They Came to Baghdad by Agatha Christie

They Came to BaghdadHaving just read Martin Edwards’ very entertaining The Golden Age of Murder (which I’m due to write about over at Vulpes Libris soon), I was in the mood for some Agatha – and decided to grab one which fulfilled one of the criteria on my Book Bingo. One of them is ‘Book set in Asia’, and so I grabbed They Came to Baghdad (1951), which my friend Simon gave me a few years ago.

I feel a bit guilty about it, since I don’t think it’s the most authentic portrayal of Asia imaginable (and I had been planning to read Illustrado by Miguel Syjuco), but at least Christie knew the area fairly well.

They Came to Baghdad has one of Christie’s most likeable heroines, the impetuous, charming, and accident-prone Victoria Jones. She starts the novel by getting fired from her position as a typist (for impersonating the boss’ wife) and wanders, bloody but unbowed, into the streets of London – whereupon she meets a gentleman as impetuous and charming as herself, the handsome Robert. They obviously rather fancy each other, but he is off to Baghdad the next day.

Luckily, Victoria manages to find someone willing to pay her board to Baghdad in exchange for helping her manage the journey, so she can go and surprise Robert. (Remember the impetuous thing?) Only… she doesn’t know his surname, and doesn’t have any money. A delight of a hotel proprietor gives her a room (he is forever offering her beautifully cooked meals, and describing everyone he knows as ‘very nice’) and she decides just to wait it out and see what happens. Only, what happens is that somebody ends up dead in her hotel room…

This isn’t a traditional Agatha Christie whodunnit, though, more’s the pity. The death doesn’t come until almost halfway through the book, for one thing, and long before that there has been much talk of intrigue and codes and meetings of international importance, etc. The novel is really a thriller, rather than a detective novel – and, had I known that, I might not have picked it up.

For much the same reasons I talked about in relation to spy novels recently, I am not enamoured with thrillers. I avoid anything with gore or sadism, which rules out many modern thrillers, but even Christie’s cosy approach to the thriller didn’t, er, thrill me. It is compellingly readable, as everything Christie wrote was, but I can’t bring myself to care about international plots and orchestrated assassinations and the like. I want Christie novels to revolve around anger that somebody knocked over a bird cage (for example) and to take place in a small village or country house.

There’s still a twist or two in the tale (though the main one is so obvious that I can’t really believe it was intended to be a twist), but there’s not really much to satisfy those on the lookout for the sort of clues and denouements that are the fabric of Christie’s archetypal output.

So, did I enjoy reading it? Sure, it was still pretty fun. But it’s probably one of the least enjoyable Agathas that I’ve read so far, and confirms my preference for Marples and Poirots. Speaking of which, I’ve just picked Nemesis off the shelf for my ‘one-word title’ square on Book Bingo…

A review round-up

I’ve made my peace with not getting to the end of my Century of Books by the end of 2014 – that’s fine; the rules are very flexible – but I will bolster out the list with some of the others I have read which don’t quite warrant a post to themselves, for one reason or another…

A Painted Veil (1925) by W. Somerset Maugham
I read this in the Lake District, and found it rather enthralling if a little overdramatic and a touch sententious. But it was borrowed from a friend, and I didn’t blog about it before sending it back…

The Listerdale Mystery (1934) by Agatha Christie
This was part of my Christie binge earlier in the year, but slipped in just after my other Christie round-up. This is a collection of short stories, some of which were better than others. It also has one with a novelist who complains that adapted books are given terrible names like ‘Murder Most Horrid’ – which later happened to Christie herself, with Mrs McGinty’s Dead.

It’s Too Late Now (1939) by A.A. Milne
One day I’ll write a proper review of this glorious book, one of my all-time favourites. It’s AAM’s autobiography and I’ve read it four or five times, but have left it too late this time to write a review that would do it justice. But I’m bound to re-read it, so we’ll just wait til then, eh?

Summer in February (1995) by Jonathan Smith
This novel is an all-time favourite of my friend Carol’s, and for that reason I feel like I should give it a proper review, but… well, it’s already seeped out of my head, I think. It was a good and interesting account of the Newlyn painters. I didn’t love it as much as Carol, but it was certainly well written and enjoyable.

The Blue Room (1999) by Hanne Ørstavik
I was going to review this Peirene translation for Shiny New Books, but I have to confess that I didn’t like it at all. But was I ever going to like an X-rated novel about submission? Reader, I brought this upon myself.

Making It Up (2005) by Penelope Lively
I wasn’t super impressed by my first Lively, I have to confess. I heard her speak about this book in 2005, so it was about time I read it – but it’s a fairly disparate selection of short stories, tied together with the disingenuous notion that all of them have some vague resemblance to sections of Lively’s life or people she saw once on the train. Having said that, some of the stories were very good – it just felt like the structure was rather weak. Still, I’m sure there are better Lively novels out there?

The Man Who Unleashed the Birds (2010) by Paul Newman
This biography of Frank Baker (author of Miss Hargreaves) has been on my on-the-go shelf for about four years, and I finally finished it! The awkward shape of the book was the main reason it stayed on the shelf, I should add; it wouldn’t fit in my bag! It was a brilliantly researched biography, with all sorts of info I’d never have been able to find elsewhere – most particularly a fascinating section on his relationship (er, not that sort of relationship) with Daphne du Maurier after he’d accused her of plagiarising ‘The Birds’.

A review round-up

image source

As with 2012’s Century of Books, there are some books which – for one reason or another – don’t get their own blog post, but I still need somewhere to link to in my run-through of 100 books.  So… here is that place!  Or at least the first part of it.  Let’s call them mini-reviews; that sounds better.

The Perfect Stranger (1966) by P.J. Kavanagh
A friend lent me this; it is a memoir of a young man’s life – at Oxford, at war, and in love.  I certainly liked it, and it was rather moving, but that’s about all I remember now.

The Sittaford Mystery (1931) by Agatha Christie
I think my Reader’s Block is FINALLY over, and that means my Agatha Christie binge has probably come to an end too.  Whenever I read too many in a row, the plots have to be really good to impress me, and – well – I just read too many, I guess.  So I liked The Sittaford Mystery and I think it was probably quite artful, but I didn’t appreciate it as much as I could have done.  I did very much like the feisty, no-nonsense, secretly-sensitive heroine who took on the role of quasi-detective.  I think her name was Emily?

Inclinations (1916) by Ronald Firbank
Mike Walmer kindly sent me a copy of this, but I’m afraid I didn’t have a clue what was going on while I read it.  I love some books which are mostly in dialogue (I call Dame Ivy Compton-Burnett to the stand) but this one just baffled me.  Luckily Karen/Kaggsy enjoyed it more – read her review for more elucidation.

Riding Lights (1955) by Norman MacCaig
Green Song and other poems (1944) by Edith Sitwell
Every now and then I think I should try poetry. I don’t remember anything at all about these.

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.

Oh, Agatha

Oh dear, have I really not blogged since last Wednesday? I’m sorry, I’m being very negligent – and I can’t even think of a reason why, as it hasn’t been an especially busy week. Perhaps it’s my general reading slump at the moment – and, if you’ve been around for any of my previous reading slumps, you’ll probably know what my solution has been. Dame Agatha Christie. If you hate spoilers of any variety (and I’ll only talking about the death which happens in the first few pages) then skim read this post…

Yes, that’s right, I’ve ignored the hundreds of unread books in my house – and the few that I’m reading at the moment – and taken myself to Oxford Central Library to borrow some Agathas. Almost all of mine are at home, and the ones I have here don’t fall into blank years in A Century of Books – and, if I’m reading Agatha, I may as well kill two birds with one stone.  Still, with the criteria of being (a) not read read, (b) filling blank years, and (c) currently in library stock, I managed to come away with two books – Hallowe’en Party and The Seven Dials Mystery, and whipped through the first in a couple of days.

I’d always steered clear of it, because of my distaste for Hallowe’en, but it’s pretty incidental to the plot. And, as plot is so important in Christie novels, I’m not going to tell you much beyond the initial murder – which is of a young girl at a Hallowe’en party, who is drowned in an apple bobbing bucket. Shortly before this, she has begun to tell people that she once witnessed a murder, only she didn’t realise it was a murder until much later. They won’t listen – but it seems that perhaps someone present has taken her comment seriously… Hercule Poirot, naturally, comes to sort things out, called there by Ariadne Oliver. I have five main things I want to say about this novel:

1.) I love Christie plots about misinterpretation – where a witness sees someone looking shocked that something is there, when in fact they’re shocked that something isn’t there; when a look of horror is about a memory rather than a current event – all those sorts of things, for some reason, are wonderful to me. So I loved that element of Hallowe’en Party.

2.) I’ve never read an Ariadne Oliver novel before, and I love her. And Agatha Christie obviously had a lot of fun creating her (she is a detective novelist, with a Finnish detective hero, and Christie uses her as a bit of a mouthpiece…)

3.) This is Christie’s child-killing novel… it’s interesting for the number of times (and this isn’t a spoiler) she talks about leniency for mentally imbalanced killers or those who’ve been through care, or whatever extenuating circumstances, and how Poirot doesn’t think justice should be considered less important than mercy.

4.) It was published in 1969 – so nearly 50 years after Poirot’s first case and Christie’s first novel. Amazing that she could still be on such good form after all that time.

5.) And it is a very good novel. I found the conclusion a little unsatisfying, mostly because I’d already guessed the solution, or at least most of it, and I much prefer being surprised by the end of a detective novel.

So, there you go. Onto The Seven Dials Mystery

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.

Agatha Agatha

Sometimes you just need to read an Agatha Christie, don’t you?  Well, I do.  When I was getting bad headaches still (they seem to have worn off now, for the moment at least) I needed something that didn’t require much thought, but which still would be good – and so I picked up Five Little Pigs by Agatha Christie.  You may remember, from my report of a talk at Folio HQ, that Christie’s biographer Laura Thompson considered Five Little Pigs her best novel, and so I had to give it a go.

I shan’t write that much about the novel, because I really want to use this post to find out which one you think I should read next, but I’ll give you a quick response to Five Little Pigs (1942).  Well, for starters, I don’t think it’s her best.  Laura Thompson admired the way in which character and plot progressed together, and depended upon one another.  I agree with that in the abstract – but not in the way that the novel actually reads.
Poirot is investigating a murder that took place 16 years previously – on the commission of the daughter of the woman who was convicted.  Carla is the daughter, Caroline is the supposed murderer, and Amyas – Caroline’s husband; Carla’s father – is the artist who died of poisoning.  Shortly before she died in prison, Caroline wrote to her daughter to say that she was innocent… Carla, although only a young child at the time, believes her mother is telling the truth.  Poirot agrees to investigate… and narrows down the search to five people.  
The title Five Little Pigs is based on a nursery rhyme.  To quote Wikipedia: “Poirot labels the five alternative suspects “the five little pigs”: they comprise Phillip Blake (“went to the market”); Philip’s brother, Meredith Blake (“stayed at home”); Elsa Greer (now Lady Dittisham, “had roast beef”); Cecilia Williams, the governess (“had none”); and Angela Warren, Caroline’s younger half-sister (“went ‘Wee! Wee! Wee!’ all the way home”).”
The conclusion is clever and believable, and the characters well drawn (especially the contrasts between their present personalities, and the personalities shown in everyone’s accounts of the fateful day.)  The big problem with the novel, for me, is how repetitive it is.  Poirot goes to interview each of these five in turn, and he then receives written accounts from each of them (which are given in full).  That means we get ten accounts of the day, one after another.  Ten.  Five felt like it was pushing it; ten was simply dull by the end.  I get that Agatha Christie wanted to show how perspective can shed different lights on events.  But… too much.
Still, this is Agatha Christie.  It was still very enjoyable, and pretty compelling reading, but I don’t usually want to skip chunks when I read her.  Contrary to what Laura Thompson said, this is probably one of my least favourite Christie novels…
…and now I want you to suggest which one to read next.  Whenever I read one Christie I want to read more straight away.  I asked on Twitter, and got some great recommendations which I’m definitely keeping in mind, but I want to see which one would be most popular – so do comment with a recommendation even if someone else has already mentioned it.  To help you out, the following are the novels by Christie I HAVE read, so you don’t need to suggest these… oh, and I know the twist to The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, so I don’t really want to read that one just yet.  Over to you (thanks in advance!)
The Mysterious Affair at Styles
The Murder at the Vicarage
Peril at End House
Murder on the Orient Express
Why Didn’t They Ask Evans?
The ABC Murders
And Then There Were None
One, Two, Buckle My Shoe
The Body in the Library
Five Little Pigs
The Moving Finger
A Murder is Announced
They Do It With Mirrors
A Pocket Full of Rye
Hickory Dickory Dock
4.50 From Paddington
The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side
A Caribbean Mystery
At Bertram’s Hotel
Endless Night
Sleeping Murder

There’s Nobody Quite Like Agatha

In 2000, or thereabouts, I read an awful lot of Agatha Christie novels – mostly Miss Marple, because my love of slightly eccentric old women started way back then – but since then, I’ve only read one or two.  In 2010 I read The Murder at the Vicarage, and thought it might issue in a new dawn of Christie reading.  Well, two years later that dawn has, er, dawned.  After hearing an interesting paper on Agatha Christie covers at a recent conference, I decided that a fun way to fill some gaps in A Century of Books would be to dip into my shelf of Christies, many unread.  Since she wrote one or two a year for most of the 20th century, she is an ideal candidate for this sort of gap-filling.

Before I go onto the two novels I read (pretty briefly), I’ll start with what I love about Agatha Christie.  She is considered rather non-literary in some circles (although not quite as often as people often suggest) and it’s true that her prose doesn’t ripple with poetic imagery – but the same is true of respected writers such as George Orwell and Muriel Spark, who choose a straight-forward seeming prose style, albeit with their own unique quirks.  Leaving aside Christie’s prose talents – and they are always better than I expect, and often funnier than I remember – she is most remarkable for her astonishing ability with plot.

For a lot of people, myself included, reading Agatha Christie is our first experience of detective fiction.  She sets the norms, and she sets the bar high.  Only after dipping my toe into books by Margery Allingham and Dorothy L. Sayers do I realise quite how vastly superior she is when it comes to plot.  It was once a truism of detective fiction that the author would be unfair, only revealing important clues at the last moment.  “What you didn’t know was that the gardener was Lord Alfred’s long-lost cousin!”  That sort of thing.  Dame Agatha never does that.  There are almost invariably surprises in the last few pages, but they are the sort of delightful, clever surprises which could have been worked out by the scrupulously careful reader.  Of course, none of us ever do fit all the clues together along the way – it would spoil the novel if we did – but Christie has a genius for leaving no loose ends, and revealing all the clues which have been hidden thus far.  Other detective novelists of the Golden Age still (from my reading) rely upon coincidence, implausibility, and secrets they kept concealed.

Reading a detective novel demands quite a different approach from most other novels.  Everything is pointed towards the structure.  There can be innumerable lovely details along the way, but structure determines every moment – all of it must lead to the denouement, and everything must adhere to that point.  Many of the novels we read (especially for someone like me, fond of modernist refusal of form – witness my recent review of The House in Paris) are deliberately open-ended, and the final paragraphs are structurally scarcely more significant than any arbitrarily chosen lines from anywhere in the novel.  With an Agatha Christie, the end determines my satisfaction. My chief reason for considering a detective novel successful or unsuccessful is whether it coheres when the truth is revealed.  Is the motive plausible?  Does the ‘reveal’ match the preceding narrative details?  Are there any unanswered questions?  That’s a lot of pressure on Agatha Christie, and it is a sign of her extraordinary talent for plot that she not only never disappoints, but she casts all the other detective novelists I’ve tried into the shade.

The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920)

I’d never read Christie’s very first novel, so it was serendipitous that 1920 was one of the few interwar blank spaces on my Century of Books.  I’m going to be very brief about these two novels, because I don’t want to give anything away at all (a carefulness not exemplified by the blurbs of these novels, incidentally.)  Suffice to say that there is a murder in a locked bedroom – and a lot of motives among family and friends.

“Like a good detective story myself,” remarked Miss Howard.  “Lots of nonsense written, though.  Criminal discovered in last chapter.  Every one dumbfounded.  Real crime – you’d know at once.”

“There have been a great number of undiscovered crimes,” I argued.

“Don’t mean the police, but the people that are right in it.  The family.  You couldn’t really hoodwink them.  They’d know.”
I love it when Christie gets all meta.  In One, Two, Buckle My Shoe one character accuses another, “You’re talking like a thriller by a lady novelist.”  Heehee!  But the best strain of meta-ness (ahem) in The Mysterious Affair at Styles is adorable Captain Hastings.  He narrates, and he is not very bright.  He considers himself rather brilliant at detection, and is constantly sharing all manner of clues and suppositions with Poirot, only for Poirot to laugh kindly and disabuse him.  Hastings really is lovely – and doesn’t seem to have suffered even a moment’s psychological unease at having been invalided away from WW1.  Poirot, of course, is brilliant.  It’s all rather Holmes/Watson, but it works.

You’ve probably read the famous moment where Poirot is first described, but it bears re-reading:

Poirot was an extraordinary-looking little man.  He was hardly more than five feet four inches, but carried himself with great dignity.  His head was exactly the shape of an egg, and he always perched it a little on one side.  His moustache was very stiff and military.  The neatness of his attire was almost incredible; I believe a speck of dust would have caused him more pain than a bullet wound.  Yet this quaint dandified little man who, I was sorry to see, now limped badly, had been in his time of the most celebrated members of the Belgian police.  As a detective, his flair had been extraordinary, and he had achieved triumphs by unravelling some of the most baffling cases of the day.

Isn’t that line about the bullet sublime?  (Although, again, demonstrates a remarkable lack of shellshock on Hastings’ part.)  What I found ironic about this, the first Poirot novel, is that (with decades of detection ahead of him), Hastings thinks:

The idea crossed my mind, not for the first time, that poor old Poirot was growing old.  Privately I thought it lucky that he had associated with him someone of a more receptive type of mind.

Hastings is wrong, of course, but as a retired man, Poirot must enjoy one of the longest retirements on record.  As for the novel itself – Christie tries to do far too much in it, and the eventual explanation (though ingenious) is very complicated.  Colin tells me that Christie acknowledges the over-complication in her autobiography.  It’s not surprising for a first novel, and it does nonetheless involve some rather sophisticated twists and turns.

One, Two, Buckle My Shoe (1940)

Onto another Poirot novel!  For some reason I love the idea of titles being nursery rhymes or quotations, and Christie does this a lot.  And Then There Were None is my favourite of her books (that I have read), and I also think the twist in The Mirror Crack’d From Side To Side is brilliant.  I hadn’t read this one, and chose it over Sad Cypress for the 1940 selection.  Which turned out not to be very clever, as it is set at a dentist’s, where I will probably have to go soon…

The plot of this one isn’t amongst Christie’s best, and does depend upon one minor implausibility, but it’s still head and shoulders over other people’s.  I realise I’m giving you nothing to go on, but I don’t even want to give the identity of the victim (even though they’re killed very early in the novel) because every step should be a surprise.  What I did like a lot about the novel was this moment about Poirot:

She paused, then, her agreeable, husky voice deepening, she said venomously: “I loathe the sight of you – you bloody little bourgeois detective!”
She swept away from him in a whirl of expensive model drapery.
Hercule Poirot remained, his eyes very wide open, his eyebrows raised and his hand thoughtfully caressing his moutaches.
The epithet bourgeois was, he admitted, well applied to him.  His outlook on life was essentially bourgeois, and always had been[.]

Having sat through an absurd talk recently, where the embittered speaker spat out ‘bourgeois’ about once a minute (and then, after lambasting his own bottom-of-the-pile education, revealed that he’d been to grammar school) this came as a breath of fresh air!  One of my few rules in life is “If someone uses the word ‘bourgeois’ instead of ‘middle-class’, they’re probably not worth paying attention to, and they certainly won’t pay attention to you.’  The other thing I loved was the morality Christie slipped into Poirot’s denouement… but to give away more would be telling.

So, as you see, one of the other issues with detective fiction is that it rather defies the normal book review, but I’ve had fun exploring various questions which arise from reading Agatha Christie – and tomorrow I shall be putting a specific question to you!  But for today, please just comment with whatever you’d like to say about Christie or this post – and particularly which of her novels you think is especially clever in its revelation (giving away absolutely nothing, mind!)

There is Nothing Like A Dame

Hello there, I’m back from my trips! I’ll have a rummage through my photographs at some point, and put some up for you to enjoy. Colin did *quite* well at preventing me from reading all the time, but I still managed to read quite a few books, including a mammoth one. And, being the contrary type, the first two I read weren’t even on the list I made. The first was The Seraphim Room by Edith Olivier, which I finished on the train down to Somerset, but the second was a definite read-it-on-a-whim book – usually the most fun. The Murder at the Vicarage (1930) by Agatha Christie somehow leaped to the top of the tbr pile, despite not being anywhere in sight beforehand.

Although my reading is quite diverse now – well, quite diverse – it used to go in very focused swathes. Enid Blyton – Goosebumps – Point Horror – Sweet Valley High (ahem) – Agatha Christie – AA Milne – everything else. When I was on the trail of an author or series, I read very little else for a long time. And, as you can see, Agatha Christie was one of them – and back in about 1999-2001 I read lots and lots by the Mistress of Mystery, the Empress of Enigmas, the Doyenne of Detectives… feel free to come up with your own.

Somehow it had been five and a half years since I last read a Christie novel (that one being At Bertram’s Hotel) and I had a sudden hankering for another. And it seemed quite ridiculous that, having grown up in a vicarage, that I hadn’t read The Murder in the Vicarage. So that was the one I pulled off the shelf and took on holiday.

I must add, before I go further, that I was spurred on by recent enthusiasm in Agatha’s direction from Harriet and Simon S – so thank you both for helping me revisit the Dame!

The Murder at the Vicarage is the first novel featuring Miss Marple (although she had previously popped up in a short story, my resident Christie-expert [Colin] tells me) and is narrated by the vicar whose home is unfortunately the scene of said murder. I won’t go through all the various characters and connections, because they’re much the same as any Christie novel. I don’t mean they’re stereotypes, but rather that they have complex relationships; secrets and lies; affinities and enmities – all the usual, delicious ingredients for a proper murder mystery.

All of that I was expecting. What I wasn’t expecting, what I had somehow either forgotten or never noticed, was how funny Christie is. The problems the vicar and his wife have with their servant are written so amusingly, I laughed out loud a few times. She also has the drifting ‘oh gosh how we simply shrieked’ type down pat too. Annoyingly I’ve left the book at home, so I can’t quote sections to you… so you’ll have to take my word for it.

I only had two problems with The Murder at the Vicarage. Firstly, I wasn’t bowled over by the solution – Dame A can sometimes write such brilliant denouements, that this one didn’t quite live up to her genius for plot. Secondly, although Miss Marple’s first novel, she didn’t feature very much, and I mourned her absence because I love Jane Marple. Her character hadn’t quite settled down to the Miss M we know and love, but her interest in ‘human nature’, and her catalogue of seemingly unrelated anecdotes to help her deduce – they were present and correct. I just wanted more of her in the novel.

But I imagine there are quite a few of us in the same boat – we watch Christie adaptations on TV, and have read a fair few of her novels over the years, but maybe not for a while – and don’t quite rate her as a good prose stylist or delineater of character, etc. I think it’s worth looking again, and reinvestigating the Dame. I’m definitely glad I did.

Books to get Stuck into:

To be honest, I’ve been pretty underwhelmed by some of the other Golden Age and pre-Golden Age detective fiction writers. In comparison to Christie’s plots, they just seem a bit poor – Christie never springs surprises on you at the last minute; the clues are always there if you look closely enough. So I’ve picked a couple of my favourite Christies:

And Then There Were None – my favourite, and Colin’s favourite, even without Poirot or Marple or any detective at all – it’s probably her cleverest story. Ten people are mysteriously invited to an island, and are even more mysteriously killed off one by one…

The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side – a Miss Marple, with a simply brilliant plot, and a good one to get a feel for AC if – goodness me – you’ve not read one before.