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."