Monthly Archives: October 2016

Agatha Christie’s Halloween Party

Published in 1969 this seasonal novel features Hercule Poirot and his friend Mrs Ariadne Oliver. It was dedicated to P.G Wodehouse.Hallowe'en Party (Poirot) (Hercule Poirot Series Book 36) by [Christie, Agatha]

While staying with a new friend, Mrs Oliver is taken to a house called ‘Apple Trees’ where preparations for a Hallowe’en party are taking place. The house is full of assorted helpers, mostly mothers, spinsters, teenagers and children.
These were the days when Hallowe’en was still celebrated in the old way in Britain. A night of apple bobbing, folklore and ghost stories; much more atmospheric than today’s supermarket aisle of tacky costumes and plastic pumpkins. By tradition it was the night when girls might catch a fleeting glimpse of their future husband. No one toured the neighbours demanding treats. The party is a great success until at the end of the evening, the body of a thirteen year old girl is found murdered in the library.

Mrs Oliver asks Poirot to investigate. He enlists the help of ex- Superintendent Spence who appeared in Mrs McGinty’s Dead and has retired to the village to live with his sister. Poirot insists on staying at a ‘fifth class guest house’ and wincing round the village in his too-tight patent leather shoes as he talks to a variety of well-drawn characters. Agatha Christie skilfully conjures a sly, sinister atmosphere in the village of Woodleigh Common. A feeling that some know more than they’re prepared to tell Poirot. A sense that someone mad is hiding behind an ordinary face and further danger is impending.

Hallowe’en Party is one of the last novels, written when the author was in her late seventies. The thing that strikes me most on rereading is how frequently characters comment on the times, voicing what were surely her own thoughts. Although the village setting is vintage Christie, the novel reads as strangely modern compared to earlier works.

Characters discuss the changing nature of crime, its causes and solutions now capital punishment has been abolished. Poirot’s view puts justice before compassion because that would save the lives of future victims. Other characters argue that the ‘mentally disturbed’ are being sent home because ‘mental homes’ are too full. Are murderers ‘mentally defective’ or just ‘nasty bits of goods’?

One character remarks ‘there have been very many sad fatalities with children all over the countryside. They seem to be getting more and more frequent.’ The village doctor says ‘mind you, doing in a child isn’t anything to be startled about nowadays.’

Another comments: ‘It seems to me that crimes are so often associated nowadays with the young. People who don’t really know quite what they are doing, who want silly revenges, who have an instinct for destruction. Even the people who wreck telephone boxes, or who slash the tyres of cars, do all sorts of things just to hurt people, just because they hate – not anyone in particular, but the whole world. It’s a sort of symptom of this age.’

You can’t imagine those lines in a pre-war or fifties Christie novel and you can hear the author saddened by changing society.

For that reason Hallowe’en Party has a sad, elegiac air. Poirot seems old and tired. We first see him in his flat, disappointed when an old friend rings to cancel his visit. ‘Many of the evenings were dull now.’ He thinks back over the previous cases where Mrs Oliver involved him. It’s all a long time after the camaraderie of detecting with Hastings and Miss Lemon.

There are other modern touches which seem jarring in a Christie novel. Teenagers ‘necking’, youths with long hair and side-burns, mauve trousers, rose velvet coat and ‘a kind of frilled shirting.’ (Takes me back to my brother when he used to blow his wages in Carnaby Street). There’s mention of purple hemp and L.S.D. ‘which sounds like money but isn’t.’ Mrs Oliver accuses Poirot of sounding like a computer programming himself. And of course the murder of a child is a departure from her usual victims – though not her only instance.

This was still an extremely enjoyable read, character-driven with a real sense of creeping evil. Though I prefer her work up to about the fifties, late Agatha Christie is still better than umpteen others.

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Talking about the Penny Dreadful…

A big thank you to American crime writer Marni Graff, who features me today as a guest blogger on her splendid crime writing blog auntiemwrites

I’m talking about my new book Deadly Quest and how the writers of today might learn from the writers of Penny Dreadfuls in Victorian times.

Do visit and follow Marni’s blog which is always full of fascinating news about crime writing, book reviews etc.

Thank you Marni!

Click on the link below to visit Marni’s site.

https://wordpress.com/read/feeds/5968535/posts/1205250119

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Hide In The Dark by Frances Noyes Hart

An American seasonal mystery this week, published in 1929 and set a year earlier on Hallowe’en. Hide In The Dark is the first novel I’ve read by Frances Noyes Hart (1890-1943) and I enjoyed it enormously.Hide in the Dark: An All Hallow's Eve Mystery (Black Heath Classic Crime) by [Hart ,Frances Noyes]

Thirteen people are gathered at Lady Court, an old house, some forty miles south of Washington. The house has been owned by the family of their hostess, Lindy, for over two hundred years, though not lived in – except by a servant – for the last fifty. Lady Court is supposedly haunted by an ancestor who committed murder.

Eleven of the characters are old college friends, a group who called themselves ‘The Mad March Hares,’ the remaining two are spouses. The group haven’t been all together for nearly a decade. They’re still haunted by the suicide of their twelfth friend, Sunny, who drowned herself when she was nineteen.

The novel begins as they arrive for a Hallowe’en house-party. The idea is to recall happy occasions spent there many years ago. They bring hampers of food for three days and the caretaker servant has been sent away. As night falls, Lindy recounts the story of the murder for the benefit of their new guests. In the best tradition of Hallowe’en tales, the weather worsens with lashing rain and a great storm. A river floods, sweeping away a bridge and cutting off the house. They find the telephone is no longer working.

The group play traditional games such as ‘apple-bobbing’ and ‘flour and ring’. Over the course of the evening, old friends catch up, secrets are disclosed, hidden enmities surface. The author does a wonderful job of building a darkening atmosphere beneath the high jinks and a sense of growing danger. This culminates at midnight when they play ‘hide in the dark,’ – more often known as ‘sardines’ in the U.K – and one of them is murdered.

Unable to get help, the friends question one another and try to work out whodunit. It turns out that several had a motive to kill the victim.

Hide In The Dark is beautifully written. Initially, I wondered if thirteen suspects might be a lot to get straight but soon found the author created clearly delineated characters. They are very believable of their period, it was easy to get to know them and care what happens. Frances Noyes Hart also included a cast list, a popular device in Golden Age fiction.

The novel has a lot of quick-fire dialogue and I kept ‘seeing’ the scenes as a black and white film, the sort that would star Bette Davis and George Brent, say. I think Hitchcock might have enjoyed directing this. It has a well-crafted blend of fun and malice.

Hide In The Dark builds to an abrupt, though very satisfying conclusion. It’s been an interesting change to read an American take on a classic mystery plot and I look forward to trying more from Frances Noyes Hart.

 

 

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Leslie Charteris and the Saint

Over the past few weeks I’ve been re-reading some of the earliest of Leslie Charteris’s stories of Simon Templar – The Saint. Some of the longer novels, such as The Saint Closes the Case (The Last Hero), and the novellas – Charteris preferred the word novelette – as in Enter the Saint, Alias the Saint, The Saint v. Scotland Yard, The Ace of Knaves and The Happy Highwayman.Enter the Saint by [Charteris, Leslie]

Now it should be noted that these early Saint stories had many manifestations. Simon Templar appears in novels, novelettes and short stories, and even a comic strip. Many were printed in magazines as long stories before they appeared in print. Some were slightly altered and updated over time, and published Saint books were wont to change their titles.

The Saint made his first appearance in a novel called Meet the Tiger, though Charteris had experimented with other heroes in a few novels before that. Charteris was unhappy with this first appearance and apparently considered Enter the Saint, as the real debut of the character he wrote about from 1928 to the 1980s; though it’s worth noting that many of the books published after 1963 were ghost-written by other authors, under Charteris’s “editorial control”.

Leslie Charteris was born Leslie Charles Bowyer-Yin in 1907, and died in Windsor, Berkshire in 1993. He was half Chinese and half English. He spent most of his life in Britain and America, doing a variety of interesting jobs while he struggled to make it as a writer. He’d done about a year at King’s College, Cambridge, before dropping out on the acceptance of his novel. In 1926 he changed his name by deed poll to Leslie Charteris. Legend says that it was in admiration of Colonel Francis Charteris of the Hellfire Club. More prosaically, his daughter Patricia says he found the Charteris in the phone book.

Many people are familiar with the Saint from the television series starring, respectively, Roger Moore, Ian Ogilvy and Simon Dutton. And great fun though these are, the Saint is a rather different character in the early novels. On film the character has been played by George Sanders, Louis Hayward – in my opinion the nearest portrayal to the book character, though Charteris disagreed – and Hugh Sinclair. Vincent Price and Tom Conway played Templar on the radio.

I always think it would be great if the early Saint novels could be filmed in period, in the early 1930s. Personally, I think the earlier Saint books are the best. In later volumes, Templar takes on super-villains, even the Nazis, but in the first books he’s dealing with the underworld of the time – corrupt politicians, warmongers, blackmailers and other assorted nasty crooks.

And there are a whole team of Saint supporters: gentlemen adventurers who work for Templar on an ad hoc basis. He also has a rather dim American gangster assistant, Hoppy Uniatz, a “man” called Orace, and Patricia Holm, his utterly delightful girlfriend, who isn’t afraid to participate in some of his adventures. Sadly, for Patricia Holm fans like me, Charteris dropped her from the series in about 1948. Pity!

This early Saint might be the wisecracking gentleman familiar to TV and film fans, but there is a darker side too. Unlike these popular representations, in the books the Saint doesn’t hesitate to use violence where necessary, he blackmails villains and occasionally murders the wrongdoers he is dealing with. It would be grand to see a Saint played in such a way on the screen.

What is quite stunning about these early Saint stories in the sheer quality of the writing, particularly given that Charteris was only about eighteen when he started to pen them and only in his early twenties when the best stories were written. At times, Charteris can be positively post-modern with his wisecracking hero. In The Saint v. Scotland Yard (originally published as The Holy Terror) Templar remarks to the villain in the first of the three stories that, captured though he is, he positively can’t be killed off at that point as there are still two stories left in the volume! You have to be a very confident young author to get away with that.

These first Saint stories are wonderful escapism, but there is a message there too. The Saint is there to even up the odds, protect the vulnerable, help the poor – most of his ill-gotten gains are given to charity. It’s no wonder critics dubbed Templar “The Robin Hood of Modern Crime”.

If you only know the Saint from the films or TV do seek out the books, especially the early volumes. Entering the thrilling and occasionally dark world of the Saint is vastly entertaining.

 

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The Man Who Killed Himself by Julian Symons

First published by Collins in 1967, I have the vaguest memory of reading The Man Who Killed Himself in the seventies. I’m so glad to have rediscovered it recently in a second-hand bookshop in Scotland. The plot is as intriguing as the title and I was hooked from the first paragraph.The Man Who Killed Himself by [Symons, Julian]

This is the story of Arthur Brownjohn, a meek, hen-pecked husband who decides to murder his wife. (We never reveal spoilers. This is given away on the jacket copy and in the first line.) Despite contemporary references, the novel has a similar ‘feel’ to that of Golden Age mysteries and immediately brings Malice Aforethought to mind. Francis Iles (Anthony Berkeley Cox)’s legendary classic is one of my all-time favourites. However, Julian Symons puts a most original spin on the popular trope of a mild-mannered husband with murder in mind. The Man Who Killed Himself soon goes in a very different direction as Brownjohn’s troubles get increasingly complicated.

It’s impossible to say more without giving away too much. Let’s just say that the novel is brilliantly plotted, tight, intricate, has a succession of first-class twists and a clever denouement. Julian Symons’ prose is wonderful with vividly believable characters and a shrewd sense of psychology. This is a superb black comedy, gripping, very funny, sad and thought-provoking too.

The novel also has a very well-observed sense of place and time, from descriptions of the sixties in suburban Surrey and London, to Brighton and the Sussex Downs. As a child, I knew Brighton at that time and the depiction of the Lanes stuffed with antique shops, the seedy back-streets of Kemptown and the lovely old West Pier still intact, are just as it was.

Suburban life behind the privet is depicted in some lovely wry observation. The Brownjohns inhabit a world where couples visit for rubbers of bridge – and oneupmanship – serving sandwiches and coffee from a hostess trolley and a good-night whisky between eleven and twelve.

The house was called The Laurels, although there was no remaining trace of a laurel tree. …There are hundreds of such houses in Fraycut, and they are loved by those who live in them because they establish so satisfactorily their owners’ position in society.

Over the years I’d more or less forgotten how much I’d enjoyed Julian Symons’s books, recalling only his Victorian-set detective novel, The Blackheath Poisonings, which I like a lot. Now I’m keen to re-read more.

The Man Who Killed Himself is a sparkling read and should appeal to fans of Francis Iles, Hitchcock and Peter Lovesey.

 

 

 

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October 2, 2016 · 2:09 pm