The Agatha Christie Challenge – Murder in Mesopotamia (1936)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

““Oh dear, dear”, I ejaculated.”

“Captain Maitland uttered an occasional ejaculation.”

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

Christie the Poison expert:

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

Class/social issues of the time:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Class/social issues of the time:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Agatha Christie Challenge – Three Act Tragedy (1935)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christie the Poison expert:

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

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

Class/social issues of the time:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Agatha Christie Challenge – 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!