart Road, Tooting (tritto). Mrs Dacres’ posh shop is located in Bruton Street, which does exist, and you could probably imagine a well-to-do couturier establishment in the locale.

PoundRegular readers will know I like to convert any significant financial sums into what their equivalent would be today – just to get a better feel for the amounts involved. There are only a few mentioned in this book, and they’re all relatively small. The largest, £1,000, the amount that Ellis, the missing butler, is seeking as part of his blackmail scam, today would equal just under £50,000. The average price of a dress at Mrs Dacres’ posh shop (£50-60) would set Egg back £2500-£3000. That was never going to happen, especially as her entire wealth was assessed at £15 12/-, or in today’s language, about £775.

car warning triangleOliver Manders arrives unexpectedly at Sir Bartholomew’s dinner party because he has a car accident outside his house. Flashback to Frankie having a car accident outside Bassington-ffrench’s house in Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? Frankie’s accident was fake; Oliver’s probably was too. I hope Christie doesn’t play this accident card too often….

Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for Three Act Tragedy:

Publication Details: 1935. Fontana paperback, 8th impression, published in August 1971, priced 25p. Tom Adams’ deceptively attractive cover illustration takes a garden setting, with a yellow flower (I presume a dying nicotiana) propped up in a wine glass, with its thorns showing. It’s a picture that gets less and less bucolically romantic the longer you look at it.

How many pages until the first death: 13. It doesn’t take long for this enjoyable story to really get going.

Funny lines out of context: A little bit more luck here than in recent books.

“I like men to have affairs,” said Egg. “It shows they’re not queer or anything.”

When Poirot is building a house from a pack of cards: “Egg looked more closely at the erection on the table. She laughed.”

Memorable characters: Christie gives us a few smart one-liners that quickly paint a strong picture of a character.

Sir Charles, describing his secretary/housekeeper Miss Milray: “She says she’s got an invalid mother. Personally I don’t believe it. That kind of woman never had a mother at all. Spontaneously generated from a dynamo.”

Egg, with Mrs Dacres, discussing a suitable selection of dresses for her to buy: “”I simply adore dressing a young girl. It’s so important that girls shouldn’t look raw – if you know what I mean.” “Nothing raw about you,” thought Egg, ungratefully. “Cooked to a turn, you are.””

Sir Charles is very well described, with his pompous ways and his theatrical styles; Egg is a little like Christie’s other bright young things, except she’s not quite a bright nor as independent. She doesn’t have the derring-do of Tuppence, or Bundle, and she resents Poirot quite strikingly, primarily because she thinks he is going to get in the way of her and Sir Charles Getting it Together.

Christie is on record saying how much of a favourite character Mr Satterthwaite was; and it shows, by the strong part he plays in this story.

Christie the Poison expert:

Nicotine poisoning is the method of choice for this murderer, and there are few observations where people wonder if the victims might have been heavy smokers. But it’s also pointed out that it is used in sprays for roses – Mrs Babbington uses it – and it’s an odourless liquid. When Poirot is hosting his sherry party he points out that the glasses used by Sir Charles and Sir Bartholomew are heavy cut crystal, which means it is easier to hide a small amount of colourless liquid. Oddly, Tom Adams’ cover depicts a plain glass with no lead cut design.

There’s also a dramatic suggestion that someone might have jabbed Mr Babbington with a hypodermic containing the arrow poison of the South American Indians; but that’s just Mr Satterthwaite teasing Egg.

Class/social issues of the time:

There aren’t very many observations of this type in this book. Satterthwaite can’t quite put his finger on what it is about Oliver Manders that is “different”, until Egg describes him as a “slippery Shylock”; then “”of course,” thought Mr Satterthwaite, “that’s it – not foreign – Jew!”” But Manders is, on the whole, portrayed in a kindly light in this book, so, for its era, I would not say there’s any element of anti-Semitism in it. However, when Poirot contradicts Satterthwaite about Egg’s emotions and aspirations, he gets surprisingly annoyed, and a little xenophobia comes out. Poirot starts this conversation: “”I wonder now,” he said. “I do not quite understand – “ Mr. Satterthwaite interrupted. “You do not understand the modern English girl? Well, that is not surprising. I do not always understand them myself. A girl like Miss Lytton Gore – “ In his turn Poirot interrupted. “Pardon. You have misunderstood me. I understand Mss Lytton Gore very well. I have met such another – many such others. You call the type modern; but it is – how shall I say? – age-long.” Mr Satterthwaite was slightly annoyed. He felt that he – and only he – understood Egg. This preposterous foreigner knew nothing about young English womanhood.”

There’s an enjoyable scene where Beatrice, Sir Bartholomew’s Upper Housemaid, is questioned by Sir Charles and Mr Satterthwaite, which strongly brings out the class-consciousness of the servant. Beatrice talks fondly of Miss Sutcliffe, and particularly so of Lady Mary, and of Egg; less so of Mrs Dacres, and she visibly stiffens when asked about Miss Wills. When pressed, she admits: “”well, she wasn’t quite the “class” of the others, sir. She couldn’t help it, I know,” went on Beatrice kindly. “But she did things a real lady wouldn’t have done. She pried, if you know what I mean, sir, poked and pried about.””

There are a couple of impassioned speeches about the Church; first by Egg: “You see Mr Satterthwaite, I really believe in Christianity – not like Mother does, with little books and early service, and things – but intelligently and as a matter of history. The Church is all clotted up with the Pauline tradition – in fact the Church is a mess – but Christianity itself is all right. That’s why I can’t be a communist like Oliver. In practice our beliefs would work out much the same, things in common and ownership by all, but the difference – well, I needn’t go into that.” Later by Manders, as recounted by Lady Mary: “”Oliver made a rather ill-bred attack on Christianity. Mr Babbington was very patient and courteous with him. That only seemed to make Oliver worse. He said, “All you religious people look down your noses because my father and mother weren’t married. I suppose you’d call me the child of sin. Well, I admire people who have the courage of their convictions and don’t care what a lot of hypocrites and parsons think.” Mr Babbington didn’t answer, but Oliver went on: “You won’t answer that. It’s ecclesiasticism and superstition that’s got the whole world into the mess its’s in. I’d like to sweep away the churches all over the world.” Mr Babbington smiled and said, “And the clergy, too?” I think it was his smile that annoyed Oliver. He felt he was not being taken seriously. He said, “I hate everything the Church stands for. Smugness, security and hypocrisy. Get rid of the whole canting tribe, I say!” Manders’ feeling as though he is not being taken seriously is not that different from Bobby’s relationship with his vicar father in Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? Manders’ self-consciousness about being the child of unmarried parents also reflects on the mores of the time.

Classic denouement: Yes indeed. Unusually, perhaps, there is no indication of who the murderer is before Poirot’s final chapter, so the surprise (if it is a surprise) comes even more compact and controlled than usual. But it’s a delightfully dramatic end to the story.

Happy ending? Surprisingly difficult to judge. On the one hand, justice is seen to be done. On the other, one person is left shocked by the actions of someone they thought they knew very well indeed. Any future relationship this person has – and the text implies that it is possible – will have a lot of problems to overcome.

Did the story ring true? On the whole, yes, but with some reservations. On a practical level, if Miss Sutcliffe is opening in Miss Wills’ new play in the next few days, it is very unlikely that they would have had the time to attend Poirot’s sherry party. Whilst one can accept the explanation of the whole Ellis the butler and his disappearance mystery, again on a practical level one wonders how realistic it really is. That aside, the book is relatively credible for Christie!

Overall satisfaction rating: 9/10. Even though I guessed whodunit and there are a few ragged edges to this book, I found it a very entertaining and exciting read, and found the second half of it un-put-downable. And you can’t ask for more than that.

Death in the CloudsThanks for reading my blog of Three Act Tragedy 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, we have another Hercule Poirot novel with Death in the Clouds. If I remember rightly, a lot of this takes place on an aeroplane, which I would imagine would have had its own charm and excitement back in 1935. I have a feeling I will quickly remember whodunit, although at the moment I can’t recall any other aspect of the story. As always, I’ll blog my thoughts about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!

The Agatha Christie Challenge – Parker Pyne Investigates (1934)

Parker Pyne InvestigatesIn which we meet a new Christie creation, Parker Pyne, placer of advertisements in newspapers seeking clients who are unhappy, in the promise of making them happy again. In the first six stories we see him at work in London; in the second he’s on holiday in Europe and the Middle East but clients keep throwing themselves at him. As always, you can read this blog without discovering any of the whodunits in all the stories!

The publication of this collection is a little unusual in that the original magazine editions – or at least those that can be traced – were published in the US before they appeared in the UK. The first six were published in Cosmopolitan in America in August 1932 (UK – October/ November 1932) and the second six in America in April 1933 (UK – June/July 1933). No magazine printing of The Case of the Middle-aged Wife has yet been traced in either country. The collection was published by Collins in book form in the UK in November 1934, and in the US a few weeks later under the title Mr. Parker Pyne, Detective. As an aside, I notice it’s just the shortest book of Christie’s that I’ve re-read so far – 158 pages (just beating The Big Four, which has 159.)

The Case of the Middle-aged Wife

penfoldSo welcome, James Parker Pyne. This is how Christie describes him in this first story: “he was large, not to say fat; he had a bald head of noble proportions, strong glasses and little twinkling eyes.” I instantly envisaged him as Dangermouse’s sidekick, Penfold, but they are very dissimilar characters. He brings happiness – in which light I also saw him as a kind of Harley Quin character, although he’s not remotely ethereal, he’s very real. He’s a statistician – he can’t resist relying on his previous work experience to analyse the likely outcome of any situation. This is his first case – or at least the first we know about, his practice is obviously very well established and he’s probably been doing this work for a few years now. In The Case of the Discontented Soldier he reveals that his house, Whitefriars, has been “the scene of eleven exciting dramas”, so that’s at least eleven previous cases.

In this first story, Mr Packington has been spending his time and his money on treating and looking after a sweet young thing from the office and has been ignoring Mrs Packington as a result. Mrs Packington, unsurprisingly miffed, consults Mr PP, who arranges her to be pampered and pandered to by a handsome gigolo so that she regains her youth and self-esteem, and Mr Packington begins to get jealous. You can guess how this ends. Mr PP only has one failure in this book – and it’s not this one! It’s a very enjoyable story, with Parker Pyne as a distant mastermind, almost playing chess with his cast of characters as the pieces, securing the marriage of the Packingtons as his prize, whilst no doubt enjoying a tidy profit.

There’s a number of references to be checked out. Parker Pyne’s office is at 17 Richmond Street. There is a Richmond Street in London; however, it’s a residential address in Plaistow and I just don’t get the feeling that this is where PP would operate! Claude, the gigolo, takes Mrs Packington to the Lesser Archangel and Red Admiral nightclubs – the Red Admiral features in The Case of the Distressed Lady too – but again I think they’re Christie inventions. There is an Archangel nightclub in Kensington – would probably be the right part of town too – but I doubt it’s the same. I loved the reference to “Mrs Hattie West, the Californian Cucumber King’s wife”, but sadly I don’t think she was real.

As we will see during the stories, Parker Pyne asks different fees from different people according to the job and their circumstance. In this case he asks for 200 guineas up front. That’s a lot of money – the equivalent of around £10,500 today.

I was surprised to read that Mr Packington takes the 8:45 train into London. That strikes me as being very late. I wonder if offices generally opened later in the morning than they do today? It’s true that when I worked at the Arts Council in 1983, work started at 9:30am. I remember getting there five minutes early one day – and it was like the Marie Celeste.

Amongst Parker Pyne’s staff there lurks one Miss Lemon! The very same secretary who would go on to work for Hercule Poirot. Here we see her in her younger days, “a forbidding-looking young woman with spectacles”. Christie has her working for Poirot as early as in 1935, in the short story How Does Your Garden Grow, which would not appear in book format in the UK until 1974’s Poirot’s Early Cases. As far as Christie’s UK novel-reading public were concerned, they would next meet her in The Labours of Hercules, published in 1947. She isn’t the only character that would appear in this book, only to crop up as part of Poirot’s world in later years.

The Case of the Discontented Soldier

elephantMajor Charles Wilbraham has retired from serving the Empire in East Africa, and is now back in England and bored; desperate for an adventure. He consults Parker Pyne and adventure comes his way, although he never associates PP with what actually happens to him. It’s a very amusing set-up and works very well, with a few delightful turns of phrase, although there are a couple of unfortunate non-PC references to overcome, more of which shortly…

Parker Pyne’s original solution to the problem was to invite Wilbraham to take a gorgeous lady out for lunch, but she terrifies him, so that doesn’t work. However, the lady informs PP of the kind of girl the Major really goes for, and so can successfully introduce her to him by means of this extravagant adventure. But PP’s brain can’t quite create those stories, so he consults a novelist – enter Mrs Ariadne Oliver. Mrs Oliver is another character who reappears in the Poirot books, sporadically over many years; readers would next encounter her in Cards on the Table a couple of years later. Christie would admit, in a 1956 interview, that “the character of Ariadne Oliver does have a strong dash of myself.” In this story, she is said to have written “forty-six successful works of fiction, all best sellers in England and America, and freely translated into French, German, Italian, Hungarian, Finnish, Japanese and Abyssinian.” As far as published books are concerned, by that stage Christie had only written twenty-four such books, but no doubt she was ambitious! I admired the fact that Mrs Oliver responded to PP’s remit by including something translated into Swahili that only the Major would understand – an excellent example of how Parker Pyne tailors his solutions individually to his clients. And whereas today Mrs Oliver would have found her translation by using Google Translate, she actually used Delfridge’s Information Bureau. No doubt this was meant to suggest Selfridge’s. The only Delfridges I can find is a watch and clock manufacturer in Birmingham.

There’s a slightly laborious introduction to the story, where PP’s advert, his promotional spiel and Christie’s description of him are all repeated, verbatim, from the first story. However, this is the first of the stories known to have been originally published in a magazine; and without revision, these descriptions were simply repeated.

As for the non-PC elements, the adventure requires Wilbraham discovering (or he had hoped to) a cache of ivory: “elephants, you know. There’s a law about the number you’re allowed to shoot. Some hunter got away with breaking that law on a grand scale. They were on his trail and he cached the stuff. There’s a thundering lot of it – and this gives fairly clear directions how to find it […] quite a nice little fortune for you.” So our hero is celebrating making a lot of money from finding ivory that had been obtained illegally – that’s quite uncomfortable these days. Perhaps more predictably, the two thugs that are Wilbraham discovers attacking Freda are described as “two enormous Negroes”, and there’s a detailed description of the fight where Wilbraham sends them “reeling backwards” by “a violent punch on the jaw”. Later Mrs Oliver, when working out the expenses for the whole charade, describes them as “two darkies” who “wanted very little” for their effort. Yes, even then, they were putting a positive spin on discrimination by having the black characters earn less than the white ones.

Parker Pyne only asks Major Wilbraham for £50 payment for this job, that’s £2500 today. Given that he lives happily ever after as a result, that’s got to be a bargain.

The Case of the Distressed Lady

dismal desmondMrs Daphne St John arrives at Parker Pyne’s office with a great problem – she has stolen an expensive diamond but needs to give it back but cannot find a way of doing so without making the situation worse, and losing friendships into the bargain. PP, of course, has a solution, involving presenting two members of his entourage as a pair of exhibition dancers at a party, where they would replace the diamond. But can you imagine an Agatha Christie story being as straightforward as that?

Not too much to examine in this story. Mrs St John talks about Parker Pyne’s advertisement as being “probably just a ramp”; I’d never come across that word in that context before, but it is early 19th century slang for a swindle or a fraudulent action. You live and learn! She also refers to a game played at the Le Touquet casino: “chemmy”, which perplexed me at first (as I pronounced it my mind with a hard “ch”) but of course is slang for chemin de fer, or baccarat. The last line of the book refers to a gentleman selling Dismal Desmonds. Never heard of those – but that was the name of a cartoon film series that first started in 1926, and so presumably the gentleman was selling Dismal Desmond toys – a lugubrious looking dog rather like the more famous Droopy but not so distinguished.

The stolen diamond was valued at £2000, which in today’s value would be £100,000. A pretty penny indeed.

That’s three stories in so far, each one keeping back a nice twist, and each a satisfying read. I must say I am very much enjoying this book!

The Case of the Discontented Husband

lawyerThis story has the hallmarks of The Case of the Middle-Aged Wife, Mark II. A similar set up has Mr Wade, the discontented husband, coming to Parker Pyne for advice, and he suggests a dalliance with his very own Miss de Sara will make Mrs Wade jealous and come to her senses. However, Mr Wade ends up a little more attached to Miss de Sara than PP expected, with its own consequences…

There’s a lot of humour in this story, with some delightfully bitchy exchanges between Miss de Sara and Mrs Wade, and an almost farcical final scene when everything comes crashing down around everyone’s ears. The story also fills out further understanding of the character of Parker Pyne, who has become just a little one-dimensional over the course of the first three stories, enjoyable though they are. He can fail, after all.

Christie’s negative view of divorce, which we have seen in other works, is highlighted here with Mr Wade, self-esteem at an all-time low, nevertheless willing to allow his wife to divorce him if that will make her happy, rather than the other way around, because “a fellow’s so helpless […] one’s got to play the game […] I couldn’t let her be dragged through the divorce court.” Mr Wade’s doubts about entering into an affair, albeit a false one, probably also echo Christie’s own experience of her first husband Archie playing away from home.

An unexpected end, and a funny turn of phrase make this a very enjoyable story.

The Case of the City Clerk

St StanislausIf The Case of the Discontented Husband is The Case of the Middle-Aged Wife, Mark II, then The Case of the City Clerk is The Case of the Discontented Soldier, Mark II. Once again, Parker Pyne is approached by an older man in need of some adventure, just to prove to himself that he can do it and that there’s still life in the old dog yet. But this isn’t of a romantic nature, this is a full-on mystery and intrigue spy job in which PP lets Mr Roberts play his part. This story reminded me in part of the shenanigans involved in The Secret Adversary, and in part of the glamour of Murder on the Orient Express.

The scene setting of this story is very entertaining, if a little hard for the reader to appreciate fully at first. You ask yourself, what on earth is going on here, and then it all falls into place. There are some agreeable turns of phrase: “a pleasant thrill shot down his spine, slightly adulterated by a thrill that was not quite so pleasant”. At the end, Mr Roberts is awarded the Order of St Stanislaus – tenth class with laurels, which adorns the front cover of the book as part of Tom Adams’ illustration. And yes, there really is a St Stanislaus.

Mr Roberts can only afford to pay Parker Pyne £5 for his adventure, but he gets £50 back as a reward. In today’s money that’s £250 out to get £2500 back. Not a bad piece of work.

The Case of the Rich Woman

wash stand and jugThe rich Mrs Rymer seeks advice from Parker Pyne as to how to spend her money so that she can get the most entertainment out of it. A very strange request, but PP is always up for a challenge…

A strange request, and a strange story. This is the first story in the book that I didn’t enjoy. It has too much of a surreal air, and is just too weird to believe. Even though it still falls under the general heading of “Parker Pyne Makes People Happy”, it just doesn’t fit in. I also found the character of Mrs Rymer distinctly unappealing. Interestingly, this is the only story that was published in the American magazine Cosmopolitan that wasn’t subsequently published in Woman’s Pictorial in the UK.

The story contains a further reference to Mrs Oliver, where Parker Pyne describes her as “the most conventional of all of us”. No doubt that is indeed how Agatha Christie saw herself. When Mrs Rymer wakes up in the strange bedroom, Christie tells us the room had “a deal wash-stand with a jug and basin up on it […] there was a deal chest of drawers and a tin trunk.” I’d never heard of deal in this context. My OED defines it as “a piece of sawn timber (now always fir or pine wood) of standard size; a plank of board of fir or pine; timber in such planks or boards.” It’s a Middle English term; no wonder I hadn’t heard of it! And the £1000 that PP sees fit to charge the rich Mrs Rymer is the equivalent of £50,000 today.

There’s one minor instance of a funny line today that wasn’t a funny line at the time: “”Ah!” The ejaculation was fraught with meaning.”

Have You Got Everything You Want?

TokatlianThe scene changes now from 17 Richmond Street to a travelogue around Europe and the Middle East. At the Gare de Lyon Elsie Jeffries board a train to Stamboul, and encounters fellow traveller Parker Pyne, no doubt enjoying the financial fruit of his labours. Elsie’s husband is on business in Stamboul, but she deciphered some writing on a blotting paper that suggests something weird would happen just before Venice – and riven with curiosity, she asks PP to help in working out what it would be. This story marks a change from Mr Pyne’s usual remit of making people happy, as he starts solving crimes in a more generic, detectively manner.

There’s a very strong Murder on the Orient Express vibe in this story, whose original magazine appearance pre-dated Christie’s famous work. The story itself is quite a good one of the jewel thief genre, but with a nice twist. What is most interesting about it is what it says of the morals of the time. A male character is blackmailed because he spent an innocent night in the same hotel room as a woman as he was giving her shelter as she was trying to escape her abusive husband. Today you’d be praised and lauded for your kindness; at worst you’d be admired as a bit of a lad. In 1934 it was scandal and would have to be suppressed. It’s clear from Parker Pyne’s advice to Elsie that he approves of telling lies within a marriage; it strikes me that this little story has its own system of morality, set apart from the mainstream.

When the story reaches Stamboul, the characters use the Hotel Tokatlian as their base; this shouldn’t come as a surprise, as Christie herself stayed there, and Poirot uses it in Murder on the Orient Express. The Slav lady cries out: “scélérat!” as PP refuses to allow her to leave Elsie’s cabin; I’d never heard this insult before, but it means scoundrel, or villain.

The Gate of Baghdad

araqParker Pyne finds himself as one of a small group of people traversing the Syrian Desert from Damascus to Baghdad in a Pullman Motor Coach. The newspapers are full of a story of a financial swindler, Samuel Long, who has escaped justice, and one of the party gradually becomes uncomfortable and talks about not wanting to “go back on a pal”. It turns out that Long is masquerading as one of the travelling party, but which one? Fortunately Mr PP is there to solve the case.

This book contains the first – but not the only – murder of the book, so if you’ve been waiting for one, your time has come! There’s also a bit of non-PC name calling – when one fellow buys some girls some drinks, he gets annoyed when they go off with “some dago”; and on another occasion, a foreign outsider is described as an “Armenian rat”. Christie the Poison expert is on hand, with one of the deaths in the story being caused by Prussic Acid – hydrogen cyanide to give it its modern name.

There are a few interesting references here; the story starts with a quotation from Gates of Damascus by James Elroy Flecker, including the Postern of Fate, which of course is the name Christie gave to the last book she was to write in 1973. Parker Pyne had been staying at the Oriental Hotel in Damascus, which was one of the city’s finest bijou character residences; hopefully one day it will be again. Smethurst offers Pyne some araq – a kind of Persian Pernod – I’ve seen some photos online and it looks lethal. When the coach gets going across the desert they head for Rutbah – a town in present day Iraq – which has had a colourful past and is currently being fought over by Isis and the Iraqi Army.

A very enjoyable little whodunit – but to my disappointment, I guessed who the perpetrator was! Always annoying when you’re right!

The House at Shiraz

Hester_StanhopeParker Pyne arrives in Kermanshah, where he hears the tale of a Lady Esther Carr and her companion Muriel King, told by the pilot Herr Schlagal. Muriel King died and Lady Carr started living as a recluse. PP decides to pay a visit to Lady Carr, and discovers all is not as it seems to be.

Christie revels in her own Middle East experiences in this story, with many far-flung romantic names bandied about: Tehran, Ispahan, Shiraz; Kermanshah, which I confess I hadn’t heard of, is a city of over 800,000 people in western Iran. PP is there during the Nan Ruz festival, which is the Iranian New Year, five days of public holiday between 20-24 March. Christie clearly doesn’t have a high opinion of the local police officials: “The German pilot had come up and was standing by smiling as Mr Parker Pyne finished answering a long interrogation which he had not understood. “What have I said?” he asked of the German. “That your father’s Christian name is Tourist, that your profession is Charles, that the maiden name of your mother is Baghdad, and that you have come from Harriet.” “Does it matter?” “Not the least in the world. Just answer something; that is all they need.””

When considering the life that Lady Esther leads, Parker Pyne refers to Lady Hester Stanhope. Shamelessly lifted from Wikipedia: “Lady Hester Lucy Stanhope (12 March 1776 – 23 June 1839) was a British socialite, adventurer and traveller. Her archaeological expedition to Ashkelon in 1815 is considered the first modern excavation in the history of Holy Land archaeology.” Doubtless she was a heroine of Christie’s.

An enjoyable little story, with a nice twist; Christie really does use the last-minute twist to its best advantage in this book!

The Pearl of Price

PetraParker Pyne has now moved on to Petra, in Jordan, along with a motley crew of fellow tourists including a rich American father and daughter, an archaeologist and a British MP, amongst others. The daughter’s priceless earrings have this unfortunate habit of falling off, and one day, one of them falls off for good – but a thorough search of all the suspects shows that no one has secreted it about their person. PP though applies his little grey cells and comes up with a solution.

I make the comparison with Poirot deliberately, because Parker Pyne is beginning to out-Poirot him! The speed with which he sees through the red herrings and applies logic to the puzzle is very rapid – I don’t think Poirot would have solved this crime this rapidly. It’s a good story, with an amusingly surprise ending, although there is one unfortunate non-PC moment, as you will read shortly.

This is one of those short stories where Christie devotes a few minutes to considering the psychology of crime. In this case, whether people are fundamentally honest or not, and whether sudden temptation could make anyone commit a crime – or only people with a generally dishonest behavioural pattern. Parker Pyne believes, under the right circumstances, virtually anyone is capable of a crime: “there’s the breaking point, for instance […] the brain is adjusted to carry so much weight. The thing that precipitates the crisis – that turns an honest man into a dishonest one – may be a mere trifle. That is why most crimes are absurd. The cause, nine times out of ten, is that trifle of overweight – the straw that breaks the camel’s back […] when you think that of ten people you meet, at least nine of them can be induced to act in any way you please by applying the right stimulus.” PP goes on to suggest bullying, and generally suggestible people can be easily manipulated. And he applies that thought when solving this crime.

There are a few geographical references to consider. Most people know Petra, the incredible home of stunning red rock formations in southern Jordan. There are references to the Nabatean people, a cultured people who inhabited Petra, and to Hammurabi, the sixth king of the First Babylonian Dynasty, who lived approximately from 1810 BC – 1750 BC. Doctor Carver mentions that he wants to work on a dig in Baluchistan, an ancient region whose land now falls within the countries of Pakistan, Afghanistan and Iran.

And now for that unfortunate, Christie-esque, mid 30s, moment. When the rich American calls on the group’s servants to move his belongings from a cave and into a tent, in order to escape mosquitoes, he calls out: “Say, you n***ers!” Of course, in those days, it was just a word. Nowadays, it’s just not acceptable.

Those priceless earrings of Miss Blundell cost her father $80,000. That’s a helluva lot of money. In today’s terms they’d probably be worth the best part of $1.5million. If that were the case, I really don’t think you’d wear them for a walk around the plateaus of Petra. I’m not one for blaming the victim, but, I mean, come on.

Death on the Nile

strychnineNot the famous novel – that would come three years later, but Christie obviously fancied it as a good title. Parker Pyne is taking a cruise on the Nile, on board the SS Fayoum, which, as far as I can ascertain, is purely an invention of Christie’s. The only other passengers on the vessel are Sir George and Lady Grayle, her niece, his secretary, and her nurse. Lady Grayle, a grumpy hypochondriac who makes everyone’s life a misery – maybe a first draft of Mrs Boynton in Appointment With Death – tells Parker Pyne she is convinced her husband is trying to poison her; and sure enough, in due course, she dies. But is her husband really to blame?

A fairly standard story – not at all bad, but nothing exceptional. Christie the Poison Expert comes to the fore with Lady Grayle’s dying with all the expected symptoms of strychnine poisoning, although the possibilities of arsenic and antimony are also discussed with her nurse. True enough, her husband is found to have quantities of strychnine on or about his person, so he must be guilty, right?

In a very nice turn of phrase, Christie sums up everything that’s wrong about the horrendous Lady Grayle: “she had suffered since she was sixteen from the complaint of having too much money.” A few pages later, her nurse Miss MacNaughton remarks: “when I left England with Lady Grayle, she was a straightforward case. In plain language, there was nothing the matter with her. That’s not quite true, perhaps. Too much leisure and too much money do produce a definite pathological condition. Having a few floors to scrub every day and five or six children to look after would have made Lady Grayle a perfectly healthy and a much happier woman.” Not only does she repeat Christie’s own observation of the character, she also gives us an insight into the kind of manual work most women would have had to do at the time – scrubbing floors, and looking after half a dozen children. There probably aren’t many people who have to deal with those two particular problems nowadays.

Parker Pyne initially refuses Lady Grayle’s invitation to consider her case but when she offers him £100 to do so, he can’t resist. Unsurprisingly, as that is the equivalent of £5000 today.

The Oracle at Delphi

byzantine mosaicRich widow Mrs Peters and her intellectual son Willard are travelling through Greece – him lapping up the history, her enjoying his enjoyment but secretly hating every minute of it. She declines Willard’s invitation to accompany him on a trip to view some Byzantine mosaics, but is horrified later when he doesn’t come home as expected and she receives a hostage demand for him, in the sum of £10,000. Fortunately, Parker Pyne is also in the environs, as is a reserved British gentleman by name of Mr Thompson. In a really surprising and very cleverly written twist, Willard is returned without any ransom being paid; but you may have to re-read it, to appreciate entirely how this was done!

Whilst her son is being erudite, Mrs Peters settles down to read The River Launch Mystery, which, I am sure it will come as no surprise, is a complete fiction, if you’ll pardon the pun. The ransom demand is written by one Demetrius, the Black Browed, and refers to the Kyria – this means “Lord”. I don’t know whether this particular Demetrius was familiar with his Shakespeare – Demetrius is a character in A Midsummer Night’s Dream – and in it Puck talks of “black-browed night”. I don’t think there’s any particular further relevance to the ransomer’s pen-name.

That £10,000 Demetrius is demanding – that’s the equivalent of £500,000 today. No wonder Mrs Peters was worried.

And those are the twelve stories that make up Parker Pyne Investigates! It’s a very enjoyable read and I’m happy to give it an 8/10 which is a very good score for a book of short stories. It’s written so that you can almost take it as a novel, which certainly helps. We don’t meet Mr Pyne again, apart from in the two short stories, Problem at Pollensa Bay and The Regatta Mystery, neither of which were published in the UK in book form until 1991, so it will be a good while before I get around to writing about those!

Three Act TragedyWith the next book in the Agatha Christie Challenge, it’s back to the novel format; and a welcome return to Hercule Poirot for the first of a series of nine books each featuring the famous Belgian detective. It’s Three Act Tragedy, and I can’t remember a thing about it, except that the book is divided into three parts, each one an “act” of the “tragedy”. If you’d like to read it too, I’ll blog about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meanwhile, happy sleuthing and keep on Christie-ing!

The Agatha Christie Challenge – Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? (1934)

Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?In which Bobby Jones discovers a man who has fallen from a cliff and who asks Why didn’t they ask Evans? before he promptly dies; a tragic accident perhaps, but when someone tries to poison Jones and he almost dies, he reckons there’s more to this than meets the eye. Together with his friend Lady Frances Derwent – better known as Frankie – they uncover the real identity of the dead man, and why he might have been killed – and – eventually – who is Evans! And if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I promise not to divulge any of its extraordinary secrets!

BoomerangThe book is dedicated to “Christopher Mallock in memory of Hinds”. Apparently, the Mallock family were friends of Christie’s from the years before her first marriage, although they aren’t mentioned by her in her autobiography. And no one seems to know a thing about what Hinds might have been. Maybe they had a liaison in the local jewellers! The book was published in the United States under the title The Boomerang Clue – which is a bit odd, as I can’t remember a boomerang featuring in it!

Champagne Afternoon TeaThis is a rip-roaring, jolly old read, featuring two splendid young things in the best Christie Tommy and Tuppence/ Secret of Chimneys tradition, although with just perhaps a hint more decent characterisation. You really do get to know Bobby and Frankie very well during the course of the book, and understand their motivations, their strengths and their weaknesses in a way that’s hardly suggested at all in the earlier books. It’s as though Christie is maturing in her writing ability but unwilling to let go of a previously winning formula. So I see this as a distinct turning point away from the flippancy of the earlier novels as she launches a run of some big hitters very soon. Three Act Tragedy, Death in the Clouds, The ABC Murders, Murder in Mesopotamia, Cards on the Table, and Death on the Nile would all be hitting the bookshops in the next three years. In fact, the best part of the next decade would be dominated by the egg-shaped head of M. Hercule Poirot.

Car Cartoon with Woman DriverIt’s written in the third person, and Christie employs the tactic of writing very short chapters to help it be the fast-paced page-turner that it is. 35 chapters cover just 184 pages, which averages out at just 5.25 pages per chapter. With those constantly changing scenes, protagonists, story threads and what have yous, it’s no wonder that it bounds along at a breathless pace. About halfway through the book the reader realises that so many of the elements of the book have come together and that you’re racing through the plot at a thoroughly enjoyable rate of knots. On the downside, the element of chance in this book is enormous. There are so many lucky coincidences and some extraordinarily far-fetched events that it is almost impossible to take it seriously, even as a Christie yarn. This is very much a light-relief book, and not one to get your sharp detective brain working hard.

50There’s a rather sloppy piece of repetition early in the book – so we can’t blame that on Christie getting carried away with its pace. It’s when Bobby is reflecting on what an old fuddy-duddy his father is: “nobody over fifty has got any sense – they worry themselves to death about tuppenny-ha’penny things that don’t matter.” Now that’s a perfectly credible thing for Bobby to have said to himself. But only two pages later, when Bobby is explaining to his father about how he has found the body by the cliffs, and his father criticises him for being too light-hearted about it, he says again to himself: “but what could you expect? Nobody over fifty understood anything at all. They had the most extraordinary ideas.” Either Christie was trying to over-emphasise this “over fifty” problem or she’d forgotten that she’d already used it. Either way, it’s a bit unimaginative. As if to make up for it, she allows Frankie to have the most elegant observation in the book: “isn’t it odd? […] We seem, somehow, to have got in between the covers of a book. We’re in the middle of someone else’s story. It’s a frightfully queer feeling.” They’re like innocents abroad, in a way; caught up investigating something that has no specific link to themselves, apart from the fact that someone tried to poison Bobby (which does make it rather personal.)

CheatIn order for the narrative to work, Christie has to cheat a bit. I can’t be too explicit here, lest I give the game away. But she does ascribe some actions and speeches to one person when in fact they are delivered by another. By concealing the true identity of the person speaking, she leads her readers – and indeed her characters – up the garden path a little more before giving in and finally telling us the truth. Whilst it is an effective device at stringing out the denouement, I did feel a little cheated by Christie here; she actually tells us lies which we believe for ten minutes or so, before retracting. I can’t help but think that’s not a good narrative trait.

bobby_jonesI see that Christie gives a mention to an ABC guide in this book – it’s left by the window in the house from where the Caymans have fled. Frankie dutifully takes note of what’s on the pages on display. This does look forward to one of her masterpieces – The ABC Murders – which would appear a couple of years later. In fact this book is littered with contemporary references, many of which I had to research in order to understand. Let’s take the title character first! Bobby Jones is first seen, on the golf course, making a total mess of his shot. For Christie, a keen golfer, this is a nice moment of irony. Bobby Jones was an American golfing hero, who helped design the Augusta National Golf Club, and co-founded the Masters Tournament. He won the US Open four times, in fact he is the only player ever to have won the (pre-Masters) Grand Slam, or all four major championships, in the same calendar year (1930). That was the year he chose to retire from the game, at the grand old age of 28. By the time Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? was published, he had already been retired four years.

SavoyWhen we first meet Frankie, she’s getting fed up with society parties: dinner at the Savoy at 8.30, followed by going to the Marionette and then on to the Bullring before fizzling out after breakfast. Bobby is wowed by the thought of such places but I can’t find any reference to them in real life – maybe they were just inventions of Christie. When Frankie’s just chatting with Bobby and understanding his reaction to finding the body, she commiserates: “I get you, Steve” – which is a fairly meaningless turn of phrase popular at the time – but with no particular Steve in mind. I thought perhaps it might refer to Mrs Paul Temple, but Francis Durbridge hadn’t created her by that stage.

Third BloodstainOne of the novels that Bobby toys with in hospital was written by Ouida – a name with which I was not familiar, but she was a writer of what were described as “racy and swashbuckling” novels in the late Victorian era. Here’s a conversation between Frankie and Bobby: “”Oh! But murderers are always frightfully rash. The more murders they do, the more murders they want to do.” “Like The Third Bloodstain,” said Bobby, remembering one of his favourite works of fiction. “Yes, and in real life too – Smith and his wives and Armstrong and people.”” As you might expect, Bobby’s favourite ghoulish work of fiction is precisely that – an invention of Christie. Or at least it was at the time; Kel Richards published a crime novel with that name in 1995. But Smith and his wives? Are they referring to the founder of the Mormon Church? He was murdered, but I’m not sure about his wives. The Armstrong mentioned could be Herbert Rowse Armstrong, also known as The Hay Poisoner, hanged for murder in 1922.

Adolf BeckIn a later conversation, Frankie and Bobby are discussing whether everyone has a double, and cited the case of Adolf Beck “referring lightly to the Lyons Mail.” I can do no better than to quote directly from Wikipedia: “The Adolf Beck case was a notorious incidence of wrongful conviction by mistaken identity, brought about by unreliable methods of identification, erroneous (though probably sincere) eyewitness testimony, and a rush to convict the accused. As one of the most famous causes célèbres of its time, the case led to the creation of the English Court of Criminal Appeal in 1907.” The Lyons Mail, on the other hand, refers to a 1916 film, based on the 1854 play The Courier of Lyons by Charles Reade, a very popular stage work of the Victorian era, where a respectable French gentleman is mistaken for his doppelganger, a notorious highwayman.

GFS“My dear,” says Frankie to Bobby, “don’t drone on as though you were recommending a case to the Girls’ Friendly Society”. I’d never heard of them before, so I researched and discovered they were established in 1875 to address, through Christian values, the problems of working-class out-of-wedlock pregnancies. They didn’t support female emancipation but they’re still going to this day. Another society I had never heard of – The Dorcas Society – appears on the final page of the book. A Dorcas society is a local group of people, usually based in a church, with a mission of providing clothing to the poor. Their heyday was in the 19th century, but there are still a few around today.

RhylThere are also plenty of place names in this book to try and identify in real life. Marchbolt, where Bobby comes from, is said to be in Denbighshire, which of course exists, or at least did until 1974’s Local Government changes swallowed it up into Clwyd. There is no such place as Marchbolt, but the Denbighshire coast runs from Llandudno to just before Rhyl, so we can place it somewhere in that area. The local train station is at Sileham, which also doesn’t exist. Staveley, home of the Bassington-ffrenches, is described as being in Hampshire, just off the main road to Andover. Although there are several Staveleys in the UK, none of them is down in that part of the world. Ambledever is said to be ten miles away; that doesn’t exist but it does fit the location of real-life Micheldever. There isn’t a Chipping Somerton either, but both Chipping Norton and Somerton are situated within a few miles of each other in Oxfordshire. It’s also close to Christie’s Medeshot Aerodrome; in real life, I’ll bet my bottom dollar that’s based on Upper Heyford. The other location mentioned a few times in the book is 17 St Leonard’s Gardens, Paddington, home of the Caymans. There are lots of Gardens in Paddington, but none of them is St Leonard’s.

Buenos AiresAs you probably know I like to convert any significant financial sums into what their equivalent would be today – just to get a better feel for the amounts involved. There are only a few mentioned in this book. Firstly, the amount that Bobby is offered to uproot himself and start a new life in Buenos Aires: £1,000 a year. In today’s figure, that’s an annual salary of £50,000. Yes, that’s pretty good for a starting salary for someone with absolutely no hope! However, that’s a pinprick in comparison to the amount left by Mr Savage to Mrs Templeton in his will – £700,000 – which today would be worth a staggering £35m or more. Worth committing murder for, maybe? The tenner that Frankie pays Badger for a beaten up old car would today be worth £500. Quite a lot, considering what a wreck it is!

Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?:

Publication Details: 1934. Fontana paperback, 6th impression, published in November 1972, priced 30p. Tom Adams’ cover illustration of a man falling into the sea, with a suspicious looking seagull looking after a golf ball in its nest, doesn’t really do the book justice as none of those actually represent what happens in the book.

How many pages until the first death: 4. That’s the quickest death so far in the Christie oeuvre of novels.

Funny lines out of context: Again, like Murder on the Orient Express, this book is very disappointing as far as accidentally funny lines are concerned. I will continue to keep a look out in future books!

Memorable characters:
Sadly again, there’s not a lot on offer. Whilst Frankie and Bobby are reasonably well fleshed out, the frantic pace of the book doesn’t allow for too much dwelling on the characterisations. I suppose Dr Nicholson is quite creepy; but the Bassington-ffrenches are all rather bland. Badger is quite a character, although I expect there’s more to him than just his stutter, on which Christie relies too much for humorous purposes.

Christie the Poison expert:
Bobby is poisoned with enough morphia to sink a battleship – 8 grains, which is the equivalent of 520mg, more than double the minimum lethal dose. John Savage is said to have taken a large overdose of chloral, which is responsible for deaths in The Seven Dials Mystery and The Secret Adversary. Please feel free to read that blog to find out more about it.

Class/social issues of the time:

There are some light references in this book, but again this is too flippant a book to dwell on serious subjects. However, it is class that first alerts Bobby to the possibility that the Caymans are not who they say they are: “”You don’t believe he could really have been her brother?” “Not for a moment! You know, it puzzled me all along. The Caymans were a different class altogether. The dead man was – well, it sounds a most awful thing to say and just like some deadly old retired Anglo-Indian, but the dead man was a pukka sahib.” “And the Caymans most emphatically weren’t?” “Most emphatically””. On a funnier note, Badger has his own observations about class. After Frankie pays him £10 for the Standard car, he observes: “f-f-f-first time I ever knew anyone with a t-t-t-title who c-c-could pay cash”.

This leads us on to another social issue of the time – the whole world of second-hand cars. Clearly there was no regulation in those days and you really took your life in your hands if you were to pay a few pounds for a beaten-up pile of junk! Badger’s a decent guy but even he has no compunction about selling something that’ll barely get to the end of the street. And there’s another thing – women drivers! “”Her ladyship takes some killing,” said Bobby. “Had many accidents, has she?” “She’s been lucky,” said Bobby, “but I assure you, Mr Askew, that when her ladyship’s taken over the wheel from me as she sometimes does – well, I’ve made sure my last hour has come.” Several persons present shook their heads wisely and said they didn’t wonder and it’s just what they would have thought.” No doubt women drivers have been the object of ridicule ever since cars were invented.

There’s an amusing sequence where Bobby, in order to get a doctor to stop examining Frankie, has to pretend that she’s a Christian Scientist. At the time of publication, Christian Science was really at its heyday, and it’s more or less been in decline since the 1930s. It would quite possibly have been something that trendy young things of Frankie and Bobby’s generation may have considered as a serious faith. It was an interesting time; it was now over fifteen years since the end of the First World War, and only five years before the Second, and there was still a feeling that Britain’s young men weren’t quite on top of things as they should be. When Frankie suggests using Bobby as a decoy in a ruse she’s planning, he’s not keen. “”No thank you, Frankie,” said Bobby with feeling. “I’ve been very lucky this time, but I mightn’t be so lucky again if they changed the attack to a blunt instrument. I was thinking taking a great deal of care of myself in the future. The decoy idea can be washed out.” “I was afraid you’d say that,” said Frankie with a sigh. “Young men are sadly degenerate nowadays. Father says so. They don’t enjoy being uncomfortable and doing dangerous and unpleasant things any longer. It’s a pity.” What we would today call being a snowflake.

Possibly still a hangover from the war days is the slightly racist comment from Mrs Rivington: “He’s a Canadian, you know, and I often think that Canadians are so touchy.” There’s also the unfortunate use of the word “loonies” to describe Dr Nicholson’s patients.

And there’s one more fascinating element to the story – the suggestion that Frankie and Bobby take an air taxi from Medeshot Aerodrome to Marchbolt. Today this would be a very expensive undertaking and would probably require loads of planning. Back in 1934, it seems like it was the equivalent of thumbing a lift!

Classic denouement: Not really. At first we’re all led to believe the murderer is A because Christie tells us so. Then she admits she was lying and that it’s B. Whilst the reader is confused, B manages to make an escape and confesses the crime afterwards by letter. Yes indeed, gentle reader, this is one of those occasions where the murderer gets away with it! Well not entirely, as they’re not operating solo all the time, but if I tell you more, I’ll give the game away.

Happy ending? Yes of course, you wouldn’t expect any other outcome than Frankie and Bobby getting it together romantically. It’s tinged with the sadness that justice isn’t seen to be done though, so there are shades of grey with your emotional response at the end.

Did the story ring true? Absolutely not! It’s riddled with ridiculous coincidences and far-fetched occurrences that are both amusing on the one hand and try your patience on the other! The morphia that doesn’t kill Bobby, the deus-ex-machina appearance of Badger to save their lives, and the real identity of Evans all make it very hard to believe. Even the last words of the dying man that form the title of the book are, in a sense, pointless. I simply don’t believe that that’s what he would have said!

Overall satisfaction rating: 7/10. It’s fun but it’s foolish; it’s pacey but it’s problematic.

Parker Pyne InvestigatesThanks for reading my blog of Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment in the space below. Next up in the Agatha Christie Challenge, it’s back to the short story format with Parker Pyne Investigates; I’ve not read this for a very long time and I can’t remember anything about it, so I’m looking forward to revisiting it! As always, I’ll blog my thoughts about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!

The Agatha Christie Challenge – The Listerdale Mystery (1934)

Listerdale MysteryLike The Hound of Death, it’s back to the world of the short story with nary a mention of a Marple or a Poirot. Here we have twelve short tales of intrigue, a comparatively light confection of fun rather than a big detective work-out. Maybe the highlight of this collection is Philomel Cottage, as it has given birth to many other works over the years. Never fear, you can read this little analysis of the book without finding out any of the dark secrets of any of its stories!

The collection was published by Christie’s regular publishers, William Collins & Sons, but it was never available in the United States. However, Christie’s American fans didn’t miss out as all the stories in this volume were published as part of other collections over there: The Witness for the Prosecution and Other Stories and The Golden Ball and Other Stories, although the latter was not published until 1971. All the stories had been previously published in either The Grand Magazine, Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, Sunday Dispatch, Daily Mail, Red Magazine, and The Novel Magazine between 1924 and 1929.

The Listerdale Mystery

Crown DerbyThe first, eponymous, story, is a charming, sweet little tale of Mrs St Vincent, a genteel widow fallen on hard times, living in rented rooms that she can’t afford. One day she discovers a fantastic house in Westmister available at a peppercorn rent. Apparently this house belonged to Lord Listerdale, who went missing – presumed dead by many – eighteen months previously, but who has turned up in Africa. The servants, including the butler, Quentin, remain in post and the St Vincent family live in relative luxury – surely it’s all too good to be true?

Originally appearing in 1925, it offers some typical early Christie social issues. The reality of renting in London is: “Frowsy landladies, dirty children on the stairs, fellow-lodgers who always seem to be half-castes”. Even in the country you’re faced with the prospect of a “Crown Derby tea service that you wash up yourself”. How the mighty are fallen. After Mrs St Vincent has met Quentin, and she suspects he will feed back who is and who isn’t a suitable tenant, she thinks: “he’s sorry for me. He’s one of the old lot too. He’d like me to have it – not a Labour Member of a button manufacturer”. Genteel she may be, but she’s a right snob too. Living in the elegant house even cures her son Rupert of mixing with the wrong sort: “he was also less enthusiastic on the subject of the tobacconist’s daughter. Atmosphere tells”. In amongst that drawing-room snobbery there’s a brief mention of selling teeth in the classified ads – that tells you that times were indeed hard for some people. There are more such advertisements in the story Jane in Search of a Job to be found later in this collection.

The address of the Westminster property is 7 Cheviot Place; in real life there is no such street. The rental was set at no more than 3 guineas a week – at today’s value that equates to a little over £130 per week – not bad at all. Nor is there a town, village or estate by the name of Listerdale – so his lordship wouldn’t have had much land!

I was quite taken with this little story – it’s very nicely constructed, all highly believable and even has a happy ending! It did remind me heavily of a story from Poirot InvestigatesThe Adventure of the Cheap Flat. It’s almost as though Christie has taken the same background situation for both stories and created one sinister, criminal tale and one rather heartwarming one.

Philomel Cottage

Lonely cottageAlix has married Gerald within a few days of knowing him despite a lengthy on-off friendship/romance with her ex-colleague Dick. Now living in an isolated cottage Alix starts to wonder about the real Gerald – does she really know him? Overwhelmed by curiosity she finds some hidden papers that suggest that Gerald is not necessarily all that he seems…

Again, referring to the book Poirot Investigates, this time the story “The Adventure of the Western Star”, Poirot solves that crime with the observation: “never does a woman destroy a letter”. However, in Philomel Cottage, Alix considers “men do sometimes keep the most damning piece of evidence through an exaggerated sentimentality”. So, which is it, Mrs Christie? A boy trait or a girl trait?! Christie the Poison Expert comes into play in this story with her knowledge of hyoscine. I’d never heard of it. And the “few thousand pounds” that Alix inherits (let’s say it’s £3000) would be the equivalent of roughly £125,000.

Before the Second World War, this was Christie’s most successful short story in terms of its subsequent adaptations. Frank Vosper turned it into the play Love from a Stranger, which in turn was filmed, twice, and then had three or four radio adaptations too. The real strength of this excellent short story is the slow build-up of suspense and tension, as Alix starts to get more and more anxious about Gerald; and it has a really surprise ending – a twist among twists for such a short piece of writing.

So far, so good – two excellent stories. The Listerdale Mystery collection is shaping up to be a very good book!

The Girl in the Train

Girl on trainGeorge Rowland gets up late, goes to work and gets sacked (by his uncle, no less) for useless timekeeping and other follies. It’s time for an adventure; and as he’s taking the train down to Rowland’s Castle – assuming he will find his fortune there – a damsel in distress enters his carriage, asks him to hide her from an enemy, then gives him the task of following a suspicious man and looking after a package. Clearly head over heels with the young lady, George throws himself into the adventure and finds out much more than he bargained for…

This story reminds me hugely of the bright young things who inhabit Bundle’s world – you remember Bundle, from The Secret of Chimneys and The Seven Dials Mystery – George would fit into that clique absolutely toppingly. It’s bright and breezy, funny and exciting. Because it’s a short story you don’t have time for the idiosyncrasies of the lead character to start to get wearing, so it really works. Originally written in 1924, it has Christie’s usual xenophobia of the age: “George had the true-born Briton’s prejudice against foreigners – and an especial distaste for German-looking foreigners.”

Unusually for Christie, she has set this story in the here and now (or here and then). Rowland’s Castle does exist, it’s a village near Havant, in Hampshire, and on the London-Portsmouth railway line – to give this story extra credibility. Sadly, this is the only appearance in Christie’s works of Detective Inspector Jarrold, which is a pity – I think he could have contributed nicely to her future works!

Three down, and each one a terrific little read! What’s up next?

Sing a Song of Sixpence

C_LombrosoWhat happens when someone you fell in love with, briefly, comes back into your life needing a very big favour – you help them out, don’t you? That’s what retired barrister Sir Edward Palliser does when a sweet young thing to whom he “made love” nine years previously (I think that means something different nowadays from what it did in 1929). The sweet young thing, Magdalen, finds herself in a fix as her aunt was recently murdered and it appears that the murderer must be a member of her household – and they’re all looking at each other asking “is it you?” If Sir Edward could come and ask some questions, I’m sure he’d get to the bottom of it all. He does – and he does. Curiously though he finds the experience dismaying, and in a frankly cruel twist at the end he’d rather not do the family any more favours. I don’t think I like Sir Edward very much!

That uncomfortable feeling that one of your family must be the murderer, but no one knows who, creates a very claustrophobic atmosphere that must in real life be terrifying. The set-up certainly reminded me of one of Christie’s finest books, And Then There Were None, which I am looking forward to re-reading sometime soon. However, that’s where the similarities end, as a neat observation by Sir Edward gives him the clue about what must have happened. The title Sing a Song of Sixpence also brings to mind Christie’s A Pocket Full of Rye, but there are no other crossovers between the two stories.

There are a few references to chase up; neither of the addresses of Queen Anne’s Close in Westminster nor Palatine Walk in Chelsea actually exist, and there never was a ship called the Siluric. I’d never heard of Joanna Southcott – if you haven’t either you should read about her because it’s fascinating – and it would appear that her box still hasn’t been opened, nor is likely to. The reference book that Sir Edward is reading at the beginning of the story is by Cesare Lombroso, an Italian criminologist who died in 1909 and who believed that criminality was inherited, and that someone “born criminal” could be identified by physical (congenital) defects, which confirmed a criminal as savage or atavistic. Christie leaves us in no doubt as to her opinion of that: “such ingenious theories and so completely out of date.”

That £80,000 inheritance that Magdalen will unexpectedly share with the other three members of the family is worth around £3.5million – that’s a tidy £875,000 each.

This story starts out well but then the end comes very suddenly and the leap of imagination that Sir Edward has to make in order to solve the crime is pretty extraordinary. I don’t quite believe this one; it’s not a bad story by any means, but it’s not up to the standard of the previous three.

The Manhood of Edward Robinson

1924-rolls-royceEdward’s something of a hen-pecked fiancé. He loves his Maud, and all that; but she’s a bit bossy and controlling, and after all, it’s he who won the £500 competition prize and he who really wants to buy that super new car… but he knows she’d disapprove of such a waste of money. Maybe he deserves some kind of adventure, like the one in the trashy romantic novel he was reading; and that’s just what he gets!

It’s a return to the derring-do types of Bundle’s crowd – although with their criminal recklessness maybe it’s more aligned to the Partners in Crime world of Tommy and Tuppence – it was written back in 1924. It’s an agreeable little tale but altogether less substantial than the others in the book so far – much more of a soufflé than a sticky toffee pudding. What this story does give you, and it’s something that we today can have no idea about – is the genuine thrill of those early days of driving, when you didn’t have to pass a test, and you drove at night with your heart in your mouth because you could barely see anything. This story does take you back to that era, where you could easily drive off in the wrong car because they didn’t have individual ignition keys. So that aspect of the story is indeed fun.

A couple of references: if you spend hours checking the atlas for the village of Greane, you won’t find it; nor will you get an invitation to the swanky Ritson’s nightclub, as I can see no trace of it nor anything like it. The relative values of today’s prices against those of 1924 are very relevant to this story. Maud wears four and elevenpenny blouses – which value today would equal about £10.50, so yes that is very cheap. The £500 he wins today would be worth over £21,000; his chosen car is £465, which equates to about £19,750, so he’s still bringing back £1,250 as a little cash bonus.

Accident

ArsenicEx-Inspector Evans confides in his friend Haydock that he has recognised a local villager, Mrs Merrowdene, as being the suspect in a murder trial nine years ago. Evans still has nagging doubts that she was acquitted in error, and begins to suspect she might attempt murder again, believing the theory that murderers are seldom content with one crime. But can he subtly intercede and prevent another murder in time? It’s a nice little tale but its twist-ending is hugely telegraphed and I could see it coming a mile off. Evans’ theory that murderers usually commit murder more than once was also propounded by Poirot somewhere but I’m blowed if I can remember where.

Christie the poisons expert is definitely on hand with the detailed description of the chemistry tests required to ascertain the presence of chlorates. Mrs Merrowdene’s first husband was an arsenic-eater, which sounds totally bizarre today – but it’s only because the medical benefits of eating arsenic have now been replaced by the use of antibiotics.

The other interesting reference in this story is to how Evans used to have “issues” with fortune-tellers, which used to be an illegal practice. Funny how times change.

Jane in Search of a Job

Job advertYet another tale of a feisty young girl who’s got a bit of nous but no money and wouldn’t mind a spot of adventure. Jane Cleveland answers a newspaper advert, gets the job with some rather extraordinary responsibilities and risks – but for £3000, you’d do it. She certainly does, but it doesn’t quite all work out as she expected though…

Not a bad story by any means, and Jane is a typical Christie-land adventurous gel, so the character’s well drawn. Elements of The Big Four here – which is hardly in its favour. My main quibble with it is that the account of how Jane gets the job simply lasts too long, so it gets a little boring – very nearly half the length of the story as a whole. I didn’t see the plot twists coming though, and it has a rather charming ending.

Jane was to earn £3000 for a fortnight’s work. That’s about £125,000, my kind of salary! In other references – two hotels are mentioned: the Blitz (which appears in The Secret of Chimneys) and Harridge’s, which I assume is a cross between Harrod’s and Claridge’s. There is no Endersleigh Street in London, where the initial interviews take place, although there is an Endsleigh Place near King’s Cross. There are no Earls of Anchester and although there are plenty of Orion Houses around and about, none of them is a stately home.

A Fruitful Sunday

Ruby NecklaceHousemaid Dorothy and her young man Ted are out for a drive when they buy some fruit. They’ve read in the papers about the theft of a ruby necklace worth £50,000; and when they get to the bottom of the bag of cherries – there’s a necklace identical to the one in the news! Will they be honest citizens and report it to the police, or will they keep their accidentally ill-gotten gains?

A moral little tale – or at least, one that questions individuals’ moral compasses; but in effect the tale is a bit of a damp squib, I was a bit unimpressed with this one. To be honest, I didn’t foresee the ending – but then I’m surprised Christie created something as dull as that!

Some interesting comparative values – stolen jewels at £50,000 would have a value today of £2.2m – they’d be the real deal then. A £20 Baby Austin (an Austin 7) would be maybe £900 today. And a two shilling bag of cherries = about £4.50. That’s a lot!! In a typical moment of light Christie xenophobia, Ted blames the French postal system for the theft of the jewels; and there’s a nicely humorous line when Ted tells Dorothy he hasn’t a clue how to find a “fence”; “Men ought to know everything,” said Dorothy. “That’s what they’re for”.

Four stories left – I’m hoping Mrs Christie can turn this around and give us some proper intrigue and suspense!

Mr Eastwood’s Adventure

Cucumber Anthony Eastwood is trying to write his latest detective story – The Mystery of the Second Cucumber – when he receives a wrong number from a foreign lady with a sexy accent begging him to come to her aid. As with many of the central characters of these stories, Mr Eastwood is up for an adventure, so goes out to the pre-arranged meeting place – and then the police arrive…

A mildly amusing story that goes on a little too long and about halfway through I pretty much saw through it and guessed where the wrongdoing lay. Unlike most of these stories you have to feel rather sorry for the central character because he does come out of it awfully badly. (OK perhaps not as badly as in Accident…)

I enjoyed Christie’s evident enjoyment of explaining the writing process in the opening couple of pages in this story – very tongue in cheek. In retrospect it’s also amusing that Eastwood suspects his editor will change the title of the story to Murder Most Foul, or something similar. Back in 1924 when this story was written, that would only have referred to the quotation from Hamlet. Forty years later it would become the title of a film featuring Miss Marple!

The assignation took place at 320 Kirk Street, known for its antique shops. There is a Kirk Street in London, not far actually from Endsleigh Place of Jane in Search of a Job. But it’s not an antique dealing street. 18 guineas for a pair of old Waterford glasses? That’s £800 at today’s value. They must have been something spectacular!

The Golden Ball

Golden ballGeorge is sacked by his uncle (a virtually identical start to The Girl in the Train) and goes off for a drive with his society friend Mary Montresor. During the journey she appears to ask him to marry her – which he is only too delighted to do – so they go looking for a house together. Mary finds one that she is instantly attracted to, and encourages George to accompany her to peek through the window – and then the butler spots them….

I found this story really irritating! It’s clever, for sure, but the main characters are both so pig-headed and stubborn that they deserve everything they get! I didn’t enjoy it. Christie obviously went through a stage of appreciating the surname Montresor (see Jane in Search of a Job). George thinks they might have to go to the Doctor’s Commons for a marriage licence; I’d never heard of that – it was a society of lawyers practising civil law in London.

The Rajah’s Emerald

bathing ladiesJames Bond (yes really) isn’t being treated very well by Grace – he’s trying to court her but she’s of a superior background and financial status so looks down on him. On holiday he’s staying in a distant guesthouse whilst she and her glamorous friends are staying at the posh Esplanade Hotel. He’s not allowed to use the hotel’s changing rooms so has to queue for the changing tents on the beach – and therefore misses out on Grace and the others jumping into the sea. He nips into a private villa to change but this decision will have far reaching effects when he comes back to get dressed…

A nicely written little story that makes us aware of the social awkwardness at the time of changing for beach swimming. Queueing for changing tents seems very anachronistic nowadays, when we’re used to just turning up beach ready with your togs underneath your clothes, or simply doing some indecorous wriggling inside a big towel. Christie goes overboard with the posh young things, including nicknames like Pug and Woggle, and Grace and her friends do behave appallingly snobbishly in respect to James. The crime aspect of this story is not terribly exciting and has similarities to others in this volume, most notably Mr Eastwood’s Adventure – and there are some very far-fetched elements; I mean, who accidentally puts on someone else’s trousers and doesn’t realise it?

There’s a passing reference to “native rulers” – with regard to the Rajah of Maraputna – which today comes across as mildly offensive. James Bond, of course, is a well-known name, but Fleming’s creation didn’t appear in print until 1953, so Christie’s was the forerunner. The story takes place at the exclusive seaside resort of Kimpton on Sea – no idea where that was based on, but there is a village called Kimpton near Welwyn in Hertfordshire. James orders fried plaice and chipped potatoes. The late Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle always used to call chips “chipped potatoes” and I always thought it was a posh affectation – turns out that was the original 19th century name for them.

The smallest furnished bungalow in Kimpton on Sea costs 25 guineas a week to rent – that’s the equivalent of £1100 today. That is pretty expensive.

One story to go!

Swan Song

ToscaSpoilt opera diva Paula Nazorkoff is in London for a Covent Garden season and the opera loving Lady Rustonbury wants to book her for a private performance of Madame Butterfly. When la Nazorkoff realises where Rustonbury is, she agrees but only if she can perform Tosca. Assenting to this wish, all goes well until the baritone singing the role of Scarpia falls ill on the day of performance…

Part inspired story, part load of old tosh, this tale treads a delicate balance between detective fiction and wayward self-indulgence. The twist at the end is easily seen through, the character of Nazorkoff is particularly irritating, and on the whole I think this is a disappointing end to the book. It does make one think, though, how popular Puccini must have instantly been in those days. This story was written in 1926, only two years after he died. Maybe he was the Andrew Lloyd-Webber of his era!

However, it does give rise to one of the best lines in Christie that come under the heading that I usually discuss in her full-length novels as “Funny lines out of context”. Consider this: “Cowan hurried after her as she led the way to the stricken Italian’s bedroom. The little man was lying on his bed, or rather jerking himself all over it in a series of contortions that would have been humorous had they been less grave.”

So, I think it’s fair to give The Listerdale Mystery an overall satisfaction rating of 7/10. Three excellent stories and another three that aren’t half bad; that’s not a bad hit rate for a selection of Christie short stories. It’s a quick and easy read, and not remotely challenging, which is sometimes all you want from a Christie.

Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? With the next book in the Agatha Christie Challenge, it’s back to the novel format; and one of those books that feature none of Christie’s famous sleuths. It’s Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? and if I remember rightly, once you’ve worked out who Evans is, you’ve dashed nearly solved it! If you’d like to read it too, I’ll blog about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meanwhile, happy sleuthing and keep on Christie-ing!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Class/social issues of the time:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Listerdale MysteryThanks for reading my blog of Murder on the Orient Express and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment in the space below. Next up in the Agatha Christie Challenge, it’s back to the short story format with The Listerdale Mystery; it’s been a long time since I’ve read this and I can’t remember anything about it, so I’m looking forward to getting tucked in to it! As always, I’ll blog my thoughts about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!