Saturday, January 27, 2024

"The crime is dementia": Postern of Fate (1973), by Agatha Christie

"It's the great thing you have to have in life.  Hope.  Remember?  I'm always full of hope."


"Ah, well--what fun it is, all the things one used to invent and believe in and play at."  


"You must try and remember names better."


"Oh, dear, I must think what I'm doing."


"It really is most exhausting writing everything down.  Every now and then I do get things a bit wrong, don't I?"


"Fancy you remembering that....

Yes, I know.  One's always surprised when one remembers something."

--Tommy and Tuppence Beresford in Agatha's Christie's Postern of Fate (1973)

Fragile and immensely aged, Agatha became, as the old sometimes do, more and more like the child she had been more than eighty years before.  Sometimes she was serene...gently leafing through one of her books....At other times she was eccentric, declaring, for instance, that today she would wear all her brooches, from the grandest diamonds to small ornaments children had sent her....

--excerpt from Janet Morgan's biography of Agatha Christie

Fifteen years ago linguistic researchers made news when they offered evidence from Agatha Christie's novels indicating that by the 1970s she likely was suffering from Alzheimer's Disease.  I don't know that they looked at Passenger to Frankfurt (1970) or Nemesis (1971), but they definitely did at Elephants Can Remember (1972) and Postern of Fate, Christie's final two novels, and they found the evidence of her loss of vocabulary in those books striking indeed. "It reveals an author responding to something she feels is happening but cannot do anything about," one researcher observed of the tellingly titled Elephants Can Remember. "It's almost as if...the crime is dementia."

I don't know, however, that any Christie fan needs to be an expert in linguistics or gerontology to know that there is something "off" with Christie's last two books.  Indeed, one can tell Christie's writing grip was slackening well before that.  If one looks at the Crime Queens last butcher's dozen of novels (discounting Curtain and Sleeping Murder, which were written long before they were published), we have:

The Final Thirteen Christies, 1961 to 1973 (rated on a five star scale; we really devoted Christie fans can add a 1/2 star)

The Pale Horse (nonseries, Ariadne Oliver) **** 

The Mirror Crack'd from Side to Side (Marple) **1/2

The Clocks (Poirot, Ariadne Oliver mentioned) **1/2

A Caribbean Mystery (Marple) ***

At Bertram's Hotel (Marple) ****

Third Girl (Poirot) ***

Endless Night (nonseries) ****1/2

By the Pricking of My Thumbs (Tommy and Tuppence)**

Hallowe'en Party (Poirot) ***

Passenger to Frankfurt (nonseries) 1/2

Nemesis (Marple)***1/2

Elephants Can Remember (Poirot) *1/2

Postern of Fate(Tommy and Tuppence) *

These thirteen novels were published between 1961 and 1973.  Interestingly 1960 had been a gap year for Christie, who published Cat among the Pigeons in 1959, but had no novel, only a book of revised short fiction, The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding, in 1960.  This was the first time Christie had failed to produce a mystery novel for the year since 1947, when she again supplied a book of short fiction, The Labors of Hercules.

Still, The Pale Horse, which appeared in 1961 is a top flight in my opinion, and The Mirror Crack'd is well told and plotted, though the big clue is unoriginal and the mystery seemingly hinges on an event drawn from real life.  I enjoy The Clocks, but it has marked structural weaknesses, and the travelogue A Caribbean Mystery repeats a trick Christie had used earlier in another novel.  At Bertram's Hotel has an evocative setting but a dodgy plot to some degree, while Third Girl, where Poirot returned after three years, is not that well-plotted by Poirot's standard.  

Despite great virtues in my opinion, Endless Night is really a modern suspense novel with the minimalistic mystery plot taken from an earlier short story.  By the Pricking of My Thumbs, which brought back an elderly Tommy and Tuppence Beresford after many years, is enjoyable, but the plot is noticeably muddy and huddled at the end, which can also be said of the Poirot mystery Halloween Party, which does rather blether on with a too transparent mystery.  At some point in the Sixties Christie started using a Dictaphone and you can definitely tell by the time of Thumbs.  

This brings us to Seventies Christies, which with one exception are a pretty dire lot.  There is Passenger to Frankfurt, a nearly incoherent political thriller which I have never been able to finish (it's the only Christie mystery I have never completed), Nemesis, the one relative bright spot in the bunch even if it has narrative weaknesses, Elephants Can Remember, the last Poirot mystery Christie wrote and the most dully and transparently plotted of them and then, finally, Postern of Fate, which by any objective standard is an utter fiasco.  It's easy to believe its author was suffering from significant cognitive decline when she wrote it.  

But then we Christie fans are not objective, are we?  I went back and looked at contemporary reviews of Postern of Fate, which was published just over a half-century ago in late 1973, and they were, for the most part, pretty kind to the author.  By this time Christie was a decades long publishing institution and people loved and indulged her, like some beloved elderly family member.  The gift of a Christie for Christmas was not to be spurned, even if this case it was likely a grandmother's poorly knitted pair of socks.  

Probably the most widely seen notice of Postern of Fate in American newspapers was a syndicated piece by John Barkham, a sixty-five year old veteran book reviewer and a Pulitzer prize juror of two decades standing.  

Barkham's piece was tinged with nostalgia and a certain melancholy, for anyone reading Postern might well suspect that the sands of time were fast running out on the author's writing life.  

For those who look forward to these Christmas offerings [the annual "Christie for Christmas"], it's hard to think of Christmas without one, though inevitably the time will come when they cease to appear.  Agatha Christie is now in her 84th year, with something like 400 books to her credit....

Agatha Christie's ingenuity in devising plots and concealing the identity of her criminals is legendary.  I wish I could report that "Postern of Fate" was one of her better efforts, but the truth is that it lacks drama, movement and mystification.  Perhaps the old lady is slowing down.  She certainly does a great deal of looking back to the good old days in this exploit....The narrative becomes both an elucidation of a long-past crime and a journey into that past.  Running through the narrative is a deep longing for a time when people knew their places and behaved according to a strict code of manners....

"Postern of Fate" is not by any means the last "Christie for Christmas."  Even if the lady were to depart this vale of woe tomorrow (which heaven forfend), there are completed manuscripts to appear for our delectation.  "Postern of Fate" may not be top-notch Christie, but it's still better than most of today's routine whodunits.

Jan Zachry at the Lincoln Nebraska Journal Star was more remorseless in pointing out the book's flaws:

Because the puzzle took place so long ago, it never seems important for it to be solved....the villain appears only in the last chapters.  Therefore the book fails to build suspense and is boring.  To uncover the weak plot, the reader must wade through 13 chapters of pointless conversations, wordy descriptions of each meal and treatises on where the dog, Hannibal, likes to go on his walks.  

Even Zachary, however, found the characters of Tommy and Tuppence the saving graces of the book, declaring them "clearly exasperating, but lovable."  

Sheila M. Mitchell of the Cincinnati Enquirer was similarly forthright in pointing out the flaws in Postern of Fate, commenting: "I am sorry to say that this story builds to a very dull middle and ends with a thud.  It simply doesn't compare to any previous adventure of the Beresfords or for that matter, any suspense novel Agatha Christie has created."  

Christie and her husband Max
 in the garden
approaching the end of their lives.
She died in 1976, he two years later.
All these criticisms are true.  As I stated above, by any objective literary standard Postern of Fate is a terrible book.  Surely no one enjoys this book for its meandering, muddled plot.  Yet a lot of Christie fans, who have built up a long-term relationship with the author, enjoy it for the Christie nostalgia.  Me, I find it a poignant memoir of someone who is suffering from senile dementia, and knows it.  

A few words about the plot.  Tommy and Tuppence, now in their seventies (Tuppence I suppose is around 72, Tommy a bit older), have moved into another house in another provincial English town and are going through the old books left in the library.  They discover a code message in one of the books, written down by a promising fourteen-year-old boy (elsewhere it's said he was eleven) who died young, Alexander Parkinson (Parkinson's Disease?): "Mary Jordan did not die naturally.  It was one of us.  I think I know which one."  

This starts the old married couple off on a search into a mystery from the distant past, when there was an unnatural death, apparently a murder, at their house, The Laurels, in the years just before the outbreak of the Great War.  The rather desultory investigation consists mostly of Tuppence pottering around the house, though occasionally Tommy trots off to London for chats with his geriatric cronies in intelligence.  There are also visitors, like old jobbing gardener Isaac Bodlicott (who is even more aged than Tommy and Tuppence), who know things about the area and its past, though they usually can't express themselves that coherently.  It's a slow march in a long book by Christie's standards.  

I actually remember reading Postern of Fate in a treehouse back in 1978, when I was twelve years old, five years after it was published.  How's that for nostalgia?  Agatha Christie had been dead for just two years.  My copy was the first American paperback edition, with an ad for Bantam mysteries in the back.  You could check the books you wanted, cut out the "handy coupon," and send them a check and get your books direct from the publisher. No Amazon back then!  I got my parents to do this on several occasions.  

There's also an ad insert for the Detective Book Club, for books by Christie, Gardner, Eberhart, Simeon, Francis, Queen, Creasey, Marric: Eleven mysteries for one dollar!

I don't actually remember hating Postern of Fate when I first read it and there are, to be sure, things in it to entertain a youngster who likes mysteries.  Discovering an encoded clue in an old book in an old house, it's like a Nancy Drew mystery.  But to an adult, the book just drags on and on with endless, dull,  meandering, repetitive conversations.  I understand that the house and town are stand-ins for Christie's old family home Ashfield and her native town of Torquay and a lot of Christie fans enjoy deciphering the references, but I can only get so much out of that myself.  

Christie, however, obviously must have derived great enjoyment from living over her childhood again with this book.  When you have dementia, you forget so much of the present, even things you did a few hours earlier, but often you remember your distant past.  You derive comfort from remembering things from your past, when so much else is vacating from your mind.  

Similarly Tommy and Tuppence and Tommy's elderly intelligence cronies enjoy reminiscing about T&T's espionage doings and crime-solving exploits in the past.  There's a bit about The Secret Adversary and Partners in Crime, but it's mostly N or M?  This is nice up to a point but it eventually gets wearisome. (I never want to hear the words goosey, goosey, gander again.)  But for the characters the past is comforting, the present confusing.  

Christie's muddled political thriller from three years earlier, Passenger to Frankfurt, is referenced several times too, and as a political document, if you take it seriously, Postern is on the same indecipherable page as Frankfurt.  In Postern, the past case concerns German spies from the Edwardian era and a naval treaty (submarine plans, like in the Thirties Christie novelette), so you might be asking yourself, what does this have to do with anything in the present day?  But it seems that there is group of fascist types still hanging around the area, still plotting, Boys from Brazil like, to foment chaos and destruction in the world and quite willing to eliminate anyone getting in the way of their plans, including this nosy pair of oldsters.  

Basically, it's the Christie plot from her Twenties thriller The Big Four all over again, except we have a Tommy and Tuppence instead of Poirot and Hastings and a fascist cell instead of a sinister Chinaman and a ruthless American millionaire.  How much did Christie actually believe in this stuff?  Tommy's doddering oldsters in intelligence, Mr. Robinson and Colonel Pikeaway, certainly seem to take it all seriously. although they cannot express themselves very clearly.  Here's the Colonel:

What is going on?

There have been secrets, you know....I'm not telling you anything exact, because I don't know anything exact.  The trouble with me is that nobody really knows.....We think we know it all, but do we?  Do we know anything about germ warfare?  Do we know everything about gases, about means of inducing pollution?  The chemists have their secrets, medical science has its secrets, the services have their secrets, the navy, the air force--all sorts of things.  And they're not all in the present....But we've got to find out a little more than we do because things are happening all the time.  In different countries, in different places, in wars, in Vietnam, in guerilla wars, in Jordan, in Israel, even in the uninvolved countries.  In Sweden and Switzerland--anywhere. There are these things and we want clues to them.... 

To be candid this doesn't make enjoyable, or even easy, reading, but it seems to reflect the hazy thinking of a lot of people today, who feel that there are insidious forces pulling strings behind the scenes (like "Q") and that we don't really know what is going on.  (What about covid?  What about UFOs?  What about BLM?  What about Taylor Swift?)  In her dotage, Christie seems to have felt similarly confused, and very uneasy about it.  How much more pleasant to take little nostalgic trips down one's own personal lane of memories--while one could still find the off ramp.

I think Christie was quite aware of her own confusion.  She was a great writer for goodness sake!  Look at those quotations above, at the top of this article.  Her characters keep talking about how hard it is to remember anything, how everything is confusing and difficult.  So many speeches start off with I mean or I wonder, as character struggle to express themselves coherently.  And it's not just the old people who cannot speak succinctly and cogently, it's everyone.  Here is an ostensibly physically vigorous young man named Angus Crispin (!) on old Isaac, after the latter gets bumped off, offstage, by the baddies, so that we can have a present-day murder to try and give the narrative some urgency (it doesn't work):

Isaac....knew things.  Old stories, as you say, but he had a memory.  And they talk it over.  Yes, in these clubs for old people, they talk things over.  Tall stories--some of them not true, some of them based in fact.  Yes, it's all very interesting.

I really think this book deliberately reflects the author's own struggle with dementia.  Her husband later said the book almost killed her, and afterward she was unable ever to write another.  Christie lived just a little over two years after the publication of Postern of Fate.  

So for me all this makes Postern of Fate not a good book--nothing could make it that--but rather an almost unbearably poignant one.  That quotation at the top that comes from the book, about hope, that's like something my Dad used to say about Heaven and the existence of God.  So many people have gone what Christie went through, but they never wrote about the sad experience like the Queen of Crime did in Postern of Fate.  So I'm glad she struggled and lived to give us this book.  I suppose the story really should have ended with Tuppence happily pottering around the back garden with the rocking horse Mathilde, holding an imaginary conversation about a confusing mystery concerning Mary Jordan with her long-deceased husband Tommy, but perhaps that would have been too much verisimilitude for the fans, like the video to Elvis Costello's 1989 hit song Veronica.  


  1. Tuppence even says she can't really remember their earlier exploits. And Christie herself was sometimes pleasantly surprised when she reread her earlier works.

    1. I think Christie was getting a great kick out of looking back at N or M? when she was writing Postern. I recall rather enjoying that one, though I got tired of "goosey, goosey gander" getting repeated in Postern. It's not a good book, bit it's an interesting one if you like Christie. And the dementia stuff makes it bittersweet for me now.

  2. Thoughtful post. One thing that I noticed from study of your list of the last 13 Christies is that 4 of the thirteen are Miss Marple novels! And, since she produced so many fewer Miss M novels vs HP novels, the end of her writing career is very heavily weighted with Miss M. And two of the last 13 are Tommy and Tuppance, out of a total of 5 T&T books, and they are the only characters that age more or less in real time, her final set of novels are highly focused on aged/elderly main characters and thus, in addition to the mysteries also provide her insight into the aging process.

    I do love the end of Nemesis, I like to think of Miss Marple as living forever with the money from her one paid detective assignment paid into her 'current account' for her to spend on little luxuries and treats for herself and her friends.

    1. Yes, I'm guessing Christie came really to identify with Miss Marple in her later years. When the first Marple novel was published Christie was forty, when the last was published she was 81. By then Christie was old enough to be her earlier self's grandmother. Only one Miss Marple novel actually appeared during the Golden Age, plus the short story collection. I imagine a lot of mystery fans in 1940 didn't even remember Miss Marple.

      Nemesis has a great beginning and end, just gets somewhat bogged down in the middle. But the overall story arc is great. Love the ending, with Miss MArple announcing the only thing she will need for a rainy day is her umbrella. What a great ending Christie provided for her. And then along came Sleeping Murder a few years later, which was nice too.

      I think it was putting her in the a trio of books in the early Fifties, including the really major A Murder Is Announced, that really put Miss Marple on the map. And then of course the Margaret Rutherford films, 1961 to 1964. When Christie published The Mirror Crack'd, there hadn't been a Marple film in five years, maybe she was trying to recapture the character from the films. But you definitely see the character aging and responding to social changes, it's interesting. The late Poirot books--The Clocks, Third Girl, Halloween Party and Elephants--are a lesser group of books. There wasn't really a major Poirot after the Mrs. McGinty's Dead and After the Funeral, though they all have their pleasures. Elephants doesn't have much going for it besides Ariadne Oliver though imo.

      Have been reading Passenger to Frankfurt, the only Christie I never completed, and it's actually noticeably better written than Postern. I'd say there's a drop-off after Endless Night and another after Nemesis and then the writing really plummets after Elephants.

      Robert Barnard called TT's later appearances geriatric trots. Thumbs is not bad at all, but the plot gets somewhat muddled. It's vastly stronger than Postern though. I think it makes a nice coda after their youthful and middle-aged adventures. I wish she had put them in a Fifties Cold War thriller.

  3. Oh, yes, I agree, Tommy and Tuppance and the cold war in the 1950's could have been a lot of fun.

  4. Ross Macdonald died of Alzheimer's disease and his last couple of novels are considered to be his weakest. I wonder if, like Christie, this reflected his struggle with dementia.

    And while I'm here let me say, thank you so much for your scholarship and for this blog! Glad to see you're posting again.

    1. I think you can see it in his last book, The Blue Hammer. I actually posted about that last year, or maybe it was the year before. (Now I don't remember.) The Blue Hammer actually bears some similarity to Christie. RM was a fan of her and liked the murder in the past plot. So did Robert Barnard, whose dementia affected his last books. Ironically he wrote of the problems in Christie's last ones. He was only in his seventies and RM only in his sixties.

      Thanks, I am glad you enjoy the blog. Knowing that I do something that brings enjoyment to people is important to me.

  5. Oh I am just reading this, Postern of Fate, too, and will blog on it soon! Your post is fascinating and fair - and luckily for me, I will be able to refer people to your post for these details while I riff on about whatever nonsensical aspect strikes me. Unfortunately almost no clothes descriptions in it.

    1. Thanks, Moira, I'm updating ratings of the late ones as I read and I upgraded Bertram's Hotel, downgraded Frankfurt, which I just don't think I'll ever be able to finish. I will say at least Postern has Tommy and Tuppence, they make it barely bearable. I've read it three times, though I won't say I don't skip lines.