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.
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…’
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.’
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?
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.
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.
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.