Monday, 28 December 2009

Hercule Poirot's Christmas (1938)

Plot: A yuletide death in the family fails to bring comfort and joy.

Merry Christmas! Towards the end of her career, Agatha Christie books were published as "A Christie for Christmas". In the 1960s, when her output slowed, her publishers tactfully let it be known that they'd let her off the hook and publish a "Ngaio Marsh for Christmas". The result was By The Pricking Of My Thumbs by return of post.

Even today, Christie adaptations glut the festive schedules - it seems we all love a good murder and a mince pie, and the nostalgic world that Christie evokes seems as much a part of the myth of Christmas as roaring fires, carol singing, snow and mince pies.

Viewed nostalgically, it seems surprising that more Christies aren't set at Christmas. There is, I think, this book, a Poirot short story and the first Harley Quinn mystery sees in the New Year. And that's about it.

Oddly, Hercule Poirot's Christmas is not a very Christmassy book. The Sittaford Mystery is at least snowier - indeed, the lack of Christmas decorations forms a late plot point, when Pilar Estravadors discovers them in a cupboard and comments on her expectations of "the crackers and the burning raisins and those shiny things on a tree..."

Christmas is simply an excuse for wicked old Simeeon Lee to gather his family around him - yes, it's the good old country House of Evil again, with the miserable live-in relatives, the exotic strangers from abroad, the returning prodigals, and curious servants, mixed in with impostors and spongers. This is pretty much the set-up of A Pocket Full of Rye, bolted onto the structure of a typical Poirot (death-interrogation-revelation).

If it all feels a little staged, this turns out to be part of Christie's plan. She even allows a character to comment "this is one of those damned cases you get in detective stories where a man is killed in a locked room". The reader will even spot the point, two-thirds in, where Poirot solves the murder and simply treads water until it's time to reveal the solution.

That this is a "locked room" murder is actually quite extraordinary in Christie's work. She adores the impossible mystery, but normally avoids the obvious impossibility of the locked room, leaving those to Carter Dickson. That she's chosen to employ this device is very deliberate here - she is throwing the reader's mind to thinking "how did the villain commit this crime and escape" rather than "why was the room locked in the first place?"

The whole thing is an elaborate sleight, which becomes quite easy to resolve once you realise who the murderer is. This is theoretically quite easy in this book - Simeon Lee drops several unconscious hints before his demise which Christie frequently reinforces - but in practice you may well miss it because it's just not where you're looking.

Again this is down to Christie. By the end you realise that this book is deliberately formulaic - the old house, the sequential interrogations, and other trusty bits of Christie's false machinery all wheeled out to keep you baffled.

This is helped by the book's mostly pallid characterisation. It's quite easy to forget who is who among the Lee clan (oh! so many brothers and wives). Christie even jogs your elbow by introducing Pilar Estravados, Lee granddaughter, who is the most striking woman in the book. So wonderfully radiant is Pilar that it makes the other Lee women very dull indeed, and even casts most of the men into shadow. Pilar is magnificently unBritish and unsentimental - she likes Simeon Lee, despite his immorality, she is unabashed about her selfishness, and isn't ashamed to be an adventuress, which throws her up against the book's two returning colonials, who are again rather less interesting.

Pilar, indeed, draws so much attention that the book becomes a did she/didn't she. If she did, then it's disappointing, but if she didn't, then who could possibly be as satisfying a villain? So bright is her star that it's impossible to forget that, as everyone admits, she had nothing to gain by killing Simeon Lee. Or did she, after all?

At the end of it all, Hercule Poirot's Christmas is a great example of what appears to be a by-the-numbers work by a master of the genre, but is, in fact, rather more than that.

Next: Yuletide merrymaking continues with The Adventure Of The Christmas Pudding

Sunday, 20 December 2009

And Then There Were None (1939)

Plot: Ten strangers trapped on an island start to die. Are any of them innocent?

I've never liked the "N-word". It's one of those words that manages to sound offensive and derogatory, in the same way as "Faggot" or any of those short and magnificently abusive Anglo-Saxon terms that just slip out whenever I try and use the Northern Line. It's a horrible, nasty word, and one that is, these days, thankfully repugnant. Like parquet flooring, it is being usefully reclaimed, but it remains pretty much unusable and unsayable unless in very careful contexts.

It is scattered through the first version of Agatha Christie's most infamously titled book like bones in a kipper. The expurgated text is a far easier read nowadays, and one in the eye for the "political correctness gone mad" brigade. I've just finished reading the original version, and it's a mildly queasy journey. The sheer outdated proliferation of the word is simply a distraction from a brilliantly good book. If the book wasn't so good, I don't think so much of a fuss would have been made about the troublesome title.

One thing that surprised me was discovering that the book was known as "Ten Little N-s" in England up until 1979. Really? Even more alarming was looking at the cover of my 1979 Fontana edition:

This neatly knocks on the head the BNP's odious argument that the Golliwog has no racial connotation and is simply a figure of fun like a teddy bear. Yeah right. It also, if you look at the lizard's face, contains a pretty massive clue to the murderer. So, it's doubly offensive.

But how sensitive should we be about this? In Christie's defence, she's certainly not the only author of the period to use the term, and she uses it with all the thoughtless abandon of someone with no offensive intent. This is not a book aimed at inciting racial hatred - the use of the N-word is such an incidental detail that it's almost Christie's biggest ever red-herring - and the success with which the text has been stripped of it proves how inconsequential it was to the narrative in the first place. Indeed, American pretty much immediately insisted on calling the book "And Then There Were None" - this book isn't known over there under the original title, which made for quiet a surprising recent protet in the US when a local NAACP president tried to block a High School production of the play And Then There Were None - on the grounds that it was based on a book which had once had a different title In Another Country. Which seemed a bit surprising - but then one has to, just as with Christie, be aware of the context. A lot of the reporting of this case appears to be from what you might call the political right. As I said - context it everything.

For instance, And Then There Were None does contain one really racially repugnant character - a horrible Jewish man, who is mocked and villified. Which is particularly unpleasant since this is 1939. You can mount a defence that we only really see Mr Isaac Morris from one character's viewpoint, and he's not necessarily sympathetic... but still, it's unfortunately tactless to say the least. Which is about the worst you can see about this book.

With that lengthy preamble to one side... what about the book? Well, it's utterly brilliant. It's a great concept - 10 strangers all at the mercy of a mysterious nemesis. It's easy to forget that it's not until late on that you realise the murderer is amongst them... or are they?

This is a game of psychological torture played out with the usual Christie suspects (Dashing Young Man, Military Man, Old Maid, Colonial Adventurer, Noble Mouse, Humble Retainer etc...) the exception being that They're All Guilty.

Freed from having to have a proper investigation, or even really a detective, Christie runs wildly experimental. We really see inside everyone's minds - these are complicated people, for once deceiving themselves rather than Hercule Poirot. There are even a few remarkable scenes where Christie treats us to everyone's inner thoughts - including the murderer's. It's really thunderingly good at what it does - it's about suspense and justice and victims and innocence.

It's curious - these people are all scoundrels, but you do find yourself rooting for some of them. Christie is so good at drawing these types of people that it's hard to hate all of them. She even take great delight at building up the first victim as a shining god among men, a truly handsome brute - and then swiftly polishing him off.

The rhyme works here more even successfully than in A Pocket Full Of Rye - it's more than just a narrative frame, it's almost a narrator, taunting and warning the cast as events press remorselessly on to their grim conclusion.

Interestingly the play version has a different ending - and, as this is the basis of the film, it is quite remarkable when reading the book to realise that events are taking a very different turn indeed.

Next: Festive fury in Hercule Poirot's Christmas

Wednesday, 16 December 2009

Meanwhile on AOL

A brief look at the Poirot TV series that I've done for the nice people at AOL.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

A Pocket Full of Rye (1954)

Plot: Murder by nursery rhyme brings Marple to Yewtree Lodge.

This story mixes Death By Nursery Rhyme with the House of Evil magnificently. It helps that this is a really very well written book - it's full of carefully observed human behavious, and again features a typing pool (just as entertaining as in The Clocks and They Came To Baghdad). The typing pool gives us our opening:

"It was Miss Somers's turn to make the tea. Miss Somers was the neewest and the most inefficient of the typists. She was no longer young..."

Much is made of Christie's poisonous work at a dispensary, but clearly she also understood office warfare. The scene where the staff argue over who to call when they find their boss has been poisoned is brilliantly funny and also features a clash between Old Medicine and the NHS ("They won't come. Because of the National Health.") and even discussion of 999.

To prove that Christie has moved with the times, there's much discussion of The Servant Problem. Instead of the wonderfully staffed houses of the 1920s, Yewtree Lodge is understaffed, but order is kept by the marvellously dry Miss Dove not afraid to help out with cooking, cleaning and dishing up (an echo of the splendid Lucy Eylesbarrow in 4.50 from Paddington).

Yewtree Lodge is a return to the House of Evil that we first saw in The Mysterious Affair At Styles. The whole household are variously described as unpleasant, nasty and odious. These are all unhappy people bound together by secrets and mealtimes - an unhealthy atmosphere that results in murder. The catharsis of murder is like the cleansing of the stables - by the end of the book most of the cast may be dead, but those who remain have found a measure of happiness and contentment.

A lot of this is brought about by Miss Marple who is deliberately ordinary. The Police Inspector just accepts her: "Miss Marple was very unlike the popular idea of an avenging fury. And yet, he thought, that was perhaps exactly what she was."

She is both winged nemesis and a cup of hot cocoa. There's a lovely scene where we find Miss Marple has temporarily transformed Yewtree Lodge simply by sitting in a corner of it and knitting. As one character remarks:

"With the fire and the lamps and you knitting things for babies. It all seems cosy and homely and like England ought to be."

To which Miss Marple replies: "It's like England is."

If Miss Marple restores order, she also pigeon-holes people. Young Pat, married into the poisonous family, is, Miss Marple decides, out of place: "A background of shabby chintz and horses and dogs, Miss Marple felt vaguely, would have been much more suitable that this richly furnished interior decor."

Amidst all the bodies dropping like flies, it is easy to forget that Miss Marple comes not to avenge the death of the financier, or his fine wife, but their plain silly servant girl - simply because Miss Marple knew her and liked her, despite her foolishness. Again, it's a sign of the changing times that we get mention of holiday camps and motion pictures filling girls' heads with ideas above their station.

Again and again this is a novel about people being neatly dusted down and put in their proper place like ornaments. Poor Gladys would not have died if she hadn't had fancies beyond a teashop. Pat would be happier with horses. And Miss Marple decides that Mrs Percvial Fortescue is like Mrs Emmett the bank manager's wife in St Mary Mead. He had "married beneath him and the result was that his wife was in a position of great loneliness since she could not, of course, associate with the wives of trades people."

In this book we see clearly that Miss Marple does not strive for utopia, simply for the status quo. When asked if St Mary Mead is a nice place, she's not romantic:

"It's quite a pretty village. There are some nice people living in it and some extremely unpleasant people as well."

Structurally, the book makes another great change from formula Poirots of 100 pages of set up, a murder, some interrogations and some unmasking. The corpses start piling up pretty much from the first page, and you can tell that Christie is having enormous fun working out her plan.

This brings us to the nursery rhyme, which either both fits the story superbly and clangs around like ball bearings in a bean bag. It adds to the almost supernatural feeling of murder as a negative force of vengeance, the exact opposite of Miss Marple. The twists and turns of the plot that explain the rhyme are clever and cunning... but, at the same time, you realise the significance of the rhyme is the very weakness of it as a device. It's almost like the killer is revealing their plot. As Miss Marple points out at a certain point in the book, there will be no more killings because there is no rhyme left. Worse, she's worked out that there simply must be a connection between the blackbirds in the rhyme and the mysterious Blackbird Mine... a connection which makes it painfully easy to work out who the murderer is simply by spotting who keeps on mentioning the mine...

And yet this remains a great, great book and another triumph for Miss Marple. If not, we realise at the end, a triumph for the Royal Mail; Miss Marple gets home, order restored, chaos thwarted, and finds a misdirected letter which would have solved the case if it had been delivered on time.

NEXT: And Then There Were None: A triumph of plot over racism?

Sunday, 6 December 2009

By the Pricking of My Thumbs (1968)

Plot: An old lady goes missing from a retirement home and it's all to do with a mysterious picture.

Well, we're not meeting Tommy and Tuppence in order. Christie's sleuths don't generally tend to change that much, but Tommy and Tuppence are the exception, growing older each time we encounter them. We first meet them just after the First World War and here they're all grown up - although clearly not quite in their 60s.

This is another nostalgia murder, with a clue to a long-forgotten crime and the title being a quotation from a rhyme (well, okay, Macbeth, so it's not quite a nursery rhyme, but it fits interestingly in with other rhyming titles). As Tommy and Tuppence have aged, so has their quarry. As Tuppence puts it, "If you're pretty nasty when you're twenty, and just as nasty when you're forty, and nastier still when you're sixty and a perfect devil by the time you're eighty...", presciently predicting the course of the story before she meets dotty Mrs Lancaster with her question "Was it your poor child?" (a question that apparently will crop up a few times in various books), a red-herring that's vital to the plot of this book.

This is a wild departure from a rigidly plotted Poirot of murder-investigation-revelation. This is more like a teasing quest for something unknown. Is Tuppence looking for inner peace, a missing pensioner or a house in a forgotten painting?

What evolves is a weird first half that should be BORING. Nothing happens. There's a feeling of missed opportunities - Tuppence always turning up too late, or pottering aimlessly around the village where she's staying, always just a few steps away from a mystery. But amid all the small talk and banter, there is a feeling of creeping, creeping menace - of things found in chimneys, mysteries in graveyards, and village gossip no longer repeated. And then BANG! Tuppence goes missing, and it's up to Tommy to rescue his wife.

The second half features corrupt solicitors, a search for clues hidden in a painting, talk of mental homes and a complicated conspiracy being gradually revealed. And it's all rather marvellous. As Tuppence comments when they're re-united "Hearsay, suggestions, legends, gossip. The whole thing is kind of like a bran tub."

But, with careful sifting, the results are suitably rewarding. This is a story that really does pay off. Whereas the nostalgia murder of "Five Little Pigs" is more a clever stylistic exercise, this is a genuine treasure hunt with an obvious prize, a suitably horrible mystery, and everything to reward the reader from secret rooms to fiendish clues.

This is really Tuppence's book. She's a breath of fresh air after the omnipotence and self-confidence of Poirot and Marple. She's just clever, intuitive and genuinely interested in human nature, while at the same time worried that life has passed her by. She gets into terrible scrapes that you wouldn't imagine happening to Marple, and her detecting is methodical, almost plodding, in a way that would have Poirot despairing. And yet... she is immensely lovable because of it.

NEXT: Miss Marple gets A Pocket Full Of Rye

Monday, 30 November 2009

Hickory Dickory Dock (1955)

PLOT: Student flatshare - Bizarre thefts, death by poisoning, rucksacks and racism. It's the 1950s version of This Life

This is both the most racist and the least racist Christie I've read by far. Set in a shared student house with a clutch of international students, owned by the vile Greek Mrs Nicoletis, there are several sentences that make you wince, such as Mrs Nicoletis's first rant ("as for these coloured ones - scram!"). We meet the student known "affectionately" as Black Bess, and the gentle Mr Akibombo, and there's even the ghastly Nigel, who is probably a gay. He's not quite the mincing horror from Murder Is Easy, but he's always laughing and shrieking and spreading marmalade on toast in the middle of a crisis. And if that isn't a sign of a wendy, then I don't know what is.

Poirot muddles through admirably. As a foreigner himself he avoids the worst of it, but there are a fair few clumps of outdated terms and unsympathetic characters. In amongst all this is a fascinating portrait of shared student housing - and a remarkably mixed, accepting lot they are if you remember that at the time many boarding houses had signs outside saying "No Dogs, No Irish, No Blacks". But still... this isn't an easy read at times.

It's the stray details that disturb. I think we're meant to loathe Mrs Nicoletis, and not to like the vile Chandra Lal, and we're supposed to think fondly of Mr Akibombo, who appears to go out on dates with one character even though she actually falls for someone else, even though she does ask him to her wedding. It's just the occasional descriptions of the poor man - sometimes he's quite eloquent, other times he's like the Um-Bongo commercial. And then there are lines like "Akibombo nodded an enthusiastic black woolly head and showed his white teeth in a pleased smile", which is as close to Bo-Jo's dreaded "picaninny smiles" as you would want to get.

But this isn't actually a story about racism. It is about love. And Poirot "suddenly felt very tired of love", when he clears up an initial mystery, which turns out to be about a student turning kleptomaniac in order to gain the interest of the psychology student she loves. This all goes horribly wrong, and soon there's an impressively high body count.

By the end it's all quite curious. Some things are resolved and some things aren't - the mysterious smuggling ring, for example either does, or does not work out neatly. A few people fall in love, and some real nastiness is revealed. It's a great read, but at the same time, there's that troubling question of "Is Christie simply being honest about her times and is she actually quite liberal for them?" remains.

Monday, 23 November 2009

Five Little Pigs (1942)

PLOT: Poirot is asked to solve a murder that took place 16 years ago, and does so by talking to the five witnesses. A lot.

There's a despicable kind of person who apparently can't resist flicking to the end of a detective novel just to know who did it. Five Little Pigs is that remarkable thing, a book which feel like you needn't to bother.

I'm not claiming any amazing deductive powers here. This is a book that, from a handful of pages in, pretty much screams the name of the villain. The clues are dropped in so obviously they may as well be printed in bold italic with a bit of underlining. But are things really that simple? Even if they're just red herrings, should they be painted such a bright shade of scarlet?

It's a peculiar book all in. Perhaps I'm just saying that because knowing who did it in this case knocks so much of the stuffing out of it. You can, you should, re-read Murder of Roger Ackroyd knowing who did it. But this is one where, from the very first, you don't even detect cunning misdirection, so much as a giant arrow hanging over the perpetrator whenever their name is mentioned. And if it doesn't turn out to be them, then it's an absolutely massive cheat.

In terms of approach it is similar to Josephine Tey's Daughter Of Time, in that it unleashes a detective on a long-ago crime. Poirot must pick his way through recollection and written statements, overturning accepted fact and revealing a deeper psychological truth. Or, if you prefer, Poirot must kick his heels for a couple of hundred pages before revealing the bleeding obvious.

Without the narrative veneer of Hastings, we do get a remarkable insight into the detective's methods. We see him deciding when to "play the foreigner", by turns flattering, deceiving, or applying rigorous candour. We see him carefully, ingeniously cultivating the trust of suspects, of relaying half of a truth in the hopes of securing revelation.

We also see more of Poirot's mind. The book is mostly about the careful interrogation of five suspects - and we see how, powerfully, Poirot doesn't care for any of them very much. Whereas Miss Marple loves people for all their weaknesses, Poirot sees each suspect merely as a type and works on them accordingly.

In many books the human centre is Hastings. In this book it is the cameo of the victims' daughter, all grown up. Everyone else is merely fodder for Poirot's mental machinery. Poor Clara Lemarchant - a wild artist for a father and an equally precarious mother, damned by everyone. Even Clara, determined to vindicate her, says "I wasn't, I don't think, especially fond of her".

The art of the book lies in delicately layering and relayering Clara's idea of her parents. Sometimes we see them as vile grotesques, at others as deeply human and interesting for all of their flaws. Sometimes we side with the mother, sometimes with the father, frequently with their friends, and even occasionally with the wily girl intent on destroying their marriage.

The problem is that, just as Poirot doesn't like any of them very much, neither do we. There's some remarkable psychology at work, but also a sneaking suspicion that Agatha Christie herself doesn't care for any of them either.

It is a cold book. There's little of Christie's trademark humour and warmth. Sometimes, reading these books, you think what fun it would be to meet these people. But not this one - you get an impression of awkward meals, gin and door-slamming.

It is at its most remarkable when it offers portraits of the survivors - such as Lord and Lady Dittisham in their cold, luxurious palace. If Lord Dittisham is a poet without human sympathy, his wife is a statue robbed of a soul.

While I've said the structure is remarkable, it's actually a twist on the route often taken by Ngaio Marsh, where the crime takes place and then is narrated from several points of view by witnesses before the detective sees the way through the woods. And, oddly, just as the heart sinks slightly when you realise you're reading one of the duller Ngaio Marsh novels, there's a similar feeling that hangs over Five Little Pigs - it is a book held prisoner in its structure. It's especially dispiriting when, Poirot having interviewed all five suspects, he then reviews their five written accounts. "Oh no, not again," you groan - even though it's a great exercise in different narrative voices, and is also stripping the detective novel down to its bare essentials - five subtly conflicting narratives. Five little pigs. One porkie pie.

Curiously, Christie will return to the "nostalgia murder" approach a couple of times - including in the late, problematic Poirot adventure, Elephants Can Remember. It's as though she's trying to solve not a murder, but a structure. Somewhere in this, she is thinking, is the key to a brilliant mystery novel. Maybe I've not quite got it yet, but I'll have another go...

Wednesday, 18 November 2009

One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (1940)

PLOT: Someone really doesn't like dentists.

This book is about remarkable coincidence. You can buy that a murder happens whenever Poirot goes on holiday, just as Jessica Fletcher's friends probably check in with their solicitors every time she announces she's dropping round.

By now, of course, you'd assume that if you were planning a murder and you realise that Poirot is on holiday with you, you'd have second thoughts. Similarly, if you're a rich heiress with a persecution complex and Poirot turns up, you'd either jump off the train or summon a priest.

At first glance, this book takes that on the chin. Poirot isn't on safari but mundanely at the dentist. This is an everyday creepy setting and a great place for a murder... but...

The chain of coincidence that this book then requires is remarkable.
  • Poirot has a dentist. Fine.
  • He shares this dentist with the most powerful financial brain in Britain. Also fine - after all, why not specialise in clever teeth?
  • Although one of your clients is Miss Sainsbury Seale, who is very dim.
  • And she just happens to know a powerful secret.
  • She also just happens to have met a powerful blackmailer who just happens to have toothache.

So, just a few pages in, remarkable machinery has been set in motion and the murderer is presented with a most remarkable opportunity that will change the country's future. It's too good to miss. But, and you should remember this... this is also Poirot's dentist!

For the book to succeed, and it does succeed, Christie lays on top of this coincidence a remarkable number of layers of complexity.

So, as well as the dentist at the centre of the universe we have impostors, super secret spies, mysterious organisations, false telegrams and suspicious fiancees as well as at least one death which is almost motiveless.

This is a book stuffed full of herrings, some of them painted a magnificent red which is patiently washed off by Poirot, leaving you, by the end, aware that the book is about something you really didn't think it could be about.

The framing device of the nursery rhyme adds to the splendid conclusion - it has almost nothing to do with the story, and yet, by the end, you realise it has everything to do with the solution.

The book also re-poses the question of necessary murder to Poirot. Is there such a thing as a crime that is so important that justice cannot be brought? Not in Poirot's eyes. Curiously, the ITV adaptation implies that, by making this choice, Poirot causes the second world war. Which seems a little unfair.

Monday, 9 November 2009

Taken At The Flood (1948)

PLOT: Can Poirot save rich widow Rosaleen Underhay?

Poirot's made it through the Second World War. When we first met him he was a refugee during the First World War and possibly retired. So how old is he now? It's best not to ask.

Taken At The Flood is interesting from the point of "Does Christie change with the times, or does she simply redress her mannequins in fashionable outfits?". This is a grim novel of a damaged, glum Britain, with air raids, blitzed London and villages plunged into miserable poverty. It's very contemporary and appropriate - there's no sense of conspicuous affluence or that the cast haven't been changed by the global upheaval.

And yet... peel off the new wrappings, and we've the classic village full of suspicion, a rich young heiress, a black sheep, a tiny bit of occult and a lot of vocal and chemical poison. The sense is that, despite everything, England carries on - the world of quiet malice behind the flower arranging.

Poirot is dragged in by the poisonously new age Mrs Lionel Cloade ("M. Poirot, I have come to you under spirit guidance"). It's a story of an Old Family who are trying to adjust to New Money - to their rich brother's nervous widow, Rosaleen, and her domineering brother, David.

It's world of subtle nastiness and complicated resentments. The Cloades despise Rosaleen, but depend on her for money, at the same time as questioning just how she came into her inheritance. The story all comes down to what noble Lynn Cloade realises - "We'd do anything, anything for money."

The story splits two ways - both an investigation of mystery of the past and a mysterious stranger from the present, and Poirot hovers over both, quietly, regretfully investigating. And everywhere he turns is the same motive - "We'd do anything for money". So it is that we meet characters like the shabby genteel Major, who still goes to his club but lives in threadbare poverty, broken by taxation. Every single person in the book is driven by greed - this is the world of classic Christie but come upon hard times.

So it is that we find Poriot at a miserable hotel ("Here there was a good fire, but in a large arm-chair, toasting her toes comfortably, was a monumental old lady who glared at Poirot" and the Coffee Room, "the only time coffee was served there was somewhat grudgingly for breakfast and that even then a good deal of watery hot was its principal component"), carrying out his investigation into the lives of people who are literally mean-spirited. In many ways it's business as usual - complicated lies and alibis, but hanging over it is a sense of tiredness and despair. The war is over but there's no real sense of victory, and everyone's morals are slightly off balance.

It's a melancholy, dismal book, and affecting in its sense of tragedy. The noblest character is Lynn, returning from war to find herself repelled by her lovelorn cousin Rowley and instead besotted with rakish David. But who will she end up with? Well, actually, that's one of the most interesting, and troubling scenes...


Lynn goes to see Rowley to break the news that she's leaving him for exciting, risky David. Rowley is anguished - she's been away to war, he's been stuck behind, having to keep the farm going. He feels left out of life and now abandoned by her. For her part she's refusing to give up her independence, her love of excitement.

And then Rowley cracks, and strangles Lynn, and we realise that Rowley's broken the law to keep order.

Only... Poirot turns up at the last minute, suggests a pot of tea, and explains what's really happened. It's quite startling - oddly like the kitchen murder from Torn Curtain in its savagery and civility, but also has a really, really odd conclusion.

Lynn realises that, after all, it is Rowley she loves. Or, as she puts it, "When you caught hold of me by the throat... I knew then that I was your woman." Umm. I think the point is that she's realised that Rowley isn't as meek as she thought he was, but the message that's coming over is that a bit of domestic violence can bring necessary spice to a relationship. Ah well, different times.

The ending is ultimately and appropriately bleak and morally curious. Poirot, the avenging angel, allows death to be misattributed and for a killer to find happiness with someone they attempted to murder.

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

Peril At End House (1932)

PLOT: Who could possibly want to kill the eccentric heiress of a ramshackle house?

Crikey. On one level this is a jolly murder romp with a neat twist ending. On another level this is a very dark game of cat and mouse - and Poirot's not necessarily the cat.

Superficially bright and sunny this is Poirot and Hastings on a seaside holiday taking strolls and, in between cups of tea, trying to save young Nick Buckley from some implausible plots against her life.

Actually, this is a complicated look at the Bright Young Things. We've seen them before in The Secret of Chimneys deftly mixing crime and cocktails, but this is a darker brew. Young Nick may seem like an untidy saint, but her friends paint a blacker picture of the society she mixes in, all involved in drug-smuggling, debt and dirty weekends.

We get Nick's best friend Freddie, who doesn't really like Nick, is off her head most of the time, and yet has a certain integrity. We get the honest naval officer who is anything but and the successful art dealer whose as fast as his car.

This contrasts with two dull cousins - honest Maggie and the lawyer, neither of whom are painted as particularly exciting, and yet both of them are revealed as having a lot more going on than first appears.

This is a book of fragile appearances and constant impersonation - only Poirot and Hastings are who they appear to be. We even reach a stage where Poirot meets some comedy Australians and remarks that they're a bit too comedy Australian to be believable.

By the end of the book, even Poirot is being impersonated as part of a plot involving chocolates that aren't what they appear to be and we've a corpse that isn't what it appears to be and ... oh my lord.

You won't be surprised to hear that this is a book with a good twist ending that sees Poirot more than justify his reputation - and a good job too, as the book has seen characters assuring Poirot that they've never heard of him. As it turns out, that isn't what it appears to be, either.

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

The Clocks (1963)

PLOT: A mystery man is found dead in room full of clocks.

[ Hello! Thanks to the postal strike it's late this week and we're taking an unscheduled detour from Foreign Travel ]

This is "Late Christie" apparently. Which is another way of saying curiously reflective and even more self-aware. Much discussion is made of the chunk in the middle where Poirot turns literary critic. In this long detour, Poirot announces that he has been reading detective fiction, and offers frank appraisals of some writers (real and semi-disguised).

First up he gives both bullets to his dear friend Ariadne Oliver. "The long arm of coincidence is far too freely employed. And, being young at the time, she was foolish enough to make her detective a Finn..." And on he goes, pointing out that Christie is nothing if not acutely self-aware.

Poirot's lecture also takes in (I'm guessing) Dickson-Carr ("the whole point is always the alibi"), Erle Stanley Gardner ("melodrama stirred up with a stick"), and Chandler ("rye and bourbon")... the exact victims here aren't as important as the points being scored about the genre ("what is a Brownstone mansion - I have never known?"). Finally the Belgian settles happily on Sherlock Holmes.

What seems a pretty siding turns out to have direct bearing on The Clocks, which is a mystery almost about mysteries. In some ways it's a snide sequel to The Seven Dials Mystery. We have another corpse in a room of clocks, we have talk of an organisation of spies, and we even discover Inspector Battle's son investigating (it's never said exactly who "Colin Lamb" is, but it's made fairly clear).

Christie is making the point that time has passed. What was perfect in a Wodehouse-style jape now looks deliberately bizarre. Whereas The Seven Dials mystery was solved in secret corridors, fast cars and high-society, this is uncovered by painstaking and deliberate plodding around a middle-class housing estate. The placidly omniscient Sergeant Battle's son shares his father's quiet efficiency, but his life is more about donkey work.

This is a story of two worlds which Poirot hovers above like a quietly-amused God of a past age. There is the housing estate that Lamb trudges endlessly around with its front rooms and back gardens, and then there is the world of Sheila Webb's typing bureau, a place of boring repetition, of lunch hours and office gossip.

We've met the typing pool before in Christie (notably in They Came To Baghdad), but here this isn't a springboard to espionage, but a very mundane place, where the excitement is a broken heel or a morning off, and their typing work is not secrets, but all too often the the very worst kind of novel ("there is nothing duller than dull pornography").

The housing estate is similarly unglamorous. Gone are the drawing rooms and parlour games of early Christie. Whereas Miss Marple ventured to an estate in The Mirror Crack's From Side To Side, Battle is firmly entrenched in it. But just because it's a lower social class doesn't make the people any less remarkable - we've the magnificent blind teacher, the harrassed mother, the grubby children who say "Coo!", even someone who is referred to as an actual tart. But somewhere among these drab, normal people is a murderer and also a ring of international espionage.

This is a very strange mystery in a very mundane world. It is this contrast that points Poirot to the solution - "the whole thing is melodramatic, fantastic, and completely unreal". Having found this, Poirot unravels this and is even able to solve the murder and the spy case. Although, even here, he can't resist pulling a chain of coincidences out of the bag that even Ariadne Oliver would blench at. You do get to the end of The Clocks charmed and satisfied, but also quietly muttering "So she is her... and she knew this and so when she... and he... and oh...!"

NEXT: Peril At End House

Monday, 19 October 2009

Destination Unknown 1955

PLOT: Missing scientists, plucky suicide, and The Prisoner in Casablanca.

Almost pure plot, Destination Unknown rattles along triumphantly, trumpeting its difference - No drawing rooms! No detectives! No death! I'm betting this sheer unChristie-ness contributes to its rather low reputation, which is thoroughly undeserved.

The first half is the standard world of the Christie thriller - there are mysterious government agents behind closed doors, luxurious hotels and enigmatic passengers on planes. There are the vividly convincing touches of local detail ("You come with me. We have very fine toilet! Oh very fine! Just like the Ritz Hotel.").

But there is a crucial difference - that of a mysterious women in a hotel who assumes a false name, a wife abandoned by her cheating husband and contemplating suicide in luxurious surroundings. Is this an Agatha Christie figure? *shrugs* What's more important is what Hilary Craven offers the plot - she's able to go on a remarkable mission because she's very willing to die.

This mission takes up the second half of the book, and it is The Prisoner. Hilary finds herself in a mysterious society which could be in Africa or behind the Iron Curtain. There are enigmatic leaders, assumed identities, brainwashers, peculiar rules, surveillance, and all the luxurious comforts of home including shops and cinemas... but it is still a prison, a prison designed to extract knowledge from people the world thinks dead. Frankly, blimey. To take against this book because there aren't corpses in the library is short-sighted - all Christie is missing is a giant killer balloon and some repressed homosexuality and we're there.

There's some intriguing political musings going on here. Christie appears to be saying that communist and fascist and anarchist are all easily swayed. Her Number One isn't a Nightmare Soul, but a cunning capitalist spider sucking knowledge from everyone.

In amongst a shower of riches we're presented with a character called Andy Peters, the veiled awkwardness of two people pretending to be married while under observation, and an uneasy disguise which includes "full Negroid lips".

One of the big shames is that the book peters out. In some ways it's been driving towards this ending, and it ticks a lot of boxes - showdown, secrets, arrests etc, but there's also the queasy sense that diplomatic pragmatism has prevailed over justice and that Christie is hurrying back to familiar ground without having fully explored her amazing alternative society.

Monday, 12 October 2009

Appointment with Death (1938)

PLOT: Big bad Momma pops it in Petra.

"What an absurdity of an old tyrant!"

Unusually, this book gets duller AFTER the murder is committed.

Christie creates a great villain in Mrs Boynton, the satanic buddha (is there such a thing?) with her vast bulk, toad face and malevolent control over her family. Which is fine until the old dear is finished off, leaving the book without its most interesting character for the last two thirds.

It's the exact reverse of the "Oh, this is all very well, but when will the detective turn up?" factor. Marvellous as he is, Poirot would have to enter cartwheeling with fireworks clamped between his teeth to be as fascinating as Mrs Boynton.

If ever a Christie villain needed a plan for world domination and a death ray it's Mrs B. As it is, she's a supreme evil forced to content herself with torturing her family. As plucky Sarah King comments, it's a bit pathetic really.

And yet, for the 100 pages where Mrs Boynton holds court, she dominates the book, undermining, shredding and manipulating her offspring, making them so colourless that it's quite hard to remember how many step-children she has. One heartily wishes the old bat dead, and then instantly regrets the impulse when facing 150 pages without her.

As though slightly despairing of the Boynton clan, Christie wheels out a vibrant supporting cast. There's the wonderfully Avengers-ish Dr Sarah King, and the brilliant ghastly Lady Westholme with her "large red rocking horse nostrils" and many other finely written scenes ("Lady Westholme entered the room with the assurance of a transatlantic liner coming into dock" is one of many wonderful Wodehouse-isms). There's also a jumpy spinster and a curiously creepy psychiatrist who talks frankly about intercourse ("One always comes back to sex, does one not?")

We score 1 for Pro-Semitism with the wonderfully repellant tour guide ("misery and iniquities the Jews do to us") who everyone deplores. Poirot's replacement Hastings here is Colonel Carbury, a tidy mind in an untidy body whose tie Poirot is always straightening.

There are two further weaknesses that the book must deal with. The first is that all the characters appear to have read Murder On The Orient Express and use its twist ending as a reason for Poirot to drop the case - this is another crime where the world is better without the victim in it. Poirot counters all this admirably ("I do not approve of murder"), but cannot overcome the setting.

The stage play of Appointment With Death elimintates Poirot and, once the characters reach Petra, they stay there. The book gets to Petra, finishes off Mrs B, and then spends the rest of it in hotel rooms. Poirot does not even get to Petra, which seems unfair. One imagines that, for the inevitable ITV adaptation, David Suchet's contract will stipulate "Poirot arrives in Petra on a donkey".

The book finishes in a remarkable fashion. When Poirot summons people to the "You may have wondered why I called you here" scene, there are several suspects missing. What happens next is either clever or arbitrary, but great use is made of a throwaway mention of a shoe being dropped. As to whether the murderer is a good choice or not, Christie changed her mind for the stage play.

This is a curious book. People who don't read Christie say that she's a bad writer but her plots are good. This book is arguably the reverse - it's full of great characters wonderfully described, but the actual mystery is a slight disappointment.

NEXT: Christie does The Prisoner with Destination Unknown

Monday, 5 October 2009

They Came To Baghdad (1951)

PLOT: Bridget Jones does James Bond in a ripping thriller of intrigue, murder and bad typing.

Victoria Jones is bored of being a very bad typist and on a whim follows a dashing stranger to Iraq where she gets involved in an international conspiracy. Along the way she's kidnapped, betrayed, and goes undercover as an archaeologist with no idea that she alone is the last living key to a global disaster.

Crikey! This is thumpingly good stuff. Just when I was getting tired of murder cocktail with a twist, here comes a charming thriller starring plucky Victoria Jones. By her own admission she's neither intelligent nor smart, but she has bucketloads of pluck and cunning which sees her through a world of lethal murder and secret revolutions admirably.

Victoria is a great heroine and proves how even more fun a Bridget Jones book would be if the guest cast dropped like flies. She's endearingly at home at an ambassador's reception and totally out of place infiltrating a sinister society. It's knuckle-gasp time as she trots into work, surrounded by obviously Villainous Sorts, making a hash of typing up the lethal plans of the Olive Branch.

With her wounded pride and her "Some of the cleverest people can't spell" attitude she sticks out like a sore thumb against the ice cool Catherine who you just know is a bad 'un. After Poirot's perfections, Victoria is a breath of fresh air, armed only with her niceness and determination.

Christie pulls off 1950s Iraq with aplomb and not a whiff of racism, peopling it with vivid locals, arrogant Englishers, and offices with secret doors and hidden agendas. We get the super-super spy Fakir Carmichael who is so noble he'd make Biggles blub, we've the secretly efficient Mr Dakin, we've a wonderfully decent hotelier who doesn't mind that Victoria's broke, and diplomats with a love of good furniture.

It's splendid, splendid stuff - and just when you think it can't get better, comes Victoria's visit to the archaeological dig, and a spot of clear autobiography for Christie as she faithfully explains her Mesopotamian labours and the wonders of Max Mallowan. As charming as the reality was, the real Christie wasn't on the tun from a death cult. But there we are.

NEXT: Big bad momma in Petra - it's Appointment With Death!

Monday, 28 September 2009

Murder On The Orient Express (1934)

PLOT: Seriously - have you not seen the film? Businessman found dead on famous train.

Is this the most famous Christie because of the film? It certainly has to have one of the best plots or plot twists.

But it also works on several other levels. The setting is fabulously exciting, and the snowdrift strands the suspects strangely outside time. The feeling is that the murder has placed everyone beyond the world, and they can't be reached until Poirot has solved the crime. Which makes it sound like Donnie Darko, but still...

Christie has gathered together a wild variety of exciting characters as suspects. Death On The Nile will see an even wilder bunch of travellers, but we've still got everything from Russian Princesses to Indian Colonels, all drawn remarkably vividly and somehow fitted into the world's most famous train.

The book's only problem is THAT film. The film is so memorable, the denoument so striking that, wonderful as the book is, it's a bit of a plod.

Other twist novels repay re-reading just to see what's going on. But this one somehow fails as the enormity of what Christie is doing hangs over it like a flashing neon sign saying "Get On With It!".

It rewards perseverance, however, as the subtle knitting of the wool that's being pulled over Poirot's eyes becomes more apparent - sometimes in lines of dialogue so thunderingly obvious you wish you could slap the Belgian for not solving the crime at once... and sometimes in details so gently subtle that you praise Poirot for picking up on them.

The curiosity of the book is that the solution is so ingenious that it is merely Poirot's presence that solves the crime. It would be impossible otherwise... and yet Poirot himself makes some remarkable leaps.

For instance, in a room full of dummy clues he somehow seizes on the one real one and uses it to unpick the case by a bizarre series of flea-like intellectual leaps. As a reader you do sometimes feel like crying "oh, come on now", such as when he unmasks someone as a secret cook.

Poirot is at his most admirably ludicrous in this book. When asked "Do you belong to the United Nations?" he responds "No, I belong to the world." And so it goes on - this remarkable character carefully concealing any impossible leaps of logic under those brilliantly waxed moustaches.

Poirot again acts almost as an agent of fate. When he turns down Mr Ratchett's offer of work ("I do not like your face"), the millionaire's fate is sealed, just as happens to Linnet in Death On The Nile. The difference between the books is that in Death On The Nile, Poirot wants justice. In this book the detective is simply consumed by solving the puzzle - justice comes second to proving his own brilliance.

It's also a remarkable book in that, complex as it is, Christie is able to withhold the solution until a mere five pages from the end with Poirot's genre-tipping exclamation of "This is extraordinary - They cannot..."

And, once Christie has torn up the rule book, she jumps very neatly on the pieces with a final twist that is as morally satisfying as it is unusual, both for Christie and for the golden age of crime. "I have the honour to retire from the case..." remarks Poirot, as though he senses this is his finest hour.

NEXT: Bridget Jones meets James Bond in They Came To Baghdad.

Monday, 21 September 2009

The Mystery of the Blue Train (1928)

PLOT: Divorse! Diamonds! and Dead Heiresses on the Blue Train to Nice.

James: Written when Christie was going through her divorce, this book suffers as a consequence. It's not that it's bad, but that the events were perhaps preying on her mind.

On the one hand it's a dry run for Murder On The Orient Express and Death On The Nile - glamourous setting, a background of intrigue, a doomed millionaire, suspicious supporting artists... and yet...

At heart it's a tale of two heiresses. There's Ruth Van Alden the tough woman of the world. And then there's Katherine Grey (note the name) - the dull one. Is Christie working out her complicated feelings towards her first husband through these two women?

Poor Ruth has been trapped in a messy marriage with a philandering husband and is trying to escape for a little happiness. Of course, she is one of Christie's doomed heiresses, and she won't trouble us for longer than to convince us of her flaws.

By contrast, Katherine has come into some money and is learning how to live. She's almost impossibly saintly and forms an instant rapport with Poirot over romans policier, as he calls them. She's striving to fit into international society but her heart belongs in... St Mary Mead!

St Mary Mead is another strange trace element in the book, which takes a while to get going and then goes all over the place. We open with mysterious jewel thieves and international assassins. Then we've Ruth's domestic drama, then St Mary Mead and the questions over Katherine's inheritance, then the Blue Train and then it's villas and hotels and police stations and beaches and Moonbase Alpha.

Murder on the Orient Express makes much more use of the single setting of the train and the restrained approach makes it a claustrophobic book, whereas Mystery Of The Blue Train plays out rather like a holiday novel with a bit of crime nibbling at the edges.

Similarly, Death On The Nile does all its set up in the first chapter and dumps us straight in Egypt, compared to Blue Train's hundred pages of set up before "And then the train started."

It's full of loose ends, or ideas that will be made more of in later books. The double-whammy of jewel theft and heiress slaying will reoccur in Death On The Nile, but this time as part of a triple twist.

When we next see St Mary Mead, there will be no mention of inquistive Katherine Grey, nor of her old lady friend Amelia Viner, who has a sharp understanding of human nature and a wicked intelligence... but we can see where this one is going. We'll even see Poirot taking on another female sidekick who is an Agatha Christie figure, but we'll have to wait a while for that.

This is nowhere near as bad a book as Christie makes out. Written at a time when she was having understandable trouble trusting men, it does have a strangely dual approach to them. The main suspect is a no-good toy boy who is undeniably attractive - and he's by no means the worst man in the book.

Poirot himself does all right here (even getting the attentions of a lady). He is on fine form, but sadly missing the narrative skills of Hastings, all pomposity without the leavening that Hastings provieds. He's really just there to solve the mystery. He doesn't feel like a super brain with the wings of fate beating at his shoulder. He's simply the world's greatest detective.

NEXT: Shall we have another go at that? It's Murder On The Orient Express

Monday, 14 September 2009

Death on the Nile (1937)

PLOT: An heiress is slaughtered on a Nile Cruise.

Death on the Nile an obvious place to start a detour onto International Christie, a world of luxurious hotels and outrageous travelling companions.

It's as though Christie has suddenly realised the marvellous variety of people you can meet on holiday (indeed, she even admits so in the preface to the Penguin edition), and that foreign travel allows an easy jamming together of murderers, terrorists and jewel thieves in a way that would seem improbable in St Mary Mead but is somehow excusable on the Nile.

This isn't the first time Christie has tried this, but it's a great place to start as it's just so confident.

We start with a dazzling first chapter that reads like a film script as we leap from scene to vivid scene - hopping across characters and continents, setting everything up like a complicated jigsaw.

When we reach Egypt a sharp reversal has taken place. The loveable heiress has become a man-eater, her bumbling best friend a spiteful stalker. Shcok reversal! What looked to be the story of how Linnet marries the wrong man and covets her best friend's husband has instead become the fallout from Linnet stealing her best friend's man.

This clearly places Linnet as The Victim. She's nice, she's generous, she's clever and witty, but she's made a fatal error in stealing Simon. Curiously, Poirot gives her a chance to confess her sin to him, but she refuses, and so is marked for death.

The first half of the book is full of scenes like this, where Poirot almost begs people not to commit crimes. Whilst priding himself on his deductive brain, he shows himself as keen a student of human nature as Miss Marple. If only they would listen to Poirot then nothing would happen, and this would be the dullest Christie, rather than one of the greatest.

Immense machinery is being wheeled into place that only Poirot can sense. Everyone else is looking at the historical wonders of Egypt, but Poirot is looking at every one of his fellow passengers and thinking Very Carefully about them. Thank god he never flew by RyanAir.

A secretive novelist, a shady lawyer, a communist, a financier, a society boy, a wise traveller... the list of characters rolls out and out, and must eventually be reeled back in at the end of the book in a way that is slightly maddening but also immensely satisfying. This is a book where almost anyone and everyone could have done it... which is an idea for later.

Once the murder actually happens (and it takes forever) a whole whirl of seemingly unconnected events are unleashed, and the buildup pays off greatly. There's an enormous sense of "well, since X and Y can't have done it, then that means..." which is quite thrilling.

An early review demands you read it twice ("Once for enjoyment and once to see how the wheels go round" The Times), and this is as rewarding a read if you know who did it. The first time is about Agatha Christie's intelligence, the second reading flatters the reader's intelligence. The sheer impossibility of the crime plays off against the "no, now hang on, so the maid's actually... ah....".

That said, there is a moment where Poirot is wrong. He claims to have misattributed overhearing the phrase "We've got to go through with it now", but, if you check he hasn't (It's in Chapter 7, and Poirot's recollection is in Chapter 29).

The "funny little man" is seen through the eyes of other characters, as for once, Captain Hastings isn't here. The poor fellow would muddle things too much, and his chances of managing to solve a murder and a terrorist conspiracy are doubtful. But dear old Colonel Race is allowed to show off his intellect, so long as he constantly defers to the cleverness of Poirot, who, in his own quiet way, must defer to the cleverness of Miss Christie.

NEXT: The wheels come off The Adventure Of The Blue Train...

Monday, 7 September 2009

The Mirror Crack'd From Side To Side (1962)

PLOT: A filmstar moves to St Mary Mead, sees something awful, and it's not the lower middle classes.

James: As a Late Marple this is a smart contrast to Murder At The Vicarage, and proves that, whatever telly people think, Christie moved with the times.

St Mary Mead now has a modern housing estate and a supermarket. Jane Marple is forever starting stories about "how this is just like when the parlourmaid..." and then realising that no-one knows what a parlourmaid is.

This isn't a book about nostalgia, it's about the importance of Moving On and Letting Go, both for the murderer and the hero. Miss Marple may be very old, but she's determinedly "with it". Not, perhaps, as with it as Swinging Dame Margaret Rutherford, but quite determined to go and find out about the Housing Development. No sooner has she been introduced than she's off there on a visit and smartly prevents a murder.

Reassured that times may change, but human nature doesn't, Miss Marple sails through the rest of the book. This may be a story where Miss Marple takes a back seat, but she's the best back seat driver in the business.

Dear Dolly Bantree and Inspector Craddock rush around doing her work for her. Where Miss Marple used to rely on spying things from her garden and nipping out for gossip, now she must wait for events to be reported to her over sherry. She barely even meets the principal cast, but that doesn't stop her from Knowing Them.

The story itself (What Did Happen At The Village Fete?) rolls on without her. In another late book we see Miss Marple as Nemesis, and here she is the gentlest kind of Avenging Fury, popping round for a spot of tea and unravelling at the very end when events have played themselves out.

A big joy for the book is Miss Marple's live-in carer, Miss Knight. Jane Marple may have defeated serial killers and gun-wielding lunatics, but she's almost outwitted by dreadfully nice, frightfully mumsy Miss Knight. Against the patronisingly jolly tide of cushion-plumping and forced naps, we see Miss Marple at her most acidly rebellious. Oh, if only she could get away with pinning a murder on Miss Knight...

Miss Marple is as complicated as ever. Like a rural Buddha she dispenses wisdom ("People aren't really foolish. Not in villages"), but she's also not above dismissing best friend Dolly Bantree for extolling the virtues of marriage "with a spinsterish cough". Despite now having a reputation as The Old Lady Who Solves Murders, she's still the same sharp, practical woman, easily sidetracked from solving murder by an interesting dressmaking problem.

Despite being dedicated to Margaret Rutherford, this book is about a film star as unlike Rutherford as possible, the kind of fragile beauty David Niven wrote about. Christie depicts a *very* 60s world of pill-popping filmmakers living on nerves and cocktails. It's a milieu she depicts sharply but without ever going into great detail (Does she ever write about films elsewhere?).

This is also a book with a great number of villains. One doesn't even break the law, another commits a horrific crime accidentally, one goes on a killing spree, and yet another may even get away with murder. Above them all is Miss Marple who sharply and immediately understands each of them - indeed, spends a large amount of the book being oddly cruel about one character who we can only think quite fondly of.

There's some oddness here as well, most of it to try and make a fairly simple mystery more complicated - there's a remarkable coincidence about ex-husbands, abandoned children, some casual racism, and a good deal of talk about interior decorating, but the main thrust of the book is about Miss Jane Marple solving a crime without ever meeting the murderer.

NEXT: All abroad for Death on the Nile

Monday, 31 August 2009

Murder is Easy (1939)

PLOT: Serial killings! Gay satanists! Sinister villagers! A cat called Wonkey Pooh!

James: How brilliantly unlike Murder At The Vicarage this is - and yet, how also fittingly of the same set. This is the Agatha Christie jigsaw at its best, worked out like a diabolically ingenious game of Cluedo. Valiant hero, Brainy heroine, Kind-hearted Lord of the Manor, Apple-cheeked old lady, Sinister Shopkeeper, Busty Barmaid, Smug Doctor, Grieving Widow, etc... all the pieces are wheeled onto the board, but by making a couple of genius twists, it's a whole new board game.

Just one example is the way that the Lord of the Manor here is ghastly new money. We've had a hint of this before in The Seven Dials Mystery, but the idea is marvellously fledged out here, as we see the many ways in which a little bit of social disorder upsets the entire balance of the village.

The village of Wychwood is halfway between St Mary Mead and the Wicker Man. There's gossip and twinkly old maids, but there's also a sinister tinct of black magic hanging over the villagers. We have a barmaid who is dutifully sluttish, widows who mutter of "something evil" afoot... and we even get... A GAY IN THE VILLAGE!!!

Antiques Dealer Mr Ellsworthy has escaped from The League of Gentlemen. With his hands the colour of a rotten corpse, his strange manners, and his fondness for pagan sacrifice, he's an odd beast indeed, not helped by the epithets "artistic", "mincing", "queer", "Miss Nancy" and even (my! sides!) "gay" that are heaped upon him and his purple-shirted colleagues. It's not even worth trying to reclaim him as a "noble" depiction that clearly belongs to his times - just find him genuinely creepy and disturbing, and quail at the "something unpleasant" which is promised for him at the end of the book. No doubt meted out by God-fearing Christians in a dark alley with hob-nail boots.

Loathe him or loathe him, Mr Ellsworthy is a hint that this is Agatha Christie gone wrong, and marvellously so. The social niceties are barely observed here, as our dim-witted but valiant hero blunders around pretending to research death cults, blithely asking if anyone's raised the dead, missing clanging clues, accidentally falling in love and playing abysmal tennis.

Poor Luke Fitzwilliam makes a great contrast to the Vicar narrator of Murder in the Vicarage. With the Vicar we have, if not an intellectual equal to Miss Marple, at least a decent second, but dear Luke is the fellow Captain Hastings cribbed prep off with mixed results. Forever wandering down lonely lanes, placing himself in jeopardy, and missing big clues, it is, you feel, only his sheer goodness that saves him from being yet another casual victim.

For this is the thing about Murder Is Easy - the death toll is Enormous! Up until this point, we've looked at books with pretty much a single murder and a feeling of brooding menace, but all that's bunged out of the window. This is a gleeful death-a-thon, with the sheer volume of victims adding to the macabre humour of it all. One of the many things wrong with Wychwood is that no-one's really noticed - with people dropping on all sides they're too busy muddling through to think that there's anything wrong. Well, that is apart from a couple of valiant sidekicks and reliable old sorts.


Of course, the real delight of Murder Is Easy is that it's an Anti-Marple book. Agatha Christie got on to the joke before anyone else - what if the saintly pensioner sleuth committed all the crimes and drove her colleagues to destruction with a merry laugh, a twinkling eye, and a slightly bitter pot of Lapsang Souchong?

Poor crazy Miss Wayneflete is an utter joy. There's really not that much mystery to this book (beyond wailing "How can you not have spotted?" as the hero trots down yet another lonely lane where "anything could happen"), but there's considerable fun in Miss Wayneflete's delight at realising that she's about to get away with it all again. "I know who did it!" Luke will proclaim, causing Miss Wayneflete to give a nervous start, before he announces that it's definitely the earnest young Doctor/ the Lord of the Manor / that Sinister Gay with a fondness for getting cock all over his hands.

There's even a touching psychology underpinning all this. Miss Wayneflete's madness stems from social humiliation, sexual repression and cruelty to budgies, her fragile psyche kept going only by Victorian Values and regular slayings.

This is a joyous, joyous book, and features a welcome cameo from Inspection Battle.

NEXT: The Mirror Crack'd From Side To Side

Monday, 24 August 2009

Murder At The Vicarage (1930)

PLOT: When Colonel Protheroe is murdered in his study, the Vicar must solve a crime with the help of his neighbour, Jane Marple.

"In St Mary Mead everyone knows your most intimate affairs. There is no detective in England equal to a spinster lady of uncertain age with plenty of time on her hands."

James: Miss Marple is born old. She's a character hard to imagine in her youth (although writer Julian Symons has a young her solving crime with Sherlock Holmes), and she steps straight into The Murder At The Vicarage:

"Miss Marple is a white-haired old lady with a gentle, appealing manner - Miss Wetherby is a mixture of vinegar and gush. Of the two Miss Marple is much the more dangerous."

According to the novel's earnest narrating vicar, St Mary Mead is a village that thrives on humdrum scandal, where a change in shaving foam is a considerable sensation - but by the end of the book, you've realised that the novel's vicious crones and gossiping servants have all been looking in the wrong direction - for St Mary Mead is a village that contains thieves, impostors, vigilantes, tragic heroines, sinister archaeologists and, of course, a murderer. In some ways you suspect that Miss Marple turns to solving crime merely to clear all of this drama out of the way so that she can go back to detecting pregnancies and infidelities.

For St Mary Mead is a village that finds itself in a detective story. This is mentioned several times, beginning in the very first scene "Makes one think of detective stories" announces lovely Griselda, the vicar's wife, revealing that she's addicted to them. Later on we discover that Miss Marple has been hurriedly educating herself with a steady stock of them from the village library (a tiny, lovely detail which makes its way gloriously into the Margaret Rutherford films, where Miss Marple storms the local library demanding the latest Agatha Christie).

This air of Cluedo hangs around the victim, the safely unloved Colonel Protheroe, who barely appears even in flashback. Whereas the matriach of A Mysterious Affair At Styles was one of the book's more vivid characters, the dead Colonel is more a grotesque vacuum. This is entirely approrpriate for Miss Marple - wheares Poirot is most interested in the mechanics of a crime, the spinster is much more of a psychologist, and the book turns on Miss Marple's acute perceptions of the lively characters that inhabit it, as opposed to Styles' rather sketchier figures. Which makes it all the more curious when you realise that, in many ways, these are very similar stories with very similar solutions.

But everything in the world of St Mary Mead is wonderfully vivid. Remember the BBC's marvellous Miss Marple title sequence? A rolling series of pencil sketches of village life, each Arcadian idyll gradually revealing skulduggery, evil, and the odd corpse on the cricket lawn? That's St Mary Mead captured perfectly. Christie's characters are all marvellous - even her thumbnail sketches such as "Miss Hartnell, who is weather-beaten and jolly and much dreaded by the poor". We get the suspiciously scattter-brained deb Lettice Protheroe, an enigmatic professor digging up a barrows, a slatternly secretary, a louche artist, a rude policeman - it's all in there. And, of course, the servants.

Servants and gossip go together in Agatha Christie like electricity and wiring. Whispers and "it's not my place to be listening at doors to be sure" have figured prominently in earlier books, but it is in this book that the details of the crime are carefully knitted together by Christie's supreme gossip spider. The vicar wryly observes "In St Mary Mead the best authority is always somebody else's servant". "Ah, that explains something the maid said," is a typical comment of Inspector Slack's about a murderous threat overheard. It's all very delicately done - the observation of chance details, the genteely unstated suggestion that an alibi is unpicked by a maid during her afternoon delight with the fishermonger's boy.

This is an assured comedy, where murder must muddle along as best as it can. The vicar and his marvellous wife are as worried about the crime as they are about their awful maid. Miss Marple must similarly manage her audacious deductions whilst being genuinely flustered by her awful nephew, serious novelist Mr Raymond West - "Murder is so crude," he remarks, "I take no interest in it", to which Miss Marple can't resist commenting "Raymond and I have been discussing nothing else all through dinner."

What is a serious novelist doing in this book? His poems may have no capital letters and Miss Marple, while genuinely concerned about his comfort and his pipe tobacco, finds time to say "He writes very clever books, I believe, though people are not nearly so unpleasant as he makes out. Clever young men know so little of life..." Can it be that Agatha Christie is having a wry pop at serious fiction?

The people of St Mary Mead are all flawed, to various degrees villainous, but all of them deeply, vividly human - as seen in the remarkable scene where the vicar suddenly preaches a sermon of fire and vengeance, stripping the village bare with his words. The book is full of moments like this - for all the tea and scandal there is a maniac who slashes portraits in attics...

Even Miss Marple is not quite the sainted avenger that repute would have us believe. She is referred to as "dangerous" and "unpopular" a surprising number of times. She's nice - genuinely much warmer than the other retired Furies of the village, but her sheer acuity is what makes her feared. Nothing, absolutely nothing escapes her notice, and the book sees her settling scores and playing cards she has held close to her chest for years. But even her omniscience is something of a front. It's easy to assume that if the vicar handed over the narration to Jane Marple, this would be a brief pamphlet - but this is a book where, for most of its duration, Miss Marple is wrong. It's a detail that's easy to miss, but an important one - for it makes this wonderful woman all the more human.

NEXT: Black magic mayhem in Murder is Easy

Monday, 17 August 2009

The Seven Dials Mystery (1929)

Plot: A man is found dead surrounded by seven alarm clocks. Lady Bundle Brent hunts down a sinister international conspiracy.

James: The sequel to The Secret of Chimneys may not be quite the same perfect trifle, but it's doing some interesting things. There are still the Bright Young Things, but they're in it up to their necks. In the first few pages they start dropping dead, and soon it is plucky Lady Bundle Brent against the world, with only a clutch of wise friends aiding her in her mission to stay one step ahead of the machinations of the Club of Seven Dials.

Yet another deft blend of country house murder mystery with John Buchan and PG Wodehouse, this book finds time to fold in an Arnolod Bennett pop at the ex-bicycle salesman Sir Oswald Coote and his wife who just can't handle the servant problem - unlike the capable Bundle and her father, the foggy Lord Caterham. There's also a bit more restrained racism, such as when one character protests at an alias "Short of being described as Rothschild I don't mind" and there's much puzzling of the ways foreigners spell their names - but there's little to trouble the horses.

This is archly self-aware. Bundle frequently says about the sinister Seven Dials things like "They're the sort of crowd I always imagined... only existed in books" - and, as the book ticks on, the sinister club of masked adventurers seems both more menacing and more bizarre, with the theories about who these sinsister schemers could be seeming more and more improbable.

It all leads to a denouement that is both baffling and remarkable. There's no "You may be wondering why I called you here today" scene - instead, the twist is so good we hear "Get a chair for her! It's all been a bit of a shock, I can see." And then... well, what happens next is quite remarkable.

If we are cheated of the "Damn your meddling, Poirot!" unveiling, there's still a lot of unmasking, as Christie explains to us, tactfully and carefully how thoroughly she has deceived us for a couple of hundred pages. It's not unusual to arrive at the end of a Christie mystery with no idea of the villain(s), to have missed most of the clues, and to be pleasantly thrilled at our own stupidity. But this is rather like the Birmingham ferris wheel that gave a merry narration of the Paris skyline. While Christie does not lie to us, we arrive at the end having been constantly misinformed and misdirected, but having had a thoroughly pleasant journey - and with an odd yearning to go round again just to make sure.

Monday, 10 August 2009

The Secret of Chimneys (1925)

The Plot: Much to the alarm of Lord Caterham, the family seat of Chimneys finds itself the centre of an international conspiracy, with dead royalty, stolen treasure, and master criminals wandering the grounds.

James: This is PG Wodehouse's James Bond novel. Possibly the most rewarding book ever written, this is a giddy whirl of crown princes, foreign locations, hotels, sinister assassins, secret passages, dead foreigners, impassive detectives and blundering young things.

Let's quickly turn to the marvellously dry Superintendent Battle, who is basically Jeeves:

"Detective stories are mostly bunkum... but they amuse people... and they're useful, sometimes."

The entire cast are beautifully depicted - this is a leap on from The Mysterious Affair At Styles. The story has a firm centre with implacable Battle, plucky gal "Bundle" Brent, twinkling adventuress Mrs Revel and international rogue Tony Cade. But beyond that are a wonderfully-depicted collection of baffled gentry and bumbling foreigners.

The Well-To-Do English get both barrels from Christie, especially stuffed shirt politico George Lomax (forever on the point of a fine speech) and his assistant, the lovelorn dimwit Bill Eversleigh. A lot of Christie's casual racism actually emanates from these kind of people - the thoughtless and the pompous, who are conviced the world is off to rack-and-ruin all thanks to Johnny Foreigner. These are lazy, arrogant, wasteful people who deserve everything that's coming to them, yet somehow avoid it.

The true class of the book rests with Lord Caterham and his daughter - the Lord too wisely indolent to care, and dear Bundle crammed full of pluck and stamina and shrewd character judgment.

It is people like this who can take one look at Anthony Cade and decide that, for all his outward roguery, he's got a heart of gold and deserves a stiff cocktail. Cade may be devious and cunning, but he's a good egg - and it's a measure of all the other characters in this book how they react to him. Women adore him, both the wily Battle and the eccentric Baron Lollipop are impressed by him, and there's something about him that turns quiet waiters into cat burglars.

Cade is Christie's first Action Hero. He's full of thoughtful vim in a story where every other man is reserved. Even Supintendent Battle is practically asleep, leaving all leaping to the quasi-comical Surete Expert. Compare Cade's rugged candour to Poirot, and the contrast is remarkable - this is a man with brains and more than two gears.

His only match in the story are the gals, who are all spirited things, quite prepared, if absolutely necessary, to marry a dimwit if it's for the good of their country. But they'd rather do something ripping. Constantly coming over as much smarter than the men, they're all about quick thinking and fast cars and fun. It's what helps makes the book so giddy and clever. How perfectly screaming, as Bundle would say.

In contrast, Inspector Battle is a splendidly self-effacing non-entity. Like Jeeves he is classily classless. He's always there to say just the right thing, or offer a discrete word. His purpose is to save the day, with the minimum of fuss, and then to quietly disappear, the proprieties observed.

The foreigners are mostly there for fun and misdirection. "Talking to foreigners always makes me so thirsty" sighs Lord Caterham at one point. They may carry guns or knives, but they're always the butt of a cheap joke - with their silly names (Mr Hiram Fish), their conversational inelegance, and even their smoky rooms full of sinister plots. It's all good clean fun, and the portraits are pure Wodehouse - grandly-done sketches rather than calculated racism.

This isn't to say that the book gets off without the occasional wince. A comical Baron at one point remarks "Something wrong I knew there would be... He has married a black woman in Africa!" which is regrettable pidgin, to say the least. But, I suppose, it fits with the times.

Christie is actually at her most blistering when she looks at the English lower-middle-classes. Here's her description of daytrippers to Chimneys:

"Bert, the humorist of the party, nudges his girl and says 'Eh! Gladys, they've got two pennyworth of pictures here right enough.' And then they go and look at more pictures and yawn and shuffle their feet and wish it was time to go home."

She's also at her bleakest (understandably) when describing Public Transport: "My belief in the brotherhood of man died the day I arrived in London last week, when I observed people standing in a Tube train resolutely refuse to move up and make room."

As a sentiment it seems to sit oddly in what looks like such a creamy froth of a book - but then, when you step back, you realise this is a dark subversion of Wodehouse: If these upper class fools really are running the country, then who is to save us? That this book manages to offer its own, quietly subversive solution is the real Secret of Chimneys.

And yes - if you're planning on reading just one Christie, please let it be this.

Monday, 3 August 2009

The Big Four (1927)

Plot: Can Hercule Poirot defeat the Big Four, a mysterious conspiracy with a magnetic death ray and plans for global domination? Blimey.

James: Prepostorous, magnificent tosh. The Big Four is the very last Agatha Christie book you'd expect. It's like Poirot written by a 9 year old. And yet it's also the accomplished work of someone well-read in her field.

This came out in 1927, the same year as the final Casebook of Sherlock Holmes. And here Poirot and Hastings are as close to Holmes and Watson as possible. They even have a long-suffering landlady, a fireplace, and I'm fairly convinced Poirot smokes a pipe.

But if this is a Holmes pastische, then it's Professor Moriarty's sinister conspiracy of The Final Problem, as Poirot must try and elude an enemy as cunning as he is, with eyes everywhere. The book is similarly full of fake notes, plausible messengers and impostors.

It's more than a Holmes pastische, though. The global conspirators come from John Buchan's The Power House and the 39 Steps, which also gives us The Destroyer, the charming master of disguise. There are also elements from Fu Man Chu in the unseen Li Chang Yen who operates through sinister East End Tongs. And then there's an air of Guy Barlow's Dr Nikola - Master Criminal, a master of international kidnap and murder, who is always one step ahead of the game, with his eyes on the prize of Tibetan immortality.

But to go from reading the archetypal country house murder of The Mysterious Affair At Styles to this is eye watering. Originally conceived as a short-story collection, stuff just happens. And keeps happening at a relentless pace that leaves poor Hastings dizzy.

Poirot may solve the individual cases but he frequently loses his opponent. The actual cases are a mixed bag - for every fiendish puzzle that relies on a tiny hole in a rug or a partially defrosted leg of lamb, there are stories that are lame coincidence disguised with sheer dash.

Thus we bump into Poirot's villainous old flame, Countess Rossakoff. Before we can even think it's not the smartest move of The Big Four to employ her, luckily, she tries to drop a tree on our heroes (Brilliant described by Poirot as "Hercule Poirot might now be crushed out of existence - a terrible calamity for the world. You too, mon ami - though that would not be such a national catastrophe.")

Similarly, when our adventurers try and track down that Master of Disguise, Number Four, aka "The Destroyer", Poirot unmasks him through a classified advert as a failed actor called Claude. We would be reeling from the bathos of all this, were it not that Christie introduces Claude's old girlfriend, the splendidly down-at-heel Flossie Monroe. Christie shows a surprising flair for the tart-with-the-heart-of-gold. Flossie is a great creation ("'Ah, you Frenchmen! Naughty, naughty!' she wagged her finger at him in an excess of archness."), and it is a shame that she's an all-too brief cameo.

The rest of the book is given over to dazzling events in dizzying locations. Poor Hastings gets to yell "My god! You fiend! Not that!" to sinister foreigners, is gassed several times, tied up frequently, bamboozled, dangled over rivers and generally treated like Penelope Pitstop. It is a sad oversight that he is not fastened to a railway track.

Oddly for such an unreal book, his relationship to Poirot is at its most fond. Poirot is as dismissive and manipulative as ever of his friend's mental powers, but deeply fond of him. "I hope they will not succeed in masssacring Hastings," he muses, "That would annoy me greatly."

You have to wonder why a genius would go around with such a bumbler. I guess it's similar to the way that pretty people have a plain friend, just to make sure they stand out.

But the relationship also allows the book's greatest coup - that of the introduction of the marvellously named Achille Poirot. Yes, Poirot has a twin brother. As he admits archly, all detectives have a cleverer brother.

And it is to Achille that the last third of the book belongs. With Hercule dead, we find ourselves in a rerun of The Empty House, only with Mycroft Holmes making a reluctant appearance. Of course, Achille turns out to be a trick. Then he doesn't. Then he does again, in a switch of events that's breathless and cunning but also a bit of a cheat. Poor Hastings.

The resolution is disappointing. Naturally it takes place in the villains' secret lair, but after all of the build up, it is rather brief, no matter how explosive.

But overall, this is is a thrilling book, not short on incident, although oddly impersonal. It's refreshing, if disconcerting, to see Poirot so out of his normal setting. As the dastardly Number Four comments at one point: "Return to your former avocations, and solve the problems of London society ladies."

Kate:I shall start by ‘fessing up that I remember very little about this one and get it confused with The Seven Dials Mystery (which we’ll be covering in the not too distant future).

But passing over that for a moment….it’s almost impossible not to read Poirot and Hastings as a response to Holmes and Watson, albeit with the dashing man of action transformed into a neat little man with tisanes and moustache wax. The travel sick Poirot is ill-equipped for the sort of jet-setting international thrillers demand, and it does seem like a strange segue for the Christie of country house mysteries and village gossip. But she’d obviously done her research among the works of other crime writers; this definitely has the air of Conan Doyle about it and later short story collection “Partners in Crime” sees Tommy and Tuppence very much playing detectives in a series of affectionate parodies of other authors.

“The Big Four” has a sheer adventurous bonkerness that isn’t common in Christie; Poirot’s known for solving mysteries sitting in his chair, moustaches in perfect order, but in this story he’s a much more active detective. Trains and escapes from them feature heavily, in a very Sherlockian fashion, with Poirot and Hastings leaping off a train in the opening chapter and using the emergency cord to sneak away in “Radium Thieves”.

There’s a definite note of melodrama; any novel in which Hastings can describe the villain (with no irony whatsoever) as “Mad – mad - with the madness of genius!” is clearly to be taken with a pinch of salt. Christie uses the clich├ęs of mystery fiction with great verve, from a dying victim leaving a clue to their killer, to a curare blowpipe and transparent disguises. Hastings as a proxy for the slow-witted reader is a common theme in the series, and here he is repeatedly lead right up the garden path by Poirot, on the excuse that he has “a nature so beautiful and so honest….unless you are yourself deceived, impossible for you to deceive others!”.

When the book was written in 1927, genuine international conspiracies and espionage must have been a fairly recent memory, but these sinister Chinamen and mysterious Russians inhabit a completely different fictional universe. Either Christie or her readers must have been quite fond of the colourful Countess Rossakoff, since she reappears in “Poirot’s Early Cases” and “The Seven Labours of Hercules”, and is the closest eternal bachelor Poirot ever comes to romance.

The book’s origins as a short story collection are evident in the sheer number of different problems and villains presented to us, and the speed at which they’re dealt with. “Radium Thieves” is a prime example of this, wit Poirot detecting a dastardly plot, the real plot behind the fake plot, being captured, discovering the villain and moving swiftly on – all within 40 pages. In the bigger picture of saving the world from A Fate Worse Than Death, none of this seems to achieve much, but it’s certainly a fun way to pass the time.

Next book: following the theme of international intrigue, I offer you The Secret Of Chimneys (almost certainly to be followed by The Seven Dials Mystery.