The Agatha Christie Challenge – Sad Cypress (1940)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Memorable characters:

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

Christie the Poison expert:

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

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

Class/social issues of the time:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Memorable characters:

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

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

Christie the Poison expert:

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

Class/social issues of the time:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Murder is EasyThanks for reading my blog of Hercule Poirot’s Christmas and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment in the space below. Next up in the Agatha Christie Challenge is Murder is Easy; my memories of this book are of reading it on holiday in Spain as a teenager and really enjoying it. I think we may be in for lots of murders! And I don’t think I can remember whodunit, which is always a bonus. As usual, I’ll blog my thoughts about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!

The Agatha Christie Challenge – Appointment with Death (1938)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Memorable characters:

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

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

Christie the Poison expert:

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

Class/social issues of the time:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hercule Poirot's ChristmasThanks for reading my blog of Appointment with Death and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment in the space below. Next up in the Agatha Christie Challenge is Hercule Poirot’s Christmas; a story of which I remember very little, except that it features an exotic character called Pilar and spans one week over a very fateful Christmas. As always, I’ll blog my thoughts about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christie the Poison expert:

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

Class/social issues of the time:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Appointment with DeathThanks for reading my blog of Death on the Nile and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment in the space below. Next up in the Agatha Christie Challenge is Appointment with Death; a story that features an appalling old woman who, if I remember rightly, gets what’s coming to her. More details than that, I cannot recall. As always, I’ll blog my thoughts about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!

The Agatha Christie Challenge – Dumb Witness (1937)

Dumb WitnessIn which the great Hercule Poirot receives a commission from a Miss Emily Arundell, only to discover she had died a couple of months earlier. Together with his faithful Captain Hastings, he examines the circumstances of her death and concludes it was not as natural as the doctor had presumed. Miss Arundell had recently changed her will but had her scheming relatives known this, and did any of them decide to help her on her way to the next world? Poirot sees through the falseness and deceptions, but is he able to prevent a second death? As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I promise not to tell you whodunit!

wire-haired-fox-terrierThe book is dedicated “To Dear Peter, most fruitful of friends and dearest of companions, a dog in a thousand”. I’m not certain how many other books have been dedicated to animals, but it’s not inappropriate for this book. The Dumb Witness of the title is Miss Arundell’s wire-haired terrier, Bob, a playful chap with a penchant for leaving his ball at the top of the stairs, where an old lady could trip and take a tumble, with serious consequences. I can assure you, gentle reader, that Bob is not the murderer. The book was originally published in the US in The Saturday Evening Post, in seven instalments in November and December 1936 under the title Poirot Loses a Client. In the UK, it first appeared in an abridged format in the Women’s Pictorial magazine in seven instalments from February to April 1937 under the title Mystery of Littlegreen House. In book format, it first appeared in July 1937 in the UK and a little later that year in the US, still using its American title of Poirot Loses a Client.

MurderI remember this book as being one of my mother’s favourites; I think she really enjoyed the fact that the dog plays such an important role. To be fair, I think the title misleads the reader somewhat. This is one of those books that I’ve read countless times but can never remember whodunit; and I think part of the reason for that is that I expect the dog to feature even more in Poirot’s grey cells procedure than he does. The title “Dumb Witness” implies that the dog actually sees the murder take place and somehow betrays the identity of the murderer by some kind of animal instinct. Well, neither is true, as far as I can make out. It’s still an enjoyable read, and Christie lays some false trails that we follow hook line and sinker; once you realise the psychological game that one of the suspects is playing, the logic of the case all falls into place quite comfortably.

liarWe don’t learn much about Poirot that we didn’t already know. He is perhaps a little more disgraceful than usual in the way that he tells so many lies in order to obtain information from the suspects, much to Captain Hastings’ embarrassment; that does lead to some amusing exchanges as he is often rumbled as the book progresses. Unusually, he is very indiscreet about some of his previous cases, and reveals the names of the murderers in The Mysterious Affair at Styles, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, The Mystery of the Blue Train and Death in the Clouds, so I would really recommend that you don’t read this book until you have read those. I can’t think why Christie would have decided to spoil so much of her own work.

moustache2There are a few humorous episodes; when he is interrogating Theresa Arundell (even though she doesn’t realise it) she decides to call him Hercule, which I don’t think anyone else in his books so far has dared to be so personal. You sense he doesn’t like it, by the way he quickly moves the conversation on. Later, Poirot becomes the butt of Miss Peabody’s humour, when she (with such impertinence!) mocks his moustache. In another scene, where Poirot (lying again) is pretending to be interested in buying a house, he encounters two estate agents of varying abilities of salesmanship, Mr Gabler and Miss Jenkins. Given the way she ridicules them, I think it’s fair to say that Mrs Christie doesn’t hold the practitioners of that profession in very high esteem.

ManservantAs is so often the case in these early books, the story is narrated by Captain Hastings, but this will be the last time his faithful friend sets down Poirot’s sleuthing in writing until Curtain: Poirot’s Last Case, published posthumously in 1975, but written at the height of Christie’s powers. But to keep some continuity, we are reintroduced briefly to Poirot’s manservant George, whom he had first met in The Mystery of the Blue Train.

Men in chargeOne interesting aspect of how Christie characterises Emily Arundell is to show how, in the Victorian era when Miss Arundell was growing up, men were socially far more important than women, both in their achievements and in their general significance. Even though Charles Arundell is portrayed as a fairly amoral chap, Miss Emily still insists that he has the best of the spare rooms, because it’s correct to treat men more positively than women. Theresa can have the old nursery, she’ll be grand. It’s also fascinating to read how the pharmacy service was a very different kettle of fish in those days. Today, we go to the doctor, he gives us a prescription and the pharmacist provides the drugs. We might be involved in the decision to prescribe, but on the whole the patient has the most insignificant role in the whole administration of drugs. In Dumb Witness, Dr Tanios asks for his own “mixture” to be made up. “A very interesting mixture it was” says the pharmacist, “”one I’ve not previously become acquainted with.” The man spoke as of a rare botanical trophy. “It makes a change, sir, when you get something new. Very interesting combination of drugs, I remember….”” Can you imagine wandering into Boots and just suggesting an odd concoction to the pharmacist today? I don’t think you’d get very far.

basingstokeAs usual, there are a few references to check out. The book is set in the town of Market Basing, in Berkshire; it’s not hard to imagine that the inspiration for this name comes from Basingstoke, although that’s in Hampshire. Market Basing recurs in a number of Christie’s works, including the short story The Market Basing Mystery, which was not published in the UK until 1974’s collection, Poirot’s Early Cases, but was the forerunner for the title story in Murder in the Mews. Market Basing is also said to be close to St Mary Mead, the village where Miss Marple lives, although I always think of that as being in Kent. There’s a lot of vagueness in the Christie village environment.

SmyrnaThe Tanios family are said to have come back to the UK from living in Smyrna. That was the contemporary name for Izmir, Turkey, and during the 1930s was a hive of archaeological industry, with which Mrs Christie would doubtless have been familiar. The Tanioses are now living at the Durham Hotel, in Bloomsbury, but there’s no currently hotel with that name in London. Theresa and Donaldson enjoy a drive out to Worthem Abbey, described as one of the local beauty spots. Again, no such place exists, but with a slight letter change to Wortham Abbey, then you have such a place in Devon and also in Suffolk. Miss Lawson has now moved to 17 Clanroyden Mansions, W2. There’s no such address, but in the vicinity there is a Clanricarde Gardens, which might be the inspiration. In a moment of fury, Theresa insists that Poirot goes away… “and take St Leonards with you”. It took me ages to work out that her joke is a play on the town of St Leonards that adjoins Hastings in Sussex. Poirot thinks it’s funny. Hastings isn’t so impressed.

Boulle cabinetMiss Emily Arundell was in the habit of taking Dr Loughbarrow’s Liver Capsules. Perhaps unsurprisingly, these are an invention of Christie’s – if they really had existed in real life, sales would have plummeted. And in one of the seances that Miss Lawson liked to attend, the planchette revealed that there was a mystery regarding the key to the Boule cabinet. Nothing to do with the French ball game, but rather a cabinet designed by André-Charles Boulle, cabinet maker to the King of France.

PoundAs you possibly know, I like to research the present-day value of any significant sums of money mentioned in Christie’s books, just to get a more realistic feel for the amounts in question. There are quite a few large sums bandied around in this book that I think bear some investigation. Theresa Arundell says she originally inherited £30,000 from her father, which would have been enough to provide a regular income of £1200 per year; but she’s spent it all and has just £221 left. As at 1937, £30,000 was the equivalent of a good £1.4m, and that regular income of £1200 would have provided at today’s rate an annual allowance of £57,000. Not bad, but not enough for Theresa. Her pathetic £221 today would be worth £10,500. No wonder she was worried. Littlegreen House is on the market for £2,850, which today would be a modest £135,000. Haven’t property prices have soared over the last 80 years? And the value of Emily Arundell’s estate? £375,000. Today that would have been a handy £18m. Worth killing for?

Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for Dumb Witness:

Publication Details: 1937. Pan Books paperback, 9th printing, published in 1971, price 25p. The cover illustration depicts the Tarot card of Death, which I think is a little misleading as I can’t recall tarot cards playing a part in the story at all. There’s a dog’s collar – maybe a little large for Bob, hard to say – a few pills and a nail with some thread attached – that’s more significant. It’s quite an evocative image but I’m not sure to what extent it really reflects the story.

How many pages until the first death: 1. Miss Arundell’s death is reported in the first sentence of the first page of the book. However, we then go back in time and see her conversations with her family and acquaintances, and the first four chapters of the book are written so that we almost feel she’s still alive.

Funny lines out of context: Slim pickings, I’m sorry to say. Nothing to report.

Memorable characters: Emily Arundell is a well-drawn, fully believable character; you feel you understand her motivations and her old-fashioned ways very well – even though she dies in the first sentence! The amoral Charles and Theresa are also very vivid. And I was very entertained by the mischievous Miss Peabody, ridiculing Poirot’s moustache and not believing his story about writing a biography of General Arundell.

Christie the Poison expert:
Christie employs her knowledge of and interest in poisons to very good effect in this book. We discover that the gardener uses arsenic and is surprised by how much of the bottle has been used. Dr Tanios is known to buy a bottle of chloral from the pharmacist; this has been the cause of death in Christie’s previous books, The Secret Adversary, The Seven Dials Mystery and Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? But it’s what Miss Lawson believes was the ectoplasm leaving Miss Arundell’s body during the final séance that really nails Christie’s poison credentials; I won’t give the game away by explaining it, but suffice to say, it’s NOT ectoplasm!

Class/social issues of the time:

There’s really only one of Christie’s betes noir that gets a hammering in the book – and it really does get a hammering – and that’s the xenophobic distrust and dislike of foreigners. It’s everywhere. The Greek Dr Tanios comes in for most of the prejudice:

“Emily Arundell’s people, who were what is known as “service people”, simply did not marry Greeks”.

“Bella had married a foreigner – and not only a foreigner, but a Greek. In Miss Arundell’s prejudiced mind a Greek was almost as bad as an Argentine or a Turk. The fact that Dr Tanios had a charming manner and was said to be extremely able in his profession only prejudiced the old lady slightly more against him. She distrusted charm and easy compliments. For this reason, too, she found it difficult to be fond of the two children. They had both taken after their father in looks – there was really nothing English about them.” I believe this is the first instance of Christie recognising that her characters’ racism is in fact true prejudice and not just a nice middle-class trait.

In the words of Isabel Tripp: “Not that I’ve anything to say against Mrs Tanios – she’s quite a nice woman, but absolutely stupid and completely under her husband’s thumb. Of course, he’s really a Turk, I believe – rather dreadful for an English girl to marry a Turk, I think, don’t you? It shows a certain lack of fastidiousness.”
And in the words of Miss Lawson (ironically in conversation with the Belgian Poirot): “Of course, Dr Tanios pretends to be very fond of his wife and he’s quite charming to her. His manners are really delightful. But I don’t trust foreigners. They’re so artful!”

Miss Lawson doesn’t care who she recklessly offends with her blanket racism. “If he’d been an Englishman, I would have advised her – but there, he isn’t an Englishman… And she looks so peculiar, poor thing, so – well, so scared. What can he have been doing to her? I believe Turks are frightfully cruel sometimes.” “Dr Tanios is a Greek.” “Yes of course, that’s the other way about – I mean, they’re usually the ones who get massacred by the Turks – or an I thinking of Armenians?”

Poirot also receives some prejudice; consider this conversation between Miss Peabody and the great detective: “”Goin’ to write a book, eh?” “Yes.” “In English?” “Certainly – in English.” “But you’re a foreigner. Eh? Come now, you’re a foreigner, aren’t you?” “That is true.” She transferred her gaze to me. “You are his secretary, I suppose?” “Er – yes,” I said doubtfully. “Can you write decent English?” “I hope so.””

Classic denouement: In a sense. There’s an important person missing, which slightly detracts from the full drama, but it can’t really be avoided!

Happy ending? You don’t really get a sense of natural justice, tying up the loose ends, so it’s not really that happy an ending, and a few of the characters have a rather mournful future to look forward to. Nevertheless, two other characters appear to be happy in their new lives. And Bob gets a surprise ending too.

Did the story ring true? Not especially. The manner in which Emily Arundell’s first accident took place is, I feel, highly unbelievable. The characters are very believable though.

Overall satisfaction rating: It’s an enjoyable story but I think it lacks a certain je ne sais quoi, so I’m giving it 7/10.

Death on the NileThanks for reading my blog of Dumb Witness and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment in the space below. Next up in the Agatha Christie Challenge is another big one – Death on the Nile. I can’t remember too much about the book but I’m very familiar with the Peter Ustinov film, so I can remember whodunit even before starting to re-read. So that will be an interesting experience! 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 – Murder in the Mews (1937)

Murder in the MewsIn which Hercule Poirot takes us on four cases, novella length, where he solves a range of crimes from an apparent suicide to a deathly love triangle. Of course, the usual rules apply; if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I shan’t spoil the surprise of any of the four revelations!

William Morris fabricThe book was first published in the UK in March 1937, and in the US in June 1937, but under the title Dead Man’s Mirror. The stories had all been individually published previously in magazine format. Christie dedicated the collection “to my old friend Sybil Heeley, with affection.” Sybil was the daughter of Wilfred Lucas Heeley, at Cambridge with William Morris, and friend of Rudyard Kipling’s sister Alice. “Ruddy” and Sybil would keep up a correspondence until his death in 1936. Sybil was also the author of Ellie and the China Lady, “A Tibetan Fairy Tale”, published in 1895.

Murder in the Mews

Guy FawkesMurder in the Mews, the first story, was first published in the UK in Woman’s Journal in December 1936. It had previously been published in the US in Redbook magazine in September and October 1936. Poirot and Japp are heading back to Poirot’s flat on Guy Fawkes Night, remarking that, with all the sounds of fireworks all around them, it would be a perfect night on which to commit murder with a pistol. Sure enough, next morning, Mrs Allen is found dead in her flat in the very mews where Poirot and Japp had that conversation. It appears to be a suicide, but the most minor of investigations reveal that it couldn’t possibly be; so Japp and Poirot set about finding the murderer.

It’s a very entertaining and enjoyable read, very much with the feel of a mini-novel, with ten, progressing chapters covering 49 pages. With only a few suspects mentioned and questioned, there’s only a limited number of murder options for the reader to imagine, but even so Christie surprises us with Poirot’s denouement.

ShaverWe have the usual badinage between Japp and Poirot, with Japp’s colleague Inspector Jameson implying that Poirot is going “gaga”. Poirot’s sense of superiority and vanity comes out with his assertion that, if he were to commit a murder, Japp would never find out about it. Jameson is also seen as a figure of stuffy British superiority as he clearly disapproves of Poirot’s involvement in the case. There is some curious use of language, with one character described as a “stuffed fish and a boiled owl”; another is called “a bright kind of shaver” – which sounds like a compliment. Indeed, my OED confirms that “shaver” was a colloquial word for “humorous chap”.

There’s an ironic line when Major Eustace is being interviewed, and asked whether he was smoking during a certain conversation: “yes, and smoked. Anything damaging in that?” I expect in 1937 people weren’t aware of the dangers all that smoking was causing.

Onslow SquareThere are a few locations to check out: the death takes place in Bardsley Gardens Mews; there is a Bardsley Gardens in Sydney, Australia, but I don’t suppose it’s that one. Jane Plenderleith spent the weekend at Laidells Hall, Laidells, Essex, and Laverton-West lives in Little Ledbury, Hampshire; both totally fictitious. His London address is in Onslow Square though, and that’s a real enough part of South Ken.

Standard SwallowMajor Eustace drives a Standard Swallow saloon, which means (according to Wikipedia, so it must be right) that it was one of only 148 cars to be built by the Swallow Coachbuilding Company (later Jaguar) between 1932 and 1936. Very swish and exclusive. Mrs Allen died by means of an automatic pistol – a Webley .25. I know nothing about guns, but Webley and Scott were, and still are, noted manufacturers of air rifles and pistols; the .25, according to Wikipedia again, had a 3-inch barrel and a 6-round magazine. Manufacture was discontinued in 1940.

That £200 that Mrs Allen withdrew that may (or may not) have been to pay a blackmailer, is the equivalent of about £9,500 today. Not chickenfeed by any means.

A good start to the book! What’s next?

The Incredible Theft

SubmarineThis story is a reworking of The Submarine Plans, originally published in The Sketch magazine in November 1923 – fourteen years earlier than the publication of Murder in the Mews (the book). That version was eventually published in Poirot’s Early Cases in 1974. In the US, The Submarine Plans was first published in the Blue Book Magazine in July 1925. In the UK, the revised The Incredible Theft first appeared in serialised form in the Daily Express in April 1937. There was no US magazine edition prior to its publication as part of Dead Man’s Mirror.

spyNot a murder mystery this time, but the theft of some highly sensitive security documents from a politician; and there’s a known spy who’s a guest in the household, so did she take them, and if so, where are they? It’s a pacey story that takes place over no more than about 18 hours by my estimate, with some colourful characters and an intriguing resolution. But there’s some distinctly misogynistic conversations between some of the men in this story, that rather stand out as being at best pompous, at worst pretty unpleasant.

Expensive fragranceWe get an insight into a little more of Poirot’s personality – he doesn’t like being beaten at all. When it looks as though the spy character is going to get away with it, Poirot is not amused: “You wish me success, do you? Ah, but you are very sure I am not going to meet with success! Yes, you are very sure indeed. That, it annoys me very much.” Mind you, Lord Mayfield, whose documents have been stolen, is equally fuming; and not just at the theft. George Carrington gets him to admit that he suspects the spy: “”You don’t doubt, do you, that she’s at the bottom of this?” “No, I don’t. She’s turned the tables on me with a vengeance. I don’t like admitting, George, that a woman’s been too clever for us. It goes against the grain. But it’s true.”” Previously, he’d already commented on her fragrance: “it’s not a cheap scent. One of the most expensive brands in the market, I should say […] I think a woman smothered in cheap scent is one of the greatest abominations known to mankind.” I think Mayfield needs to get out a bit more. Not only are these men sexist, but also xenophobic. At the suggestion that Poirot might be able to solve the case, Mayfield replies “”by the Lord, George, I thought you were too much of an old John Bull to put your trust in a Frenchman, however clever.” “He’s not even a Frenchman, he’s a Belgian,” said Sir George in a rather shamefaced manner.”

maidPoirot’s conversation with the maid Leonie is decidedly creepy too. “Do you know […] I find you very good to look at […] I demand of M. Carlile whether you are or are not good-looking and he replies that he does not know […] I do not believe he has ever looked at a girl in his life, that one”. He is, in fact, testing an alibi, but it’s not one of Poirot’s most eloquent exchanges. Earlier, Poirot had questioned Carlile on this subject, and he had steadfastly refused to pass comment on Leonie’s looks. “Sir George Carrington gave a sudden chuckle. “M. Poirot seems determined to make you out a gay dog, Carlile”, he remarked.” Funny how the change of meaning of the word gay gives that sentence an entirely different inference today.

I was interested to note that a typical office working week is considered cover 48 hours. That’s very different from today’s 35 to 37 hours. The Prime Minister is referred to as Hunberly – of course, in 1937 it was Baldwin, then Chamberlain.

A good story, that holds the interest. Next up:

Dead Man’s Mirror

Dinner gongThis tale is an expanded version of the story The Second Gong which appeared in the Strand Magazine in July 1932 (and in the USA, in Ladies Home Journal in June 1932). It was eventually published in the UK in the book Problem at Pollensa Bay, which wasn’t published until 1991.

Sir Gervase Chevenix-Gore writes to Hercule Poirot to invite him to stay; but when he arrives, his host is already dead. Everything points to his having committed suicide, except Poirot doesn’t believe a word of it. The story develops into a full-blown and thoroughly intriguing mystery, another perfect little whodunit in miniature, with a proper denouement and bags of suspects. It also keeps back a very charming twist right up till the final line. It’s this story that Tom Adams’ cover illustration depicts; the shattered mirror with dripping blood.

Great detectiveWe welcome back Mr Satterthwaite, of The Mysterious Mr Quin fame, whom we also met in Three Act Tragedy. As there was a social gathering at the Chevenix-Gores, it’s not surprising to discover Mr Satterthwaite had an invitation too. Satterthwaite immediately becomes the recipient of some of Poirot’s famous egoism: “It did not seem to occur to this Sir Gervase that I, Hercule Poirot, am a man of importance, a man of infinite affairs! That it was extremely unlikely that I should be able to fling everything aside and come hastening like an obedient dog – like a mere nobody, gratified to receive a commission!” Later, when Poirot bumps into Susan Cardwell as he was checking the footprints in the flower bed, he remarks: “you now behold a detective – a great detective, I may say – in the art of detecting!”

MoraviaThere are a few possibly interesting references; the grandeur of the Chevenix-Gores’ address (Hamborough Close, Hamborough St Mary, Westshire) couldn’t be more imaginary if it tried. Sir Gervase’s chef was formerly employed by the Emperor of Moravia. This land, which is currently the eastern end of the Czech Republic, was up until 1918 part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. So even though the Emperor of Moravia sounds at worst a made-up title and at best a pub, there really would have been an Emperor with that title.

lady of shalottGodfrey Burrows is described as being “slightly hairy at the heel”. I’ve never heard that phrase before, but in many ways it’s rather splendidly descriptive. It means they’re an unmitigated bounder – ill-bred, like a race horse in need of refinement. Another phrase, this time one I have heard before, is spoken by Lady Chevenix-Gore when she sees the broken mirror – “the mirror crack’d from side to side, the curse is come upon me cried, the Lady of Shalott” – taken from Tennyson’s poem of the same name. Twenty-six years later Christie would be using the phrase as the title of a Miss Marple novel.

Sir Gervase’s will left £5000 to his nephew, Hugo, and £6000 to his widow. At today’s value, that would be the equivalent of legacies of £250,000 and £300,000. That’s not that much, given the grandeur of their lifestyle.

Triangle at Rhodes

TriangleTriangle at Rhodes was first published in the UK in the Strand Magazine in May 1936 under the slightly longer title of Poirot and the Triangle at Rhodes, and in the US in the 2 February 1936 issue of the weekly newspaper supplement This Week magazine. Critics have pointed out that there are some similarities with Evil Under the Sun, which Christie would write five years later.

RhodesPoirot’s on holiday in Rhodes where he observes a self-consciously beautiful woman stealing another woman’s husband right from under her nose, but she seems powerless to prevent it. The first woman’s husband is also extremely affronted at their behaviour. Poirot warns the wronged wife that she must “leave this place […] if you value your life”. She doesn’t; and there are catastrophic consequences. But what and how and why? The story includes two of Poirot’s often-found wise old sayings. He maintains that one never does something outside one’s character; this was the basis of his solution to the crime in Cards on the Table. He also uses to his advantage what he calls a criminal’s chief vice: “Conceit. A criminal never believes that his crime can fail.” Using these two guidelines Poirot sees through the play-acting and gets to the truth. It’s an extremely clever and surprising little story.

acokantheraFor the one and only time in this collection, we see Christie the Poisons Expert at work. A murder is committed, by using Strophanthin, which is a fairly unusual compound. It was used by African tribes as an arrow poison. Strophanthin is derived from Acokanthera plants native to east Africa and has similarities to digitalis. It’s exceptionally lethal!

In another of Poirot’s less enlightened moments, he seems to be condoning brutish behaviour towards women. “”It is possible,” said Poirot. “Yes, it is quite possible. But les femmes, they like brutes, remember that!” Douglas muttered: “I shoudn’t be surprised if he ill-treats her!” “She probably likes that too.””

NutsAn interesting reference point: a character hums the tune “here we go gathering nuts and may”. Nuts and may? Not nuts in May? No. Originally it was nuts and may, with “may” being the hawthorn or its blossom. Believed to be a corruption of “knots of may”. Things get confusing when you dig deep.

This is a bumper pack of four excellent stories and I can’t see why it shouldn’t merit a 10/10. Each of them is excellently written, full of characterisation, with surprising storylines and unguessable denouements. Highly recommended!

Dumb WitnessWith the next book in the Agatha Christie Challenge, it’s back to the novel format; and continuing with that vain but brilliant detective, Hercule Poirot, it’s Dumb Witness. I can’t remember that much about it but I know it’s a page turner and that I really enjoyed it in the past. If you’d like to read it too, I’ll blog about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meanwhile, happy sleuthing!

The Agatha Christie Challenge – Cards on the Table (1936)

Cards on the TableIn which four detectives (professional and amateur) including Hercule Poirot play bridge in one room of Mr Shaitana’s house whilst four other guests play bridge in another, where Mr Shaitana sits by the fire and watches; and when they get up to go home at the end of the evening, one of the four has murdered their host. No one else is implicated in the crime; if you make a guess at whodunit, you have a 25% chance of being correct! Poirot, of course, identifies the murderer through psychological examination of the characters involved – as well as checking through their dubious pasts to see if they have any murderous skeletons in their cupboard. And of course, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I promise not to tell you whodunit!

Question markThis book has no dedication; instead Christie has written a foreword assuring the reader that the murderer is indeed one of the four people present in the room and that there’s no need to go hunting for the “least likely person”. The book was originally published in the US in magazine format in the Saturday Evening Post during May and June 1936; in the UK, it appeared in book format in November 1936, and in the US early in 1937.

scales of justiceAfter a slight drop in quality with Murder in Mesopotamia, this book heralds a real return to form with Christie creating a truly intriguing crime and suspenseful investigations by Poirot and his friends. There’s no separate narrator, apart from Christie herself, and every so often she adds a little aside, giving it a personal touch, as though she’s become our friend and she’s confiding in us. Whilst Superintendent Battle is conducting his first interview with Dr Roberts, for example, she just gives us that little extra insight that wouldn’t be there in a straightforward third-person narration: “”..we’ve interviewed Mr. Shaitana’s solicitor. We know the terms of his will. Nothing of interest there. He had relatives in Syria, it seems. And then, of course, we’ve been through all his private papers.” Was it fancy or did that broad, clean-shaven countenance look a little strained – a little wooden? “And?” said Dr Roberts. “Nothing,” said Superintendent Battle, watching him. There wasn’t a sigh of relief. Nothing so blatant as that. But the doctor’s figure seemed to relax just a shade more comfortably in his chair.”

cup of teaChristie doesn’t restrict her suspicions just to Dr Roberts. When Rhoda tells Anne Meredith that she has been to see Mrs Oliver: “”You’d gone off on your own ploys with the boy friend. I thought at least he’d give you tea.” Anne was silent for a minute – a voice ringing in her ears. “Can’t we pick up your friend somewhere and all have tea together?” And her own answer – hurried, without taking time to think: “Thanks awfully, but we’ve got to go out to tea together with some people.” A lie – and such a silly lie. The stupid way one said the first thing that came into one’s head instead of just taking a minute or two to think.” At the end of Miss Meredith’s first interview with Battle, Rhoda turns on the wireless to hear the announcer say: “You have just heard the Black Nubians play “Why do you tell me lies, Baby?”” That’s a smart way of implying that Miss Meredith isn’t telling the truth.

bridgePoirot builds much of his initial questioning around the bridge game, using the scoresheets that he collected from the scene of the crime. Just as Amy Leatheran had appended the plan of the dig house in Murder in Mesopotamia, and as Hastings was often wont to attach pertinent documents to his narrations, Christie gives us a facsimile of the bridge rubbers. This way we have precisely the same evidence that she/Poirot has – very similar to providing the full list of items in the luggage in Death in the Clouds – the reader and Poirot have precisely the same information. Poirot’s very attached to the bridge rubbers: “They are illuminating, do you not think? What do we want in this case? A clue to character. And a clue not to one character, but to four characters. And this is where we are most likely to find it – in these scribbled figures.”

psychologyPoirot is highly analytical in this book, concentrating on the psychology of the four suspects: “we know the kind of murder that has been committed, the way it was committed. If we have a person who from the psychological point of view could not have committed that particular type of murder, then we can dismiss that person from our calculations.” He holds firmly to this belief right through the book, even when he is driven to agonies of self-doubt just before his final denouement. One of the suspects confesses that they have committed the crime; but it goes against everything that Poirot believed for certain. “”The question is,” he said, can Hercule Poirot possibly be wrong?” “No one can always be right,” said XXX coldly. “I am,” said Poirot. “Always I am right. It is so invariable that it startles me. But now it looks, it very much looks, as though I am wrong. And that upsets me […] Decidedly, I am mad. No – sacré nom d’un petit bonhomme – I am not mad! I am right. I must be right. I am willing to believe that you killed Mr Shaitana – but you cannot have killed him in the way you said you did. No one can do a thing that is not dans son caractère!!”” And of course, he’s right.

tigerAmong other insights into Poirot’s brain, he describes himself as “bourgeois”, as Christie does of him in Three Act Tragedy. Shaitana appreciates and values the artistry of a decently planned, immaculately executed murder, and is very surprised that Poirot doesn’t share this view. While Poirot admits that a murderer can be an artist, “he is still a murderer! […] I can admire the perfect murderer – I can also admire a tiger – that splendid tawny-striped beast. But I will admire him from outside his cage. I will not go inside. That is to say, not unless it is my duty to do so.” Shaitana beckons the tiger into his dinner party, and doesn’t survive the experience.

autograph bookPoirot also finds the thought of the “celebrity” nature of the guests at Shaitana’s party rather exciting. Miss Meredith is intimidated by them, but Poirot has no truck with that idea: “Mademoiselle, you should not be intimidated – you should be thrilled! You should have all ready your autograph book and your fountain pen […] what would I not give at this minute to be even the most minor of film stars!” That may seem surprising – but remember back to those early cases in Poirot Investigates – he and Hastings were always leafing through the gossip magazines to source salacious titbits about celebs.

ApplesPoirot isn’t, however, the most well-drawn character in this book, nor are any of the four suspects. Christie devotes most attention to Mrs Oliver, whom we first saw as one of Parker Pyne’s backroom boys in Parker Pyne Investigates. Now she is given much greater prominence. She’s depicted as distinctly batty, obsessed with apples, eccentric of costume, and unkempt of appearance. On one hand she’s devoted to her Finnish detective, and on the other hand she despises him. As a successful writer (currently on her 32nd, whereas this was Christie’s 20th), she knows what her readership likes, even if she doesn’t always agree with them; as a result, she doesn’t care if she’s inaccurate with her legal procedures, but she is upset to discover that French beans are over by Michaelmas (it ruined a plot detail). She’s meddling, instinctive, and constantly self-contradictory. Christie invests Mrs Oliver with so much description and so many characteristics and eccentricities; it’s clear that she has the confidence to do this because she is based on herself. She can’t wait to be let loose on the criminal investigation world in real life, but she’s determined to enjoy it as though it were detective fiction. This might be a realistic description of the enthused amateur, but it was never really going to endear her to Superintendent Battle. They say if you don’t know what to write about, write about something you know; Christie clearly writes about someone she knows very well – herself.

argumentMrs Oliver always favours women over men, whether it be in positions of power or in social engagement. She’s convinced a woman will always be the better person for the job, whatever it is. Almost to prove it, there’s an unexpected amount of very sexist talk in this book – but not anti-men, perhaps surprisingly. Battle confides in Miss Burgess “I don’t want to say anything against your sex but there’s no doubt that a woman, when she’s rattled, is apt to lash out with her tongue a bit”. Working out who should make enquiries about whom, he notes of Mrs Oliver, “she’s a sport. And women get to know things about other women that men can’t get at.” When Mrs Luxmore is recollecting her time spent with Major Despard, she says he ““never said anything. He was the soul of honour.” “But a woman always knows,” prompted Poirot. “How right you are… Yes, a woman knows…”” What tosh!

winter palaceAs usual, there are a few references to check out. First: locations. The book opens with Poirot meeting Shaitana at an Exhibition of Snuff-Boxes at Wessex House. It’s a convincing name for an exhibition hall, but in reality it’s a medical institution in Somerset. Mrs Lorrimer advises that she first met Shaitana at the Winter Palace in Luxor. Not a tourist site, as such, but a grand hotel, still very much in existence and currently run as a Sofitel. According to their website, Christie was to write Death on the Nile whilst staying there.

quettaWe’re given the suspects’ addresses. Dr Roberts lives at 200 Gloucester Terrace, London W2 – which exists, a suitably solid London address; Mrs Lorrimer’s address is 111 Cheyne Lane, Chelsea – this doesn’t exist but of course there is Cheyne Walk; Miss Meredith’s home is Wendon Cottage, Wallingford – Wallingford of course exists, in Oxfordshire, but there’s no Wendon Cottage as far as I can see. Her London club is the Ladies’ Naval and Military, whose address is in St James’s Square. We never learn Despard’s address, curiously. Other locations of possible interest include a branch of the London and Wessex Bank in Lancaster Gate (it never existed as a bank); the late Mrs Craddock lived at 117 North Audley Street (North Audley Street exists, but there isn’t a No 117); Combeacre, in Devon, where Mrs Benson lived, also doesn’t exist; but Miss Meredith’s birth town of Quetta most certainly exists – at the time it was in India, now it is in Pakistan, the largest city of the province of Baluchistan.

Big bellySome other references that occurred to me whilst I was reading: Dr Roberts is described as having a tendency to embonpoint, which was a new one on me. It means heavy, but not unattractive, girth. Two of Christie’s other books receive a nod; Poirot proudly displays the murder weapon from Murder on the Orient Express, and rather carelessly tells the reader whodunit; I guess Christie thought she’d already sold enough copies. Amusingly, Mrs Oliver is recognised by Miss Meredith as the writer of The Body in the Library, which Christie must have thought was such a great title that she herself wrote a book with the same title six years later.

black angelAfter an awkward moment of silence, Mrs Oliver remarks, “is it twenty-to or twenty-past? An angel passing… My feet aren’t crossed – it must be a black angel!” I’d absolutely no idea what she was going on about here, it sounds like a series of intertwined superstitions that have passed me by. Apparently there’s a whole folklore out there that conversations die out at twenty past the hour. It’s also meant to represent an angel passing; and as Mrs Oliver’s feet aren’t crossed (like you cross fingers for good luck), the implication is that it’s a bad luck sign. Who knew?

sherlockDr Roberts describes himself as a “St. Christopher’s man” – presumably the same medical institution where Amy Leatheran trained in Murder in Mesopotamia. Also in conversation with the good doctor, Poirot recollects Sherlock Holmes: “the curious incident of the dog in the night. The dog did not howl in the night. That is the curious thing”. Christie couldn’t have known about Mark Haddon’s book or Simon Stephens’ play. I had no idea this title referred to the Sherlock Holmes story Silver Blaze. You live and learn.

RichardLovelaceThose Black Nubians who were on the wireless in Anne and Rhoda’s house, weren’t a real group. Rowland Ward’s – from where Despard thinks Shaitana would have sourced his eland head – was a major taxidermist, and founder of Rowland Ward Ltd; the company is still going and publishes the authoritative Records of Big Game series of books. And the poem that Poirot misquotes to Mrs Luxmore, “I could not love thee, dear, so much, loved I not honour more” is a quote from Richard Lovelace’s To Lucasta, Going to the Wars.

PoundRegular readers will know I like to research the present-day value of any significant sums of money mentioned in Christie’s books, just to get a more realistic feel for the amounts in question. There aren’t many in this book, and those there are, are quite low value. But I thought it would be interesting to see how much the entrance fee to that Snuffbox exhibition would be today; it cost Poirot one guinea in 1936, which today would be worth almost £52. I can’t see anyone paying that!! And the nineteen pairs of top quality stockings that Poirot buys; they’re 37/6 each (£1.82 if you’re too young to convert). Approximately £35.65 worth of stockings in 1936. That’s an astronomical £1,760 in today’s value. 90 quid for a pair of stockings!

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

Publication Details: 1936. Fontana paperback, 4th impression, published in 1962, price 2/6. A bland, but informative cover illustration.

How many pages until the first death: 16. That’s not long to get acquainted with Mr. Shaitana, but then no one knew in advance there was going to be a murder at his party, not even the murderer.

Funny lines out of context: A few – and they’re not particularly funny really. Still, I’ll include them for completeness:

Of Mr Shaitana: “he gave wonderful parties – large parties, small parties, macabre parties, respectable parties and definitely “queer” parties.”

“A slightly stronger light shone over the bridge table, from whence the monotonous ejaculations continued.”

“He knows men, Colonel Race does.”

Memorable characters:
As indicated earlier, the most memorable character in this book is Mrs Oliver. I’m not sure any of the four main suspects are that memorable; Shaitana, with his Mephistophelean tendencies, is probably the next most memorable.

Christie the Poison expert:

Christie slightly takes the mickey out of herself by having Mrs Oliver discuss untraceable poisons at Shaitana’s party with Major Despard and Dr Roberts. “Mrs Oliver was asking Major Despard if he knew of any unheard-of out-of-the-way poisons. “Well, there’s curare.” “My dear man, vieux jeu! That’s been done hundreds of times. I mean something new!””

Mr Craddock died of anthrax, from an infected shaving brush. This an extremely unlikely way to die in the present day, in western Europe, but remains comparatively common in Africa, with approximately 2,000 cases per year worldwide. There is a further death in the story – whose, I won’t say because it will ruin it for you if you know without having read the book – brought about by an injection of Evipan. This was a very early reference to this substance, as it didn’t come into regular use until the 1940s and 50s as a barbiturate anaesthetic. Rather gruesomely, it was also used as a murder weapon at Ravensbruck Concentration Camp for women during the Nazi regime.

Class/social issues of the time:

It’s beginning to appear that Christie spends less and less time talking about the social issues of the day as her books become more and more involved with elaborate plot dexterity and casting suspicion on the innocent. There are, however, a few racial moments: Shaitana was not only called a dago, but also “the sort of Dago who needed kicking badly. He used to make the toe of my boot fairly itch”, said the intemperate and clearly racist Despard. Later on he boasts to Poirot, “I never forget a face – even a black one”. Whether it’s a military tendency or just a coincidence, but Colonel Race has a similar approach, expressed in an alternative way. He doesn’t suspect Despard and implores Battle to agree with him. “He’s a white man, Battle […] Despard’s a white man, and I don’t believe he’s ever been a murderer. That’s my opinion. And I know something of men.” Even Rhoda tries to build up Anne’s confidence by confirming that she agreed that she knew Anne couldn’t possibly murder anyone, “but horrible suspicious foreigners don’t know that.” That’s not a nice way to talk about Poirot.

The only other social issue that gets a couple of mentions in this book is, perhaps surprisingly, foxhunting. Miss Meredith is talking to Poirot when she says of Shaitana, “you never know what would strike him as amusing. It might – it might be something cruel.” “Such as fox-hunting, eh?” replies Poirot. Christie says that Miss Meredith threw him a reproachful glance, so probably not that. In later conversation with Battle and Mrs Oliver, Poirot admits: “I have always disapproved of murder.” “What a delightfully droll way of putting it,” said Mrs Oliver. “Rather as though it were foxhunting or killing ospreys for hats.”

Classic denouement: Yes, although for reasons that will become clear as you read the book, not all the four suspects are in attendance for the denouement. The whole atmosphere of the book has been a gradual building up of tension throughout the investigation and the questioning, and the denouement follows on as a natural development of that. The guilty party does a great bravado job of assuming innocence until the last possible moment, which is always a delicious way of Christie to build them up only for Poirot to whack them down at the conclusion.

Happy ending? Not especially. There’s an indication of possible happiness ahead for two people but it’s probably a long way off. Justice is a tough bedfellow in this book.

Did the story ring true? Intriguingly, yes. Once you accept that a murder could take place under the circumstances in this book, everything else follows on naturally.

Overall satisfaction rating: I think this is an excellent read and have no hesitation awarding it a 10/10!

Murder in the MewsThanks for reading my blog of Cards on the Table 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 Murder in The Mews. This is a book of four short stories – comparatively long ones, almost novellas in their own right – and I have a distinct memory that it’s a really rather good selection! In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!