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