Thursday, 20 January 2011

Lord Edgware Dies (1933)

Plot: So who would want Lord Edgware dead?

“Getting rid of husbands is not my speciality”

Poirot almost comes a cropper in this outing which is full of style and charm, but, as my friend Lee points out, is “one of those where the least likely person did it.” In other words, people keep on pointing out that X cannot possibly have done the crime, and the more they underline this, the more you suspect X did it after all. A Murder Is Announced is another good example of this.

Where this book succeeds is in its evocation of 1930s London, full of parties and nightclubs and bright young things, a land of champagne and divorce and actors and female impressionists and all sorts of modern things.

In among all this is the character of Lord Edgware. “I just can't describe him, but he's – queer.” The clearly depraved Lord (forever nipping off to Paris, city of sin) is a baffling monster, far more effectively creepy for his enigmatically satanic nature and remarkably pretty butler than if Christie spelt out what exactly his problem was. The nearest we get are some snide remarks about the butler by Japp and some muttering about how the butler “might have posed for Hermes or Apollo. Despite his good looks there was something vaguely effeminate”.

Poirot is almost the only innocent character in this murky mess of deviance and deceit. “I should like everyone to be happy” he says early on, but even there we are misled. Japp later pronounces: 

“He's always been fond of having things difficult.... It's like an old lady playing at patience. If it doesn't come out, she cheats. Well, it's the other way round with him. If it's coming out too easily, he cheats to make it more difficult.”

Japp is right all along. Poirot takes great delight in terrorising a suspect who misled him. “I hope you have now been sufficiently punished for coming to me – me, Hercule Poirot, with a cock-and-bull story.”

In the end, although Poirot is clever, the murderer nearly gets away with it by being stupid. This sounds silly, but isn't. This is a story about a social manipulator who isn't clever but is very good at using people. In some ways this is far more satisfactory than a master criminal – seeing Poirot faring badly against his intellectual inferior is a great payoff.

Thursday, 13 January 2011

Murder in the Mews (1937)

Plot: Four long mysteries for Poirot.

Murder in the Mews: 
“What are they like? Gay? Lots of Parties? That sort of thing?”
Poirot and Japp investigate a murder in a house where two ladies live together. One plays golf. It's impossible not to read this as accidental lesbian hilarity, even though there's not a whisker of it in the story itself. Instead it's a rather robust narrative about a blackmailer gradually ensnared in a trap of his own making. The pay-off to the story is very satisfying as Christie manages (even with a very limited cast list) to nudge you in one direction while at the same time pulling the rug from under you. It WAS who you thought it was, but not for the reasons you suspected. If you see what I mean.

The Incredible Theft: 
“Here I scream” said Poirot helpfully. He opened his mouth and let out a shrill little bleat.

A country house, stolen plans, a weekend party of spies and gamblers... and a maid who has seen a ghost. It's all amiable stuff, with Poirot at his mischievous best. He's being told a pack of lies by nearly everyone and doesn't fail to let them all know that he finds it vastly amusing. It's a story about truth – or about good lies. As Poirot puts it pointedly “The lies I invent are always most delicate and most convincing”. He is both reassuring his host and also reminding the household that they are amateurs up against an expert on truth.

Essentially Poirot finds himself in a classic crime situation and proceeds to enjoy himself immensely. So great is Poirot's enjoyment that he even appears to chat up a maid, and get chatted up in return. He certainly is at great pains to praise her beauty. Maybe this is simply due to their shared Gallic nature?

Dead Man's Mirror
“One cannot escape one's Karma.”

Another “ideal for television” adventure featuring a country house, a locked-room and a lot of suspects, this manages to be a fairly straightforward Poirot pot-boiler set among the Chevenix-Gores. This is a household of improbables and suspectables right out of The Murder Of Roger Ackroyd, and it rattles along at a fair pace... right up to an ending that made me go “oh no, hang on, there are too many suspects – which one of you are you again?”. But it's a ripping yarn.

Triangle At Rhodes

Poirot is on a beach holiday. Sat next to a woman who fancies herself as an observer of human nature. Yet it is Poirot who spots a crime in the offing. Readers of Death On The Nile and Curtain will recognise two things – Poirot issuing a significant warning, and Poirot detecting the hand of a social manipulator at work. The story also bears similarities with one of Miss Marple's 13 Problems, and is another great example of how Agatha Christie ensures that bad things happen to husband-stealing women.

Sunday, 9 January 2011

The Moving Finger (1943)

Plot: Poison-pen letters lead to tragedy in a small village.

The Poison-pen letter is a preoccupation of classic crime. Dorothy L Sayers' Gaudy Night dances high above the canon as an example of frustrated Women Who Hate (it being a staple of these stories that such letters are only written by women).

When Agatha Christie tackles poison pen letters, of course she wheels out a spinster to catch a spinster – but this is very much a novel in which Miss Marple cameos at best. Just as Cat Among The Pigeons is a delightful feast with Poirot as a digestif, Miss Marple totters along at the very end of this book to offer a neat solution.

In the meantime we're on familiar ground of gossip and suspicion and wise counsel in a small community. As usual, the servants are a problem – there's a death which may be suicide until a maid is found brutally slain because she knew too much but didn't speak out in time, the silly moo. From there on in it rattles along nicely until we realise that we've been looking in the wrong direction entirely and that this isn't a tale of a rotten community but a more domestic horror. With added Marple.

What makes this as a book is that it's really a love story – it's about the narrator falling in love with a girl who is variously described as ugly, simple, plain, backward and ill-dressed. However, almost without realising it, the narrator gives her a proper makeover and falls dazzlingly in love with her. This is the real heart of the book – that in an atmosphere of suspicion this unusual relationship doesn't come under attack is one of the biggest clues as to what is really going on. Of course, this doesn't escape Miss Marple's notice. Nor does she miss the shopping montage.

Curiously, Christie claims this as one of her favourites. Which is odd – it's certainly one of her more believable and moving love stories, but as a Miss Marple book it's a strange beast.