Thursday, February 8, 2024

No Time Like the Past? At Bertram's Hotel (1965), by Agatha Christie

Agatha Christie

Pecks at the keys 'bout a murder in her mind she's seen

Death lives in her dreams

There's a face at the window

A man's holding a knife that is all red and crusted with gore

Who is it for?

All those lovely murders

How did she think them up?

All those lovely murders

On blood tonight we'll sup!

Ah, try to solve those lovely murders!

Ah, just try to solve those lovely murders!

--with apologies to Paul McCartney

Inside, if this was the first time you visited Bertram's, you felt, almost with alarm, that you had re-entered a vanished world.  Time had gone back.  You were in Edwardian England once more.

"I mean, we're not the sort of hotel where murders happen."

--At Bertram's Hotel, Agatha Christie

Brown's Hotel, said to have been the basis for Christie's fictional Bertram's Hotel
Christie added the crime.

Agatha's Christie's 1965 Miss Marple mystery novel At Bertram's Hotel is, I believe, the only work of hers which mentions the rock group The Beatles by name.  By 1964, when the Queen of Crime was writing Hotel, the Beatles had invaded and conquered America and of course they were huge in the UK as well.  The popularity of the mop-topped Beatles, who at that stage of their careers seem to us so young and almost cutely innocent, was mystifying to a lot of oldsters like Agatha, making them feel more alienated than ever from the then present era and its modish youth.  At Bertram's Hotel makes brilliant use of that feeling of alienation.  

A year after her nephew Raymond West provided her with a vacation to a Caribbean island in A Caribbean Mystery (1964), Miss Marple got a nice trip to London, courtesy of Raymond and his wife Joan, to stay at Bertram's Hotel.  Of course, not long after Miss Marple gets there, she's embroiled in a crime and (eventually) a murder, which is even better, really, than shopping at the London stores.  

Since its publication nearly sixty years ago At Bertram's Hotel has provoked a mixed response from critics, who generally have enjoyed the atmosphere of the hotel, while taking a dimmer view of the thrillerish aspects of the plot.  I recall that when I first read this one, probably in 1978 when I was twelve, I found it pretty darn dull. 

Where were all the things I expected from a Christie by that time: the murder in the opening chapters, the investigations by the (usually) amateur sleuths, the gathering of suspects in the drawing room or some such similar place for the elucidation of the crime?  Instead you have Miss Marple sitting in a hotel chit-chatting with other oldsters, with occasional bouts of consuming muffins and tea and the occasional raspberry donut (the author had a sweet tooth, or a sweet plate) and shopping and reminiscing around London.  There is also some wild plot concerning a criminal gang of robbers.  Not my own personal cup of tea at all at the time.

Brown's Hotel

When I reread the novel many years later my view of it greatly improved; and on this latest reread I only liked it more.  

It's hardly an original observation but Christie's rendering of the hotel, which on the surface appears to be so magnificently, reassuringly traditional, is impressive indeed.  I would say in fact that it's something of a tour de force, rather Allingham-esque in its atmospherics.  

Indeed, I think Youngman Carter's Mr. Campion's Farthing (1969), said to have been based on an outline from Margery Allingham before she died in 1966, might have been influenced by At Bertam's Hotel.  

Miss Marple loves Bertram's but, canny as she is, she feels a certain sense of unease from the beginning: 

It really seemed too good to be true.  she knew quite well with her usual clear-eyed common sense, that what she wanted was to refurbish her memories of the past in their old original colours.  Much of her life had, perforce, to be spent recalling past pleasures.  If you could find someone to remember them with, that was indeed happiness.  Nowadays that was not easy to do; she had outlived most of her contemporaries.  She still sat and remembered.  In a queer way, it made her feel young again.  

This is lovely, focussed writing, the kind of thing people would not be getting nearly so much from Christie in a few short years in the future.  

Later after the astonishing events at Bertram's Hotel, Mrs, Marle reflects to the paternal, tune-humming Chief-Inspector Fred "Father" Davy (one of Christie's best-realized police detectives in the Marple universe, along with Inspector Dermot Craddock): 

"It seemed wonderful at first--unchanged, you know--like stepping back into the past--to the part of the past that one had loved and enjoyed.  But of course it wasn't really like that.  I learned (what I suppose I really knew already) that one can never go back, that one should not ever try to go back--that the essence of life is going forward. Life is really a One Way Street, isn't it?"

These are wise words, well-put, and a rebuke to those who think that Christie was "merely" about puzzles, with no intent behind her crime writing other than to entertain.  After The Pale Horse (1962) and The Clocks (1963), Christie's books increasingly concern elderly people trying to accommodate themselves to the present, with mixed results. (Endless Night is an exception, in that it is told through the voice of a young person.)  There's an autumnal feeling to most of these books, that of an aging writer who has realized she is in the final stage, not merely of a career, but of life itself.  But in Hotel, she's still perceptive enough to be aware that nostalgia is a comfortable trap, a resignation from life.  While one lives one should try to strive and go forward.  

Tom Adams cover

I could go into the plot of the book more.  The criminal gang element, apparently inspired by England's Great Train Robbery of 1963,  is bookish and too clever by half, I think, like something out of Edgar Wallace; but it dovetails beautifully with the theme and plot of the book.  There's an absent-minded cleric to end all absent-minded clerics.  (When he disappears Inspector Davy speculates about his possibly having run off with a choir boy.)  

There's a significant mother and daughter pairing, allowing Christie to get on her soapbox about mothers not providing adequate supervision for their daughters in the Sexy Sixties.  There's a late murder which draws on several classic Christie devices and probably won't fool the experienced Christie reader.  But I wouldn't change any of it for the world.  

As ever Miss Marple has great moral force in the novel, making her devotions before going to bed at night and telling Davy: "Murder--the wish to do murder--is something quite different.  It--how shall I say?--it defies God."  It's the sort of line the actress Joan Hickson could deliver perfectly on point, which is why she will always be Miss Marple to me.  

Wednesday, February 7, 2024

Lucifer: Hallowe'en Party (1969), by Agatha Christie

"How art thou fallen from Heaven, O Lucifer, son of the morning!...For thou has said in thine heart, I will ascend into Heaven, I will exalt my throne above the stars of God...."--Isaiah 14:12-13 (Bible, KJV)

bobbing for apples in 1969
I think Agatha Christie's Halloween Party--I'm going to drop the apostrophe for ease--a seriously underrated book.  As Christie aged in the 1960s her mystery plots became less tidy and Halloween Party is no exception in this regard, though it's a masterpiece of construction compared with By the Pricking of My Thumbs or Postern of Fate. (Sorry Tommy and Tuppence fans!)

However Christie compensated for this flaw, in her best books of the period, by writing interesting crime novels, where she elevated suspense (The Pale Horse, Endless Night), setting (At Bertram's Hotel), or theme (Hotel, Night, Halloween Party, Nemesis).  As pure detective novels, probably none of her books from the Sixties bear comparison with her best detective novels from previous years, but as crime novels some of them have plenty of good features.  

As in other late Christies, Halloween Party has a great opening setup, followed by chapters of considerable verbosity which slow down the narrative.  Verily, Christie is not the first mystery writer to be undermined by late in life use of a Dictaphone.

Almost all of the book takes place in a commuter town in the greater London area, Woodleigh Common.  It opens at Apple Trees, the home of a domineering middle-aged widow, Rowena Drake, who is holding, yes, a Halloween party for neighborhood adolescents.  There are activities and games like a broom decorating contest, an event where the girls hold up mirrors to see their future husbands, snapdragon (you try to snatch burning raisins and almonds) and, of course, bobbing for apples.

I have never done any of these things, though as a kid I did see neighborhood girls play Milton Bradley's Mystery Date, which is kind of the same thing as the mirror husband bit, I suppose.  I remember seeing the commercial for that game below too, or one very like it.  "Open the door...for your...Mystery Date."

My Mom always warned me off bobbing for apples, which she said was incredibly unsanitary.  In the case of poor 13-year-old Joyce Reynolds in Halloween Party, bobbing for apples is literally fatal, because she is drowned at the party when someone lures her into the library and dunks her head into the galvanized iron apple bucket until she expires. 

Come to think of it, this book could have been called Another Body in the Library.  I shouldn't joke, as it really is a rather macabre and terrible murder.  However, Christie in her own unsentimental way keeps telling us what a horrible child Joyce is.  I don't believe Christie ever got really worked up about her child murders, except in the general sense that murder is inherently evil.  That she did get worked up about.  

Or maybe think again....

So, how did someone come to drown Joyce in an apple bucket?  Well, Joyce did boastfully announce at the party, not long before her death: "I saw a murder once."   It's a brilliant stroke of Christie's just to have Joyce suddenly blurt this out in the hubbub of general conversation.  

Her boast was made, apparently, to impress Ariadne Oliver, mystery writer and Christie alter ego, who happens to be at the party, she being a friend of lovely Judith Butler, another handsome local widow, and her daughter Miranda, a sweet and charming girl unlike that stinker Joyce.  This novel being rich in classical allusion, Judith gets compared to Undine, a water nymph, and Miranda to a wood dryad.  

Everyone seems to think that naughty Joyce was lying (she has a history, like the boy who cried wolf)-- but what if she told the truth and the murderer had an accomplice, say, at the party?  There would have been a reason, then, to have gotten rid of Joyce as fast as possible. (Joyce claimed she hadn't realized the killing was a murder at the time, this having taken place a few years earlier, when she was "just a child.")

for more see here

A distraught Mrs. Oliver--she insists that she'll never eat apples again (and, indeed she switches over to dates)--calls upon her pal Hercule Poirot in London to get him to investigate the matter.  So off Poirot goes to Woodleigh Common.  After a visit to another old pal, Inspector Spence (from Mrs. McGinty's Dead, seventeen years earlier), who, now retired, lives in Woodleigh Common with his sister Elspeth, Poirot goes on the hunt for Joyce's killer.  

Poirot's investigation consists mainly of him walking around from house to house in his painful patent leather shoes, interviewing people in an attempt to find out just what murder it was that Joyce might have seen.  Among his most important interviewees are 

Miss Emlyn, headmistress of The Elms, a local girls school, who is, incidentally, a friend of Miss Bulstrode, headmistress of Meadowbank from Cat among the Pigeons (1959), now retired

Miss Whittaker, a teacher at The Elms, who saw something at the Halloween Party

Judith Butler and Miranda, mentioned above

the late Joyce's mother and her elder sister, Ann, and her younger brother, Leopold, the latter two of whom are remarkably unconcerned about their sibling's death and the former of whom is mostly just whiny, to quote from my Pocket pb edition's cast of characters

Mrs. Goodbody, the local witch, who likes to quote nursery rhymes

Nicholas Ransom and Desmond Holland, local teenage boys who are adept at photography

and Michael Garfield, a beautiful landscape architect who fashioned a beautiful garden out of a local quarry for Rowena Drake's late aunt

I read Halloween Party originally when I was about twelve, less than a decade after it was originally published, and I quite enjoyed it as I recollect.  Halloween was always a holiday I loved and of course some of the kids in the book were around my age at the time: stinkeroo Joyce, 13, winsome Miranda, 12, and Leopold, 10.  Christie's depiction of children and teenagers is on the whole quite credible, I think, and especially impressive given the late date of the book. 

Once again she seems relatively sympathetic to Sixties boys, intrigued with their colorful clothes and profusion of curling hair.  What about teenage girls?  Christie still seems down on them.  Ariadne Oliver pronounces, "I can't help thinking...that girls are very silly nowadays," to which Rowena Drake responds: "Don't you think they always were?"  Mrs. Oliver considers and replies: "I suppose you're right."  

such colorful lads

There's one passage where Nicky and Desmond, trying to be with it and up-to-date, reference ESP.  I thought Christie herself might have been alluding The Amazing Kreskin, an American psychic entertainer who I was surprised to see is still alive.  However, I see he only became big in the Seventies, and they may not have heard of him in the UK anyway.  Perhaps she was alluding to Margery Allingham's thriller The Mind Readers (1965), published four years earlier.  

The boys also knowingly suggest that two local school teachers (one of them murdered) might have been lesbians.  I think they were probably right about that.  

Reading Halloween Party always reminds me that Christie overlapped writing eras with such prominent Silver Age crime writers as PD James, Ruth Rendell, Catherine Aird and Patricia Moyes, only one of whom is still around with us today.  There's a lot about Halloween Party that could actually have appeared in a Ruth Rendell mystery, for example.  

Indeed, the resemblance to A Guilty Thing Surprised, which Rendell published the next year, is not insignificant.  Gardens feature prominently in that one too and an au pair girl plays a big role.  (There's a vanished au pair girl in Halloween Party.)  If anything Christie's novel is more up to date that Rendell's.

Halloween Party is, to be sure, rambling and discursive, like all late Christie.  You might get tired of all the people complaining about youth crime and hooliganism, though I guess it will be surprising news to the end-of-times MAGA ignoramuses that this is not a new phenomenon.  

There's a chapter that feels utterly superfluous (an interview between Poirot and the local doctor, who is an irrelevant character to the story) and sometimes Christie contradicts herself or forgets in what order she told us something.  In Poirot's elucidation at the end, for example, he says he interviewed Mrs. Goodbody after he talked to Miranda about a certain point, when in the text as it's presented to us it's the other way around.  However, embedded within the text is a pretty good mystery, actually, one which draws significantly on a good Christie short story from the 1930s, like Endless Night drew on an older Miss Marple short story.  

The major red herring is not presented forcefully enough, so detractors have complained that the mystery is too easy to figure out; yet it's an interesting plot to follow.  There's also a powerfully presented, indeed mythic, depiction of true evil in this tale.  

Halloween as a theme may be largely dropped after the opening chapters, but there is much about the murder that is Satanic, you might say, and one would do well not to forget the role an apple played in the the flight from Eden.  

Rereading this one, I realized how much I truly enjoy it and I am updating my rating of it.  I don't believe the recent Kenneth Branagh film, A Haunting in Venice, really had much to do with Halloween Party as claimed (correct me if I'm wrong), but the David Suchet adaptation from to 2010 was pretty good and is recommended, though it predictably was backset to the 1930s.  

Just once I would like to see the Poirot of the Sixties presented on film.  He's a older, lonelier figure, rather like Miss Marple, less given to colorful "foreign" behavior, whom the younger police have largely forgotten.  They are afraid, indeed, that he might me senile, or "gaga" as they say.

When the Belgian detective first appears he is spending the night alone in London with his manservant George somewhere about in the flat, his friend Solomon Levy having canceled an evening visit on account of a  cold.  But then Mrs. Oliver shows up with another murder for him to solve.  

Christie's fictional alter ego appeared in all the Poirot mysteries between 1956 and 1972, with the exception of Cat among the Pigeons and The Clocks, where Poirot's role is pretty reduced.  As ever, she makes an enjoyable companion in crime fighting.  (Dead Man's Folly is referenced in the book as well.)

Ann Reynolds, something of a know-all, mentions having read Oliver's mystery The Dying Goldfish, though I think she (and the author) is thinking of The Affair of the Second Goldfish, mentioned way back in two earlier Poirot detective novels.  

There is one really fine, insightful twist in Halloween Party, I thought, concerning just what it was Joyce really saw.  There's another murder in the present too, which may have been a bit too much of a bad thing.  (My Mom thought so when she read it.)  However, the denouement is dramatic and effective and foreshadowed far earlier in the book, for those who think of Halloween Party as just some sort of hot, hellish mess.  I wish all late Christie were as "bad" as Halloween Party.  Give the Devil his due.

Tuesday, February 6, 2024

No Vacation from Murder: A Caribbean Mystery (1964) and At Bertram's Hotel (1965), by Agatha Christie Part I: A Caribbean Mystery

If one looks over Agatha Christie's Miss Marple mysteries one sees that they tend to come in bunches. Thus we have:


The Murder at the Vicarage (1930)

The Thirteen Problems, aka The Tuesday Club Murders (1932) (collection of short stories originally published between 1927 and 1931)


Sleeping Murder (1940?, published in 1976))

The Body in the Library (1942)

The Moving Finger (1943)


A Murder Is Announced (1950)

They Do It with Mirrors (1952)

A Pocket Full of Rye (1953)

4.50 from Paddington (1957)


The Mirror Crack's from Side to Side (1962)

A Caribbean Mystery (1964)

At Bertram's Hotel (1965)


Nemesis (1971)

So almost all of the books fall in these periods: 1930-32 (2), 1940-43 (3), 1950-53 (3), 1962-65 (3).  The two exceptions are 4.50 from Paddington (Christie wrote the substantial Marple short story Greenshaw's Folly in 1957 too) and Nemesis, which was Miss Marple's coda.  So did Christie just have Marplelous bouts of imagination, or what?  It's like once she started writing about her, she wanted to keep going for a bit.  And then it was back to that old ball and chain, Hercule Poirot!

Certainly the mod half of the Sixties (pre-hippie) was a Marple era, with three novels and the spate of Marple films around the same time, starring a lovable and indeed wacky, if not actually that faithfully rendered, Margaret Rutherford as Miss Marple.  

All three of these Marple novels are solid books, I would say, with one of them, At Bertram's Hotel, being much undervalued, I would argue.  Christie made her last substantive visit to Miss Marple's native village, St. Mary Mead with The Mirror Crack'd (I'm using the shorter American title), a substantial contribution to the Marple canon, I believe, though I need to reread it.  Then there were back-to-back Marples with Caribbean Mystery and Bertram's Hotel, which I have recently reread.

I originally read both of these books around 1977-78 in American Pocket pb eds with a very unconvincing Miss Marple depiction on the back cover and those neat little casts of characters descriptions in the beginning pages (a feature I miss today). As I recollect I liked Caribbean Mystery pretty well but was rather bored by Hotel.  Today for me, it's just the other way around.

Saint Lucia

Both books take Miss Marple out of the confines of St. Mary Mead, but Murder, as in the case of Jessica Fletcher of the television series Murder She Wrote, follows Miss Marple wherever she goes.  In both books Miss Marple takes a pleasure trip, courtesy of her well-off and devoted novelist nephew Raymond West and his artist wife Joan, or Joyce as she's called in earlier works.  (I think Christie missed an opportunity in not devoting a novel to Miss Marple solving a mystery in the arts community, courtesy of her connection to the Wests.)

A Caribbean Mystery is one of those "travelogue mysteries" that a detective fiction author writes after they've taken a trip to some exotic distant location. (Everything is copy!)  Christie was hardly the only British mystery writer to take a jaunt to the Caribbean and then set a mystery there, but of course, Christie being Christie, her Caribbean Mystery is one of the best-known examples.  

1969 Fontana pb edition
Artist Tom Adams had a great eye
for the macabre and could not resist
Major Palgrave's glass orb.
A later Fontana edition he did
was even more surreal, with the 
major's glass eye elevated into 
the sky, overlooking a corpse.

The setting of the novel is Saint Honore, apparently a fictionalization of the island of Saint Lucia in the Lesser Antilles.  The novel opens with Miss Marple being bored to death by a garrulous old retired British major (one of Christie's classic stock types as she herself implicitly acknowledges in the book.  Major Palgrave loves, repetitively and lengthily, to tell stories of his past.  Then the major suddenly asks the old lady if she would like to see a murderer.  He is about to show her a photo from his stuffed wallet when, evidently disturbed by something which he spies over Miss Marple's shoulder, he hastily puts it away again.  

What did Major Palgrave see behind her shoulder? Miss Marple can't be sure, but she suspects it was the very murderer he was talking about!  This is the looking over the shoulder gambit which Christie had used in at least a couple of earlier novels.  The scene also resembles Mrs. McGinty's Dead (1952), one of Christie's last top-flight books, in that there is a piece of information, the photo, relating to a murder in the past which implicates someone present in the here and now.  

So we are very much in classic territory here, and some of the reviews of the novel at the time, resoundingly welcomed the novel as a classic Christie.  Declared Maurice Richardson of the Observer: "somewhere near her very best unputdownable form....Old Miss Marple is stimulated and defustified by a change of scene....Not very hard to guess, but quite suspenseful."  Christie's old Detection Club colleague Francis Iles (Anthony Berkeley Cox) chimed in even more enthusiastically: "Mrs. Agatha Christie has done it again....she tells the reader explicitly what is going to happen; yet when it does, nine out of ten will taken completely by surprise, as I was.  How does she do it?"

Frangipani Cottage
Balenbouche Historic Estate

This is the third time I have read A Caribbean Mystery, so obviously surprise was out of the picture for me this time around.  (I don't believe I ever forget Christie solutions.)  

I'm pretty sure I was surprised by the solution back when I read it at the age of twelve or what have you, but then I never got a Christie mystery right until I was around sixteen or seventeen.  (Towards Zero, it was.)  

On this reading, the solution seemed pretty obvious to me, despite Christie's attempt to complicate the picture late in the book with a red herring, or perhaps I should say red snapper, this being the Caribbean.  Late in the book Christie uses a gambit from Peril at End House, and another aspect of the book resembles Sleeping MurderRobert Barnard has suggested that by this point in her career, Christie could not come up with original tricks, but rather repeated old ones.  She certainly does that here.  

If you compare ACM to later Christies, it's a better detective novel than most of those, though I would say that despite its longueurs I actually prefer Nemesis, a sort of spinoff of ACMACM just feels a bit bland to me, both in its mystery plot and its characterization/setting.  None of the characters are particularly memorable, outside of Mr. Rafiel, the cantankerous, crippled business tycoon, who seven years later plays a memorable role, albeit from beyond the grave, in Nemesis.  (In fact, ACM even inspired the title of Nemesis).  

On the plus side Miss Marple plays a very active role in Nemesis, featuring in almost every one of the book's scenes.  The Caribbean air must have been good for her rheumatism.  But the Caribbean atmosphere is pretty mild.  "So many palm trees," thinks Miss Marple, "never anything happening."

Christie references steel bands (Miss Marple hates but patiently abides the cacophony), and the habit of the locals of not marrying when they have children with each other (though they do christen the babies).  Several times she mentions the gleaming white teeth of the black people.  (Christie became increasingly occupied with teeth in her later books; I suspect that her own, judging from pictures and given her love of sweets, were none too good at this point.)  

However, there is only one black character in the novel of even minor significance, Victoria Johnson (later the name of an American comedian), who is a maid at the hotel where Miss Marple is staying.  She is the second act murder, as it were, when she tries to do a bit of blackmailing.  (Christie indulgently takes the view that she really didn't think of it as blackmail.)  There's a reference to paw paws and to palm trees, but otherwise this book could have been relocated to Torquay or Bournemouth, say, pretty easily.  

Still, ACM is competently done.  You can definitely see Christie's writing slacken within just a few years.  All the same, though, I would still rather read Third Girl (1966), which while not as tightly plotted, is simply more fun.  

Christie does get a few amusing bits into ACM though.  In the beginning Miss Marple is reading a modern novel that her clueless nephew recommended for her and her (and the author's) revulsion for the modern emphasis on the ugly and sordid is made clear.  Contra the claims of Christie television adapter Sarah Phelps, who in defending her dark and deliberately repulsive Christie adaptations, insisted that she was merely a medium of what Christie really wanted to write if the poor dear had only been allowed to at the time, Christie through Miss Marple makes clear that Phelps was blowing a lot of smoke, as it were:

Christie was not a fan of the look

"Do you mean you've had no sexual experience at ALL?" the young man demanded incredulously.  At nineteen?  But you must.  It's vital."

The girl hung her head unhappily; her straight, greasy hair hung over her face.

"I know," she muttered, "I know."

He looked at her: stained old jersey, the bare feet, the dirty toenails, the smell of rancid fat...He wondered why he found her do maddeningly attractive."

Miss Marple wondered too!

A few lines down, Christie lets us know that Miss Marple over the "course of her duties in a rural parish had acquired quite a comprehensive knowledge of the facts of rural life....Plenty of sex, natural and unnatural.  Rape, incest, perversion of all kinds," Including even things the "clever young men from Oxford who wrote books" seemed not to have heard of.  Gracious me!  

I hate to think where homosexuality fits in here.  Raymond West refers to the man who will mind Miss Marple's house while she's away, one of his friends he says, as a "queer" who naturally is "very house proud."  And dear Raymond is presumably socially progressive.  

I assume Miss Marple was a lifelong virgin, but Christie, of course, was not; and by the Sixties she was increasingly letting mentions of sex slip into her books, perhaps to let those clever reviewers know she was not so old and fusty after all, even though by this time she had become stout and quite matronly looking, like a jolly grandmother.  

Interestingly Christie liked the looks of young Sixties men, with the colorful clothing and curly long locks, much better than those of young women with their straight hair and miniskirts.  She compared the men to Elizabethans and Jacobeans, but the semi-naked and dirty women merely disgusted her.  

I also thought this was a funny observation of Miss Marple's ethical system: "on certain occasions,when she considered it her duty to do so, she could tell lies with a really astonishing verisimilitude."  

Overall, however, the tone of ACM, as in other late Marples, seems a bit wistful and sad to me.  There's a recognition of the difficulties of the aged: the tendency to be discounted, dismissed, ignored.  She mentions "the natural loneliness of an old lady: and Major Palgrave's having "had a lonely life and a lonely death."  Mr. Rafiel is crippled, as they used to say, and lonely and bored too, despite being rich.  The relationship he strikes up with Miss Marple in the course of the murders (three in this book) is the most striking part of the story and Christie was astute to pick up on that thread again in Nemesis.  It's almost a romance.  Their parting at the end is rather touching.  

By the way. we're told Major Palgrave was over seventy, Mr. Rafile almost eighty; my guess is Miss Marple fell somewhere in between, say 75?  Which would make her about the author's age.  Clearly that doesn't fit in with the earlier tales from 35 years ago, but it does reveal that Christie in a lot of ways became Miss Marple in the later novels: she aged into her, as it were.  She had started writing about her when she was only 37 and I think her grandparents' generation was more what she had in mind.  

Something the cozy-detractors of Christie like PD James miss is there's a lot of moral force to Miss Marple.  Christie actually took murder seriously in her heart, more so than the other Crime Queens, I think (except perhaps the later Margery Allingham).  You read Ngaio Marsh for example, and you get the impression she's more bothered by vulgarity than homicide.  I bet you encounter the word vulgar more than evil.  

In Christie's later books her concerns with justice and evil come very much to the more.  As she worries over heading off another murder, Miss Marple reads Thomas a Kempis at night and in bed sends up a little prayer to God: "One couldn't do everything oneself.  One had to have help."  Whether the credit goes to God or Miss Marple, an innocent life is saved and justice meted out to the wicked.  Just another day in the life of this righteous and fierce old lady.  

Thursday, February 1, 2024

Second Apparition: A Bloody Child/ By the Pricking of My Thumbs (1968), Agatha Christie

The penultimate Tommy and Tuppence Beresford mystery, By the Pricking of My Thumbs (1968) was published five years before their final adventure, Postern of Fate (1973), reviewed here, and reflects the author's greater control over her narrative powers in her late seventies compared with her early eighties.  The narrative has a far clearer beginning and end, though it bogs down in the middle, as was Christie's wont in her later novels.  

From At Bertram's Hotel on, pretty much all of her books, with the exception of the suspense novel Endless Night (1967), get muddled in the middle, as Christie stirs up a cloudy mass of obscure detail that she cannot quite disperse at the end.  The mashed pulp may be piquant in taste, but there's the danger of its sticking in the throat.  

The author's ability to produce really "clean" detective novels, with a clearly explicated plot and  clueing, had diminished, and she chose more to publish between 1965 and 1973 books which were thrillers or which had strong thriller elements: At Bertram's Hotel (1965), Endless Night (1967), Thumbs, Passenger to Frankfurt (1970) and Postern.  Only Third Girl (1966), Halloween Party (1969), Nemesis (1971) and Elephants Can Remember (1972) are pure detective novels, and none of these I would say is a major Christie, though Third Girl and particularly Nemesis have, in my estimation, considerable pleasures.  Nemesis, in particular, makes a fine curtain call for Miss Marple, the events in the later Sleeping Murder (1976) clearly having taken place before those in Nemesis.  (It's hard to reconcile Poirot's final appearance in Curtain, 1975, which seems clearly to take place in the Forties or perhaps Fifties, with all the "mod" stuff in Third Girl.)  

Thumbs brings Tommy and Tuppence back for the first time since they appeared in 1941 in the wartime mystery N or M?  Before that they had appeared two decades earlier in the novel The Secret Adversary (1922), which was set in 1920, in the early days after the previous world war.  They had also headlined Partners in Crime, a collection of short story pastiches of other mystery detectives, in 1929.  With one exception these charming stories first appeared between December 1923 and December 1924, the exception being "The Unbreakable Alibi," a Freeman Wills Crofts pastiche which was first published in 1928.  

Essentially Tommy and Tuppence (TT) were happy creatures of the madcap Roaring Twenties who Christie had decided to bring back in an espionage thriller when a second war with Germany broke out in 1939.  (Espionage thrillers understandably become quite the rage during the Second World War, both in the United Kingdom and the United States.)  Much is made of TT being a middle-aged couple in that book, as they were the only Christie series sleuths who aged in real time.  One might have thought that during the Fifties Christie might have retrieved the couple for a Cold War thriller, but instead she gave us the nonseries spy novels They Came to Baghdad (1951) and Destination Unknown (1954).  

So when TT pop up at in 1968 in Thumbs they had not featured in any Christie mystery for nearly three decades.  A whole generation of Christie readers had been born and grown to adulthood since the last one.  I wonder how many Christie fans even remembered TT, though it is true that The Secret Adversary was reprinted at least four times in paperback between 1946 and 1967, Partners in Crime at least three times between 1958 and 1963 and N or M? at least six times between 1947 and 1968.  N or M? in particular seemed to inspire paperback cover artists.  

Thumbs is the purest "mystery" of the TT novels, not really a spy novel or criminal gang thriller like her earlier two, thought, rest assured, references to the activities of a criminal gang do pop up in the story.  It's hard to call it a true detective novel, though, because the detection done by Tommy and Tuppence--really one should say Tuppence and Tommy, as the lady is, as ever, the catalyst to it all--is desultory and weak.  Tuppence relies more on intuition and hunches and she only solves one part of the mystery herself, the author saving up a big surprise for her (and the reader) in the final chapter.

But this is getting ahead of myself.  The book opens with TT visiting Tommy's cantankerous, possibly demented aunt, Ada Fanshawe, age 83, at a care home for elderly ladies.  She's a splendidly done nasty old crone, and Tuppence encounters a couple of additional aged denizens of the place, a woman she dubs Miss Cocoa because she querulously complains she hasn't had her cocoa, and a nice, white-haired, old lady named Mrs. Lancaster, who carries a glass of milk and creepily asks Tuppence whether that's her poor child behind the fireplace.  

As I recently posted about about here, this notably is the third and final appearance of this strange character in the Christie canon, her two previous ones being in Sleeping Murder and in The Pale Horse (1961), in the latter of which she is only recalled by another character.  I think the old woman is actually the same character and not just an incident Christie forgetfully kept repeating in books. It is in Thumbs that the character, named Mrs. Lancaster in this one, has by far her most significant appearance.  Incidentally, there is also a Mrs. Lancaster who appears in one of Christie's supernatural tales from the Twenties, and, while the two Lancasters bare some affinity with each other, I don't believe they are the same woman.  

Not long after TT's visit, Aunt Ada dies in her sleep at the home.  They learn that Mrs. Lancaster had given Ada a pretty painting of  house by a canal, but when Tuppence sees about returning it to her if she wants it back, she finds that Mrs. Lancaster was taken out of the home by a supposed relative and cannot now be traced.  Needless to say this gets Tuppence's dander up and she's tries to find Mrs. Lancaster herself.  

By coincidence, Tuppence is certain that she saw the house in the painting when she was on a railway journey and this becomes her means of locating it, which she eventually does.  It turns out that the house is in the vicinity of Sutton Chancellor, a village located a few miles from a favorite fiction haunt of Christie's, the town of Market Basing,   In Market Basing she meets a number of locals and hears a lot of strange things and eventually gets to the truth of the mystery, or rather the truth gets to her....

Thumbs is a lot more enjoyable than Postern of Fate, but given that Postern is the worst book Christie wrote, that's a limited compliment.  I would still say, though, that this is a decent book, despite the fact that the chronology of the past (this is another book about murders--in this case child murders--in the past) gets pretty muddled.  

For the most part Christie doesn't even try to provide dates for us.  Tuppence goes about listening to chatty  people who go on and on about the past, a pretty haphazard means of detection.  "What the hell am I doing here, anyway?" Tuppence angrily asks herself at one point, as "waves of fatigue swept over her."  One might almost suspect that this was how Christie felt when she was writing the book and trying desperately to provide a coherent, satisfying mystery.  

Later on, Tuppence frets to Tommy: "We've got hold of a lot of things.  It's as bad as a village jumble sale....We've got far too much of everything.  There are wrong things and right things, and important things and unimportant things, and they're all mixed up together.  We don't know where to start."  This almost sounds like a mystery author complaining about the agony of plotting and admitting to her readers that's it's all gotten pretty messy.  

If you've read the book, follow me into the SPOILERS SECTION below, where I try to follow the chronology of the book's mystery plot.


As readers of the book will know, it turns out, when Tuppence, visiting the deserted Canal House, finally encounters Mrs, Lancaster again, that the old woman, aged about seventy-five, is a maniac serial murderer.  She tries to poison Tuppence, like a later character in Postern of Fate, and when that doesn't work, she tries to stab her to death with a stiletto, in a scene rather resembling one from an earlier Christie novel.  (You probably know which one.)

Of course mad Mrs. Lancaster is foiled in her attempt to slay Tuppence and she drinks the poisoned milk herself.  Exit mad Mrs. L.  We learn that she killed "Mrs. Cocoa" with morphine at the care home.  (Did she kill Aunt Ada too, I wonder.  Aunt Ada was suspicious that something wicked was going on in the place.) 

Mad Mrs. L. was also responsible for the child murders, because she had gotten pregnant when she was running round, for fun, with a gang of crooks, and she had an illegal, botched abortion, which resulted in her becoming afflicted with a mania to provide her child with friends in the afterlife by murdering other children.  (This definitely recalls, without the murderous element, the early supernatural story, "The Lamp," where the perfectly decent mother is also named Mrs. Lancaster.)  

We also learn that after Mrs. L. got tired of her criminal career she married local landowner Sir Philip Starke.  (She came from a prominent local family that was inbred and dying out, the implication being that they were prone to insanity.)  After the marriage she started murdering children and, instead of doing the responsible thing, like telling the police, Sir Phillip, with the help of his loyal secretary, Nellie Bligh, had her placed in a series of care homes, away from children (though she later killed more people).  It was Miss Bligh, incidentally, who panicked and coshed Tuppence when she thought she was getting near the truth, putting her into the hospital.  Apparently Miss Bligh and Sir Phillip are just to be let off for their misdeeds,, why, exactly?

Young Agatha Christie with dolls
colorized by Olga Shirnina
Oh, Agatha, you wicked girl!
You made this book creepy but
rather confusing.

But the chronology of all this!  What a mess. We are told that, in a false story, Sir Phillip's wife died in 1938 and he left for Europe (1938, then, was actually when he committed his wife and told falsely people she was dead.)  But wait, Mad Mrs. L, as I will keep calling her, is stated to be about 75.  

So, let's say she was born in 1892, making her about Christie's age.  She got pregnant and had her abortion at 17, so that was around 1910.  Then we're told she became involved with a gang of crooks, when she was known as Killer Kate.  Then she dropped that and was a ballerina (!) for a while.  Then she married Sir Phillip.  Then she started murdering children.  Then she was put away in 1938.  

She would have been, by that time, about 46 years old.  She might have been married to Sir Phillip for twenty years, say.  The murders must have started in the 1920s or 1930s.  But one of the villagers tells Tuppence that the child murders took place about two decades earlier.  Since the novel is set after 1965 (that's a year mentioned in the book), this would have been after World War Two, after Mrs. L. had been institutionalized.  So how would she have committed the child murders?  Or were there more child murders later, after her child murders?  It's implied that Alice and Amos Perry, who live at the Canal House, have some hold over them and that Amos might have been the child murderer.  

Which brings us to the gang activity.  There is still an active gang of robbers in the area, hiding valuables in old houses.  Tuppence finds an old doll in the fireplace of the Canal House, which turns out to be filled with diamonds.  But Killer Kate aka Mad Mrs. L. was involved with crooks too.  That would have been like in the 1910s!  Was a present-day gang using the Canal House to hide loot, or was the Canal House used by Killer Kate's gang too?  What a coincidence, like Tuppence actually having glimpsed the same house, the Canal House, that was pictured in the painting that Mad Mrs. L. gave to Tommy's Aunt Ada.  

It's all very confusing, as characters in late Christies say....

Maybe some of my readers can help me out here!