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.