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.