Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Sparkling Cyanide (1945)

PLOT: Who poisoned Rosemary's birthday champagne last year?

This book contains the worst sentence I've come across by Agatha Christie:

"Anthony took a gingerly sip of coffee."

Something about its sheer wrongness captivates me. "Anthony gingerly took a sip of coffee" would be fine. "Anthony took a nervous sip of coffee" would also win. Instead we have this weird monstrosity - I have to admit, it fascinates me.

Why? This isn't me jumping on the "Agatha Christie can't write" bandwagon. Graeme Greene apparently sneered she employed the English of a schoolgirl - which misses the point. Agatha Christie is a brilliant writer. There are many, many other writers from the Golden Age of Crime who are now forgotten; barely readable then, utterly unreadable now.

If Agatha Christie merely constructed amazing plots thinly plastered over with simple words, then she wouldn't still enjoy her amazing success. A good writer has great characters and it is her characters that people still talk about - everyone knows Poirot and Marple.

Agatha Christie has a style - you've only got to look at the marvellous wrongness of The Big Four when one of her relatives rolled up his sleeves and pitched in, keen to prove that anyone can have a crack at writin' one of these crime thingies, to realise that only Agatha Christie can write Agatha Christie. The Big Four is all plot and no style (and what a plot - sinister Chinees, death rays and dastardly doubles. Blimey).

At the other extreme is Postern of Fate which is all style and no plot. But it's remarkably entertaining and a great read purely because of the style. People do read Agatha Christie because of the writing.

So why am I picking on this one sentence? Because it allows me to arbitrarily point, midway through her career and say "she's become uneditable". Just as people highlight the moment when Harry Potter went from books to tomes, this is the moment at which Agatha Christie editors started waving her works through regardless. Or perhaps it was because there was a war on.

There certainly isn't a war on in Sparkling Cyanide. It's a curiously timeless, vaguely pre-War book in which the coffee is bad, but an heiress's only trouble is what to do with her money. There's perhaps a hint that the meagreness of rationing preyed on the author's mind - we get an unusually loving recitation of the fatal menu at the Luxembourg, conjured up with all the lavish attention employed for one of Lord Snooty's feasts.

The novelty in the book is that the central crime has already happened before page one. I read on, confidently expecting a flashback, but it never came. The crime is instead relived in moments, and then recreated with a fatal twist that takes you by surprise.

The victim - Rosemary - hovers over the book like a ghost, and we get a picture of her from the point of view of the suspects, several obsessed by her, but only one of them liking her. She deliberately never really appears - she is Christie's Rebecca.

The book is a character study - in some ways the actual crimes and investigation are an anticlimax to the people. For instance, the devious politician and his docile wife who, it transpires, is a much more complicated personality than anyone else even guesses at - Christie's masterstroke with poor Lady Alexander is that she reveals her brilliance to the reader, and then draws the curtain again, so we must read the second half of the book with everyone from her parents to casual acquaintances dismissing her as "mad" and "gothic". This leads to a remarkable scene where her parents, convinced of her guilt, confront each other:

"They looked at each other - so far divided that neither could see the other's point of view. So might Agamemnon and Clytemnestra have stared at each other with the word Iphigenia on their lips."

See? Marvellous stuff. The book is full of lovely bits of style, and Christie indulges herself shamelessly with a nutty spinster ("Twitterers can tell one a lot if one just lets them - twitter") as well as some spot-on observation:

"Iris's face adopted that same look of blank enquiry that her great-grandmother might have worn prior to saying a few minutes later "Oh Mr X, this is so sudden!"

Underneath all this razor sharp invention is a plot that almost... almost cheats. Christie takes you into the confidence of all of the suspects, while at the same time dragging a huge red herring across the trail. The reveal (when it comes) works, and works cleverly, but the reader is allowed the same kind of groan as when on the receiving end of a truly terrible pun.

Looking back you realise that all of the hints have been there, and everyone who should have been interviewed was, and all lines of enquiry were pursued... but... but... still. You've been well and truly had.

Her ingenious conclusion does even excuse the one wopping bit of racism in the book (we'll sadly wave through the other jarring references to Negro bands).

We meet again Colonel Race (who permeates Christie without ever really being more than a cameo), there is mention of Sergeant Battle, and there is even, quite surprisingly, a maid called Evans.

Sunday, 6 February 2011

4.50 from Paddington

Plot: Unique serial killer romp about British Rail and the National Health Service

Lucy  Eyelesbarrow. There's other stuff in 4.50 from Paddington, and it's all good, but it's Lucy Eyelesbarrow who dominates this book. She is Agatha Christie's ultimate answer to The Servant Problem - what if a really clever, independent woman took up domestic service. With a First in Mathematics at Oxford, Lucy is the perfect servant - her brains, tact and beauty amply rewarded by gratetful employers. She takes on the job of hunting down a murderer because it appeals to her and because she likes Miss Marple - recognising in her both her brains and her character

Lucy is a truly marvellous example of a really independent Christie heroine - and it is a crushing shame that she's landed with a romantic plot - will she pick boring-but-brave Brian or charming-but-caddish Cedric? You very quickly start yelling "Neither! Neither!" and even Christie chickens out of sentencing Lucy to purgatory with either of them. The only possible appeal of Brian is his charming son, who Christie writes gloriously, even allowing him and chum Stoddard-West a glimpse of a dead body ("One's only young once."). Possibly, Lucy should wait until Alexander comes of age and make her move. The charming Alexander, however, is most keen on the match:

Averting his eyes to the ceiling, he said rather self-consciously:
"I think, really, you know, it would be a good thing if he married again... Somebody decent... I shouldn't, myself, mind at all having a stepmother..."

Just because Lucy is some grand doesn't mean that Miss Marple takes a back seat. In the early stages of the book she does some great detective work in finding the location of the mysterious corpse - she draws up a charming plan of action ("4. Griselda's boy Leonard who is so very knowledgeable about maps.") and then travels on a lot of trains. The reliability and state of the Nation's railways places this book firmly in the 50s, with Miss Marple remarking on the decline of First Class ("This taxation... that's what it is. No one can afford to travel first class except business men in the rush hours. I suppose because they can charge it to expenses.").

This is a remarkably post-War novel. The Crackenthropes of Rutherford Hall are once-rich industrialists whose principal remaining asset is their estate - sat in the middle of an expanding town, it is eagerly wanted by developers to bulldoze and turn into new housing. Rutherford Hall itself is seen as valueless - a mouldering stately home mostly closed off and impossible to keep up due to taxation and The Servant Problem. The house is presided over by the archetypal decayed gentleman, Mr Crackenthorpe, a man who cackles when his children are bumped off ("I'll outlive them all," he crowed, "You see if I don't.")

We also see the remarkable effect of the brand new National Health Service on poor Dr Quimper, a man driven almost mad by overwork and sleeplessness.

The book also features one of the oddest coincidences in the revelation of just who Edmund Crackenthorpe's lover in the French Resistance was. It's honestly a moment that would have you throwing the book across the room were it not being handled by Agatha Christie. Even then, it's touch and go.

One of the oddest things about this book though is the tone - it's a deeply horrible, tragic tale, but it's told in a tone of almost constantly upbeat, light-hearted whimsy, which is as charming as it is unsettling. It still doesn't stop Lucy Eyelesbarrow from stealing the show. I just hope she didn't marry either of them in the end.

Thursday, 20 January 2011

Lord Edgware Dies (1933)

Plot: So who would want Lord Edgware dead?

“Getting rid of husbands is not my speciality”

Poirot almost comes a cropper in this outing which is full of style and charm, but, as my friend Lee points out, is “one of those where the least likely person did it.” In other words, people keep on pointing out that X cannot possibly have done the crime, and the more they underline this, the more you suspect X did it after all. A Murder Is Announced is another good example of this.

Where this book succeeds is in its evocation of 1930s London, full of parties and nightclubs and bright young things, a land of champagne and divorce and actors and female impressionists and all sorts of modern things.

In among all this is the character of Lord Edgware. “I just can't describe him, but he's – queer.” The clearly depraved Lord (forever nipping off to Paris, city of sin) is a baffling monster, far more effectively creepy for his enigmatically satanic nature and remarkably pretty butler than if Christie spelt out what exactly his problem was. The nearest we get are some snide remarks about the butler by Japp and some muttering about how the butler “might have posed for Hermes or Apollo. Despite his good looks there was something vaguely effeminate”.

Poirot is almost the only innocent character in this murky mess of deviance and deceit. “I should like everyone to be happy” he says early on, but even there we are misled. Japp later pronounces: 

“He's always been fond of having things difficult.... It's like an old lady playing at patience. If it doesn't come out, she cheats. Well, it's the other way round with him. If it's coming out too easily, he cheats to make it more difficult.”

Japp is right all along. Poirot takes great delight in terrorising a suspect who misled him. “I hope you have now been sufficiently punished for coming to me – me, Hercule Poirot, with a cock-and-bull story.”

In the end, although Poirot is clever, the murderer nearly gets away with it by being stupid. This sounds silly, but isn't. This is a story about a social manipulator who isn't clever but is very good at using people. In some ways this is far more satisfactory than a master criminal – seeing Poirot faring badly against his intellectual inferior is a great payoff.

Thursday, 13 January 2011

Murder in the Mews (1937)

Plot: Four long mysteries for Poirot.

Murder in the Mews: 
“What are they like? Gay? Lots of Parties? That sort of thing?”
Poirot and Japp investigate a murder in a house where two ladies live together. One plays golf. It's impossible not to read this as accidental lesbian hilarity, even though there's not a whisker of it in the story itself. Instead it's a rather robust narrative about a blackmailer gradually ensnared in a trap of his own making. The pay-off to the story is very satisfying as Christie manages (even with a very limited cast list) to nudge you in one direction while at the same time pulling the rug from under you. It WAS who you thought it was, but not for the reasons you suspected. If you see what I mean.

The Incredible Theft: 
“Here I scream” said Poirot helpfully. He opened his mouth and let out a shrill little bleat.

A country house, stolen plans, a weekend party of spies and gamblers... and a maid who has seen a ghost. It's all amiable stuff, with Poirot at his mischievous best. He's being told a pack of lies by nearly everyone and doesn't fail to let them all know that he finds it vastly amusing. It's a story about truth – or about good lies. As Poirot puts it pointedly “The lies I invent are always most delicate and most convincing”. He is both reassuring his host and also reminding the household that they are amateurs up against an expert on truth.

Essentially Poirot finds himself in a classic crime situation and proceeds to enjoy himself immensely. So great is Poirot's enjoyment that he even appears to chat up a maid, and get chatted up in return. He certainly is at great pains to praise her beauty. Maybe this is simply due to their shared Gallic nature?

Dead Man's Mirror
“One cannot escape one's Karma.”

Another “ideal for television” adventure featuring a country house, a locked-room and a lot of suspects, this manages to be a fairly straightforward Poirot pot-boiler set among the Chevenix-Gores. This is a household of improbables and suspectables right out of The Murder Of Roger Ackroyd, and it rattles along at a fair pace... right up to an ending that made me go “oh no, hang on, there are too many suspects – which one of you are you again?”. But it's a ripping yarn.

Triangle At Rhodes

Poirot is on a beach holiday. Sat next to a woman who fancies herself as an observer of human nature. Yet it is Poirot who spots a crime in the offing. Readers of Death On The Nile and Curtain will recognise two things – Poirot issuing a significant warning, and Poirot detecting the hand of a social manipulator at work. The story also bears similarities with one of Miss Marple's 13 Problems, and is another great example of how Agatha Christie ensures that bad things happen to husband-stealing women.

Sunday, 9 January 2011

The Moving Finger (1943)

Plot: Poison-pen letters lead to tragedy in a small village.

The Poison-pen letter is a preoccupation of classic crime. Dorothy L Sayers' Gaudy Night dances high above the canon as an example of frustrated Women Who Hate (it being a staple of these stories that such letters are only written by women).

When Agatha Christie tackles poison pen letters, of course she wheels out a spinster to catch a spinster – but this is very much a novel in which Miss Marple cameos at best. Just as Cat Among The Pigeons is a delightful feast with Poirot as a digestif, Miss Marple totters along at the very end of this book to offer a neat solution.

In the meantime we're on familiar ground of gossip and suspicion and wise counsel in a small community. As usual, the servants are a problem – there's a death which may be suicide until a maid is found brutally slain because she knew too much but didn't speak out in time, the silly moo. From there on in it rattles along nicely until we realise that we've been looking in the wrong direction entirely and that this isn't a tale of a rotten community but a more domestic horror. With added Marple.

What makes this as a book is that it's really a love story – it's about the narrator falling in love with a girl who is variously described as ugly, simple, plain, backward and ill-dressed. However, almost without realising it, the narrator gives her a proper makeover and falls dazzlingly in love with her. This is the real heart of the book – that in an atmosphere of suspicion this unusual relationship doesn't come under attack is one of the biggest clues as to what is really going on. Of course, this doesn't escape Miss Marple's notice. Nor does she miss the shopping montage.

Curiously, Christie claims this as one of her favourites. Which is odd – it's certainly one of her more believable and moving love stories, but as a Miss Marple book it's a strange beast.

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Postern of Fate (1973)

Plot: There's a plot?

Postern of Fate is free-association Agatha Christie, improvised like beat poetry in a smoky jazz cellar. That's another way of saying that it's regarded as her worst book ever, and yet... and yet... well, yet again, it's a book saved by Tommy and Tuppence.

Tommy and Tuppence have moved house. Tommy goes to London for meetings. Tuppence stays at home reading some old children's books and walking the dog. Occasionally they'll have lunch. Or dinner. Or argue with a tradesman. Sometimes Tuppence will go out to tea, or Tommy will reminisce. Occasionally, Tuppence will sit in a go-kart and roll down a hill. Once, the wheels fall off Tuppence's go-kart. This may be an attempt on her life. She's not really sure. Another time a pane of glass falls down near her. This may also be an attempt on her life. Again, no-one is really sure.

Tuppence sometimes tries to sort out the shed with the help of the local handyman Isaac, unless he's the gardener. But then again, Isaac is over 90, or in his 80s, or nearly 70. It's so hard to tell.

Sometimes, Tommy and Tuppence are investigating a crime that happened in the house during the first world war. Although, sometimes it happened later, or earlier. Or did it even happen at all?

In order to try and come to grips with this, Tommy goes to London for more meetings with people who either tell him about how much they enjoyed the plot of N or M, or mention that they were all in Passenger To Frankfurt. Meanwhile, Tuppence goes for more walks, and meets some children who also remark on how well she did in N or M.

There is mention of the Common Market.

Someone, at some point, god knows why, kills Old Isaac, so Tuppence needs to get a new gardener. Even though Isaac wasn't actually the gardener, but was there to help mend the conservatory. Luckily a man from the secret services tells Tommy that they'll send them a man who'll be an undercover agent and that they're not to trust anyone else. A lady turns up and offers to do the gardening. She also helps pour some coffee. Can you guess what happens next?

Luckily, eventually, it's all over. Someone, at some point, killed Mary Jordan. Tommy and Tuppence also appear to have thwarted an evil conspiracy, again. Or at least, we hear that the sinister conspiracy has moved to Bury St Edmonds. So that's okay.

What saves this book from being utterly utterly awful is that Tommy and Tuppence are as charming as ever. They're good company, even if they are telling you a story they don't seem to have a grip on. Christie's style remains similarly charming. In her 80s at the time, she wheeled this one out, her characters are addicted to reverie. The theme of this book is how unreliable memory and narrative are – appropriately enough, as Tommy and Tuppence are... well, let's just say that by this point Poirot is 120, Miss Marple is about 735, and lord knows how old Tommy and Tuppence are, or why Albert is mourning for an entirely different wife to the one he had last time.

Yes it's a bloody mess, but it's a charming one. If you can analyse why it's so adorable and compellingly readable then you're doing better than me. All I know is that I sat up night after night entranced by it, kids books, hearty stews, dog walks and all. There was an actual sigh of disappointment when something as vin ordinaire as a murder occurred. There's a great atmosphere here – similar to the magic of By The Pricking Of My Thumbs, that lovely feeling of Village Sinister, in which a discussion of magnolias can turn lethal at any moment.

The book is full of madness. There are clunking lines, there is banter that's eye-rolling (Tommy and Tuppence remove rubbish from inside a rocking horse. They call it surgery. Everyone laughs. No-one points out that Tuppence has earlier examined the horse and found it empty). There are clues that are never resolved. There is a greenhouse called KK. There is a significance hinted to at the real name of a Monkey Puzzle tree. And did I mention there's a go-kart?

And yet, it's somehow adorable. It's about Tuppence reading books and finding a long-lost mystery. It's about Tommy thinking. It's about a couple very much in love who can save the country and redecorate. And yes, very vaguely, it's about the Common Market.

Friday, 17 December 2010

Partners In Crime (1929)

Plot: What Tommy and Tuppence did next... was take the piss, frankly.

After the ripping yarn of The Secret Adversary, Tommy and Tuppence Beresford set out to solve crimes using the methods of other detectives as a set of literary parodies.

The whole idea was already waaay out of date when the stories were adapted for a baffled 1980s television audience. While Francesca Annis chews the scenery and a variety of hats, James Warwick turns up in a variety of mad costumes without explanation, including a priest's costume. If you're well-read in
your crime, you may just think “Why is he dressed as Father Brown?” but that'll be about it. By the time Francesca Annis dances through a health farm in a series of veils, you may indeed be ready to commit a crime yourself.

If you want to know the sources, Charles Osbourne's Life and Crimes of Agatha Christie features a handy grid... giving your an at-a-glance guide to a lot of mostly out-of-print and forgotten sleuths. You probably won't be much wiser, although you may go “oooh, I've read a couple”. There's also a lovely analysis here

The most interesting parody is when Tommy pretends to be Hercule Poirot, at which point you can only applaud Christie for being rather meta.

Hopelessly out-of-context, how do the stories themselves hold up? The nearest comparison I guess is The Big Four, although Partners In Crime is neither as mad nor as bad. Some adventures are joyous and atmospheric (The House Of Lurking Death), some are madcap John Buchan (The Sinister Stranger) or just madly Dr Nikola (Blindman's Bluff with its electrified floor).

However, just when your teeth grind together like a vintage gearbox, you'll be reminded how adorable Tommy and Tuppence are, or how well they work in an atmosphere of vague conspiracy and intrigue. What keeps this collection fun is that they're having a ripping time, which makes it all more than bearable. They're great company even on an off-day. More of which, next time.