Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Postern of Fate (1973)

Plot: There's a plot?

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

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

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

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

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

There is mention of the Common Market.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 17 December 2010

Partners In Crime (1929)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 27 November 2010

Parker Pyne Investigates (1934)

Plot: Are you happy? If not consult Mr Parker Pyne.

This delightful collection of short stories goes off the deep end early and alters direction in mid-air. Parker Pyne is a detective who simple tries to make people happier. In his first story he saves a marriage by providing a neglected wife with a dashing gigolo. And that's it.

In the second story, it's a bored military man who finds excitement, thanks to a damsel in distress and the work of novelist Ariadne Oliver, who Mr Pyne occasionally employs to conjure up exciting fantasies.

These first two stories contain an almost identical set-up, and roll out with all the twists of a neatly ironed shirt... 

By story three, Christie seems to have grown bored already. It's like she can sense that there's little drama here (certainly compared to how The Labours of Hercules treats a similar idea of a neglected wife and a philandering husband). So what does she do? First she plays a trick on Mr Pyne, and then she sends him on holiday. His last case before he does this contains the remarkable homily:

“What is truth? It is a fundamental axion of married life that you must lie to a woman.”

Before this can get any worse, thankfully Mr Pyne rocks up in the Middle East, site of Agatha Christie's best stories. He's in a world or ruins, natives and archaeology. We find him quoting (a forgotten poet) Flecker's lines about the “Postern of Fate” and one story is even called “Death On The Nile”. If, at this point, you can spot the difference between him and Hercule Poirot, you're doing quite well. These are broadly interchangeable adventures – Christie has abandonded her earlier idea of making people happy and instead headed off for more rewarding and more familiar ground.

That doesn't make the collection bad, by any means – but the atmospheric travel romps of the second half are just much more rewarding than the first half which presents Christie with a rigid formula which she has to work hard to shake herself free of. 

Saturday, 20 November 2010

Dumb Witness (1937)

Plot: The curious case of the dog in the night.

Very much a companion piece to After The Funeral, this is a story that also features a downtrodden companion, an inheritance, and a clutch of ill-deserving relatives. However, it unwinds in a very different way.

One major difference is that Hastings is narrating, and shows a remarkable degree of psychological insight this time out.... although that's because he finally meets his intellectual equal, a small dog who he spends ages describing while Poirot stamps around pointing at enormous clues which Hastings utterly misses cos he's too busy playing with his new friend.

There is even a marvellous scene where Poirot is forced to demonstrate a clue to Hastings, then make it out of cardboard, and cut it out and demonstrate it to his hapless companion... all without illumination. We have Poirot jumping up and down, pretty much shouting out what's going on, and Hastings as oblivious as a sheep. Just this once, Christie lets us in early.

At around about you may well work out what is really going on – allowing a nice little cushion of smugness as the ending of the book plays out. Admittedly this gets immediately and creepily unsettled before going back to run along the lines we originally suspected – this is, after all, a book with a very very creepy husband and a very nervy wife...

The real shame of this book is that the victim has to die. Emily Arundell is a lovely character, full of life and fun and the book is all the poorer without her – but we do get her friend, the lovely Miss Peabody, who sees right through Hercule Poirot.

The Arundell family themselves are stupid, venal and worthless. Pretty Theresa is unimpressed by Poirot (lamenting that she doesn't have her autograph book on her), Charles just wants some money, and the plain daughter simply laments that she doesn't have the looks or the money or her relatives. Faced with such lamentable people, Poirot is at his least scrupulous, planting misinformation, listening at doors and playing the warring family off against each other. It's a delight that Hastings (when he notices) doesn't approve of any of this. But it shows that, just occasionally, Poirot doesn't care.

Despite the twee wrappings (does a dog know who did a murder? awww) the story contains a remarkable assortment of clues, all of which turn out to be relevant (pay attention to the mad spiritualist sisters who witness a glowing cloud of ectoplasm). It is a story that ties itself up neatly – any injustices are evened out slightly, and there is even a marriage of sorts, as Hastings finds true love at last:

“Woof,” said Bob with energetic assent.

Sunday, 14 November 2010

After the Funeral (1953)

Plot: Nun of it's what it seems.

Look out! There's mis-direction thundering through this book. The identity of the killer is boldly given away very early by a stray comment about the pleasing nature of a bath bun. But even so, this is just an audacious hint that what seems to be a country-house murder is Anything But.

Yet more proof that Christie changes with the times is that she's prepared to write a book with such a novel twist on The Butler Did It. You think (for quite a while) that this is all about the murder of a man with a legacy and his frankly awful family – but this is, instead, not about these people at all. To say the family are entirely red herrings is slightly unfair, but they are mostly ghastly window dressing for a very subtle crime.

When the unveiling happens, Christie's prose is at its best with the killer's description of their goals in life:
“One can occasionally get quite nice china – export rejects – not that awful white utility stuff.... Oak tables and little basket charis with striped red and white cushions.”

This is followed by the gasp “I've never imagined a lady-like murderer”. It's the “-like” that's deadly. The killer even shouts “Of course, one never looks much at...”. This isn't quite a middle-class mystery, but Christie shows that she's quite prepared to get inside the heads of people you assume she wouldn't have much time for.

In some ways the killer is a redrawing of Dora Bunner from A Murder Is Announced – someone with reduced circumstances but no poverty of ambition. And, frankly, one of the messages about this book is that good money is wasted on bad people.

Christie has visited this idea in books like A Pocketful Of Rye and Taken At The Flood – the idea of a cursed house full of vile people gradually reaching a kind of grace, but in this book almost the entire cast are rotten – beyond one smart daughter with a good head for business (but no head for men).

If Christie's having fun with her formula, she's also having fun with Poirot, who enters the mystery with an elaborate disguise, only to unveil himself equally elaborately - “Hercule Poirot at your service.”. The reaction is priceless:
“His name seemed to mean nothing at all to them.”

This is a book in which the perpetually retired Poirot has finally passed from fame. It's telling that he's more plausible disguised as a eurocrat than as a detective. We also get a return of Mr Goby, the investigator who only makes eye contact with inanimate objects and who uses nuns as enquiry agents... which leads us to the book's best red-herring, the Nuns! They flit sinisterly through the book, crow-like portents of doom, but in the end, do they have any relevance? Or are they simply more clutter to distract us all from a really audaciously disguised mystery?

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Black Coffee

Plot: Can you pastische Christie? What happens when you novelise a stageplay of hers...

And we're back with a journey into different territory with Black Coffee - a faithful adaptation of Christie's Poirot play by Charles Osborne.

Where this suceeds briliantly is that is delivers exactly what you think a Christie novel is - remote country house, locked room, murder by poison, brilliant solution by detective etc etc. It's an archetype, and it's strange to realise with a bump "oh, no, hang on, it's nothing of the sort - the other novels aren't like this".

So, Black Coffee delivers what you expect of Christie rather than what she so often dishes up. There are plenty of stock characters - brilliant scientist, noble secretary, troubled son, foreign wife, dodgy visiting stranger, bright young gal etc etc, but it is marvellous to see them gathered together literally all in the same place.

It's hard to review this, as such. Charles Osborne makes himself almost invisible as an author - allowing himself the occasional bit of scene setting (including baldly setting the story in 1934 and directly after The blessed Big Four). The dialogue feels lifted straight from the play, along with a lot of stage directions, and as such there are no real alarm bells ringing. It's a genuinely self-effacing bit of work.

I suppose the big annoyance is that Christie lifts a key plot point from Mysterious Affair At Styles and plonks it down at the end of Black Coffee. As soon as you see the offending object in the drawing of the room you think "oh no", and so it proves.

What is blissful about this as a novel is that it doesn't outstay its welcome - it contains just enough plot for its 200 pages and rattles through as a couple of hours reading, with plenty of jokes and joys.

Osborne really succeeds in conjuring up the feeling of this being a performed stage play - which is odd. I think it's the lifted stage directions that do it, but you get a real feeling less of this being a real drawing room and more that this is a set with actors dotted around it, making exits and dramatic entrances.

There are various other joys. There's more of Christie's hospital dispensing experience trotted out for our entertainment, and Poirot is a great character here - slightly enhanced for the stage and so ringing out clearly through the book. I think it's nice that there's at least one book in the canon that proudly does what you expect it to - although it's interesting that, when asked about his desire to star as Poirot on the stage, Suchet has indicated that he'd rather not be in Black Coffee.

Saturday, 4 September 2010

A Murder Is Announced (1950)

Plot: A murder is announced... please accept this, friends, the only intimation.

This is a book about spinsters. It's a subject tackled head-on in other crime of the period, such as Dorothy L Sayers' Gaudy Night, with its sexual frustration and violence, but this is a different take entirely.

Is it a lesser work than Gaudy Night? Well, it's certainly a different one. The book also suffers from "Gone With The Wind"'s problem of there being a much-more-celebrated adaptation in existence. When you're up against a telly version by Alan Plater, you're in trouble. Maybe it's my personal prejudice - but the book is a disappointment in a way that The Body In The Library is a triumph. But this is all unfair - comparing A Murder Is Announced to an amazing television version and to Gaudy Night is, at the end of the day, merely comparing grapes, plums and bananas.

Let's start with the central concept, which is brilliant - another village trope, that of the local paper, and how regional gossip is more important than national events - bookends the work. We start off with dismissive mention of twenty-three dead in food-poisoning at a hotel, which is mere trivia compared to local adverts for false teeth and dachshunds.

Dropped into all this, like the hand of fate, is the announcement that a murder will take place. It's almost supernaturally creepy, and also, like The Body In The Library, a notion that's too fictional to be real, and yet it is. This bizarreness is both celebrated and played on - of course the doomed Rudi Scherz shouts "Stick em up", naturally everyone assumes he's holding a gun, and obviously the lights go out before the murder happens.

Now, all that aside, and girding our spoiler-loins, let's look at the women.

This is a story about single women. The book features only one happy marriage - that of Bunch to the Vicar. They're a loving couple (almost carbon copies of Vicar+Wife in St Mary Mead). Bunch even has the splendidly named Tiglath Pileser for a cat. The vicar and his wife are all that is good and harmonious about Chipping Cleghorn - and naturally aren't even suspected for a second.

We also get Belle Goedler, the dying widow in the remote Highlands. She's had a brilliant life and knows the fulfilment of being married, and as such can judge the quiet sadness of Letitia Blacklock.

And that's it for wedded bliss.

Colonel and Mrs Easterbrook harbour a dreadful secret that's never uncovered - she's much younger than him and is flustered about her alibi, but what her flaw is is never revealed.

Similarly, Phillipa Haymes is married - but her husband is an army deserter who dies unmourned in a hospital as a tramp. She lives a life of torment and sadness, never able to tell her son the truth, nor to move on. As such she's seen as beautiful, but frozen like a statue, waiting to thaw upon his death.

The central spinsters of the novel of Lotty and Letty Blackwood - only one of whom actually appears. Both kind, one amoral - both driven. Letitia is a financial and business genius who allies herself to the Goedlers, a genuinely good woman who lives for finance and who never interests herself in men. She's the happy spinster in the book - one who never realises that she is incomplete.

By contrast, the disfigured Charlotte drives herself indoors, a once-pretty woman who cannot bear the world to see her. Her crippled self-confidence curdles her soul. Her mainstay is her belief in her father, a doctor who refuses her the simple operation that will cure her deformity. Lotty becomes a truly pathetic figure - her betrayed worhsip of her father causing an odd sort of arrested development. We learn that her dreams are of "travel, to have a house and beautiful grounds - to have clothes and jewels and go to plays and concerts, to gratify every whim - it was all a kind of fairy tale". Charlotte's fairly tale world has no mention of an adult relationship with a man. Instead she moves in her childhood friend Bunny and they recreate the magic of the old days, spending idyllic afternoons blackberrying. Charlotte remains childish - giving Bunny a child's birthday party send off. Even the devising of the "Murder Is Announced" plot is prankish and immature.

Bunny is Charlotte's accomplice in setting up this fairytale world. It is she who colludes in Charlotte's impersonation and fraud, but to her it is all so simple and plainly just. Bunny is a child grown old without having grown up - a simple person who finds being old confusing and saddening. Bunny gets a remarkable speech to Miss Marple in the coffee shop about the poverty she was reduced to:

"Darning one's clothes and hoping it won't show. And applying for jobs and always being told you're too old. And then perhaps getting a job and after all one isn't strong enough. One faints. And you're back again. It's the rent - always the rent - that's got to be paid. Otherwise you're out in the street. And in these days it leaves so little over. One's old age pension doesn't go far."

Unworldly Bunny is actually the most worldly character in the book, broken by the true sadness of the world and hiding it all under fluff and good nature. It's a dramatic portrait of a sadly shabby life, aware of her own stupidity and yet unable to alter it and just bumbling on and living in her make-believe fairy castle with her childhood friend.

You'll have gathered by now that I'm banging on about this as a novel of character. Which brings us to remarkble Murgatroyd and Hinch. Two practical old ladies sharing a farmstead. Agatha Christie does lesbians of a certain age, but without trumpet or fanfare. Instead they're both marvellous. They're reflections of Charlotte and Bunny. Whereas the former live a fantasy life, Murgatroyd and Hinch are solidly practical. Hinch is the muddy-booted schemer, slaughtering pigs, running a black market ring, all grit and colourful language ("I'm standing against the mantelpiece with my tongue hanging out for a drink"), while Murgatroyd is Bunny ("Oh, dear, Hinch, you know what a muddle I get into!").

The slaughter of Murgatroyd is the most horrific murder in Christie (am I still biased by watching Joan Sims die the part on telly?), no more dreadful for Hinch's reaction. She is described as inconsolable:

"Nobody offered Miss Hinchcliffe sympathy or mentioned Miss Murgatroyd's death. The ravaged face of the tall vigorous woman told its own tale, and would have made any expression of sympathy an impertinence."

Hinch is a remarkable and a brilliant character. She feels real. Her reaction when she finds her friend's body is stunning - she's horrified, but still practical, insisting on telling Miss Marple what they'd been doing while they wait for the police to turn up. No hysterics, but also no doubt of the awful grief going on. She also gets the best line in the book when she turns up for the denouncement:

"[Inspector Craddock] said I needn't come unless I liked," said Miss Hinchcliffe. "But I do like."

I genuinely and utterly love Hinch. She's my second favourite "spinster" in the book.

My favourite spinster, naturally, is Miss Marple, even though she takes a subtle backseat. It's quite clear what she's there for, as soon as Sir Henry Clithering realises she's in town ("Ye Gods and Little Fishes, can it be...? My own particular, one and only, four starred Pussy. The super Pussy of all old Pussies.").  Marple is slower and quieter in this book (you get the feeling it's about two-thirds of the way through before she KNOWS who did it). I'm deducting points from the Pan edition for the back cover that reprints Miss Marple's end-of-book list of clues ("Lamp. Violets. Where is bottle of aspirin? Delicious Death. Maing enquiries. Severe affliction bravely borne. Iodine. Pearls. Letty. Berne. Old Age Pension.") - but it does at least prove the old dear is sharp as ever. She has her list of clues, but she's not quick enough to prevent a murder turning into a killing spree.

In the meantime she manages a lot of knitting, some cunning observations, and some slighting comments about the local cakes at the coffee shop. But it is Miss Marple who knows everyone - there's a neat section of village parallels and then a remarkable final chapter where she explains the psychology of the murderer in a way that's as sympathetic as it is heartbreaking ("She was quite a kindly woman... It's what's in yourself that makes you happy or unhappy.")

Finally, there's the servant problem. In a book stuffed full of remarkable characters there's Mitzi "the Mittel European", a character who makes it through to the end of the book surprisingly unscathed. She's outlandish and terrible and yet the sheer outpouring of her makes her very believable. Even the murderer finds her exhausting, and it's part of the book's astute eye on the 1950s servant problem and the agonies of rationing that the murderer has to placate Mitzi in the middle of at least three lethal plots as good cooks are just so hard to find.

Anyway, after a book all about miserable single women and unconventional relationships, we end with a wedding. Remarkably it's between two characters who, according to Miss Marple's judgment really shouldn't go anywhere near each other. What makes their union most peculiar is that they appear to get married in between pages - we assume that Chapter 22 follows almost immediately after the unveling of the murderer in Chapter 21, but then there's sudden talk of wedding presents. Is it really a happy ending, or simply a conventional one?

Wednesday, 4 August 2010

The Body in the Library (1942)

Plot: "Ma'am, there's a body in the library!"

Familiarity can breed contempt. Or a mild boredom. I've put off reading The Body In The Library for just that reason - after all, if you've seen the brilliant BBC version several times, and sat squirming in horrified delight through the ITV travesty... well, why need you bother reading the wretched book? It can't better the opening of the BBC wonder - "There's a body in the library!" can it?

Oh yes it bloody can. The sheer delight of The Body In The Library is that it contains everything that The Murder On The Links was missing. The latter was a beautifully crafted machine of a plot - but The Body In The Library is just as wonderful a bit of engineering, only wrapped in a knitted fluffy pink cover.

The sublime opening line is "Mrs Bantry was dreaming. Her sweet peas had just taken a First at the flower show." We are straight back in St Mary Mead with all its domestic horrors and spinsters sniping across the privet. There are glorious cameos from The Murder At The Vicarage. Gossiping Miss Hartnell is back:

"'His poor wife,' Miss Hartnell tried to disguise her deep and ardent pleasure."

Also returning is Griselda the vicar's wife in a charming cameo rolling around on a rug with her toddler.

We also get returns from the cast of The Thirteen Problems - the Bantrys and Sir Henry Clithering.  Dolly Bantry rocks, as ever, summing up her reaction to her husband flirting with "pretty girls who come to tennis":

"There's no harm in it. And why shouldn't he? After all... I've got the garden."

But it is Miss Marple who dominates this book, and does so brilliantly, stealing scenes she's not even in. Every moment is perfectly, wonderfully described, such as when the telephone rings too early in the morning:

"So well ordered was her prim spinster's life that unforseen telephone calls were a source of vivid conjecture."

Which leads us to Dolly's breathlessly immortal:

"We've just found a body in the library."

It's tempting to just type out whole chunks of the book. It's as delightful as a menacing trifle. It'd be nice to say "Only Agatha Christie and Jane Austen really understood the true nature of the English Village" but... oh, sod it, let's.

There are so many glorious, incidental details. For instance Basil Blake's country cottage:

"A hideous shell of sham Tudor, was known to the postal authorities, and to William Booker, builder, as 'Chatsworth'; to Basil and his friends as 'The Period Place', and to the village of St Mary Mead at large as 'Mr Booker's new house'."

What's so lovely about this sentence is how much is tells us about the dry practicality of St Mary Mead, the modern wit of Basil Blake's set, and even the pretensions of poor William Booker, builder - a character who is not even in the book. But this is Christie at her absolute best, both as a plotter and a stylist. The sheer wonder of Miss Hartnell's envious protest at Miss Marple having gone up to view the body before breakfast - "Well, I mean, I think that is carrying things too far."

That's not to say the book is an out-and-out comedy - far from it. The humour is always shrewd and there are moments of genuine awkwardness, such as when the crippled millionaire Jefferson wakes up, both literally and from his infatuation with Ruby Keene - "'Margaret...' It was the name of his dead wife..."

There's a similarly delicate hand at work in the handling of the murder of the girl guide Pamela Reeves. Child murders are quite rare in Christie, and this compares interestingly with the comparatively callous description of the dispatch of the victim in Dead Man's Folly.

The humane shrewdness continues in Sir Henry's perfect introduction of Miss Marple:

"Downstairs in the lounge, by the third pillar from the left, there sits an old lady with a sweet, placid, spinsterish face, and a mind that has plumbed the depths of human iniquity and taken it as all in the day's work. Her name's Miss Marple."

Miss Marple is at her shrewdest in this book, dropping apposite stories about boys hiding frogs in clocks, and making wonderful comparisons to various maids, as when she reveals that her "little maid Janet" always relaxed too soon after telling a lie: "She'd explain quite convincingly that the mice had eaten the end of a cake and give herself away by smirking as she left the room."

This comes at the end of the scene where Miss Marple has interviewed girl guides and has decided which one has more to say. Wonderfully:

"Miss Marple spoke crisply.
'I'd like to speak to Florence Small.'"

Oh lawks, I have typed out most of this book, but it is a glorious thing. Miss Marple reduces everyone in the book to the "General Common Denominator", describing Jefferson's infatuation with Ruby Keene through village life, explaining how when Mr Harbottle's sister left him for to nurse a relative, she returned to find him infatuated with the maid and herself banished to "live most uncomfortably in rooms in Eastbourne" because "the old man found it much pleasanter to have a young, cheerful girl telling him how clever and amusing he was than to have his sister continually pointing out his faults to him". Isn't that just brilliant? In about three paragraphs we get a rattling good parable that also tells the whole story of three people utterly incidental to the story.

Miss Marple is at her absolute sharpest. There's the wonderful showdown with Basil Blake and his lover Miss Dinah Hill where they're both absolutely vile to her and she simply sits there and strips away their wicked veneer to reveal how deeply lovingly conventional they are, winning them both over in a couple of lines. It's an amazing scene, and gets followed by Miss Marple's remarkable revelation of the real Basil when she says how he rescued four people and a dog from a burning building in an act of stunning heroism.

A lot of this is sheer, glorious window dressing. A delight in knowing the plot from the television is realising that Miss Marple has solved it very early on. By halfway through she has announced "There was a very careful plan made. What happened was that the plan went wrong". A few pages later she announces of a vital clue "It had been worrying me, you know - how to account for her nails." There's still nearly a hundred pages to go, but this isn't annoying. Miss Marple isn't smug - we're enjoying the journey and we know she'll tell us in her own time. She even later informs Dolly that she knows everything but won't tell Dolly because she knows her too well. "It's no good, dear."

Although Miss Marple dominates the book, other characters sing. Colonel Bantry's social exclusion is marvellously described:

"Did you go to dinner with the Duffs on Thursday?"
"Oh, that! It was put off. Their cook was ill."
"Stupid people," said Mrs Bantry... She sat down by the desk and absent-mindedly picked up a pair of gardening scissors. With them she cut off the fingers, one by one, of her second glove.
"What are you doing, Dolly?"
"Feeling destructive,"

There's also the exceedingly painful description of Jefferson finding a picture of a young man in Ruby Keene's handbag, which is Agatha Christie's equivalent of Desdemona's handkerchief: "Now then Kitten, now then. You know who it is right enough."

Even a cameo such as the dancer Raymond Starr ("one of the Devonshire Starrs" it is claimed) gets the following remarkable speech about why he left work at a hotel in the Riviera, after overhearing an old Colonel saying:

"Where's the gigolo? I want to get hold of the gigolo. My wife and daughter want to dance, yer know. Where is the feller? What does he sting yer for? It's the gigolo I want."

Raymond even gets the last line of the book to himself when, dreams crushed he must carry on:

"Oh well, my luck's out. Dance, dance, little gentleman!"

There's also the peculiarly lovely touch of the nine year-old detective who announces proudly "I've got autographs from Dorothy Sayers and Agatha Christie" - make of that what you will. This is an author who is on top of her game and knows it - but is also accidentally setting up the cute self-awareness of the Margaret Rutherford films. Let's just for a second imagine the glory of Margaret Rutherford and Mr Stringer solving the case of The Body In The Library. Oh go on - ballroom dancing, tennis, girl guides and film stars and even more ballroom dancing. The frocks alone would make you faint.

Seriously, this is utterly, utterly brilliant.

Friday, 30 July 2010

Murder on the Links (1923)

Plot: Well, there's a murder. On some links.

What happens when Agatha Christie isn't as famously readable as normal? For some reason Murder On The Links bounced off my eyes tiresomely and I grew cross with myself for just not getting it. Well, for the first 150 pages or so.

It's an odd book - lacking the fluid style of "golden age" Christie, the sheer machine code brilliance of "The Mysterious Affair At Styles", or even the bonkers madness of "The Big Four", it just happens. Perfectly competently etc etc, but just so hard to get into.

The failing is more with me than with Christie - by now I'm looking for things which aren't yet there. Poirot is a stiff cadaver, Hastings an unsubtle booby, and although the murder happens swiftly, the mechanics of the investigation grind mercilessly on as one drab character after another is wheeled creakingly to the stage to give a statement. It's all so lifeless and tepid.

Poirot's stilted characterisation isn't helped by the introduction of Giraud, an even more outlandishly eccentric Gallic detective. Each is just a heap of annoying mannerisms, both treat Hastings with amused scorn, and neither makes the other feel real and...

And then, once you're over the first 150 pages, the fireworks go off.

Trying to put my finger on it, I'd risk saying that the book improves as soon as Christie gets her big cheat out of the way. Poirot rushes off to Paris and comes back with a bit of information the reader could not have possibly known, deduced or guessed. As soon as Poirot slaps this down on the table, the book changes gear and all sorts of intercontinental madness is rolled out at great pace, the enormous plot engine churning furiously away.

Suddenly the book becomes ripping fun. We meet twin acrobats! We hurtle between France and England and France again! We meet new characters! We dramatically re-interpret old ones! There are wigs and disguises, and remarkable, remarkable twists. It's as though Christie has finally pushed the book up a wearisome slope and is now enjoying freewheeling downhill.

All sorts of things that seemed lumpen suddenly have a purpose, and, amid all the fireworks, there's a lot of sheer misdirection. If you catch your breath, the direction from which the murderer comes is obvious, but you don't pause, not even for a second as you're just too excited. Christie keeps pulling back the stage, announcing twist after giddy twist - many of them exquisitely sign-posted.

It's like the welcome return of an old friend. Much of Murder On The Links reads like the kind of contemporary fiction Christie often spoofs - intriguing mystery, eccentric detective, not much else... but those last hundred pages she's firmly back in the driving seat. The glory of the end of the book is tremendous - Poirot is almost godlike in his cunning, Hastings is at his best, both as a character and biased narrator, and the whole thing is fluidly oiled.

Which makes Not Getting On with the opening even more annoying. It feels like the fault is squarely mine rather than Christie's. But, as this is the internet, the home of snide carping, I'll instead say that it is the sign of a mastercrafstman finding their true voice in midflight. There we go - that's a thunderingly mixed metaphor. Good.

Monday, 19 July 2010

A Caribbean Mystery (1964)

Plot: Miss Marple finds murder in paradise.

Fundamentally Death On The Nile with a dash of Curtain, A Caribbean Mystery is a surprisingly subtle book that repeat At Bertram's Hotel's trick of plonking Miss Marple on a luxury holiday and has her watch the world fall apart. The hotel in the Caribbean Mystery is full of the same old types as the one in The Body In The Library -  sourpuss milionaires and unhappy wives and dull majors. But there's a rigid sense of "the fun must carry on" despite the rocketing death toll.

"Major Palgrave's death was already only an incident... Life here was sunshine, sea and social pleasures."

This is the story of a murderer who keeps getting away with crime because no-one wants to notice what they're doing. It's cunning and insidious and a little bit Gaslight.

Miss Marple is at her gossipy best. She's shameless in this story. There's a lovely chapter which begins with one character starting some scandal, and "looking carefully around. Miss Marple drew her chair a little closer". This is a story about the nature of gossip and how it can be used to cover up crime. So, we have a criminal who convinces everyone that Major Palgrave was poisoned by an accidental overdose of his medication - even though we later learn that Major Palgrave took no medication. The criminal does this several times, suggesting, insinuating and passing on misinformation - covering up tracks, laying false scents and burying the past. Miss Marple's challenge, fittingly, is to get to the truth of each misdirection, finding the source of each lie. It's similar in a way to when Hercule Poirot tackles the Hyrdra in the Labours of Hercules.

There's a lovely moment when the Canon upbraids his sister for gossiping with Miss Marple. "The two women sat in silence. They were rebuked and in deference to their training, they deferred to the criticism of a man. But inwardly they were frustrated, irritated and quite unrepentant." It's easy to dismiss Agatha Christie, but at moments like this she's EM Forster with a body count.

The book also features, remarkably, scenes of the unconventional home life of Victoria the Caribbean Maid. These are not the disaster you might be braced for, but show Christie not only being sensitive, but also doing patois. I KNOW! Thankfully Miss Marple does not at any point rap.

Talking of the old dear, we get a brief snatch of personal history, where Miss Marple remembers meeting a dashing young man at a croquet party. Later, she rejected him when she discovered that "after all, he was dull. Very dull."

The standout relationship is between Miss Marple and the dour Frederick Rafiel, the ailing millionaire. Rafiel is anything but dull, and clearly sees in Miss Marple both a tool and a challenge. It is he who nicknames her Nemesis, setting up the sequel. But the two have a wonderfully warm, sparky relationship, and it has echoes of the glorious pairings of early Christie when she's stick two bright young things in a motor car and let them have fun. But these are two bright old things and they're out for vengeance. The book really does belong to the two of them - and the scene when they say goodbye is genuinely touching.

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

The Hound of Death (1933)

Plot: Exploding nuns! Possessed cats! Ghostly children! It's all in The Hound Of Death!

Just when you think "Agatha Christie, blah blah blah" along comes The Hound of Death, a collection that wouldn't be out of home in Wordsworth's marvellous "Tales of the Supernatural" range. It shows what a diverse range Christie has, sometimes maddeningly so. Here's a few notable appearances:

The Hound of Death
A disappointingly brilliant Lovecraftian tale of horror in which a nun summons up one of the Great Old Ones and a sinister death cult is thwarted. This story is "disappointing" in that it's all over far too quickly - Christie (in bonkers Big Four/Passenger To Frankfurt mode) could easily have pulled off an entire book stuff with nuns, fireballs and supernatural horrors. Instead we get thirty pages almost as a teaser for something utterly, utterly different.

The Red Signal
A murder mystery, but one featuring a seance and the idea of madness as a creeping hidden horror (a feeling that crops up in the scenes with the mad villain of Towards Zero). It's a smart exercise, as the entire story can be read one way as a pitiless tragedy, and then, as soon as the unmasking takes place, I immediately found myself going back to the start and realising how almost every line has a double-meaning. Like Hound Of Death there's a similar feeling of compressed narrative, with a whole John Buchan "hero pursued" narrative squeezed into two pages.

The Fourth Man
A creepy tale of possession and malevolence that includes sinister schoolgirls and even a spirit that deliberately assumes false personalities to make itself even more interesting. Again, blimey. The "finishing school" is a setting that Christie flirts with but never settles on - in The Secret Adversary we think that Tuppence is about to go undercover in one, in At Bertram's Hotel much mention is made of the finishing school, but it's like a big setting that Christie was saving for a rainy day. Again, the telling of this tale is much more complicated, being recollected in fine Victorian Horror fashion by four strangers in a railway carriage.

The Lamp
Kind of like a pocket Henry James in which a living child is seduced by a dead one. Utterly creepy and manages to pull off a tragic and a happy ending.

Another unusual story in which an old lady is killed off by a vicious practical joke involving the voices of the dead possessing a radio. Cleverly, Christie turns the tables on the perpetrator very smartly and absolutely - but the story is also notable for the narrative shift. Once the lovable old woman is disposed of, we spend the next half of the story in the hapless company of her killer as their plans are totally confounded.

Witness For The Prosecution
Not at all supernatural - this is a Christie standard that we'll come back to later in play form, but it's striking how beat-for-beat perfect the story is in this early incarnation.

The Blue Jar
Another shaggy dog story about the supernatural. This is a remarkable Hustle tale, featuring one of Christie's dim young blokes who play golf and are altogether a good sort. The ending is not happy, but funny.

The Strange Case of Sir Arthur Carmichael
Possibly unique as a story about a possessed cat thwarting a murder plot, this is utterly bonkers. The story does suffer from about two characters too many (who are all of you? who did it again?), but manages to pull off something quite remarkably bizarre while keeping a commendably straight face. And it features a cat. I like cats.

The Call of Wings
A businessman realises that money does not bring happiness and gradually ascends to a higher plane. Um. Is it a morality tale, or a story of a haunting? Or is this one just a bit odd?

The Last Seance
A horrible story about a doomed medium and her obsessed client. It's set up for tragedy right from the start. Curiously it takes the supernatural as a given, and builds on it a small story of domestic greed and murder.

A story about poisoning which is prevented through almost supernatural means. It's a very odd tale - quite tricksy to follow, and the literary device of a stranger breaking in from outside looks to be a set-up but turns out to be sheer lucky coincidence (a broken down car is almost never coincidental  in Christie, from Spider's Web through to Three Act Tragedy, The Mysterious Mister Quinn and Why Didn't They Ask Evans).

Anyway, corking collection but really very very odd indeed.

Monday, 5 July 2010

Towards Zero (1944)

Plot: "When murder is the end and not the beginning"

Towards Zero keeps reminding you that it is an experimental book, but it's easy to forget that it is. It says at the start that the murder will happen at the end. Despite this, two murders happen roughly where you'd expect them to in a Christie book - one early on, and then a major one at about the halfway point. Duly, you at this point forget that this is all a sideshow and decide "ah, look at that, there's a definite murder". This is a mistake - when Christie tells you you should be thinking about a major murder to come and you don't, you're asking for trouble.

This is a book about predestination, about people being moved into place - some of them by a mad manipulator, and some of them by fate. It's about celestial clockwork being set in motion - although, that said, there are some odd things about this book:

1) Too many characters
Seriously, if you can remember who everyone is throughout, you're doing well. I've picked this book up to make notes on and am thinking "no, now hang on, is he the colonial adventurer or the noble suicide?". There's an equally baffling splay of girls and boys and it all gets quite confusing - not in the sense of "Who can the murderer be?" so much as "Who are all of you?".

2) Clever stuff
Inspector Battle is back, and is introduced in a brilliant mini-adventure about solving theft at his daughter's school which shows him off as the master of subtle social observation. It seems like a throw-away incident, but Christie reminds you at the end, it is not - it is vitally important to how Battle later works out who has done what.

3) Good lies
The resolution of the mystery relies on a good and clever character (who only now enters the story) guessing the remarkable way in which the murder was committed... and lying about it. This is interesting - especially as Battle knows and approves of the lie.

4) Things to be wary of
The story hinges on a dashing man trying to win back his first wife. Now, given what you know of how Christie looks at dashing ex-husbands, wounded first wives and troublesome second wives, see if you can guess who might be at the heart of the murder mystery?

5) Naming
Yes, it's very funny that a character is called Mr Royde. But there's also someone called Neville Strange. Which, when you get to the end of the book, appears all too clearly peculiar.

6) Something fishy
This book features an actual red herring in the form of a fishy smell which is... a fishy smell. I'm racking my head for a similar scent-related clue occuring in Christie, and I can't think of one, beyond the occasional mention of a whiff of bitter almonds.

7) The dancing boy
The book features Ted Latimer - the second Mrs Strange's best friend. He's curiously written - referred to as "a gigolo" or as something bright and loud and entertaining. But he's not actually gay - his flamboyance merely hides a broken heart. Curiously, it is his bitter observance of the characters of the book as "animals... happy and superior in your roped-off enclosure" that gets to the real nature of the people in the book (and the deceit they're wrapped up in).

8) Fate and clockwork
Interestingly, at the end of the book it's like a purging of a plague - not only is everyone now in the right place to marry the right people, but a curse has been lifted, and for the first time, if you think about it, you can perceive why everyone is in the position that they've been put in. It's quite a subtle trick that goes on - sometimes re-reading of various passages shows you that the reasons for something happening have been quite different to how the people involved have thought them.

Tuesday, 15 June 2010

Third Girl (1966)

Plot: Dolly birds on disco drugs! Poirot sails into the sixties!

Yet more japes with Ariadne Oliver and Hercule Poirot, this time set in the wild whirl of sixties flatshares. Things have come quite a way from the boarding house of Hickory Dickory Dock - we're in a world where three young gals pal up in a flat, swapping chit chat over morning coffee and sharing gossip about their come-downs:

"I was up too late last night," Frances said, "... Basil would make us try some new pills - Emerald Dreams."

Now, don't roll your eyes. Despite all this lunacy it's all very jolly. Christie's always been quite blase about drugs, and despite this odd hiccup, the relentless sang-froid actually suits the feel of the story - which is a bit like that Murray Lachlan Young poem "Everyone's Taking Cocaine".

The constant drugs form an important background, as underneath all this (slight spoilers) is the suspected Gaslighting of poor Norma the Third Girl. Is she really a mentally disturbed murderess? Is she taking refuge in drugs? Is she doing things unconsciously? Or is something stranger happening? The truth is both interesting and complex, and shows Christie experimenting with a whole new type of murder and a whole new type of poisoning.

The trick that Christie is pulling is actually very clever, as she uses the drugs both as a red herring and as a key ingredient, and also uses them to misdirect you away from what's really going on (which has slight echoes of Curtain).

Both Poirot and Ariadne are clearly very old here - in fact, the whole mystery starts because Norma takes one look at Poirot, nearly tells him everything and then says "I'm sorry, but you're too old" and rushes out of the room.

In a way this is the story of the Golden Age of Crime trying to come to terms with the 1960s. Although, what actually happens is that the Golden Age storytelling tames the 60s. Gradually Christie stirs some familiar ingredients into the new age - so we get a country house, a mysterious old colonel writing his memoirs, a sinister foreign nurse, and a ruggedly heroic doctor type who is planning on emigrating to the colonies. Elements that Christie cannot control she cunningly unleashes Poirot on, so we see him running an espionage network, and even arranging a kidnapping from a greasy spoon cafe.

Ariadne Oliver is as splendid as ever, and gets to go on a secret mission, attend an artist's studio party, and get clubbed unconscious. The latter act has curious similarities to the indisposal of Tuppence in By The Pricking Of My Thumbs - surely, you think later, it would have been easy to murder the old love? But then we'd be denied a great character.

Talking of characters, we get a lovely old loopy colonel who manages this week's winning racist remark about Poirot:

"A clever chap but a thorough frog, isn't he? You know, mincing and dancing and bowing and scraping."

Again, not a *great* book, but a thoroughly lovely rattle of a read which gets away with it.

Monday, 31 May 2010

Dead Man's Folly (1956)

Plot: A murder mystery game turns real.

You're in for a bit of a surprise with Dead Man's Folly. It pulls off that strange late Christie trick of being very readable and entertaining whilst being... er, not very good.

Things that suck:

1) The murder of a child.
Christie just sails into this without even a flicker of sentimentality. Poor Marlene Tucker is vulgar, which kind of marks her out for death. There's even the monstrous moment where a doctor is asked if it's a sex crime: "I wouldn't say so, no. I shouldn't say she'd been a very attractive girl." Marlene's family are treated similarly badly with mutterings about their grubbiness, nagging, and general weakness. Her mother's reaction is a mixture of sobbing grief and a lament that her husband won't get his chance at the coconut shy now.

2) Not with Poirot around
By now, surely, you'd know better than to stage a murder with Poirot on the scene? We've encountered this problem before in Death On The Nile, but this is a positive trumpeting, arranging for Poirot to be on hand for a pre-determined death. Are we supposed to believe that murderers are brashly over-confident?

3) The whole reason for the crime
When you realise what's causing all this, you do have a sudden spike of worry. Is that really all it comes down to? There are about three different solutions that would avoid any homicide. One of which is to claim mumps, the other is to rush off shopping and leave a note. It's genuinely a case where murder just seems like a lot of trouble just to avoid an awkward social occasion.

4) The ending
It's not just rushed, it's a positive cascade of revelation. Many of the facts are Utterly New to the reader. There's no feeling of "Oh, if only I'd realised" just a lament of "Oi, that's not fair!". This is offset by the marvellous symbolism of Poirot's last act which makes the entire book make sense.

But what's to love about this book?

1) Ariadne and Hercule
Christie's fictional alter ego bumbles through the book brilliantly. She's outraged at learning that "apparently she drinks like a fish" and is all mad hair and scatty schemes that make her great fun - and Poirot positively softens under her influence. The two balance each other nicely and make for a great pair.

2) The Idea
There's a story in "While The Last Lasts" based on a treasure hunt Christie was asked to devise. Here we see a whole mystery built up around a murder game... the only shame is that the game is abandoned so quickly, and proves to be almost incidental to the actual murder (a good hard shove on a dark night would be a lot subtler).

3) The Parallels
Ariadne Oliver's mind creates some bizarre characters for her game - outlandish grotesques who all, eventually, turn out to have their twins somewhere in the book. It's a clever way of Christie getting away with a larger-than-life plot while at the same time mocking the extravagances of crime fiction.

4) Mrs Folliat
The lapsed gentlewoman is lovely. We've come a long way from the roaring gals of the 1920s to the genteel poor. Mrs Folliat is a proto-Audrey Fforbes-Hamilton, renting out the lodge while her stately home is occupied by newcomers. She maintains her social position almost effortlessly, and behaves with perfect grace as the real lady of the manor. It's a very complicated, bittersweet portrait of fallen grandeur, and Christie pulls it off brilliantly... especially when we realise that Mrs F's sacrifices have been more severe than we originally realised.

5) Lady Stubbs
The naively manipulative wife is another great portrait. Everyone involved announces that she's a really very stupid women, and yet no-one can quite escape her simpering manipulation. She manages to dominate the book while spending quite a lot of it absent, usually tucked up in bed.

There are also a lot of familiar themes knocking around - impersonation, long-lost relatives, sinister spies, dangerously smooth foreighners, and even the terrible mayhem wrought by a new wife...

Yes, it may be a bit of an odd read, and not one of the best, but it's still very rewarding.

Monday, 24 May 2010

Death Comes as the End (1945)

Plot: A serial killer in Ancient Egypt.

I owe this book an apology. It's taken me six months to read it and several false starts. It even failed the "curl up in bed with a stiff drink" approach. Finally I succumbed on a lazy Sunday afternoon and, if you can get past the first fifty pages, it's corking.

The problem with Death Comes As The End is the beginning. It's telling that this is one of the easiest Christie books to find second hand, frequently with a pristine spine and a smell of defeat. I wonder how many holidays have had a morning on a sun-lounger slightly ruined by the first few chapters before it gets swapped for something easier.

To be critical and snobbish, Christie is normally devlishly easy reading. This book isn't. Here's a sample few early sentences:
"The total then is two hundred and thirty of spelt and one hundred and twenty of barley."
"Yes, but there is the price of the timber and the crop was paid in oil at Perhaa."

"Guard the produce of my grain, guard everything of mine, for I shall hold you responsible."

As viewers of The Phantom Menace known, trade and taxes are a great way to start, plus we continually hear of young Renisenb who lies around drowsily. When the heroine is more bored than the reader, you're in trouble.

I'm going to argue that Christie is showing off her research and her sourcea. She claims to have based the book on some letters, and seems to reproduce them throughout the book. Which is all very well, but initially really doesn't help. It's all wheat and exhortation.

Get fifty pages in though, and the cast start dropping like flies. Even better, they're all brilliant - there's the vile gossip Henet, the proto Marple Esa, the pompous dad Imhotep, his awful sons, their sour wives, his noble daughter and her fun suitors. From thereon in the book tears along with an incredibly high corpse-per-page count, as though Christie is making up for the false start. "Sorry it's a bit tricky, but look, there goes another one."

You even find yourself flicking back to the start and re-reading it for extra clues. Or to try and remember who these people are and how they were introduced. Occasionally, the narrative swings back to the opening style and we get drowsy mention of afternoon cruises in pleasure boats and so on. But it's far more bearable as, with a turn of the page, there'll be another corpse.

The book's other distraction is the chapter titles which are in a complicated dating system based on tides. Initially I spent much time puzzling over these, but then ignored them and was much happier.

I'm sure there are readers out there who've just dived into the book and loved it, but I don't think I'm the only one who struggled until Christie's natural style asserts itself.

But what of the plot itself? Well, once it gets going, you're in for something a bit like Taken At The Flood, where a new wife throws a family into deadly disarray. These are very Christie people - with concealed passions, submerged pasts, and tortured inner lives. The parallels with Taken At The Flood are several, including the discovery of a raving madman hiding behind a humble farmer's personality. The references to domestic abuse also abound, with one wife being "the kind of woman who would enjoy it".

Where Taken At The Flood offers us the dazed new wife and her vindictive brother/lover, this book gives us the scheming new wife and her dazed former lover, who spends most of his time composing bloody awful songs and talking about sailing on his pleasure boat. This turns out not to be a euphemism.

Both books are fundamentally about how a family engages with a new wife, and her response to the various methods of bribery and bullying. Of course, Nofret is more active. In Taken At The Flood it's the brother who does all the threatening and undermining while the wife flops around as drowsy as Renisenb.

Renisenb is kind of the heroine, but she's as light as a feather. The book's detective-types are old Mrs Esa and the foreman Hori, but they're not necessarily to be trusted. Renisenb floats between the two of them, or sits drowsily around wondering why everyone's in love with her. It's a good question, frankly. Partly it increases the number of suspects, partly there seems to be a tradition for a Christie gal to have two fellas after her, one poetic, one solid.

The book's best character is nasty Henet the whining confidant. We've met her before in Christie, but she's here at her sharpest and nastiest. She's the real villain of the piece, having schemed for decades to bring down a family she doesn't even belong to through devoted service. She lights up every page that she's on.

A similar triumph comes in a remarkable passage where we have a murder from the point of view of a victim, waking up and realising that they've been poisoned. It's a lovely bit of writing from Christie. I'm scratching my head trying to remember a similar passage somewhere else - I think there is one, but this is a brilliant scene as we catch the flickering brilliance of a dying consciousness working out what's happened and why. This isn't a soul that dies screaming but one that uses its last few precious seconds to solve a puzzle and so pass on content.

Overall, if you can sweep aside the opening, the character names and the occasional purple passage, this is a brilliant book - satisfyingly gory, full of great events and cunning misdirection, and with some bang-up characters evoking a distant era with remarkable clarity. By the end, I felt thoroughly ashamed that I'd made such hard work of the beginning.

Monday, 17 May 2010

Death In The Clouds (1935)

Plot: Murder in mid-air with a sting in the tale.

Sorry for the summary which makes me feel like someone haplessly subbing Jeffrey Archer blurbs. It's not doing Death In The Clouds justice. Let's start by looking at a few tropes:

1) Locked room mystery
Peculiarly, Christie doesn't often use this device. When she does, she frequently sets herself the added challenge of locking all the suspects in with the victim - here, in Murder On The Orient Express and even in Cards On The Table. Just for an added bit of fun.

Of course, Christie doesn't leave it at that, and makes one of the suspects a hapless author of detective fiction who is too busy consulting his railway timetables to spot a real murder taking place in front of him. Poor Mr Clancy with his mess and bananas is the butt of a lot of the book's humour.

2) Plain Jane Super Brain
We know what to expect of Jane Grey by now. She's that figure who emerges in 30s Christie - plucky, lower-middle class. Ordinary background but bright and capable. Sometimes she's a typist, sometimes a shop assistant. Here she's a hairdresser. Perhaps placed there for her typical reader she's not a noblewoman with a sports car, but an aspirational figure - taken out of normal life and plunged into a world of intrigue and murder. There are a lot of similarities with Jane and the heroine of They Came To Baghdad - she's practical, reasonable, develops an interest in archaeology (and archaeologists), and is not necessarily looking for love in the right place.

3) The Dashing Young Man Who Is Not What He Appears

Talking of which, the less said the better. But Christie is developing an archetypal character who will rock up, be jolly reasonable, and yet... come the end...

4) The Society Bitch

There's no other phrase for Lady Horbury, who is just vile and Christie has enormous fun with her. Men-stealing society harpies get little mercy from Christie (is this revenge for the end of her first marriage?), and Lady H has every single vice lovingly described. She takes cocaine with more gusto than any other Christie character we've so far encountered which clearly marks her out as a wrong-un. She even declared "Do you know who I am?" and is unable to file her nails without assistance. Her ultimate fate will annoy readers, but is in keeping with the journey of similar characters in titles like Five Little Pigs.

5) Sensation

Christie frequently mocks the absurdity of the plot - it's all about a woman assasinated in mid-air with snake venom. But, as Poirot points out "c'est possible?" - but it's very effective as a mystery. It's made even more so by some vicious mockery of the press, with a wonderful interlude courtesy of a reporter from the Weekly Howl with "a certain glib assurance" and a loose connection to the truth. Reading this book explains why Christie didn't love giving interviews.

6) Avoidance of formula
Christie's well into her stride with this book. She manages to fit in the dutiful round of interrogations, and even the obvious list-making, but she breaks it up compellingly. So our detectives dart across the Channel, assume disguises, investigate curiosities, arrange two weddings and provide a list of everyone's luggage (both stuffed with clues and also a fascinating cultural document).

7) Jews
It's tempting to type "anti-semitism rears its ugly head", but that's almost falling into the same trap. We meet a Jewish hairdresser called Antoine who is referred to as "Ikey Andrew". He's not a sympathetic character and I really wish he hadn't been Jewish. It's getting tiresome.

8) Dentists

Hello Norman Gale, Jane's bumbling quasi-love-interest. Again we see Poirot forming a band of investigators out of his suspects, and Norman is fun. On first seeing Jane on the plane he checks her for gum disease. We follow his thoughts as his practice collapses as his patients shy away from him after his involvement with the murder, provoking a hint of One, Two, Buckle My Shoe with the line "If the dentist were to run amuck".

Lord knows why I'm making a list, as it means I can't come up with a heading for Poriot's use of the phrase "Le Sex Appeal", no matter how much I want to.

Monday, 10 May 2010

The Secret Adversary (1922)

Plot: Can our heroes stop the evil Mr Brown from forming a Labour Government?

Crikey, has ever a book seemed more timely than The Secret Adversary, Christie's second work, which introduces Tommy and Tuppence and is her first mystery-thriller. It's a rip-roaring riot, full of much unintentional humour as our solid duo fight on behalf of the Conservative Party to unmask the sinister Mr Brown and save Great Britain from economic collapse.

Tommy and Tuppence are briliant, and this book is purely, wonderfully "Wodehousian" (an easy phrase for when two bright young things banter joyously throughout). When we first meet Tuppence she's wistfully trying to marry money and is gutted when she discovers her wartime general "keeps a bicycle shop in times of peace". "I'm so very fond of money," she says frequently.

Underneath all the froth, this is a reaction to the horrors of the First World War. Christie was inspired by the number of out-of-work soldiers who knocked at her door, and she composed a book about two such people cast adrift after the war, with a lot of breeding and no money. She rewards them for their charm with lots of nice meals and a stay at the Ritz as well as much excitement, as a contrast to a dull and meagre living as a door-to-door salesmen.

Instead she gives us two lovely people who call each other "old thing" and "old bean" and who have fun, all in a good cause. Their boss, the mysterious Mr Carter may call Tuppence "little lady" but she's a thoroughly emancipated woman, while Tommy reads the Daily Mail and actually applauds the good bits. SIGH. He's not all awful, though. Christie gifts him with a fine line in wit. He greets a grubby villain with "Someone's not been using Pears soap," and bubbles merrily along - in later books he becomes much smarter, but here he's like a lump of wood with manners.

There's a contrast between two American lovers, who are sprightly and open-hearted, and Tommy and Tuppence, who very awkwardly declare their love on the final page ("They sat very straight and forbore to look at each other").

The actual plot is merry enough, and instantly familiar to readers of "Why Didn't They Ask Evans?", only better. Why that isn't a Tommy and Tuppence book is baffling, although perhaps her readers would have cried foul, as so many of the tropes (mental homes and clifftops and photographs and mysterious impostors) reoccur in that book. This is like a template for much later Christie - we even see elements of it spoofed in The Seven Dials mystery.

Sadly, this familiarity breeds an early suspicion. If you've read a lot of Christie recently you'll start twiddling your thumbs fairly early on. How was Marguerite murdered without any of Tommy and Tuppence's band of friends noticing? How does Mr Brown keep discovering their whereabouts when only the four of them know? How, tell us, how? It's a technique that Christie perfects in later books, but here the reader will have spotted a good hundred pages before our heroes do that All Is Not Right in their camp.

But this is a minor flaw - this is really a magnificent early work, breezing along with an almost improvisational joy at the twists and turns of the narrative. It's also refreshingly naive - a lot of elements are just woven in from John Buchan and Sapper without the later filtering and caution that Christie exhibits (Mr Brown is very like the multi-faced villain of 39 Steps). An exception is Tuppence's lovely relationship with Albert, the page boy addicted to pulp crime - and, as we'll see when we hit Partners In Crime, the next time we meet Tommy and Tuppence they've become a smarter vehicle for literary pastische. But hooray old thing.

It may not be

Friday, 7 May 2010

Murder in Mesopotamia (1936)

Plot: Poirot solves death at the digs.

Hello death! You're everywhere. One can imagine the dinner party where, after the soup a guest leans over and says, "But Mrs Christie, it must be so interesting spending six months of the year on a dig! You really must set one of your murders there, absolutely must."

As we've seen, archaeology and travel to the cradles of civilisation is a frequent theme in Christie, one that hardens once she meets Max Mallowan. It is in this story that it finds its clearest expression, both in the setting and the moment when Poirot finds a murdered body in a grave from thousands of years ago and ponders human existence, society, and the very notion of a murder mystery ("A Mrs Leidner of two thousand years ago").

Murder in Mesopotamia is about people living on a grave. We've all seen Amityville Horror and Pet Cemetery - we know what happens next. Christie plonks the 1930s like the latest layer on a tottering cake of death, putting all of human life into perspective. For Poirot, on his way back from Syria, this is just one more case. For the other players, but one event in their lives. Lives which are long over by the time we read it. Yet, for all that, Christie says it is still important.

Depending on how you look on it, Murder In Mesopotamia is either reliant on a bizarre contrivance or is a palimpsest. I was taught the word at univesity - a piece of parchment that was rubbed out and overwritten, just like several of the characters in Murder In Mesopotamia.

At the centre we have Mrs Leidner, the archaeologist's wife, a woman who 20 years ago married a spy and has almost wilfully forgotten every detail of him beyond his handwriting. We have the spy himself, who may still be alive somewhere in the ruins, unrecognised by his wife.

Crikey, you think. That's unlikely - and, indeed, the TV adaptation goes to some efforts to tidy this up, separating the lovers immediately after their wedding and saying "well, her first marriage was in black in white, there's no way she'd recognise him now". But this very personal history is indeed unearthed, with the added complication that, somewhere on the dig may also lurk that first husband's vengeful brother, who may even, suggests Poirot, be impersonating the female narrator, Nurse Leatheran.

This is, as you may have guessed, a story that layers improbability on improbability. We have letters from the dead husband, we have forged letters from the dead husband, we have art thieves, we have drug addicts shaking among the rubble, we have a jolly hockeysticks gal who keeps on turning up and suggesting tennis (she's wandered in from Murder At Ther Vicarage) ... and yet, at the same time, we have Poirot who cuts sharply through all this absurdity.

For example, there is the ghostly figure at the window, whose very unreality turns out to be both a cruel trick and a deadly lure. We have a squinting foreigner and a sinister monk, who Poirot dispatches with a couple of clues. It's all, in the most literal sense, window dressing. Murder In Mesopotamia is a puzzle box where none of the clues are not what they appear to be. Much time is spent, for example, in establishing movements at the fatal moment across the courtyard. Christie has great fun here recycling charming local colour from her memoir "Come Tell Me How You Live" and bamboozling the reader (there's even a diagram)... and it's all the auther red-herringing loudly "Look at the Courtyard! The Courtyard!".

A similar blind is Mrs Leidner's nature. In the book she is, according to who is speaking, either a charmer, a schemer, a hypocondriac or a siren. Nurse Leatheran decides that she likes her, and for the most part, she seems rather fun. But we are also supposed to think that she is the malign household god who drives the happy expedition to misery. This is easily done in the book, but, again, the TV adaptation struggles with this - on screen it's all too clear that Mrs Leidner is a good enough sort.

Mind you, the TV version does a decent job with poor Miss Johnson, who, before suffering a truly terrible death, must nearly reveal the solution three times. In print the first revelation works rather well. It is quite obvious, he says haughtily, that the second approach to the jump is mere teasing - she quite baldly states that she's worked it out, but just has to think about it. The TV version cleverly throws in a misdirection here, which covers what is in the genre the fine old declaration "I know the answer and so must die". Her third revelation (in very gruesome circumstances) is in a fine tradition of teasing ambiguity (Is there an occasion in Christie where a victim cries "Fred did it"?).

I should stick in a word here about the art thieves. This is an archaeological expedition where, to a greater or lesser extent, most of the expedition are frauds - some aren't who they claim to be, some just don't want to be there, and one's off his tits. It's poetic justice that their finds are all stolen and replaced with copies. No-one notices - which raises a few basic points about their competence, but also touches on the idea of the real value of a find - is it the object itself or simply the discovery?

Finally, a few words about Nurse Leatheran. I like the old bird. She's a Christie archetype - the stong, sympathetic type. We've seen her in Death In The Clouds and on The Blue Train. She's detatched, she's cool, she's reliable - and, such a sharp observer that Poirot fears for her life. The TV adaptation backgrounds her in favour of Hastings, which is understandable, especially as it gives the mystery another suspect. It is noticeable in this book that Poirot doesn't draw up a list of suspects. He'll rattle through them occasionally, but if we had one of his blunt lists we'd realise that they were rather thin on the ground.

This is also one of those Christies where if you play "Who has the least reason and the most solid alibi?" you'll get the correct answer immediately.

NEXT: Death in the Clouds

Friday, 30 April 2010

The ABC Murders (1936)

Plot: Poirot must hunt down an alphabetical serial killer.

The ABC Murders follows on nicely from "Why Didn't They Ask Evans". While the latter book is a solid-enough romp (oh, that sounds like faint praise, but you know what I mean - it's robust run-around fun), The ABC Murders does some very remarkable things with a similar set up.

It also features a chase across England sparked by mysterious clues found on a body, delights in misdirection and heroic endeavour.... but it's both a more preposterous and yet darker tale.

The preposterous bits are met head-on by Poirot. While Hastings thrills to them (strange clues and taunting letters and all), Poirot is grim about the whole thing - he sees it as an elaborate bit of set dressing, a disguise for something else. Poirot does not like finding himself in a book. It's easy to see why Hastings is recalled as narrator for this - he pretty much has the time of his life, whereas Poirot is furious at what is going on. He realises what Hastings does not - that the killer will claim several pointless lives in order to disguise their true intentions.

Christie backs this grimness up with a remarkable switch in narrative. Several scenes are told from "the killer's" point-of-view, as the worried Alexander Bonaparte Cust begins to worry that he himself is committing the crimes. He's a fascinating character, and it's both touching and disturbing when Poirot meets him - ABC is one of the walking wounded of the First World War, a man so broken and disturbed that he's never been quite right since, and has no idea whether or not he still has a place in society.

Poirot is the very opposite of displaced. "I am like the prima donna who always makes one more appearance" he tells Japp in answer to the question of his retirement. Japp responds "Shouldn't wonder if you ended by detecting your own death. That's an idea that is, ought to be put into a book." Hmmmmn.

Poirot is all about order, and sees the grim game as an excuse to teach Hastings how to pack properly, to be suspicious of fingerprints ("I put that in to please you, my friend.") and a just wariness of inventive journalism. Poirot even uses xenophobia as a smart way to pick out the killer from his "jeer at foreigners" which suggests that some of her unfortunate comments are a good deal cleverer than they often appear, especially when Poirot taunts the murderer with "I consider your crime not an English crime at all - not above-board - not sporting..."

Christie's style is at full blast throughout. As well as the marvellous Cust passages there are some brilliant descriptions, such as a body found by a "fresh-air early morning Colonel".

In hunting down the killer, Poirot forms a merry band of friends to help him. This isn't a unique device - we've seen that same kind of thing in The Secret Of Chimneys and Three Act Tragedy - and, as always, this isn't quite what it seems.

It is smart Megan Barnard who starts to see though this society of friends. She's an interesting, emancipated lower-middle class female character - something of a rarity in Christie, but very good. "What you've been saying. It's just words. It doesn't mean anything," she tells Poirot after a pep talk. Poirot is taken aback, but approving - he's playing a game of his own. As he says at the end of the book "Vive le sport!"

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Why Didn't They Ask Evans? (1934)

Plot: Bobby and Frankie looks for clues and find love

Such is the way of blogs. I wrote a post for this and lost it somewhere. If this were a clue in Why Didn't They Ask Evans, Bobby would probably stumble upon it in the shrubbery, or plucky Lady Frankie would charm it out of my laptop with good manners.

There are people who will tell you that this book is a marvellously Wodehousian frivolity, a confection as light and charming as a meringue. Personally, I've always found meringue cloying.

This isn't to say that I hated this book - just that it's an inferior go at somemthing like The Secret Of Chimneys or early Tommy and Tuppence (indeed Francesca Annis has played both Tuppence and Frankie). Oddly enough it's the kind of plot that somehow feels more suitable to early Allingham, Mrs Bradley or Ngaio Marsh. Christie does good stuff with it, but it's all a bit... oh, I'm being unfair on it. But, for every lovely sinister touch (like the victim's sinister relatives, the creepy sanatorium or Bobby's early poisoning) there's a lot of things that feel quite thin.

For instance, Frankie's main idea for solving the crime is to literally crash a houseparty and become fast friends with everyone in the neighbourhood. Which is genius, but does mean that she spends an awful long time having tea. This is not Wodehousian - his Jeeves books have quite a lot going on in them while appearing untroubled on the surface.

Similarly, the book has a curious approach to suspects. It sets out its stall early and sticks to it, announcing that you can take your pick from
- The Creepy Creepy Doctor
- The Good-For-Nothing Dashing Young Man
- Someone picked out almost at random and who is the Last Person You'd Suspect

Without laying out the details, Christie manages to have all three slices of cake, to a greater or lesser degree. For instant, there is a Surprise Villain. When they're revealed you don't clutch your pearls and think "that is a surprise", you cry foul. And then have to think about it carefully and decide "Actually, yes, that's very clever", but by that point the Surprise Villain has abandoned all former subtlety and is behaving with gay abandon. So it's not surprising that our heroes spot them.

That's the other thing - Frankie and Bobby really are either lucky or cursed. In While The Light Lasts there's a lovely romantic couple on a treasure hunt and they're ingenious and adorable... and then there's Frankie and Bobbie. Oh, they're fine, they're just a bit thin. Intellectually, you just don't quite feel they deserve the prize they get. Frankie we'll give a pass to because she's fabulous, but Bobbie succeeds simply because he's nice. Which is initially sweet, but after a while does make you wonder how we ever won a war.

But I should stop grousing - even thin Christie is a great read, whizzing past, full of madcap situations and events.

NEXT: The ABC Murders

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

At Bertram's Hotel (1965)

Plot: Can Miss Marple go on holiday without packing murder? Well, no.

At Bertram's Hotel is an unlikely companion piece to Passenger To Frankfurt. You expect certain things from a Miss Marple - murder, gossip and tea - and this book has all of those. But it's also UTTERLY BATTY.

You think it's going to be a sedate crime story and then you realise this is Christie pulling off one of her bizarre thriller capers. There are vast criminal conspiracies, counterfeit clergymen, money-laundering syndicates and even an entire hotel that isn't what it seems to be.

The central conceit of At Bertram's Hotel is that it is too good to be true - rather like a set from a bygone era ("Nne of this place seemed real at all"). This doesn't quite come across in either TV adaptation - after all how do you make a period drama look even more stylised?

It dominates the book as a character, represented through various mouthpieces, such as the glacially perfect receptionist and the far too brilliant maitre'd. The joy though is realising that almost the entire staff of the hotel and a good many of the guests are actors hired to play the part - an idea so wonderfully batty it turns up in a couple of episodes of The Avengers (one of them made before this was published).

Talking of The Avengers, say hello to Bess Sedgwick "she had been a member of the French Resistance... had once saved two children from a bruning house... was said to be the second-best dressed woman in Europe... she had successfuly smuggled herself aboard a nuclear submarine". If the book doesn't exactly feel authentically 60s, the rip-roading Bess is really something new, like the Plucky Young Gals of 20s Christie, but somehow brighter and colder - there's a lovely moment when Miss Marple and her friend look carefully at Bess, wonder if she's happy and decide "no."

Miss Marple observes all of this from an easy chair "Everyone's universal great-aunt" - and she's a perfect central character for this book, sitting there like the events are a play staged just for her. She doesn't miss a thing.

There's a lovely scene where she goes for a walk through a changed London. "She visited no picture galleries and no museums... What she did visit were the glass and china departments of the large stores" and remarks on everything that has changed. "There must be progress I suppose" she laments, quietly. Later on she comments "Life is really a One Way Street, isn't it?" - which is both the solution to the crime and also slight hint that Miss Marple's not so out-of-touch (I've wikipedia'd the phrase and it seems to have been invented in 1909, but I'm wagering only really caught on in England during the great 60s expansion in town planning).

This is then followed by a coincidence (remarkable in real life but fitting in this book) of having two characters play out a scene just when Miss Marple sits down to tea, and Christie has great fun in playing up Miss Marple's desperate attempts to eavesdrop.

The book has a remarkable heroine in the figure of Bridget, a sort of orhpan who plods through the book tracking down her parents. While not as straight down-the- line as other heroines such as Lady Bundle Brent, she's plucky, inventive and daring. She's the hare to Miss Marple's tortoise.

What is curious about having a parentless child is that the book's detective is nicknamed "Father" throughout, resulting in a remarkable scene where he stands in loco parentis for Bridget.

From a gender point, this is a very curious book. All the women in it are independent, strong willed and display various degrees of cunning, and are pretty skilled at deception (whether it's mere politeness or grand larceny).

With the exception of Father, the men are quite lacking. They're mostly well-meaning, but often baffled, or not seeing the full picture. Even the book's male villans are limp. This includes the obvious gigolo racing-car driver Ladislaus, who is oddly intangible despite clearly shagging a mother and her daughter. Which would be shocking if he were more of a character.

Father is a triumph - a roly-poly avuncular menace he's like Sgt Battle in some ways. He pretends to be the junior policeman, he potters around in plain clothes, he plays the fool ever-so-slightly, but he takes Miss Marple seriously in a quite remarkable moment when he says: "I'm not going to arrest you Miss Marple. You have an alibi". The old lady is quite put out - and this is the first policeman to get one over on the love.

There are a few interesting traces of modernity. The delightful Canon Pennyfather may have wandered in from Anthony Trollope, but he goes for a curry. Sexual liberation is everywhere - when Bridget proclaims her romantic adventures in an Italian Convent her mother sighs "Every girl your age has a Guido in her life." There's the villainous Ladislaus with his sexual appetites, and there's even mention of a dodgy doctor who got struck off "helping a lot of girls who were no better than they should be".

Another sign of this being late Christie is the freewheeling plot. At the same time as reading this I was trying a Ngaio Marsh. She's very good - but nearly all her books follow the classic "Crime / Interrogation of all the Suspects / Revelation" structure, which is somtimes incredibly tiresome (and may explain why I don't care for Five Little Pigs although everyone else loves it). At Bertram's Hotel has no such structural limitations - it's all over the shop, but in a way that's constantly engrossing and surprising. True, the denoument is a mixture of masterclass and magic, but it's never ever dull. Which is quite a surprise when you consider that there isn't a murder until two-thirds in.

"I am not really fond of interfering. Though well meant it can cause a great deal of harm."

There's a real sadness at the heart of the book. Frequently when Miss Marple brings someone to justice we feel only pleasure. But this time she's pitted herself against a building, and she feels real regret at having to bring it down. "She felt sad - for Bertram's Hotel and for herself."