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