The Agatha Christie Challenge – The Moving Finger (1943)

The Moving FingerIn which brother and sister Jerry and Joanna Burton move to the tranquil country town of Lymstock to help with his recovery after a flying accident. But instead of quiet rural life they become embroiled in a hunt for a poison-pen letter writer who appears to have driven one poor resident to suicide. When another body is discovered, the police begin to investigate; and are stumped until one Miss Marple is invited along to consider the evidence. As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I promise not to tell you whodunit!

British MuseumThe book is dedicated “To my friends Sydney and Mary Smith”. He was Keeper of the Department of Egyptian and Assyrian Antiquities at the British Museum; by all accounts a charismatic and thought-provoking man who always stirred Agatha’s imagination and brain, and the two of them loved to exchange intellectual banter together. His wife Mary was a painter; and the couple remained good friends with Agatha and Max throughout their lives. The Moving Finger was first serialised in the US in Collier’s Weekly in eight parts between March and May 1942. It was first serialised in the UK in Women’s Pictorial in an abridged form, in six parts, in October and November 1942 under the slightly shorter title, Moving Finger. The full book was first published in the US in July 1942 by Dodd, Mead and Company, only two months after her previous book, Five Little Pigs. It was published in the UK by Collins Crime Club in June 1943. Like Three Act Tragedy, the American version of the book is abridged by about 9,000 words from the UK version.

village-lifeThis has always been one of my favourite Christie novels. It hits the ground running at a tremendous pace, it has an intriguing and relatively unusual plotline and the central characters of Jerry and Joanna are very well drawn and completely likeable; quirky, mickey-taking, modern young things, Their growing romances as the plot develops are charming to observe, and Christie writes with a humorous flair and a very accurate sense of village life, with some intense characters. Sadly, it didn’t take me long to remember whodunit, but even so it doesn’t disturb one’s enjoyment of the narrative. Christie herself thought that this one of her best books.

after accidentIt’s narrated in the first person by Jerry, an amiable, slightly feckless fellow of sufficient means that it matters not one jot that he’s unable to undertake any form of work or rigorous exercise. Life for him and Joanna is a long round of lunches, afternoon teas and mock sibling rivalry. The reader identifies himself with Jerry so readily that the “I” of the narrative almost becomes the reader’s own perspective of the book, which makes it a quick, easy and comforting read. At one stage he points out a fact that he says, in retrospect, should have stood out as a huge clue to solving the mystery – that the “a” of Barton had been changed to the “u” of Burton, on the envelope containing the letter opened by Joanna. In retrospect, he’s right; but at the time you’re too deep down in the narrative to come up for air and try to work that one out for yourself. Still, it’s very decent of him (and Christie) to telegraph a major clue for us to recognise in that way.

dresden dollPart of the appeal of this book is the superb evocation of country life in a rural backwater. The Burtons rent from Miss Emily Barton, “a charming old lady who matched her house in an incredible way.” She’s often described as looking like a Dresden doll with formal petticoats and all that entails; and clearly her chintziness stems from her upbringing and her environment. “I must confess I did shrink from the idea of having Men here!” squeals Miss Barton, to whom the presence of a man in a house felt no more comfortable than having a horse in the house; probably less so. It’s the invasion of the outside world in the form of Jerry and Joanna that makes the disruption of the country life so interesting. Miss Barton “inquired diffidently if I smoked.” “Like a chimney,” said Joanna. “But then,” she pointed out, “so do I.” “Of course, of course. So stupid of me. I’m afraid, you know, I haven’t moved with the times […] yes, everyone smokes now. The only thing is, there are no ashtrays in the house.” […] “We won’t put down cigarette ends on your nice furniture, that I do promise you” replies Joanna. Times do change; today the Burtons would almost certainly not be allowed to smoke in a rented property.

witchThis is a world and a time when neighbours like Emily Barton “came solemnly and left cards. Her example was followed by Mrs Symmington, the lawyer’s wife, Miss Griffith, the doctor’s sister, Mrs Dane Calthrop, the vicar’s wife, and Mr Pye of Prior’s End. Joanna was very much impressed. “I didn’t know,” she said in an awestruck voice, “that people really called – with cards.” “That is because, my child,” I said, “you know nothing about the country.” At first Joanna can’t adapt to the country style of dress: “she was wearing a skirt of outrageous and preposterous checks. It was skin tight, and on her upper half she had a ridiculous little short sleeved jersey with a Tyrolean effect. She had sheer silk stockings and some irreproachable but brand new brogues.” Jerry advises she should wear “an old tweed skirt, preferably of dirty green or faded brown. You’d wear a nice cashmere jumper matching it, and perhaps a cardigan coat, and you’d have a felt hat and thick stockings and old shoes.” Christie goes to great length to describe the town and its heritage; phrases like “rival butchers” and a “hideous school” tell you so much of the quality and tone of life there. And of course, it wouldn’t be a country town if it didn’t have a witch; so everyone suspects Mrs Cleat, of being the letter-writer. Mrs Cleat may or may not be a witch, but she’s well aware of the usefulness of the reputation. “Mrs Cleat came from a family of ‘wise women’ […] and she’s taken pains to cultivate the legend. She’s a queer woman with a bitter and sardonic sense of humour. It’s been easy enough for her, if a child cut its finger or had a bad fall, or sickened with mumps, to nod her head and say, “yes he stole my apples last week” or “he pulled my cat’s tail”. “

PoliceThe official investigation into the wrongdoings in Lymstock is undertaken by Superintendent Nash, a man who impresses Jerry as “the best type of CID county superintendent. Tall, soldierly, with quiet reflective eyes and a straightforward unassuming manner.” He brings in Inspector Graves from London to assist, because Graves has experience with other anonymous letter cases. “Inspector Graves smiled mournfully. I reflected that a life spent in the pursuit of anonymous letter writers must be singularly depressing. Inspector Graves, however, showed a kind of melancholy enthusiasm. “They’re all the same, these cases,” he said in a deep lugubrious voice like a depressed bloodhound.” However, they wouldn’t get to the bottom of it all without a certain Miss Marple from St Mary Mead.

Magic trick on stageIt had only been a year or so since we had last met Miss Marple, and this will be her final appearance in a Christie novel for seven years. She makes a delayed entrance; it’s not until 117 pages have passed that Jerry makes a mention of “an amiable elderly lady who was knitting something with white fleecy wool”. She is a friend of Mrs Dane Calthrop, the vicar’s wife (whom we will meet again in The Pale Horse, some eighteen years in the future), and is staying as a house guest at the vicarage. She instantly pricks her ears up at the mention of murder and offers us a very incisive comment about the nature of “successful” murder: “To commit a successful murder must be very much like bringing off a conjuring trick […] You’ve got to make people look at the wrong thing and in the wrong place – misdirection, they call it, I believe.” That’s very much at the heart of the crime in this book. No wonder, later on, Mrs Dane Calthorp says of Miss Marple: “that woman knows more about the different kinds of human wickedness than anyone I’ve ever known.” Apart from those little insights, there’s nothing more for us to learn about the character of the old lady in this book.

plymstockRegular readers will know I like to have a look at the place names in Christie’s books to see to what extent they’re genuine, or just a figment of her imagination. Sadly, there’s no such place as Lymstock, although there is a Plymstock, which is an outer suburb of Plymouth, which is where I expect she got the inspiration. Combeacre, home of Colonel Appleton, Nether Mickford, where Rose the cook lives, and Exhampton, where Mildmay is a solicitor, are also fictional towns, although it’s not hard to see how they could be concatenations of other better-known places. Of course, when Jerry goes to London, he visits Harley Street which is most definitely real.

kitkatMoving on to some of the other references in the book; “merely kit-kat” says Jerry to Joanna, as the latter is teasing Dr Griffith for having walked past her rudely in the street. Merely kit-kat? What relevance is a chocolate snack? I’ve tried hard to work out whether this is some form of mid-20th century slang but I came to a standstill. Any ideas? Similarly, “bow at a venture”, which is what Jerry says to Griffith when he questions whether the Symmingtons’ son might have different parentage. To “draw a bow at a venture” is an old saying that comes from the Bible (1 Kings, 22:34), and means to make a random remark which may hit the truth. Well, I never knew that.

sir edward greyJerry defends the art of not working in a brusque conversation with Aimée Griffith, where he cites Sir Edward Grey, who was sent down from Oxford for “incorrigible idleness”. Sir Edward, who had died in 1933, had indeed been a lazy student, but managed to create a career that included being Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs from 1905 to 1916 under Campbell-Bannerman and Asquith, as well as being the MP for Berwick upon Tweed.

winged-victory-of-samothrace-3When Jerry is talking to Elsie Holland about the second death, he notes “as she flashed around the corner of the stairs, I caught my breath. For a minute I caught a glimpse of a Winged Victory, deathless and incredibly beautiful, instead of a conscientiousness nursery governess.” Forgive my ignorance, gentle reader, but I had no idea what Jerry was referring to. But it’s the Winged Victory of Samothrace, on display in the Louvre Museum, a marble Hellenistic sculpture of Nike (the Greek goddess of victory), that was created about the 2nd century BC. You live and learn.

oh fair doveChristie quotes a Shakespeare sonnet: “So are you to my thoughts as food to life, Or as sweet-season’d showers are to the ground” – this is Sonnet 75. Jerry also sings a song to himself: “Oh maid, most dear, I am not here I have no place, no part, No dwelling more, by sea nor shore, But only in your heart” – this is “Oh Fair Dove, Oh Fond Dove” written by Jean Bigelow in the 1860s.

meerschaumDid you know that Meerschaum pipes change colour with age and with use? Nor did I until I read that Jerry broke his by accident when he dropped it in astonishment at something Megan said. Who said that Christie isn’t educational?

PoundRegular readers will know that I like to convert any significant sums of money mentioned in the Christie books to what they would be worth today, in order to gain a greater understanding of quite how large or small they are – it’s not always so easy to assess otherwise. The only meaningful sums of money in this book are both quite small, but they’re interesting, nonetheless. Megan’s allowance is £40 a year – and she says you can’t do much on that. At today’s rate, that’s the equivalent of about £1300, so she’s absolutely right. The other sum is when she asks Jerry for a penny so she can buy some chocolate. How much is one old penny in today’s money? It’s about 30p. There’s inflation for you. That wouldn’t buy you anything!

Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for The Moving Finger:

Publication Details: 1943. Fontana paperback, 6th impression, published in March 1971, price 5/-. The cover illustration, presumably by Tom Adams, shows a pestle (but no mortar), with a cranberry coloured glass of… water? on top of an old handwritten piece of vellum. The pestle was probably used to commit the second murder, and the glass could contain dissolved cyanide… but the old scroll? Not a clue.

How many pages until the first death: 43. Sometimes you want a death to occur quite quickly, so as to keep the interest going. However, this is such a well-written book that you don’t think about it!

Funny lines out of context:

“I should imagine the people in these country places tend to be inbred – and so you would get a fair amount of queers.”

Memorable characters:

There are plenty of well fleshed-out characters to enjoy. Jerry and Joanna are a good starting point, townies camping out in the countryside and liable to make loads of mistakes. Prissy Mr Pye, blustering Miss Griffith, domineering Mrs Dane Calthrop, nudge-nudge wink-wink Marcus Kent all leave an enjoyable impression. And Partridge, the unforgiving maid to Miss Barton whom Jerry and Joanna inherit, is a great creation. As Jerry/Christie writes: “it was Partridge who brought the news of the tragedy. Partridge enjoys calamity. Her nose always twitches ecstatically when she has to break bad news of any kind.”

Christie the Poison expert:

The first person to die in the book consumes a solution of cyanide kept in the potting shed, used to destroy wasps’ nests. Today that all seems highly dangerous to keep such things in the household. There is some discussion in the book as to whether one would be more likely to take Prussic Acid – the old name for Hydrogen Cyanide – or some kind of soporific that would kill you more gently. Dr. Griffith describes Prussic Acid as “more dramatic and is pretty certain to do the trick.”

Class/social issues of the time:

A few issues raise their head, as they nearly always do. Much as I like the character of Jerry, from time to time he’s an unutterable snob, and he makes some assumptions that we will agree with him – and I don’t think we do! Trying to establish the writer of the poison-pen letters, Graves is convinced it’s a local woman. “I shouldn’t have thought one of these bucolic women down here would have had the brains” says Jerry. Bucolic is a harsh word to describe a person; and he falls into the trap of assuming country people and stupid people. Wrong, snob! In a later conversation he talks of “hitting miserable little maidservants on the head”; the word miserable shows a deep-seated dislike of working-class people; and later, again, he equates being homeless with being a criminal. Describing an inquest, where it was virtually ruled out that a stranger had committed the murder in question, Jerry notes: “no tramps nor unknown men had been noticed or reported in the district.” The fact that he mentions tramps specifically shows, I think, that he has very deep class issues.

The phrase “black slaves” is mentioned twice; once by Mr Pye as he recollects how the Barton girls had to fetch and carry for their monster of a mother, and once by Joanna as she disapproves of the tradition that a maidservant can’t arrange for friends to visit her at the house where she lives and works. Of course, it stands out today as a very uncomfortable phrase to use; however, at the time of writing it was, dare I say it, relatively enlightened. In another conversation, between Jerry and Aimée, about idleness, he shows her a Chinese picture of an old man sitting beneath a tree. “Aimée Griffith was unimpressed by my lovely picture. She said: “Oh well, we all know what the Chinese are like!”” Sometimes it seems as though Christie, through her characters, never misses a chance to take a dig at a foreign culture.

Being out-of-towners, you might expect Jerry and Joanna to be more forward-looking in their attitude to women’s rights and feminism. Jerry takes the rise out of the practice of keeping unpleasant issues away from the female of the species: “in novels, I have noticed, anonymous letters of a foul and disgusting character are never shown, if possible, to women. It is implied that women must at all cost be shielded from the shock it might give their delicate nervous systems. I am sorry to say that it never occurred to me not to show the letter to Joanna. I handed it to her at once. She vindicated my belief in her toughness by displaying no emotion but that of amusement.”

However, when he comes up against Aimée Griffith in full flow, it’s a different story. Christie never seemed certain of her own attitudes to feminism, and here you can see it in action. Christie has had plenty of likeable heroines (like Tuppence, Bundle, and of course Miss Marple herself) and she liked to see them get into scrapes through their own daring, but she also liked to see them get rescued by men. Here she has created Aimée Griffiths, who is somewhat cantankerous and who dislikes the book’s joint heroines of Joanna and Megan. She rounds on Jerry and what she takes to be his 19th century views with no holds barred. “”Your attitude, Mr Burton, is typical of that of most men. You dislike the idea of women working – of their competing –“ I was taken aback. I had come up against the Feminist. Aimée was well away, her cheeks flushed. “It is incredible to you that women should want a career. It was incredible to my parents. I was anxious to study for a doctor. They would not hear of paying the fees. But they paid them readily for Own. Yet I should have made a better doctor than my brother.”” It will be interesting to see if there is a noticeable change to Christie’s tone regarding feminism as time progresses – and the Second World War is over.

Classic denouement: Good, but not classic. The guilty party is caught in the act of a probable third murder by the police and, rather like Iago in Othello, we never hear from them again. We then pay a return visit to Miss Marple for her to plug the gaps. It’s quite exciting and rewarding, but not heart-pounding like some.

Happy ending? Yes. Marriage bells are heard for one couple, are in the offing for another couple, and a restoration back into acceptance is on the cards for a fifth person. We don’t discover the fate of the murderer, which is perhaps a trifle frustrating.

Did the story ring true? Yes. Unusually for Christie, this story doesn’t rely on some very far-fetched coincidences. The characters are largely credible, as is the motive for the crime. And you can easily appreciate how it would feel to be part of that village community, concerned that one of your number was a poison-pen writer or even a murderer.

Overall satisfaction rating: Despite a couple of tiny rankles it’s such a good read that I’m giving it a 10/10.

Towards ZeroThanks for reading my blog of The Moving Finger and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment in the space below. Next up in the Agatha Christie Challenge is Towards Zero, the final appearance of Superintendent Battle, in a story where the murder comes towards the end. I remember being frustrated by the lack of crime when I have read it in the past – it will be interesting to see if I still feel the same! As usual, I’ll blog my thoughts about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!

The Agatha Christie Challenge – The Body in the Library (1942)

The Body in the LibraryIn which the body of an unknown young woman is found in the library of Arthur and Dolly Bantry’s home, so, naturally, Mrs Bantry doesn’t hesitate to tell her old friend Miss Jane Marple. Several police from a number of forces lend a hand in identifying the culprit, but it is Miss Marple who, as always, follows her unique suspicions to get to the truth. As usual, if you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I promise not to tell you whodunit!

Bodies in a libraryThe book is dedicated to “my friend Nan.” This was Nan Kon, formerly Nan Pollock, née Nan Watts, whom Agatha Christie knew since they were children and whose friendship remained strong throughout their lives. The Body in the Library was first serialised in the US in The Saturday Evening Post in seven parts in May and June 1941. The full book was first published in the US in February 1942 by Dodd, Mead and Company, and the subsequently in the UK by Collins Crime Club in May the same year. Unusually, the publication in America preceded the publication in the UK.

Majestic HotelI could only remember a little of the story; primarily the opening scene, which Christie herself described as “The best opening I ever wrote”, and some of the scenes at the Majestic Hotel – mainly those involving the professional dancers. Therefore, much of the book came fresh and new to me on this re-reading. And I’m pleased to say it’s pretty good! It’s hugely more entertaining than the dire N or M? which Christie was writing at the same time. There are some entertaining characters, nicely written scenes, enjoyable police banter, and a brief but surprise-packed denouement which contains bombshell after bombshell. Also, unlike N or M?, there is no reference at all to the war going on. This is a timeless tale that could have happened anywhere, anytime.

Old bootsAnd we get re-acquainted with St Mary Mead, and its most famous inhabitant. Arthur and Dolly Bantry, Miss Wetherby, Miss Hartnell, Mrs Price Ridley, and the Reverend and Mrs Clement are also all still in place, twelve years after we met them in The Murder at the Vicarage, and some of them also appeared in The Thirteen Problems. Colonel Melchett is still Chief Constable, with the irascible Inspector Slack at his heels. Even though she’s absent for a lot of the book, this is undoubtedly one of Miss Marple’s Greatest Hits, were she to record that rather dubious album! We learn a lot more about her style and her Modus Operandi; she is ridiculed and insulted, and people talk about her behind her back; she comes up with some very wise insights; and when push comes to shove she’s as resilient as old boots.

HagDespite the fact that Miss Marple is very senior in years – “a bit funny in the head”, suggests Josephine – the police hold her in high regard. Melchett welcomes her wherever she goes because of her genius in Murder at the Vicarage, and Sir Henry Clithering, ex-Scotland Yard, convinces his friend Conway Jefferson that she brings to the table more than mere “women’s intuition”. “Specialised knowledge is her claim”, he says; “we use it in police work. We get a burglary and we usually know pretty well who did it – of the regular crowd, that is. We know the sort of burglar who acts in a particular sort of way. Miss Marple has an interesting, though occasionally trivial, series of parallels from village life.” Not everyone holds her in that high esteem though; during the first series of accusations at the end of the book, one of the suspects tells her: “be quiet, you old hag”. Well. That’s not very nice, is it?

trustMiss Marple tells us that she knows who the murderer is long before the police have an inkling, and at least 35 pages before the denouement. She convinces the police to allow a trap to be set in order to catch the killer – which is a degree of trust that Poirot could only dream of. Does Miss Marple have an additional skill that the others don’t? Clithering, Harper and Melchett all want to know the same thing. Her response: “I’m afraid you’ll think my “methods”, as Sir Henry calls them, are terribly amateurish. The truth is, you see, that most people – and I don’t exclude policemen – are far too trusting for this wicked world. They believe what is told them. I never do. I’m afraid I always like to prove a thing for myself […] In this case […] certain things were taken for granted from the first – instead of just confining oneself to the facts…” She’s very wise.

level headedMiss Marple has another observation that she makes during a conversation with Dolly Bantry, Mark Gaskell, Adelaide Jefferson and Sir Henry. ““Gentlemen,” she said with her old-maid’s way of referring to the opposite sex as though it were a species of wild animal, “are frequently not as level-headed as they seem.”” That certainly seems an apt description for Conway Jefferson.

butlerBecause the crime is investigated by officers from more than one county – due to the various remote locations of the action – Christie allows us to watch some very entertaining interaction between police officers. Melchett, as we already know, is something of a bully and miserable so-and-so, liable to lose his temper and with a tendency towards impatience. His interrogation of the wheedling George Bartlett, for example, would certainly fail PACE rules today. But how does he get on with his fellow officer Inspector Slack? Not well! Consider when Slack is telling Melchett about his questioning the staff at Gossington Hall, including Lorrimer, the butler: “”they all seemed very shocked and upset. I had my suspicions of Lorrimer – reticent, he was, if you know what I mean – but I don’t think there’s anything in it”. Melchett nodded. He attached no importance to Lorrimer’s reticence. The energetic Inspector Slack often produced that effect on people he interrogated.”

Make upChristie is at pains to point out how Melchett can’t get on with Slack’s vigour. “The diligent Inspector Slack slid across to his superior officer a page torn from his notebook […] Melchett looked up and met the Inspector’s eye. The Chief Constable flushed. Slack was an industrious and zealous officer and Melchett disliked him a good deal.” On another occasion, Melchett is nonplussed by the amount of make-up and lotions on Josie’s dressing table. “”Do you mean to say?” he murmured feebly, “that women use all these things?” Inspector Slack, who always knew everything, kindly enlightened him.”

Make upAnd what about Melchett and Harper, the superintendent from another county? Again you get the sense of some tension. They’re trying to work out how the body got into the library: “”oh, yes, Harper, it’s all perfectly possible. But there’s still one thing to be done. Cherchez l’homme.” “What? Oh, very good, sir.” Superintendent Harper tactfully applauded his superior’s joke, although, owing to the excellence of Colonel Melchett’s French accent, he almost missed the sense of the words.” This implies that class difference might well cause some uncomfortable moments between them. Class is, of course, one Christie’s favourite topics, as we will see later!

Upper ClassAt least Constable Palk knows his social status; here’s what happens when Mrs Bantry tries to show Miss Marple the library: “She led the way rapidly along the long corridor to the east of the house. Outside the library door Constable Palk stood on guard. He intercepted Mrs Bantry with a show of authority. “I’m afraid nobody is allowed in, madam. Inspector’s orders.” “Nonsense, Palk,” said Mrs Bantry. “You know Miss Marple perfectly well.” Constable Palk admitted to knowing Miss Marple. “It’s very important that she should see the body,” said Mrs Bantry. “Don’t be stupid, Palk. After all, it’s my library, isn’t it?” Constable Palk gave way. His habit of giving in to the gentry was lifelong. The Inspector, he reflected, need never know about it.”

St Johns WoodThis is one of Christie’s better-written books, with some nice observations and amusingly creative passages. There’s an entertainingly bizarre conversation between the redoubtable Mrs Price Ridley and the mild Reverend Clement where the former is clearly starting to spread rumours about Colonel Bantry, taking the making of mountains out of molehills to a fine art: ““No wonder you can’t believe it! I couldn’t at first. The hypocrisy of the man! All these years! […] oh, dear vicar, you are so unworldly! […] last Thursday […] I was going up to London by the cheap day train. Colonel Bantry was in the same carriage. He looked, I thought, very abstracted. And nearly the whole way he buried himself behind The Times. As though, you know, he didn’t want to talk.” The vicar nodded with complete comprehension and possible sympathy. “At Paddington I said goodbye. He had offered to get me a taxi, but I was taking the bus down to Oxford Street – but he got into one, and I distinctly heard him tell the driver to go to – where do you think? […] an address in St John’s Wood!” Mrs Price Ridley paused triumphantly. The vicar remained completely unenlightened. “That, I consider, proves it”, said Mrs Price Ridley.”

libraryWhen it’s become obvious that Colonel Bantry has been shunned by the local community because of his implied involvement in the crime, there’s a heart-warming sequence where his wife Dolly stands by his side. She’s so distracted that she cuts up her gloves as she listens in fury to the way he has been treated during her absence. But she encourages him to face the challenge directly when she suggests they spend the evening in the library: “her steady eye met his. Colonel Bantry drew himself up to his full height. A sparkle came into his eye. He said: “You’re right, my dear. We’ll sit in the library!”” A simple act of assertiveness that you know will put him back on track.

Dorothy L SayersWhilst thinking about Christie’s style with this book, I enjoyed the two tongue-in-cheek moments when she drew herself into the story; one obvious, one hinted. “Mark Gaskell looked at Miss Marple in a somewhat puzzled fashion. He said doubtfully: “Do you – er – write detective stories?” The most unlikely people, he knew, wrote detective stories. And Miss Marple, in her old-fashioned spinster’s clothes, looked a singularly unlikely person. “Oh, no, I’m not clever enough for that.”” And when young Peter Carmody enthusiastically tries to help the police, he offers: “do you like detective stories? I do. I read them all, and I’ve got autographs from Dorothy L Sayers, and Agatha Christie and Dickson Carr and H C Bailey.” Cheeky Mrs Christie! Dorothy L Sayers is of course still well known as the writer of the Lord Peter Wimsey stories. But Dickson Carr and H C Bailey are not so well known today. Dickson Carr was an American, whose most popular fictional detectives were Dr. Fell and Sir Henry Merrivale. He died in 1977. H C Bailey created a medical detective, Doctor Reggie Fortune. He died in 1961.

DevonshireRegular readers will know I like to have a look at the place names in Christie’s books to see to what extent they’re genuine, or just a figment of her imagination. Nearly all the places in this book are in the locale of either St Mary Mead, or the Majestic Hotel in Danemouth. I can safely say that the only place that isn’t an invention of Christie’s is Devonshire, where Raymond Starr says he originates. Everywhere else – including Stane and Alsmonston in Devon, is fictional.

Brighton Trunk MurdersLet’s have a look at some of the other references in the book. At the beginning, Dolly Bantry is reading The Clue of the Broken Match, featuring ace detective Lord Edgbaston; sadly, although it sounds like a thrilling read, it doesn’t exist. Miss Marple refers to the Cheviot Murderer; this probably refers to a case back in 1896 in Ohio. She also brings up the Brighton trunk murders, two murders linked to Brighton, in 1934, in which the body of a murdered woman was placed in a trunk. Miss Marple is clearly well read in her true crime stories.

Alfred RouseGeorge Bartlett drives a Minoan 14, a very common car so that its presence in any car park or location would not stand out. Interestingly, this seems to be a completely fictitious model! I can’t find any reference to them apart from featuring in this novel. Superintendent Harper, on hearing of the burnt-out car, mentions Alfred Arthur Rouse, who was known as the Blazing Car Murderer, convicted and subsequently hanged in Bedford for the November 1930 murder of an unknown man in Hardingstone, Northamptonshire.

CophetuaMiss Marple likens Mr Jefferson to King Cophetua, who famously fell in love with a beggar-maid and together they lived “happily ever after” as the phrase goes. Copethua is a much-quoted figure in literature. Mark Gaskell also makes a quote, singing “but she is dead and in her grave, and oh the difference to me!” Christie has used this quote before, in Sad Cypress. This is from Wordsworth’s poem “She dwelt among the untrodden ways” and is about a young woman, unnoticed, unloved, all apart from by the author.

PoundI’m sure you remember that I like to research the present-day value of any significant sums of money mentioned in Christie’s books, just to get a more realistic feel for the amounts in question. There’s only one sum mentioned in this book: £50,000, which is the amount Conway Jefferson has announced will be left to Ruby Keene. The amount left for Mark and Addie to scramble over would be in the region of £5-10,000. That £50,000 in today’s terms would be £1.6 million; and the remainder to be shared between Mark and Addie equates to £165,000-300,000. So they’re all quite substantial sums.

Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for The Body in the Library:

Publication Details: 1942. Pan paperback, 3rd printing of the new edition, published in 1982. The cover illustration shows a woman’s legs lying on a fluffy rug, feet in extravagantly showy sandals; a rather salacious aspect of one part of the story. This edition omits Christie’s original foreword.

How many pages until the first death: 2. Straight in there. Wham bam, thank you Ma’am.

Funny lines out of context: Disappointingly absent.

Memorable characters:

There’s a charming relationship between Arthur and Dolly Bantry, which is poignantly written and gently amusing. The clashes between the policemen, especially Melchett and Slack, are also very enjoyable. In fact, in many ways, Melchett is probably the most memorable character in this book. The Jefferson family and their hangers-on are generally quite bland. Young Peter is quite a jolly lad though!

Christie the Poison expert:

Very little reference to anything to do with poison, as the murders are due to strangulation and being burnt alive in a car crash. However, a planned final murder, which does not take place, involves a syringe of digitalin, a poisonous mixture of digitalis glycosides, extracted from the leaves or seeds of the common foxglove.

Class/social issues of the time:

Two or three of Christie’s usual bêtes-noir crop up. Firstly, class. I’ve already mentioned how Constable Palk is prepared to disobey orders because he’s dealing with his social superiors. Much is made of how the character of the dead girl is clearly from a lower class. Everyone is critical of her cheap, trashy clothing, and of her bitten nails; in fact, no one is more critical than Miss Marple herself: “The sensible thing to do would be to change into trousers and a pullover, or into tweeds. That, of course (I don’t want to be snobbish, but I’m afraid it’s unavoidable), that’s what a girl of – of our class would do. A well-bred girl […] is always very particular to wear the right clothes for the right occasion […] Ruby, of course, wasn’t – well, to put it bluntly – Ruby wasn’t a lady. She belonged to the class that wear their best clothes however unsuitable to the occasion.” Ruby’s dress had already reminded Miss Marple of “Mrs Chetty’s youngest […] Edie was fond of what I call cheap finery too.” Mrs Bantry chips in with the remark “I know. One of those nasty little shops where everything is a guinea.” I have to point out, Mrs Bantry, that 76 years later we still have pound-shops; and in fact, a guinea in 1942 is worth £35 today. So, I think we know precisely the kind of shop to which Mrs Bantry objected.

As usual, we have one or two xenophobic remarks; Hugo McLean refers to exhibition dancer Raymond Starr as looking like a “dago”. No wonder Raymond explains why he changed his name from Ramon: “Ramon was my original professional name. Ramon and Josie – Spanish effect, you know. Then there was rather a prejudice against foreigners – so I became Raymond – very British”. But Sir Henry’s face lights up when he says he comes from a good Devonshire family, instantly changing his opinion of him. Sir Henry ought to know better.

Christie has an uneasy relationship with the notion of feminism. Most of the time, she’s devoutly against it; occasionally, she sees it may have some justification. In this book, I found one telling phrase that I thought suggested a social awakening. Colonel Melchett is interviewing Josie to find out how it was that Ruby started working at the Majestic. ““I do a couple of exhibition dances every evening with Raymond […] as it happens, this summer I slipped on the rocks bathing one day and gave my ankle a nasty turn […] naturally that put the stop to dancing for a bit and it was rather awkward. I didn’t want the hotel to get someone else in my place. That’s always a danger” – for a minute her good-natured blue eyes were hard and sharp; she was the female fighting for existence.” Female fighting for existence; a recognition of the difficulties a woman faced in the world of employment.

There’s one more curious aspect to the social issues of the time, that of marriage, and of couples being suspected of not being married, who are, and vice versa. I won’t go into much more detail on that one as it’s too spoilerish, but it’s an interesting elaboration that shows just how important perception can be over the truth.

Classic denouement: For me, the classic denouement is one where all the suspects are lined up in a room and the detective slowly goes through all the possibilities, lays a suspicious eye on a few people who object outrageously, and then finally accuses one, otherwise unsuspected, person of the crime, who then furiously retaliates in either fight or flight. From that point of view, this isn’t a classic denouement. However, it is a superb ending to the book, with a number of truly surprising revelations left right to the very last minute. Even when the murderer is about to strike a third time, Christie calls an end to the chapter without revealing their name. And when Miss Marple goes through the assumptions that we’ve all made throughout the book, our collective jaws drop in amazement.

Happy ending? Moderately so. Someone who desperately needs a cash boost gets one, and wedding bells are in the offing for one couple; however, that also means that another person misses out.

Did the story ring true? Yes! Unusually, this crime seems perfectly believable, including the activities of third parties who were not directly involved in it, but whose actions affected it.

Overall satisfaction rating: Good characters, good story-telling, a believable (albeit contorted) plotline and a humdinger of an ending. It just sags a little for me during the middle, otherwise I’d have given it top points. 9/10.

Five Little PigsThanks for reading my blog of The Body in the Library and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment in the space below. Next up in the Agatha Christie Challenge is Five Little Pigs, and the welcome return of Hercule Poirot to sort out which of five possible suspects is the killer. As usual, I’ll blog my thoughts about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!

The Agatha Christie Challenge – The Thirteen Problems (1932)

The Thirteen ProblemsIn which we meet again Miss Marple and her detective-fiction writing nephew Raymond West; together with four friends they set up the Tuesday Night Club where each one would tell a story of an unsolved crime and the companions would have a think and come up with the identity of the criminal. Naturally, this is an exercise where they all fail dismally apart from Miss Marple, whose calm and quiet consideration of each narrative instantly sees through the mist and works out what happened and whodunit. Unlike Partners in Crime and The Mysterious Mr Quin, where the books consist of a sequence of short stories that build up to an episodically narrated novel, The Thirteen Problems feels much more like individual short stories gathered together under a simple framework, in order to create something that looks like a novel, but isn’t. Don’t worry if you haven’t read the book, I promise I won’t reveal any of its important secrets!

nash-pall-mallAs in those previous books of short stories, the individual tales first appeared in magazine format, either in The Royal magazine, The Story-Teller, or in Nash’s Pall Mall magazine; all first appearing between 1927 and 1931. The stories are told in largely the same order that they first appeared in those magazines, although one of two skip about a bit. The book was dedicated to Leonard and Katharine Woolley, the famous archaeologist and his wife, whom Mrs Christie met in 1928 in the Middle East, when travelling alone following her divorce. They became friends but they were never easy people, by the sound of it; and Katharine, in particular, is seen as the inspiration for a few of Christie’s more unstable female characters.

The Tuesday Night Club

corn-flour-and-waterThe first story sets the scene for the Tuesday Night Clubbers – along with West and Miss Marple, there are arty Joyce Lemprière, elderly clergyman Dr Pender, wizened little solicitor Mr Petherick, and former Scotland Yard commissioner Sir Henry Clithering, who, because of his police associations, is given the task of providing the first case for the club to get their teeth into. When we first met Raymond West in The Murder at the Vicarage, he was a big-headed dolt with hardly any redeeming features. Here, he is already starting to become a more approachable character; and, although he is rather smug in his surroundings and self-importance, he’s nothing like as abrasive.

However, it is Miss Marple who overshadows them all, both in her mental dexterity and in her physical appearance: “Miss Marple wore a black brocade dress, very much pinched in round the waist. Mechlin lace was arranged in a cascade down the front of the bodice. She had on black lace mittens, and a black lace cap surmounted the piled-up masses of her snowy hair.” Apart from the colour of the lace, the whole description reminds me of Whistler’s Mother.

Miss Marple’s relationship with West is rather interesting. In “The Murder at the Vicarage”, she’s preparing for him to come and stay and she’s very careful to go along precisely with everything that she thinks he will want, in a rather self-denying sort of way. In “The Tuesday Night Club” we’re starting to see that relationship loosen a little, with Miss Marple actually criticising West’s work: “I know, dear,” said Miss Marple, “that your books are very clever. But do you think that people are really so unpleasant as you make them out to be?” This opens the way for the others to have their own say about West’s novels. It will be interesting to watch if this less formal relationship becomes more obvious as the book progresses. Other themes that you feel might develop are the relationships between the individual Tuesday Night Club members, and also the suspicion that the police are idiots. They are, at least, in Raymond West’s own works of fiction, and Sir Henry will have his work cut out to prove it’s not the case.

It’s a relatively simple tale that Miss Marple has absolutely no trouble in solving, although the others’ solutions are way off the mark. There are mentions of both ptomaine and arsenic poisoning, so Christie The Poison Expert is safely in her comfort zone. Mr Jones’ inheritance from the death of his wife amounted to £8000, which you might be interested to know in today’s money equals just under £400,000, described by Sir Henry as a very “solid amount.” Curious though, to discover that someone would eat a “bowl of cornflour” as an invalid remedy. Apparently it would be mixed with milk into some sort of custardy paste. Sounds disgusting. Banting, which is what Miss Clark was doing, was a popular term for losing weight by excluding sugar from your diet. It was named after a Mr Banting.

The Idol House of Astarte

astarteThe next tale in my copy of the Thirteen Problems is The Idol House of Astarte, but according to the Wikipedia breakdown of the stories, next should be Ingots of Gold, with The Idol House of Astarte appearing fifth. Anyway, I digress. Dr Pender it is who tells this atmospheric tale of the apparent transformation of a sweet young thing into a moonlit priestess who warns that approaching her will cause death. Richard Haydon, who is the sweet young thing’s wannabe boyfriend, risks her warning and, as it seems, falls down dead as a result. Of course, it’s not a mystical occult death but straightforward murder and only Miss Marple peers through the web of intrigue to see the obvious solution.

There’s not a lot to add to this story. It’s set on Dartmoor, with various houseguests including a feeble daughter named Violet, thereby conjuring up images of the setting for The Sittaford Mystery. As Dr Pender gets into his stride and tells the tale, Joyce Lemprière turns on the lamps to add a sense of the mystic, and it’s fair to say that the story does come across with a great deal of superstitious atmosphere. Perhaps the background tale of the House of Astarte, the Goddess of the Phoenicians, is an early sign of Christie’s interest in archaeology – no doubt she was there when a few temples were unveiled over the years. Egyptology will get a mention in a later story.

Raymond West is still a little uncertain of how strong-minded his Aunt Jane is, but she quickly asserts herself with a clear and decisive explanation of how the murder took place. As a whole, the story is, of course, far-fetched; but the actual modus operandi of the murder is plain and clear and totally believable.

Ingots of Gold

gold-ingotsThis tale is told by Raymond West and its main contribution to the book as a whole is an excuse for a little bit of family irritation with Miss Marple. On one hand, it’s quite a complicated set up, with West going to Cornwall with a man called Newman who is an expert on sunken Spanish treasure. A ship allegedly carrying a cargo of bullion is discovered to have been attacked and the bullion taken, but no one seems to know how. Naturally Miss Marple is there to solve it in a quick and easy manner, taking the opportunity gently to ridicule her nephew at the same time.

If you like a spot of Treasure Island to your whodunits, then the tone and subject matter of this story might well appeal. It even has an off-putting local yokel who undermines West’s confidence and makes him feel all queasy. I don’t think Miss Marple would have been similarly affected. Its Cornish setting gives rise to a few obvious name changes – Polperran is a mixture of Polperro and Perranporth, Rathole is a rather unsubtle version of Mousehole and Serpent Rocks clearly represent The Lizard. When they’re so easy to interpret, one wonders why Christie bothers changing the names.

When you discover Miss Marple’s interpretation of exactly what has gone on, there is a slight sense of disappointment, as there really isn’t anything much to examine. Something of a potboiler, I would say.

The Bloodstained Pavement

blood-on-concreteThis story, told by Joyce, is an appropriate sequel to the previous tale as it also takes place in Rathole (Mousehole). Christie adds to the sense of the location by filling in her version of the village’s history at the hands of Spanish pillagers five hundred years ago, reflecting the true history of Mousehole and its involvement in the Anglo-Spanish war of 1585-1604. Christie would have us believe that the whole village of Rathole was destroyed apart from the Polharwith Arms; in fact it was just the Keigwin Arms in Mousehole that survived the attack.

It’s an intriguing little tale that blends paranormal activity with hardnosed, devious crime. Artist Joyce is painting a village scene when her view is interrupted, first by a man with a dowdy wife, then by an altogether more glamorous woman. In later conversation with a local fisherman, Joyce believes she sees droplets of blood forming on the pavement, as though the village’s violent past was coming back to haunt her. It must be her imagination, mustn’t it? But when she later learns that someone has suffered a tragic death swept out to sea, she knows that her vision of blood drops must have been a premonition. Miss Marple, naturally, comes to the rescue, with incisive and accurate attention to a minute scrap of detail that holds the key to the murder, despite the complaints by the men of the Tuesday Club that Joyce hasn’t given them anything like enough information to solve the crime – if crime there be.

I liked the description of Rathole: “it is pretty and it is quaint, but it is very self-consciously so”, like a number of those bijou Cornish villages. Raymond West is his usual grumpy self, picking up on Joyce’s inaccurate descriptions of the village’s past, moaning about modern tourists, and then explaining the whole crime as a symptom of indigestion. Miss Marple’s summing up regarding what really happened could almost be her motto of observations of village life: “there is a great deal of wickedness in village life. I hope you dear young people will never realise how very wicked the world is.”

Joyce is satisfied with her picnic lunch that comprises of “a tinned tongue and two tomatoes”. I’m not sure how well that would go down today.

Motive v Opportunity

will1Mr Petherick, solicitor of this parish, is the next to tell his story – is it just me, or is this turning into Christie’s version of The Canterbury Tales? He informs us there will be no blood, just an intellectual puzzle to sort out. And he does weave a very interesting little tale, about a sentimental old man who is obviously being conned out of his estate by a charlatan psychic. With an almost Feydeau level of farce, an incriminating document (the will, of course) is placed in an envelope and then dropped out of pockets over the next couple of hours, more times than you can shake a stick at. No wonder there was plenty of opportunity for it to be tampered with.

The assembled company, as per usual, make reasonable guesses as to what actually happened but only Miss Marple gets it right. However, rather disappointingly, so did I; I think this is a very easy mystery to solve! So it depends on your own personal preference whether you like to be surprised by a mystery story, or if you like to get it right! It’s a very well written little story though – neat and compact, clear and orderly, just as you would expect from Mr Petherick.

Just out of curiosity, I thought I’d check how much the £5000 inheritance that Clode bestows on each of his nieces and nephew would be worth today – bearing in mind this was originally published in magazine format in 1928 – and it’s about £220,000. That’s still not bad.

The Thumb Mark of St Peter

haddockYou learn something every day – and probably no one better to teach you than Miss Marple. Did you know that the dark blotch above the pectoral fin on a haddock was called St Peter’s thumbprint? Did you even know that a haddock had that blotch? Me neither. How did we get so old without knowing that?

Anyway this is the sign from God that enables Miss Marple to solve her own story, which otherwise had all the other members of the Tuesday Night Club not even bothering to hazard a guess. Her niece Mabel had been in an unhappy marriage, and when her husband unexpectedly died from poisoned mushrooms, all the tongues in the village started wagging that she must have bumped him off. But Miss Marple knows Mabel to be incapable of such things, and sets her mind to work to discover the full circumstances of his death.

A number of Christie’s usual themes crop up in the story: her interest in poison is clear, with the poisoned mushrooms, the ptomaine and the pilocarpine all playing a part; the brutality of saying that insanity runs in a family; Miss Marple reprimands Raymond for profanity; and she also expresses some class differences when she points out that Mabel’s cook has a good memory: “there is nothing that class cannot remember if it tries.” Two other Marplesque idiosyncracies might be worthy of note, to see if they recur in future stories: the fact that she has no trust or belief in doctors, and that she’s very risk-averse when it comes to looking after her property. Before travelling to Mabel’s to stay with her, she says “I put Clara on board wages and sent the plate and the King Charles tankard to the bank”.

It’s actually a very well written and intriguing story that hangs together beautifully. It also takes us further into the real lives of Miss Marple’s circle, with some embarrassment for Raymond West and Joyce Lemprière at the beginning of the story, and confirmation that they are engaged at the end of it; framing Miss Marple’s tale inside the growing relationship between Raymond and Joyce works really well. This is the last tale in the “first round” of stories in this book; the next story was first published in magazine format eighteen months later, so there was a genuine break in writing between the two sequences, during which time I presume she concentrated on writing The Seven Dials Mystery.

The Blue Geranium

blue-geraniumA year has passed, and Sir Henry is staying with Colonel and Mrs Bantry, who would return several years later in the book The Body in the Library. Sir Henry suggests that Miss Marple would be a good choice for a sixth dinner party member, much to Mrs Bantry’s surprise, in a start to the story that rehashes some of the introductory nature of the first story in this book, The Tuesday Night Club, including Miss Marple’s black mittens and her fichu. The others present were glamorous actress Jane Helier and local Dr Lloyd with whom Miss Marple has an animated conversation about the workhouse (putting to the back of her mind, obviously, her previously admitted confession that she has no time for doctors.)

Colonel Bantry tells the story of his friend George Pritchard, and his irritating wife Mary, who died, perhaps from shock, when the flowers on her wallpaper turned blue. Yes, it does sound rather contrived, doesn’t it? Of course, Miss Marple has a much more scientific explanation for the death. This is a story very much of its age, it simply couldn’t happen today due to modern manufacture and medical practices; so it is very much a period piece, but rather charming as a result.

Will there be more stories told by these six people chez Bantry? I think there might.

The Companion

hotel-metropoleUnlike the Tuesday Night Club, it’s becoming clear that these six stories will all be told on the same evening, at the Bantrys’ dinner party. Dr Lloyd is next to tell his tale, about two English ladies on holiday in Gran Canaria (or Grand Canary, as Christie knew it), one of whom dies in a swimming accident. It’s a fairly complex little tale that would eventually become the germ for the later book A Murder Is Announced. But it’s a satisfying read, and of course Miss Marple sees through all the red herrings with pinpoint accuracy.

The character of Jane Helier becomes a little more filled out – we now know that she is not only beautiful, but also quite thick, as she becomes confused by Miss Marple’s reference to the villager Mrs Trout, from whose behaviour Miss M extrapolates the solution to the mystery. The main thrust of Miss Marple’s arguments is always that “human nature is much the same in a village as anywhere else, only one has opportunities and leisure for seeing it at closer quarters.” But the story ends with Jane Helier sighing “nothing ever happens in a village, does it? […] I’m sure I shouldn’t have any brains at all if I lived in a village.” Well, quite.

Dr Lloyd’s polite style of speech seems rather dated now – consider how patronising this sentence sits in today’s world: “I used to walk along the mole every morning far more interested than any member of the fair sex could be in a street of hat shops.” “Mole” is an unusual and archaic word for a pier or harbour structure – mid-16th century according to my OED.

It’s quite amusing to see how exotic the Canary Islands are portrayed to the 1920s/30s reader. Jane Helier believes them to be in the South Seas (she would). It was at the Hotel Metropole in Las Palmas that Agatha Christie took refuge after her divorce from Archie, and where she wrote The Mystery of the Blue Train. Today the building acts as Las Palmas Town Hall.

The Four Suspects

fall-downstairsA smart little story, told by Sir Henry, with an introductory consideration on the nature of guilt and innocence in cases that remain unsolved; specifically, how people who are innocent of a crime may still be suspected of committing it, and therefore losing their reputation and status. This story concerns a Dr Rosen, who was found with a broken neck having fallen downstairs. But this is a case of, literally, did he fall or was he pushed? He was expecting to be assassinated by a secret, German society, not unlike the Mafia. There are four suspects, none of whom have alibis, all of whom were alone at the time of the death. Naturally, Miss Marple makes mincemeat of Sir Henry’s unsolvable crime, and Sir Henry assures the dinner guests he will do his best to ensure those who are innocent of the crime are publicly recognised as such.

There are a couple of references in this story worth checking out – Dr Rosen retires to the Somerset village of King’s Gnaton, which is an uncomfortable name and certainly doesn’t exist. There is, however, a Gnaton Hall, in Yealmpton, Devon, with which Christie may have been familiar. She also allows Sir Henry to express an opinion about class; with reference to Rosen’s German maid Gertrud, he says: “elderly women of that class can be amazingly bitter sometimes.”

A Christmas Tragedy

hatThe value of this story is in gaining more insight into the character of Miss Marple, rather than the intrigue of the story itself. Miss Marple, who takes up the story-telling baton, is concerned that she won’t tell her story very well and is likely to start rambling. This is odd, considering she had previously told the story of The Thumb Mark of St Peter in a perfectly readable and enjoyable way. But yes, in this story, Christie makes Miss Marple sound very rambling indeed, and I found it hard to follow the flow of the story, which concerns a man that Miss Marple was certain would try to kill his wife, and then she pins him down when his wife finally dies. I found her judgmental nature in this tale rather unpleasant to be honest.

Christie was obviously keen to stress Miss Marple’s age in this story – whilst she still has all her marbles in perfect working order, her ability to structure a tale was very random, to use the modern vernacular. She also stresses her old-fashioned values and sentiments, like her vehement support of the death penalty: “I’ve no patience with modern humanitarian scruples about capital punishment.” Christie also uses the character of Mrs Bantry to reflect her own anti-women sexism. When Colonel Bantry remarks that none of the women has yet told a story, she replies “we’ve listened with the most intelligent appreciation. We’ve displayed the true womanly attitude – not wishing to thrust ourselves into the limelight!”

There’s also an Egyptology reference which reveals Christie’s own fascination in the subject, and the story takes place in Keston – it’s unlike Christie to set stories in real locations (apart from London of course). Keston is a small village which would have then been in Kent but now is in the London Borough of Bromley.

The story ends with a cryptic interchange between Miss Marple and Jane Helier, where it is obvious that Miss Marple has understood Miss Helier’s unspoken thoughts, which is a whole lot more than the rest of us. Will all be revealed in a later story?

The Herb of Death

foxglove1Not Parsley the Lion on a killing spree, but someone put the foxglove leaves in with the sage and onion, young Sylvia died as a result, and we’ve got to find out whodunit. This is the story told by Mrs Bantry, who feels unable to embellish and present her tale in an interesting manner, so gives us the bare bones of what happened and then the rest of the group play twenty questions trying to get to the facts. A very different approach to telling the story and a very enjoyable one – much more entertaining than Miss Marple’s rambling Christmas Tragedy, for example.

All the characters continue to play their allotted roles – Miss Helier is dim and beautiful, Colonel Bantry is hearty, Sir Henry avuncular, Dr Lloyd polite, Miss Marple ruthless. A self-contained little chapter, but Mrs Bantry’s admission at the end of the story that she has changed the names of the people involved feels like a significant confession. But does it have any knock-on effect elsewhere in the book? We shall see.

The Affair at the Bungalow

parlourmaidThe final tale of the night is told by Jane Helier, pretending at first to be about “a friend”, although she was fooling nobody, and after a while she gives up the pretence. It’s all about her, of course. It’s a story about a jewellery theft from a bungalow and framing an apparently innocent young playwright. The solution confounds everyone, even Miss Marple – but Jane Helier disappoints the group when she confesses she doesn’t know the outcome herself. There’s a good reason for that – not just her lack of intelligence – but that would be too much of a spoiler at this stage!

It’s a good story because it sheds further light on Miss Helier’s vacuous and, frankly, thick brain and how she is steeped in class prejudice; she actually says at one point: “one doesn’t look at parlour maids as though they were people”. The story also allows us to see some of Miss Marple’s kinder instincts, as she offers some secret words of wisdom to Miss Helier before leaving at the end of the evening.

Miss Helier reveals that she will be touring in Mr Somerset Maugham’s play Smith next autumn. For the record, this rather forgotten piece is a comedy in four acts that was produced at the Comedy Theatre in London in 1909.

That wraps up the evening’s excitement at the Bantry household – and it would be another eighteen months before the final story had its first publication in Nash’s Pall Mall magazine (November 1931) – just a few months before The Thirteen Problems made its first full appearance in book form.

Death by Drowning

drowningAnd the final tale is a very good story – certainly one of the best in this collection. Sir Henry is once more at the Bantry household when Miss Marple asks to see him. A local girl, Rose Emmott, has died by drowning in the local river. Everyone assumes it was an accident but Miss M knows better – but she can’t prove it. So she writes down the name of the person she thinks is responsible for the girl’s death and implores Sir Henry to use whatever influence he can to ensure justice is done. And done it is.

Christie still expresses her political and class views – she just can’t keep it in. Sandford, the main suspect, is described as a “Bolshie, you know. No morals”. On another occasion, “his speech was a little too ladylike”. Colonel Melchett, whom we also originally met in The Murder at the Vicarage, agrees that Sandford and Rose were not a good match: “Stick to your own class”, he pompously insists.

The story – and also the book – ends with Miss Marple triumphant again; as if we ever doubted it. That suggestion early on in the book that the police are idiots doesn’t really get played out – and indeed in this last story it is the police, in the form of Sir Henry, who ensures that justice is done.

All that remains is for me to give The Thirteen Problems an overall satisfaction rating of 7/10. The portentous loose ends of a few of the stories never get resolved, which is rather disappointing, and you very much get the feeling that this is a combination of previously published magazine stories rather than a whole, individual work. That said, a number of the stories are very enjoyable, and I think I only solved the case before Miss Marple on one occasion – so that makes it quite exciting.

Lord Edgware DiesWith 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 Lord Edgware Dies, 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!

The Agatha Christie Challenge – The Murder at the Vicarage (1930)

Murder at the VicarageIn which we are first introduced to Miss Jane Marple, busybody spinster of St Mary Mead, and close neighbour of the Reverend Leonard Clement, in whose study a murder takes place that brings scandal and unwelcome attention to the sleepy village. As you would expect, Miss Marple keeps her eyes and ears open and finally presents the police and the vicar with the only solution that satisfies every single loose end in the case. If you haven’t read the book yet, don’t worry, I promise not to give the game away as to whodunit!

village-lifeThe book is dedicated “to Rosalind”, her daughter, who would have been eleven years old at the time. Reviews of the book were mixed, with the New York Times Book Review getting rather bored with the network of old ladies in the village: “the local sisterhood of spinsters is introduced with much gossip and click-clack. A bit of this goes a long way and the average reader is apt to grow weary of it all, particularly of the amiable Miss Marple, who is sleuth-in-chief of the affair”. They also described the denouement and solution as “a distinct anti-climax”. Personally, I think that’s a bit harsh. Admittedly, Christie does take plenty of opportunities to get as close to the workings of Miss Marple’s brain as we need to; and the final solution is both a huge surprise and not a huge surprise, depending on your point of view. But the way in which Christie plays with the reader’s expectations is very enjoyable to revisit, and the resolution makes perfect sense in retrospect.

vicar2Jane Marple is not the only person to be introduced in this book, as the Vicar, Leonard Clement, and his wife Griselda, will re-appear in two later Christie books, The Body in the Library and 4:50 from Paddington. The rather wretched Inspector Slack will also reappear in the first of these books. Although this was Miss Marple’s first appearance in book form, Christie had already written some short stories featuring her that had appeared a few years previously in the Royal and Story-Teller Magazines. These would appear in 1932 in the book The Thirteen Problems – which I will be re-reading and writing about in the near future!

gossipSo what are our first impressions of Miss Jane Marple? The first adjective in the book to describe her (by Griselda counting off her tea party guests) is “terrible”. She goes on to say: “she’s the worst cat in the village […] and she always knows every single thing that happens – and draws the worst inferences from it.” Miss Marple herself would largely agree with this; in her first conversation with the vicar she tells him: “you are so unworldly. I’m afraid that observing human nature for as long as I have done, one gets not to expect very much from it. I dare say the idle tittle-tattle is very wrong and unkind, but it is so often true, isn’t it?” She’s also not above gently teasing the Chief Constable: “I’m afraid there’s a lot of wickedness in the world. A nice honourable upright soldier like you doesn’t know about these things, Colonel Melchett.”

torpedoBut it’s later on in the book, when Miss Marple is very close to having solved the crime, that she really identifies her own personality and raison d’être. “Living alone, as I do, in a rather out-of-the-way part of the world, one has to have a hobby […] my hobby is – and always has been – Human Nature. So varied, and so very fascinating. And, of course, in a small village, with nothing to distract one, one has such ample opportunity for becoming what I might call proficient in one’s study. One begins to class people, quite definitely, just as though they were birds or flowers, group so-and-so, genus this, species that. Sometimes, of course, one makes mistakes, but less and less as time goes on. And then, too, one tests oneself […] It is so fascinating, you know, to apply one’s judgement and find that one is right […] That, I am afraid, is what has made me a little conceited […] but I have always wondered whether, if some day a really big mystery came along, I should be able to do the same thing. I mean – just solve it correctly. Logically, it ought to be exactly the same thing. After all, a tiny working model of a torpedo is just the same as a real torpedo […] the only way is to compare people with other people you have known or come across. You’d be surprised if you knew how very few distinct types there are in all.”

clock-handsBreaking tradition with her two previous novels, The Mystery of the Blue Train and The Seven Dials Mystery, Christie returns to the structure of having a narrator. And personally, I think she really feels at home with this method. Here the narrator is the Reverend Clement, a rather witty and urbane man, with the occasional delectable turn of phrase. Right from the start, his narrative style has an eye for self-deprecation and an ear for the ludicrous. Phrases such as “My wife’s name is Griselda – a highly suitable name for a parson’s wife. But there the suitability ends. She is not in the least meek” instantly give you an insight into how he does not take himself too seriously; he knows what is required from his position and he tries to achieve it, but also knows full well that he frequently fails and will look ridiculous as a result. A fine example of his failing positively is his inability to explain to Inspector Slack about the significance of the clock time. He does his best to get the appalling man’s attention, but when he is constantly thwarted in this attempt, he starts to enjoy withholding information. “Griselda said I ought to make another effort to tell Inspector Slack about it, but on that point I was feeling what I can only describe as “mulish”.”

glass-of-portThere are many great one-liners in this book that I would normally reserve for the “Funny lines out of context” section below, but in this book they serve the double purpose of colouring the personality of the good reverend. Here are some of his highlights:

“Unblushingly, I suggested a glass of old port. I have some very fine old vintage port. Eleven o’clock in the morning is not the usual time for drinking port, but I did not think that mattered with Inspector Slack. It was, of course, cruel abuse of the vintage port, but one must not be squeamish about such things.”

“”It must be a very interesting hobby,” I said. “You know something of it, perhaps?” I was obliged to confess that I knew next to nothing. Dr Stone was not the kind of man whom a confession of ignorance daunts. The result was exactly the same as though I had said that the excavation of barrows was my only relaxation.”

“On the sofa beside Griselda, conversing animatedly, sat Miss Gladys Cram. Her legs, which were encased in particularly shiny pink stockings, were crossed, and I had every opportunity of observing that she wore pink striped silk knickers.”

blancmangeHis wife Griselda is equally liable to be a loose cannon, as she never holds back on her opinions, and consistently proves her husband’s belief that she is most unsuitable for her role in the village. “…It’s Mary’s blancmange that is so frightfully depressing. It’s like something out of a mortuary.” “”What they need,” said Griselda, [of the village’s busybodying spinsters] “is a little immorality in their lives. Then they wouldn’t be so busy looking for it in other people’s.”” Colonel Melchett, too, holds little time for what Christie would describe as these old pussies: “there’s a lot of talk. Too many women in this part of the world.” It’s interesting that many of the ancillary characters in this book are depicted in quite a negative fashion. Inspector Slack, as previously mentioned, is a boor and a bully. The Clements’ cook, Mary, has no style or grace in her food preparation or presentation, and comes across like one of Noel Coward’s doltish and stupid maids. Miss Marple’s talented nephew Raymond West is presented like some bighead with firmly held self-centred views that no one likes. I am sure that characterisation of him changes over the years – I’ll watch out for it.

bibleAs usual, there are a few unusual references and words in a Christie book that made me run for the dictionary and online research tools. Here are a few words and abbreviations that got me foxed. “He wants to go over all the Church accounts – in case of defalcations – that was the word he used. Defalcations! Does he suspect me of embezzling the Church funds?” Well yes it sounds like it. Originally meaning simply to take something away from something, by the mid-19th century it specifically meant misappropriation of money. But this must have been one of its last examples of popular usage. In the same exchange, Griselda retorts: “I wish you’d embezzle the SPG funds. I hate missionaries – I always have.” The SPG (now the USPG) was the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, first incorporated under Royal Charter in 1701. As the title suggests, missionary work was/is its key raison d’être. Still in the same conversation, the good reverend announces “I must finish preparing my talk for the C. E. M. S. today.” This was the Church of England’s Men’s Society; founded in 1899, the society closed in 1985.

embezzlementPart of the village gossip involves the mysterious Mrs Lestrange. “I should imagine Mrs Lestrange to be a déclassée” affirms Clement. Late 19th century – someone who is reduced or degraded in social class or status. It means the same in French too. Who knew? In a letter revealed towards the end of the book, the writer wishes to discuss with Mr Clement “the recent peculations”. Peculations? Does he mean speculations and has misspelled it? No. It’s a mid-17th century term for embezzlement of public money.

stain-on-stairsI’m a little confused over the reference early on in the book to Canon Shirley’s Reality. Canon Shirley appears to have been Fred Shirley, Headmaster of Worksop College at the time and then later of King’s School Canterbury from 1935 to 1962. But I’ve no idea what his Reality is… Do you know? Griselda teases her husband about getting inspiration for a sermon from a Detective Novel – The Stain on the Stairs. It didn’t exist – it was an invention of Christie’s; but it is curious to note that it is also one of the books that were written by the fictional novelist and detective Jessica Fletcher in the TV series Murder She Wrote! There’s a reference to someone taking the cheap Thursday train; that had already been mentioned previously in The Mystery of the Blue Train. They did off-peak differently in those days.

goldcrestMiss Marple notices Dr Stone and Miss Cram walking down the lane because at the time she was observing a golden crested wren. If you were wondering what that is, today we call them Goldcrests. Similarly, the Firecrest was also known as the fire crested wren in those days. And I noticed that when Clement was telling Redding that as a local celebrity, everyone would know what kind of tooth powder he used. Wikipedia tells me that toothpaste was commonly available in the UK from 1909 – so maybe Clement is being a bit behind-the-times.

tazzaThere are just a couple of financial references that it might be helpful to look at from today’s viewpoint; the £1 note that Mrs Price Ridley placed in the offertory bag is now worth a good £45, so she was being very generous. And the tazza that Mr Clement said sold for over £1000 – well you can work it out for yourself – today is worth over £45k.

Now it’s time for my usual at-a-glance summary, for The Murder at the Vicarage:

Publication Details: 1930. I used to have a Fontana paperback with a rather elegant old telephone on the cover illustration but it was one of the books stolen from me when I was a teenager. So my current copy is the much less glamorous Harper paperback, 9th printing, published in 2002, priced £6.99. It’s an unimaginative drawing of a graveyard and I also don’t like the paper quality or font size either – I must be getting hard to please in my old age.

How many pages until the first death: 59. But given the large size of the font and the spacing, I expect in other editions it appears to happen earlier than that! For comparison – the final page is Page 380.

Funny lines out of context: I’ve already named a few where I was considering what jovial types the Clements are, but here’s a couple more:

“…we must, of course, have a meat meal tonight. Gentlemen require such a lot of meat, do they not?”

“The – what one used to call the factors at school – are the same. There’s money, and the mutual attraction people of an – er – opposite sex – and there’s queerness of course – so many people are a little queer, aren’t they?”

Memorable characters:
Ignoring Miss Marple – she’s a given – I really like the character of Len Clement; for a vicar he’s totally unstuffy, humorous and very very human. Griselda too, as a loose cannon, is plenty of fun. And I have a rather soft spot for Miss Cram; she’s not as proper as she ought to be, and I rather like that in a girl.

Christie the Poison expert:
Not too much poison in this book. It’s not the method of murder; but there is some side allusion to arsenic – Inspector Slack thinks that would be Mrs Protheroe’s preferred mode de meurtre; and there’s also some picric acid at play – which I’d never heard of, unsurprisingly perhaps, because it’s rather out of fashion.

Class/social issues of the time:
Sexism, xenophobia, class… where should I begin?! Let’s start with sexism.

That first tea party hosted by Griselda, with Misses Marple, Wetherby and the redoubtable Mrs Price Ridley present. Goodness me! They’re talking about women being employed (scandalous!) in jobs (mercy!) working with men (pure filth!) “”No nice girl would do it” […] “Do what?” I inquired. “Be a secretary to an unmarried man,” said Miss Wetherby in a horrified tone. “Oh! My dear,” said Miss Marple. “I think married ones are the worst […]” “Married men living apart from their wives are, of course, notorious,” said Miss Wetherby […] “But surely,” I said, “in these days a girl can take a post in just the same way as a man does.” “To come away to the country? And stay at the same hotel?” said Mrs Price Ridley in a severe voice. Miss Wetherby murmured to Miss Marple in a low voice: “And all the bedrooms on the same floor…”” There’s also a shock in the village that Lawrence Redding’s portrait of Anne Protheroe depicts her in her bathing dress – a delightful level of prudery there.

That was an example of women disapproving of women working. Inspector Slack also has his own views on women, and they don’t leave much space for doubt: “She’s a woman, and women act in that silly way. I’m not saying she did it for a moment. She heard he was accused and she trumped up a story. I’m used to that sort of game. You wouldn’t believe the fool things I’ve known women do. But Redding’s different. He’s got his head screwed on all right.”

There are plenty of opportunities for Christie to deal with her favourite class issues too. Griselda (who else?) is happy to talk about Miss Cram behind her back. “Not such a bad sort, really, […] terribly common, of course…” Archer, too, is the recipient of a lot of class-based dismissiveness. This from Inspector Slack: “It appears he was with a couple of pals all the afternoon. Not, as I say, that that counts much. Men like Archer and his pals would swear to anything. There’s no believing a word they say. We know that. But the public doesn’t, and the jury’s taken from the public, more’s the pity.” Not only does that betray the way Slack looks down at Archer, it also shows his similar condescension towards the general public. Miss Hartnell, too, reveals her deep-seated class distrust. “”The lower classes don’t know who are their best friends,” said Miss Hartnell. “I always say a word in season when I’m visiting. Not that I’m ever thanked for it.”” Miss Marple is not above making assumptions about “men like Archer” when she describes him as “primed with drink”.

There’s actually not quite as much xenophobia in this book as in others, but this exchange between Colonel Melchett and Lawrence Redding stood out when I read it: “”We want to ask you a few questions – here, on the spot,” he said. Lawrence sneered slightly. “Isn’t that a French idea? Reconstruction of the crime?” “My dear boy,” said Colonel Melchett, “don’t take that tone with us.”

But there are some other more fascinating insights into English life in 1930. For example, funerals obviously took place much more quickly than they do today. I would guess the average time for a funeral to take place nowadays is about two weeks after the death. I can imagine the 1930s set being aghast at this delay. “I want a short interview with Mrs Protheroe.” “What about?” “The funeral arrangments.” “Oh!” Inspector Slack was slightly taken aback. “The inquest’s tomorrow, Saturday.” “Just so. The funeral will probably be arranged for Tuesday.” And cigarettes were expected to be set out on a table so that guests could help themselves, like they were cheezy wotsits or some other tasty nibbles. Planning for her nephew Raymond’s visit, Miss Marple reflects: “He brings his own pipe and tobacco, I am glad to say. Glad because it saves me from knowing which kind of cigarettes are right to buy.” Today this would seem completely bizarre! It’s also an age of some innocence – no one locks their houses; it just wasn’t deemed necessary. And Dr Haydock is obviously something of a forward-thinker: “We think with horror now of the days when we burned witches. I believe the day will come when we will shudder to think that we ever hanged criminals.”

Classic denouement: Not quite. Miss Marple drops her bombshell as to who the guilty party is and there’s still three more full chapters for everyone to get over the shock and surprise; plus they also lay a trap to catch the blighter. But there’s no grand pointing finger moment where a detective cries out “j’accuse!”

Happy ending? Yes – although this time it’s not Christie’s usual sub-Shakespearean reality of the two young lovers getting married. This time they’re already married but another “happy event” is foreseen.

Did the story ring true? Absolutely. Everything in this story is well within the bounds of one’s own imagination; there are no silly secret organisations, doppelgangers or ridiculous coincidences. Just plain human motivation with a twist of ingenuity.

Overall satisfaction rating: 8/10. It’s a very enjoyable read. If I could I’d probably give it a 7.5 because the ending could be just a little more riveting. But I was feeling generous.

Floating AdmiralThanks for reading my blog of The Murder in the Vicarage and if you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment in the space below. Next up in the Agatha Christie Challenge is something very different. Christie’s next book was her first writing as Mary Westmacott – the romance “Giant’s Bread” – but I’m not particularly interested in her romance writings, I’m much more up for the detectives! However, in 1931 she contributed to The Floating Admiral, a book where twelve of the greatest crime novelists of the age each wrote one chapter. This sounds intriguing, so I’m going to give it a try! 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 – A Pocket Full of Rye (1953)

A Pocket Full of RyeIn which Miss Marple solves the murders of a rather hectoring boss and father, and other members of his family and domestic household. A goldmine, a prodigal son, a nursery rhyme, a vengeful family and an unseen boyfriend all play a part. And just so that you don’t have to worry – I won’t reveal the identity of the murderer!

Margaret Rutherford as Miss MarpleSo here we are, having finished the first of my Agatha Christie re-reads. A Pocket Full of Rye, which I always want to write as A Pocketful of Rye, which apparently is wrong. This was my first exposure to Miss Marple in print, having only known her in the form of Margaret Rutherford on screen. As I mentioned elsewhere, the wonderful Miss Rutherford was a very over-the-top version of Miss Marple, and when you read the books with her in mind, it’s like an indivisible sum – Miss Rutherford into Miss Marple simply won’t go. On a re-read, or perhaps to a new reader, it’s maybe surprising that Miss Marple doesn’t appear in the book until almost halfway through; if you think she’s going to be the central character, think again. With hindsight you realise that this Miss Marple is much more like the Joan Hickson TV version – quiet, unassuming, and with all her activity going on in the cerebrum rather than in outward shows of derring-do. When the book first appeared, Miss Marple was already an extremely well-established character, and the vast majority of Mrs Christie’s readers wouldn’t have needed much in the way of an introduction to her. But if this is the first Christie you read, then you might be slightly underwhelmed when you meet her. The only adjectives Mrs Christie gives you to describe her when she first appears are elderly, charming, innocent, fluffy and pink. Not that much to go on!

Joan Hickson as Miss MarpleI must have been very confused reading this book as a child. Not only does Miss Marple not feel like Margaret Rutherford, there’s all sorts of confusions with characters’ names too. For example there’s a Mrs Fortescue, who’s also known as Jennifer Fortescue, or Mrs Percival, or Mrs Val. I bet I thought they were four different people. There’s a character called Vivian Dubois, but, in one paragraph, where he is worried that the police will find some love letters, Mrs Christie actually refers to him as Vincent (and not Vivian), presumably by mistake. I probably thought they were twins. I wonder if that’s in all copies of the book, or just an error in my copy – the last paragraph of Part One of Chapter XI refers, if you want to check! Then there are the two Fortescue brothers, Lancelot and Percival (so named because their mother was a fan of Tennyson’s Idylls of the King). I probably thought it was a nod to 60s comedy calypso performer Lance Percival. Miss Ramsbottom’s overnight guest prior to Miss Marple was a Christian missionary by the name of Dr Mary Peters. All that evangelising and a gold medal winning pentathlete too. All highly confusing.

RyeI’ve already mentioned how it was that Pocket Full of Rye was the first Christie book I read, and I do remember clearly the excitement of reading a “grown-up novel”. When you come to recollect the book though, I have to admit that it isn’t on the whole particularly memorable. Some Christies you can remember huge tracts from, including all the characterisations, the identity of the murderers and their victims, and even some of the best speeches and conversations. For me, A Pocket Full of Rye doesn’t come under that category. I couldn’t remember whodunit before I read it, and even whilst I was reading it, it didn’t come back to me. In fact I made a guess at whodunit whilst I was re-reading it – and I was wrong. So from that point of view, it’s written well enough to keep you guessing and it disguises its final reveal pretty effectively. The only thing I could remember about the book is who the victims were, and how they tied into the nursery rhyme. I don’t think it’s one of her most suspenseful reads, and it’s more of a mathematical puzzle than a character-based plot.

Gold MineWhat did strike me as interesting was a running theme that to be a murderer you must be insane. Right from the start Inspector Neele considers his suspects’ mental health: “He classified Miss Griffith as a) not the type of a poisoner, b) not in love with her employer, c) no pronounced mental instability, d) not a woman who cherished grudges.” Later, an anxious Mrs Pat Fortescue tells Miss Marple “somebody in this house is mad, and madness is always frightening because you don’t know how mad people’s minds will work. You don’t know what they’ll do next.” During the denouement conversation Inspector Neele regrets that the murderer won’t be hanged because they’re “crazy” – to which Miss Marple replies that the person is “not crazy, Inspector, not for a moment!” This delight in applying mental health labels even applies to one of the victims, whom family members want to be assessed as suffering from “G.P.I. – General Paralysis of the Insane”. That’s an old fashioned terminology you don’t hear today.

Clothes PegThere’s also a linked interchange about the nature of poisoners between Pat and Lance. “There’s something awfully frightening about a poisoner”, said Pat. “I mean it must be a horrid, brooding, revengeful mind”. “So that’s how you see it? Funny! I just think of it as businesslike and cold-blooded”. “I suppose one could look at it that way.” She resumed with a slight shiver, “all the same, to do three murders… Whoever did it must be mad.” Oh, that old chestnut again.

BlackbirdI was also not particularly impressed with these couple of sentences: “At the Pinewood Private Sanatorium, Inspector Neele, sitting in the visitors’ parlour, was facing a grey-haired, elderly lady. Helen MacKenzie was sixty-three, though she looked younger.” Sixty-three?? Elderly?? “Though she looked younger” but still considered elderly?? I’m not that far behind Helen and I still don’t think I’m middle-aged yet. But it is an interesting observation of what was considered elderly a mere 62 years ago, when this book was written.

Yew BerriesThe book isn’t over-stuffed with narrative threads but there are a couple of clever garden paths that lead you nicely astray and take your eye off a more obvious solution to the mystery. Miss Marple’s on quite good form, taking St Mary Mead as a microcosm of a world of seething emotions and all sorts of lawksamercy. Indeed, she has a personal link to one of the victims, so perhaps it’s not unsurprising that the two worlds collide.

So, gentle reader, for each of Mrs Christie’s books that I re-read I’m going to provide what I hope will be a helpful “at-a-glance” summary of how the book stacks up. See what you think about this assessment:

Publication details: 1953. My copy is a 1980 paperback by Fontana, 188 pages. In about 1979, I met a girl who was really into Agatha Christie. In order to impress her, I lent her a big carrier bag full of my Christie paperbacks. She moved. I had to spend ages finding replacement copies at car boots and charity shops. This was one of the many such copies.

How many pages until the first death: 7. That’s what I like, no hanging about.

Funny lines out of context: “there’s a sprinkling of….old pussies who love to potter round with a trowel”.
“He had that rather forced masculinity which is, in reality, nothing of the kind. He was the type of man who “understands” women.”
““Lovely legs she’s got,” said Constable Waite with a sigh. “And super nylons”.”
“I do think women ought to stick together, don’t you, Inspector Neele?”
“I began to realise, about two years after we were married, that Freddy wasn’t – well wasn’t always straight”.

Memorable characters: none outstanding; maybe Mary Dove, for her sangfroid under pressure. The way Mrs Crump is described reminded me of how you imagine Mrs White to be in Cluedo. By the way, does anyone else find it funny that the name of the Sergeant who first mentions the grain in the deceased’s pocket is called Hay? I was expecting a whole range of characters whose names were based on aspects of an arable farm.

Christie the poison expert? Yes definitely. Everything you wanted to know about taxine but were afraid to ask.

Class/social issues of the time: Quite a bit. Mrs Christie describes Yewtree Lodge as “the kind of mansion that rich people built themselves and then called it “their little place in the country”… a large solid red brick structure, sprawling lengthwise rather than upward, with rather too many gables, and a vast number of leaded paned windows. The gardens were highly artificial…” In other words, disgustingly nouveau riche.
Of a missionary visitor, Miss Ramsbottom says “black as your hat but a true Christian”. I can never quite decide if Mrs Christie was a latent racist or if it was just the mores of her time and “set”. Maybe this re-read will help me come to a conclusion. When asked about blackbirds, Lance replies “do you mean genuine birds, or the slave trade?”
Young Gerald is described as “an intellectual… he’s got a lot of unconventional and progressive ideas that people don’t like”.
Crump the butler is distrusted. For no apparent reason than for his stupid surname and the fact that he’s a butler.
You wouldn’t describe Mrs Christie as a feminist: “Adele Fortescue was a sexy piece….Her appeal was obvious, not subtle. It said simply to every man “Here am I. I’m a woman.””

Classic denouement? Not really. There’s no big showdown; the denouement takes the form of Miss Marple having a quiet, private conversation with Inspector Neele, explaining whodunit, how and why; the book ends before he confronts the murderer. Probably the best interrogation is by Neele on Dubois, where he reveals he knows the content of the first victim’s will.

Happy ending? Again not really. An innocent character is about to get a nasty shock, although another is saved from a blackmail situation. Miss Marple has a moment of triumph in the last sentence, but it’s not earth-shattering stuff.

Does the story ring true? The crime and the Sing-a-song-of-sixpence theme dovetail nicely. But Miss Marple gains access to Yewtree Lodge ridiculously easily.

Overall satisfaction rating: 7/10

At Bertram's HotelWhat do you think? Any comments welcome, but please try not to spoil the whodunit aspect for anyone who hasn’t read it.

Next book to read will be At Bertram’s Hotel, as that was the second book I read when I first discovered Mrs Christie’s work. Feel free to read or re-read and we’ll have a post-mortem in a week or two’s time!