A Diet of Dame Agatha

For the sake of updating my Century of Books, and because I have precious little else to update Stuck-in-a-Book with at the moment, here’s a rundown of the Agatha Christies I’ve been reading of late. I imagine there will be another update to come soon, but hopefully I can extend my reading range a bit soon, as I need to read Asleep in the Sun by Adolfo Bioy Casares for book group next week!

It’s difficult to write properly about detective fiction, and it’s even more difficult to write differently about lots of detective fiction, so I’ll just give you a couple of impressions per book.

The Seven Dials Mystery (1929)
Very Wodehousian beginning, and Christie does humour well.  But I never like Agatha as much when she’s doing gangs and spy rings and all that.  (I also wonder how recently she’d read The Man Who Was Thursday.)

Elephants Can Remember (1972)
I was warned off this one after I’d started, but I actually loved large chunks of it – Ariadne Oliver (a detective novelist with a famous Finnish detective) is a wonderful opportunity for Agatha Christie to talk about her own career wittily, and (having met her for my first time in Hallowe’en Party) I loved seeing her again.  But the plot was pretty flimsy.

Curtain (1975)
Poirot’s last case, written some decades earlier, it’s amusingly anachronistic at times, but has a good plot and the ever-wonderful Captain Hastings.

Mrs McGinty’s Dead (1952)
More Poirot, more Ariadne Oliver! And a good plot, although perhaps not one of the very best. Or perhaps I’m just saying that because I guessed part of the ending, and I always prefer to be fooled.

Murder in the Mews (1937)
Four novella length stories about Poirot, one of which (the longest) was very good, ‘Dead Man’s Mirror’. The others were fine, but I got the impression that Christie hadn’t considered the ideas good enough for a full-length book.

I have four more Christies out of the library, so I’ll fill you in when I’ve rushed through those… and then hopefully I’ll have broken my Reader’s Block!  Thank goodness there is an author I can turn to during those periods, where it seems inconceivable that anybody could actually finish reading a book (so many WORDS!) as otherwise I’d be going mad.

Dumb Witness – Agatha Christie

I’ve mentioned a few times that I have spent the past couple of months immersed in Agatha Christie, being the only author who was able to circumnavigate my reader’s block – everything else I tried was abandoned after a page or two, but I could tear through a Christie in a day or two.  Thankfully (for my general reading) I’m now having more success getting past p.1 with other authors, although it’s still a bit impeded, but I did enjoy getting into Christie mode and wolfing them down.

I haven’t blogged about them, partly because Christie novels are often very similar and partly because you can’t say much without giving the game away – but in the spirit of my Reading Presently project (reading and reviewing 50 books in 2013 that were given to me as presents) I shall write about Dumb Witness, because my lovely colleague Fiona gave it to me when I left my job at OUP (which, incidentally, I am missing furiously.)  It was (is?) published in the US under the rather-better title Poirot Loses A Client.

We had quite a lot of chats about Agatha Christie over the months, but the reason Fiona picked Dumb Witness as my leaving gift wasn’t only because she knew I hadn’t read it – it was because of the dog on the cover.  We had lengthy cat vs. dog arguments (publishers, it turns out, tend to prefer dogs – librarians and book bloggers definitely fall down on the cat side) and this was Fiona’s funny way of making a point – so, of course, I used a bookmark with a cat on it.  Sherpa, in fact, painted on a bookmark by Mum.

Dumb Witness is a Poirot/Hastings novel, which is my favourite type of Christie after a Marple-takes-centre-stage novel (she is sadly sidelined in a few of her own novels).  You may recall an excerpt I posted from Lord Edgware Dies, in which the delightful relationship between Hastings and Poirot is perfectly illustrated.  More of the same in Dumb Witness – Hastings constantly makes suppositions and conclusions which Poirot bats away in frustration, never revealing quite why Hastings is wrong (other than his touching readiness to believe what he is told by almost anyone) and holding his own cards close to his chest.

I shall say very little about the plot, because (unlike most novels I read) the plot is of course crucially important in a detective novel – so I’ll just mention the premise.  Poirot wishes to follow up a letter he has received Miss Emily Arundell, asking him to investigate an accident she had – falling down the stairs, after tripping on her dog’s ball.  Her letter isn’t very coherent, but she seems to be suggesting that it may not have been an accident… Although she recovers from the minor injuries sustained in this fall, by the time Poirot receives the letter – mysteriously, two months later – she has died from a long-standing liver complaint.  Poirot decides to accept the posthumous commission into attempted murder…

As far as plot and solution go, Dumb Witness has all the satisfying twists, turns, and surprises that we all expect from a Christie novel – it certainly doesn’t disappoint on this front, and this is one especially excellent twist, albeit with a few cruder details that are not worthy of her name on the cover.  But, alongside that, I loved Poirot’s determination that attempted murder should be investigated and prosecuted, whether or not the victim was dead – Hastings, for all his gentlemanly bluster, can’t see why it is a matter of importance.  Poirot’s moral backbone is one of the reasons I find him such a fantastic character.

And the dog?  Yes, Fiona, the dog (Bob) is rather fun, and Hastings is predictably wonderful about him – although I did find the amount of words put in the mouth of Bob a little off-putting.  It reminded me of Enid Blyton’s technique of including passages along the lines of “‘”Woof’, said Timmy, as if to say ‘They’ve gone to the cove to fetch the boat’.”  There, I believe, I have spotted the major flaw with Dumb Witness – or at least, an aspect where it could be improved.  It would be a far superior novel, had it featured a cat.

The Outward Room – Millen Brand

photo source

A long, long time ago (I can still remember) I was sent Millen Brand’s The Outward Room (1937) to review – in fact, I had asked for it – and it has taken me absurdly long to read it, and a couple months longer to get around to reviewing it.  But it is really very good indeed, and worth the wait.

The reason I asked for this NYRB edition was (apart from the fact that all NYRB editions are beautiful and belong on my bookshelf) that I remembered The Outward Room being mentioned once in a Persephone Quarterly – and it fixed in my mind.

The Outward Room starts with Harriet Demuth’s life in some sort of mental hospital, having suffered a nervous breakdown as a result of a family tragedy.  Estranged from her parents and frustrated by her doctor’s blinkered obsession with Freudian analysis, Harriet’s life has been sucked dry of anything but routine and confusion.  Her ability to articulate her personality and self have been stifled by illness and by the unsympathetic institution which came as a consequence to it.  Brand writes this section very well, but it is necessarily claustrophobic and begins to stifle the reader.

But Harriet escapes.

She makes her way to New York, pawns her brother’s ring, and lives hand-to-mouth for some time.  The Great Depression has given the city a desperate air, and she struggles to find the means of supporting herself – her first ‘job interview’ is for a single day’s work, and consists of standing in a long row with many other women, and not being pointed at.  There are some poignant scenes where Harriet first rents, and then must leave, a tiny apartment.

After about 100 pages, Harriet is sitting in a late-night cafe, unable to afford a cup of coffee, when a stranger approaches and offers to buy her the drink.  John (for this is his name) invites her back to his house for food and shelter and – desperate, and a little naive perhaps – she goes.  At this point I expected awful things to happen to her, or for John’s apparent kindness to (at least) be revealed as covering ulterior motives.  What I wasn’t prepared for was a gentle, gradual, and quite beautiful love story.  Through simple, ordinary scenes of everyday life and undramatic conversations, Harriet and John fall in love and become necessary to one another.  We see some of Harriet at work, and the friend she makes Anna; we see a neighbour or two – but the beauty of The Outward Room is the quiet unfolding of a believable, unassuming relationship.

I don’t normally just give all the plot in a series of paragraphs like that – I usually try to break it up with some of my thoughts about the author’s approach, etc. – but it seemed important to lay out the  structure of The Outward Room and the direction the novel takes before addressing the issue of style.  They are so interrelated.  At the beginning, Brand opts for quite a lot of the disjointed and fragmentary prose that is often used to represent mental disharmony or any kind of mental illness.  Personally, I find it very easy to overuse this style.  Stream of consciousness has of course often been used to portray thoughts, especially of a disturbed mind – but I think it has to be done exceptionally well (we’re talking Woolf-standards well) to work, otherwise it can simply seem sloppy.  These were the sections of The Outward Room which I found least convincing.

However, when Brand didn’t concentrate this effect into single chapters, he used a more successful variant on it – by simply omitting verbs and pronouns.  It’s a bold way to start a paragraph, giving a sense of both immediacy and uncertainty, and it think it works well within a sparser descriptive mode:

Dark, the smell of stairs.  She began to notice the stairs as she had not the day before.  She leaned and looked down the dark stairwell.  These stairs were not solid; their treads sagged, the staircase was pegged to the walls with iron rods at each landing.  The house was old.  She went down and when she came into the light of the lower open house door, she looked around her.  She saw only a bare hallway; on one side was a large metal barrel with a warped cover, on the other a table on which were several letters – evidently this was where mail was left for those in the house.  Except for this, the hall was vacant; scribbled on the plaster were a few names – “DIDOMENICO 2nd” “LICORA” —
Brand moves between this fairly straightforward narrative and a fluid, more consciously beautiful prose.  And that is the result (and the cause) of the relationship between John and Harriet.  Which comes first?  I don’t know – the gentle unfolding of their love is both mirrored and created by the gentle unfolding of touching imagery and emotional explorations.  This paragraph was picked more or less at random, but hopefully it gives you a sense of what I mean:

Breathing the air deeply, she looked down at the courtyard.  Hardly changed, a little dirtier from melted snow, the tinge of winter.  Frost had made new cracks in the cement, in the so-called paving.  Yet the evidences of winter were small only to be seen, like the signs of spring, by the heart that feels small changes.  The room too had its changes from winter, but because of her need of its permanence they too were small, only what had been absolutely necessary.

It is incredibly difficult to write about this sort of novel, because it is of the variety which can only be appreciated once one is reading them.  Perhaps that is true of any book, but it seems especially so of The Outward Room.  And that being said, it is especially impressive that Peter Cameron writes such a good afterword in the NYRB edition.  Good afterwords and introductions are hard to find, aren’t they?  One thing Cameron writes will strike home with many of us:

It’s somewhat frightening to learn that good books – even books heralded in their time – can disappear so quickly and completely.  We like to think that things of enduring quality and worth are separated from the dross and permanently enshrined, but we know that this is not true.  Beautiful things are more likely to disappear than to endure.  The Outward Room is such a beautiful thing.  
None of us are surprised when we find that wonderful, beautiful books have fallen by the wayside – we all know too many examples.  Despite having an initial print run of 140,000 copies (wow!), The Outward Room has fallen victim to this disappearing act – its peculiar qualities are those which can so easily be overlooked.  Thank you NYRB for bringing it back – the novel definitely deserves it, and I hope you give it a chance too.