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?