Tag Archives: #agathachristie

Agatha Christie’s ‘Sparkling Cyanide’

Published in 1945, Sparkling Cyanide, unusually for a Christie novel, has no dedication. The detective figure is Colonel Race, in his fourth and final outing. He features first in The Man in the Brown Suit, and also in Cards on the Table and Death on the Nile. Race formerly held a senior position in M.I.5 and is a friend of Hercule Poirot. We’re in good hands.

This novel demolishes the widely held view that Agatha Christie wrote two dimensional characters. The first part of the book follows six people thinking over the events of a year ago, when Rosemary Barton, a lovely young heiress, committed suicide.

Christie writes vivid sketches of these fully-realised characters. We learn their innermost thoughts about the dead woman. Not every thought, mind you, for one of them may be a murderer. What is fascinating is the way in which the characters come to understand more about themselves by remembering the victim. As so often, distance brings surprising insights, often disconcerting. The writing is effortlessly natural, no exposition or significant facts shoe-horned in here.

The previous autumn, Rosemary Barton keeled over at a dinner held to celebrate her birthday. The other guests were her husband, young sister, a married couple, a bachelor friend and her husband’s secretary. A confidential secretary, male or female is almost a de rigeur figure in Golden Age ‘household’ mysteries. Each one has a possible motive for murder.

A year later, her widower, George Barton, arranges a dinner at the same restaurant table with the same guests, plus Colonel Race, who had been invited previously but unable to attend. A trap is being set, despite Race strongly advising Barton not to go ahead.

He had known George Barton ever since the latter’s boyhood. Barton’s uncle had been a country neighbour of the Races. Race was over sixty, a tall, erect, military figure, with sunburnt face, closely cropped iron-grey hair, and shrewd dark eyes.

The restaurant, the Luxembourg, is a smart West End establishment with dancing – to soft negro music – and entertainment. A description of the latter gives an interesting glimpse of the times.

Suddenly there was a roll of drums – the lights went down. A stage rose in the room. Chairs were pushed a little back, turned sideways. Three men and three girls took the floor dancing. They were followed by a man who could make noises. Trains, steam rollers, aeroplanes, sewing machines, cows coughing. He was a success. Lenny and Flo followed in an exhibition dance which was more of a trapeze act than a dance. More applause. Then another ensemble by the Luxembourg Six. The lights went up.

Colonel Race dominates the third part of the novel, together with Chief Inspector Kemp of Scotland Yard. Another intelligent, likable character, he worked under Superintendent Battle, another old friend to Agatha Christie fans. (In Cards on the Table, published in 1936, Battle worked with Poirot and Colonel Race).

The denouement is wonderful, yet again. Revealed after a succession of suspects in the frame, deceptively simple, a strong motive is concealed by a dazzling sleight of hand, worthy of a conjuror from the Magic Circle. Highly recommended, as always.

 

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‘The White Cottage Mystery’ by Margery Allingham

The White Cottage Mystery was Margery Allingham’s first detective fiction and her second novel. She began her writing career with Blackerchief Dick, an historical adventure, published in 1923, when she was only nineteen. The White Cottage Mystery was serialised in the Daily Express in 1927 and published as a novel a year later. After Allingham’s death in 1966, her sister Joyce revised the work to remove recaps etc. necessary in a serial.

Margery Allingham’s work is very individual among Golden Age fiction. Unquestionably a great detective novelist when she played it straight, she sometimes blurred the boundaries between detective fiction and rollicking adventure yarns, full of high jinks and eccentric enemies. You see this now and again in Agatha Christie’s earlier novels, such as The Secret Adversary and The Big Four, which also started life as a serial. Great fun, though I prefer Allingham’s more serious cases.

Although I’ve a great affection for Allingham’s work and Mr Campion, she’s my least favourite of the GA ‘big four.’ Someone has to be and that’s only because I love Christie, Sayers and Marsh even more. Margery Allingham was a wonderful writer and in The Tiger in the Smoke, (published in 1952), gave us one of the great London novels.

The White Cottage Mystery begins in Kent before moving to Paris and the South of France. A man described as a ‘mental torturer’ is shot dead in his neighbours’ house. Naturally enough, everyone in both households turns out to have a motive for his murder. As Mr Campion didn’t make his first appearance until the next novel, the detective is Chief Inspector Challoner of the Yard, assisted by his engaging son Jerry.

In a way, both are stock characters but none the worse for that. All humans really fall into one of a few types, however little we like to think so. And pre-war detective characters had to be products of their class and upbringing. So we have the Chief Inspector, keenly observant, wise and avuncular and Jerry, a typically young, enthusiastic, would-be detective, thoroughly decent and in love with one of the suspects. His father says of him:

‘Jerry,’ he said, ‘you have a quick eye, a fertile imagination, and the gift of application, but you’ll never make a detective – you’ve no ground work.’

Although Margery Allingham’s writing invariably had a freshness and vivacity, The White Cottage Mystery feels very much like the work of a young writer. The character of the murder victim is unremittingly black, other characters and plot lack the subtlety of her later work. Even the greats had to learn their craft and there’s an enjoyable liveliness about the narrative, with red herrings galore.

It’s fascinating to read the early work of a much-loved crime writer and see the origin of later ideas. Here we have the idea of a nefarious society – no more details as I don’t want to spoil anyone’s reading – but it’s the idea expanded upon in Look To The Lady, published in 1931. We also get the first appearance of Allingham’s cheery old lags, always so vividly written and culminating in Mr. Campion’s lovable side-kick, Magersfontein Lugg. Chief Inspector Challoner too, is not unlike Inspector Stanislaus Oates of later novels.

The revised novel retains the feeling of a serial. The opening plunges into action, quickly introducing the hero and the murder. There are short, titled chapters, each giving a concise piece of the jigsaw and ending on a cliff-hanger or hook. There’s no room for musing or build-up with the finished work 157 pages. Even so, Margery Allingham inserted some lovely sentences that set the atmosphere in a line or two. This is when the action shifts to Paris:

The car turned suddenly out of a noisy thoroughfare into a quiet old-fashioned avenue where the trees, green and dusty in the heat, nodded together before tall brown houses. They came to a standstill before a house whose windows were hung with old-fashioned looped plush curtains and showed the gleam of polished mahogany in their shadowed depths.

I enjoyed re-reading The White Cottage Mystery. It’s as good as many ‘standard’ inter-war mysteries with a well-reasoned plot and inventive solution. Most impressive for a twenty-three year old author. The foundations are there though a contemporary reader probably wouldn’t have sensed that the author was going to become one of the pre-eminent crime writers of the Golden Age and beyond.

 

 

 

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Clerical Crime For Easter

As it’s nearly Easter, this seems an appropriate time to look at an engaging sub-genre of detective fiction, the clerical mystery. From Cadfael to Sydney Chambers by way of Father Brown, a religious setting – and possibly sleuth – has an enduring popularity. I’m always drawn to this background, one of my favourite non-crime novelists is Anthony Trollope, known for his plotting – in both senses – among the clergy.Lincolnshire 149

It has been said that Vicarage is one of the most popular key words that will sell book titles, particularly in the United States. Why is this so appealing? Perhaps because in detective fiction, it’s an effective shorthand. There’s something about the word that conjures images of a traditional English mystery; summer fêtes on the village green, eccentric characters gossiping over the tea-cups, arsenic in the potted meat sandwiches or cyanide on the cake-stand.

The Murder At The Vicarage (published in 1930) is a prime example. One of Agatha Christie’s best-known novels, featuring Miss Marple at home in St Mary Mead, where a caller is murdered in the vicar’s study. Two more wonderful novels where things are far from rosy at the vicarage are Sheila Radley’s A Talent For Destruction (1982) and Redemption (1988) by the much-missed Jill McGown.

Redemption, which takes place largely on Christmas Eve, was reissued in 2015 with a snow-scene cover – presumably to catch the fashionable market for Christmas crime novels. The publishers chose to use its American alternative title Murder At The Old Vicarage. Nice enough but I prefer Jill McGown’s own choice with its deeper symbolism.

Most sleuths in clerical mysteries tend to be Anglican though Cadfael and Father Brown are Roman Catholic. The Church of England provides a background with a hierarchy and code of conduct which should not be transgressed. Both give plenty of scope for worldly motives. The rivalries and machinations of a cathedral close are not so different from those found in running a big business.

The Church also introduces a seemingly peaceful, ordered setting where the intrusion of murder is all the more shocking. This is heightened if the suspects are a closed circle among the clergy and lay-helpers.

The detective is usually an amateur sleuth, with some connection to that religious world, though not necessarily a full member. Writers have come up with some ingenious backgrounds for their protagonists. My absolute favourite series is the late Michael David Anthony’s superb mysteries, set around Canterbury Cathedral. His sleuth Colonel Richard Harrison is Secretary to the Diocesan Dilapidations Board.

Kate Charles’s Book of Psalms series, features David Middleton-Brown, a Norfolk solicitor who is an expert on church architecture. D.M Greenwood’s sleuth is a deaconess, Theodora Braithwaite. Written in the 1990s before the ordination of women in the Church of England, Theodora was a semi-outsider, allowed so far but unable to be a priest. Kate Charles’s later, Callie Anson series features a woman vicar.York 003

Where the detective is part of an enclosed religious order, they are of necessity, a maverick who likes to visit the outside world. Ellis Peter’s Brother Cadfael is a herbalist who journeys around the Welsh Marches and Veronica Black’s Sister Joan runs errands from her convent on Bodmin Moor in Cornwall.

Amateur sleuths invariably require a police ally – in Cadfael’s case in 12th century Shropshire, the Deputy Sheriff. Martha Ockley’s series features Faith Morgan, a former police detective who becomes a vicar. Incidentally, Martha Ockley is a pen-name of Rebecca Jenkins, daughter of a previous Bishop of Durham.

Even with police assistance, ‘clerical’ detectives tend to solve the crime with their knowledge of human foibles rather than forensics. In a sense these are morality tales for our time, often posing questions about moral versus legal justice. The serpent slithers into Eden and at the end of the novel, order is restored. Good people are left to pick up the pieces. Though all detective fiction is concerned with good and evil, a background of clerical crime can be uniquely effective.

Finally, a clerical mystery has a head-start when it comes to an evocative sense of place. The Norfolk Fenland village setting of Dorothy L. Sayers’ The Nine Tailors is probably one of the atmospheric novels of the Golden Age. From a peaceful village church to the edgy central London of Alison Joseph’s Sister Agnes or even the cathedral precincts of Dickens’s The Mystery of Edwin Drood, a religious setting lends itself to be charming or shadowy, cosy or sinister, ancient or modern.

Here are a few detective/mystery novels we enjoyed, which happen to have some sort of clerical setting:

Catherine Aird The Religious Body (convent)

Alice Boatwright Under An English Heaven (country church)

Colin Dexter Service Of All The Dead (Oxford church)

Ann Granger Candle For A Corpse (country church)

S.T. Haymon Ritual Murder (cathedral)

P.D. James Death In Holy Orders (Anglican college)

Charles Palliser The Unburied (cathedral)

Ruth Rendell No Man’s Nightingale (Kingsmarkham church)

Robert Richardson An Act Of Evil (first published as The Latimer Mercy) (cathedral)

Next time we’ll look at my favourite clerical stand-alone, Peter Lovesey’s The Reaper.

 

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Agatha Christie’s A Pocketful of Rye

A Pocket Full of Rye was published in 1953 as an annual ‘Christie for Christmas,’ though it was first serialised that autumn in an abridged version in the Daily Express.Product Details

It’s one of several Christie titles to be taken from a British nursery rhyme, in this case, Sing a Song of Sixpence. This rhyme also inspired two of her short stories, Four and Twenty Blackbirds (1941) and Sing a Song of Sixpence (1929). John Curran, writing in Agatha Christie’s Secret Notebooks says:

The dramatic impact of an innocent nursery rhyme transforming into a killer’s calling card is irresistible to an imaginative crime writer such as Agatha Christie… The attraction is obvious – the juxtaposition of the childlike and the chilling, the twisting of the mundane into the macabre.

I’ve always found nursery rhymes faintly sinister in their own right. Even in childhood they seemed to retain a hint of their often dark historical origins.

This is the sixth novel to feature Miss Marple, although she doesn’t appear until eighty pages in, after the third death has occurred. The plot concerns the murder of Rex Fortescue, a rich businessman, the suspects are his family and staff. The setting is a town in the Surrey stock-broker belt, twenty miles from London. Baydon Heath was almost entirely inhabited by rich city men.

We see much of the investigation through the eyes of Inspector Neele who is considerably more acute than some policemen of Miss Marple’s acquaintance, Inspector Slack springs to mind.

‘Inspector Neele had a smart soldierly appearance with crisp brown hair growing back from a rather low forehead. When he uttered the phrase “just a matter of routine” those addressed were wont to think spitefully: “And routine is about all you’re capable of!” They would have been quite wrong. Behind his unimaginative appearance, Inspector Neele was a highly imaginative thinker.’

There’s an interesting comment of the time when Rex Fortescue is taken ill in his office:

‘It has to be the right hospital,’ Miss Somers insisted, ‘or else they won’t come. Because of the National Health, I mean. It’s got to be in the area.’

(The free British National Health Service had begun five years earlier).

The murders are staged to follow the lines of the nursery rhyme. After the third death, Miss Marple arrives on the Fortescues’ door step and is soon invited to stay – which always amuses me. She comes because Gladys, the murdered parlourmaid had previously worked for her. Miss Marple trained her in service and wants to offer the police any helpful insights into her character which may assist in catching her killer.

Inspector Neele accepts her help rather more gratefully than Inspector Slack at St Mary Mead.

He had been in two minds at first how to treat her, but he quickly made up his mind. Miss Marple would be useful to him. She was upright, of unimpeachable rectitude, and she had, like most old ladies, time on her hands and an old maid’s nose for scenting bits of gossip. She’d get things out of servants and out of the women of the Fortescue family perhaps, that he and his policemen would never get. Talk, conjecture, reminiscences, repetitions of things said and done, out of it all she would pick the salient facts.

A great summing-up of Miss Marple’s M.O.

The contemptuous murder with a peg placed on the dead girl’s nose, makes Miss Marple unusually angry. There are parallels with The Body in the Library where again, the murder victim is a young naïve girl. She describes Gladys as rather pathetically stupid and obviously feels a sense of responsibility to bring her killer to justice. It’s one of those moments when behind the fluffy old lady, the reader glimpses someone implacable, the murderer’s Nemesis.

I’ve mentioned in previous blogs how much I disagree with the view that Christie didn’t write believable characters. She simply wrote with a light touch. Here’s a character described through Inspector Neele’s eyes:

‘He knew the type very well. It was the type that specialised in the young wives of rich and elderly men. Mr. Vivian Dubois, if this was he, had that rather forced masculinity which is, in reality, nothing of the kind. He was the type of man who “understands” women.’

All you need to know. Agatha Christie trusted her readers’ imagination to fill in the rest.

Although there’s much to enjoy, A Pocketful of Rye isn’t one of my favourite Christies. The murders mimicking the nursery rhyme is too contrived for me and I prefer Miss Marple in a village setting, rather than an enclosed household of suspects.

Having said that, it’s a fine whodunit with a cleverly deceptive plot. The psychology is excellent – as always – and the character of Gladys is very poignant, revealing a greater depth to Miss Marple.

 

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‘Magpie Murders’ by Anthony Horowitz

This is the first novel I’ve read by Anthony Horowitz though I loved his television drama ‘Foyle’s War’ and enjoyed his scriptwriting for ‘Midsomer Murders’. So I came to ‘Magpie Murders’, knowing only that there’d been masses of glowing reviews when it came out last year (in 2016). Well, the short version is – here’s another one. Magpie Murders by [Horowitz, Anthony]

I loved ‘Magpie Murders’ and think it’s one of the best new crime novels I’ve found in the last couple of years. (I re-read a lot of old favourites). For anyone who loves Agatha Christie and Golden Age detection, this is an outstanding treat – full of ingenuity and flair – and much more besides.

It isn’t easy to review this novel without giving away too much but these details are on the jacket copy. The story begins in the first person. Susan Ryeland, an editor at a small publishing house is settling down to read the manuscript of ‘Magpie Murders,’ their most famous author’s new detective novel. She’s a likeable, very human narrator, getting comfy with wine, snacks and cigarettes. Horowitz is very good at channelling believable female characters.

Within a couple of pages – and after a few cryptic remarks from Susan – we begin to read the detective novel, clearly delineated with a typewriter-style font. And there we stay until near its end. ‘Magpie Murders’, the manuscript, is a classic vintage murder mystery, set in the mid-fifties in that well-known fictional English village of ‘Mayhem Parva’. Where the sleepy streets are picturesque, the inhabitants seething with secrets and the gossip full of red herrings

Anthony Horowitz presents us with three mysteries; his contemporary ‘Magpie Murders,’ the fictional ‘Magpie Murders’ within his novel and the hidden narrative within the manuscript. You certainly get value for money and this is not one to read in bed as you’re nodding off. Not that you’d want to, as it’s too engrossing. Some reviewers have likened this device to a Russian doll. It reminded me of one of those intricate Oriental puzzle boxes where pieces shift and slide to unlock the key. (We had one long ago, brought home by a Victorian sailor forebear).

The manuscript novel features a celebrated foreign private detective who works closely with Scotland Yard and bears more than a passing resemblance to Poirot. It’s fun to spot the many nods to Christie along the way. The sidekick is named Fraser, referencing Hugh Fraser of Captain Hastings fame. (Now an acclaimed crime novelist himself). Market Basing gets a mention, a town near St Mary Mead and so on.

I think the ‘acid test’ of the dual narrative format is that both parts have to be equally interesting. One of the best examples that comes to mind is John Fowles’ ‘The French Lieutenant’s Woman’. In this, ‘Magpie Murders’ succeeds admirably.

The manuscript is very enjoyable and captures a real feeling of a 1950s detective novel of the best sort. Despite this, there are anachronisms and this is an example of Horowitz’s skill. I thought I spotted one early on when Downs Syndrome was mentioned. (I’m old enough to remember adults talking about ‘Mongol’ children, which was the usual expression in the 1960s). Then the penny dropped that the anachronisms were written by Alan Conway, the fictional author.

I don’t believe that any writer could pass off a perfect Christie imitation. But I suspect if Anthony Horowitz had been commissioned to write the Poirot continuation series, he would have done a good job. (Possibly something there  hidden in my text?).

We return to the present with Susan Ryeland when she realises that the last couple of chapters are missing from the manuscript. A great cliff-hanger, the rug is pulled just as you’re desperate to know whodunit. The remainder of the novel is as intriguing as the novel-within, as Susan turns detective to track down the missing pages and find out who murdered Alan Conway.

Well-paced to the end, the climax and the reveals are convincing and very satisfying. This is a triumph of intricate plotting, that’s written with great clarity. Important in such a complex structure. I’d be fascinated to know how long Anthony Horowitz took to plot this and how he went about it – it’s hard to believe he’s a ‘pantser’.

The writing is full of clever word-play that reminds me of the much-missed Reginald Hill’s work. There’s a witty, sparkling air about ‘Magpie Murders’ that reads as though Horowitz was having fun and really enjoyed writing it. He clearly loves the Golden Age sub-genre, paying homage, while inverting and up-dating it at the same time.

Clear some blissful free time for this with a drink, possibly a snack, definitely your thinking cap. (Let’s ditch the cigarettes). A superb detective novel, not to be missed.

 

 

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Agatha Christie’s ‘Towards Zero’

 Towards Zero was first published in 1940, although the War isn’t mentioned in the novel. The unusual title comes from a remark made in the prologue about the origins of murder. Towards Zero (Agatha Christie Collection) by [Christie, Agatha]

I like a good detective story,” he said. “But, you know, they begin in the wrong place! They begin with the murder. But the murder is the end. The story begins long before that – years before sometimes – with all the causes and events that bring certain people to a certain place at a certain time on a certain day. …All converging towards a given spot. Zero hour.”

The detective in this story is Superintendent Battle, who features in four earlier stories, The Secret of Chimneys (1925), The Seven Dials Mystery (1929), Murder is Easy (1938) and Cards on the Table (1939). Battle is staying with his nephew, a police inspector, who welcomes his uncle’s greater experience.

The plot has an interesting structure, beginning with a couple of scenes whose significance only becomes apparent at the denouement. We know early on that someone is planning the minutiae of a murder. Then we switch to letters being written and plans made for the characters to come together, nine months later in September. They stay at a house called ‘Gull’s Point,’ on the cliffs above a Devon fishing village. The setting is thought to be based on Devon’s Salcombe and the Kingsbridge estuary .

Once the suspects are gathered, Agatha Christie skilfully builds an atmosphere of prolonged tension, making this a gripping read. Scenes, pleasant on the surface, are full of fear and a sense of waiting for disaster. The characters are well-rounded and Christie’s wise understanding of psychology is shown at its strongest. I couldn’t disagree more with critics who dismiss her work as cardboard characters and superficial plots.

When a murder finally takes place, everyone concerned is put in the frame in a succession of twists. Red herrings abound and twice I was convinced I’d worked out the solution, only to be foxed again. Christie uses a plot device I recall in (only) one other title, but one of her many strengths is to present recycled ideas in such a well-disguised, fresh way that they slip past the readers again. Given that she wrote sixty-six novels, many short stories and there are only so many possible plots, I think she was remarkably clever.

Apparently when Agatha Christie adapted Towards Zero into a play in 1956, it wasn’t a great success. Perhaps because it’s quite an outdoor novel with scenes on the beach and cliffs. And creeping tension is better conveyed on the page?

I suspect this novel is often overlooked due to the lack of Poirot or Miss Marple. Certainly it wasn’t high on my list of gradual rereading – until I saw a few reviews. I must have read it decades ago but didn’t remember the plot. 

Now I’d recommend Towards Zero as one of Agatha Christie’s best. A very rewarding and satisfying read.

 

 

 

 

 

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Allingham and Christie – Two Christmas Stories

It’s fun to read Christmassy crime in December and this seems the only time of year I get around to re-reading short stories. This year I’ve gone back to Margery Allingham’s The Case of the Man with the Sack and Agatha Christie’s The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding. Both have the classic pre-war set-up where the detective is invited to stay at a country house – although the Christie was published in 1960.

The  Case of the Man with the Sack was first published in 1937 in the December issue of The Strand magazine. It was included a year later in Mr Campion: Criminologist. It’s in print in the Arcturus anthology My Friend Mr Campion and other mysteries.

Albert Campion is implored to spend Christmas with his friends the Turret family at their East Anglian home, Pharaoh’s Court. Rising gaunt and bleak amid three hundred acres of ploughed clay and barren salting, all as flat as the estuary beyond. Good job it wasn’t Poirot, I can imagine how he’d shudder.

Lady Turret is ‘goat-touting’ over Christmas, that is entertaining a family of social climbers, masquerading as friends, in exchange for a fat fee. Allingham has lots of fun with the ghastly Welkins family. As expected in such tales, Mrs Welkins, a large middle-aged woman with drooping cheeks and stupid eyes, has brought with her an impressive diamond necklace.

I like this story a lot. It has festive atmosphere, humour, entertaining characters and an ingenious, satisfying plot.

The Turret family’s money-troubles are the ghost of Christmases to come for country house owners. By 1960 in The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding, society is changing.

In this story, Hercule Poirot is persuaded to spend a traditional English Christmas at  Kings Lacey, a manor house, which is part fourteenth century. He is on the trail of a famous ruby, stolen from an indiscreet young native prince. Although Poirot displays his customary soft spot for young people and their follies, it is only the guarantee of oil-fired central heating that coaxes him away from London in winter.

The title gives much away to the armchair sleuth and I do wonder if Christie was having fun with a nod to Sherlock Holmes’s adventure of The Blue Carbuncle.

I won’t say much about either plot as these are short stories but their similarities are interesting to compare. Both authors have the McGuffin of a precious jewel/piece of jewellery, the rambling country home decked with seasonal trimmings, snow on the way, outsiders at the feast (as well as the detective) and young couples. In both tales the lady of the house is more aware of the situation and ‘managing’ her husband.

The notable difference between them is the time period. In Margery Allingham’s 1930s, Lady Turret may have temporary money-troubles from her heavy losses at bridge but the family still entertain their tenants’ children at their annual Christmas party.

By 1960 at Kings Lacey, society is changing. The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding is suffused with nostalgia – and this reads as though it comes from the author rather than the characters. Agatha Christie wrote an appealing foreward to this volume of short stories, where she recalled the superb Christmases of her youth, spent at Abney Hall, near Stockport. Abney Hall was the family home of her brother-in-law and many years later, she wrote The Adventure while staying there.

Mrs Lacey says to Poirot. My husband, you know, absolutely lives in the past. He likes everything to be just as it was when he was a boy of twelve years old, and used to come here for his holidays.

 And of herself: I simply long to have a small, modern bungalow. No, perhaps not a bungalow exactly, but a small, modern, easy to run house built somewhere in the park here, and live in it with an absolutely up-to-date kitchen and no long passages.

The granddaughter staying at Kings Lacey has got in with what they call the coffee-bar set. She lives in Chelsea and goes about without washing or combing her hair.

The Adventure of the  Christmas Pudding is an enjoyable read with interesting social detail but I felt dissatisfied with meeting Poirot so briefly. I miss the length of a novel. Of the two, I prefer The Case of the Man with the Sack. Trying to work out why, I think because I admired the puzzle and liked the humour. It was easier to enjoy the short story for what it was, without missing a murder so much – much as I  love Mr. Campion novels.

That’s the problem for me, a crime story without a murder just doesn’t satisfy in the same way. Understandably there’s a school of thought that Christmas tales should be lighter in tone and all end well but I like some darkness among the cheer. For me – in the pages of fiction only – there’s nothing like mulled wine, mince pies and murder…

 

 

 

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The Unpleasantness at the Bellona Club by Dorothy L. Sayers

The Unpleasantness At The Bellona Club begins on that most atmospheric of dates in Britain, Remembrance Day. The Great War casts a long shadow over the London setting, characters and much of the plot. The opening scene takes place on Armistice night when members are gathering at the Bellona Club in Piccadilly. A dinner is being given by Colonel Marchbanks for the friends of his son killed in action, among them is Lord Peter Wimsey.

As Wimsey chats at the bar to his chum, George Fentiman, it becomes apparent that George’s elderly grandfather, a fixture at the club, has died quietly in his armchair. We learn that his estranged sister also died that day in London. A fortune is at stake, dependant on which one of them died first.

The Unpleasantness At The Bellona Club was published in 1928. The Great War had been over for a decade and some of the characters are irrevocably scarred by their experiences. George Fentiman has ‘nervous troubles,’ a euphemism for shell-shock, as well as having been gassed. Another pal is known as ‘Tin-tummy’ Challoner since the Somme, the club doctor was an army surgeon.

The Bellona’s secretary has only one sound arm and Sayers’ devotees will know how much Wimsey suffers from nightmares about his war. (Ngaio Marsh’s Chief Inspector Alleyn also had a ‘nervous breakdown’ after the Great War). Wimsey also suffers torments when he catches a murderer, thus sending someone to be hanged.

All this remembrance-day business gets on your nerves, don’t it? It’s my belief most of us would only be too pleased to chuck these community hysterics if the beastly newspapers didn’t run it for all it’s worth.

An interesting comment made by Wimsey, as it was very likely an attitude Sayers heard at the time.

The novel gives a fascinating snapshot of the Twenties. Like so many men returned from the War, George Fentiman finds it difficult to get work in a changing society.

No wonder a man can’t get a decent job these days, with these hard-mouthed, cigarette-smoking females all over the place, pretending they’re geniuses and business women and all the rest of it.

The modern girl hasn’t a scrap of decent feeling or sentiment about her. Money – money and notoriety – that’s all she’s after. That’s what we fought the War for – and that’s what we’ve come back to!

Presumably an in-joke as Sayers was a working woman herself. She also shows us the artists of the Chelsea set with their Bohemian life-style and society ladies’ trendy fads about health, medical cures and diet.

It’s often said of Sayers’ plots, ‘when you know how, you know who.’ Her means of murder is always of great significance to the plot. You feel she enjoyed working out her devious solutions. Despite the sombre atmosphere of Remembrance and London in November, there are moments of humour in this novel and vividly believable characters.

The Unpleasantness At The Bellona Club is a delightful classic crime puzzle and a great insight into society after the First World War.

The new Hodder edition includes an interesting – if short – forward by Simon Brett.

The 1973 BBC drama of the novel is a very good adaptation by Anthony Steven, making only minor changes as scriptwriters must. Ian Carmichael, Derek Newark and Mark Eden gave ‘straight off the page’ performances as Lord Peter, Bunter and Inspector Charles Parker.

 

 

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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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Agatha Christie’s ‘The Secret Adversary’

Agatha Christie – and Hercule Poirot – entered the crime fiction world in 1921 with The Mysterious Affair at Styles. A year later, her second novel The Secret Adversary was published, the first of five Tommy and Tuppence Beresford stories. It’s interesting that Christie was showing her versatility so early in her writing career. Instead of building on her great success with a second outing for her Belgian detective, she took a new direction with new sleuths, this time a pair. The two novels are very different.

The Secret Adversary is an adventure yarn. Much more of a light thriller in tone than a detective puzzle, parts of the plot are jolly far-fetched but who cares? I don’t, being happy to suspend disbelief for a good old-fashioned page-turner that’s lots of fun.

This novel reminds me of some Margery Allingham titles – also much-enjoyed – such as Mystery Mile and Sweet Danger. These exciting, light-hearted romps seem out of fashion. Perhaps because they belonged to such a different time, less cynical and a far more rural England. Anyway, they’re still terrific reads and a relaxing escape from our modern age.

Perhaps Agatha Christie had a similar thought at the time, for she dedicates the book:

To all those who lead monotonous lives in the hope that they may experience at second-hand the delights and dangers of adventure.

Kindly meant of course but how times have changed. Can’t imagine any author today endearing themselves by suggesting their readers have dull lives.

When we first meet our lovable duo, Tuppence is still Miss Prudence Cowley, the daughter of a Suffolk archdeacon and Tommy is her childhood friend. They haven’t seen one another since 1916, when Tuppence worked in an officers’ hospital in London and Tommy was sent there from France.

Both recently demobbed, looking for work and dreadfully hard-up, they meet by chance in Piccadilly and decide to join forces. Over a council-of-war in a Lyons’ Corner House, they decide to form The Young Adventurers, Ltd and place an ad offering their services. Tuppence takes the lead in this enterprise, as she tends to do and the advert is never needed. Someone has been listening and adventure finds them shortly after. We’re off on a lively, racing plot with spies, a criminal mastermind and assorted sinister baddies, full of danger, excitement and fun.

This reads like an early novel only in the sense that Agatha Christie captures the feeling of the time very well. It’s a story of bright young things, two resourceful people who are at a loose end. They’ve just been through the War to end all Wars and are left with no satisfying purpose or money. They’re looking for a role in life, preferably not too humdrum. The writing of The Secret Adversary is as assured as any of Christie’s later work with an observant eye for characters, strong atmosphere and a dazzling twist.

Tommy is in the best tradition of a pre-war Englishman, dogged, resourceful, brave, a gentleman and sportsman. Tuppence is the brains of the outfit, quick-witted, impulsive and liable to get herself in hot water. They’re both engaging and very real. Reading this again after decades, I can’t help ‘seeing’ James Warwick, Francesca Annis and Reece Dinsdale who played them so well in the 1985 LWT drama. A year earlier they’d also made the wonderful Partners in Crime, based on their second outing of short stories.

Agatha Christie said that this was the series she most enjoyed writing. If you fancy curling up and escaping into a great adventure with lots of period charm – The Secret Adversary is one of the very best.

Click on the link below for editions:

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