Sunday, 31 January 2010

The Thirteen Problems (1932)

Plot: Miss Marple solves the problems of an after dinner Mystery Club.

If Murder At The Vicarage was an establishing book it is The Thirteen Problems which makes Miss Marple's reputation. It is during these quiet tales that Miss Marple moves from being a clever village gossip to an international crime solver - without really leaving her inglenook and knitting.

For it is here that she meets Sir Henry Clithering of Scotland Yard, and a circle of friends including actresses and artists and other notables. In other words, it is here that Miss Marple makes a name for herself - and she does not waste the opportunity.

These are all stories where the solution is neatly provided by Miss Marple, often at the expense of the teller - the rule of thumb is that the Brighter the Young Thing the bigger their downfall will be at Miss Marple's hands.

Poor Raymond West is dispatched by her on page three ("do you think people are really so unpleasant as you make them out to be?" which is Miss Marple being perhaps a little hypocritical - especially when she says "I hope you dear young people will never realise how wicked the world really is").

Initially overlooked by artist Joyce, Miss Marple later "accidentally" exposes her engagement to Raymond. In sketches about the spinster, the joke is that she is actually the murderer - but this ignores Miss Marple's formidable skills at character assassination. She reserves her biggest guns for daffy actress Jane, who constantly mocks Miss Marple ("I'm sure I shouldn't have any brains at all if I lived in a village"). She may receive her comeuppance off-stage, but it is devastating nevertheless.

The stories themselves are the usual Christie short story - with inveigling servants, deceptions, disguise (there's even two uses of roughly the same plot about swimming and impersonation) and sleight of hand. Several times the dead body isn't the dead body you're lead to believe. At other times, it is the victim who is changed. That's not to be snippy about these stories - the telling of them is extremely engaging, and the stories work on three levels - as a mystery, as an occasionally devastating self-destruction by the teller, and as a revelation of Miss Marple's supreme brain.

Some of the mysteries are extremely clever and centre as much on the smart noticing of details as Miss Marple's famed tiny recollections of village life. Christie makes great use of her chemical experise - both in the poisonings here, and in one instance, in the side effect of a chemical reaction. There's even, in The Idol House of Astarte, a seeming flirtation with the supernatural - which is never completely debunked. True, the murder turns out to be quite natural - but the circumstances which occasion it remain remarkable.

The main joy is in seeing Miss Marple herself telling stories. In one of them she reveals precisely why she thrives on gossip: "How often is tittle-tattle, as you call it, true!" In the same story she even recounts her failures - the number of times she's realised a husband will try and destroy his wife and failed to prevent it. It's one of the darker insights into her psyche - she claims that husbands are tempted to this because they are stronger. The inference is that wives would do it more if they could...

This book is both charming and necessary. From here on in, Miss Marple is free to roam, an acknowledged solver of crimes. Her path to Nemesis is laid open.

Next: Supernatural frolics in the name of love in The Mysterious Mister Quinn

Monday, 18 January 2010

Poirot Investigates (1924)

Plot: More early cases! Missing jewels, ancient curses and prime ministers for Poirot.

This collection of Poirot short stories shares several familiar themes. Risking mild spoilers, I'm going to lump them as follows:

Don't trust the servants!

The Jewel Robbery At The Grand Metropolitan and The Mystery Of Hunter's Lodge and The Italian Nobleman all demonstrate this in different ways - all complicated puzzle box mysteries where the only possible solution is that the only people who could have done it are the people you're not supposed to notice. In one case, the butler actually does it.


Christie's fascination with disguise and identity runs through the collection. Two of the above stories are about servants who aren't servants, but we also get The Disappearance Of Mr Davenheim (a thief who isn't a thief), The Million Dollar Bond Robbery (naughty nurse and fake passenger), The Cheap Flat (substitute victims), The Western Star (impostor jewels), and the Kidnapped Prime Minister (guess who isn't quite what they appear to be here?).

Of course, this lumping is a gross simplification - each is just a facet in a constantly recut puzzle. But, if you want to solve-along-with-Poirot, it's a wise bet to keep a suspicious eye on the servants, overlapping alibis, and people who might not be who they claim to be.

If we're going to carry on in this slightly facetious mood, we'll miss the fun. The Egyptian Tomb, for instance, could be said to be about faked symptoms and false curses, but that's to ignore an atmospheric tale of foreign travel, mysterious shadows and, of course, the contemporary fun of Tutankhamun's Tomb.

The Tragedy Of Marsden Manor has a similar dance - it's pure atmosphere, even featuring a ghost. The ghoulish aspects of the story become enormously enhanced in the telly version, which looks like a prototype Jonathan Creek.

The fun-from-beyond-the-grave continues with The Missing Will, an adventure where a dead man sets his niece a puzzle - there's an interesting parallel here with Miss Marple's final cases, which are pretty much concerned with hidden wills, mysterious legacies and impossible disguises.

These stories may be slight, but there's plenty of time to fit in the odd thriller - The Cheap Flat looks like it might be about the difficulties of renting somewhere nice in London, but it's actually about an international spy ring. The Kidnapped Prime Minister pulls off the same trick of global scandal happening around Poirot, who plays the eye of the storm, even famously stating his methods - refusing to fly about Europe or look for cigarette ash, he simply pounds his head and announced "The clues are within HERE!".

And that's kind of the summary of these cases, where Poirot is the calm eye of the storm, quietly, patiently solving all manner of outlandish mysteries. Or just about managing to unmask yet another fake servant without rolling his eyes.

NEXT: Miss Marple solves The Thirteen Problems

Monday, 11 January 2010

Poirot's Early Cases (1974)

Plot: A book of short stories from Poirot's early days

This is a 1974 collection of Poirot stories from the 20s and 30s - so during "The Golden Period" between The Mysterious Affair At Styles and Poirot's retirement where the TV series plonks itself firmly.

As a collection this sees Poirot and Hastings established pretty much in the Holmes and Watson mould that they can also be glimpsed in in The Big Four. Several cases feature Poirot behaving rather more like Holmes than normal - The Veiled Lady is a perfect example of this, featuring as it does a veiled visitor who is not all she appears (how Victorian!), a Charles Augustus Milverton-style of blackmail, and even Poirot entering a house in disguise.

Also in this category are The Market Basing Mystery (a locked-room suicide), the LeMesurier Inheritance (an country estate falls under an ancient curse) , The Double Clue (robberies and mysterious nobles), and The Submarine Plans (Christie's version of The Bruce Partington Plans). That's not to knock these stories - they're all rather fine adventures, and The Double Clue even introduces us to Poirot's Irene Adler, Countess Vera, the charming jewel-thief.

At the risk of making this entry full of lists, we move rather more with the times in stories like The Victory Ball, with its bright young things mingling murder and cocaine, The King Of Clubs (in which The Casting Couch collides with suburbia), and Double Sin, which is marvellous fun all about the tourist charabanc. Perhaps the most period piece is Problem At Sea, which features the dreadful Young Gals Kitty and Pamela with their plans to "rescue" dull guests. How ripping!

The Adventure of the Clapham Cook sees Poirot venture very much into the modern suburbs, where, much affronted, he sweeps aside the airs of the middle class and realises that this is basically A Servant Problem caused by too much gullible reading of sensational magazines.

Wasp's Nest is interesting as it shows Poirot preventing a murder, and even tipping a chemical into a fellow's drink. It's a neat counterpoint to The Cornish Mystery which sees Poirot on the scene just a moment too late, and bitterly resentful of this fact. The latter story also features the monster of gossip (which we'll see again in the similar Many Headed Hydra section of The Labours of Hercules).

The Adventure Of The Third Floor Flat has its fascinations. It's very much a period piece about Darling Pat and the men around her, but we do learn that Poirot leases his flat in the name of "Mr O'Connor", and the mystery itself is Really Very Clever, even if it betray's Christie's cynicism about charing men and wide-eyed women.

The Lost Mine is almost an antidote to The Big Four, neatly spoofing that book's sinister Chinese dens and mysterious forces. The Chocolate Box is fascinating in that it purports to show one of Poirot's Failures, but even here, the old rogue can't resist showing off.

The Plymouth Express is in some ways a dry run for The Adventure Of The Blue Train which is, in turn, a dry run for Murder On The Orient Express. It does feature a criminal called "Red Narky", so for that alone, we forgive it anything. "How Does Your Garden Grow?" is similarly a pre-echo of Dumb Witness, and The Victory Ball (with its impersonations, actresses, cocaine and murder) is something of a precursor to Lord Edgware Dies.

Poirot is a sprightly delight throughout. Picking out a sentence at random "'The shoes were all wrong,' said Poirot dreamily" shows the fun that Christie is having both with her mystery and with her detective. If Hastings is sillier than Watson, Poirot is absurder than Holmes, and yet, somehow warmer and more human. What pervades these stories is both a cynicism about, and yet a delight in, human nature.

I'll leave you with the truly bizarre original paperback cover:

Next: More of the same in Poirot Investigates

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Adventure of the Christmas Pudding (1960)

Plot: A collection of "two main courses and a selection of entrees".

Short stories - some reprints from much earlier, one a rewrite, one an old story with a new title. Only the first story is "Christmassy" - Poirot is invited down to spend Christmas and unmask a jewel thief in a country house. In many ways this story is a pastische of what people think an Agatha Christie mystery to be - country house, bright young things, complications, impostors, glamorous thieves, lots of snow and servants, a dead body, a taint of international intrigue and a twist or two.

It's notable for showing Poirot staging a crime which is also a rather macabre practical joke. The other thing this isn't really is a "whodunnit" since it turns out that the thief is, er, well, pretty much who it was supposed to be all along.

It is the first story in the collection to feature disguise and assumed identity - an idea which is played out again in The Under Dog, and then rather more dramatically in The Dream, Four-And-Twenty Blackbirds, and Greenshaw's Folly. In fact, the shame of these last three stories is that the trick in each case is identical. Admittedly they're very different stories, but you wonder if Poirot spent his entire life surrounded by people in false whiskers.

The Dream is a very interesting story in that it places Poirot up against the supernatural. This is a terrible idea on the crook's part, as Poirot cannot accept an impossible explanation, and therefore solves the crime. It's also a match between the villain and Poirot's vanity - and there's no doubt who can win this one.

Servants underpin both The Under Dog and The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding. In the latter, Poirot receives a warning from a worried maid, in the first Poirot finds himself trying to rationally solve a murder while Lady Astwell jumps up and down pointing at a hapless secretary and denouncing him based only on feminine intuition.

The Under Dog and The Dream are both classic "House of Evil" adventures in miniature - a dead and unpleasant businessman, impostors, put-upon secretaries, a not-exactly grieving family.

These tropes rear their head again in Greenshaw's Folly, a Miss Marple story that features a strange house, its eccentric owner, resentful housekeeper, wretched gardener, locked door mysteries, a policeman, lost relatives, and a fair amount of disguise. It also, remarkably, features a divorced woman who is employed as a secretary. There's also a very strange sense of the story heading in one direction and then turning in another (there's a lot of mention early on about clocks and hidden treasure), but this may just be misdirection from the mystery here being remarkably similar to two other stories in the collection. In many ways the story fits in much better in "Miss Marple's Final Cases", an anthology which allows Miss M to shine, and where the mysteries are sufficiently different to prevent the reader from groaning "not again". Especially as you have Miss Marple solving the mystery by magic and also dropping the wonderful line "When I was a girl, Inspector, nobody mentioned the word Stomach."

Finally there's The Adventure of the Spanish (Baghdad) Chest. Which is a weird and satisfying blend of Othello and Rope, mixed in with a truly gruesome method of murder that's curiously like something out of Edgar Allen Poe. It's curiously like a stage play, and isn't really so much a mystery as a poisonous puzzle box.

Next: More short stories with Poirot's Early Cases