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. 

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