Wednesday, August 11, 2021

Red, Hot and Blue: The Mystery of the Blue Train (1928), by Agatha Christie--Underrated Christies #2

Cannes is 953 miles from London.  You travel 850 of those miles--that is, from Calais--in the Mediterranean Express.  The Labels with Mediterranean Express printed slantwise on them are pasted on your trunks.  You do not, however, call it the Mediterranean Express.  It is the Blue Train.

At Cannes you never meet anyone who has not arrived on the Blue Train.  That is the sole train to arrive by.  Hosts of visitors arrive, in fact, by other trains.  they do not mention this shameful secret.  Such is human nature.  The Blue Train, you see, is a little faster than rival trains.  That is something.  It is also more expensive.  That is everything.

Otherwise, the one positive difference between a sleeping car in the Mediterranean Express and a sleeping car in the rapide is that the latter is painted brown outside and the former is painted blue.  

To paint the Mediterranean Express blue, I admit was a stroke of genius.  It definitely advertises the train wherever it goes.  And the passengers staring languidly from its windows are perhaps not unaware that they partake in the splendor of its advertisement.  

It is a rich, royal blue, the paint on the outer walls of those sleeping cars.  But within the compartments resemble those behind the brown walls of the older sleeping cars.  The upholsterer has still persisted in choosing one of the six ugliest colours in the world for his upholstery, which is of the uncanny peacock velvet met with only in wagon-lit rolling stock.  The leather paneling still has twirliwigs executed in --apparently--treacle.  But when night comes, and you are snug in your berth, you realize that a sleeping car is meant to sleep in, and naught else.

--"The Only Train," author and photographer Ward (Wardrop Openshaw) Muir (1878-1927), in London Daily Mail, 1926

"I want to go to Nice the next week....What is the best train?"

Well, of course, the best train is what they call the "Blue Train."

Katherine Grey plans a journey in The Mystery of the Blue Train (1928)

"Trains are relentless things, aren't they, Monsieur Poirot?  People get murdered and die, but they go on just the same."

--Lenox Tamplin to Hercule Poirot in The Mystery of the Blue Train (1928)


In Mark Gatiss' foreword to Mark Aldridge's new critical study Agatha Christie's Poirot: The Greatest Detective in the World (2021), he reminiscences about his "first encounter with M. Hercule Poirot."  In his case, he recalls, "thrilling childhood viewing of And Then There Were None and the Margaret Rutherford Miss Marple films had taught me that Christie was very much up my street, but it was on foreign holidays (where Christie still seems to belong) that I first probably engaged with the man with the egg-shaped head":

The Mallorcan apartment we'd rented, you see, had the lot--a whole shelf of Christies with those incredibly scary Tom Adams covers and the strange, mustardy colored pages of the foreign editions....I can still remember one sultry Spanish evening explaining the plot of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd to my slightly bemused parents as we trudged home from the local tapas bar.  Indiscriminately I devoured them....There was no order you see!  No way of appreciating the incredible run of copper-bottomed classics that Christie produced in what was a genuine golden age of crime writing.  

Gatiss' introduction rang a chord with me because he's so close to my own age and because my experiences with Agatha Christie's mysteries were so similar, within my American background.  Christie was my gateway to "adult" reading.  (Her ability to appeal to precocious young readers as well as savvy adults, naysayers notwithstanding, is remarkable, I think.)  

all aboard the Blue Train

As I have told several times, I was with my mother at Sanborns Department Store in Mexico City, where we were spending the summer of '74 when my father was teaching at the National University, when she bought, at 14 pesos apiece, four Agatha Christie Pocket paperbacks: The ABC Murders, Funerals Are Fatal (After the Funeral), And Then There Were None and Easy to Kill (Murder Is Easy).  Though I was only eight I read them all.  I won't say I solved any of them, but I was deeply intrigued as I was continually misled and duped.  

Back in the States later that year my parents took me to see the first film version of Murder on the Orient Express, the one with the late Albert Finney as Hercule Poirot, and I was enthralled.  However, I didn't read anymore Christie, who had died in the interim, until late 1976, when this time we had been spending the year in Monterrey, Mexico.  

American newspaper serial version of 
The Blue Train

Returning to the US in December 1976, we bought, at my urging at a Sears, I think it was, in a Texas border town (McAllen?) the Pocket paperback edition of Curtain, Poirot's last case.  The next year we got the Bantam paperback edition of my first Miss Marple, Sleeping Murder.  I also get a boxed paperback set of all the Sherlock Holmes books for Christmas.  I enjoyed that too, very much, but that was that with Arthur Conan Doyle's Holmes stories, (though I reread them every decade).  On the other hand, there were many, many more Christies out there, and, at the age of 12, I set out to read as many as I could.

Like Mark Gatiss I had no idea of the chronological order of the Christie mysteries back then and just read whatever was available and caught my fancy at the time.  It was easy enough to find them in paperback, those ubiquitous Pockets and Dells and Bantams.  I went on a real binge over the next few years, but even then there were some Christies which simply didn't appeal. 

At Bertram's Hotel
was a boor, I thought.  (Oddly I kind of liked Postern of Fate, being deeply intrigued by that message--Mary Jordan did not died naturally--in the book in the library.)  Endless Night bored me in the middle, though the ending was something else.  I thought The Murder at the Vicarage was underwhelming and I just could not get engaged with The Mystery of the Blue Train.  

Over a decade later, in the early nineties, I read about all the Christies I missed back in the 1970s and early 80s (At that time I hadn't read a Christie since Towards Zero in 1982/3) and I reread a number of them as well.  One I didn't reread was The Blue Train.  In fact until a few days ago, I don't believe I had read it since c. 1978.  So this was almost like reading a rediscovered "lost Christie," and a Poirot mystery at that.

Why didn't I like The Blue Train, exactly?  

Well, even in 1978 my view of the mystery as being something that should take place in England, in London or some country village or manor, had taken a firm hold.  I didn't like "exotic" settings in Continental Europe.  And, having read the novel again as an adult, I can see why else it didn't appeal to me.  It must have been too much like a conventional novel, with quite a bit about the love and sex lives of adult men and women, something that interested me not one whit when I was 12.  Reading it today, conversely, I found that the novel appealed to me for precisely those reasons.

Of course it must be admitted that Christie herself hated the book.  Indeed she bluntly stated just that, "I hate it," declaring that The Blue Train was: "Easily the worst book I ever wrote."  Just so people would be sure to get the idea, she also wrote:

I have always hated The Mystery of the Blue Train.  Presumably I turned out a fairly decent piece of work, since some people say it is their favorite book (and if they say so they always go down in my estimation).  It was terribly full of clich├ęs, the plot was predictable, the people were unreal.  

Rubies are red, French trains are blue
I love Agatha and so should you!
Reflecting how miserable she was when she was writing The Blue Train--it was the lowest time of her life, when she was in the process of divorcing her husband, Archie--the Queen of Crime added that the book had neither "zest" nor the "faintest flash of enjoyment about it."

In his book on Hercule Poirot, Mark Aldridge defends The Blue Train from Christie's own disses as simply a "slightly lesser Poirot mystery," yet he deems that the book is marred by "padding," "extraneous characters," "narrative dead-ends" and "disorienting shifts of focus."  

Aldridge concludes that the novel "is a relatively rare Christie that is only really satisfying on its first reading."  Obviously I have something of a different view, as my second reading of the book was more satisfying than my first--although I must admit that over forty years between readings is an anomaly. 

Perusing Mark's book, it strikes me that Mark is one of those rare cases of a Christie academic who really values Christie because of--not in spite of--her superb puzzle plotting.  I would agree with him that The Blue Train is not Christie's most meticulous puzzle plot (it was expanded from a clever, but quite short, story); yet the digressions and "padding" and "extraneous" characters which he dislikes contrarily add a lot of appeal to the book as a novel in my view.  Contra Christie too, I think many of the characters are of real interest.

I do find that the novel gets off to a slow start with two short "exotic" chapters in criminal Pa-ree.  I was interested to learn from Mark Aldridge that these two chapters did not appear in the serialization of the novel.  I could have done without the two mixed blood characters, Boris Krassnine ("His father had been a Polish Jew") and Olga Demiroff (who cannot disguise "the broad Mongolian cast of her countenance"), whom we never see again anyway.  However, Chapter Two introduces Greek jeweler Demetrius Papapolous and his daughter Zia (who employ a manservant  with "gold rings in his ears" and a, yes, "swarthy cast of countenance"), who are interesting characters and show up several times later on in the story.  

French "Apache" up to no good

We also are introduced to a rich American--is there any other kind in Golden Age British mysteries--and a mystery man with false white hair, known as Monsieur Le Marquis, not to mention a roving gang of Paris street ruffians known as Apaches. 

It's all rather confusing and more the sort of thing you would expect to find in an Edgar Wallace thriller, but it settles down for a while in jolly old England in Chapter Three, which introduces to readers in London forceful American millionaire Rufus Van Aldin and his Great War veteran secretary, Major Richard Knighton.  

We learn that Rufus, presumably a widower, has a willful daughter, Ruth, upon whom in chapter Four  he bestows a recently acquired fabulous ruby necklace, the centerpiece of which is the famed "Heart of Fire."  (In modern value it is worth up to some 7.5 million dollars, apart from the historical aspect.)

Poor Ruth is having her troubles in the love department, so the Heart of Fire will make a nice pick-me-up for her, so her doting papa thinks.  You see, Ruth's dissolute English husband of a decade, Derek Kettering, an impoverished heir to a title, is playing around with an exotic (I'm using that word a lot, aren't I?) French dancer named Mirelle.  (I don't believe we ever learn her last name--maybe like Prince and Madonna, she doesn't have one.)  Papa Van Aldin advises his precious daughter to get a divorce and tells Derek he'd better not contest the suit or he will break him.  He also sets a purposefully featureless private detective, one Mr. Goby, on Derek's trail.

When Derek takes the news over to Mirelle and she learns that Ruth has not made a will, this mercenary Frenchwoman, a true she-devil, muses over how convenient it would be for them both were something--something nice and fatal--to happen to Ruth....Meanwhile Ruth herself has her own romantic skeleton in the closet in the suave French form of the Comte de la Roche, whom her papa separated her from when she was 18, leading to her marriage to Derek.  It seems she has taken up with him again.

Gare de Lyon station in Paris
which plays a significant role in the novel

All this takes us through Chapter Six.  In Chapter Seven we are introduced to an entirely different milieu and another major character, Katherine Grey, a lady's companion thrown out of work by the recent death of her old lady.  She resides in St. Mary Mead (!), a village which certainly will be familiar to readers of Christie's Miss Marple mysteries.  Christie started writing her first Miss Marple stories in 1927, about the same time she was writing The Blue Train.  

It would have been lovely had some of the Miss Marple characters been mentioned in The Blue Train, but alas not.  Still the St. Mary Maid milieu in The Blue Train surely will seem very similar to fans of the Miss Marple mysteries.

To her surprise, Katherine inherits a considerable fortune from her deceased employer  and she decides she wants to get out and experience the world for the first time in her life.  As a companion she has spent her life in the shade, listening patiently to others, and now she wants actually to do things.  Katherine reminds me somewhat of Anne Beddingfield in The Man in the Brown Suit (1924), except that I find Katherine much more sympathetic.  There's also similarity to Jane Grey, the similarly surnamed female lead character in Death in the Clouds (1935).

Conveniently in this regard, Katherine has a cousin, beautiful Viscountess Rosalie Tamplin, who lives on the French Riviera at the Villa Marguerite in Nice; and she invites Katherine to come visit her at her lovely exotic (there I go again) home.  Although Rosalie has not only a title but some remaining wealth from her three previous husbands, she is always on the lookout for more lucre and she thinks unworldly Katherine might be something of a "touch."  

Her latest husband, Charles "Chubby" Evans, is a costly possession 17 years younger than she with no money of his own.  Lady Tamplin also has an adult daughter, Lenox, who is regrettably rather sardonic and hard-bitten and has not landed a husband.  (Worse yet to Lady Tamplin, Lenox looks older than her years, making Lady Tamplin concomitantly seem older to people who take the time to do the mental arithmetic.)  

You can see the lack of tightness here, in that we have three distinct sets of characters from separate milieus: the London set, the St. Mary Mead set and the French Riviera set.  And don't forget the Papadolouses, father and daughter, and the mysterious M. Le Marquis, who were introduced earlier in the story.  You can see why this mystery is about 90,000 words long, lengthier than most of Christie's output, I believe.  At times it felt like I was a reading a sensation novel, in terms of the wider scope.

Christie clearly was quite bummed out with life when she wrote this book, and I think that attitude is reflected in it and actually enhances it.  There's a darkness to The Blue Train which is rather bracing.  Ruth is strangled in her sleeping compartment on the exclusive Calais-Mediterranean Express while traveling to southern France to meet her lover, after she has had an impulsive heart-to-heart chat with Katherine, who is on her way to see her cousin in Nice. 

While Ruth is no saint, neither does she come across as a natural murderee like so many characters in Golden Age mysteries, an unsympathetic stick figure who was "asking for it," as it were.  She is cruelly and callously done to death.  I was unpleasantly reminded, a bit, of the whole Amanda Knox affair.

Another striking thing about this novel besides its emotional "coldness" is its "hotness"--by which I mean most of the characters, men and women alike, are quite sexually active people.  With a few exceptions, the women are older and experienced, let us say, and have had relationships, perhaps not always wise, with attractive men.  Let's not even start on exotic French dancer Mirelle!  That she is sexually experienced goes without saying.  She is a hellcat.  

But there's also Ruth, 28, and her involvement with both Derek and the Comte.  There's Pia Papadolous, 33, who had to be extricated from the consequences of an ill-advised teenage fling by old Papa Poirot himself.  There's Lady Tamplin, 44, who with her fourth marriage has bought herself a much younger man and alone among these women seems happy.  Katherine Grey (like Pia 33--this book has much precision about people's ages) is of course a former companion who, until recently, had few options in her life and presumably she is a virgin.  She very much regrets the adventures and experiences which she has missed in her withdrawn life:

Jospehine Baker set the 
Paris standard for wannabes
like Mirelle Whatsit

Autumn, yes, it was autumn for her.  She who had never known spring or summer, and would never know them now.  Something she had lost could never be given to her again.  These years of servitude in St. Mary Mead--and all the while life passing by.

Even young Lenox Tamplin--we don't know her exact age but I'm guessing early twenties--is unsatisfied romantically, stuck in her vain mother's shadow, and she predicts sadly to Poirot: "Journeys end in lovers meeting....That is not going to be true for me."

What a melancholy tone to this novel! I can't help thinking it reflects Christie's views as she headed for Las Palmas in the Canary Islands with her young daughter at the beginning of 1927 to try and recuperate from what surely had been a 1926 nervous breakdown (her notorious disappearance) and get to work on another Poirot novel in the wake of her career triumph with The Murder of Roger Ackroyd:  

You just can't trust beautiful men; those youthful romantic flings don't last; I'm pushing forty, I'll never find love again....

Of course Agatha did find love and companionship again, with an accomplished archaeologist, Max Mallowan, who was thirteen years younger than herself (shades of Lady Tamplin).  She met and married Max in 1930, and they remained together as woman and husband until Agatha's death, at age 85, nearly a half-century later in 1976.

Archie Christie,
dashing husband of Agatha,
with his surfboard (!)
in Hawaii in 1924,
looking rather jacked

Some of the writing in The Blue Train is repetitive and cliched.  The phrase "cast of countenance" is used three times, the first two times within a few pages.  A vase is broken in "a hundred pieces."  At one point so many characters start coughing--Ruth's maid, Ada Mason, the French policemen, Mr. Goby, Poirot himself--that I started thinking I was in a Miss Silver novel.  (Oddly Miss Silver debuted the same year.)  

Yet there's some sharp, incisive writing too.  "Moral worth, you understand, it is not romantic," observes Poirot to his Wodehousian manservant, Georges, concerning the age-old attraction of women to handsome men with bad reputations, adding sagely: "It is appreciated, however, by widows."  

(To which Georges with bland ghoulishness responds: "I always heard, sir, that Dr. Crippen was a pleasant-spoken gentleman.  And yet he cut up his wife like so much mincemeat.")

St. Mary Mead spinster Amelia Viner is a delight and sounds a lot like Miss Marple when she speaks of men--excuse me, gentlemen--like they are some strange species apart: 

"I have always heard that gentlemen like a nice piece of Stilton [at dinner], and there is a good deal of father's wine left....No gentleman is happy unless he drinks something with his meal."  

Max and Agatha 

Poirot himself only pops up about a third of the way into the novel, but he is wonderful, very much the magical "Papa Poirot" who takes to heart the relationship problems of the nice women in the novel whom he encounters.  Moreover, his past relationships with the Papapolouses and the theatrical agent Joseph Aarons (all of them are Jewish and are not portrayed invidiously) give Poirot a cosmopolitan air.  Poirot's relationship with Georges too is a delight.  (Poirot will meet Mr. Goby much later on in the books.) 

Honestly, I found that didn't miss Hastings at all.  

So, really, I would have to conclude that The Mystery of the Blue Train is very much an underrated Christie, not only by many experts and fans but by Christie herself.  It almost brought back to me the experience of reading a Christie all anew and that was much appreciated.  

Yet it was not not just nostalgia working on me.  The Blue Train is a more sophisticated book than the 12 year old me could have appreciated and it probed too deep emotionally, I think, for Christie herself, who later, when she had found contentment with Max, just wanted to forget those painful years when her first marriage broke apart, into a hundred jagged shards (or more) of misery.

Sunday, August 8, 2021

Four-give and Four-get? The Big Four (1927), by Agatha Christie--Underrated Christies #1

I was very disappointed with the results of Poirot's bomb attack on Chinatown.

--Stolid Captain Arthur Hastings in Agatha Christie's The Big Four (1927)

If you asked a lot of people for their choice for Agatha Christie's "worst" Hercule Poirot mystery, the fourth Poirot "novel," The Big Four, would get the nod, I'm sure.  I put novel in asterisks because the book, like Christie's Tommy and Tuppence saga Partners in Crime, is really a collection of loosely integrated short stories, originally published in England in The Sketch during January-March 1924.  Up to this time Poirot had appeared in only two novels, The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920) and Murder on the Links (1923), but he also had graced, I believe, 25 additional short stories in The Sketch, from March 7 through October 31, 1923.  With all the effort Christie was putting into Poirot short stories, I suppose it's not surprising that another Poirot novel did not appear until 1926, with the landmark The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.  

The Most Baffling Mystery of All Time?
Perhaps Not....

We look back today and tend to see The Big Four, with its criminal masterminds and their plot--rather vague and fantastically ludicrous--to take over the world, as a desecration of Poirot's dignity as the world's greatest detective, but Poirot did not have as much of an established reputation back in 1924, when these stories were first published.  So probably those hardy readers of The Sketch back in the day were not mortified to see Poirot battling to the death a fiendish Chinese mastermind and a rapacious American business tycoon, among other villains.  (Hmm, how much have these stereotypes changed today?)

The biggest selling British crime writers of the Twenties were not women detective novelists like Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers but male thriller authors Edgar Wallace, Sapper and Sax Rohmer, among others.  

So it's really not surprising that Christie, as she struggled to get her footing in the mystery world in the Twenties, published quite a lot of stuff in the thriller category.  She had shown she had the stuff of world class detective story writer, but she hadn't consistently developed her powers as a writer of detection.

During that decade there were, aside from the Poirot "Big Four" stories and novel, the thriller novels The Secret Adversary, The Man in the Brown Suit, The Secret of Chimneys and The Seven Dials Mystery.  Even the Poirot novels Murder on the Links and The Mystery of the Blue Train have some "exotic" thriller elements in them.  (Of course both are set in France, to Englishmen and women of that day the premier country of illicit thrills.)  Really I think most Christie fans would admit that there are really only two "classic" Christie detective novels from this period, Styles and Ackroyd.

In the Thirties, when Christie had hit her stride, it is astonishingly different.  Among the seventeen mystery novels she published in her greatest decade, starting with the first Miss Marple novel, The Murder at the Vicarage, in 1930 and culminating with possibly the greatest mystery novel of all time, And Then There Were None, in 1939, there is only one thrillerish novel, a nonseries one, Why Didn't They Ask Evans?  (Some people view And Then There Were None as a thriller story. but, if it is, it's a deadly serious one, with none of the juvenile antics of her Twenties thrillers.  I'd say it's more a noirish crime novel.)

Had Archie stayed true to Agatha
would we have gotten The Big Four?

So, really, it's not so surprising to me that Christie would decide to stick Poirot and his dogsbody Arthur Hastings into a Sapperesque/Rohmeresque global conspiracy thriller, at least in a group of short stories in the 1920s. 

Probably The Big Four would not have been published as a novel at all had Christie not been demoralized by the collapse of her marriage with Archie Christie and the death of her mother.  It was Archie's brother, Campbell, who suggested to his sister-in-law that she publish the stories as a novel and who helped her to pull them together into a (semi) coherent whole.

All this being as it may, however, it must still be admitted that it just doesn't feel right for Poirot to be in this sort of novel.  Tommy and Tuppence are right at home in this sort of world, but not our Poirot of the little grey cells.  (Hastings, now, as the stolid British sidekick fits right in.) 

Personally, I've never been able much to abide Sapper, though I think Edgar Wallace is underrated and that Sax Rohmer is actually quite an adept writer of shockers, if you can get past his frequent use of the "Yellow Peril" trope.  However, looked at on their face, these Twenties thrillers are simply, well, silly. Silly fun, if you are so inclined, but still silly.  (The impressive thing about Sax Rohmer, I find, is that he makes us take the nonsense seriously at the time.)  And, if you are an admirer of Poirot's brilliant deductive feats, Poirot is not silly, his overweening vanity, outsized mustaches and egg-shaped head notwithstanding.

When a television film version of The Big Four was made eight years ago, the makers jettisoned the whole international conspiracy element and this time you have to sympathize with them.  What else could they have done?

BUT, if you can go back and read The Big Four and try to see it in the context of its time and place and judge it on its own terms, it's...

Not actually that bad?

                                                                   ***********

So in the novel it's June and Hastings has returned to England from Argentina where he settled on a cattle ranch with the wife (he calls her Cinderella, ugh, I forgot that), whom he married after the events in Murder on the Links, to visit his dear friend Poirot.  He soon becomes enmeshed, over the next year (!),  in Poirot's battle against a global conspiracy of four individuals to take over the world by unleashing anarchy in the streets and then picking up the pieces--or something.  

1982 Dell edition
Perhaps the last time such a 
racist depiction of an Asian 
"criminal mastermind" was used 
on an American mass market 
paperback?

This "Big Four" is composed of

Chinese mastermind Li Chang Yen, a blatant ripoff of Sax Rohmer's Dr. Fu-Manchu, who appeared in three popular novels in the 1910s.  (Oddly the bad doctor vanished in the Twenties, but he would headline six Rohmer novels between 1931 and 1941, as well as three more between 1948 and 1959, the year of the author's death.)

An American millionaire.  (You know how insidious they can be.)

A mysterious Frenchwoman. (Sacre bleu!)

And an Unknown, who's quaint nickname is the Destroyer.  (Such drama queens, these guys.)

Poirot can't get authorities to credit his outlandish notion.  Sure, on hand there's old Inspector Japp, who steadily calls Poirot Moosior.  (How is that even pronounced?  Poor Japp!)

However, Japp is even more hopeless than Hastings, who for much of the book seemingly is left in it all alone with the great Belgian detective in combatting the forces of global anarchy and mishap.  Cinderella, left sitting home in the Argentine for a year, must be an incredibly patient woman to let her husband traipse off for a whole year to fight criminal masterminds with Poirot--or perhaps she was glad to get Hastings out of the picture! 

For much of the book there are feints and jabs between the Big Four and the Decidedly Mixed Two (the Dazzling One and the Dim One).  Poirot gets captured, bound and gagged twice, Hastings thrice (he finally excels Poirot at something in these books), while Cinderella is menaced by "Chinese devils" ("Remember the price of failure....your wife dies by the Seventy lingering Deaths!"), yet somehow they all escape unscathed time and again.  

Personally I found the "Big Four" kind of incompetent in this regard.  Perhaps they should have emulated contemporary American gangsters and just machine gunned Poirot and Hastings as they exited Poirot's apartment building?  There's something to be said for good old American efficiency!

By the way, Poirot's address is 14 Farraway Street here; when did he move into Whitehaven Mansions?  He's also has a landlady named Mrs. Pearson, which is not the only thing therein which reminded my of the world of 221b Baker Street.

Embedded within this farrago of nonsense, however, are a few nice little cases of detection.  One of them has been anthologized separately on occasion, under the title "A Chess Problem."  In it Poirot investigates the death from heart failure of a brilliant young American chess player during a match.  But there are two other clever little stories, or episodes, in the book as well.  

The first could be anthologized, after tweaking, as "The Murder at Granite Bungalow" and the second as "The Yellow Jasmine Mystery."  The first concerns the case of jade collector Jonathan Whalley at the Dartmoor village of Hoppaton, who was found dead at his home with his throat cut.  His manservant, an ex-con, has been arrested, but Poirot has other notions of culpritude.  

This is an enjoyable little affair with more than an echo of G. K. Chesterton.  I almost thought for a few minutes that it was going to anticipate a famous story by Roald Dahl, but alas no.  

The other "story," the yellow jasmine one, concerns the death of retired globetrotter Mr. Paynter at his small place in Worcestershire, near the village of Market Handford, where he lived with his nephew, Geoffrey, and his Chinese manservant, Ah Ling.  The elder Paynter was discovered in his study, fallen forward into the gas fire, his face charred beyond recognition.  Then there's the matter of the master's poisoned curry and his dying message about "yellow jasmine"....

It all finally works up, in rather an abrupt fashion, to Poirot's and Hastings' showdown with the Big Four at their mountain fastness in the Dolomites, oddly reminiscent of Adolf Hitler's kehlsteinhaus.  Christie was obviously inspired by the Master's Sherlock Holmes short stories "The Final Problem" and "The Empty House," but she comes up with some amusing, if outlandish wrinkles, on them.

Speaking of the Sherlock Holmes connection, I should mention that Poirot's own Irene Adler, the Russian jewel thief Countess Vera Rossakoff, pops up a couple of times in The Big Four.  I hadn't even remembered that she appeared in this.  I think that gives her three appearances in all in the Poirot canon, here, originally in 1924, in the short story "Double Sin," originally published in 1923, and then finally in "The Capture of Cerberus," which first appeared, in the version with Vera Rossakoff, in 1947 in the collection The Labours of Hercules (the original 1940 version of the story having been rejected and subsequently gone unpublished).  It's nice to see the character again, although I have to say I think the Countess has made some despicable crime career decisions here!  

All in all I would sooner read The Big Four again than Elephants Can Remember, the last Poirot mystery Agatha Christie wrote, nearly a half century after The Big Four.  And, really, is the concept of the "Big Four" any more ridiculous than "Q"?  Grand conspiracy theories may be absurd, but seemingly they will always claim a following among the more credulous members of the credulous human race, so naturally crime fiction will make use of them.  As long as the tongue is kept in cheek, I don't see harm in it.  So consider The Big Four underrated.

Friday, August 6, 2021

"She was very unkind to her father and mother": A Private Disgrace: Lizzie Borden by Daylight (1967), by Victoria Lincoln

Lizzie Borden House in Fall River, Massachusetts, site of the 1892 Borden murders
Victoria Lincoln's uncle, boosted by his elder brother, Victoria's father,
would have looked through one of the middle first floor windows pictured above,
where he would have descried Andrew Borden gory remains on the couch
Abby Borden's body was found in the guest room at the left upper front 

Well, the Lizzie Borden house in Fall River, Massachusetts has changed owners.  

Or, I should say, the house of Lizzie's father: miserly, eccentric millionaire Andrew Jackson Borden, where he lived up until his sudden untimely death with his two daughters, Emma and Lizzie, and his second wife, Abby, Emma and Lizzie's stepmother.  (The girls did not like it when second wife Abby was called their mother.)  

This is the house where, on August 4, 1892, someone brutally hacked to death both Andrew and Abby.  Abby died first, around nine in the morning, as she made up the second story guest bedroom where her husband's brother-in-law was staying (having first sent the Irish maid, Bridget, outside on the hot summer day to wash the windows).  Andrew was sent to his account about two hours later, after he had returned home and was taking a nap on a couch in the first floor sitting room.  

Was it Lizzie in the sitting room
with the hatchet?

Lizzie and Bridget were the only two people, among those who survived the day, who are known to have been in and out of the house at the time.  Sister Emma was out of town, as was Emma's and Lizzie's uncle, John Morse, who had been staying in the guest bedroom in the house since the previous night.

Younger daughter Lizzie, 32 at the time of the murders, famously was arrested for the crimes, indicted, tried and then righteously acquitted by a jury of her "peers," apparently a dozen unimaginative male farmers.  She lived out the rest of her life in the mill town of Fall River at an elegant new house which she bought with money inherited from her horrifically slain father, for part of that time with her elder sister Emma (41 at the time of the murders), for the rest by herself with a succession of housekeepers and maids. 

This elegant new house she dubbed Maplecroft, and it's been up for sale too.  In fact it still is.  Take a look at the house and its interior here, and you will see that Lizzie's material lot in life greatly improved after the brutal deaths of her father and stepmother.

Of course you know the jingle, Lizzie Borden took an ax/And gave her mother forty whacks/When she saw what she had done/She gave her her father forty-one.  (Actually, I think it was eighteen and eleven whacks respectively, or maybe twenty and ten, but that upsets the rhyme scheme.)  It's probably the most famous juvenile rhyme outside of the pages of Mother Goose.  

Or Bridget in the guest room 
with the hatchet?

Even Lizzie's well-bred, wealthy neighbor children chanted that doggerel and steered clear of her house. However, one little girl named Victoria once chatted in quite a friendly manner with Lizzie, who was out in her yard filling her bird and squirrel feeders (Lizzie loved animals), when Victoria was on her way to school.  Young Victoria was born in 1906 and at this time she was seven years old, so this event took place in 1913/4, when the murders were over two decades old and Lizzie was in her fifties.

Two decades later, in 1935, when she was promoting what was often erroneously called her first novel, the bestselling February Hill, Victoria, now grown up author Victoria Lincoln, recalled this incident:

"I thought that anyone so fond of animals would be pretty entertaining, so I played skips on my nurse and got acquainted.  But Mother found out and said she wouldn't play with Miss Borden if she were I, and when I pressed her reasons she said, 'Well, you see, dear, she was very unkind to her father and mother.'  An all-time classic of understatement."

During the 1920s and 1930s (during which time Lizzie died at the age of 66 in 1927), esteemed criminologist Edmund Lester Pearson wrote extensively about the Lizzie Borden case.  (He himself died in 1937, a decade after Lizzie.)  

As the premier Lizzieologist of his day he did much to convince the country, if it needed convincing, that Lizzie was indeed actually guilty of the Fall River murders, whatever those twelve good and true local farmers said.  However, in 1961 criminologist Edward Radin, in his book Lizzie Borden: The Untold Story, attacked Pearson's veracity and presented the theory that it was the maid, Bridget, who killed the Bordens, being infuriated that Abby had told her to wash the windows on that hot August day.  (Truly, it would seem, Bridget was one of those maids who "don't do windows.")

In her laudatory notice of the book in the New York Times Book Review, true crime and detective fiction writer Lillian de la Torre pronounced that Radin's solution was "highly probable."  Crime critic Anthony Boucher, who wouldn't go that far, proclaimed, however, that Radin had established at least that Lizzie's not guilty verdict was the just one.  So when Victoria Lincoln came out with her take on the Fall River tragedy in 1967, she was striking a (hatchet) blow for those traditionalists who maintained their faith in Lizzie's guilt.  

Victoria Endicott Lincoln
(1906-1981)
in the 1930s

It was Radin's book which probably pushed Lincoln to tackle the subject herself, because it's clear that she grew up in Fall River, back when Lizzie was alive, firmly believing in the younger Borden daughter's guilt, when she was old enough to be told the story, without her mother's delicate euphemisms.  In 1962, a year after the publication of the Radin book, bookman and occasional detective fiction writer Vincent Starrett in his nationally syndicated Books Alive newspaper column published his recent correspondence with Lincoln concerning the Borden case.  He had been inspired by a contention in the Radin book that a beneficent Lizzie Borden in her later years sweetly "bought church raffle tickets, liked animals and fed cookies to toddlers," one of whom happened to have been young Victoria Lincoln.

Lincoln was having none of that when Starrett queried her on the point: "The cookies, I assure you, were pure dream.  [There was] no child for miles around [old enough to know Lizzie's story] but was scared of that house."

"However," she continued, "when I was seven I didn't know it...."  She then tells her 1935 story about meeting Lizzie again, ending with the same terrific punchline.  

She adds some more personal family detail too:

My grandfather [manufacturer Leontine Lincoln], a  vastly civilized and tolerant person, knew the Andrew Borden family well--generations well, that is, from-way-back-when well.  He felt that they were all and always eccentric to a degree--and when an old Falls Riversite calls someone odd, believe it, boy, they're odd.  

What I mean is, this was a town which accepted the individualist.  If Grandfather, so wholly accepting, wrote off the elder Bordens as remarkably murderworthy and poor Lizzie as a borderline paranoid, I can't help feeling that there was something in his point of view....I never met anyone from Lizzie's own milieu and generation who ever had the remotest idea that she might possibly, possibly be innocent.  There was no malice in it--just a feeling that there had always been a delicate equilibrium, and one hot morning it flopped over with no motive--just a rage that got out of hand.

Leontine Lincoln I (1846-1923)

Lincoln claims that when they heard the news of the murders her own father, Jonathan Thayer Lincoln, and his brother, Leontine, Jr. (Lon), who were then 22 and 19,

got on their high-wheel bicycles and took off [for the Borden house] right away.  The authorities hadn't yet cleaned up and a crowd was around the house.  The [sitting room] window was too high to look in and Father, always beautifully unselfish, offered to give Lon the first boost up because he was the youngest. 

However, when Lee [after looking in] promptly became sick and then had a convulsion, Father decided he would forgo the pleasure for himself.

Victoria Lincoln published A Private Disgrace: Lizzie Borden by Daylight in 1967, when she was 61 years old.  The next year it won the Edgar Award for Best Fact Crime, a feat that Edward Radin had been unable to pull off six years earlier with his much vaunted Lizzie Borden: The Untold Story, which was nominated for an Edgar but did not win (although the be fair to Radin he had won Edgars twice before).

In my view Lincoln's book amply deserved its Edgar.  Along with Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, which won the Edgar for Best Fact Crime two years earlier, it's probably the best true crime study I've ever read, in my estimation.  Part of my enjoyment from this book is derived from the way in which Lincoln's book is marinated in the juices of Fall River society.  I, like other Lizzieists I'm sure, wish that more of the locals, the people who knew Lizzie and Fall River society, had spoken out about the affair.  But that Would Not Have Done, of course.

As Lincoln writes it was Fall River's--or rather Fall River society's--private disgrace.  She writes of Lizzie, who lived on in stubborn, proud, isolated splendor in her elegant house Maplecroft for thirty-five years after the murders: "[S]he was the skeleton in our cupboard, the black sheep in our family, a disgrace, but a private disgrace."

Lincoln reflects that in preparing the book she felt a sense of social guilt, like she was betraying her Fall River set, even though she had left the city for good, outside of occasional visits, when she graduated from Radcliffe College, some sixty miles away from Fall River, in 1927, the same year Lizzie died: "Somewhere in my marrow I am shocked to discover that I am the sort of person who would talk to outsiders about Lizzie."

But talk she did!  And of course she had obviously had been making an anecdote out of the "Lizzie was unkind to her parents" story for decades.  But I'm glad Lincoln was a Chatty Cathy, because it lends the book much of its fascination.

first paperback edition, 1969

So like the rest of her Fall River set (the wealthy people who lived, like Lizzie post-murders, on the hill), Lincoln was convinced that Lizzie did it, outsider Radin notwithstanding, and she set out to prove it in A Private Disgrace.  As Lincoln writes of Lizzie:

[S]he had her good points, but I believe that she plotted one murder and committed two, and it's not a belief to laugh off or sentimentalize away.

What fascinates Lincoln is her view that "the factual evidence of [Lizzie's] sole opportunity and her guilt is so overwhelming, yet the bare idea of her guilt is so humanly incredible, so absurd."

Lincoln posits that Lizzie carried out the first murder, that of her stepmother Abby, in a form of epileptic fit, an idea which I think has been pretty much discredited today.  But her basic theory of the crimes makes compelling reading. 

One of the points I personally can never get past in the case is that Lizzie apparently tried to buy prussic acid during the fortnight before the crimes and that shortly before the crimes Abby made one of rare excursions from the house to tell a doctor across the street that she was afraid she was being poisoned.  Although the pharmacist's evidence was excluded from the jury by the panel of judges who heard the case (who contra Boucher seems to have been unfairly biased in Lizzie's favor), I can't exclude it from my brain.

Abby Borden was set upon and killed first in the guest room
From Edwin Porter's Fall River Tragedy (1893), which 
Lizzie was said to have had suppressed (see PBA Galleries)

Lincoln goes through the years of petty animosities which simmered to boiling point in the Borden house, stemming from the fact that the girls resented their stepmother and especially a settlement of property which Andrew had made upon her.  Though in terms of modern worth Andrew was a multi-millionaire, he kept his family in an old-fashioned, cramped, inconvenient house (given their economic circumstances), when he easily could have moved them to a fine mansion on the hill.  Emma, for whom the term mousy spinster might have been invented, could live with this, but it must have bothered Lizzie, who had pretty notions of bigger and better things in life.

Lincoln thinks Lizzie had been planning to poison Abby (poison being the classic gentlewoman's weapon in the Victorian era), but then had her fit on the morning of August 4 and hacked stepmom to death instead.  Even without resorting to an epileptic fit, however, I can see Lizzie having simply gone plumb off her rocker that day.  It can happen, even to genteel people.  (Andrew's death Lincoln sees as unplanned, but a necessary concomitant to the first murder as actually carried out.)  Lincoln posits a fascinating theory to explain what might especially have set Lizzie off at this time.  

Andrew was next to go, as he slept in the sitting room
(see PBA Galleries)

And this brings me to the other reason I like this book so much,  These terrible crimes, where the times and the movements of the people and the layout of the house are so very important, where the setting is genteel but the circumstances savage, is like something out of a Golden Age detective novel (more plans of the Borden house and grounds here).  And Lincoln brings the ingenuity of a first-rate Golden Age detective novelist to bear on the problem.  

What happened to Lizzie's missing bloodstained dress (assuming Lizzie was guilty) and the murder weapon?  What exactly was Lizzie's and Emma's visiting uncle, John Morse, up to that day (and the day and night before)?  Why did friendless, homebound Abby get a message on the murder morning urging her to come visit a sick friend? Well, let me tell you, Lincoln comes up with answers to these and many other questions! 

What did Bridget see?
Bridget Sullivan, the Borden's maid
26 at the time of the murders
In Lincoln's hands Morse becomes a major player in the ghastly and tragic train of events, rather than the usual bit actor.  I find her reconstruction much more convincing than Radin's Bridget theory (The Irish maid did it!), although I am compelled to admit that over at The Hatchet website, devoted to myriad Lizzieana, Eugene Hosey, who knows a heck of a lot more about the Borden affair than I do, has taken issue with the book on a  number of points.

Lincoln thinks that Bridget was guiltless of involvement in the crimes, although she does speculate that the maid was paid off afterward for not telling all she knew.  (Plus, she genuinely liked Lizzie and thought she was getting a raw deal in life.)  Lincoln found new detail in her book about just what happened to Bridget after Lizzie's trial.  (Her fate was unknown in Edmund Pearson's day.)

Lincoln also has interesting details about Lizzie's life after the trial and just why Fall River society turned against her, after supporting her during the trial.  First, there was the fancy house she bought and the fact that dared give it a name, Maplecroft, engraving it "on the front step like a grave maker."  Ostentatious and vulgar!  Then Lizzie began calling herself Lisbeth.  Pretentious!  Observes Lincoln:

There is an odd amoral streak in your southern New England Yankee.  Many who in time could have taken the murder in stride--a thing that probably happened, but all water under the bridge now--could not stomach that bit: Lisbeth of Maplecroft.

Maplecroft today

Then there was Lizzie's 1897 shoplifting of a pair of tacky but dear paintings on porcelain, Love's Dream and Love's Awakening, from a local jewelry and gift shop.  "[W]e usually went there to buy wedding presents," writes Lincoln.  "Lizzie was a regular customer, but the plaques were as expensive as they were ugly," and Lizzie, once exposed as a thief, had to reimburse the store or face the law again. She forked over the cash. Interestingly, it appears that years before Lizzie had stolen some jewelry and cash from Abby before the hatchet murders, an action Andrew had tried mightily to hush up.  

"[P]etty theft is not only easier to believe in than murder, it is somehow less socially acceptable," writes Lincoln.  "The Borgias had family pride: they did not pick pockets.  Old rumors, vaguely consonant with this episode, which had largely been discounted up to that time as a shade too peculiar, became more widely believed."

Love's Awakening, painting on porcelain
(original by Hortense Richard)
the cupid might be said to resemble a young Lizzie

Then there were Lizzie's visits to Boston and to the theater and her doting friendship with a lovely actress fourteen years younger than she, one Nance O'Neil, who, I was interested to discover, later enjoyed a career in silent films and even made it to the early talkies.  

One night in early June 1905, just short of 13 years after the murders, Lizzie held a bash at Maplecroft for her friend Nance and her theater friends.  "[F]or once," writes Lincoln, "Maplecroft fulfilled its intended social function as Lizzie must have imagined it when she bought it....The house blazed with lights from top to bottom and blared with music." 

Sister Emma, who emphatically did not like Show People, promptly packed up and left Maplecroft for good, relocating to Providence, Rhode Island.  This event actually made national newspaper headlines, where Emma was characterized as "sedate and retiring" and Lizzie as "fond of good times and jolly company."

Lizzie Borden later in life
after she had become
Lisbeth of Maplecroft

This was damming indeed in the eyes of Fall River society, which felt that "a woman who had stood in Lizzie's shoes--whether or not those shoes had ever been stained in blood--should thereafter lead a retired life.  She had been acquitted largely on the ground of being the picture of piety and domesticity....the WCTU [Women's Christian Temperance Union] had been one of the trumps with which Lizzie made grand slam."  Now Lizzie had exposed herself as being not quite the model Victorian miss.

An extraordinary 1913 article in the Boston Sunday Herald by journalist Gertrude Stevenson, which was carried as well in the Fall River Globe, savaged Lizzie as a "social pariah.

The younger Borden girl was contrasted unfavorably with her sister Emma, "as staid and gentle and as meek as Lizzie was forceful, domineering an strong-willed."  The piece all but pointed the finger of guilt at Lizzie and shrieked "Murderess!"  When intrepid Gertrude marched up the steps of Maplecroft and knocked on the front door, asking to see Lizzie for her side of the story, the timid maid who answered at her mistresses' instruction denied Gertrude entry.

Nance: Lizzie's eyes dazzled

Both this and a follow-up newspaper interview with Emma, in which Emma denied Lizzie's guilt of the murders while admitting that Lizzie was "queer," are reprinted here at The Hatchet.  Emma, who died nine days after Lizzie in 1927, apparently never spoke with her sister again, even though she returned to visit friends in Fall River in 1912.

Lincoln affirms that Stephenson's article "was not overwritten.  I was [Lizzie's] neighbor then, I can remember."

And, yes, Lincoln does mention the incident of Lizzie, the cookies and the toddlers which was recounted in Radin's book and she again affirms that it was utter bosh. 

"The 'toddlers'"
whom Radin referred to, including herself, "would as soon have taken cookies from Lucrezia Borgia." 

Now Maplecroft is again up for sale.  (More pictures here.)  Personally if I had the financial resources I would buy it in a minute.  The witch's hat atop the front tower seems ever so appropriate and today there is a great view, looking down the hill and across the river, of the cooling tower of a nuclear power planet--a macabre touch which Charles Addams surely would have appreciated.  It's just too perfect.  And no murders were actually committed there (that we know of), which would be a relief to us timid souls.

Lizzie's old house, the murder house, a lone survivor on its downtown street, I think, from that terrible day, has been sold, to buyers promising to hold "ax-throwing contests" in the backyard and to put more emphasis on lucrative, if highly dubious, paranormal investigations. 

Even under the previous owners, visitors were wont to photograph themselves on the replica of the sitting room couch where Andrew Borden was brained, smirking like they are on a thrill ride at Disneyworld. You can even sleep in the room where Abby was struck on the head, felled, and smote again and again until the back of her skull was splintered and crushed.  Fun times for all!

sitting room where Andrew was killed (note hatchet on couch)
facing that wallpaper and that carpet I think I would have been suffering from vertigo

One has to wonder what Lizzie would make of it all.  (Emma I'm sure would be utterly horrified.)

Maybe that part of Lizzie 

Elizabeth Montgomery in
The Legend of Lizzie Borden (1975)
where I first found out about Lizzie
(Montgomery later learned she was a sixth 
cousin of Lizzie and Emma)

which basked in the glow of her dramatic courtroom victory, when the audience (the trial was not held in Fall River) broke out in cheers for her

which basked in the glow of her friendship with dazzling Nance O'Neil

which, despite her confused explanations at the inquest--fortunately for her excluded from the trial--of her whereabouts during the murders and other matters, had the cool headedness, if you believe she indeed was guilty, to get rid of her bloodstained dress and hatchet 

would be fascinated to be the center of so much attention (much of it sympathetic), nearly 130 years after the untimely demises of her father and mother--pardon me, stepmother.  Today Lizzie is the fatal femme of Fall River and the cornerstone of a major tourist industry.  She has transcended snooty old judgmental Fall River society and risen to the pantheon of those who daring young women who "got away with it."

Lizzie Borden house by nightfall
open to brave guests

Why, she's even a "feminist icon" in some quarters.  For youngsters, we now have in print, for reasons I cannot fathom, a series of Lizzie Borden, Girl Detective books, described by one Goodreads reviewer as "cute, fun Nancy Drew-style mysteries solved by a plucky teenager in 1890s [1870s?] Fall River."  That scamp Lizzie was nothing if not plucky!

For adults, the 2018 film Lizzie would have us believe that Andrew sexually assaulted Bridget, who was really Lizzie's lover.  It has also been speculated that Andrew was molesting not Bridget but Lizzie. In these scenarios Lizzie may be a murderess, but she is a righteous avenger, standing up for generations of abused women.  

Certainly the Bordens, as Victoria Lincoln's grandfather thought, were an odd family.  Victoria Lincoln comments that they never read books, though they did subscribe to newspapers, which Andrew thriftily had his womenfolk use as a substitute for toilet paper.  (Now, there's a motive for murder!) 

Yet contained within their manifold dullness and drabness are multitudes of weirdness which have entranced generations now.  "All happy families are alike, but every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way," wrote Leo Tolstoy.  With regard to the horrid murders in the hapless Borden household, we want to know why, and we know we really never will on this side of the grave, which makes it all so fascinatingly frustrating.  Searching for soothing clarity, I opt for Lincoln's inspired exegesis.  It may not be right but it certainly is damned ingenious.

For an earlier post by me on the Borden case, see here.

Chloe Sevigny as Lizzie (I think she looks rather more like Emma.)