Christie Week: Cat Among the Pigeons by Agatha Christie

Best days of our lives?

😀 😀 😀 😀

(These Christie audiobooks narrated by either Joan Hickson or Hugh Fraser have become my stress relievers, and as we all know, life has been pretty stressful recently! I usually hold my reviews of them back, to have something to post when I run out of other reviews. But that hasn’t happened for ages, and some of the unposted Christie reviews are getting so old they’re going yellow round the edges. So join me for Christie week! A whole week of posts about the unrivalled Queen of Crime! 😀 Just a word on star ratings: for favourite authors – Christie, Dickens, Austen, Hill – I only rate them against their own best work, not other people’s. So a four-star Christie is still head and shoulders above most five-stars from other people. I know, it doesn’t make sense, but there’s no law says it has to… 😉 )

Cat Among the PigeonsIt is the start of term and parents are arriving to drop their daughters off at the elite Meadowbank school, where the headmistress, Miss Bulstrode, has built a reputation for excellence. There are several new girls: Jennifer and Julia who are destined to become best friends, and Princess Shaista, a member of the ruling family in Ramat, a middle-Eastern nation that has just undergone a coup. Flashback a few weeks to Ramat, and we meet Bob Rawlinson, friend to Prince Ali Yusuf, the soon to be deposed ruler. Ali, aware of his likely fate, entrusts something of immense value to Bob and asks him to get it out of the kingdom. These two very different scenarios will soon cross into each other, bringing murder to the ultra-respectable Meadowbank.

Although this has never been one of my top favourite Poirots, it has lots of good things that place it high in the second tier. When I was younger Meadowbank seemed like a wonderful place, though now I find I hate the elitism of it and see no real signs of why it should be considered so remarkable – the girls we get to know seem a rather mediocre bunch on the whole, and are there exclusively because of their parents’ wealth and social position. Christie does address this through a conversation between a couple of her characters, but not convincingly.

The characterisation of the teachers is very well done. Miss Bulstrode is an inspirational leader (though she doesn’t seem terribly good at selecting staff!) while her long-time friend, Miss Chadwick, is one of these rather pitiable characters Christie does so well – a little lonely, loyal to a fault, often overlooked by stronger personalities. She reminds me of Bunny in A Murder is Announced. Miss Vansittart is the one considered likely to succeed Miss Bulstrode when she retires, although Miss Bulstrode is having doubts about her suitability. There are some new members of staff this term, each of whom may or may not be what she seems. It is one of these, Miss Springer the gamesmistress, who turns up dead in the new Sports Pavilion.

(FF muses: Hugh Fraser pronounces Miss Vansittart with the emphasis on “sit”. In my head it’s always had the emphasis on ‘Van’ – to rhyme with Fancy Tart. Hmm, that should pile the views in from Google searches from men who will be very disappointed to discover that my Fancy Tart is not at all what they’re searching for… 😉 )

The two girls we get to know best are fun. Jennifer is an unimaginative and unobservant child, devoted to her tennis, while Julia is quite the reverse – sensible, but curious and with lots of intelligence and initiative. As happens often in Christie novels, the children are far less fazed by the murder and mayhem going on around them than the adults. She shows them as partly excited and partly too self-absorbed in their own affairs to be frightened. Personally I find this more credible than if they were all having screaming hysterics all the time.

agatha_christie
Agatha Christie

There are a few reasons I don’t rate this quite as highly as some of the other Poirots, but none of these should be seen as major criticisms, simply observations. Poirot doesn’t appear until very late in the novel, and I miss him! Written quite late in Christie’s career, 1959, it shows a little of the weakness in plotting that became a feature of some of her final books. Well, perhaps not in plotting exactly, but in the presentation of the plot to the reader – I don’t think it could quite be classed as fair play, and Poirot seems to rather pluck the solution out of the air rather than build up to it by solid investigation. I’m never so keen on Christie’s occasional ventures into the world of international espionage – I don’t think she does it nearly as believably as her more domestic plots, and it does tend to mean there’s an awful lot of that British superciliousness towards foreigners that grates more with each passing year, although it’s clear from this one that Christie had herself moved on quite a bit from the worst of the colonial attitudes she showed in some of her earliest books.

(FF muses: One of the things I always remember about it from my first reading long, long ago is that, while all this is happening at Meadowbank, Julia’s mother is travelling to Anatolia on a bus, which seemed so exotic and adventurous to young FF, especially since I had no idea where Anatolia is. Now I know, and I also know we could get there in a few hours by plane and meet the 5 zillion other British tourists who’d all gone there too, and we could all pop out and have a Big Mac if we wanted, and I wonder if all our advances haven’t simply taken the romance out of life… but I digress!)

Despite my minor criticisms, this is a very enjoyable read, and as always Hugh Fraser’s narration is excellent. A great way to spend a few hours!

Audible UK Link
Audible US Link

62 thoughts on “Christie Week: Cat Among the Pigeons by Agatha Christie

  1. Christie Week! What a fabulous idea!
    Love your story about the pronunciation of Vansittart. I’ve just tried it aloud your way and Hugh Fraser’s way and can’t decide. As an Australian, when I say it the double ‘tt’ in the middle sounds more like a ‘d.’ It’s entirely possible that if you and I said Vansittart to each other we wouldn’t even understand each other!

    Liked by 4 people

    • Hahaha, that’s very possible! I know when I lived in London people frequently had difficulty with my accent even though I speak more “proper” English than a lot of Glaswegians! It’s one thing I really notice with audiobooks and often end up wondering if they’re pronouncing a word wrongly or if I’ve been getting it wrong all my life and nobody’s told me!

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  2. Glad you enjoyed this one – it’s one of my favourites, despite the fairly bonkers plot and the other weaknesses you identify. I think Miss Bulstrode is one of Christie’s best one-off characters and I think the school setting is really well-drawn.

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    • I like Miss Bulstrode too but for me the stand-out character is Miss Chadwick – I always love how Christie portrays these lonely middle-aged women who are overshadowed by their more successful friend. I also love how she portrays teenagers and wish she’d done them more often. She makes them so believable!

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    • Some of the Hickson narrations have definite quality problems, probably because they were recorded on tape originally or something, and that means that occasionally I have difficulty catching every word. But she always makes me feel as if she’s my favourite grannie or great-aunt, reading me a bedtime story… 😂

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  3. Oh, a Christie week! Yay! What a great idea! As for this one, I know just what you mean about the elitism of the school, FictionFan. And, yet, Miss Bulstrode warns about just that (I really like her character, by the way), and it seems that Christie knew that attitude. Hmm…. At any rate, I wish Poirot were in the book sooner, and I sort of wondered about the machinations Christie used to get him involved (Julia Upjohn’s mother and Maureen Summerhayes – a bit of a stretch, but OK…). Still, there’s a lot to like in this one, and I did like the wit you sometimes see (that scene where the parents are all dropping their daughters off – some great moments there!).

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    • Yes, that scene at the beginning is great – especially the drunken aristocrat! 😂 I like Miss Bulstrode too, but for me the stand-out character is Miss Chadwick – Christie does these lonely, over-shadowed middle-aged women so well, and really makes me feel sorry for them. Miss Marple often doesn’t show up till late in the book, or takes a back seat for most of it, but Poirot is usually more central than this, and I missed him! But I liked the girls so that made up for it… 😀

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  4. Ah, a whole week devoted to the queen of crime, it doesn’t get much better than that. This particular Christie never became one of my favorites either, though I have found things to enjoy in all of them. I can’t actually remember the finer details of the plot here, but I do recall the school and the teacher, Miss Bulstrode, she was a great creation. The two girls, Julia and Jennifer also ring a bell, certainly the fact that one of them was a bit stupid, while the other had more curiosity about the world. Great foil characters.

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    • It’s so long since my re-read that some of the details are becoming vague again for me, which is why I decided I better post the review before I forget it completely! She sets herself such high standards with her best books that some of them are bound not to feel quite so good, though still better than most of her contemporaries at their best. I liked Miss Bulstrode too but for me the stand-out character was Miss Chadwick – I always love how Christie portrays these lonely middle-aged women who are over-shadowed by a successful friend. And she does teenagers so well too. I always find them believable, and wish she’d had a few more of them in her books.

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  5. Christie week–what fun. For a moment, I wondered if that was something I could join in for (which I’d have loved to, but then again, don’t quite have the time for at the moment) but am looking forward to reading your reviews.

    Cat Among the Pigeons wasn’t among my favourite Christies either but I did enjoy it; I agree with your assessment of the espionage/thriller books versus her mysteries proper. I had fun reading about this book recently in Diary of a Buddhist Cat in which Freddie the cat of the title is disappointed about there being no actual cat in the plot but glad he doesn’t live near a school since too many people seem to die there 😀

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  6. Yay for Christie week!!! And since I picked up Sleeping Murder for the reason you mentioned–stress relief–I’m all for more Agatha.
    Really enjoyed your review. I enjoyed it also. But it has never been a favorite of mine either for the reasons you mentioned. But Christie’s books are so relaxing.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Re-reading is always more relaxing than reading new books, I find, and Christie is perfect – no matter how often I read them I still enjoy them just as much each time! 😀 Yes, she sets herself such high standards with her best books that some are bound not to live up to it, but they’re still always enjoyable – real talent!

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  7. I’m very much looking forward to an entire week of Christie!! I don’t remember reading this one, but something tells me I’d be right there with you on the points you’ve made. Still, even a “mediocre” Christie is so much more interesting than some of the drivel coming out today!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Haha, me too – or I will be when I’ve prepared tomorrow’s post, which I’ve been procrastinating over for a week now! 😉 Yes, that’s why I mentioned about the star ratings, because even though this isn’t one of her very best, it’s still far better than other books I’ve given five stars to! She makes it difficult for herself by setting such high standards with her best books! 😀

      Liked by 1 person

    • Interesting! It was only when he said it that I began to wonder if maybe I’ve never heard it said aloud before. Audiobooks often leave me wondering if I’ve been pronouncing words, especially names, wrong, all my life! But I’m very fond of fancy tarts, so I’m sticking with that… 😉

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      • It is interesting. I suspect our native dialects play a strong role. When we moved to Cornwall I had to learn a new set of rules on pronouncing place names. Here the stress is invariably on the penultimate syllable, not so in the SE where the emphasis comes earlier. People looked at me very strangely for a long while down here until I mastered this rule 😖

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        • That is interesting! I know when I went to London I was surprised at how often they didn’t understand me since I’ve got an “educated” Glasgow accent. I could understand them because we get Londoners on TV all the time. I must have naturally modified my accent because the problem went away after I’d been there a while.

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  8. You’ll be happy to know that all the Christies I’ve put on my CC list are in audio form, narrated by either Hugh Fraser or Joan Hickson. I hope to listen to the first next month when I have to take a small road trip. Stay tuned!

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  9. Maybe I should wait for one of your five-star Christie reviews to be swayed into adding another book to my overflowing stacks….although, I’m not sure I really want to read about kids at an “elite” school, where the likes of a certain former U.S. president graduate from, despite being unable to read things as complex as Lego instructions. But that has nothing to do with the quality of Christie’s writing.

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    • Ha, but this is a British elite school, so they might come out as total idiots, but they’ll be terribly well-spoken and eloquent idiots! You just have to look at our own politicians… 😉 There will be a five-star in the course of the week… 😀

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  10. I loved your review and musings! A satisfying read even if I don’t get round to reading Cat Among the Pigeons and pondering the pronunciation of Vansittart – now I’ll never know what my own instinct would have been on this…

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    • Haha, I’m glad you enjoyed my musings! It takes me so long to listen to audiobooks and I have such problems staying concentrated on them that I find I do an awful lot of musing while theoretically listening! This may be why I can never work out whodunit… 😉 I suspect Hugh Fraser is probably right since I don’t think I’ve ever actually heard the name spoken aloud before. But I like the idea of fancy tarts, so I’m sticking with that… 😀

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  11. A week of Christie’s, what a great idea! I might have to do that sometime. Between April 2020 and May 2021 I read 20 books by Christie because I wanted to finish all the Hercule Poirot books, and towards the end I could not keep up with reviewing all of the books. So I still want to come back and review those.

    As far as Cat Among the Pigeons goes, I liked it more than I thought I would and I found many things to like, but some of it didn’t work for me.

    I like your way of rating books by Christie, rating against her books only. I do rate books on Goodreads but my rating system is not very meaningful because I have to really dislike a book before I go below 4 stars. But mostly I feel very favorably about the books I read so it doesn’t matter much.

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    • Ha, yes, writing reviews of all the Christies one after another would be a bit off-putting! My problem is if I don’t write the review quite soon I forget all the details and then have to spend ages flicking back through – and that’s almost impossible with audiobooks.
      My rating system is a bit of a mess. I know what I mean, but I’m not sure it’s too helpful to other people because of these things like rating some Christies down in comparison to other Christies rather than other authors. I tend to either love or hate books, so most get five stars, some four, and a few, one. But very few get two or three stars because if a book is mediocre that’s when I’m most likely to abandon it. Like you, I thoroughly enjoy most of what I read – it would be a rotten hobby if we didn’t!

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  12. I too missed Poirot through much of the book, you know how much I love Hugh Fraser’s readings, but I have a sneaking fondness for the TV version with Harriet Walter playing Miss Bulstrode. And thank you for spelling fazed correctly, the recent rash of spelling it ‘phased’ drives me round a bend!

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    • D’you know, I don’t think I’ve seen the TV one, which is really surprising since I used to watch them all – or so I thought! But I was trying to visualise the cast when I was writing this review, and couldn’t. I love Harriet Walter – I must hunt it down! Haha, the bad spellers have me so paranoid I actually had to check I’d spelled it correctly before I posted the review – I began to wonder if I’d been getting it wrong all these decades… 😉

      Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, I love the idea of boarding schools too, though I’d probably have hated it in real life! I never enjoy her international espionage stories so much, but I was glad she gave a less stereotyped picture of the Prince of Ramat in this one than she sometimes does with “foreigners”.

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    • We seem to have a majority for Fancy Tarts, so I’m going to write to Hugh Fraser and ask him to re-record it! 😉 Yes, my rating system doesn’t work for these really great authors. If you give all their books five stars then it doesn’t give an indication of which ones are best, but giving four stars to a book that’s better than most five star books is a bit crazy!!

      Liked by 1 person

  13. Your comments on Anatolia are interesting. With books like this is a bit like with history, one needs to keep in mind how it was when the book was written, imagine what an impact it had.

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    • Yes, with Christie I’m just about old enough to have been a “contemporary reader”, for her later books anyway, and I often notice that the things that seemed so exotic and almost impossible for working class people back then – like visiting Egypt – won’t feel the same to younger people. It’s important as you say to remember the context.

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  14. what a brilliant idea to have a Christie week, I love the description of your reviews going yellow around the edges! And good plan on the stars, makes perfect sense. . .
    It’s all very stressful at the moment, our electricity has just come back after days, so actually now feeling more relaxed!

    Liked by 2 people

    • Ugh! I’m glad you’ve got your power back! I was without a phone for a couple of days this week but I don’t know if it was storm related – I felt cut off from the universe though! 😂 I’m enjoying all the Christie chit-chat – it’s always fun reviewing an author so many people love! 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  15. Oh this does sound fun! And I totally know what you mean by rating your Agatha Christie’s against other Agatha Christie’s only – it’s the fair way to review them I think 🙂 I also agree that teenagers would find a murder more exciting than anything – it’s like an adventure for them.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Yes, if I was good at IT I’d use some kind of special symbol for favourite authors rather than my usual smilies – stars, or something! Ha, I do love the way Christie does teenagers – they’re sort of like slightly more grown-up versions of Enid Blyton children! 😀

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