The Agatha Christie Challenge – Three Act Tragedy (1935)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christie the Poison expert:

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

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

Class/social issues of the time:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Class/social issues of the time:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Funny lines out of context: the usual suspects:

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

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

“I am hot. My moustaches are limp.”

Memorable characters:

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

Christie the Poison expert:

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

Class/social issues of the time:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Thirteen ProblemsThanks for reading my blog of Peril at End House and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment in the space below. Next up in the Agatha Christie Challenge, it’s back to the short story format with Miss Marple holding court in The Thirteen Problems (that’s The Tuesday Club Murders if you’re American!) As always, I’ll blog my thoughts about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!

The Agatha Christie Challenge – The Mystery of the Blue Train (1928)

The Mystery of the Blue TrainIn which we meet Katherine Grey, the recent recipient of a fine inheritance, who seeks a change from her modest life in St Mary Mead by taking the Blue Train to stay with well-to-do cousins in France; but en route becomes entangled with a plot to steal rubies and murder an heiress. Fortunately, M. Hercule Poirot is also travelling on the train and is called in by the deceased’s father to identify who killed his daughter. And, lo and behold, with a little assistance from Miss Grey, he does! Don’t worry, if you haven’t read the book yet you can read this blog post and still not find out whodunit.

BillsAccording to her autobiography, this is the book of which Christie was least proud. She hated writing it, she said “she could not see the scene in my mind’s eye, and the people would not come alive.” She said each time she re-read it, she found it “commonplace, full of clichés and with an uninteresting plot”. No doubt a contributory factor was the breakdown of her marriage to Archie Christie, and her famous ten-day disappearance which had recently taken place. She needed to write to pay the bills, so from that point of view the book was a great success, as it sold just as well as any of her other books. That’s why it stood out in Christie’s mind as not only her worst book, but also the book that marked her transition from amateur to professional. If she could write on demand, without particularly caring about her characters or her plot, then surely she could think of herself as a professional writer, able to tackle any task that her career (or bank manager) required of her.

private-detectiveThe plot was taken from one of Christie’s own short stories that had been written in 1923 under the title The Plymouth Express, but was not to be actually published in the UK until the appearance of Poirot’s Early Cases, in 1974; so it will be some time before I read and write about that one! Katherine Grey is a one-off character, but her home village of St Mary Mead would of course become very significant as the home of Miss Marple – who had yet to appear in Christie’s works. There are several other links to other Christie books. This is the first appearance of Mr Goby, the private detective who specialises in having people followed; he works for Mr Van Aldin in this book but will provide Poirot with direct detailed information on suspects in After the Funeral and Third Girl. Once again we meet Mr Aarons, who gave Poirot valuable advice regarding showbiz performers in The Murder on the Links and The Big Four; and this is also the first appearance of Poirot’s manservant George, to whom he constantly refers as Georges, although he’s definitely a George.

blue trainThe conductor on board the Blue Train is named Pierre Michel; that is also the name of the train conductor in Murder on the Orient Express, Christie’s 1934 classic. Sadly, I don’t think they’re the same people. Poirot makes no sign of recognition when he interviews Michel on the Orient Express – and with Poirot’s brain he would have certainly remembered him. In the latter book Michel is said to have worked for the Compagnie Internationale des Wagons-Lits for fifteen years; the real Train Bleu was also part of that same company. Coincidence? Or did Christie think all train conductors were called Pierre Michel? After all, it seems that she thought all French houses were called the Villa Marguerite. That’s where Lady Tamplin lives in this book, and it was also the name of the residence of the Daubreuils in The Murder on the Links.

banging fistSo is Christie still developing the character of Poirot, or is he now the finished article? More than ever, Poirot is as vain, pompous and big-headed as can be. Poirot’s simple answer to Derek Kettering’s question “who are you?” is “My name is Hercule Poirot […] and I am probably the greatest detective in the world.” Katherine and Lenox can’t keep a straight face at Poirot’s outrageously high self-esteem: “You have seen the gentle, the calm Hercule Poirot; but there is another Hercule Poirot. I go now to bully, to threaten, to strike terror into the hearts of those who listen to me.” And he’s not wrong. His interrogation of Hipolyte and Marie, the Comte’s servants, is a shouting, bullying, fist-waving, table thumping affair that lacks all the usual style and finesse that we have come to expect from him. “You tell your lies and you think nobody knows. But there are two people who know. Yes – two people. One is le bon Dieu […] and the other is Hercule Poirot.” In previous books, regular police inspectors have questioned Poirot’s sanity, tapping their foreheads, implying the old boy’s losing his marbles, whilst of course he has not. In this book he is able to answer that question directly. ““Are you mad, Monsieur Poirot?” It was Van Aldin who spoke. “No,” said Poirot, “I am not mad. I am eccentric, perhaps – at least certain people say so; but regards my profession, I am very much, as one says, ‘all there’.””

woollen stockingsThere’s no Captain Hastings in this book for Poirot to bounce ideas off; instead Katherine Grey serves that purpose, but only on a couple of occasions. Apart from her, Poirot has only M. Caux of the Sûreté (they met once, long ago) as a helpful investigative partner. No Hastings also means no narrator as such; this might have been a contributory factor in why Christie found the book such a bind to write. Katherine is a kind and thoughtful character; independent, generous and human; but Christie doesn’t really give enough of her for us really to attach ourselves to her. Maybe if she’d written this book at a more confident and experienced time in her career, she’d have turned out to be a much more rewarding character. As it is, she is identified by Miss Viner as: “there you are, as sensible as ever you were, with a pair of good Balbriggan stockings on and your sensible shoes” – good quality stockings having been manufactured in Balbriggan, in the old County Dublin, at that time. So, a redoubtable stalwart, but not much more.

Down StreetThere aren’t many locations specified in this book, but one that may require a little explanation is Down Street tube, which is where Van Aldin alights when he goes to visit his daughter Ruth. It was located between Green Park station and Hyde Park Corner station and was closed in 1932. The Isles d’Or, which the Comte de la Roche suggests is a good spot for a liaison with Ruth, do indeed exist; they are a secluded group of four islands off the coast of France by Hyères, comprising of national park and nudist beach. But don’t believe the Comte was suggesting that kind of hanky-panky; the naturist colony there was started in 1931, three years after the book was published. The Negresco, where Derek Kettering chooses to lunch, is a swish and swanky hotel in Nice, that opened in 1913 and is still going strong.

Peer GyntSome other references that propelled me into research mode: Has there ever been an opera based on Peer Gynt? It’s a relevant question, as Mirelle discusses Claud Ambrose’s opera of Ibsen’s play because she is dancing the role of Anitra. Well, Claud Ambrose is a figment of Christie’s imagination, but yes, there have been two operatic Peer Gynts. The first, back in 1938, written by German composer Werner Egk; the second, very recently (2014) by Juri Reinvere. Of course, both were written after The Mystery of the Blue Train. Talking of which, when the train arrives at Lyons, Christie describes the “long plaintive hiss of the Westinghouse brake”. I’m no engineer, so I had to look this up. But even today, modern trains rely upon a fail-safe air brake system that is based upon a design patented by George Westinghouse on March 5, 1868. So he’s had a long-lasting influence.

Peer GyntLady Tamplin says of Katherine, “her clothes are all right. That grey thing is the same model that Gladys Cooper wore in Palm Trees in Egypt. Gladys Cooper was, of course, a renowned stage and screen actress but she never appeared in a film entitled “Palm Trees in Egypt” – nor do I think anyone else ever did. In the same conversation, Lady Tamplin resumes: “She has been a companion, I tell you. Companions don’t play tennis – or golf. They might possibly play golf-croquet, but I have always understood that they wind wool and wash dogs most of the day.” So Lady T doesn’t have much respect for the position of Companion. But what is this “golf-croquet”? I’ve heard of golf, I’ve heard of croquet, but never come across this hybrid. Actually it is a form of croquet where, as soon as someone has driven their ball through a hoop, all other players then play for the next hoop. Sounds a bit faster than regular croquet.

CrippenMajor Knighton reveals that he was staying at a house in Yorkshire when Lady Clanravon’s jewels were stolen. He suggested calling in Poirot to solve it, but they didn’t, and the jewels were never recovered. I can confirm that there is/was no such person as Lady Clanravon (a Christie invention) and the case of the Clanravon jewels doesn’t appear to be part of Christie’s back catalogue of short stories. Crippen, of course, is a different kettle of fish. Here’s the relevant passage: “”The personality of a criminal, Georges, is an interesting matter. Many murderers are men of great personal charm.” “I’ve always heard, sir, that Dr. Crippen was a pleasant-spoken gentleman. And yet he cut up his wife like so much mincemeat.” “Your instances are always apt, Georges.”” Dr Crippen murdered his wife and dismembered her, for which he was hanged in 1910. It’s one of those cases that, for some reason, lingers on in society’s consciousness.

PoundAs this is a book where inheritance, divorce settlements and valuable jewellery all play a significant part, there are many instances of financial values being quoted but their value was very different in 1928 from their value today. Van Aldin values the jewels he gives Ruth to be between four and five hundred thousand dollars – today’s equivalent of between £3.6m and £4.5m. So we’re talking big biccies here. But actually, these are small potatoes compared with the two million dollars that Kettering told Mirelle that his wife had received from her father when she got married. That’s the equivalent of over £18m – a triple rollover on the lottery. By contrast, the £500 a year that Katherine was expecting from her inheritance works out at £22,000 in today’s money. Then there’s the £100,000 Van Aldin offers Kettering if he doesn’t contest Ruth’s divorce. That’s £4.4m today. And finally there’s the £2m that Kettering inherits from Ruth – a tidy £8.8m today. He’s a lucky lad.

It’s now time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for The Mystery of the Blue Train:

Publication Details: 1928. My copy is a Fontana paperback, 23rd impression published in March 1974, priced 30p. The intriguing cover picture is by an uncredited artist and depicts a cigarette case, some strands of red auburn hair, some bloodstaining on a brass stick, all against the backdrop of Ruth Kettering’s passport. Smart!

How many pages until the first death: 64. It’s the only death too. The story does take its time to get going.

Funny lines out of context: Unusually, I couldn’t really identify any. I did, however, enjoy these individual pieces of writing:
““Mrs Samuel Harfield presents her compliments to Miss Katherine Grey and wishes to point out that under the circumstances Miss Grey may not be aware –“ Mrs Harfield, having written so far fluently, came to a dead stop, held up by what has proved an insuperable difficulty to many other people – namely the difficulty of expressing oneself fluently in the third person.””

“”Ellen does a steak with grilled tomatoes pretty fairly,” said Miss Viner. “She doesn’t do it well but she does it better than anything else.””

Memorable characters:
One of the problems with this book as that the characters are not at all memorable. They’re primarily irritating, like Mirelle with that silly accent, or underemphasised like our heroine Katherine.

Christie the Poison expert:
Not in this book. The victim is killed by strangulation.

Class/social issues of the time:

Just as The Big Four offered us a rather uneducated view of mental health, this book takes a somewhat facile glance at suicide: “He fetched Zia’s cloak, and together they strolled out into the gardens. ”This is where the suicides take place,” said Zia. Poirot shrugged his shoulders. “So it is said, Men are foolish, are they not, Mademoiselle? To eat, to drink, to breathe the good air. It is a very pleasant thing, Mademoiselle. One is foolish to leave all that simply because one has no money – or because the heart aches. L’amour, it causes many fatalities, does it not?” This doesn’t show much appreciation of what we think of as mental illness today.

Miss Viner’s letter to Katherine is full of the minutiae of everyday living in St Mary Mead and gives a very vivid insight into her life, and the things that occupy her mind. “Everything goes on much the same here. There was great trouble about the new curate, who is scandalously high. In my view, he is neither more nor less than a Roman […] I have had a lot of trouble with maids lately. That girl Annie was no good – skirts up to her knees and wouldn’t wear sensible woollen stockings. Not one of them can bear being spoken to […] Dr Harris persuaded me to go and see a London specialist – a waste of three guineas and a railway fare, as I told him; but by waiting until Wednesday I managed to get a cheap return […] Is it cancer or is it not? And then, of course, he had to say it was. They say a year with care, and not too much pain, though I’m sure I can bear pain as well as any Christian woman.” So, here we have: divisions within the church, problems with servants, high cost of medical and railway services, and the fact that a diagnosis of cancer meant inevitable pain and death. It’s interesting to remember how professional fees were almost always given as guineas rather than pounds – that three guineas is the equivalent of £140 today. Pretty reasonable price in those days, by comparison! Miss Viner’s problem with maids is a classic example of Christie’s observations on the class system. In a later encounter: “”Tell Ellen she is not to have holes in her stockings when she waits at lunch.” “Is her name Ellen or Helen, Miss Viner? I thought –“ Miss Viner closed her eyes. “I can sound my h’s, dear, as well as anyone, but Helen is not a suitable name for a servant. I don’t know what the mothers in the lower classes are coming to nowadays.”

Captain Hastings, not known for his modern man approach to life, would have been in full agreement with Van Aldin’s view that all women are basically stupid: “There is one thing no man can do, and that is to get a woman to listen to reason. Somehow or other, they don’t seem to have any kind of sense. Talk of woman’s instinct – why, it is well known all the world over that a woman is the surest mark for any rascally swindler. Not one in ten of them knows a scoundrel when she meets one; they can be preyed on by any good-looking fellow with a soft side to his tongue.”

And, of course, there are the usual digs at foreigners. Jewel expert Papopolous (in itself something of a parody of a Greek surname) is described as a “wily Greek”. Chubby Evans has no time for the French, although Christie chides him for his view: “Mr. Chubby Evans listened with a very imperfect comprehension, his French being of a limited order. “So like the French,” murmured Mr Evans. He was one of those staunch patriotic Britons who, having made a portion of a foreign country their own, strongly resent the original inhabitants of it. “Always up to some silly dodge or other.”” There is also this slightly uncomfortable exchange between Poirot and Papopolous: “”Seventeen years is a long time,” said Poirot thoughtfully, “but I believe that I am right in saying, Monsieur, that your race does not forget.” “A Greek?” murmured Papopolous, with an ironical smile. “It was not as a Greek I meant,” said Poirot. There was a silence, and then the old man drew himself up proudly. “You are right, M. Poirot,” he said quietly. “I am a Jew. And, as you say, our race does not forget.””

Classic denouement: No, quite the contrary. There’s no grand assembly of all the suspects in a classy drawing room. It’s just a meeting between Poirot and two people. In fact, you only realise you’re in the denouement stage just before Poirot reveals the identity of the murderer. I had a sense of being a bit short-changed.

Happy ending? Not especially. Katherine is back at home, alone; Lenox is at home, alone. There doesn’t seem to be much in the way of character progression, nor the faint tinkling of wedding bells that so often characterises a Christie climax.

Did the story ring true? At a push, it’s not too fanciful. There are a few coincidences, of course, like the fact that Poirot is in situ to start the investigation and that both Kettering and Knighton are friends of the Tamplins, but then, it wouldn’t be a Christie without some coincidences.

Overall satisfaction rating: 4/10. Considering it’s called The Mystery of the Blue Train, it takes a long time before the Blue Train gets mentioned. So you always have this nagging feeling that all the preamble is just that – not part of the mystery. So whereas in other Christies those important pages before a crime is committed can be seen as enticing, clue-giving, and motive-suggesting, in this book it just feels like it’s taking a long time to get started. And, as I suggested above, the characters just go nowhere at the end. Definitely a book that ends with a whimper rather than a bang. One further slight disappointment – even though I couldn’t remember the story from my earlier readings, I still quite easily managed to guess the murderer – so no big surprise for me at the end.

Seven Dials MysteryThanks for reading my blog of The Mystery of the Blue Train and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment in the space below. Next up in the Agatha Christie Challenge we move forward to 1929, and it’s back to that wacky gang at Chimneys with The Seven Dials Mystery. I can’t remember anything about this book, so I’ll be reading it as though it were brand new. As always, I’ll blog my thoughts about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!

The Agatha Christie Challenge – The Big Four (1927)

The Big FourIn which Captain Hastings returns to England to be reunited with his old pal Hercule Poirot, and together they uncover the identities and crimes of an international group of four evil megalomaniacs aiming for world domination, and eventually put a stop to their wicked ways. Normally I make a promise not to spoil the surprise for you so that you can read this blog post before reading the book. I’m not sure that’s possible in this case. There will be spoilers!

Fu ManchuLet’s start by saying that, although this book unquestionably has a lot of fun, in many ways it’s absolutely bonkers and total balderdash. Clearly inspired by the fiendish Dr Fu-Manchu, whose earliest incarnations in print were during the First World War, this is a book that takes as its central tenet the fact that there is a group of four evil criminals, so rich and powerful that the world quakes in their path, plotting their devilish crimes against humanity from a quarry in the Italian Tyrol, like some James Bond/Austin Powers villain. The Fu-Manchu character is Li Chang Yen, known to only a few specialist orientophiles, who masterminds the group’s activities. We know this from the seventh page of the book, so I’m not giving away too many secrets here. The identities of two other members of the Big Four fall into place with relative ease, and it’s only The Destroyer, who flits in and out of the activity with almost farcical regularity, whose identity is concealed until relatively late in the day. But it’s not a whodunit – you’re not faced with a bunch of suspects and one of them is No 4 – so you might ask, where is the suspense, the tension, the thriller, the mystery? Good question.

Cruise shipPart of the problem is its structure, and the story of how it came to be written. Originally, it was a series of 12 short stories that had been published in The Sketch magazine three years earlier in 1924; so Captain Hastings’ return from South America happened much more quickly than it might appear if you only read this as a new book in 1927. It was a time of domestic strife for Agatha Christie. Her marriage to Archie was breaking down; she needed an income, but lacked the creative muse. Her brother in law, Campbell Christie, suggested revising the short stories into a novel; and apparently he assisted her with linking them together.

SubmarineHowever, the episodic nature of the original sequence of short stories remains very apparent when reading The Big Four. It lacks a flowing narrative; it “stop-starts” constantly, picking up and dropping characters like someone struggling with an overfull shopping bag. There’s a point in the story where Poirot is discussing the sinister group with the non-believing French Prime Minister, Desjardeaux (oh yes, Poirot moves in exalted circles in this book). Poirot tries to convince him that the threat is real, and in Hastings’ narrative, the noble captain writes: “for answer, Poirot set forth ten salient points. I have been asked not to give them to the public even now, and so I refrain from doing so, but they included the extraordinary disasters to submarines which occurred in a certain month and also a series of aeroplane accidents and forced landings.” To my mind that’s amongst Christie’s laziest writing. She’s simply making an excuse not to spend an afternoon inventing those events. Perhaps it’s no surprise that in later years, Christie herself described The Big Four to her agent as “that rotten book”. Despite its not being a traditional whodunit, and its not being a very good book, it still sold very well – as it was published a few weeks after Christie’s famous disappearance and re-appearance, which to this day remains probably her biggest mystery. As with Poirot Investigates, Christie did not write a dedication. Presumably there weren’t enough people around in her life at the time worth dedicating it to. Alternatively, maybe she didn’t want to saddle one of her friends or relatives with the dubious honour of having this book dedicated to them.

Vegetable MarrowsSo what extra does this book tell us about our detective heroes? Poirot is still living in London (unlike in the previous The Murder of Roger Ackroyd where he had retired to King’s Abbot to grow vegetable marrows). He’s attracted to his next case – which would take him off to Rio de Janeiro – purely for the money, which is most unlike him. He normally prefers something to tax the little grey cells rather than something that will result in his paying tax. He is still as egotistical as ever, though: “I think he came to see Hercule Poirot, and to have speech with the adversary whom alone he must fear”. In another exchange: “”And his mistake?” I asked, although I suspected the answer. “Mon ami, he overlooked the little grey cells of Hercule Poirot.” Poirot has his virtues, but modesty is not one of them.”” Despite his incredible track record, Poirot’s contemporaries still like to make out that he’s losing his marbles. To Poirot’s cryptic comment about seeing “not with the eyes of the body, perhaps, but with the eyes of the mind”, Inspector Meadows “touched his forehead with a significant grin at me. I was utterly bewildered, but I had faith in Poirot”.

Auburn hairAs for Hastings, he’s still a wry narrator, with a penchant for girls with auburn hair – Abe Ryland’s stenographer Miss Martin takes his fancy for that very reason. But he’s also still a terrible misogynist: “it had always seemed to me extraordinary that a woman should go so far in the scientific world. I should have thought a purely masculine brain was needed for such work.” When infiltrating Ryland’s domestic staff, he notes: “I had, or course, carefully scrutinised all the members of the household. One or two of the servants had been newly engaged, one of the footmen, I think, and some of the housemaids. The butler, the housekeeper, and the chef were the duke’s own staff, who had consented to remain on in the establishment. The housemaids I dismissed as unimportant.” And we are reintroduced to Inspector Japp, whose first appearance in the book is described as “jaunty and dapper” – so there’s a portmanteau name if ever there was one.

KarerseeOne relic of the book’s origin as a sequence of short stories is that it is littered with different locations. We start off at Poirot’s residence; in The Murder on the Links, this is just an unidentified London flat, but in The Big Four we know it to be 14 Farraway Street; a road that, according to Bing Maps, doesn’t exist anywhere in the world! Mayerling, the man who turns up unannounced, is said to have escaped from Hanwell asylum. This definitely existed – and indeed, still does to an extent, as part of the original buildings are now used by the West London Mental Health (NHS) Trust. The story moves to the village of Hoppaton in Dartmoor, the home of Jonathan Whalley. Christie describes it as 9 miles from Moretonhampstead. There is no such village – but in the village of Pyworthy, near Holsworthy, I discovered an old area called Hoppatown; there’s a farm, and one or two other buildings. I expect this was Christie’s inspiration. Other locations like Market Hanford, and Hatton Chase are purely fictional. When the story ends up in the Italian Tyrol, it takes us to Karersee or the Lago di Carezza, which certainly does exist, as you can see in the lovely picture at the top of this paragraph.

CalendarOne interesting side-effect of this mammoth task that Poirot set himself is that – I think – the detection, once it has started, is the longest to come to fruition of all Poirot’s cases. It certainly is of the books I have looked at so far. It is a morning in July when Hastings reaches the White Cliffs of Dover at the end of his long sea voyage. It’s mid-January when Hastings gets the telegram to announce that his wife has been kidnapped. Poirot and Hastings meet the Home Secretary and the French Premier at the end of March, and it’s June before the final showdown in the Italian Tyrol. Often you get the feeling that Christie’s books take place over a relatively short period. Well, here’s one exception to that rule.

Jewel Robbery There are also a number of people who drift in and out of the book, and also several who are referred to, but we don’t meet. Some are people from Poirot’s past. He and Hastings refer to Inspector Giraud of the Sûreté in disapprobatory tones; you might remember their encounter in The Murder on the Links. Countess Rossakoff is clearly an old adversary, for whom Poirot and Hastings have a sneaking regard. Hastings remembers that the Countess masterminded a “particularly smart jewel robbery”. But if you had only read each of Christie’s novels, and none of her magazine publications, reading The Big Four in 1927, you wouldn’t have a clue as to who Countess Rossakoff was. They had indeed come up against the Countess a few years earlier, in the story The Double Clue, which was published in the Sketch magazine in 1923. However, it did not appear in book form in the UK until 1974, as part of the volume Poirot’s Early Cases. So I’m afraid it’s going to be a good while before we get round to reading that one. Pierre Combeau appears to be an old friend of Poirot’s who plays a tiny but crucial role in the story – but he is not referred to in any other books – so this smacks of being another rather limp device of Christie’s in this book.

ChessMme Olivier has colleagues who sound like they could have been genuinely real people, like Professor Borgoneau; I think they’re completely fictitious. There are also chess champions, whom one could believe really existed – Rubinstein, Lasker and Capablanca. And yes they did! Akiba Rubinstein was a Polish chess Grandmaster at the beginning of the 20th century. Emanuel Lasker was a German chess player, mathematician, and philosopher, who was World Chess Champion for 27 years (from 1894 to 1921). José Raul Capablanca was a Cuban chess player, who was World Chess Champion from 1921 to 1927. By combining real and fictional characters in this way, this must have brought the story to life for its first readers in a way we might find hard to appreciate today.

MarconigramAs usual there are some references that might benefit from a little research. In The Murder on the Links, one of the characters is described by a doctor as suffering from brain fever. A few years on, and medical research and knowledge increases at a fast rate in the 1920s just as it does today, and in The Big Four, Hastings suggests another character might be suffering from the same condition. Dr Ridgway retorts: “Brain fever! No such thing as brain fever. An invention of novelists!” In an attempt not to look quite so stupid, Hastings then suggests aphasia, which is a term I hadn’t heard before – but it’s a well-known condition which refers to a combination of a speech and language disorder caused by damage to the brain. Hastings refers to Poirot wanting to send “constant marconigrams”. That wasn’t a term I’d heard before, but it will come as no surprise that it was a telegraphic message sent by Marconi Radio. The term fell out of popular use around 1931.

ApacheHastings chooses not to leave the flat in case the man from the asylum returns, much to Poirot’s scorn. “”Mon ami”, he said, “if you wish you may wait in to put salt on the little bird’s tail, but for me I do not waste my time so.” That reminded me that there was an old song by the Mamas and the Papas when I was a kid called “No salt on her tail”. I didn’t know what it meant then, and up till today I still didn’t! Well apparently, if you put salt on a bird’s tail, it cannot fly away. So now you know. When investigating the disappearance of Halliday in Paris, Japp concludes: “either it’s Apache work, and that’s the end of it – or else it’s voluntary disappearance”. Apache work? Native Americans? No. In the early 20th century Apache was also a term for violent street ruffians in Paris, according to my OED.

HorsesJapp again: “it’s too bad of you, M. Poirot. First time I’ve ever known you take a toss.” Take a what? Taking a toss was literally meant to mean being thrown from a horse; so figuratively it means to fail or to suffer a major setback. New to me. And Poirot also refers to chess “tourneys”; it’s just an informal term for a tournament. Poirot observes to Hastings that there could be a number of ways in which the Big Four could “get at them”, to which Hastings replies, “an infernal machine of some kind?” I don’t know about you, but I have definitely come across the phrase “infernal machine” before without really knowing what is meant by it. At that time, it had a specific meaning of an apparatus designed to cause an explosion.

Let’s now consider my usual at-a-glance summary, for The Big Four:

Publication Details: 1927. My copy is a Pan paperback, published in 1980, priced 90p. The cover picture is by an uncredited artist and depicts a Fu-Manchu type figurine. Not that imaginative.

How many pages until the first death: 9. It’s worth noting the incredibly large number of deaths in this book. Some took place before the narrative of the story started, but were still caused, directly or indirectly, by the Big Four. I’m not sure you could give a definite number of murders all in all, but it’s at least thirteen, not including the fate of the big four themselves.

Funny lines out of context: There are two, one right at the beginning, and one right at the end.

“Our conversation was incoherent and inconsequent. Ejaculations, eager questions, incomplete answers, messages from my wife, explanations as to my journey, were all jumbled up together.”

Poirot: “No, I shall retire. Possibly I shall grow vegetable marrows! I might even marry and arrange myself!” He laughed heartily at the idea, but with a touch of embarrassment. I hope…small men always admire big, flamboyant women.”

Memorable characters: Bizarrely, Li Chang Yen is probably the most memorable character – and we never get to meet him! Number 4 is memorable, for the fact that he is the master deceiver and actor – we meet him many times during the course of the book, and he is a most unusual character. The structure of the book means that we don’t get that close to the majority of the characters – but I do have a soft spot for Flossie.

Christie the Poison expert: With so many deaths it’s only to be expected that at least some of them are brought about by poison. Mayerling was killed by being forced to smell Prussic Acid, or Hydrogen Cyanide, to give it its proper name. When Poirot confronts Number 3 he threatens to use curare on her unless she does what he demands. Curare is that rather romantic (if you can use the word in this context) poison, allegedly favoured by the rural tribes of Central and South America for dipping their darts into and murdering their foes at 50 paces. The Yellow Jasmine that kills Gerald Paynter is a source of strychnine-related alkaloids – interestingly that the all wise Poirot didn’t realise the association between the two, but of course Christie did – and there are traces of antimony in Mr Templeton’s soup. So if you haven’t already read the book, I’ve really spoiled it for you now.

Class/social issues of the time:

Even though we know that the representative from the Hanwell asylum was fake, his rough and ready attitude to his “patient” gives us a very insightful look into how mental health was treated in those days: “I’ve got reason to believe you’ve got one of my birds here. Escaped last night, he did…. ‘Armless enough. Persecution mania very acute. Full of secret societies from China that had got him shut up. They’re all the same…. If he was sane, what would he be doing in a lunatic asylum? They all say they’re sane, you know.”

Li Chang Yen is greatly feared and disliked because of the wickedness of the way he treats his enemies and also performs so-called social experiments: “experiments on coolies in which the most revolting disregard for human life and suffering had been shown”. Today we would associate that kind of activity with the Nazis – interesting that this predates the Nazi experiments by at least ten years. Similarly, Number 3’s apparent discovery of how to liberate atomic energy and use it to her advantage comes eighteen years before Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

There’s a rather charming sequence when Inspector Meadows becomes rather prim when discussing the scene of the crime with Mr Ingles. “The other man had stepped in the bloodstains, and I traced his bloody footprints – I beg your pardon, sir.” This may be a hark back to Eliza Doolittle’s famed use of the adjective in Shaw’s Pygmalion from 1914. But certainly in the earlier part of the 20th century it was considered a very strong swear word. So Meadows feels he must apologise even when he is using it in its “proper” sense.

From the comfort of our domesticated 21st century homes comes a stark reminder of how far we’ve developed over the last hundred years or so. Poirot deduces that the butcher delivery to Granite Bungalow had happened that morning and not on an earlier day because “I found in the larder a leg of mutton, still frozen. It was Monday, so the meat must have been delivered that morning for if on Saturday, in this hot weather, it would not have remained frozen over Sunday.” Not only did people not have domestic freezers in those days, it was also assumed there’d be no deliveries on a Sunday!

In another just lightly touched upon conversation, we remember another aspect of life in 1927. “Captain Kent was a tall, lean American, with a singularly impassive face which looked as though it had been carved out of wood. “Pleased to meet you, gentlemen,” he murmured, as he shook hands jerkily. Poirot threw an extra log on the fire, and brought forward more easy chairs. I brought out glasses and the whisky and soda. The captain took a deep draught, and expressed appreciation. “Legislation in your country is still sound,” he observed.” American prohibition was in place from 1920 to 1933.

As you would expect, especially with a book that concerns itself with foreign enemies from the far corners of the globe, there are plenty of opportunities for those little xenophobic/ anti-foreigner references that Christie found hard to resist. Paynter’s Chinese servant is suspected of being his murderer, primarily because he is Chinese. “I’d bet on the Chink” says Japp, “…but it’s the motive that beats me. Some heathen revenge or other, I suppose.” Ah Ling’s appearance and speech patterns are precisely what you would expect: “The Chinaman was sent for and appeared, shuffling along, with his eyes cast down, and his pigtail swinging…. “Ah Ling,” said Poirot, “are you sorry your master is dead?” “I welly sorry. He good master.” “You know who kill him?” “I not know. I tell pleeceman if I know.” Poirot’s housekeeper Mrs Pearson announces to Hastings: “a note for you, Captain – brought by a heathen Chinaman.” Hastings commits one of the cardinal sins of racism; when he is reminded that he has met Ingles’ Chinese servant before, he remarks: “Then I had seen him before! Not that I had ever succeeded in being able to distinguish one Chinaman from another.”

It’s not only the Chinese who are in for this treatment. When they are investigating the death of chess champion Gilmour Wilson, Hastings interjects with “You suspect Dr. Savaronoff of putting him out of the way?…” “Hardly that,” said Japp dryly. “I don’t think even a Russian would murder another man in order not to be beaten at chess.” And Hastings also puts the boot in on another group of foreigners: “Extraordinary-looking Slavs were constantly calling to see him, and though vouchsafed no explanation as to these mysterious activities, I realised that he was building some new defence or weapon of opposition with the help of these somewhat repulsive-looking foreigners.” Captain Hastings would never have been suited to the Diplomatic Corps.

Classic denouement: No. It isn’t a whodunit as such, so there’s no real denouement. The identity of Numbers 2, 3 and 4 drift in during the course of the book, so there’s no grand unveiling of their names; the equivalent of the denouement is Poirot and Hastings tracking Numbers 2, 3 and 4 to their lair in Italy, which has a rather unsubtle (but useful) climax.

Happy ending? Yes, in that the world lives to survive another day, our heroes remain unscathed, and Mrs Hastings was never in danger. However, so many of the characters fall by the wayside (mainly through being murdered) that there’s not a great feeling of celebration at the end. Countess Rossakoff is reunited with her child who was left in an orphanage, so her future’s bright.

Did the story ring true? Absolute tosh! No way. It’s pure fantasy from start to finish. Even within the book’s own rules, it’s absolutely impossible that the Big Four would have been deceived into thinking that Poirot was dead. But the coincidences and double-crossings are outrageous, and the ability of Number 4 to appear and reappear in constant disguises without detection is beyond a joke. And as for the appearance of Achille Poirot…!

Overall satisfaction rating: 5/10. It’s entertaining, but nonsense.

The Mystery of the Blue TrainThanks for reading my blog of The Big Four and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment in the space below. Next up in the Agatha Christie Challenge we move forward to 1928, and another Hercule Poirot book, The Mystery of the Blue Train. I remember enjoying this a great deal when I was young, but I can’t remember whodunit, or what it was they might have done! So I’m looking forward to rediscovering it. I’ll blog my thoughts about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!

The Agatha Christie Challenge – The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926)

The Murder of Roger AckroydIn which we become reacquainted with Christie’s most renowned detective, Hercule Poirot, and witness him solve the murder of Roger Ackroyd, as narrated by Dr Sheppard, in the absence of Poirot’s usual narrator, Captain Hastings. And, despite the enormous difficulty in doing so, I’ve written this blog post so that you can still read it without finding out whodunit!

SleuthIt’s been a fascinating nostalgia trip to re-read The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. It makes me feel a little deprived of one of life’s most exciting surprises, as, just before I read this as a lad, a “friend” told me who the murderer was. I still think that was one of the rottenest things to do to anyone. I read it of course, but there was no sense of mystery for me. Many critics and observers cite this book as Christie’s masterpiece. In 2013, the British Crime Writers’ Association voted it the best crime novel ever. Because I’ve always known whodunit, I find it hard to imagine reading it without knowing. Whenever I read it, I always feel that the identity of the murderer is, in fact, pretty obvious. But that’s the baggage I bring with me from my childhood, and I guess I must be mistaken, or else the book wouldn’t be held in the great esteem that it enjoys.

MountbattenChristie dedicated the book to “To Punkie, who likes an orthodox detective story, murder, inquest, and suspicion falling on every one in turn!” Punkie was the family nickname for Christie’s big sister Margaret, and in fact it was Margaret who originally inspired Agatha to write The Mysterious Affair at Styles. However, it was her brother-in-law, James Watts, to whom she had dedicated The Secret of Chimneys, who actually gave her the inspiration for The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Coincidentally, Lord Mountbatten, too, had written to Christie in 1924 suggesting a similar storyline and structure, although she was so overworked at the time that she forgot to reply.

Vegetable MarrowsSo welcome back, Hercule Poirot, we’ve missed you. We last saw you dealing with all those short story cases in Poirot Investigates, two years previously; for a full length novel we had to go back three years for The Murder on the Links. Christie has now bundled Hastings off with his lady love to make a new life for himself in The Argentine, as it used to be called. We now have an image of Poirot, missing his old pal, having moved from his London digs that they shared, now retired to the village of King’s Abbot, where he devotes his life to growing vegetable marrows. Honestly; is there anything more unlikely? Poirot, who thrives on the psychology of people’s brains, whom we last saw avidly reading the gossip and celebrity magazines, whose life has been a celebration and a triumph of the power of the little grey cells – settling down to a village where he spends the day grubbing about in the earth growing vegetables? Christie has always pointed out how fastidious he is; can you imagine Poirot accumulating garden dirt under his fingernails? No. It’s never going to happen. So either it’s a complete lie – which I’m not sure is right as I believe Poirot’s apparent affection for marrows recurs later in Christie’s oeuvre – or it’s a complete miscalculation of his personality. Whatever, as soon as crime rears its ugly head in King’s Abbot, Poirot doesn’t give another moment’s thought to his prize crop.

DoctorOf course there is no such place in the United Kingdom as King’s Abbot; but, with Christie based in the south-west, maybe the name was inspired by a mixture of Newton Abbot and Kingsbridge. There’s no Cranchester either, not that it matters. What’s more important to the story is that Poirot needs a replacement for Hastings, and one turns up just perfectly in the shape of Dr Shepperd, who takes on the mantle of being Poirot’s scribe. He even draws us a couple of plans of room layouts to help our understanding, just like Hastings used to do. Poirot takes him under his wing and into his confidence with surprising alacrity, and for most of the book, Shepperd seems to just follow him around, occasionally revealing how impressed he is with the old man’s powers of deduction, but primarily there in order to feed Poirot with local insights and backgrounds about the characters. Like Hastings, Shepperd isn’t a particularly nice man, I don’t think; he has a rather unpleasant view on suicide: “women, in my experience, if they once reach the determination to commit suicide, usually wish to reveal the state of mind that led to the fatal action. They covet the limelight”. He does though, have a rather cynical sense of humour too: “lots of women buy their clothes in Paris, and have not, on that account, necessarily poisoned their husbands”. He doesn’t hold back at describing the worst aspects of a character he doesn’t like; of Ackroyd’s butler Parker, he says “what a fat, smug, oily face the man had, and surely there was something decidedly shifty in his eye”.

English FrenchHe also doesn’t hesitate to pick Poirot up on his poor use of English – not something many people would dare to do, I suggest. “Is there anything else that I can tell you?” inquired Mr Hammond. “I thank you, no,” said Poirot, rising. “All my excuses for having deranged you.” “Not at all, not at all”. “The word derange,” I remarked, when we were outside again, “is applicable to mental disorder only”. “Ah!” cried Poirot, “never will my English be quite perfect. A curious language. I should then have said disarranged, n’est-ce pas?” “Disturbed is the word you had in mind”. “I thank you, my friend. The word exact, you are zealous for it.” I must say I was personally very pleased with that exchange, because Poirot’s misuse of the word had really annoyed my own sense of language. Interestingly, it’s only Caroline who criticises Shepperd in the book: “take James here – weak as water, if I weren’t about to look after him”. Christie was later to observe that the rather meddlesome Caroline was her favourite character in the book, and that elements of her were like a prototype for Miss Marple, who would be hitting the shelves in a few years’ time.

Writing a bookBut where the book becomes delightfully surreal and rewarding, is when Shepperd confesses to Poirot that, just like Hastings, although he wouldn’t have known it, he has been writing up the case every night. It’s when you realise that the book you are reading is actually the account that Shepperd is talking about – even to the detail that he has just finished the twentieth chapter, and you look back and realise that yes, that is the part of the story that Shepperd has written up so far, that you feel like you are almost part of a book within the book. You feel that, by reading thus far, you are probably the first person ever to have read those words – because, in real time, it clearly hasn’t been published yet. This gives a strong sense of involvement and immediacy. From then on you really imagine Shepperd at his late-night desk, catching up on the day’s events and getting them down on paper. In a way, the book takes on the extra dimension of being a creative piece of work that examines its own creative process, which I always find very stimulating. Near the end it really turns itself on its head when Shepperd actually starts to critique himself; really most inventive writing that’s a delight to read. And there’s a certain symmetry to his narrative which leaves you with a sense of balanced satisfaction at the end too.

CrumpetCertainly the book as a whole is a gripping read. There are several moments of exquisite tension and suspense, plenty of detailed plotting for the amateur sleuth reading it to lose themselves in, bags of clues, likely suspects, unlikely suspects, and even a highly suspicious brand new character brought in with only about sixty pages before the end. Shepperd is a great narrator, the domestic staff who at first appear rather nameless and insignificant, unexpectedly grow in importance as the story develops; and Poirot is on fine form as he quickly eclipses the rather dull and underwritten police officers, expounding what may appear at first to be general theories but which are in fact targeted examinations of particular suspects. As usual, he has to run the gauntlet of the police accusing him of senility: “Then a grin overspread [Raglan’s] weaselly countenance and he tapped his forehead gently. “Bit gone here,” he said. “I’ve thought so for some time. Poor old chap, so that’s why he had to give up and come down here. In the family, very likely. He’s got a nephew who’s quite off his crumpet”. Not the most enlightened times when it comes to mental health, were they?

PoundIf you’ve read any of my previous Agatha Christie Challenge blogs, gentle reader, you’ll know I like to convert any financial values mentioned to what they would be worth today, just to give you a greater insight into the comparative size of the sums we’re talking about. There’s only one real instance of it in this book – the sum of £20,000. This is the amount of money that Miss Flora Ackroyd says her Uncle Roger has left her in his will. That sum is worth about £850,000 today – no wonder she feels like all her Christmasses have come at once.

MongooseAs usual there are a few references and idiomatic use of language that might merit a little further investigation. I fully recognised the first one: in the fifth paragraph of the first chapter, the irrepressibly snooping Caroline is given the motto of the mongoose family: “Go and Find Out”. That is a reference to Rudyard Kipling’s Rikki Tikki Tavi, the perpetually curious and nosey companion of young Teddy. One of the most enjoyable short stories I know – if you’ve never met Rikki Tikki Tavi, you really should read his victorious tale.

Pelleas et MelisandeAfter that my confidence with Christie’s references gets weaker. “I don’t know what Mrs Cecil Ackroyd thought of the Ferrars affair when it came on the tapis”. On the what? That’s French for carpet, isn’t it? Well yes it is, but apparently “on the tapis” is an obsolete phrase meaning “under consideration”. Yes, I don’t understand why it should mean that either. Flora and Blunt are looking in the water and think they can see a gold brooch. “Perhaps it’s a crown,” suggested Flora. “Like the one Melisande saw in the water.” “Melisande,” said Blunt reflectively – “she’s in an opera isn’t she?” Yes, she is, by Debussy, but originally she was in the play “Pelléas and Mélisande” by Maurice Maeterlinck, first performed in 1893. All sorts of misfortunes befall Melisande, but none of them really bear any resemblance to what happens in the book – so it’s a bit of a classical garden path moment. In what would now feel quite a trendy observation, Poirot is quick to recognise the tools of the drug addict and remarks that the goose quill found in the summer house must lead to the presence of “snow”. That’s cocaine of course, sometimes (I believe) snow refers to particularly fine powdered cocaine – and cocaine was a very aspirational drug back in the 1920s. “I’ve been every kind of fool,” said Blunt abruptly. “Rum conversation we’ve been having. Like one of those Danish plays”. Well, your guess is as good as mine there. He can’t be thinking Ibsen – he’s Norwegian. Strindberg? – he’s Swedish. All the big Danish names at the time wrote novels or poetry. Weird. I don’t suppose he’s thinking of Hamlet?

And now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for The Murder of Roger Ackroyd:

Publication Details: 1926. My copy is a Fontana paperback, published in July 1979, twentieth impression, priced 25p. The cover painting is by Tom Adams, and, on the whole, I think it’s fairly lousy.

How many pages until the first death:
34; unless you count the death of Mrs Ferrars, which gets reported in the very first line of the book. However, it’s not really the death of Mrs Ferrars that we’re investigating, although it is relevant to the murder of Roger Ackroyd. And of course, because of the title, the reader spends the first 34 pages fully aware that Ackroyd is going to croak at some point.

Funny lines out of context:
I don’t know whether Christie had turned a corner with the seriousness of this book – generally speaking there are far fewer little moments of humour here than in most of her other stories. As a result there’s not many funny lines to be enjoyed. The only one that stood out for me was when Charles Kent was infuriated by Poirot and called him a “little foreign cock duck”. What a bitch.

Memorable characters:
I’m not sure that many of the characters are that well delineated to make them memorable as such. Caroline Shepperd is amusingly nosey, but her brother doesn’t give too much of his personality away in his narrative. Parker the butler is creepy in a slightly eerie way.

Christie the Poison expert:
Although Roger Ackroyd is killed by an antique silver dagger (this is a very posh murder), poisons do still play an active role. Mrs Ferrars was suspected of poisoning her husband, and she herself commits suicide by taking an overdose of veronal. Veronal, of itself, was not a poison – in fact it was the first commercially available barbiturate, sold as a sleeping aid from 1903 until the 1950s. Taking about four times the recommended dose though was enough to kill you.

It is Ackroyd’s housekeeper Miss Russell who corners Shepperd on the subject of poisons. “[She] asked me if it was true that there were certain poisons so rare as to baffle detection. “Ah!” I said, “You’ve been reading detective stories… The essence of a detective story…is to have a rare poison – if possible something from South America, that nobody has ever heard of – something that one obscure tribe of savages use to poison their arrows with. Death is instantaneous and Western science is powerless to detect it. Is that the kind of thing you mean?” “Yes. Is there really such a thing?” I shook my head regretfully. “I’m afraid there isn’t. There’s curare, of course.” I told her a good deal about curare but she seemed to have lost interest once more. She asked me if I had any in my poison cupboard, and when I replied in the negative I fancy I fell in her estimation.”

Class/social issues of the time:

There’s a nice dig at vegetarianism, which had really hit public awareness about ten to fifteen years earlier. Shepperd (or, I suppose, Christie) gives us an amusing description of the time when he invites Poirot to join his sister Caroline and him for lunch but Cook has only prepared two chops. In order to avoid a scene, Caroline pretends to be vegetarian. “She descanted ecstatically on the delights of nut cutlets (which I am quite sure she has never tasted) and ate a Welsh rarebit with gusto and frequent cutting remarks as to the dangers of ‘flesh’ foods”. Later we discover that Poirot wasn’t fooled for one moment.

There’s the usual anti-foreigner invective every so often from Christie, not only with Kent’s rather absurd little insult I mentioned earlier, but also from Mrs Ackroyd, in her annoyance at what she sees as Poirot’s interference. “Why should this little upstart of a foreigner make a fuss? A most ridiculous-looking creature he is too – just like a comic Frenchman in a revue.” I think if I were Poirot I’d be much more insulted than he tends to be.

Classic denouement: Yes and no. Poirot sets up the big meeting with all the suspects present but leaves it with a cliffhanger, so that all the suspects (bar the murderer) leave the room before the truth is revealed. As a result, there’s no big shock in front of a room full of people, as it were, although the final surprise is still extremely exciting and suspenseful.

Happy ending? Not especially. Justice isn’t entirely seen to be done. The murderer escapes trial, although he does not get off scot-free. A number of people will feel very unhappy in the weeks, months and years after the book ends. Additionally, a theft of money appears not to be followed up and the thief doesn’t seem to carry the can at all. It’s all a rather dark story from that perspective.

Did the story ring true? Yes! For me everything fits very believably into place, and although it’s a bold and ambitious crime, Christie fairly presents us with all the clues. In addition, this book seems to rely on chance coincidence much less than some of her others.

Overall satisfaction rating: 10/10. Who am I to disagree with the British Crime Writers’ Association?

The Big FourThanks for reading my blog of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment – but don’t tell us whodunit! Next up in the Agatha Christie Challenge we move forward to 1927, and another Hercule Poirot mystery, The Big Four. I can’t remember a thing about it, so I’m looking forward to rediscovering it. I’ll blog my thoughts about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!

The Agatha Christie Challenge – The Murder on the Links (1923)

The Murder on the LinksIn which Hercule Poirot receives a desperate plea for help from M. Paul Renauld in France, but by the time he and Hastings rush to his aid, he has been murdered. Poirot works with the local magistrate to discover precisely what happened whilst engaging in duels of wit with the local officer of the Sûreté. Oh, and Hastings finds love. If you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I won’t spill the beans on whodunit!

GolfI’m not sure how old I was when I first read this book but I’m pretty sure that I didn’t know that the links in question was a golf course. I expect I was trying to work out how someone could commit a murder whilst balancing precariously on a pair of cufflinks – I’ve never been quite as intelligent as I ought to be. In fairness, it’s not a very good title. OK, the murder does take place adjacent to a golf course, but it doesn’t play that major a part in the story. Mind you, the Turkish title translates as “Our Lesson is Murder” – and there aren’t any lessons in it.

Shocked faceIt’s easy to forget that back in 1923 Christie was still a fledgling writer, and although she had enjoyed great success with her first two books, she still had the need to capture the imagination of editors and readers alike in the hope that they would continue publishing, and buying, her work. You can see this in the rather self-conscious way in which she begins this book: “I believe that a well-known anecdote exists to the effect that a young writer, determined to make the commencement of his story forcible and original enough to catch and rivet the attention of the most blasé of editors, penned the following sentence: “Hell!” said the Duchess.” Strangely enough, this tale of mine opens in much the same fashion. Only the lady who gave utterance to the exclamation was not a duchess.” And so it goes on. It reminded me of a story I remembered from when I was at school. One of our English teachers was the, then unknown, now very well known, writer A. N. Wilson. Whilst he was teaching A-level English Lit, he had his first book published – The Sweets of Pimlico. The book opens with the three words: “That affected shit”. We schoolkids all thought that was a hoot. But Andy Wilson (as we affectionately knew him) was doing precisely the same thing – getting the editor and the reader hooked as early as possible. It didn’t serve him badly. In a rather nice twist, Christie re-uses her phrase at the end of the book, with a completely different effect – a symmetry of which Poirot would give the highest approval.

Lost temperRe-reading The Murder on the Links now, I’m really impressed with this book. After the almost maniacal hectic pace of The Secret Adversary and the clue-a-paragraph nature of The Mysterious Affair at Styles, with this book Christie settled down to a much more comfortable speed, and gave her characters some space to develop. In fact, in addition to working out who killed Paul Renauld, the most enjoyable part of this book is its observations about its characters’ relationships. You see a much more human side to Poirot, most clearly portrayed in a scene near the end of the book when he severely loses his temper when a vulnerable character nearly gets killed because no one had told him she had changed bedrooms.

CInderellaSo what of our friend Captain Hastings? In one brief sentence early in the book, he describes himself as a “private secretary to an MP”. Well, he must be a very understanding MP, because Hastings never does a stroke of work for him during the next few weeks. I can’t recollect if this job of his will be referred to again in any of the later books – we will have to wait and see! You also see a gently teasing relationship develop between Poirot and Hastings, largely based on Hastings’ predilection for falling head-over-heels in love with the next pretty girl to come along. “Yesterday it was Mademoiselle Daubreuil, today it is Mademoiselle – Cinderella! Decidedly you have the heart of a Turk, Hastings! You should establish a harem!” However, Hastings considers their friendship is seriously put to the test with his willingness to perjure himself for the sake of his Cinderella. “Poirot would not take defeat lying down. Somehow or other, he would endeavour to turn the tables on me, and that in the way, and at the moment, when I least expected it.” Poirot, on the other hand, seems to take it in his stride. “I studied him attentively. He was wearing his most innocent air, and staring meditatively into the far distance. He looked altogether too placid and supine to give me reassurance, I had learned, with Poirot, that the less dangerous he looked, the more dangerous he was.” That’s a very insightful observation. Amusingly, the temporary stress on their friendship brings out all Hastings’ naturally British sense of doing the right thing: “It’s only fair to warn you” [he says to Poirot, who replies] “I know – I know all. You are my enemy! Be my enemy, then. It does not worry me at all.” “So long as it’s all fair and above-board, I don’t mind.” “You have to the full the English passion for “fair play!” And of course, Hastings will propound preposterous theories, barking completely up the wrong tree, where Poirot lets him sit in blissful ignorance for a while until he reveals the truth to Hastings’ total astonishment.

PoliceThere are also some very vivid encounters between Poirot and Giraud of the Sûreté, full of professional and personal rivalry, point-scoring, and competitive clue-hunting. Their first meeting doesn’t go down too well. ““I know you by name, Monsieur Poirot,” [said M. Giraud]. “You cut quite a figure in the old days, didn’t you? But methods are very different now.” “Crimes, though, are very much the same,” remarked Poirot gently.” Giraud’s patronising attitude irritates Poirot profoundly (“not a word to Giraud…he treats me as an old one of no importance!”) but Poirot is determined to show him that his old-fashioned tried and tested methods will come to fruition in the end. Nowhere is his age more advantageous than when he recognises one of the suspects from a case he investigated twenty years before. There’s also an excellent passage where Poirot talks, in general, about the repetitive nature of crimes and recidivism of their perpetrators, borne out of his long experience. When he takes this general observation and relates it directly to this case, so much of the crime becomes instantly clear; detecting like painting by numbers.

Twists and turnsBut don’t let this give you the impression that this is an easy case for Poirot to solve. In The Murder on the Links, Christie created a story that develops, episodically, with so many twists and turns, that you’re constantly being wrong-footed by it – and it’s a complete delight. So many chapters end with something of a bombshell, that it’s like waiting for the drum beats at the end of an episode of Eastenders. Sadly I can’t tell you too much about those bombshells because it will give the game away – but if you take, say, Chapter 10 (Gabriel Stonor), there are half a dozen or so twists in that one short chapter alone. Suffice to say, I found this book a genuinely exciting and page-turning read.

HeartAs an aside, if I were personal friends with Captain Hastings (and I don’t think I ever would be), I’ve got some concerns about his romance. Having married off Tommy and Tuppence at the end of The Secret Adversary, Christie decides to tie up Hastings’ love life too – she confesses in her autobiography that, although she had envisaged Poirot and Hastings as a kind of Holmes and Watson combination, in fact she had already got rather bored of Hastings and was hoping to tie up his loose ends and despatch him to South America for good. Maybe that need to neatly despatch him is the reason for some inconsistencies with his fondness for the gentler sex. Consider his reflection about women on the first page of the book: “Now I am old fashioned. A woman, I consider, should be womanly. I have no patience with the modern neurotic girl who jazzes from morning to night, smokes like a chimney, and uses language which would make a Billingsgate fishwoman blush!” Hot on the heels of The Secret Adversary, this description fairly well encapsulates some aspects of the character of Tuppence – so we could assume he wouldn’t like her. However, this very character turns out to be none other than his beloved Cinderella. When she re-enters his life, at the scene of the crime, she acts just like the female detective of the previous book, with clever small talk, and a desire to poke her nose where it’s not needed. When Hastings reprimands her for what he calls her “ghoulish excitement”, she’s not having any of it. “Your idea of a woman is someone who gets on a chair and shrieks if she sees a mouse. That’s all prehistoric”. Yet this is the girl with whom he becomes besotted. “I strolled down to the beach and watched the bathers, without feeling energetic enough to join them. I rather fancied that Cinderella might be disporting herself among them in some wonderful costume, but I saw no signs of her.” Fantasising about her in a bathing costume? That’s probably soft porn for 1923. In the end, Cinderella turns out to be a girl of terrific bravery, who (in part) saves the day at the end of the book – so, again, very Tuppence-like. I trust Hastings will come to terms with his reappraisal of the kind of girl he likes.

MeesAs in the other early Christies, I again came across a few words, phrases and references that frankly had me bamboozled, so in case they do the same to you, let’s have a look at them. At the start of the book, Hastings is making his way back home from Paris by train: “I had made a somewhat hurried departure from the hotel and was busy assuring myself that I had duly collected all my traps, when the train started”. All my what? Was he expecting a mouse-infestation at his destination? I’ve scoured “trap” in my OED very thoroughly and can’t find a definition that fits. I presume he means “suitcases” but it’s just an assumption. If you know better, please let me know! When discussing the fact that the murderer wore gloves: “Of course he did” said Poirot contemptuously. “…the veriest amateur of an English Mees knows it – thanks to the publicity the Bertillon system has been given in the press.” Woh, hold on there. Veriest? Well apparently that was a superlative form of very back in the 17th century but even in 1923 its use would have been severely archaic. An English Mees? Again the OED doesn’t help. But someone else has asked about this on a website and the response was that a mees – in Belgium, no less – is the name of a tit (bird variety). So I guess today we might say “even a tiny bird would know it”. But the Bertillon system? Alphonse Bertillon (1853-1914) was the French criminologist who invented the system of identification of criminals by anthropometric measurements, fingerprints, and so on. So now you know.

AtalantaMlle Daubreuil catches Hastings’ attention in many ways, not all of them of the purest. After a conversation with her, he says “she turned and ran back up the road, looking like a modern Atalanta”. Who? Obviously I’m not that well versed in Z-list Greek mythology celebrities. When Atalanta was born, her father wanted a son, so she was left on a mountain top to die. But she was raised by a family of bears, so ended up a fierce hunter who fought like bears, and who took an oath of virginity to the Goddess Artemis. So in all honesty she probably wouldn’t have been a lot of fun.

Buster BrownAt one stage, Poirot and Hastings return to England to visit the Palace Theatre Coventry (I shan’t tell you why – if you’ve read the book you’ll know why, and if you haven’t, it will spoil it for you.) But there is no Palace Theatre in Coventry. In the early 1920s, Coventry boasted the Hippodrome Theatre and the Opera House. There was also the Alexandra, but that was primarily a cinema. So I guess this is just a bit of Christie whimsy. Hastings hates the show, because he’s too much of a snob for Music Hall, noting that there was a comedian trying to be George Robey and failing. Well I do know who George Robey was – Google it if you don’t. But he also describes an act called the Dulcibella Kids as having short fluffy skirts and immense Buster Brown bows. I’m afraid that reference passed me by. Buster Brown was an American comic strip character (who wore a smart suit with huge bows) whose adventures were published from 1902 until about 1921. But after that he lived on, in film, radio and even TV until the 1950s. Never heard of him. Anyway, when they’d finished, the Dulcibella Kids received “a full meed of applause”. A meed? Again, that’s a new one on me. It was mainly used in the 16th century to mean a reward, but according to the OED it came back into fashion in the early 20th century to mean “a fair share of”. Who says you don’t learn stuff from this blog? So educational. Finally, a character under stress is described – by a doctor – as being in danger of suffering from brain fever. Medically, this wouldn’t pass muster nowadays, but it’s interesting to see how much more knowledge we have of neurology over the past 90 years.

PoundIn my blog about The Secret Adversary I did a little financial analysis on the present day values of the sums Tommy and Tuppence were being paid. In this book, Poirot notes that Mme Daubreuil has paid in to her bank account a sum of 200,000 francs over the previous six weeks – I’ll leave you to deduce whether it was legally or otherwise acquired. But if you were curious, that translates to about £170,000 in today’s money. You could buy an awful lot of baguettes and onions with that.

As usual, I offer you my at-a-glance summary for The Murder on the Links:

Publication Details: 1923. My copy is a Pan paperback, published in 1971. According to Wikipedia, so it must be right, Christie dedicated it thus: “TO MY HUSBAND. A fellow enthusiast for detective stories and to whom I am indebted for much helpful advice and criticism”. In 1923 she was still happily married to Archie Christie. Interestingly, that dedication doesn’t appear in my copy.

How many pages until the first death: 12. Great that you get stuck in nice and early. There are two more deaths too, but are they murders…?

Funny lines out of context: Disappointingly few:
“Jumping up…let down the window and stuck her head out, withdrawing it a moment later with the brief and forcible ejaculation…”
“”My only aunt!” She exclaimed”.
“”I would hardly have credited it,“ said Poirot thoughtfully, “but women are very unexpected”.

Memorable characters:
This is probably the book’s weakest aspect. I don’t think any of the major characters are particularly memorable – maybe Cinderella, because she’s different from the other rather stuffy people in it. Oh and M. Giraud from the Sûreté. Anyone trying to patronise Poirot has got to be interesting.

Christie the Poison expert:
Poisons don’t really play a part in this book, although there is an interesting observation about the properties of Primula. “The gardening gloves Auguste admitted to be his. He wore them when handling a certain species of primula plant which was poisonous to some people.” I wonder if the people behind the cheese spread know this?

Class/social issues of the time:

The book was published just five years after the end of the First World War, so wartime memories were still vivid for many people. Hastings reminds us that he was invalided out of the army after the Somme, and it’s interesting to see his instantly patriotic reaction when faced with any implied criticism of his homeland, even in a throwaway line. When the servant Françoise is answering M. Hautet’s questions she says: ““One could see that he was on the brink of a crisis of the nerves. And who could wonder, with an affair conducted in such a fashion? No reticence, no discretion. Style anglais, without doubt!” I bounded indignantly in my seat, but the examining magistrate was continuing his questions, undistracted by side issues.”

The book contains some of the classic Christie distrust of foreigners but not as much as in others – maybe the fact that it is set in France made it less appropriate. Nevertheless there is still a lot of suspicious mutterings about interlopers from Santiago and obvious-looking foreigners in railway stations.

Perhaps more interestingly – and I have to be careful here not to give away too much of the plot – there is a lot of moralising about the sins of the fathers; with specific reference to choosing a suitable person to marry, and avoiding an unsuitable one. “”A truly beautiful young girl – modest, devout, all that she should be. One pities her, for, though she may know nothing of the past, a man who wants to ask for her hand in marriage must necessarily inform himself, and then –“ The commissary shrugged his shoulders cynically. “But it would not be her fault!” I cried, with rising indignation. “No. But what will you? A man is particular about his wife’s antecedents”.

Classic denouement:
Christie has been dropping so many plot twists all along that it’s a little hard to identify quite where the denouement begins. The explanation for the second death starts over fifty pages from the end, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg as far as solving the crime is concerned. The final eight pages explain all. If you’re hoping for Poirot to call all the suspects in to a big room where he slowly identifies the murderer, you’ll be disappointed.

Happy ending? Certainly. Hastings has met his Cinderella, and although we don’t know what will happen next, the augurs look good. And Poirot does his marriage counselling act on another character, with the implication that another couple will live happy ever after.

Did the story ring true? There are of course coincidences in the story as a whole, but at no point did I question the general credibility of the book – and I found the rivalry between Giraud and Poirot extremely believable.

Overall satisfaction rating: 9/10. The constant twists and turns lead you up and down garden paths and everywhere but the truth, and are really entertaining. Plus I had the added excitement of having completely forgotten whodunit – and I didn’t get it right on this re-read. An undervalued little gem of a book.

Poirot InvestigatesThanks for reading my blog of The Murder on the Links, and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment – but don’t tell us whodunit! Next up in the Agatha Christie Challenge we are still in 1923, but a few months later with Christie’s first published selection of short stories under the title Poirot Investigates. Once again, we will meet Hercule Poirot and Captain Hastings setting their combined minds to solve a number of devious crimes. It will be interesting to compare short stories with a full length novel. 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!