Wednesday, October 7, 2015

The Pyne--Poirot Nexus, Part I: Parker Pyne Investigates (1934), by Agatha Christie

Are you happy?  If not, consult Mr. Parker Pyne.
                                                     Parker Pyne Investigates (1934), by Agatha Christie

By all means, if Hercule Poirot is not available.

                                                     The Passing Tramp (2015)

When people praise Agatha Christie short story collections, Parker Pyne Investigates (1934) doesn't normally get a lot of mention, in my experience, but I think the book is both an entertaining collection in its own right and of interest for its relationship to Christie's vastly more famous Hercule Poirot canon.

Professionally, Parker Pyne is not a detective.  A portly, bald, benevolent-looking man in spectacles, Pyne retired from thirty-five years of work in a government office compiling statistics and went into the business of making people happy, for a fee.  "It is all so simple," he tells a client.  "Unhappiness can be classified under five main heads--no more, I assure you."

In it current form, Parker Pyne Investigates includes all the known Parker Pyne stories--all fourteen of them.  The first six were published in American and English magazines in 1932, the next six in same in 1933.  The original hardcover edition of Parker Pyne Investigates included only these dozen tales.  The last two Pyne stories, "Problem at Pollensa Bay" and "The Regatta Mystery," were published in 1935 and 1936, respectively, and later added to newer editions of Parker Pyne Investigates.

The first six Pyne tales, all titled "The Case of [something or other]," are very light, humorous pieces, all detailing how Mr. Pyne uses his wits and his organization to bring happiness into the lives of his various troubled clients.  The formula started to wear thin by the last two stories in this first cycle (the last tale, "The Case of the Rich Woman,"is truly bizarre), but the first four tales all have their points.

In "The Case of the Discontented Wife," Pyne must handle the problem of a middle-aged wife distraught over her businessman husband's infatuation with his pert typist.  In "The Case of the Discontented Soldier," he is tasked with introducing excitement into the life a bored retired army man.

Only one of these early Pyne tales, "The Case of the Distressed Lady," involves crime in any way (unless you count Pyne's outrageous activities in "The Case of the Rich Woman"). The next six Pyne tales are a different matter, however. Pyne goes on vacation abroad and the stories take place in various scenic Continental European and Middle Eastern locales, to wit:

"Have You Got Everything You Want?" Paris to Stamboul aboard the Orient Express

"The Gate of Baghdad" Damascus to Baghdad through the Syrian Desert

"The House at Shiraz" Shiraz, Iran

"The Pearl of Price" Petra, Jordan

"Death on the Nile" steamer touring Egypt

"The Oracle at Delphi" Delphi, Greece

All aboard!

These stories involve Parker Pyne in crime sleuthing: jewel theft in two stories, kidnapping in another, and unnatural death in a trio of tales.  Several of these tales have considerable ingenuity, especially "The Pearl of Price" and "The Gate of Baghdad." These two bafflers would have made fine cases for Poirot canon.

Of the last two tales, "Problem at Pollensa Bay" is a humorous human relationships tale and "The Regatta Mystery" is another clever jewel theft story.  The former takes place on the island of Majorca and the latter, a sort of locked room problem on a yacht, is set in Dartmouth, Devon, Pyne having finally made his way back to England.

One point about these stories that struck me immediately is how they reflect Christie's travels with her noted archaeologist husband, Max Mallowan, and anticipate, in terms of "exotic" settings, several Poirot novels in the 1930s: Murder on the Orient Express (1934), Murder in Mesopotamia (1936), Death on the Nile (1937), Appointment with Death (1938). Indeed, as you can see above, one Pyne story even is called "Death in the Nile" (though it is much different from the novel).

Also, "The Regatta Mystery" began life as a Poirot short story.  I don't know why Christie later wrote a Parker Pyne version of it, but that is what she did.

But Parker Pyne and M. Poirot have even more in common than this.  Two characters associated with the Poirot canon--the Belgian's highly efficient secretary Miss Lemon and and his mystery-writer friend Mrs. Oliver--made their debuts in Parker Pyne stories.

Miss Lemon is Parker Pyne's secretary (and highly efficient indeed), and Mrs. Oliver, though a bestselling mystery writer, likewise is employed as a cog in Parker Pyne's organization, albeit in a creative capacity.

Already by 1932 Mrs. Oliver has authored "forty-six successful works of fiction, all bestsellers in England and America, and freely translated in French, German, Italian, Hungarian, Finnish, Japanese and Abyssinian."

Mrs. Oliver seems at this time to have specialized in improbable Edgar Wallace style thrillers. Apparently she has not yet created her celebrated Finish detective, Sven Hjerson.  Must have been her popularity in Finland that led her to it!

When did Miss Lemon actually go to work for Hercule Poirot? We will look at this matter, and much more, in next week's Christie posting at The Passing Tramp.


  1. Excellent stuff Curt! I am a big fan of Mr Parker Pyne - I think if she hadn't been so good with the murder stories she could have done more with PP. I will look forward to your resolution of the Mystery of the Missing Secretary next week...

    1. I think a Parker Pyne novel might have been interesting. I like him rather better, I think, than Harley Quin, a character I never quite got. Maybe I need to give him another try....

  2. I remember Mrs Oliver's role in the Parker Pyne enterprise but had forgotten that Miss Lemon worked for him as well. Hmm. Looking forward to your explanation of why and when she changed employers. I love the slinky seductress who suffers from sea sickness and goes home to a nice suburban home where she resumes her real name of Maggie.

    1. Yes, I liked Madeleine de Sara And Claude Luttrell, the gigolo! Real cute characters, as Americans say in these stories.

  3. I loved Maggie too, Helen, and Claude Luttrell, the lounge lizard. As a child, I much preferred the first six stories. Mr. Pyne's methods for finding happiness for others have a juvenile quality to them that really appealed to my imagination. They seem rather silly now, but these stories connect me to my earliest enjoyment of Christie. You made me laugh, Curtis, with your commentary on The Case of the Rich Woman. Even at an early reading, I think I sort of hoped the rich lady would sue Mr. Parker Pyne for what he does to her in order to "make her happy."

    1. Yes, If I'd been that rich woman, I would have made Parker Pyne sorry! One of the most surreal things Christie wrote, lol.

  4. She could be quite surreal at times. ;-)

  5. Today's Passing Tramp cost me money AGAIN because I cannot resist this collection after reading this excellent review/information. Introduced to Parker Pyne for the first time, who can resist him. This blog never fails to enlighten, intrigue, I covet the extensive knowledge it takes to write and publish these posts. Congratulations once again on another Passing Tramp post. In Kindle form, instant gratification to begin reading. Thanks.

    1. Thanks you so much. I am always glad to be of help!

  6. I remember reading these as a young boy and being very confused. I was prepared for another detective, and instead got some mysterious eccentric who wouldn't have been out of place in a short story by wodehouse (probably my only other adult reference at the time, i'm sure it would remind me of someone else now). Don't think i liked crime short stories in those days. I gave up halfway through parker pyne, and shortly after did the same with labours of hercules. I remember avidly reading poirot's early cases though, maybe because that book i had in hardback.

    1. I never read this as a youngster, or I'm sure I would have had the same response! I think Labours of Hercules has a lot of charm, though as I recollect Poirot's Early Cases had a lot more murders! I wish all the Labours had been made into films back in the 1990s, when Hastings, Japp and Lemon were in the cast.