Archive for the ‘Agatha Christie’ Category

I read Cat Among the Pigeons by Agatha Christie back in April and, I have to be honest, at this point I would be hard-pressed to tell you ‘whodunit’.  This is not one of her best works but it is very fun, like almost everything Christie wrote.

The story is quite outlandish: a fortune in jewels is smuggled out of an unstable Middle Eastern country in a schoolgirl’s tennis racquet, though the owner of the racquet has no idea what she carries.  The bulk of the action takes place at Meadowbank, the all-girls’ school where the tennis racquet and its owner reside during term time.  With several new teachers and new girls at the school, as well as a new gardener and suspicious visitors all milling about, there are plenty of suspects when murdered bodies begin showing up.  One clever student finally decides they need the help of an expert and so the famous Hercule Poirot arrives on the scene – in the final third of the novel.  He, of course, solves the mystery in his own precise and efficient manner though the cast of suspects is large and their motivations are wildly and unnecessarily complicated.

While the book is pretty ordinary over all, Christie excels at writing about Meadowbank.  The staff and their relationships are introduced with typically insightful details and the students felt like individuals, not just a mass of carbon copy school age girls.  They are allowed to be at very different stages of development, even the ones who are the same age, which is of course just what happens in real life.  Everyone in the story takes for granted that development varies by individual and that some fourteen year old girls may look and think like women while others are still entirely child-like.  I haven’t read enough Christie in the past few years to have really gotten a handle on her again and so I am always surprised and delighted by the frankness of some of her passages, particularly on topics like sex.

Written in 1959, the book’s spy element feels very much of its time but rather out of step with the dignified detection of M. Poirot.  Still, it adds an enjoyable dash of glamour to have Princesses, Sheikhs, and undercover intelligence operatives running about the story.  It is silly and fantastical but it also lets you know from the very first page that this is a story that is meant to purely entertain and bears even less relation to the real world than Christie’s other books.

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Had anyone given up hope that I was ever going to post a review again?  No, just me?  My reading blocked translated into a writing block, hence the numerous filler posts you’ve been feed over the past few weeks.  Thank you for not abandoning me in the meantime.  Happily, I am reading again, meaning that I have something to write about, starting with Murder is Easy by Agatha Christie

As the story begins, Luke Fitzwilliam finds himself in a train compartment with Miss Pinkerton.  Luke knows instinctively, cringingly, when he finds himself alone with Miss Pinkerton that his journey will not be as peaceful as he had hoped:  “Being a man of many aunts, he was fairly certain that the nice old lady in the corner did not propose to travel in silence to London” (p. 5).

Luke is returning to London after years spent in the Far East as a policeman.  Miss Pinkerton is going to Scotland Yard, convinced that a murderer is responsible for a number of recent deaths in her village of Wychwood and likely to strike again.  Luke dismisses Miss Pinkerton’s fears as those of an easily excited old lady.  However, when Luke hears that Miss Pinkerton was killed within hours of their meeting and then sees the announcement of yet another death in Wychwood, of the very gentleman that Miss Pinkerton had identified as the next victim, Luke sets off to investigate.  Armed with a policeman’s professional knowledge and a truly flimsy and suspicious back story, Luke descends on the village and, like many of Christie’s protagonists, wanders around casting suspicious glances at all the wrong villagers (and lustful ones at a particularly clever young lady who fingers the murderer long before Luke).  Clueless narrators – or ones who are very confident but have the wrong end of the stick completely – work wonderfully, particularly when they’re as sympathetic as Luke.    

It’s certainly not one of Christie’s best efforts; indeed, it’s not even particularly memorable.  It is, however, still good fun and a pleasant, cozy story to spend a few hours with one afternoon.  If nothing else, it entertained me with some excellent quips about aunts that seem very much like refugees from Miss Marple stories:

Every man should have aunts.  They illustrate the triumph of guesswork over logic.  It is reserved for aunts to know that Mr. A is a rogue because he looks like a dishonest butler they once had.  Other people say, reasonably enough, that a respectable man like Mr. A couldn’t be a crook.  The old ladies are right every time. (p. 204)

How strange that a book about murder can be so delightful and comforting.  Classic Agatha Christie, I suppose, to make the reader feel so safe and entertained even as the body count grows to rather alarming heights.  Murder is Easy only confirmed what I realised when reading The Moving Finger in the Spring: Christie is far wittier and intelligent that I had remembered and clearly deserving of more of my attention.  Perhaps she will finally help me conquer my prejudice against the mystery genre!

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It has been years since I read anything by Agatha Christie.  If I’m honest, I am far more familiar with the various television versions of the Poirot and Miss Marple mysteries than I am with the books themselves.  My parents were (are) mad for that sort of thing – the Edward Gorey-animated introduction to the PBS Mystery! programme is one of the strongest visual memories I have of childhood (particularly the woman swooning on the top of the building).  I think that this over-exposure prejudiced me against mysteries; I always find myself shocked when I come across something from the genre that I enjoy.  I was convinced that mysteries were not for me, being too formulaic and too focused on intricate plotting at the expense of characterization.  I’ve certainly come across a great many that could be classed this way but clearly, clearly!, I was choosing the wrong books.  Having enjoyed mysteries by so many other Golden Age authors, I’m not sure why I was still holding out against Christie.  Perhaps because she was the most prolific, the most famous, the one who defines the genre more than anyone else?  Regardless, and I think it’s best to get this out of the way now, I was wrong and everyone else was right.  Let us speak no more of it.

The Moving Finger by Agatha Christie is narrated by Jerry Burton, a young pilot who has removed to the country with his sister to recover after a crash.  I knew even before I started reading that this was a Miss Marple mystery so to find it narrated by a young man was a surprise, but a delightful one.  I am also inexplicably fond of the name Jerry, so it made for an excellent start.  Jerry is a wonderful, young, humourous protagonist and I very much enjoyed seeing everything through his eyes.  His evaluation of his landlady, for instance, is very much not the sort of thing I expected to find anywhere near Miss Marple:

Emily Barton, I think, has a mental picture of men as interminably consuming whiskeys and sodas and smoking cigars, and in the intervals dropping out to do a few seductions of village maidens, or to conduct a liaison with a married woman. (p. 82)

Jerry attempts to piece the mystery together himself but, of course, it takes the arrival of Miss Marple in the final quarter of the book for all to be revealed.  She appears only a few times but, being Miss Marple, sees and knows all and, really, has there ever been a more delightful detective?  Anyone who demands such universal affection and awe without jealousy or malice?   

I didn’t find the mystery itself very engaging but, again, that sort of thing rarely appeals to me.  I’m perfectly happy for authors to run around knocking off stray characters but only in so much that it creates situations for my favourite characters to interact.  Yes, if I’m going to read a mystery there better be a hint of romance as well.  I am predictable, aren’t I?  Happily, there are several romances taking place in what is really quite a short volume.  Megan, who is described by Miss Marple as “someone of high courage and good brains” (p. 159), is the love-interest for Jerry, though he takes some time to come to that realisation.  Her awkwardness and plain-speaking appealed to me greatly, though not to most of the villagers, who viewed her as more than a little odd.  There is a very stereotypical Cinderella-transformation scene that as a 21st Century woman I believe I’m supposed to find offense but which I really just found myself swooning over (again, predictable).  Megan is no simpering miss though, and plays a very active part in the resolution of the mystery.

I should also note that the copy I was reading was the very clever and appealing HarperCollins facsimile first edition, published in 2005 to mark the 75th Anniversary of Miss Marple’s first appearance (October 1930 – The Murder at the Vicarage).  As a true bibliophile, I got no small amount of pleasure from reading the story in its original typeset and, to my way of thinking, hardcover is always superior to paperback.  I’d love to see more books reissued this way for anniversaries.  It really does make for a special reading experience.

All in all, I was charmed by this one and happy to acknowledge that yes, my prejudices were misguided.  So what to read next mystery-fans, if I am to attempt to continue my recovery from avowed mystery-hater?  I would love to continue with another Miss Marple book – what do you think I’d enjoy?

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