The Thirteen Problems by Agatha Christie

The perfect dinner guest…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

A group of friends meet regularly for dinner and one night the conversation turns to mysteries. They agree that over the next few weeks they will each take turns at telling of a mystery they were involved in, but before they reveal the solution they will let the group see if they can solve it. They are a diverse group, well positioned to understand the depths to which human nature can descend – a policeman, a lawyer, a clergyman, an artist and a novelist. The sixth is less likely to have much insight, or so her friends assume, being an old maid who has spent her entire life in the quiet backwater of an idyllic English village. Her name is Miss Jane Marple…

I listened to this collection narrated by the wonderful Joan Hickson and as always she does a superb job. Each story comes in at roughly half an hour long, so they’re the perfect length for a bedtime listen, or for more active people, for the evening walk! I’d come across one or two of the stories before in anthologies, but I thought they actually worked better collected in this way, since you begin to get a feel for the personalities of the regular diners. Miss Marple, of course, takes centre stage, waiting each time for everyone else to get it wrong or confess themselves baffled, before drawing on her experience of life or village parallels to reveal the true solution. Halfway through, the diners change although the format remains the same – now we are in the company of Colonel and Mrs Bantry back in Miss Marple’s home village of St Mary Mead. Since Mrs Bantry is one of my favourite occasional characters in the novels, it was an added bonus having her in a few of the stories here.

The quality varies as is usually the case in short story collections, but I enjoyed them all, and thought some of them were excellent. Sometimes it’s possible to see how Christie used the kernel of one of these stories later, turning it into the basis of the plot of a novel, and that’s fun for the Christie geeks among us. Here’s a flavour of some of the ones I most enjoyed:

The Blood-Stained Pavement – this is told by Jane, the artist in the group. It’s set in Rathole in Cornwall, which is clearly based on the real Mousehole, then as now a magnet for tourists. Christie builds up a wonderfully creepy atmosphere by telling of the village’s many legends of the days of Spanish invasions. In the present day, Jane sees blood dripping from a hotel balcony to the pavement beneath, and describes how that became a clue in a murder mystery. This has a lot of similarity to the murder method in Evil Under the Sun, which meant I solved it for once! But it’s different enough to still have its own interest.

Ingots of Gold – another Cornish story, this time related by Raymond, novelist and Miss Marple’s nephew. It has to do with shipwrecks and missing gold, and the fun of it is in the way poor Raymond, who always has a tendency to patronise his old Aunt Jane, is brought down to size by her insight.

The Idol-House of Astarte – told by Dr Pender, the clergyman in the group. The members of a house party decide to have a costume party in a grove near the house, known as the Grove of Astarte. The story here is decidedly second to the spine-chillingly spooky atmosphere Christie conjures up – she really is excellent at horror writing when she wants to be. Dr Pender feels evil in the air and is inclined to put it down to supernatural causes, but Miss Marple knows that the supernatural can’t compete with the evil humans do to each other…

The Blue Geranium – told by Colonel Bantry. Another one that has a spooky feel to it, this tells of Mrs Pritchard, the wife of a friend of the colonel’s. She’s a cantankerous invalid who has a succession of nurses to look after her. She also enjoys fortune-tellers, until one day, a mysterious mystic tells her to beware of the blue geranium, which causes death. This seems to make no sense at first, but when the flowers on Mrs Pritchard’s bedroom wallpaper begin slowly to turn blue one by one, her terror grows. This has a really unique solution, based on Christie’s knowledge of poisons and chemistry, but it’s the atmosphere of impending doom that makes it so good. Again this reminded me in some ways of one of the novels but I can’t for the life of me remember which one… anyone?

I’m not always as keen on Christie’s short stories as her novels but I really enjoyed this collection, I think because Hickson’s narration brought out all the humour and spookiness in the stories so well. A perfect partnership of author and narrator!

 

Audible UK Link
Audible US Link

37 thoughts on “The Thirteen Problems by Agatha Christie

  1. I need to build up my Joan Hickson recordings again, as I had most of them on tape years ago, but gave them away when I switched to Audable.
    I seem to remember one of Christie’s later novels about a young woman visiting a house and recalling a wallpaper with flowers on it. I think it was called Sleeping Murder. Maybe that’s what the Blue Geranium put you in mind of?

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      • Yes, I think you may both be right, though I was saying to Alyson I had in my mind some book about there being arsenic in the wallpaper. I’m wondering now if it was actually by some other author who kind of adapted Christie’s idea…

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    • Ah yes, it could be Sleeping Murder – I remember how spooky that wallpaper scene was in that one! But I had a feeling there was one about arsenic in the wallpaper – can’t find any trace of it on a google search, so I’m now thinking it maybe wasn’t a Christie book and that someone else had adapted her plot. The Joan Hicksons are great – the recording quality maybe isn’t quite as good as it would be today but her voice is perfect for the Miss Marple books.

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    • Yes, it’s available as a book and I think it was published as a collection back in the day, rather than being collected later, though I could be wrong. While there’s not a “story arc” in the background, the stories are very linked by the characters of the diners.

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  2. I absolutely loved Joan Hickson as Miss Marple, FictionFan! And these are some great stories. As you say, not all of them are at the very top of the tree (but whose ever are?), but I do like this collection. Christie has a sort of interesting way here of showing what village life is like, even though that’s not the main focus of the collection; I’ve always thought that was very clever of her. And I’m glad you included The Blue Geranium here. I like that one especially.

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    • Yes, I especially liked the ones involving Mrs Bantry – she always seems to me to be an essential feature of the St Mary Mead stories, even though she’s not in all of them. The Blue Geranium is deliciously creepy – she really was great at sneaking in a feeling of horror from time to time!

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  3. Oh, this sounds delightful! And, while I agree I tend to like Christie’s novels better than short stories, sometimes a good and creepy short tale really hits the mark (especially when some of us are having trouble focusing, thanks to this virus!)

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    • I find short stories work quite well in audio format, especially if they’re really quite short as these are. I’m sorry you’re having trouble focusing too – it’s been a strange old year so far! Hope it settles soon – it’s becoming increasingly tedious… 🙂

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  4. OK, you had me with the Rathole story. Although I’ve never been to Mousehole, I love the children’s picture book, The Mousehole Cat by Antonia Barber (fabulous illustrations!), and researched things like stargazy pie and Tom Bawcock’s Eve before reading the book to a group of kids at my son’s school. So if Rathole is based on Mousehole, I’m all in. Cheers!

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    • Mousehole is great if you ever get a chance to visit, but sooooo full of tourists! It was interesting to discover it was just as popular back in Christie’s day. She’s always fun when she writes about Cornwall – she clearly knew it well and loved it. Wise woman! 😀

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  5. I really must get to one of the Agatha Christie books I have waiting in my Kindle (or tagged in my library app). My only fear is, “what if I don’t like it??”. How will I break the news to you? But… let’s not put the cart before the horse. 😉

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    • Hahaha! It won’t happen! Well, not if you pick one of the good ones, anyway – maybe you should tell me in advance what one you’re going to try to see if it comes up to my high standards… 😉

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  6. When I retire, and my kids move out of the house, I can anticipate myself listening to audiobooks while I go on long meandering walks, what a wonderful idea you’ve just given me FF! Although I suppose I could do that now while the weather is warming up. What platform do you get your audiobooks on?

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  7. I enjoyed this one as well, although some of the stories were better than others. I also found it a quite nice introduction to some of the characters who later appear in the full length novels. For some reason, it is a bit confusing to have “Miss Marple” (i.e. Joan Hickson) reading all the voices, perhaps because she has such a characteristic voice? I never have this issue when “Hastings” (i.e. Hugh Fraser) narrates Christie stories.

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    • I do think Hugh Fraser is better at creating different characters but I find listening to Joan Hickson marvellously relaxing – it’s kinda like being told a bedtime story by a favourite aunt! I particularly enjoyed that Mrs Bantry was in some of these – next to Ariadne Oliver she’s probably my favourite secondary Christie character.

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    • Yes, indeed! And really I tend to enjoy vintage crime and classic fiction more than most contemporary stuff so I don’t know why I don’t just admit defeat and retreat to the past! 😀

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