Another Addictive Read by Hans Olav Lahlum: Chameleon People (2016) (trans. Kari Dickson)

Source: Review Copy (Mantle – Pan Macmillan)

chameleon-people

It is probably fair to say that this is the book I have been looking forward to the most this year, being a major fan of Lahlum’s K2 series. Chameleon People (2016) is the fourth book in this series and between this book and the previous one, The Catalyst Killing (2015), there are three short stories/novellas, set in Oslo in 1971. But unfortunately they are only available in Norwegian. Thankfully Lahlum told me it is not essential to read these before the fourth novel, though of course I hope they will be translated into English at some point. The only key plot event English readers miss out on is that K2 is now engaged to Miriam Filtvedt Bentsen (who first appears in the third novel).

Chameleon People is set in Oslo, 1972 and again is narrated by K2. Despite having originally been published in 2013, the political context of the book is eerily pertinent to current times as in the background of this story is a Norwegian referendum on entering the EEC (European Economic Community) and although in the background it is still an emotive and explosive topic. In fact there are questions over whether this issue is involved in the primary killing of this book, as typified when Miriam says:

‘There are a lot of powerful and frightening emotions out there in the dark at the moment… Parents and children have stopped speaking to each other and a lot of people are worried about their partners and their jobs. I don’t think anyone would kill in connection with an election in Norway, but I’m not so sure anymore that some fanatic or other might not kill in connection with the referendum.’

As to this primary killing, it happens within a matter of pages with politician and millionaire businessman, Per Johan Fredriksen, being stabbed to death. The police are in pursuit of a juvenile suspect, yet their quarry is easy to arrest since he is cycling in search of a policeman himself, K2 in fact, and he is desperate to tell him that he is innocent, despite having the bloodied weapon in his pocket. K2 wants to believe him but the circumstantial evidence against him is high and equally the suspect does not try to help himself, he won’t even reveal his name.

K2 is keen to call his old friend and amateur sleuth, Patricia Borchmann, but due to efforts near the end of The Catalyst Killing, their relationship is still distant and fractured, with K2’s engagement causing another area of conflict: ‘The uncertainty as to where Patricia and I now stood had hung over my otherwise charmed existence like a dark cloud.’ Consequently Patricia doesn’t become involved in the story until much later, though in many ways she becomes a spectre in the earlier parts of the book, with K2 being reminded of her in other people. As the investigation progresses, a lot of other potential suspects emerge due to the victim’s infidelity, controlling nature over money and people and there is even an unsolved murder case in their past, which Fredriksen has recently said he has now solved. The fraught world of politics also has its’ role to play in K2’s investigation. K2 believes this to be his most difficult case yet, a case which will have personal repercussions and further deaths, some of which will haunt K2 and others in time to come.

Overall Thoughts

Patricia, K2 and Miriam

These three characters undoubtedly create a very awkward triangle, a personal situation which does have implications for the case K2 is working on. Although Miriam initially encouraged K2 to maintain contact with Patricia, in this story Miriam acts in reverse, fuelled by a need for K2 to turn to her for help on cases rather than Patricia, ‘the genius of Frogner.’ K2 throughout the story is a divided man, with his ‘eyes on Miriam and [… his] mind on Patricia.’ His career success is significantly based on Patricia’s help and because of this help he has gained a ‘status as hero in both the police force and the general public.’ But when the case shows little signs of being solved soon and he fears a loss of public approval, K2 gives into temptation and seeks Patricia’s help, help which he plans to keep hidden from Miriam. It is at moments like this that I felt some sympathy for Miriam, though overall I am still a huge Patricia fan. In this novel and in The Catalyst Killing, K2 has increasingly become a problematic and fallible hero character, who frequently likes to make other people’s issues and actions about himself, and I have wondered whether in some ways he is more of an anti-hero figure. It is these issues surrounding K2 which perhaps make him an interesting narrator to follow.

The Boy on the Bicycle

‘there is still a considerable difference between being strange and being guilty…’

Although uninvolved in much of the book, the juvenile suspect who wants K2’s help, was a character who interested me. The boy is intellectually very bright but he does have certain physical difficulties such as a limp and a speech impediment and socially other characters find him hard to read. For instance K2 is unsure how to perceive him, noting a positive attitude towards himself, yet also wondering how to respond to a boy who just ‘stare[s] at me, his face completely blank.’ K2 goes on to be baffled by the boy’s ‘resigned, almost patronising expression,’ though K2 does begin to revaluate his initial impressions of him: ‘I started to wonder whether I was dealing with someone who was retarded, or if this was an intelligent person who, for some unknown reason, did not want to say anything.’ As I mentioned earlier the boy does not really try to help himself, saying little, most of which is often in riddles pertaining to historical figures, likening himself to both Marinus Van Der Lubbe and Richard Hauptmann. The boy also proves an interesting character as it is through him that the issue of disparity in population wealth is introduced, as in contrast to Fredricksen, the boy is very poor and this is a theme the text returns to.

Victims

Looking at the four novels as a whole I noticed that three of the primary victims were wealthy older men, with businesses and/or political careers and they also tended to have skeletons in the closet, which are related to their violent demises. I think with these characters Lahlum is able to look at double standards and begin a societal critique dialogue. Moreover, their business and political careers also open up a plethora of motives for killing them.

Chameleon People

In each of the novels the titles are derived from names Patricia gives either the victims or the suspects in the case. For instance the first title, The Human Flies (2010), is a reference to the suspects who for one reason or another are like flies continually hovering around a painful episode from their pasts. Chameleon people as defined by Patricia are those who ‘move seamlessly between different circles and switch appearances depending on where they are [,…] they can change their face, behaviour and even personality within seconds depending on what they think will serve their interests.’ Yet I think Chameleon People, is probably the most expansive of these phrases coined by Patricia, as not only does it refer to the victim, Fredricksen who ‘often appeared different in different settings’ and is said to have ‘many faces,’ but it is also applicable to many of the suspects and even those investigating the crimes which take place. One consequence of this, is as a reader you are often reassessing characters you thought you already had pegged.

Final Thoughts

In one word this book could be described as brilliant, amazing, wonderful, involving –well maybe not in one word, but suffice to say Chameleon People is another great instalment of the series. Guilt is found in the most unsettling and surprising of places and the characters are multi-layered, with new sides to them being brought out as the narrative returns to them. This novel has more than a mystery to it, though this is engagingly complex and intricate, with a history of events leading to eruptions of violence in the present. I also enjoyed the interesting variation at the start of the novel where the greater mystery is the identifying of the primary suspect. I think my only small niggle with the book is to do with its’ deployment of criminal confession, but this is a rather subjective niggle and it didn’t affect my overall reading experience to any great extent. For me this is an addictive series to read and this is one of the few series where the writing style, the characters and their development, the plot and atmosphere, fit me as a reader so well. It is a rare series which emotionally involves you with the characters, leaving you bereft at the end because you have to wait another year or so until the next book is translated and released.

Warning: This series may give you a book hangover.

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Rating: 5/5

See also:

Interview with Hans Olav Lahlum

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Miss Pinkerton (1932) by Mary Roberts Rhinehart

Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item: Nurse

Rhinehart is not an author I have read much of, having only read The Yellow Room (1945), so I was interested in reading one of Rhinehart’s Miss Adams novels. Miss Adams is a nurse who seems to have more than her fair share of frightening and mysterious adventures and they are not always ones she falls into accidently, as in this case she is called in by Inspector Patton, to be his eyes and ears in a household where a suspicious death has taken place.

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In this household resides Miss Juliet Mitchell and her two servants, Mary and Hugo. Mitchell’s nephew also used to be an unwelcome addition, until he is found dead late one night. Various characters are spouting that the death is either suicide or accident. Yet if that is the case why is the homicide squad involved? Whilst tending to Juliet, who is very elderly and unwell, Miss Adam soon starts picking up useful clues and information for the inspector, such as the mysterious woman who tries to pump Adams for information and the even more mysterious behaviour of the inhabitants, amongst other things. Unsurprisingly since this is a story of the HIBK school, there is many a night time incident filled with intruders, people not being where they should be and many a bump on the head. There is a range of motives for Wynne’s death if it is murder, from his insurance policies to a romantic rival. Of course what makes the case even harder is that everyone is holding information back and it takes a while for this information be divulged, but not before another death occurs, a death which involves Adams much more than she would have wanted.

Overall Thoughts

Lesson Learnt from a HIBK Heroine: Leave a sleeping cat where it is.

This is my first encounter with an amateur sleuth who is also a nurse and in the story itself it is shown how such a job can help with detecting, saying that people ‘never think of… [a nurse] as a reasoning human being’ and that such nurse ‘see[s] a great deal more than they imagine, and sometimes us[es] what she sees.’ Unlike some female sleuths I have read about this year Miss Adams is involved in the uncovering of clues and finding out important information, yet I think she acts more as an assistant to Inspector Patton, rather than as a detective who is equal to him and this is borne out by the ambiguous way her role is described. For instance there are some positive moments where Inspector Patton says that ‘Miss Adams is a part of this organisation, and a damned important part. We’ve got a lot of wall-eyed pikes around here calling themselves detectives who could take lessons from her and maybe learn something.’ Yet when Miss Adams is injured in the cause of her work Inspector Patton says that, ‘I don’t mind telling you that I thought I’d lost my most valuable assistant’ and here I think the word ‘assistant’ is quite telling. Miss Adams herself says that she ‘never claimed to be a detective’ and instead sees herself as a resource to be used by the police: ‘what I had was eyes to use and the chance to use them where the police could not.’ She also sees herself as a sounding board for Patton’s theories. Most of the time I think she enjoys this, such as when she says that ‘the game is in my blood after all.’ But there are times when she likes it less, seeing herself doing the police’s ‘dirty work for them,’ by reporting back the confidences she gains. Inspector Patton does nickname her ‘Miss Pinkerton,’ but I still don’t think he sees her as being equal to him in sleuthing. He likes to benefit from her sleuthing skills, but I feel he also likes to control them to an extent. However, I don’t think I minded this as much as I normally might do, as Miss Adams is involved in the action of the story and when she disagrees with Patton’s ideas she acts on her own initiatives. I think the only niggle I started having in the final quarter of the book was that Miss Adam’s moves away from sleuthing and into a more heroine in jeopardy role, with Inspector Patton keeping a fair bit of information to himself. I think I would have liked to have had more access to this information. There does seem to be a little romance between the pair of them though this only really comes through in the text in the last couple of pages when Patton says to her to let him know when she is interested in taking on a new case, a case which he describes as ‘very long and hard… involving a life sentence, chains and what you have you…’

In comparison to The Yellow Room there was less drama and tension, which I think the urban as opposed to rural setting contributed to. I also think the characterisation was more in depth in The Yellow Room as well. However the crime in this book is very clever with a substantial back story which is revealed to the reader piece by piece. The narrative style is also engaging, one which is narrated by Miss Adams herself and I think her voice is one you enjoy listening to and following. I definitely would like to try another Miss Adams adventure, as I think it would help to give a more rounded picture of what she is like and how she works in the cases she is involved in.

Rating: 4/5

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Come Away Death (1937) by Gladys Mitchell

Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item: Camera

come-away-death

Decided to have another look at Gladys Mitchell’s work on the blog today and this week Mrs Bradley is travelling in and around Greece and throughout the book the world of the ancient Greeks is referenced a lot, especially its’ literature. Some of these references are more accessible than others – I’m still at a loss as to why Mitchell decided to preface all her chapters with quotes from the Aristophanes’ play The Frogs. However, her likening of the smell of sewage, awaiting Mrs Bradley when she arrives in Athens, to a ‘siren song,’ was quite amusing.

The title of this novel, Come Away Death (1937), could well be an allusion to Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night and in a way there is a thematic link of entangled and complicated relationships and the odd broken heart. The book opens with Mrs Bradley going to stay at Sir Rudri Hopkinson’s home and his wife Marie, immediately informs her of her concerns about her husband and his latest scheme to discover what the Eleusinian mysteries were really like by recreating the actual conditions and ceremonies. A form of early experimental archaeology if you will. Not only is she concerned by Rudri’s mental stability she is also worried about the inclusion of Image result for come away death gladys mitchellAlexander Currie, who is meant to be Rudri’s friend, yet they continually fight and argue, especially since Currie publically embarrassed Rudri in archaeologically circles. Also going along are Rudri’s children, Megan, Ivor and Gelert and Currie’s children Kenneth and Cathleen, as well as Kenneth’s friend Stewart. There are additional non-family and friend members going and Marie is especially worried about the photographer Armstrong, a very good looking but very immoral young man. I think my favourite introduction to a character is with Ronald Dick, another young man going on the trip and Mitchell says of him that ‘he’s such a temperamental boy – most boys with spectacles are!’ Who knew?

From the very beginning of the trip things do not go right and inter-group animosities soon surface and Cathleen is convinced that death is stalking one of the party. But who will it be, with revenge and greed filling the group at a rapid rate? And has Rudri really gone mad? There is also the issue of a prankster plaguing the group and when snakes are added into the mix things certainly do not bode well. It is a worrying moment when the sanest, most sensible person in the group is Mrs Bradley who has the unenviable task of managing the others. Violence of course eventually breaks out amongst the party and it is up to Mrs Bradley to unravel the mystery.

Overall Thoughts

As expected Mrs Bradley enters the story in an unconventional and loud way wearing a ‘mauve motor veil with yellow spots’ and her grin still has the power to terrify or unnerve those around her. Unlike many of the other trip members, Mrs Bradley is adept at coping with the difficult travelling conditions, having ‘the constitution of a lizard’ and she jokingly suggests she is ‘almost the incarnation of’ a snake. When the situation requires immediate action she able to act ‘decisively, like a suddenly swooping bird’ and when reticence is required Mrs Bradley is also up to the task, acing in the manner ‘of an old and cunning tortoise.’

Image result for come away death gladys mitchell

Rudri is another interesting character who seems stuck in the past almost and I liked how the text emphasises the incongruity of Rudri’s trip and his surroundings:

‘She could see him, dogged idealist and romancer, proceeding ploddingly the while along the petrol-haunted, dusty Sacred Way which now led, in the age of progress, the world no longer young, from one Greek slum to another.’

One thing that did amuse me was the quote on the cover of my copy from Edmund Crispin, who asserts that Mitchell has a pellucid writing style. To be fair to Mitchell this narrative is more clear and coherent than say The Twenty Third Man (1957), but all the same I’m not sure pellucid is a word I would use to describe Mitchell’s oeuvre.

Image result for come away death gladys mitchell

I think my main issue with the book was its length as the plot felt very stretched at points, which affected the pacing of the story and in the first half there is definitely a lack of focus. There is a general feeling of something sinister going on, but nothing definite for Mrs Bradley to follow up. There are dramatic moments but the density of the book at times reduces their impact. I think the book had a lot of good elements in it, but I don’t think Mitchell capitalises on them as much as she could have done and this meant for me that the ending, with Mrs Bradley’s usual unconventional justice, fell rather flat.

Rating: 3.25/5

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Tuesday Night Bloggers: Children in Crime – Week 3

children-in-crimeIt is that time of the week again where the Tuesday Night Bloggers’ meet, to share their thoughts on old favourites or bêtes noires and this month’s theme is children in crime, be they innocent bystanders, comical assistants or the culprit the detective has been looking for. If you have a post which fits this theme add it to the comments section below and I’ll add you to this week’s list.

Here is a link to the previous weeks’ posts for the Children in Crime Theme:

Week 1

Week 2

 

And here are the links for this week:

Bev Hankins at My Reader’s Block: TNB – Children in Crime: Just a Girl Detective

Helen Szamuely at Your Freedom and Ours: Tuesday Night Bloggers: Children as Witnesses and as Victims

Moira at Clothes in Books: Children in Crime: A Cheating Entry

This week I decided to revisit Dorothy L. Sayers’ short story, ‘Talboys,’ (1942) where Lord Peter Wimsey has to prove his son’s innocence of theft. The story begins with Bredon, Wimsey’s eldest son, confessing to his parents (well more to his father, though his mother is in earshot) that he has taken two peaches from Mr Puffett’s garden. In this incident, the various viewpoints of characters are revealed when it comes to disciplining children, with the Wimsey’s unwanted house guest, Miss Quirk, loudly taking against their use of caning. This incident seems to blow over until the following day when Mr Puffett reveals that all of his peaches except one has been removed from his tree and he is interested in whether anyone from Wimsey’s house hold may know something about it. Bredon is firmly put into the spotlight as culprit, a position reinforced by the snitching practices of Miss Quirk. Bredon’s father is therefore called into investigate and to prove his son’s innocent. Though it seems some are not happy to withhold from interfering and father and son soon team up to retaliate…

Overall Thoughts

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Lord Peter Wimsey as a Parent

Lord Peter Wimsey is interesting to look at in terms of his parenting, as at the beginning of the book he doesn’t seem to take them too seriously, as when Bredon admits to his thieving, he is not bothered about the rights and wrongs of the matter, (that is Harriet’s domain,) but is more concerned that his son is turning into a ‘prig,’ due to confessing. Moreover, when he does go to cane Bredon, the way it is described, e.g. over the top, suggests that the event is not taken in the serious manner you would expect: ‘Go up into my bedroom and prepare for execution’ and any solemnity there is, is part of the “gentlemen” ethos Peter tries to foster in his sons and that punishment should be taken honourably and with dignity. Though to be honest I think Peter as a father much prefers a playmate role with his children than a disciplinarian one, which is exemplified in story’s finale. Peter as playmate is also indicated when Harriet says to him that ‘if I’d realised the disastrous effect sons would have on your character, I’d never have trusted you with any.’ It is an amusing line because it seems to be back to front, as it is usually expected that the parent has the effect on the child, not the other way round, but I think Wimsey does find an outlet for his impishness through his children. I do wonder though whether if the children were girls, would Wimsey be a different parent? Wimsey’s less grown up side is also revealed when he says to Harriet, ‘absolve me now from all my sins of the future, so that I may enjoy them without remorse,’ as Harriet is placed in the responsible and moral adult position. Part of me does wonder whether Peter finds the adult role of parenting a little chafing, restricting his behaviour in a way it hasn’t been hitherto.

Old vs. New Modes of Disciplining Children

This I feel is the greater theme of the story, as the mystery itself is not the primary focus in my opinion. Within seconds of Peter leaving the room to cane Bredon, Miss Quirk criticises Harriet for allowing this to happen (it is interesting that Miss Quirk does not directly criticise Peter’s actions to his face). Miss Quirk embodies a seemingly more modern way of disciplining children and she is a great believer in children being reasoned with when they are naughty and that they shouldn’t be given boundaries or prohibitions. She also believes that caning has negative psychological effects. Now before we go any further I don’t think children should be physically beaten and I think Quirk has a fair point that caning can be psychologically damaging, though her idea of no boundaries isn’t a particularly sound one. Yet it is the caning approach which comes across as more favourable in the story. Firstly Harriet counters the idea of caning having a negative effect, by suggesting that it depends on how the caning is done and how strong the parent-child bond is. Harriet says that due to Peter and Bredon’s devotion to each other, the caning does not come between them, which is shown when they return from the caning, the ‘chastiser and the chastised… hand in hand.’ Harriet also suggests that ‘Bredon was rather uplifted when he was promoted to the cane; he thinks it dignified and grown-up.’ This idea made me wonder whether caning is incorporated in the “gentlemanly” ethos and world of the house that the Wimsey parents perpetuate. Secondly, Harriet also makes the caning approach appear less unfavourable by emphasising individual difference, disagreeing when Miss Quirk ‘talk[s] about “a” child, as if all children were alike.’ She goes on to say that whilst they cane their elder child because he becomes ‘obstinate’ when reasoned with, they are unlikely to cane their middle child who is more ‘sensitive and easily frightened.’ This way of differentiating can no doubt have holes picked in it, but it at least shows that Harriet is aware of the potential damage caning can do on children.

During the middle of the story modes of disciplining and detective work become intermixed and at one point it seems as though Miss Quirk is intimating that wrong parenting is leading to wrong detecting: ‘Peter Wimsey was refusing to detect in the right place. Miss Quirk would show him.’ Furthermore, Peter’s response to Miss Quirk’s interference in his detective work becomes a parenting matter and his defence of detective work emphasises how it is his right to do the detecting in these circumstances and it does feel like Peter doing the detective work in the family becomes his fatherly right. Peter also gets the last laugh in the story using Miss Quirk’s own parenting ideas against her, just after she has been caught acting hypocritically:

‘I fancy I must have been suffering from in-growing resentment. It’s better to let those impulses have their natural outlet, don’t you agree? Repression is always so dangerous.’

I think Sayers also damages Miss Quirk’s side as it were by making Miss Quirk an unlikeable character personally, such as showing her as snobbish when she thinks it unwise that Bredon mixes with the village boys, fearing ‘contamination.’ It is interesting to speculate what Sayers’ own views on parenting are, especially considering her awkward relationship with her own child. It is easy to assume that whatever Peter and Harriet think, Sayers thinks too.

Sidelight on Harriet

Harriet has a very marginal role in this story, having no large role to play in the “fun” Peter and Bredon have. The most significant moment though in the story where she features is when Sayers gives a window into Harriet’s situation of being a mother and writer. She writes that:

‘Harriet Wimsey, writing for dear life in the sitting-room, kept one eye on her paper and the other on Master Paul Wimsey, who was disembowelling his old stuffed rabbit in the window-seat. Her ears were open for a yell from Roger, whose rough-and-tumble with the puppy on the lawn might at any moment end in disaster. Her consciousness was occupied with her plot, her sub-consciousness with the fact that she was three months behind on her contract.’

It seems evident that Harriet’s career is having to be pigeon holed into a much more chaotic schedule and that there are more demands on her than there are on Peter. The hint of her manuscript being late to the publishers, suggests that family life gets the larger portion of her time. Considering the financial freedom of the couple it is unusual that there is no additional help to look after some or all of the children – help which would give Harriet more time to write. As to why there is no extra help, no reason is given, but the narrative gives readers’ room for speculation.

 

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Christie Firsts Recommendations: The Results

Last week on the 126th Birthday of Agatha Christie I issued a challenge to fellow bloggers and readers of the blog to come up with suggestions for the best novels to introduce new Christie readers to Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple, Tommy and Tuppence Beresford, Superintendent Battle, Christie’s Thrillers and Christie’s Standalone Novels. To see the original challenge and my own Christie First choices click here.
Today’s post is taking a look at what other people’s choices were and some of the results were quite surprising – well to me anyways. Before looking at the results here are the links to other bloggers’ Christie Firsts suggestions:
Bev Hankins at My Reader’s Block: Christie Firsts: Where to Start?
Brad Friedman at ah sweet mystery blog: Christie Firsts: Another Blogger’s Take
John at Pretty Sinister: Christie Firsts: There’s Nothing Like a Dame Agatha
Moira at Clothes in Books: Christie Firsts: The Best Introductory Books
Puzzle Doctor at In Search of the Classic Mystery Novel: An Introduction to Agatha Christie
I think the biggest surprise for me was the choice of best novel to introduce readers to

Image result for mrs mcginty's dead

Poirot, or rather the fact that out of 6 bloggers, 50% chose the same book, that book being Mrs McGinty’s Dead (1952). In all honesty it was not one that I had even considered when doing my own choices, so I was intrigued by this. So why is this the best Poirot novel to begin with? Moira succinctly puts it as having ‘proper detection’ and as having an ‘excellent setup’. Whilst John says it is ‘one of’ Christie’s ‘funniest books’ with a ‘devilishly clever trick in the plot.’ The Puzzle Doctor also concurs with this in saying that the book is ‘Poirot at his most entertaining’ and the Puzzle Doctor also liked how the ‘mystery is clever and involving and much less gimmicky’ than some of Christie’s other books. Suffice to say this Poirot choice has given me a great deal of thought and I definitely think I will need to give it a reread soon. However, there were also some votes for earlier Christie novels such as Murder on the Orient Express (1934), which Bev chose and Death on the Nile (1937) by Brad. Readers of my blog also suggested Peril at End House (1932) and The Murder on the Links (1923).
When it came to choosing the best novel to introduce Miss Marple there was also a A Murder is Announcedsimilarity in the choices made by the bloggers, in fact apart from me, everyone picked A Murder Is Announced (1950), though this didn’t surprise me as much. For John this novel is ‘pure Christie’ with ‘brilliant use of misdirection’ and Brad felt it was a ‘wonderful dissertation on how World War II affected British village life’ and that it also ‘showcased Miss Marple’s skills as a more intuitive sleuth than Poirot.’ Bev and Moira liked the novel for similar reasons with Bev enjoying the ‘small village atmosphere’ and ‘the twist,’ whilst Moira noted the ‘great structure’ the ‘large cast of well-defined characters and’ the ‘great conversations and pictures of life.’ Again with readers of my blog there was some divergence from this choice with Murder at the Vicarage (1930) and A Pocket Full of Rye (1953) getting a vote a piece.
The next category of the best novel to introduce new readers to Tommy and Tuppence Partners in CrimeBeresford is the only one where all bloggers were in agreement with each other and with a resounding 100% vote Partners in Crime (1929) was our choice. I particularly liked John’s comments on the text where he says it showed Christie as a ‘risk taking mystery writer’ and also that it is ‘a lesson in early overlooked fictional detectives.’ Brad also captures the tone of the short story collection well when he says that it is ‘light as air yet great fun.’

However, with the next category there is more variety of choices for which novel to best introduce Superintendent Battle to Christie novices, though there was still a popular Towards Zerochoice, with 60% of the vote going to Towards Zero (1944), which Moira thought was ‘clever, well-worked out’ and had a ‘chilling plot.’ Likewise John wrote that the novel has ‘high drama, a good puzzle, some trademark Christie clever misdirection and trenchant observations about a marriage.’ Yet there was also a vote for The Seven Dials’ Mystery (1929) by Bev who was ‘fascinated with’ Battle, ‘”Bundle” Brent, and the secret society involved in the mystery and I do have to admit a soft spot for this book myself. In contrast Brad plumed for Cards on the Table (1936) as his choice, summing it up this book as being ‘as Golden Age as they get!’
The Man in the Brown SuitMoving on to Christie’s thrillers, another popular choice was The Man in the Brown Suit(1924), which was selected by 3 of the bloggers including myself and was also chosen by readers of my blog. John felt this book ‘works well as both a mystery and as a thriller’ and Moira found it an ‘enjoyable and unexpected book,’ which was ‘funny’ and had ‘wonderful female characters,’ as well as ‘some very clever tricks.’ Other choices for the best Christie thriller to start with, included They Came to Baghdad (1951), as chosen by Bev and she felt it kept her ‘headed on the detective-genre journey that Nancy Drew started [her] on.’ Whilst Brad selected The Pale Horse (1961) which he wrote is ‘actually quite wonderful’ and has the ‘added thrill that it was responsible for the capture of several real life criminals who tried this plan on for size because someone had read this book!’
The final category I had selected for my challenge was the best standalone Christie mysteryAnd Then There Were None to start with and it was nice to see a variety of choices, though of course Christie’s most famous standalone mystery was mentioned a few times. Bev and Brad opted for this one, And Then There Were None (1939), with Brad asserting that one should ‘start with the best,’ and Bev saying it ‘knocked’ her ‘for a loop’ and she also writes of giving this book to draw new Christie readers in and the fact that it ‘hasn’t failed to reel them in yet.’ So quite the endorsement! The Pale Horse (1961), was also mentioned by John who said it is a ‘true mystery classic, her masterwork.’ Crooked House (1949) was also chosen by me and another blog reader who concurred that it was ‘memorably shocking.’
So there you have it. Let us know what you think of our choices. Has a great Christie been left out? Hopefully these suggestions will help novice and seasoned Christie readers decide what they should be reading or re-reading next.

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Agatha Christie Blogathon: Day 3 – Parker Pyne Investigates (1934)

The bloggers, Christina Wehner and Little Bits of Classics have been doing a three day blogathon to celebrate Agatha Christie’s 126th birthday on the 15th of September. The blogathon began two days ago with all things Hercule Poirot and continued yesterday with all things Miss Marple. Today, the final day, is concerned with everything else and that is where I fit in with the Parker Pyne stories, of which 12 are contained in Parker Pyne Investigates (1934). The other two ‘Problem at Pollensa Bay’ and ‘The Regatta Mystery’ feature in later short story collections.

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Parker Pyne Investigates also had the first appearances of Adriane Oliver and Miss Lemon who would go on to work with Hercule Poirot. Aside from the ‘The Case of the Middle Aged Wife’ and ‘The Case of the Discontented Solider,’ (which were adapted in 1982 for The Agatha Christie Hour Series), the stories have not been adapted for TV. When looking for contemporary reviews of this collection it intrigued me that they did not really gain much reviewer praise, instead being described in quite neutral or lukewarm terms. I wonder if this is possibly due to the fact we don’t get to know a lot about the central character, Inspector James Parker Pyne. Or possibly it may be due to the more experimental nature of the collection in that a lot of mysteries are not necessarily crime related. The first six titles begin with ‘The Case of…,’ a phrase which evokes Sherlock Holmes and like Holmes in these stories, clients come to visit Pyne with their problems, in response to his advert which has the provoking first line, ‘Are you happy? If not, consult Mr Parker Pyne…’

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Also like Holmes there is an element of the scientist in Pyne and he tackles the various problems he receives in a logical and detached manner, basing his deductions of others on his 35 years’ experience compiling statistics for the government. The remaining stories take place abroad, mostly in the Middle East but also in Greece and there are references to Pyne’s business of making people happy, but the structure is not the same as it is in the first six stories. Before giving my thoughts on the stories and the themes which struck me the most here are some brief synopsises of the stories in the collection:

The Case of the Middle Aged Wife

Problem: A wife’s unfaithful husband.

Pyne’s Solution: 1 Make Over + 1 Brief Encounter = ?

The Case of the Discontented Solider

Problem: Major Wilbraham has returned from working abroad and he is bored/dissatisfied. Pyne is not surprised: ‘96 per cent of retired empire builders – as I call them – are unhappy.’

Solution: A little adventure of Adriane Oliver’s devising…

The Case of the Distressed Lady

Problem: Daphne St John, desperate to resolve her gambling debts unbeknownst to her husband, steals a friend’s expensive ring.

Solution: Definitely not what she’s expecting…

The Case of the Discontented Husband

Problem: Reginald Wade’s wife wants a divorce so she can marry another man. Wade still loves his wife and wants to find a way to win her back.

Solution: Not what Pyne was expecting…

The Case of the City Clerk

Problem: Mr Roberts pines for adventure.

Solution: He gets what he asks for.

The Case of the Rich Woman

Problem: A woman with too much money and no idea how to spend it.

Solution: Pyne reminds her of what really makes her happy.

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Have You Got Everything You Want?

Problem: Elsie Jefferies on her way to her husband in Constantinople, is plagued with worry over cryptic remarks she found on her husband’s blotting paper: ‘wife… Simplon Express… just before Venice would be the best time.’

Solution: A crime of concealment ends with an edited version of the truth.

The Gate of Baghdad

Problem: A rather dead body in the back of a car on its way to Baghdad.

Solution: Misdirection foiled and a ‘gambler… los[es] his last throw.’

The House at Shiraz

Problem: Lovesick pilot, a dead person and a rather batty lady.

Solution: Honesty is always the best policy.

The Pearl of Price

Problem: A missing pearl

Solution: A pearl not so missing any more.

Death on the Nile

Lady Grayle’s Problem: She thinks her husband is poisoning her.

Everyone else’s Problem: Lady Grayle

Solution: Crime never pays.

The Oracle at Delphi

Problem: Kidnapped Son

Solution: All’s well that ends well, though with a few surprises along the way.

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Pyne and his Role

As you can tell Pyne is not a conventional detective and many of his cases do not include crimes at all. His unconventional role is encapsulated quite well in the final story in the collection, ‘The Oracle at Delphi,’ where Pyne is intimated as supplanting the Delphi oracle: ‘at Delphi you can no longer consult the oracle… but you can consult Mr Parker Pyne.’ Several times in the collection Pyne says he is not a detective and instead prefers terms such as ‘a specialist in every kind of human trouble’ and he says ‘the human heart is… [his] province,’ an idea picked up again in ‘Death on the Nile’ when Pyne says he is ‘a heart specialist.’ The focus on the heart of course ties into Pyne’s advertisement of providing happiness, which often involves solving relationship issues, giving him an almost fairy god mother like role at times. Yet the longest instance of Pyne explaining his role is in the first story of the collection when he says: ‘I stand in the place of the doctor. The doctor first diagnoses the patient’s disorder, then he proceeds to recommend a course of treatment…’ and the medical theme is one which describes Pyne well, incorporating his scientific approaches to cases. His solutions, especially those in the first six cases, are invariably based on Pyne’s understanding of human nature, which he has derived from the statistics he compiled in his previous job. Furthermore, his scientific manner is evinced in phrases such as ‘he looked at Claude with a kind of scientific interest’ and in ‘The House at Shiraz’ it is said that Pyne’s ‘face had the quiet, satisfied expression of one who has conducted an experiment and obtained the desired result.’ In his writing there is scientifically concise style such as in his notes on one of his employees in ‘The Case of the Middle-Aged Woman’: ‘Lounge Lizard. Note: Study developments’ and I think Pyne identifies his own scientific nature when he tells someone in ‘The House at Shiraz’ that he does not ‘guess’ but ‘I observe – and I classify.’

The scientific slant to Pyne also comes out in ‘The Pearl of Price’ when he suggests how psychology as a science can be used and applied on others, saying that ‘when you think that of ten people you meet, at least nine of them can be induced to act in any way you please by applying the right stimulus.’ Of course such practice can be used immorally and is used so in the story, which I think also ties into the dubious and questionable methods Pyne sometimes uses to help others (e.g. ‘The Case of the Discontented Soldier’), returning Pyne back to the god-like realms of the Great Detective.

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I find that Pyne contrasts with Miss Marple, as she has gained her knowledge through observing real life, not numbers on a piece of paper, as Pyne himself admits that he has spent his life ‘sat in an office,’ though he asserts he has ‘seen a good deal of life’ nonetheless. They are both experts in human nature and are good readers of others, yet unlike Miss Marple who is very genuine in her interest and sympathy in others, I think Pyne dissembles more, embodying the persona that the client will respond to best and in taking on the guises of others, there is a sense that Pyne is able to hide himself. Miss Marple’s identity is less slippery and I feel readers get a greater sense of who she is. Pyne’s physical attributes tell us little of him other than to suggest that he fits the preconceived notion of a British man and in ‘The Pearl of Price’ it is said that his appearance was ‘breathing an atmosphere of British solidity.’ Though unlike Miss Marple who never fails to solve her case and bring a solution, Pyne’s supposedly infallible scientific system is shown occasionally to be defied by human nature.

Pyne’s Views on Women

I think one of the things which is quite unsettling in this collection at times are Pyne’s views on women and how they operate psychologically. These views are very evident in ‘The Case of the Discontented Husband,’ where Wade is told that you should:

‘Never adopt an apologetic attitude with a woman. She will take you at your own valuation… you should have gloried in your athletic prowess. You should have spoken of art and music as “all that nonsense my wife likes”… The humble spirit, my dear sir, is a wash-out in matrimony.’

I found this advice interesting as Pyne seems to suggest that marriages are not equal partnerships and that they work best if the man has the greater power and dominance. I certainly can’t see Pyne telling a female client that she should avoid adopting a humble spirit in her marriage. I also wonder whether in moments of advice like this Pyne is subtly advocating that women don’t mind men behaving more dominantly or badly and much prefer it to a husband who is faithful and kind. This is reinforced in ‘Have You Got Everything You Want?’ where Pyne tells a husband that, ‘at present moment your wife is in love with you, but I see signs that she may not remain so if you continue to present to her a picture of such goodness and rectitude that it is almost synonymous with dullness.’ Furthermore in this same story Pyne says that ‘it is a fundamental axiom of married life that you must lie to a woman.’ In this collection crime does not lead to happiness but it does seem as though Pyne suggests lying will. The question I felt I was left with on reading these parts of the stories was how were women readers expected to react to these statements at the time? Amused disagreement? Guilty agreement?

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What is Happiness?

I think one of the reasons why this is quite a challenging collection is the way it takes on the question of what makes us happy? No mean feat considering how subjective the term is. It is easier perhaps to say what makes us unhappy. Pyne defines unhappiness into ‘five main headings…ill health… boredom… wives who are in trouble over their husbands…husbands who are in trouble over their wives…[and]’ – well the last one is unmentioned, perhaps to allow the reader to give their own suggestion. This notion of classifying things is one of ways Pyne’s views on happiness are quite startling as he emphasises the commonality between humans on what makes them happy rather than stressing individual difference, saying, ‘interesting how everyone thinks his own case unique.’

So what do the stories suggest make us happy? I think in a subtle way the stories advocate continued interaction with those around us, with peoples’ individual situations or difficulties combining to make single solutions. At times yes the plots can seem very unrealistic in terms of real life (more on this later), but the very nature of their implausibility makes us question what happiness is, what are the main causes of lacking it and how best to remedy unhappiness. Pyne’s solutions although fantastical at times, (e.g. ‘The Case of the Rich Woman‘) do actually seem to work. Happiness is also suggested to come from brief ‘glorious’ moments of excitement which people can store and treasure and look back to on days when life is rather dull and this is particularly exemplified in ‘The Case of the City Clerk.’ Mental occupation and emotional fulfilment also crop up as key cornerstones in happiness.

Wealth unsurprisingly is shown as one of the factors which can often cause unhappiness and in ‘Death on the Nile’ Lady Grayle is said to have ‘suffered since she was sixteen from the complaint of having too much money’ and it is fair to say that she never seems a happy woman. Furthermore it is arguable that one of the stories in this collection could provide an alternative version of ending to the biblical story of the rich man in Mark Ch. 10. And this biblical link did make me look at the stories more generally and I think a case could be made for them being parable like. Like parables they have characters we know and are familiar with, but then they don’t always do what we expect and also like a parable there is a challenging aspect to the stories at times, asking us to consider what happiness is. This is evinced in the provocative title of ‘Have You Got Everything You Want?’ for example. There is also another pertinent biblical allusion in the title of ‘The Pearl of Price,’ as it is very similar to ‘The Pearl of Great Price,’ which is a parable from the New Testament and like this parable this story to an extent can be seen as asking readers to question what their own pearl of great price would be and what it would be for the characters? And in fact there is quite an interesting answer to this latter question in regards to the person who steals the actual pearl in the story.

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Wealth

Wealth as I mentioned above is not viewed favourably in this collection and financiers certainly don’t come out well out, being suggested to be akin with gamblers and confidence tricksters in ‘The Gate of Baghdad’ and in ‘The Pearl of Price’ Pyne makes a parallel between modern financiers and Nabataeans, who an archaeologist suggests were ‘racketeers… a pack of wealthy blackguards… who compelled travellers to use their own caravan routes, and saw to it that all other routes were unsafe.’ One financier suggests that ‘a man who makes money benefits mankind,’ but I don’t think this is a notion that gets much validation in the stories. Furthermore at the end of ‘The Pearl of Price’ having a lack of money together creates a sense of camaraderie and Christie closes the story with the proverb, ‘“A fellow feeling makes us wondrous kind.’

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Overall Thoughts on the Characters

Many of the clients in these stories are often character types, types which Christie often played around with in her detective novels and even in these short stories Christie has characters we think we know and understand do the unexpected. Clients considered to be good are actually bad and conversely some of the guilty culprits are not typical villains and in fact Pyne categorises one of them as a ‘victim.’ In one story in particular the dual meaning of word in the title represents the dual nature of one of the characters, which retrospectively I found very clever. I think one of my favourite moments in the collection is the opening of ‘The Oracle At Delphi,’ as the social comedy played out between a mother and her grown up son is very enjoyable to read. It makes them at once seem familiar and human – the devoted mother who goes on a holiday she wouldn’t choose for herself out of love for her son and the son of course is oblivious to her lack of interest in all things ancient Greek:

‘This morning Willard had started early to see some Byzantine mosaics. Mrs Peters, feeling instinctively that Byzantine mosaics would leave her cold (in the literal as well as the spiritual sense), excused herself.

‘I understand Mother… You want to be alone just to sit in the theatre or up in the stadium and look down over it and let it sink in.’

‘That’s right, pet.’

Fiction vs. Reality

So as I mentioned earlier sometimes Pyne’s solution to problems can make the stories seem a little implausible, yet an idea which comes up a lot in the first six stories is that people crave for the fiction they read to occur in their real lives. For instance in ‘The Case of the Discontented Soldier’ Pyne complains to Ariadne Oliver that the adventure she devised was too clichéd. However she rebuts this by saying that ‘people are used to reading about such things. Water rising in a cellar, poison gas, et cetera’ and therefore when they are plunged into an adventure of their own it is what they expect and ‘knowing about it beforehand gives it an extra thrill when it happens to oneself. The public is conservative… it likes the old well-worn gadgets.’ Perhaps this is also a joke defence for Christie’s genre of crime and mystery fiction and this statement of Ariadne Oliver’s did leave me wondering the following: What are today’s well-worn gadgets of fiction? Still the same or different? What would we expect in a real life adventure?

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The West’s “Expectations” of the East

In the last five stories which mostly take place in the Middle East, there is a sense of West meets East and I think in these stories Christie opens up a dialogue on how each of them perceive the other. For instance it seems holidaymakers from the West expect and want things to be ‘primitive’ and when this is not the case there is disappointment, which can be seen in ‘The Gate Of Baghdad,’ where Pyne says, ‘Damascus is a little disappointing when one sees it for the first time’ and a character named Hensley further adds that one has ‘not got – back of beyond – when you think you have.’ Although more positively I think Christie’s love of the area also comes through Pyne as in ‘The House at Shiraz’ Pyne says to someone the places he is going to, ‘Teheran, Ispahan and Shiraz’ ‘and the sheer music of the names enchanted him so much as he said them that he repeated them.’ Later on in the story it is said that he felt ‘the mystery of these vast, unpopulated regions’ and it is in these lines that I feel like we get a brief glimpse of Christie’s own feelings about the area.

There are of course some negative expectations as well, though I think they are an intrinsic part of the dialogue Christie creates, as these expectations are not put in to be upheld, but they are put there to be questioned and challenged and also to reveal something of the person speaking them. Examples include suggestions of cowardice in ‘The Gate of Baghdad’ when someone says, ‘And no Armenian would have the nerve to kill anyone,’ whilst in ‘The Pearl Of Price,’ there are prejudiced views concerning morality. For example Colonel Dubosc says, ‘what is honesty? It is a nuance, a convention. In different countries it means different things. An Arab is not ashamed of stealing. He is not ashamed of lying. With him it is from whom he steals or to whom he lies that matters.’ This unenlightened view is compounded by Caleb P Blundell who says that this matter ‘shows the superiority of the West over the East.’ Of course the final solution of the story undermines this ideology when the thief turns out to be from the West.

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Views on the West

These stories don’t just look at how Western people view people from the Middle East, but people from the West are also looked at in turn. The inability to speak the local language is an interesting area within which the westerner is looked at, as this inability often places them into a ridiculous or comical position. For example in ‘The House At Shiraz’ Pyne asks the pilot to tell him what questions he was actually trying to answer at passport control and the pilot tells him that he said: ‘That your father’s Christian name is Tourist, that your profession is Charles, that the maiden name of your mother is Baghdad, and that you have come from Harriet.’ One wonders what passport control were thinking about him… Furthermore, the West is sometimes critiqued through subtle parallels, such as in ‘The Pearl of Price,’ where many of the group are looking at a wax press of an ancient design depicting a sacrifice to a despot god. Yet this viewing is interrupted by Blundell’s irritable and despot attitudes towards native workers and in a way this interruption can be seen as a modern parallel of the design the group were looking at. It is a small moment but it is interesting to consider what Christie’s views were on Western treatment of non-westerners.

Final Thoughts

So all in all a very interesting collection of stories, which certainly raise a lot of questions. They are also quite clever stories with a number of instances of effective misdirection. It was refreshing to read some mysteries which didn’t have criminal elements. Christie is also very adept in this collection at wrong footing the reader as she sets up a number of structures in the earlier stories and then in later stories she initially appears to be repeating them, thus luring the reader into a false sense of security, as she then twists or changes the structure/pattern at the end. This is definitely a story collection I would recommend trying.

Rating: 4.25/5

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The Man with Three Jaguars (1961) by Delano Ames

The Man with Three Jaguars

It has been nearly a year since I have reviewed my last Ames’ novel, as my plan to read the Jane and Dagobert Brown books in order has been thwarted by lack of availability. So the Ames book I am reviewing today is not out of this series and is instead the second novel from a later series starring Juan Llorca. The other three in the series are The Man in the Tricorn Hat (1960), The Man with Three Chins (1965) and The Man with Three Passports (1967). From what I can gather online Ames did spend some time in Spain and in fact died in Madrid in 1987.

The tale is told from Juan’s perspective or should I say newly made Sergeant Llorca and he has recently arrived to Alcala, having bade fair well to a failed romance in his home town of Madrigal. He quickly finds his friend and fellow officer Paco Lopez and even in these opening pages, Juan begins to step to get entangled in local criminal machinations: A chauffeur who has an eye for the ladies and more money than usual. A fatally attractive woman, who is far from the innocent victim and who seems to have many in her thrall, including Llorca’s superior. A series of raids on local pubs and restaurants, the owners of whom silenced out of fear. A playwright killed in a car accident or was it actually a hit and run? All of which lead back to the owner of the three jaguar cars, self-made man Bill Murphy, who seems more than capable of “arranging” things in between playing with his kite collection and his toy soldiers. To begin with Juan unwittingly gets himself deeper and deeper into this world, knowing far more than is healthy for him. Yet it is when Murphy thinks he can “fix” Juan that events take a decidedly more violent turn and not just against Juan, who is also receiving little in the way of support from his boss. As the story reaches its’ climax it awaits to be seen whether Juan will capitulate, come out on top or go under.

Recreation in 1960s Spain

Recreation in 1960s Spain

The Setting: The Changing Landscape of Spain

The setting in this story was definitely something which struck me, especially in the opening chapter which intimates how the landscape and the culture is changing. When Juan arrives Paco points to a street named the Rambla, recalling that it ‘cost the taxpayers thirty million pesetas to construct…’ and he also points out the new glass skyscraper built by the Banco de Credito.’ It is telling that he doesn’t know what it is for and that is wasn’t even there last week, suggesting that Alcala is transforming at a rapid speed. Like Juan the reader is probably wondering where the money is coming from and Juan jokes about them having struck oil. Yet Paco replies that it isn’t oil but ‘tourists,’ in particular ‘millionaires and celebrities’ who seem to have flocked to the area. Juan reflects that ‘when… [he] was at school… the province in which Alcala… [was] situated was said to be the most backward in Spain,’ though now this certainly seems to have changed. Although there are signs that the town is not able to completely keep with the modernisation it is undergoing. There are many half-finished constructions and even those finished are not always fully functioning such as the new lavatorial facilities at the police station where the taps do not work. Though I think as the story progresses much of the new building work is controlled by only the few and the same can be said of the subsequent wealth made. Juan himself points to the disparity between the very rich and poor in the city soon after a building site has collapsed (a collapse which is later turns out to be far from accidental):

‘As I crawled through the rubble it struck me as another example of Mr Murphy’s unfailing luck that the Madrid firm had refused to sell him the doomed property. Two children – a little girl in her First Communion dress and a barefooted brat who had been helping his blind grandfather to sell lottery tickets – were not so lucky. They were dead.’

What makes this a poignant moment are the numerous little details that Juan picks out about the victims and it is unsurprising that these images stay with him.

Gandia Beach, Spain (1960s)

Gandia Beach, Spain (1960s)

Final Thoughts

Due to the issues of corruption, racketeering and use of bribery and violence, this story does share some elements of hardboiled novel, with its mean streets and lone hero. And normally to be honest this would not appeal to me, as this is not a genre I tend to enjoy. However, I think what Ames does with these elements, mixing it with other styles and honing in on character psychology and relationships, makes it more approachable for me and I don’t think the “mean street” elements are overdone, violence is kept to a minimum for instance and is not particularly graphic. Moreover, the reader is not confronted with these elements straight away in the story, they are built up to. Characterisation in this story is well done, as it is not easy to always tell who is good and who is bad, people are not always what you think they are and there are a number of surprises at the end of the book. Relationships also play an important role in the central mystery of this book and true to life they are not clearly defined and can be quite murky and complicated at times. There is also a gentle humour to the narrative as well, though not in the zany or verbal repartee manner found in Ames’ Jane and Dagobert novels. I think I still prefer Jane and Dagobert, but I’d definitely recommend this book and I am keen to give the other Juan Llocra stories a try, if I can find them reasonably priced that is.

Rating: 4.25/5

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Fictional Sleuths and their Offspring Quiz: The Answers

Earlier this week as part of the Tuesday Night Bloggers’ month long look at Children in Crime, I posed a quiz to see how well you remember the offspring of some of our favourite fictional sleuths. If you haven’t already had a go click here.

If you’ve tested your wits and got your fingers crossed you’ve got them right then take a look below to see how many you guessed correctly:

  1. Tommy and Tuppence Beresford – Deborah, Betty and Derek
  2. Amanda and Albert Campion – Rupert
  3. Harriet Vane and Lord Peter Wimsey – Bredon, Paul and Roger
  4. Agatha Troy and Inspector Alleyn – Ricky
  5. Judith Raven and Sir John Appleby – Bobby
  6. Maggie and John Brynes – Tony
  7. Superintendent Battle – Sylvia and 4 unnamed other siblings.
  8. Inspector Wexford – Sheila and Sylvia
  9. Martin Beck – Ingrid and Rolf
  10. Inspector Ghote – Ved
  11. Sir Henry Merrivale – 2 unnamed daughters
  12. Lady Lupin – Peter and Jill

And the answer to the bonus question, Betty, who is the only child from the list who was adopted.

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Christie Firsts

Today is Agatha Christie’s 126th birthday and it is also 100 years since the introduction of Hercule Poirot and to mark the occasion I decided (probably very foolishly) to suggest to new Christie readers the novels which best introduce Poirot, Marple, the Beresfords, Superintendent Battle, Christie’s thriller and Christie’s standalone novels. However, aside from giving myself this herculean task I have also extended this challenge to other bloggers, so keep your eyes peeled on your favourite crime fiction blogs. If you’re a blogger and you’d like to accept the gauntlet thrown, add your link to the comments section below and it would be great if you could link back to this post in your own, as over the next few days I will be gathering as many Christie Firsts posts as I can find. If you’re adept with social media and unlike me understand twitter, the hashtag being used is #ChristieFirsts (original I know!) If you’re not a blogger but want to share your own ideas add them to the comments section or tweet them, as I’m definitely keen to see what other people’s choices are.

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Now for that dreaded moment where I have to give my own suggestions… (Happy reading I’m off to hide in a bunker somewhere)

Best introduction to Hercule Poirot:

Deciding on the best Poirot novel to start with was a very difficult task and I’m still not Peril at End Housesure whether I have made the right choices. I decided to veer away from the ones which have been heavily adapted such as Murder on the Orient Express (1934) and Death on the Nile (1937), as I think their plots were a little too well-known, even by those who haven’t read the books, and therefore I felt a first time Christie reader should read one they don’t know the solution to. I also steered clear of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926), as the premise in this one is superb but I don’t think it is the bestSad Cypress one to start with. It’s a brilliant one that perhaps needs saving. What helped me make my final decisions was to split my choices in to two, picking one book which I felt demonstrated Poirot’s ability to solve a case with a strong puzzle focus, with lots of tangible clues, and another Poirot novel where characterisation and human psychology is fundamental. Though both novels are good at showing something of Poirot’s character and personality.

For the puzzle: Peril at End House (1932)

For the characterisation: Sad Cypress (1940)

Best introduction to Miss Marple: Murder at the Vicarage (1930)

The Murder at the Vicarage

Deciding on which Miss Marple case to choose was a much easier task. Although both Sleeping Murder (1976) and Nemesis (1971) are novels I really love, I don’t think these are the best place to begin with Miss Marple, especially in terms of getting to know her as a person and the way that she sleuths. Her debut in my opinion really is the best place to start, as it shows her in her natural environment, St Mary Mead, and I think the vicar narrator does a great job at revealing what she is like.

Best introduction to Superintendent Battle: Towards Zero (1944)

Towards Zero

I think this novel not only has a great central premise of the Zero hour, but I also think it is a story where we get a more human or personal side to Superintendent Battle, who otherwise is often portrayed as having a very wooden exterior. I had been tempted by The Seven Dials Mystery (1929), but I didn’t feel he was involved enough in the story to really give a strong flavour of who he was.

Best introduction to Tommy and Tuppence Beresford: Partners in Crime (1929)

Partners in Crime

Perhaps this is a slightly unusual choice, a collection of short stories. However, within this collection I think we get the best of both worlds. We get to find out a lot about the Beresfords individually, as a couple and as detectives, but we also get narratives which are more detective work focused, rather than being thrillers such as The Secret Adversary (1922) or N or M? (1941). Furthermore, I think these short stories show their detective work at its best and the mysteries they have to solve are well-constructed. I also enjoy the pastiches Christie makes towards other fictional sleuths. I did enjoy By the Pricking of my Thumbs (1968), but I didn’t feel it was as strong a choice as the story collection and I definitely wouldn’t recommend Postern of Fate (1973) as a first Beresford read, as this is probably the weakest mystery featuring them.

Best introduction to Christie’s Thrillers: The Man in the Brown Suit (1924)

The Man in the Brown Suit

Christie was never at her best perhaps when writing thrillers, as can be attested to by Destination Unknown (1954) and Passenger to Frankfurt (1970). However I feel some of her earlier ones are good reads and The Man in the Brown Suit (1924) is definitely a favourite, with a heroine embarking on a suitably dramatic adventure and it is also a tale which includes some of Christie’s famous misdirection.

Best introduction to Christie’s Stand Alone Novels: Crooked House (1949)

Crooked House

As with Poirot there is a seemingly obvious or rather famous choice; And Then There Were None (1939), which has recently been adapted by the BBC. But again I felt resistant to choosing this one. Not because I don’t love it, because I do. Yet maybe I felt another Christie standalone novel should get a look in, one whose solution is perhaps not as well known, well not to the Christie novice anyways, but which is equally deserving of praise, especially in regards to its’ choice of killer and violent ending. It certainly debunks the myth of Christie being a “cosy” writer! Although I was tempted by Ordeal by Innocence (1958), I remember enjoying Crooked House just a little more and I think it is a novel which gives a different sinister variation on the theme of murder in a rural and isolated house.

So what do you think? Are these choices you would also advocate? Or do you think some crucial texts have been missed out?

Also a post from the archives, looking at Christie in Translation, a post contributed to by Agatha Christie fans from all over the world.

 

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The Case of Sir Adam Braid (1930) by Molly Thynne

Source: Review Copy (Dean Street Press)

Today on the blog I am continuing my sampling of Thynne’s mystery fiction, which the DSP have recently reprinted, and this one also comes from the year chosen for Rich’s Crimes of the Century Challenge at Past Offences. This is also my first experience of reading a non-Dr Constantine mystery by Thynne.

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The story begins one early winter evening. Sir Adam Braid a successful artist, is deciding how best to respond to a request for money from his granddaughter, Jill. Things do not look favourable for her. Braid is soon left alone in his flat as his manservant leaves for his usual jaunt to the pub. Yet within the next 40 minutes, Braid will lose his life, murdered. However, the case is far from simple, primarily due to the high number of people who seem to have visited his flat within the crucial time. A petty thief, an irate woman, a mystery man – even a man wanting a stamp! There is also the difficulty of deciding when Braid actually died, with different testimonies suggesting different times. There is an obvious suspect in Jill, yet she is a suspect Chief Detective Inspector Fenn has known since she was child and is therefore reluctant to arrest her, preferring to look for another likely suspect, a task which initially seems quite a forlorn one due to the amount of circumstantial evidence against her. However, many other suspects appear ranging from confidence tricksters, wanted criminals and a very frightened looking manservant. To aid him in his task, Fenn also has his friend, Doctor Gilroy, a scientist researching bacteria, to help him on the case. Though they’ll have to be careful as someone out there is more than happy to use violence to prevent being identified.

Overall Thoughts

Although not hugely focused on as a person, Sir Adam Braid, did interest me as a character, as it felt like he was not just your typical tyrannical elderly figure and I have to say I did feel some sympathy for him when he gets a letter asking him to advance money that Jill expects from his will. And I think it is this moment which makes me not entirely warm to Jill, though of course as our novel’s heroine, she is doted on in different ways by Fenn and Gilroy. However, I think the description which gave me a little sympathy to Braid was this one where it is suggested that he could be compared ‘to an old, ill-conditioned, shaggy terrier, his few remaining teeth bared to bite.’ This sums him up quite well as he doesn’t always have the best of tempers but there is a sense that the harm he can do is quite minimal and there is a certain lovability to a scruffy dog character.

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Within the story, Miss Webb, the spinster sister of one of the people who finds Braid’s body, provides Fenn with a number of important pieces of information. Yet I think Fenn’s attitude towards her did irk me a little, mainly due to its’ hypocriticalness. Despite the value of the information she gives, Fenn never lets go of his initial stereotyped view of her and demarcates her as simply a gossipy nosey woman full of imagination and is fair game for ridicule, a notion Gilroy shares when he quips that she ‘ought to be in the force.’ It is not that I am unused to spinster characters getting a raw deal, even Miss Marple, whose first novel appearance occurred in the same year as this experiences other people’s erroneous assumptions of elderly women. It is the fact that Fenn is much more welcoming and valuing of other people’s gossip, despite it being inaccurate or a repetition of Miss Webb’s. When encouraging Gilroy to listen to his charwoman’s gossip, Fenn says ‘local gossip isn’t to be despised,’ and for me this felt a bit of a cheek considering all the unfair assertions he laid at Miss Webb’s door when she passed on the information she knew. Though to be fair I do think she partially gets the last laugh in this case. Perhaps in some ways this is an interesting novel to read for the prejudices it contains, (in very brief snippets in most cases), such as the assumed honesty of WW1 veterans, the unreliability of the elderly middle class spinsters, (the most pervasive prejudice), or the criminality of marginalised social groups. If the characterisation had been a little more in depth this may have been ameliorated, but there is a feeling at the end that the final solution is a trifle convenient. It is not implausible, in fact the solution is very well supported by the evidence, I just think the backdrop against which it is cast may make it less satisfying in its handiness for certain characters.

However, this novel has a very strong central mystery, probably the strongest out of the three I have read by Thynne and there is plenty of evidence for the readers to grapple with and evaluate, making it a better read, as it gives you more of a chance to solve the mystery. There is probably one aspect of the case seasoned crime readers will pick up on quite quickly, an aspect which holds Fenn up a lot until nearer the end of the novel. However, working that out early on doesn’t mean the identity of the killer is easy to discover. I think readers for whom the puzzle is paramount would probably enjoy reading this one the most out of the three I have tried. The few qualms I had with the characters/the convenience of the solution affected my final rating slightly, but these are subjective issues which may affect other readers to a lesser degree than myself.

Rating: 4/5

See also:

Death in the Dentist’s Chair (1932)

The Crime at the Noah’s Ark (1931)

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