The Agatha Christie Challenge – The Listerdale Mystery (1934)

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

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

The Listerdale Mystery

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

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

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

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

Philomel Cottage

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

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

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

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

The Girl in the Train

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

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

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

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

Sing a Song of Sixpence

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

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

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

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

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

The Manhood of Edward Robinson

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

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

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

Accident

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

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

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

Jane in Search of a Job

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

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

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

A Fruitful Sunday

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

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

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

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

Mr Eastwood’s Adventure

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

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

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

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

The Golden Ball

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

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

The Rajah’s Emerald

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

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

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

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

One story to go!

Swan Song

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

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

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

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

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