The Murder of Roger Ackroyd by Agatha Christie

Look over there…

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Hercule Poirot has retired to the village of King’s Abbott to grow vegetable marrows but, as we all know, wherever that man goes, murder is sure to follow. Roger Ackroyd is a wealthy man and a leading light in the community, but he’s not always generous to his many dependants. So when he is found dead in his study there are plenty of suspects. Dr James Sheppard is first on the scene of the crime and once Poirot becomes involved in the investigation the doctor finds himself acting as his unofficial assistant. It is through Dr Sheppard’s eyes that the reader follows the case.

This is one of the most famous of the Poirot books and many people consider it to be the best. I always have a hard time deciding on “best” Christies because so many of them are so good, but this would undoubtedly make my top 5. However, it’s one of those ones that’s got such an amazingly brilliant solution, like Murder on the Orient Express and a couple of others, that once read never forgotten, so I tend to re-read it less often. I found on this re-read after many years, though, that although I remembered the solution very clearly, I’d actually forgotten most of the plot, so it still made for an enjoyable revisit.

Mr Ackroyd had been upset earlier on the day of his death by the news that wealthy widow Mrs Ferrars, with whom rumour suggested he was romantically involved, had died apparently by her own hand. At dinner that evening, he told Dr Sheppard that he’d received a letter from her which he hadn’t yet read. When his body is discovered later, no trace of the letter is to be found. Also missing is young Ralph Paton, Mr Ackroyd’s stepson, and when he fails to show up the next day suspicion quickly falls on him. Ralph’s fiancée, Mr Ackroyd’s niece Flora, begs Poirot to come out of retirement to prove Ralph is innocent. Poirot gently points out to Flora that if he takes the case he will find the truth, and if the truth turns out to be that Ralph is guilty, she may regret her request. Flora is sure of Ralph, though, so Poirot agrees. The local police know of his reputation and are happy to have him work with them.

Agatha Christie

“My dear Caroline,” I said. “There’s no doubt at all about what the man’s profession has been. He’s a retired hairdresser. Look at that moustache of his.” Caroline dissented. She said that if the man was a hairdresser, he would have wavy hair – not straight. All hairdressers did.

Part of the fun is seeing Poirot and his methods through Dr Sheppard’s eyes. Though he’s amused by the detective’s appearance and mannerisms, Sheppard soon begins to appreciate that Poirot’s unusual methods often get people to reveal things that the more direct questioning of the police officers fails to elicit. Poirot is of a social standing to mix as a guest in the homes of the village elite and, since gossip is the favourite pastime of many of them, including Sheppard’s delightfully nosy spinster sister, Caroline, they make him very welcome in the hopes of pumping him for information. Sheppard also has inside knowledge of all the village characters and their histories, useful to Poirot and entertainingly presented to the reader. The gossip session over the mah-jong game, for example, is beautifully humorous – so much so that it’s easy to overlook any clues that might be concealed amid the exchange of titbits of information Caroline and her cronies have managed to gather.

But that is certainly not the sort of information that Caroline is after. She wants to know where he comes from, what he does, whether he is married, what his wife was, or is, like, whether he has children, what his mother’s maiden name was—and so on. Somebody very like Caroline must have invented the questions on passports, I think.

Hugh Fraser

Christie is always brilliant at misdirection, and this book may be her best example of that. Is it fair-play? Yes, I think so – I think there are enough clues to allow the reader to work it out, but they’re so beautifully hidden I bet very few readers will. However, unlike a lot of clever plotters, Christie always remembers that to be truly satisfying a mystery novel needs more than that. In this one, the Sheppards are really what make it so enjoyable – the doctor’s often satirical observations of Poirot and his fellow villagers, and Caroline’s good-natured love of gossip. Combined with Poirot’s little grey cells and eccentricities, they make this not only a triumph of plotting but a highly entertaining read too. And, as always, Hugh Fraser is the perfect narrator. Great stuff!

Audible UK Link
Audible US Link

Evil Under the Sun by Agatha Christie, plus Murder, She Said

Evil Under the Sun

Beware! Poirot on holiday!

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The Jolly Roger Hotel sits secluded on Smuggler’s Island, a promontory off the Devon coast that can be reached only by boat or over the paved causeway from the mainland. Here the well-to-do come for a peaceful holiday in luxurious surroundings. Imagine their horror, then, on discovering that Hercule Poirot has booked in as a fellow guest! The man is a walking pestilence – wherever he goes, murder is sure to follow. There ought to be a special clause about him in travel insurance policies!

As beautiful actress Arlena Stuart comes out of the hotel and walks to the beach, all eyes are drawn to her; the men in admiration, the women in disapproval. Arlena has a reputation – gossip about her relationships with various men is whispered whenever her name is mentioned. Her husband, Captain Kenneth Marshall, seems to be either unaware or uncaring of his wife’s indiscretions, but he’s the only one. Here on Smuggler’s Island, Arlena is carrying on a heady flirtation with a fellow guest – a young man by the name of Patrick Redfern – careless of the effect on Patrick’s young wife, Christine. Patrick seems trapped in Arlena’s web, unable to escape, as so many other men are rumoured to have been before. Fanatical minister Stephen Lane sees her as the embodiment of evil; Rosamond Darnley hates seeing how she treats Rosamond’s childhood friend, Kenneth; Kenneth’s daughter from an earlier marriage resents this woman who has come into their home and brought no happiness with her. There are rumours that Arlena is being blackmailed, and any of the other guests could be the blackmailer. So when Arlena’s body is found in a lonely cove, everyone on the island finds themselves suspect…

I know I sound like a broken record with these Christie novels but this is another one I love. The plotting is great – both the how and the why. The isolated island gives it the feel of a closed circle mystery – while it’s possible that someone came from the mainland to murder Arlena it’s soon shown to have been unlikely. So Poirot, with the full co-operation of the police, sets out to talk to the various guests, to try to uncover the truth from beneath all the alibis and motives and lies. It’s another one of the ones where, shortly before the end, Poirot kindly lists all the clues giving the reader one last chance to work it out before all is revealed. Good luck with that! It’s entirely fair-play but your little grey cells will have to be in excellent working order to spot the solution.

For once I think I prefer the Ustinov adaptation to the Suchet, because the wonderful and beautiful Diana Rigg is so well cast as Arlena…

I love the characterisation in this one even more than the plotting, though. Patrick’s infatuation and Christine’s jealousy are well done, and young Linda’s teenage resentment of her step-mother feels very realistic. Two American guests, the voluble Mrs Gardiner and her complaisant husband, provide a touch of warmth and comedy amid the atmosphere of overhanging evil. Mr Blatt lets us see how money doesn’t provide automatic entry to the rarefied heights of social snobbery, while Major Barry is one of Christie’s always excellent retired colonials, willing to bore anyone polite enough to listen to his interminable stories of days gone by. Arlena herself is seen only through the eyes of others, leaving her rather ambiguous, while Rosamond’s protectiveness of Kenneth suggests she may feel something deeper than friendship for him.

Excellent! If you haven’t read it before, do; and if you have, read it again! Another one that I highly recommend.

NB This book was provided for review in a new edition with great new covers by the publisher, HarperCollins.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

* * * * *

Murder, She Said

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HarperCollins also sent me another treat – a little book of Miss Marple quotes. It’s beautifully produced in hardback and the quotes are divided up into sections, such as The Art of Conversation, Human Nature, Men and Women, etc.

“If people do not choose to lower their voices, one must assume that they are prepared to be overheard.”

It has an introduction by Tony Medawar, partly about Christie’s inspirations for the character and partly a biography of what can be gleaned of Miss Marple’s life. The book also includes a brief article called “Does a Woman’s Instinct Make Her a Good Detective?”, written by Christie for a British newspaper in 1928 to publicise a set of short stories she was issuing at that time. And at the back it has a complete bibliography of all the Miss Marple novels and short stories. Apparently there’s a companion volume in the same style for Poirot fans, called Little Grey Cells.

“I’ve never been an advocate of teetotalism. A little strong drink is always advisable on the premises in case there is a shock or an accident. Invaluable at such times. Or, of course, if a gentleman should arrive suddenly.”

It’s the kind of book that would be a fun little gift for a Miss Marple fan –  not substantial enough to be a main gift; it didn’t take long for me to flick through the pages – but a good idea for a stocking filler. There are days when we could all do with a bit of Miss Marple’s clear-eyed wisdom…

“Most people – and I don’t exclude policemen – are far too trusting for this wicked world. They believe what is told them. I never do. I’m afraid I always like to prove a thing for myself.”

Joan Hickson as Miss Marple

Amazon UK Link
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Mrs McGinty’s Dead by Agatha Christie read by Hugh Fraser

Where are they now?

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When old Mrs McGinty is brutally killed in her own parlour, suspicion quickly falls on her lodger, the rather unprepossessing James Bentley. All the evidence points in his direction, and he is duly charged, tried and convicted. But somehow it doesn’t feel right to Superintendent Spence. He’s met many murderers in his long career and Bentley doesn’t seem to him to fit the profile. With the police case closed, he takes his concerns to his old friend Hercule Poirot, asking him to investigate with a view to either turning up evidence that will clear Bentley or alternatively finding something that will reassure Spence the right man has been convicted. But Poirot must hurry, before Bentley goes to the gallows…

This is yet another great mystery from the supremely talented Ms Christie. First published in 1952, she was still at the height of her formidable plotting powers and had that ease and occasional playfulness in her style that always makes her books such a pleasure to read. I’ve always loved the books in which Ariadne Oliver appears – Christie uses this mystery-writing friend of Poirot to provide a humorous and delightfully self-deprecating insight into the life of the detective novelist, and Ariadne’s love/hate relationship with her Finnish recurring detective must surely be based on Christie’s own frustrations with her Belgian one…

“How do I know?” said Mrs. Oliver crossly. “How do I know why I ever thought of the revolting man? I must have been mad! Why a Finn when I know nothing about Finland? Why a vegetarian? Why all the idiotic mannerisms he’s got? These things just happen. You try something – and people seem to like it – and then you go on – and before you know where you are, you’ve got someone like that maddening Sven Hjerson tied to you for life. And people even write and say how fond you must be of him. Fond of him? If I met that bony gangling vegetable eating Finn in real life, I’d do a better murder than any I’ve ever invented.”

One of Ariadne’s books is being adapted for the stage by a young playwright, Robin Upward, who lives in the village where Mrs McGinty’s murder took place. So Poirot seeks her help to get an inside look at the villagers – her erratic intuition usually leads her to the wrong conclusions, but Poirot often finds her insight into how people behave when they don’t realise they’re being observed of great help to him. It’s also an opportunity to see how Christie may have felt herself about the frustrations of seeing other people adapt her work…

“But you’ve no idea of the agony of having your characters taken and made to say things that they never would have said, and do things that they never would have done. And if you protest, all they say is that it’s ‘good theatre.’ That’s all Robin Upward thinks of. Everyone says he’s very clever. If he’s so clever I don’t see why he doesn’t write a play of his own and leave my poor unfortunate Finn alone. He’s not even a Finn any longer. He’s become a member of the Norwegian Resistance movement.”

Poirot’s accommodation provides a good deal of humour in this one too. He must stay in the village, so boards with the Summerhayes – a couple with little experience of providing for paying guests and less talent. Maureen Summerhayes is delightful but scatterbrained, and her untidiness and lack of organisation drive the obsessively neat Poirot to distraction, while her less than mediocre cooking skills leave him longing for a well-cooked meal and a decent cup of coffee.

Following a clue missed by the police, Poirot soon begins to suspect that the motive for the murder lies in the past. He discovers a newspaper cutting in Mrs McGinty’s effects relating to four old murders with photos of the murderers, under the heading “Where are they now?” Poirot thinks that one at least of them may be living in the village complete with a new name and persona. But which? The recent war has destroyed many records, allowing people with shady pasts to reinvent themselves with reasonable safety from discovery. But as word of Poirot’s investigation spreads, it seems as if someone is getting nervous, and nervous murderers take risks…

Agatha Christie

I enjoyed this one thoroughly. I’d read it before long ago and pretty soon remembered whodunit but that didn’t spoil my enjoyment. It allowed me instead to look out for the clues as they happened, so I can say that this is a fair-play one – all the clues are there and they’re often quite easy to spot, but much more difficult to interpret correctly. Great fun, and as always Hugh Fraser’s narration is excellent, bringing out all the humour and warmth in the stories. Highly recommended!

Audible UK Link
Audible US Link

The Secret Adversary (Tommy and Tuppence 1) by Agatha Christie

Reds under the bed…

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As the passengers on the Lusitania scramble for safety before she sinks, a man approaches Jane Finn. Pressing a package into her hands, he tells her that it’s of vital importance to the war effort that the contents are passed to the American authorities, and asks her to take it since women and children will be evacuated first, making her more likely to survive than him.

Some years later, the war is over and two young friends meeting by accident on a London street go to a tea room to talk over old times and new. Tommy Beresford has been demobbed from the army, while Prudence “Tuppence” Cowley is back in London now her services as a war nurse are no longer required. Neither has had much success in finding jobs, so half-joking, half-serious, they come up with an idea to form a joint venture – to advertise themselves as The Young Adventurers willing to take on any job offered…

But a man in the tea room has overheard them talk and, before they can place the ad, he approaches Tuppence with a job offer. Soon the two young people will find themselves embroiled in an adventure full of mysterious crooks, Bolshevik revolutionaries, missing girls, American millionaires, secret treaties and British Intelligence. And the brooding evil presence of the sinister Mr Brown, the criminal mastermind who is behind the plot – a man no-one seems to know by sight but whom all fear by reputation…

As regulars know, my cats are called Tommy and Tuppence, so that will give you some idea of how much I love this pair of detectives. Christie didn’t write many T&T books, but each has its own charm, especially since, unlike Poirot and Miss Marple, Tommy and Tuppence age in real time, so that we see them develop from youth to old age over roughly the same period as Christie herself did. The Secret Adversary is the first, and it’s a thoroughly enjoyable romp.

James Warwick and the delightful Francesca Annis as Tommy and Tuppence in the ITV adaptation

Reading it now, nearly a century later, some aspects of it are unintentionally amusing, like dear Ms Christie’s obvious mistrust of Labour politicians, belief in the good old right-wing establishment, and a fear of those terrible socialists so great it would almost qualify her to apply for American citizenship! But this was during the Red terror following the Russian Revolution – the book was published in 1922 and there is much talk in it of a possible general strike which the socialists hope to orchestrate in order to start a British revolution. Four years later in the real world, the General Strike of 1926 didn’t quite do that, but it came close for a while, and was only broken by the middle classes volunteering to do the essential work of the strikers. My point is that the plot seems a bit silly now, but wouldn’t have back then – Christie was reflecting the legitimate fears of conservative Middle England.

Le Carré it’s not, however. Underneath all the spy stuff, there’s an excellent whodunit mystery, plotted as misleadingly as any of her later books. It’s decades since I last read this and the joy of having a terrible memory is that I couldn’t remember who the baddie was, and I loved how Christie led me around, suspecting first this person, then that one, then back again. Yes, at one point I suspected the right person, but purely by accident, and I’d moved on to the wrong person before the big reveal!

Agatha Christie

The major enjoyment of the book, though, comes from the delightful characterisation of the two main characters, and their budding romance – a romance the reader is well aware of long before the two participants catch on! Tommy is a typical British hero of the time, strong, rather stolid and unimaginative, but patriotic and decent, determined and resourceful. Tuppence is so much fun – headstrong and courageous, she works on intuition and instinct, and is one of the new breed of modern girls who are more likely to bat the bad guy over the head with a jug than swoon helplessly into the hero’s arms. She’s the driving force in The Young Adventurers while Tommy is the stabilising influence, and they’re a wonderful partnership. Lots of humour in their banter with one another keeps the tone light even when the plot darkens.

I listened to Hugh Fraser narrating the audiobook and, as always, he does a great job. He gets the chance to “do” an American millionaire and a Russian spy along with all the British characters, and has a lot of fun with the somewhat stereotyped characterisation Christie gives of them. All-in-all, pure pleasure either as a read or a listen – highly recommended! My cats recommend it too…

Audible UK Link
Audible US Link – sorry, can’t see the Hugh Fraser version on the US site, though there are other narrators available.

The Murder at the Vicarage (Miss Marple) by Agatha Christie

Enter Miss Marple…

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Colonel Protheroe is one of those men nobody likes, so when he’s shot dead in the vicar’s study the list of suspects is long. He’s a bullying husband to his second wife, Anne, an overbearing father to Lettice, his daughter, a tough magistrate meting out harsh judgement to the criminal classes of St Mary Mead, antagonistic to anyone whose morals he deems to be lax, and an exacting churchwarden, always on the look out for wrongdoing amongst the church officials and congregation. In fact, it was just earlier that very day that the vicar had remarked that anyone who murdered the colonel would be doing the world a favour!

The police are suitably baffled, but fortunately there’s an old lady in the village, with an observant eye, an ear for gossip, an astute mind and an unerring instinct for recognising evil… Miss Marple! Relying on her lifetime’s store of village parallels, she will sniff out the real guilty party while the police are still chasing wild geese all over the village green…

The narrator in the book is the vicar, Leonard Clement, and he and his younger and rather irreverent wife, Griselda, give the book much of its humour and warmth. It’s Miss Marple’s first appearance and she’s more dithery and less prone to Delphic pronouncements than she becomes in some of the later novels. This is her as I always picture her (I suspect it may have been the first one I read) and is the main reason I never think the actresses who play her do so with quite enough of a fluttery old woman feel to the character. Here, she’s a village gossip who watches the ongoings in the village through her binoculars under the pretence of being an avid bird-watcher, and the Clements joke about her as a nosy busy-body, always prying into the lives of her neighbours. As the book goes on, Leonard finds himself investigating alongside her, and gradually gains an appreciation of the intelligence and strength of character underneath this outward appearance, as does the reader.

Challenge details:
Book: 24
Subject Heading: The Great Detectives
Publication Year: 1930

The plot is very good, with as much emphasis on alibis and timings as on motives. Because Colonel Protheroe was such an unpleasant man, the reader (like the characters) doesn’t have to waste much time grieving for him. The suspects range from the sympathetic to the mysterious, from the wicked to the pitiable, as Christie gradually feeds their motives out to us. She shows the village as a place where no secret can be kept for long from the little army of elderly ladies who fill their lives excitedly gossiping about their neighbours. But while some of them are always getting the wrong end of the stick and spreading false stories, Miss Marple has the insight to see through to the truth. In his The Story of Classic Crime in 100 Books, Martin Edwards has placed this novel in his The Great Detectives section, and Miss Marple rightly deserves to be there. But he could as easily have put it in his Serpents in Eden category, for its classic portrayal of hidden wickedness beneath the idyllic surface of an English village.

Agatha Christie

Inspector Slack also makes his first appearance in this book – a dedicated officer, but one who is always jumping to hasty conclusions. He never stops to listen to people properly, and is brash and a bit bullying, and oh, so dismissive of our elderly heroine! A mistake, as he will discover when she reveals all towards the end!

I love this book and have read it about a million times. So it was a real pleasure to listen to the incomparable Joan Hickson’s narration of it this time – I find listening to Christie on audiobook brings back a feeling of freshness even to the ones I know more or less off by heart. Hickson gets the warmth and humour of the books, and gives each character a subtly distinctive voice, though never letting the acting get in the way of the narration. She does the working-class people particularly well, managing to avoid the slight feeling of caricaturing that can come through to modern readers in the books.

Great stuff!

Audible UK Link
Audible US Link

The Clocks by Agatha Christie

Time for murder…

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When Sheila Webb is sent out by the secretarial agency for which she works to the home of a blind lady, Miss Pebmarsh, to take some dictation, she is not expecting to find the corpse of a dead man in a room filled with clocks of different styles, but all pointing to the same time – 4:13. In a state of shock, she runs screaming from the house, straight into the arms of Colin Lamb, who is in the street on secret business of his own. Colin is involved in the spy business, and will get together with Inspector Hardcastle to try to discover the identity of the dead man and of his murderer. And along the way, Colin will seek the help of an old friend of his father, a certain M. Hercule Poirot…

This is one of Agatha Christie’s later books, written in 1963. Although nearly all of her books are well worth reading, there’s no doubt that by this period she was no longer producing novels of the same standard as in her own Golden Age, roughly the late ’20s to the end of the ’50s. In this one, which I hadn’t re-read for many years, I found I enjoyed the journey considerably more than the destination.

The set-up is great – the idea of the clocks is a suitably baffling clue, and the scene of the discovery of the body, where blind Miss Pebmarsh nearly steps on it by accident sending poor Sheila into a state of hysterical shock, is done with all Christie’s skill. There’s all the usual fun of interviews of the neighbours, and Christie creates a bunch of credible and varied characters, who each add to the enjoyment of the story. We also get to see life in the secretarial agency, a career that I assume has more or less died out now, certainly in the sense of girls being sent out on brief assignments to take dictation and so on.

It’s also a pleasure when Poirot becomes involved, though that doesn’t happen till almost halfway through the book. Poirot is elderly by now, so doesn’t take an active part in the investigation, instead relying on Colin bringing him information. It works quite well, and Colin is a likeable character, but my preference is for the books where Poirot is more directly involved. There’s a nice little section when Poirot lectures Colin on detective fiction, referencing a mix of real and fictional authors. I suspect Poirot’s views give an insight into what Christie herself though of the various styles.

Perhaps it was because I was listening rather than reading, but I didn’t find this one as fair-play as her earlier books – it seemed to me rather as if Poirot summoned up the solution based on instinct rather than evidence, leaving me rather unconvinced in the end. It feels as if Christie ran out of steam somewhat, and having thought up an intriguing premise, couldn’t quite find an ending that lived up to it. The ending left me feeling a bit let down but, as I say, I enjoyed the process of getting there.

Agatha Christie

What worked less well was the secondary story – Colin’s search for some kind of spy. Again some of this is down to preference – I’ve never been so keen on Christie’s occasional forays into spy stories as her straight mysteries. But I also again felt that Colin reached his solution out of the blue, and the tying together of the two plots contained too much coincidence for it all to feel wholly credible.

I listened to the audiobook narrated by Hugh Fraser, who does his usual excellent job of giving all the characters subtly different voices and suitable accents, without distracting from the story by overacting any of them – i.e., no falsetto women, etc.

Overall, then, not one of Christie’s best, but still well worth a read or re-read for fans. It wouldn’t be one I would suggest as a starter to her work, though – there are glimpses of the old magic, but it doesn’t show her off as the genius of plotting she undoubtedly was in her prime.

Audible UK Link
Audible US Link

Appointment with Death by Agatha Christie

“You do see, don’t you, that she’s got to be killed?”

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Poirot is on a little holiday in Egypt, and his poor unsuspecting fellow travellers have no idea that this means one of them, at least, will surely be murdered before the trip is over. As he closes his hotel window one evening, he overhears two unidentified characters talking in another room. “You do see, don’t you, that she’s got to be killed?” Poirot smilingly dismisses it – they’re probably discussing a play, he thinks, or a mystery novel.

After this great start, Poirot recedes into the background for a bit, while the reader is introduced to all the other characters. The main group is the Boynton family, a strange and nervy bunch ruled over by their manipulative and sadistic matriarch, Mrs Boynton – one of Christie’s greatest creations, in my opinion. Her step-children are all grown up in the physical sense, but have never managed to cut loose from her control. Lennox, the eldest, is married to Nadine, the least affected by Mrs Boynton since she wasn’t brainwashed in childhood as the others were. Then there are the two younger step-children, Carol and Raymond, who are desperate for freedom but caught like moths in a flame, unable to work out how to escape. But the most troubled member of the family is the youngest, Ginevra, Mrs Boynton’s own child, now on the brink of womanhood and driven to the edge of madness by her mother’s evil games.

There are others on the trip too, who will all find themselves involved with the Boyntons in one way or another. Sarah King provides the main perspective, though in the third person. Newly qualified as a doctor, she is concerned about what she sees happening to the younger Boyntons. There’s also a French psychologist on the trip, Dr Gerrard, and it’s through the conversations of the two doctors that Christie lays out the psychology of Mrs Boynton for the readers. Add in an elderly spinster who’s abroad for the first time, an American who’s in love with Nadine, a British lady politician who does a good line in bullying on her own account, and the Arab servants, and there’s a plentiful supply of suspects and witnesses for Poirot to interview when the inevitable happens…

Agatha Christie

A bit like with Dickens, my favourite Christie tends to be the one I’ve just read, and this is no exception. For the Egyptian setting, which Christie paints in shades of exotic menace; for the great plot, one of her best; for the psychologically diverse and well drawn group of characters; and most of all for the brooding, malignant presence of Mrs Boynton, a bloated, poisonous spider at the centre of her web, this is a top-rank novel from the pen of the High Queen of Crime.

Much of the first half of the novel is taken up with Christie allowing each character their turn in the spotlight, and the opportunity to say or do something that will look deeply suspicious later on. I’ve read it so often that, of course, I spot all the clues now as they happen but, for me, this contains the best delivered crucial clue in all the detective fiction I’ve read. It’s hidden in plain sight – it’s right there, and yet I defy you to see it. And if that’s not enough, just before the denouement Poirot lays out every clue in a list for the local British dignitary, Colonel Carbury. Fair play taken to its extreme, and yet the case is still utterly baffling until Poirot brilliantly solves it, at which point it’s completely satisfying.

Hugh Fraser

I listened to Hugh Fraser’s narration, which is excellent as always. He doesn’t “act” the characters, except for Poirot, so no falsely high voices for the women and so on, but he subtly differentiates between them so it’s always clear who’s speaking, and he gives them American or English accents as appropriate. For his version of Poirot, Fraser reproduces a very close approximation to David Suchet’s Poirot accent, giving the narration a wonderful familiarity for fans of the TV adaptations.

Fabulous stuff – I’m having so much fun listening to the audiobooks of all these favourite Christies. It’s a great way to make even the ones I know inside out feel fresh again. And for new readers, what a treat! Highly recommended.

Audible UK Link
Audible US Link

A Murder is Announced by Agatha Christie

Party games…

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When a mysterious notice appears in the Chipping Cleghorn Gazette, the villagers don’t take it very seriously.

‘A murder is announced and will take place on Friday, October 29th, at Little Paddocks at 6.30 p.m. Friends please accept this, the only intimation.’

The prevailing feeling is that this is a rather odd invitation from Miss Letitia Blacklock, owner of Little Paddocks, perhaps to some kind of murder mystery evening. So all her friends decide to show up at the appointed time. Miss Blacklock knows nothing about it but, being a sensible woman, she realises the villagers are likely to descend on her and makes preparations for a little drinks party anyway. Once everyone is assembled, a shocking event occurs and the end result is that a man lies dead. It’s up to the police, ably assisted by Miss Marple, to find out who he was and why he died…

This has always been one of my favourite Christies, mainly because I thinks she excels herself in both plotting and characterisation. It also has one of the best beginnings, as Christie ranges round the village introducing us to all the characters by means of telling us which newspapers they routinely have delivered. Newspapers in Britain have always been such an indicator of class, social position, education, political standpoint; and Christie uses this brilliantly to very quickly telegraph (no pun intended) the social mix of the village.

Published in 1950, this is post-war Britain, and the first chapter gives us a little microcosm of British middle-class society of the time – old soldiers, the traditionally rich fading into genteel poverty, the new business classes taking over as the wealthy ones, women beginning to find their place in the workforce, people displaced from their original homes forming a mobile and fluctuating population, so that even in villages neighbours no longer know all the long histories of their neighbours – now people have to be judged on what they choose to reveal of themselves. Anyone who thinks Golden Age crime fiction has nothing much to say about society should read this chapter and think again. Christie, of course, understood totally that crime fiction is first and foremost an entertainment though, so all this information is transmitted with warmth and humour, and all in the space of a few hundred words. Many modern crime writers would probably take 150 pages, bore us all to death, and still not produce anything half as insightful…

Agatha Christie

There is one aspect of the book I don’t enjoy and that’s the treatment of Mitzi, Miss Blacklock’s foreign maid. A war refugee from Eastern Europe, she is portrayed with a kind of cruel casualness – her anxiety dismissed as hysteria, her horror stories of her life in the war dismissed as either exaggeration or with an attitude of contempt for her not having the British stiff upper lip. It’s odd, because this book also has some of Christie’s kindest and most moving characterisations – poor old Bunny, Miss Blacklock’s companion, who shows us all the tragedy of the genteel poor at that time, and the Misses Hinchcliffe and Murgatroyd, never openly described as lesbian, but portrayed with great sympathy and warmth.

I’m not going to give any details of the plot for fear of spoilers. However, this is entirely fair play – not only are all the clues in there, but Miss Marple kindly summarises them all towards the end to give us one last chance to solve it for ourselves. I’ve read this one so often over the years that I know whodunit and why and now I can more or less anticipate the clues before we get to them, but I think I was suitably baffled first time I read it. Even knowing how it all works out, I still find it an immensely enjoyable read, allowing me to admire Christie’s skill at its remarkable height.

Joan Hickson

This time around I listened to the wonderful Joan Hickson narrating it. She really is perfect for the Miss Marple books. Her old-fashioned accent is just right, and she completely gets the tone of the books – the mixture of tragedy and humour, the sympathy for human foibles and weaknesses, the little romantic interludes. In this one she made me laugh with the younger characters and moved me to tears with Bunny’s story (I’ve always had a huge soft spot for Bunny – she’s one of my favourite Christie characters). Marvellous stuff – the ideal partnership of author and narrator. Highly recommended.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link
Audible UK Link
Audible US Link

One, Two, Buckle My Shoe by Agatha Christie read by Hugh Fraser

Death at the dentist’s…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

The thing is – if Hercule Poirot ever threatens to visit you, make an excuse and then flee to the other side of the world because no one is safe around that man! In this book he visits his dentist, Mr Morley, for a routine check-up. By the end of the morning, Mr Morley is dead. Later, one of his patients is found dead and another has gone missing. Let’s hope Poirot didn’t have a doctor’s appointment that afternoon!

At first, Inspector Japp thinks Mr Morley, who was found shot dead with a gun beside him, has been murdered, but when one of his patients dies later that day of an overdose of the Procaine used to numb his mouth, it’s assumed Mr Morley made a mistake and then in a fit of remorse killed himself. So the police investigation stops, but Poirot isn’t convinced and continues with his own investigation.

There had been quite a collection of notable patients at Mr Morley’s surgery that day. Mr Amberiotis is a Greek gentleman with a dubious reputation. Mr Barnes is retired from the Secret Services. Miss Sainsbury Seale has a chequered past, having been an actress in her youth and then having shockingly married a Hindu in India (well, it was shocking in 1940 when the book was written), before deserting him and returning home to England. Mr Blunt is a banker and pillar of the Establishment – the kind of man who is seen as giving stability to the country at a time when other European countries are falling into the hands of various flavours of dictatorships. There are also a couple of young men there – one the boyfriend of Mr Morley’s secretary, and the other the would-be boyfriend of Mr Blunt’s niece. Poirot begins by talking to each of these people about what they remember of that morning.

This one has a nicely convoluted plot which touches on some of the anxieties of a country facing war. Christie never gets overly political but she often works current concerns into her stories and it gives an interesting insight into the time of writing. Here, there’s a clear divide between the deep conservatism of the old guard in Britain, fighting to keep the old systems of politics and finance in place, and the younger people, some of whom have been affected by the socialist and revolutionary fervour churning through large parts of the world. While Christie appears to be firmly on the side of the old guard, she intriguingly recognises through her characters that this may be age related and that things may change whatever the Establishment does. She also neatly addresses the question of how far ethics may be bent in pursuance of a noble aim.

But of course that’s all just a side dish – the main course is a beautifully plotted murder mystery in which all the clues are given to make it possible to solve, if only the reader’s little grey cells operated as efficiently as Poirot’s. This reader’s didn’t. It was so long ago since I last read this one I couldn’t remember the solution, and found I was baffled all over again. Not only are the clues sprinkled throughout, but towards the end Poirot lists all the important ones in his thoughts – and yet still I couldn’t work it out. But when Poirot explains it all in one of his typical denouements, it all fits together perfectly and undoubtedly falls into the fair play category.

Agatha Christie

It’s a very thoughtful denouement, this one, where Poirot considers the future and finds it worrying – I suspect it would have resonated strongly with the concerns of the readers of the time. And frankly, given the current political situation around the world, it resonates just as strongly again now. As always, I get annoyed at how dismissive people sometimes are about the Golden Age writers in general and Christie in particular – they knew how to entertain but the best of them also reflected their society back to itself, just as the best crime writers continue to do today.

I listened to the Audible audiobook read by Hugh Fraser, who gives another excellent narration. I’ve mentioned in the past how good he is at bringing out the humour in some of Christie’s books. In this one, he does just as good a job of bringing out the slightly darker, more pensive tone of certain parts of the book. These audiobooks are a great way to freshen the books up for old fans – I’m thoroughly enjoying listening to them and look forward to revisiting the Christie/Fraser partnership again soon.

Audible UK Link
Audible US Link

And Then There Were None by Agatha Christie

Ten little soldier boys…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Ten people all arrive for a stay on Soldier Island, off the coast of Devon. Some have been employed by the new owners, others have been invited as guests, and all but Mr and Mrs Rogers, the butler and housekeeper, are unknown to each other. And talking of “unknown”, all they know of their hosts is that the letters of invite were signed by either Mr or Mrs U.N. Owen. But when they get there, they discover the island’s owners haven’t arrived yet. It’s a strange kind of house party, with all kinds of people from different backgrounds and walks of life – a retired judge, an old military man, a young playboy who likes to drive fast cars, a puritanical spinster, an adventurer with a murky past, a doctor, a young woman who has been hired as secretary to the owners, and an ex-policeman. After dinner on the first evening, they discover they all have one thing in common when a disembodied voice welcomes them to the island and tells them why they’ve been gathered there – they have each, in one way or another, been responsible for the death of another person and escaped punishment for it. Until now…

Undoubtedly one of Christie’s masterpieces of plotting, this is also one of her most chillingly suspenseful novels. As one by one the guests are bumped off, the tension increases exponentially among the rest. The book moves along at a rattling pace, but there’s still time for us to get to know the characters, and to learn about the crimes that have led to them being brought here. While no-one comes across as wholly innocent, Christie does a great job of showing how some could be considered more guilty than others – some of their “crimes” could be considered almost accidental, some have suffered guilt and remorse, while others are callous and cold, having committed their crimes for gain, or unfeeling monsters who have managed to justify the cruelty of their actions to their own moral satisfaction. For some of them, their stay on the island forces them to re-assess the past and begin to feel the guilt they have previously managed to suppress.

Christie is often disparaged for poor characterisation, but this book really confounds that criticism – not only are all these characters believable, but several of them are beautifully nuanced, and their actions and attitudes feel psychologically sound. One of the other aspects of Christie’s genius is that her victims generally are rather unpleasant people, so that the reader isn’t thrown into a state of grief when they get their come-uppance. No sobbing relatives, no wailing and gnashing of teeth, no rending of garments. This means that she can have umpteen murders and yet still make the books entertaining to read – a lesson that could be well learned by some of the purveyors of today’s misery-fests.

Instead what she gives us is impeccable plotting, entirely fairplay with all the real clues carefully hidden amongst the shoals of red herrings she strews in the reader’s path. In this one, the characters too are desperately trying to spot the clues – their lives depend on it. And as the group gets smaller and smaller, miraculously Christie still manages to misdirect all over the place! Though I was re-reading and therefore knew whodunit, I was still marvelling at her skill in never omitting relevant pieces of information and yet hiding them so well. It’s only when it’s all explained at the end – another thing Christie’s great at, never leaving loose ends hanging around – that her true plotting skill is revealed along with the identity of the murderer.

Quite brilliant, and I totally understand why this one is the favourite of so many Christie fans. The end (prior to the explanations) in particular is a fabulously tense bit of writing, so dark it almost counts as horror, and yet retaining entire credibility. My favourite is still The Moving Finger for sheer entertainment, but in terms of plotting, characterisation and suspense, I don’t think this one can be beaten.

I listened to the wonderful Hugh Fraser’s narration via Audible. Not only is his voice pure pleasure to listen to, he brings the various characters to life, giving each a subtly distinct persona that matches perfectly to Christie’s characterisation. And as the suspense grows, he manages perfectly to develop an atmosphere of rising dread without ever slipping into melodrama. A truly great performance – I’m loving revisiting the books in his company.

So, just in case I’ve left you in any doubt – my highest recommendation, book and narration both.

Audible UK
Audible US

The ABC Murders by Agatha Christie read by Hugh Fraser

A great narration of a true classic…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

the-abc-murdersWhen Captain Hastings comes back on a trip to London from his new home in the Argentine, he hastens round to visit his old friend, Hercule Poirot. After they’ve done a bit of catching up, Poirot shows Hastings a bizarre letter he has received, warning that a crime will be committed on a certain date in Andover. When the day comes, so does news of a murder – Alice Ascher, the owner of a small newsagents, has been found dead, with a copy of the ABC railway guide lying beside her body. Poirot and Hastings head to Andover, and soon find that Mrs Ascher’s drunken husband had every reason to want her dead, and would surely be arrested for the crime were it not for the strange coincidence of the letter. Some weeks pass before Poirot receives a second letter, this time warning of a murder to take place in Bexhill and, sure enough, a body turns up on the due date, along with another copy of the ABC. Poirot is already suspicious that this murderer is working to an alphabetical plan; a suspicion that is confirmed when the third letter speaks of Churston…

This is a rather typical Agatha Christie story – typically brilliant, that is. It has everything that makes her books such a joy: intriguing clues, plenty of suspects all with strong motives, lots of red herrings and misdirection, and, of course, the hugely entertaining interplay between Poirot and Hastings. It is narrated by Hastings, partly in the first person for the sections where he was present himself, and the rest in the third person, which he tells us he reconstructed from accounts from Poirot and other people.

There are possible suspects for each of the crimes – relatives, lovers and so on – but Poirot must find the link that connects them all. Chief Inspector Japp is always happy to have help from his little Belgian friend, and some of the suspects get together to offer their assistance too, so that they can have justice for the dead and also get out from under the cloud of suspicion that is hovering over them.

Agatha Christie
Agatha Christie

People sometimes sneer at Christie for working to a “formula” but I say, if a formula works so well, then why not? There are some things in this one that I feel are standard Christie, and they add as much to the enjoyment here as they do in so many of her other books. Her victims are carefully chosen so that we hope for justice for them, while not having to go through too much of the angst of grief. Poirot and Hastings spend much of their time interviewing people until Poirot’s little grey cells give him the solution, which he then reveals at a get-together of all the suspects. The tone is lightened by the warmth of Hastings’ narration – his occasional humour at Poirot’s expense never hiding the warm regard he feels for his friend. And although Poirot is obviously more intelligent than Inspector Japp, the police are never shown as bumbling incompetents. There is a general respect in the books that makes Christie’s world a pleasure to visit, and despite the similarities in tone and structure, the plots are different and original enough to make each book feel unique.

The plot of this one is beautifully complex and elegantly simple at the same time – a true Christie trait – so that when the solution finally comes, it seems both fiendishly clever and satisfyingly obvious. This is a major part of Christie’s success, I think – her “twists” are an untangling of a complicated knot, rather than the sudden introduction of some new layer of hitherto unsuspected silliness, as with so much contemporary crime. Her denouements don’t so much make one gasp with stunned disbelief as nod with satisfaction at the logical working out, and grin with pleasure at her cleverness in first hiding and then revealing her clues.

I listened to the Audible version of this, narrated by Hugh Fraser, whom Christie fans will recognise as the actor who played Hastings to David Suchet’s Poirot in the long-running ITV series. Fraser does a marvellous job – he captures the tone of the books perfectly, bringing out the humour and the warmth of the friendship between Poirot and Hastings. He has a lovely speaking voice and, though he doesn’t “act” all the parts, he differentiates enough between the characters so that it’s easy to follow who’s speaking. Obviously, when he’s reading Hastings’ dialogue, he sounds just like Hastings. But remarkably, when Poirot is speaking, he sounds just like Suchet’s Poirot! I guess Fraser must have spent long enough listening to Suchet do it that he has mastered a faultless impersonation. It gives the narration a wonderful familiarity for fans of the TV adaptations.

hastings-and-poirot

So to conclude, one of Christie’s finest, enhanced by a fabulous narration – I promptly shot off back to Audible and used up all my spare credits on getting as many of Fraser’s Poirot readings as I could, and happily he has done loads of them. My highest recommendation for both book and reading – perfect entertainment!

Audible UK Link
Audible US Link

PS One thing that really bugs me is that the cover, which I otherwise love, has bullet holes on the letters. No-one gets shot in this story. FF’s Seventh Law: Cover artists should read the book before designing the cover.

4.50 from Paddington by Agatha Christie

24-carat Golden Age…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

4.50 from paddingtonWhen Elspeth McGillicuddy glances out of the window of her train carriage, she can see straight into another train that is running parallel to her own. As a blind flies up on the carriage opposite her, she is horrified to see a woman being strangled by a tall, dark man. Unable to do anything to prevent it, she reports it to the conductor. He suspects she’s just been napping and has dreamt the whole thing, but he’s a conscientious man so he reports the matter at the next station. However, no body is found on the train, and there the matter would probably have rested, but for the fact that Mrs McGillicuddy was on her way to St Mary Mead to visit her old friend, Jane Marple. Miss Marple knows Mrs McGillicuddy is a sensible woman with no imagination, so believes that she saw exactly what she claims. Feeling too old and unfit to snoop around herself, Miss Marple asks Lucy Eyelesbarrow to hunt for the body and so Lucy takes a job at Rutherford Hall…

This book gets a little criticism for not really having many clues or much actual detection element in it. It’s never quite clear how Miss Marple arrives at the solution, other than her extensive knowledge of human nature. That’s not to say that the solution is unclear; it isn’t – it makes perfect sense. But the route to it isn’t as well defined as Christie’s usual.

But regardless, this is still one of my favourite Christie books. I love Miss Marple as a character, even more than M Poirot and his little grey cells, and she’s on top form in this one. She gives us some nice village parallels to shed light on the characters of the suspects; she twinkles affectionately at both young Inspector Craddock and Lucy; she does a bit of gentle match-making; and she gives us some classic Delphic pronouncements that leave the reader as beautifully baffled as the other characters.

Miss Marple put down her knitting and picked up The Times with a half-done crossword puzzle.
“I wish I had a dictionary here,” she murmured. “Tontine and Tokay – I always mix those two words up. One, I believe, is a Hungarian wine.”
“That’s Tokay,” said Lucy, looking back from the door. “But one’s a five-letter word and one’s a seven. What’s the clue?”
“Oh, it wasn’t in the crossword,” said Miss Marple vaguely. “It was in my head.”

For me, one of the major joys of Christie’s books is that they manage the difficult feat of being full of corpses and yet free of angst – a trick the Golden Age authors excelled in and modern authors seem to have forgotten. She ensures that the soon-to-be victims deserve all they get, being either wicked, nasty or occasionally just tiresome. The dearly-departed’s relatives always take a stoic attitude to the death of their parents/spouses/siblings/children which, while it might not be altogether realistic, is certainly considerably more enjoyable than two hundred pages of descriptions of grieving, sobbing, wailing and general tooth-gnashing. In Christie novels, the emphasis is on entertainment – a mystery and a puzzle to solve, rather than an attempt to harrow the soul.

Margaret Rutherford as Miss Marple in Murder, She Said
Margaret Rutherford as Miss Marple in Murder, She Said

Apart from Miss Marple herself, there are two things that make this one particularly entertaining. Lucy Eyelesbarrow is a great character – a strong, independent young woman, making a success of her life in this post-war world. With the difficulties of getting domestic servants, she has seen an opportunity for herself in being the ultimate housekeeper, and is hugely in demand by ladies everywhere who need help in running their homes. She can and does demand exorbitant wages and never stays anywhere for more than a few weeks, but during those weeks she makes life wonderfully carefree for her employers. So Emma Crackenthorpe of Rutherford Hall jumps at the chance to have her at a reduced rate for a while, to help out with her elderly old curmudgeon of a father and her assortment of brothers and brothers-in-law when they descend on the house en masse for a visit. And it’s not long before several of these men have recognised Lucy’s unique attractions…

Jill Meager as Lucy Eyelesbarrow in the Joan Hickson version
Jill Meager as Lucy Eyelesbarrow in the Joan Hickson version

Then there are the two boys, Alexander, the son of a deceased Crackenthorpe sister, and his friend Stodders, both visiting during the school holidays. These two remind me a little of Jennings and Derbyshire, (if you haven’t read the Jennings and Derbyshire books, you really must! Or listen to the audiobooks narrated by Stephen Fry – joyous stuff!), or perhaps like terribly polite and well brought up versions of Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. No counselling for these children! No, indeed! When a corpse is discovered, they don’t get traumatised, they get out there looking for clues! In which pursuit they are aided and abetted by a bunch of adults who seem to think it’s quite normal, healthy even, for boys their age to be fascinated by all things murderous. When did we become the wussy, wimpy society of today, molly-coddling our children and trying to keep all of the world’s nastiness away from them?

“Please, sir, can we see the body?”
“No, you can’t,” said Inspector Bacon… “Have you ever seen a blonde woman wearing a light-coloured dyed squirrel coat anywhere about the place?”
“Well, I can’t remember exactly,” said Alexander astutely. “If I were to have a look…”
“Take ’em in, Sanders,” said Inspector Bacon to the constable who was standing by the barn door. “One’s only young once!”
“Oh, sir, thank you, sir.” Both boys were vociferous. “It’s very kind of you, sir.”

Oh, I’m sorry… let me jump off my soapbox and get back to the book…

agatha_christie
Agatha Christie

Wonderfully entertaining, full of humour, great plot even if the clues aren’t quite fairplay, and a little bit of possible romance to spice things up. (For people who’ve already read it – in fact, the romantic sub-plot is one of the things I like most about the book – I still haven’t decided. Have you? I know which I hope for though. Now, isn’t that almost Marple-ishly Delphic?)

Miss Marple is one of the sleuths selected by Martin Edwards for his list of Ten Top Golden Age Detectives – an essential inclusion!

I shall be reviewing the Film of the Book this Saturday as part of the Agatha Christie Blogathon being hosted by Christina Werner and Little Bits of Classics. I do hope you’ll pop back – the event should be loads of fun!

classics club logo 2
This is Book 1 of my Classics Club list.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

Tuesday ’Tec! A Fairy in the Flat/A Pot of Tea by Agatha Christie

Dynamic duo…

 

Tommy says: Why would anyone want to change us? We're perfect...
Tommy and Tuppence say “We really must find a better photographer.”

Anyone who is the housemate of cats will know they don’t like to feel they’re in second place. So when my cats saw that I had featured Miss Marple on a recent Tuesday ’Tec post, they were most displeased. Frankly, my life has been a misery ever since, so to try to get back into their good books, I am today featuring their namesakes – the original Tommy and Tuppence – on this week’s…

 

Tuesday Tec

 

A Fairy in the Flat

by Agatha Christie

 

Agatha Christie
Agatha Christie

Tommy and Tuppence Beresford haven’t really become part of the public consciousness in the way that Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot have, but I think that’s an injustice. They are different from Agatha Christie’s other detectives in that, not only are they a married couple, but they age in real time. There are only four Tommy and Tuppence novels and a collection of short stories, Partners in Crime, from which these two stories are the opening chapters. The first novel, The Secret Adversary, takes place immediately after the First World War and involves a secret treaty and a missing woman. During it, Tommy is recruited to work for the Secret Service and Tommy and Tuppence fall in love. Partners in Crime is their next appearance – it’s six years later, Tommy is doing a desk job for the Secret Service and Tuppence, now his wife, is bored…

“I wish,” she said, “something would happen.”

When she goes on to explain that being fairly well off and married to Tommy isn’t quite as exciting as she anticipated, the rather offended Tommy offers to help…

“Shall I neglect you a little?” suggested Tommy. “Take other women about to night clubs. That sort of thing.”

“Useless,” said Tuppence. “You would only meet me there with other men. And I should know perfectly well that you didn’t care for the other women, whereas you would never be quite sure that I didn’t care for the other men, Women are so much more thorough.”

“It’s only in modesty that men score top marks,” murmured her husband.

Fortunately for the sake of their marriage, at this point Mr Carter shows up. He’s Tommy’s boss in Intelligence and has a proposition to put to them. A detective agency run by the dodgy Mr Theodore Blunt needs a manager, Mr Blunt himself being under arrest. It’s important that the agency remains open because mysterious blue letters with a Russian stamp get addressed there, and the Secret Service are keen to intercept them. So Mr Carter suggests that Tommy should take the place of Mr Blunt and, knowing Tuppence from their previous adventures, he tells them…

“You can run the Agency as you please. I fancied” – his eyes twinkled a little – “that it might amuse Mrs Tommy to try her hand at detective work.”

James Warwick and the delightful Francesca Annis as Tommy and Tuppence in the ITV adaptation
James Warwick and the delightful Francesca Annis as Tommy and Tuppence in the ITV adaptation

* * * * *

A Pot of Tea

 

And indeed it does! An avid reader of detective fiction, Tuppence fancies herself an expert and is keen to try out the techniques of some of her favourite fictional sleuths, and so Blunt’s Brilliant Detectives! is born. The rest of the book is made up of short stories in each of which Tommy and Tuppence take on an investigation, while the Russian letter storyline runs in the background. A Pot of Tea is the first story.

At first business is slow. Tuppence objects to doing divorce work and oddly enough murderers and embezzlers seem a bit thin on the ground. Things begin to look up when a young man turns up looking for help to find the girl he loves, who has mysteriously disappeared. The young man looks like a toff (and behaves not unlike Bertie Wooster) and Tuppence is convinced that if they solve this case, it’ll be great publicity for the Agency. But getting a description of the missing girl from the lovestruck Lawrence St Vincent is not altogether straightforward…

“She’s got the most marvellous hair – sort of golden but very deep, like a jolly old sunset – that’s it, a jolly old sunset. You know, I never noticed things like sunsets until lately. Poetry too, there’s a lot more in poetry than I ever thought.”

“Red hair,” said Tuppence unemotionally, writing it down.

Will Tuppence find the girl? Will Blunt’s Brilliant Detectives! be a huge success? Will Tommy and Tuppence live happily ever after? You’ll have to read it to find out…

* * * * *

Anthony Andrews and Greta Scacchi as Tommy and Tuppence with Geraldine McEwan as Miss Marple in the much later, pretty awful ITV adaptation of By The Pricking of My Thumbs - great cast, shame about the script!
Anthony Andrews and Greta Scacchi as Tommy and Tuppence with Geraldine McEwan as Miss Marple in the much later, pretty awful ITV adaptation of By The Pricking of My Thumbs – great cast, shame about the script!

Although the later novels take on a more serious tone (and in the case of By the Pricking of My Thumbs a distinctly creepy and sinister one), the Tommy and Tuppence stories are where Christie uses humour to best effect, in my opinion, especially in these early ones. The banter between the two is great fun, and Tuppence herself is a joy to spend time with. Impulsive, unpredictable and warm-hearted, she is always leading the rather more staid Tommy into tricky situations, but he adores her and, although he grumbles, he’s happy to follow. His skills as an ex-soldier and current member of the Secret Service mean he’s no slouch himself, especially when it comes to the action parts. They truly are a partnership, ably assisted by Albert, a young man they take under their wing, who acts at various times as their office boy, butler, confidant and friend.

Great fun – and the more of you who read them, the more likely my own little T&T are to forgive me…

 

* * * * *

Little Grey Cells rating: ❓ ❓ ❓

Overall story rating:      😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

No online version again this week – sorry! But these two introductory stories are available as a Kindle single…

a fairy in the flat

Amazon UK Link

(Sorry, not available in the US as far as I can see)

…or as part of the full collection…

partners in crime

Amazon UK Link        Amazon US Link

Tuesday ’Tec! The Affair at the Bungalow by Agatha Christie

Never trust a woman…

 

Goodness! I realised that the surely undisputed Queen of Golden Age Crime hadn’t made an appearance in this little classic detective series yet – what an omission! So here we go with a Miss Marple special for this week’s…

 

Tuesday Tec

The Affair at the Bungalow
by Agatha Christie

 

Agatha Christie
Agatha Christie

 

“I’ve thought of something,” said Jane Helier.

Her beautiful face was lit up with the confident smile of a child expecting approbation. It was a smile such as moved audiences nightly in London, and which had made the fortune of photographers.

This story comes from the collection The Thirteen Problems. The format of each of the stories is that a group of friends meet for dinner, and that each of them takes a turn at telling of some mystery they have come across in real life and challenging the others to solve it. On the evening that this story is told, the dinner is being hosted by Mrs Bantry. Amongst the guests is Jane Helier, a beautiful but somewhat dim-witted actress, and she tells the assembled company of a strange thing that once happened to her ‘friend’…

Everyone made encouraging but slightly hypocritical noises. Colonel Bantry, Mrs Bantry, Sir Henry Clithering, Dr Lloyd and old Miss Marple were one and all convinced that Jane’s ‘friend’ was Jane herself. She would have been quite incapable of remembering or taking an interest in anything affecting anyone else.

Margaret Rutherford as the most unlikely Miss Marple ever - but great fun!
Margaret Rutherford as the most unlikely Miss Marple ever – but great fun!

Jane tells of a time when she was appearing in theatre in a riverside town. One night, the local police ask her to come to the police station to identify a young man whom they are holding. Leslie Faulkener is an aspiring playwright and had been thrilled to receive a letter, purporting to be from Jane, inviting him to come and discuss a play he had sent to her. On turning up at the address specified – a bungalow in the same riverside town – the parlour-maid took him through to the drawing-room where a spurious ‘Jane Helier’ offered him a cocktail and began to talk about his play. The real Jane is somewhat huffed that he didn’t immediately see through the deception, but she comforts herself modestly with the reflection that…

Anyway, he described this woman as tall and fair with big blue eyes and very good-looking, so I suppose it must have been near enough.

Poor Leslie drank the cocktail and remembered nothing more until he woke up dazed and confused, lying in the road beside a hedge. Next thing he knows, he has been picked up by the police who tell him that he is suspected of burglary. It appears that the bungalow is the secret love-nest of a big city financier and a well-known actress, to whom Jane gives the pseudonym of Miss Mary Kerr, and that some priceless jewels have been stolen. The police had received a phone call, apparently from the mistress of the house, saying that Leslie had been seen leaving the bungalow via a window. However Miss Kerr later denies making the call and, when he sees the real Jane Helier, Leslie admits that she was not the woman he met in the house. The question is – who stole the jewels and why did they go to the trouble of creating this elaborate deception?

Julia McKenzie - great actress and a fine Miss Marple, but oh, how they messed up the stories...
Julia McKenzie – great actress and a fine Miss Marple, but oh, how they messed up the stories…

The various guests consider the case and come up with several suggestions, but none that fully explain all of the facts. Eventually they turn to Miss Marple, but even she confesses herself at a loss. Until, that is, a comment from Dr Lloyd puts her in mind of Mrs Pebmarsh, one of her famous village parallels…

“Mrs Pebmarsh? Who is Mrs Pebmarsh?”

“Well -” Miss Marple hesitated. “I don’t know that she really comes in. She’s a laundress. And she stole an opal pin that was pinned into a blouse and put it in another woman’s house.”

There! That makes it all perfectly clear, doesn’t it? No, the other guests didn’t think so either, but Miss Marple merely remarks cryptically that women must stick together, whispers a comment for Jane’s ear only, and takes her leave. When Jane tells Mrs Bantry the rest of the story later, it’s no surprise to learn that Miss Marple has worked the whole thing out. Which is more than I did!

* * * * *

This is a lovely little story, only about 20 or so pages but beautifully complicated and told with all of Christie’s usual skill. There’s lots of humour in it, mainly at the expense of the egotistical Jane Helier, but it’s affectionate humour. And for fans, an appearance by Mrs Bantry is always a special treat – she’s one of my favourite recurring characters in the Miss Marple stories, and in this one she’s on top form, coming up with at least half a dozen possible solutions, each one more far-fetched than the last. I’m not convinced it’s totally fair-play – the reader is given one fairly crucial piece of information only as the solution is revealed, but it would be possible to work out the who and how, if not the why. It doesn’t matter though – it’s light and fun and a pleasure to read, proving again that Agatha Christie was a mistress of the short story format just as much as the full-length novel.

Ahhh! Finally! The definitive Miss Marple... the late, great Joan Hickson
Ahhh! Finally! The definitive Miss Marple… the late, great Joan Hickson

* * * * *

Little Grey Cells rating: ❓ ❓ ❓ ❓

Overall story rating:      😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

(No online link this week, I’m afraid – I couldn’t find a legal one. But the story is available as a Kindle single or as part of The Thirteen Problems collection.)

Tuesday Terror! The Last Séance by Agatha Christie

Mother love…

 

Yes, yes, I know I said it was going to be Susan Hill this week, but honestly the story turned out so dull and totally unscary that I couldn’t think of anything to say about it – misleading blurb syndrome. Fortunately, regular commenter BigSister (who by an amazing coincidence just happens to be my big sister) reminded me a couple of weeks ago of Agatha Christie’s The Last Séance, and remarked that it was the story that put her off spiritualism for life. Since my own memory of it was that it scared the bejabers out of me when I first read it many years ago, it seemed that it would be just right for…

Tuesday Terror!

Madame Simone is a hugely talented medium who gives private sittings to people wishing to communicate with their dear departed. The spirits don’t just talk through Simone though – she has the ability to use her spiritual energy to excrete ectoplasm, giving the spirits a physical form. As the story begins we learn that Simone is about to stop giving sittings – partly because she is about to marry Raoul and partly because the séances are leaving her exhausted and ill. She has agreed, however, to hold one final séance for a mother who wants to see her dead child one last time…

the hound of death

In The Hound of Death collection, Christie takes a break from her usual crime writing to show us that she can turn her hand just as effectively to horror writing. She is a mistress of building suspense and in The Last Séance, we learn of Simone’s anxiety and fear through her conversations with Raoul. Simone has a deep feeling of unease about the client, but Raoul brushes it off, making it clear he feels Simone has a duty to fulfil her promise and ought to have more womanly sympathy for the bereaved mother. The reader knows that something very bad is about to happen, and is left in that delicious position of inwardly screaming ‘No! No! Don’t do it!!’

“The curtains of the alcove seemed to have been pulled back a little, the medium’s figure was just visible through the opening, her head fallen forward on her breast. Suddenly Madame Exe drew in her breath sharply. A ribbon-like stream of mist was issuing from the medium’s mouth. It condensed and began gradually to assume a shape, the shape of a little child.”

First published in 1933, when spiritualism was still at its height, the story is based on an acceptance that Simone’s powers are genuine, including her ability to generate ectoplasm; and Christie is skilful enough to make even this cynic go along with the premise. The ending is horrific and terrifying but told without any graphic detail – indeed, as with the best horror, most of what the reader sees is what her own mind creates. A great story, from a great collection – it didn’t scare me quite as much as when I first read it…but then I knew what was going to happen. Do you??

Fretful porpentine rating 😯 😯 😯 😯 😯

Overall story rating          😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

Murder on the Orient Express by Agatha Christie read by David Suchet

 

murder on the oreint expressFirst-rate reading of a mystery classic…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

When Hercule Poirot boards the Orient Express in Istanbul, there can only be one outcome – someone is about to be murdered! You or I would have known that, of course, and would have hastily rearranged our travel plans, but the fourteen other passengers obviously hadn’t read any of the previous books. American businessman Mr Ratchett has been receiving threatening letters and tells Poirot he fears for his life. And the following day, he’s found dead – stabbed 12 times…

This unabridged reading of one of Agatha Christie’s best-known and best-loved books is great fun. David Suchet, the perfect TV Poirot, here gets to show off the amazing range of his acting talent. There are about 15 characters in the book, half of them women, from a variety of different countries and Suchet manages to sustain a different voice and characterisation for each. Yes, occasionally he goes a bit OTT (the Russian Princess for instance) but that adds to the enjoyment – Suchet understands that Christie’s books are first and foremost light-hearted fun.

suchet

Christie shows off her usual winning formula here – a baffling crime, a limited number of suspects, each interviewed by Poirot, and then the dénouement as Poirot reveals both murderer and method. What stops the books from becoming repetitive is that there is usually an unexpected twist and this book is no exception. Once you know whodunit, it’s easy to look back and see that Christie, more perhaps than any other crime-writer, plays fair with the reader – all the clues are there, we see everything Poirot sees, but can we work it out before he does?

I downloaded the audio book from Audible – but discs or download this is a first-rate reading of a deserved classic of the mystery genre. Enjoy!

(Am I the only one who wonders if Poirot is really a secret serial killer with a good line in fitting people up for his own crimes? Which do you think would survive if Poirot and Miss Marple spent a week in the same hotel?)

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link

The Moving Finger by Agatha Christie read by Joan Hickson

Excellent reading of a classic mystery novel…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

the moving fingerThis is my top favourite of all of Agatha Christie’s stories, and this reading by the marvellous Joan Hickson is pretty much perfect.

Although this is a Miss Marple tale, she doesn’t in fact appear until the last quarter of the book. The story is told in the first person by injured airman Jerry Burton who, accompanied by his sister Joanna, has moved to Lymstock to recuperate in the peace and quiet of village life. But there’s no such thing as peace in a Christie village. Spiteful gossip, anonymous letters, jealousy, resentment and murder – not quite what the doctor ordered. However, as always with Christie, there’s plenty of humour, likeable lead characters and a little bit of romance. And when the vicar’s wife finally calls in Miss Marple to act as an ‘expert in wickedness’, we know she’ll dig the truth out from under the pile of red herrings that Christie has carefully strewn in our path.

joan hickson

Listening to Joan Hickson is like being read to by a favourite grandmother. This is a straight reading – she doesn’t ‘act’ the various parts, but her tone is full of expression and her rather old-fashioned accent is perfect for the period of the novel. Sometimes when listening to an audio book I find my attention wandering a bit – but not with this one. Ms Hickson sucked me in (despite the fact that I know the book so well) and held my attention throughout. She brings out the lightness and humour that make Christie’s mysteries such a pleasure and her obvious affection for the book is contagious.

An excellent reading of one of the very best of classic mystery novels. I downloaded it from Audible but it’s also available on disc, with a running time of 5hrs 39mins. Highly recommended.

Amazon UK Link
Audible UK Link
Audible US Link – the disc set doesn’t appear to be available in the US.

While the Light Lasts by Agatha Christie

while the light lastsOne for Christie fans only…

😐 😐 😐

Being a big fan of Agatha Christie (even my cats are called Tommy & Tuppence!), I expected to enjoy this collection. However, I’m afraid I found it a little disappointing. While some of the stories were near to her usual standard, it seemed to me that some of the others had only been included as padding.

The stories contained in this collection are:-

Agatha_Christie_1The House of Dreams – a mild horror story
The Actress – a story about blackmail and revenge
The Edge – a story about twisted love and guilt
Christmas Adventure – a Poirot story about a stolen gem
The Lonely God – a romance
Manx Gold – a treasure hunt round the Isle of Man
Within a Wall – destructive love
The Mystery of the Baghdad Chest – another Poirot, this time a murder mystery
While the Light Lasts – tragic love with an African setting

Meet Tommy & Tuppence!
Meet Tommy & Tuppence!
The collection as a whole is of interest in showing Christie’s development and her forays into romance and horror writing, but none of the stories could be classed as great and some, particularly Manx Gold, are quite poor. I would be sorry if any newcomers to Christie’s work were to judge her on the basis of this collection. Much better to read one of the well-known novels instead – I would recommend Death on the Nile for Poirot, The Moving Finger for Miss Marple or get to know the original Tommy & Tuppence in Partners in Crime.

Amazon UK Link
Amazon US Link