Wednesday, 22 December 2010

Postern of Fate (1973)

Plot: There's a plot?

Postern of Fate is free-association Agatha Christie, improvised like beat poetry in a smoky jazz cellar. That's another way of saying that it's regarded as her worst book ever, and yet... and yet... well, yet again, it's a book saved by Tommy and Tuppence.

Tommy and Tuppence have moved house. Tommy goes to London for meetings. Tuppence stays at home reading some old children's books and walking the dog. Occasionally they'll have lunch. Or dinner. Or argue with a tradesman. Sometimes Tuppence will go out to tea, or Tommy will reminisce. Occasionally, Tuppence will sit in a go-kart and roll down a hill. Once, the wheels fall off Tuppence's go-kart. This may be an attempt on her life. She's not really sure. Another time a pane of glass falls down near her. This may also be an attempt on her life. Again, no-one is really sure.

Tuppence sometimes tries to sort out the shed with the help of the local handyman Isaac, unless he's the gardener. But then again, Isaac is over 90, or in his 80s, or nearly 70. It's so hard to tell.

Sometimes, Tommy and Tuppence are investigating a crime that happened in the house during the first world war. Although, sometimes it happened later, or earlier. Or did it even happen at all?

In order to try and come to grips with this, Tommy goes to London for more meetings with people who either tell him about how much they enjoyed the plot of N or M, or mention that they were all in Passenger To Frankfurt. Meanwhile, Tuppence goes for more walks, and meets some children who also remark on how well she did in N or M.

There is mention of the Common Market.

Someone, at some point, god knows why, kills Old Isaac, so Tuppence needs to get a new gardener. Even though Isaac wasn't actually the gardener, but was there to help mend the conservatory. Luckily a man from the secret services tells Tommy that they'll send them a man who'll be an undercover agent and that they're not to trust anyone else. A lady turns up and offers to do the gardening. She also helps pour some coffee. Can you guess what happens next?

Luckily, eventually, it's all over. Someone, at some point, killed Mary Jordan. Tommy and Tuppence also appear to have thwarted an evil conspiracy, again. Or at least, we hear that the sinister conspiracy has moved to Bury St Edmonds. So that's okay.

What saves this book from being utterly utterly awful is that Tommy and Tuppence are as charming as ever. They're good company, even if they are telling you a story they don't seem to have a grip on. Christie's style remains similarly charming. In her 80s at the time, she wheeled this one out, her characters are addicted to reverie. The theme of this book is how unreliable memory and narrative are – appropriately enough, as Tommy and Tuppence are... well, let's just say that by this point Poirot is 120, Miss Marple is about 735, and lord knows how old Tommy and Tuppence are, or why Albert is mourning for an entirely different wife to the one he had last time.

Yes it's a bloody mess, but it's a charming one. If you can analyse why it's so adorable and compellingly readable then you're doing better than me. All I know is that I sat up night after night entranced by it, kids books, hearty stews, dog walks and all. There was an actual sigh of disappointment when something as vin ordinaire as a murder occurred. There's a great atmosphere here – similar to the magic of By The Pricking Of My Thumbs, that lovely feeling of Village Sinister, in which a discussion of magnolias can turn lethal at any moment.

The book is full of madness. There are clunking lines, there is banter that's eye-rolling (Tommy and Tuppence remove rubbish from inside a rocking horse. They call it surgery. Everyone laughs. No-one points out that Tuppence has earlier examined the horse and found it empty). There are clues that are never resolved. There is a greenhouse called KK. There is a significance hinted to at the real name of a Monkey Puzzle tree. And did I mention there's a go-kart?

And yet, it's somehow adorable. It's about Tuppence reading books and finding a long-lost mystery. It's about Tommy thinking. It's about a couple very much in love who can save the country and redecorate. And yes, very vaguely, it's about the Common Market.

Friday, 17 December 2010

Partners In Crime (1929)

Plot: What Tommy and Tuppence did next... was take the piss, frankly.

After the ripping yarn of The Secret Adversary, Tommy and Tuppence Beresford set out to solve crimes using the methods of other detectives as a set of literary parodies.

The whole idea was already waaay out of date when the stories were adapted for a baffled 1980s television audience. While Francesca Annis chews the scenery and a variety of hats, James Warwick turns up in a variety of mad costumes without explanation, including a priest's costume. If you're well-read in
your crime, you may just think “Why is he dressed as Father Brown?” but that'll be about it. By the time Francesca Annis dances through a health farm in a series of veils, you may indeed be ready to commit a crime yourself.

If you want to know the sources, Charles Osbourne's Life and Crimes of Agatha Christie features a handy grid... giving your an at-a-glance guide to a lot of mostly out-of-print and forgotten sleuths. You probably won't be much wiser, although you may go “oooh, I've read a couple”. There's also a lovely analysis here

The most interesting parody is when Tommy pretends to be Hercule Poirot, at which point you can only applaud Christie for being rather meta.

Hopelessly out-of-context, how do the stories themselves hold up? The nearest comparison I guess is The Big Four, although Partners In Crime is neither as mad nor as bad. Some adventures are joyous and atmospheric (The House Of Lurking Death), some are madcap John Buchan (The Sinister Stranger) or just madly Dr Nikola (Blindman's Bluff with its electrified floor).

However, just when your teeth grind together like a vintage gearbox, you'll be reminded how adorable Tommy and Tuppence are, or how well they work in an atmosphere of vague conspiracy and intrigue. What keeps this collection fun is that they're having a ripping time, which makes it all more than bearable. They're great company even on an off-day. More of which, next time.