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.

6 comments:

  1. I know what you mean about it, in fact I always thought it would have made a terrific if terribly niche miniseries as a sort of gentle Twin Peaks a la mode.

    On the other hand during my own fairly brief career as a profiler and detective, I had a case that was as maddeningly out of focus and hard to grasp as this one- involving a mining heiress put away in a mental hospital- and the true crime was every bit as bizarre as this, with second hand testimony etc.

    My final thought on Postern is that it also interlocks with dark hints Christie made throughout her career but especially in the late sixties onwards towards knowing something definite about those mysterious masters Churchill acknowledged having.

    Some of her conspiracy elements are sheer pulp, but here and there throughout her works I see parts of an identikit picture of a definite personality she met or knew- an actual oligarchical conspirator, now so familiar to all of us in NWO terms- a barrister (secret adversary) a man leading a double life, possibly including sexual perversion (Secret Adversary, Lord Edgeware, Passenger to Frankfurt, Endless Night, After The Flood), and so on. I suppose I should knuckle down and write an interminable blog essay about it. :)

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  2. I've always been puzzled by the 'After the Flood' title you refer to here ... it's included in a list of Christie titles in one of the old Fontana paperback editions but I've never found it anywhere, and I'd come to believe it was just a typo, caused by a mix-up of the titles for After the Funeral and Taken at the Flood!

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  3. Wow, I laughed a lot reading your review!! Loved it! Thought exactly the same.

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  4. I think the review above is very accurate when it states that Tuppence and Tommy (the characters) add to this book...possibly save it. Otherwise I think it is one of Christies worst ever stories. She is actually very muddled, and there are lapses and incoherence. I liked the premise of the childrens book having a message by someone..and the atmosphere of the rural English countryside. But Christie lost it in this one otherwise.

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  5. This book makes a lot more sense if you've read her autiobiography. Her beloved childhood home was eventually razed and villas were built on the site. But in this book Tommy and Tuppence buy it, and find all Agatha's childhood books and toys still in place. She enjoys herself revisiting the house and garden. The Monkey Puzzle was the only trace of the garden left once the site was covered by new houses.

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  6. I recommend Hugh Fraser's narration. It is beautifully done, retains all the eccentricities of the plot but is a comic tour de force. I loved it.

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