In which we discover something totally different! Twelve short stories, all apparently unrelated, that aren’t murder mysteries but tales of the supernatural. No Miss Marple or Hercule Poirot here, so it feels like a total departure from anything Christie had written so far. It is notable for the fact that it contains one of Christie’s best known short stories, Witness for the Prosecution, which has since been adapted into just about every media you could imagine.
The collection was not published by Christie’s regular publishers, William Collins & Sons, but by Odhams Press, and was not available to purchase in shops. If that sounds bizarre, it’s because it was part of a promotional deal where you collected coupons from The Passing Show, a weekly magazine published by Odhams, during October 1933. This was just one of six books that you could exchange the coupons for (plus a cost of seven shillings too). That’s why the book was never available in the United States; the short stories within it were published as part of other volumes in the US, variously between 1948 and 1971. Apart from that, some of the stories were published in The Grand Magazine, The Sovereign Magazine and Sunday Chronicle Annual between 1924 and 1927. Others do not appear to have been published before the book itself. One story, The Call of Wings, appears to be one of Christie’s earliest written pieces, probably shortly after the First World War, but it was rejected by all the magazine publishers to which it was sent. Read on, and you’ll realise why!
The Hound of Death
The first story, whose name lends itself to the entire volume, concerns a refugee nun who left Belgium following the 1914 invasion by Germany. Her convent was destroyed, not by explosives, but by a lightning bolt that the nun had somehow created through her own faith and belief in other powers. All the soldiers there were killed, and on one of the two surviving walls there was an unexplained mark, in the shape of a giant hound. Now living in Cornwall, she is visited by Anstruther, whose sister had given refuge to the nun, by name Marie Angelique. A young doctor, Dr Rose, wishes to write a monograph on her, fascinated by her continued hallucinations; but it soon becomes clear that Rose’s motivations and involvement with the case are not all as they might seem…
It’s an intriguing and intricate little story, delicately written, that sets a high standard for the rest of the book. For a short story, the characters are engrossing and well-shaped, and the outcome of the story is unexpected. It’s set in the town of Folbridge in Cornwall – there is no such place, of course, but perhaps it is inspired by Falmouth. The only other thing I had to look up was – during the explanation that the convent was destroyed – was the mention of Uhlans; they were one of four cavalry regiments – German, Russian, Polish and Austrian. You live and learn.
The Red Signal
Having said these stories are not whodunits, this one almost comes close. It’s a really meaty tale that centres on that feeling we sometimes have when we sense that danger is lurking, even though there’s no real reason to be concerned – that’s the red signal. Dermot West tells a story about how he narrowly avoided being murdered in Mesopotamia and it was only because he recognised the red signal that he survived. What he doesn’t say is that he’s feeling the red signal again at this very moment. There is a séance, at which one unspecified person is told it would not be safe to go home tonight; and what follows is the discovery of a death and a very intriguing revelation of who killed them and how it was done. To give further detail would be to give the game away, and I don’t want to ruin the story for you. Suffice to say, what appears to be supernatural isn’t exactly all it’s thought to be.
Sir Alington West is described as an alienist. If you’re not sure what that is, that was the contemporary term for a psychiatrist. Dr Thompson, in The ABC Murders, which would appear three years later, is also an alienist. By the time of publication, the term was already falling out of popularity.
I’m often struck how unforgiving Christie’s characters and her own language can be when it comes to matters of mental health. In those days, it wasn’t given the recognition it is today – although there’s plenty of scope for more, of course. Sir Alington and another guest, Mrs Eversleigh, approach the topic from different perspectives: “At what particular spot […] shall we erect a post and say “on this side sanity, on the other madness?” It can’t be done, you know. And I will tell you this, if the man suffering from a delusion happened to hold his tongue about it, in all probability we should never be able to distinguish him from a normal individual. The extraordinary sanity of the insane is a most interesting subject.” Sir Alington sipped his wine with appreciation and beamed upon the company. “I’ve always heard they are very cunning, “remarked Mrs, Eversleigh. “Loonies, I mean.”
I did like the observation by Claire Trent that “we go through life like a train rushing through the darkness to an unknown destination” – I’m sure we’ve all had that feeling at some point in our lives. Finally, the Grafton Galleries, which feature in the story, are a real location – an art gallery in Mayfair. Their heyday was in the Edwardian and early Georgian period when they mounted influential exhibitions of impressionist paintings. By the time this book was published, the Galleries were probably closed. 8 Grafton Street, which was the address, now houses a suite of managed offices. How the mighty are fallen.
The Fourth Man
Four men occupy a train compartment and three of them – a canon, a lawyer and a physician – begin to discuss delicate issues of mental health, including dual personality disorder and the suggestion that the body can be home to more than one soul. The doctor tells the story of one Felicie Bault, who was alleged to have had no fewer than four personalities, and whose life ended in strangulation, apparently at her own hand. But the fourth man in the compartment stirs at this tale and introduces himself as Raoul, brought up at the same orphanage as Felicie, and also tells them about Annette, another girl there, whose life was also inextricably linked with Felicie.
It’s a bit of a wayward tale, this. It starts very promisingly and with much intrigue but at the end rather falls apart without much of a punchline. Suffice to say, there might be another explanation for Felicie’s personality disorder – and on the other hand, there mightn’t. There aren’t any interesting references to look up – the only thing that stood out for me in the narrative was the intriguing concept of the body being a residence, that may pass through several different hands during the course of a life. Raoul turns that image on its end with his departing comment, which might give you pause for thought. But then again, it might not…
Definitely the best story of the collection so far, this slightly unnerving tale of a man who had an illogical fear of gipsies, but who met and grew quite close to one – Mrs Haworth – who has a firm ability to see both into the future and into the past. She warns the young man against certain actions, but he doesn’t heed her warning and therefore has to face the consequences; his friend also meets her and is entranced by her charisma, and agrees to see her again – although she has a brief vision that the second meeting will not happen…
I really enjoyed this tale, with just the right amount of supernatural undercurrent mixed with one foot firmly placed in reality. Considering we only know her through the confines of a short story, just ten pages long, Mrs Haworth is a memorable character, well fleshed out through Christie’s descriptions and language. I did actually guess the twist at the end of the tale, but that doesn’t really matter – and unlike many of the other stories, it actually has a happy ending. By writing this story, Christie was able to exorcise a condition that she herself had – in her autobiography, she expressed an irrational fear, not about gipsies, but about a gunman who would often appear out of nowhere in her dreams and terrify her.
The first sentence: “Macfarlane had often noticed that his friend, Dickie Carpenter, had a strange aversion to gipsies” doesn’t fill the reader with much hope that Christie will avoid the pitfalls of latent racism – but she does. Even the description of Esther Lawes as “six foot one of Jewish perfection” merely gives you a visual impression of the character and no more. Perhaps the most unusual aspect of the language of this tale is the fact that Mrs Howarth’s first name is Alistair. Today we associate that as being purely a man’s name – and the current Oxford Dictionary of First Names only has it as male. It seems that it can be used for a female too – although extremely rarely!
A rather traditional ghost story, full of gloom and doom. A family move into a cheap house whose rent is low because – it was said – it was haunted by the ghost of a child. No nonsense Mrs Lancaster isn’t scared of ghosts so she, her father and her son set up home there, and all was well until the son started reporting that there was another child there, alone and unhappy, with whom he wanted to play. Similarly, her father could hear the crying and footsteps of another child in the house. Would the four of them get on well as a household together?
It’s set in the cathedral town of Weyminster – well your guess is as good as mine as to where that might be. Winchester maybe? And the verse that Mr Winburn quotes in the story is from the Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, very popular in the early part of the 20th century.
It is quite an atmospheric and spooky story with an inevitability about the ending which, perhaps, isn’t quite as tragic as you might suspect. It’s very short and not very demanding, but rather gripping in its own way.
An enjoyable story about an old lady, whose nephew, in order to keep her entertained and diverted in her old age, arranges for the installation of a wireless set, much to the lady’s fear at first, but when she discovers there’s nothing to be scared of about it, she really enjoys it. That is, until one day, the sound from the concert she’s listening to breaks up and she hears the voice of her dead husband, talking to her through the ether, promising her that he will shortly be returning for her. At first she ignores it, sensing it is a warning of some sort, but what could she do about it. But it happens again and again, making her more and more anxious each time…
A deeply moral tale that could have been written to illustrate the old proverb, cheats never prosper; Christie delivers it with a lightness of touch, and although you can second guess the outcome, it’s still a rewarding and satisfying little yarn. It’s another of those stories where it seems like a supernatural event is taking place – whereas in reality, it’s only man’s deviousness at work.
No particular themes at work here; I liked how the old lady is scared of the “waves” of the wireless set, rather in the same way that a number of people were scared of mobile phones when they first came out, that somehow the invisible waves were going to fry our brains, or worse if we kept the phone in our trouser pockets. There’s also the use of the word “josser”, which I’d never heard of before. It meant (indeed, means) chap or fellow, particularly a foolish one.
Elizabeth, the maid, was originally in line for a £50 inheritance. In a fit of generosity, the old lady increases it to £100. In today’s values, that’s the equivalent of doubling £2500 to £5000. In all seriousness, that’s not that generous.
The Witness for the Prosecution
This famous story has lost none of its power and ability to shock and surprise, even though it’s now over 90 years old. Leonard Vole stands accused of murdering rich widow Emily French, but he has an alibi – at the time he is alleged to have committed the murder, he is at home with his wife. Can the lawyer Mr Mayherne use his powers of persuasion to convince the jury that his alibi is watertight?
Much of its power comes from the courtroom settings and lawyer/client interview background – no cosy drawing rooms where middle class people sit and reminisce in this story. It also stands out in this collection because there is no pretence to anything supernatural about it – it is pure legal interview, detection and courtroom scene, and any misdemeanour that was committed, was done in cold blood. No wonder this went on to become one of Christie’s most successful individual pieces of writing, spawning plays, films, TV adaptations, and so on. Christie was unhappy at the immorality of the original story and changed its ending for the play, so that the guilty party does pay the ultimate price.
The £200 demanded by Mrs Morgan for vital evidence would be the equivalent of £10,000 today – no wonder Mr Mayherne was reticent to give that much. And her facial scarring was caused by vitriol – or as we know it today, sulphuric acid; the same fate that was to await Tommy (of Tommy and Tuppence fame) in The Adventure of the Sinister Stranger, part of Partners in Crime that had been published four years earlier.
The Mystery of the Blue Jar
An enjoyably written, inventive tale about a young man, living in a hotel, who appears to hear a delusional voice in his head crying out “Murder! Help! Murder!” at the same time every morning whilst playing golf – but when he tries to find out who is calling, he can find no one who either called it, or heard it. An eminent doctor also living at the hotel tries to reassure the young man that there is bound to be a natural – rather than supernatural – explanation for the voice, and the doctor tries to discover the secret behind it….
However, the more you think about this story the less it adds up. Christie doesn’t give you the comfort of a full explanation for how the young man hears the voice, nor why he in particular is singled out. Suffice to say there is subterfuge at play, but the perpetrator of the subterfuge was either incredibly lucky, or it was planned around information that is not shared with the reader. So my reaction to this story goes from an initial buzz of enjoyment to a rather disappointed low caused by a feeling of How Could They Have Known About That.
It is very nicely written though. I did enjoy the opening passage particularly, describing the young man’s dilemma: “it is hard when you are twenty-four years of age, and your one ambition in life is to reduce your handicap at golf, to be forced to give time and attention to the problem of earning your living.” The golf course is said to be located at Stourton Heath – Stourton is a village in Derbyshire but it doesn’t play host to a golf club.
There is a valuation of an antique in this story – £10,000 minimum. At today’s rates that would be a humungous half a million pounds.
The Strange Case of Sir Arthur Carmichael
Unhesitatingly I suggest that this is altogether one of the silliest stories I have ever read. I’m not going to say anything much more about it, in case you like it much more than me – and there’s not a lot I can say about it that doesn’t give the game away (although I think it’s pretty obvious as you’re reading it); but I couldn’t believe how fanciful, in a most ridiculous way, it is. Unsurprisingly, this is one of the stories where there are no traces of its having been published before.
A character (I think I can call it that) is killed using Prussic Acid, a sign that Christie the Poisons Expert is at work. Today we know it more as Hydrogen Cyanide.
The Call of Wings
This early story bears the hallmarks of a writer with a good imagination but still with a very heavy-handed style, as yet properly formed. It’s the story of a rich man who gains an awareness that some form of spirituality is the only way to feel “lifted” – as though on wings – and how he manages to achieve a kind of contentment. It’s actually quite a tedious story to read and if Christie had written it, say fifteen years later, it would have had a much greater lightness of touch. Consider the heaviness of this description: “a battered derelict of the human race rolled drunkenly off the pavement”.
Much is made of some music that reminds the narrator of the overture to Rienzi. This is an early opera by Wagner, rarely performed nowadays. And the main character offers a shilling to a busker. Was this generous? A late 1910s shilling today would be worth about £1.80. So I suppose that’s not an unreasonable sum, even for a millionaire.
The Last Seance
A rather thrilling and totally supernatural tale of Simone, the tired medium having to face one last séance with the demanding Madame Exe, who wants to be reunited with her child Amelie. Raoul, Simone’s intermediary (and lover) insists that Madame Exe must not touch the medium at any time because it could be dangerous for her. Just how dangerous? Well that’s the tale. An unexpected little nugget, with no hidden meaning, clarification or explanation – you just have to take it at face value. At one stage I thought the scene-setting for this story was really preparing the way for an obvious crime to be committed – but the story fools you and goes in a completely different direction.
The character of Raoul Daubreuil shares his surname with characters in The Murder on the Links; there doesn’t appear to be any additional connection between the two stories. There’s also a Raoul in the earlier story in this volume, The Fourth Man. It was obviously a Christie favourite.
The final tale of the book is an atmospheric story of an isolated house, a slightly weird family and the outsider who has to take shelter overnight as his car had two punctures in an eerie storm. Elements of both The Mousetrap and Rocky Horror come to mind. The house is believed to be haunted and that may account for the mysterious message written in the dust on the furniture in the spare bedroom… or it may not…
It’s actually quite a clever story that gives Christie the Poison Expert a chance to shine again; another of these seemingly supernatural tales that are explained by criminal reality. The sum of £60,000, that the outsider overhears the head of the household discussing would be worth approximately £3 million today.
All that remains is for me to give The Hound of Death an overall satisfaction rating of 5/10. Whilst there are a few excellent and memorable stories – for example Witness for the Prosecution and The Gipsy – there are also more than enough that really bring it down – like The Strange Case of Sir Arthur Carmichael and The Call of Wings. The disconnected nature of the stories also means that there is no particular impetus to keep reading. It never goes beyond being wryly entertaining. I doubt whether you’d find this book in anyone’s Top Ten favourites.
With the next book in the Agatha Christie Challenge, it’s back to the novel format; and it’s back to Hercule Poirot. Next in line is one of the Big Ones, Murder on the Orient Express, and if you’d like to read it too, I’ll blog about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meanwhile, happy sleuthing and keep on Christie-ing!