Source: Review Copy (Harper Collins)
In preparation for the BBC’s adaptation of ‘Witness for the Prosecution,’ (1933) I decided to give it a read and in the recent reprint by Harper Collins I also had the opportunity to revisit some Christie’s other short stories. I think Sarah Phelp’s (screenwriter for the adaptation) introduction is rather telling in how she has interpreted this short story (‘it has all the elements of classic Noir’) and to be honest I am unresolved as to whether this is good or bad, especially combined with other pieces I have read on the forthcoming adaptation, including the news that the twist Christie gives in the story is unveiled in the middle of the plot instead of at the end and a new twist has been added. This story like others in the collection centres on a married couple and in the world of Christie marriage is often not bliss and much lurks beneath the surface and with these stories this trope plays out in different ways. As always these stories also provide some wonderful examples of Christie using readers’ assumptions against them.
The Witness For The Prosecution
The story opens with a conversation between Mr Mayherne, who is acting as a solicitor for Leonard Vole, who has been charged with murdering an elderly lady named Miss Emily French. Although he protests his innocence, he realises he is ‘like a man caught in a net,’ a net drawn up by French’s maid whose testimony damns him, painting Vole as a man who was after French’s money and the fact he is her principal legatee does not help Vole’s defence. However worse is to follow when it seems that Vole’s wife will not confirm his alibi, from what seems to be intense vengefulness. Mayherne feels at a lost as to how he can save his client who he believes to be innocent, that is until he receives a curious note…
The character psychology is very prominent and powerful in this book. Our victim, an elderly spinster is more than a cardboard cut-out and there are intimations that she was playing a game of her own in seeking out Vole’s company. The maid with a grudge character was also a change, though I think she could have been made more of. Although Vole stresses his innocence there is always this niggle of doubt and when characters such as Mayherne ask questions such as:
‘Why did you, a young man of thirty-three, good looking, fond of sport, popular with your friends, devote so much time to an elderly woman with whom you could hardly have anything in common?’
it is hard to not make assumptions. One cannot not talk about Romaine, Vole’s wife and it is in this character that Christie really plays around with reader expectations and assumptions. She is definitely a character who flouts other people’s expectations of her, although I don’t think she is quite the ‘femme fatale,’ Sarah Phelps sees in her. Though of course this might be due to the fact that her time in court is reported to us second hand, (which was disappointing), whereas I think the adaptation will give this greater prominence.
Phelps also asserts that this is a decidedly 1920s set story. Granted it was first published in Flynn’s Weekly in 1925, but there are no references in the story which give it a definite 1920s feel. Phelps describes this time as ‘an era of giddy hedonistic excess… for some, but grinding penury and want for most.’ There is a scene in the story which arguably shows an example of poverty, but I really wasn’t getting any notes of ‘giddy’ hedonism. Again I think this remark highlights the direction the adaptation is going to take. Along with the use of the opening dialogue, I also liked in this story how it brings up a lot of questions surrounding the characters in terms of their personalities and relationships and one hopes that the adaptation will thoughtfully explore these. Additionally Christie was apparently not happy with the short story ending and changed it for the play version, which I felt was shame, as I don’t think her changed ending is better. The first ending is definitely punchier and clever.
This story concerns a retired policeman named Evans, who recognises a woman who was acquitted of murdering her husband 9 years ago, with the arsenic he ingested being ruled as an accident. Evans is sure she is guilty and becomes concerned when her current husband is persuaded to take out life insurance by her. But what can he do about it? I enjoyed this story as Christie plays around with how we read other people and their intentions.
The Fourth Man
One snowy evening there is train carriage with four people in. Three are already acquainted with one another, a Canon, a famous lawyer and a mind specialist. There is also an unknown man, supposedly asleep. They discuss a medical case in France of a woman who had four personalities, a story they think they know all about until the fourth member of the carriage becomes involves. Considering the emphasis placed on duality and multiple personalities I don’t think Christie used this theme in an interesting way and this is probably my least favourite story in the collection as it didn’t feel like it had much of a crime or mystery at its centre.
The Mystery of the Blue Jar
Jack Hartington who often starts his mornings with an early round of golf, is thinking that he is going mad. At the same time each day on the green he hears a woman cry murder. Yet when he goes to investigate there is no such woman and the only other woman, who weeds a cottage garden at the same time, hears nothing. Concerned Hartington calls in a third party. I think that although this is a clever mystery, it is one readers can reasonably easily pick up on, perhaps due to the coincidental nature of the story and small cast of characters.
Mr Eastwood’s Adventure
Anthony Eastwood is trying to write a mystery novel entitled The Second Cucumber (which is annoyingly intriguing). Not getting anyway with it he answers the phone to hear a woman begging him to come to a certain address on a matter of life and death. Curious he goes to visit the woman and finds that she has mistaken him for someone else. Before he has a chance to correct her the police arrive, assuming him to be this other man, a man they want for murder. These developments mirror the sort of plot Eastwood has to write for his publishers: ‘mysterious dark woman, stabbed to the heart, a young hero unjustly suspected, and the sudden unravelling of the mystery and fixing of the guilt on the least likely person, by the means of wholly inadequate clues.’ Yet I think how Christie chooses to end such a story is entertaining and shows how easily readers can be taken in (well this reader anyways) by a certain type of atmosphere and how this leads to particular genre or story plot expectations. Interestingly in the story Eastwood jokes about the quality of the title changes publishers make to manuscripts and he quips that his story, The Second Cucumber would probably end up being called Murder Most Foul. Although this story was printed in 1934 it seems eerily prophetic as of course Margaret Rutherford’s third Miss Marple film in 1964, (which was meant to be based on the Poirot novel, Mrs McGinty’s Dead (1952), was called this. I wonder if Christie remembered this story when it happened.
This story concerns a newly married couple, not in the full flush of youth, who had a whirlwind romance before quickly getting married. Prior to this Alix Martin received a small inheritance. In the background is a thwarted lover of Alix’s who happens to be holidaying in the area of their new home. Everything seems to be going fine for Alix and her husband Gerald, until she begins to have a certain dream ending in Gerald’s not unwished for demise. Other events occur which begin to put Alix on guard and make her question how much she really knows about her husband. The ending to this story is quite unsettling in its open ended nature and the reader is left wondering who the guilty party is. Moreover, this is another story where Christie plays around effectively with reader assumptions and expectations, especially of narrative arcs.
The Red Signal
The story takes place over a night, beginning with a dinner party hosted by Claire Trent and her husband, a party with definite underlying tensions. One guest, Dermot, suggests that when it comes to premonitions, some are red signals, which are signals for danger and he provides an example he had during the war. He is asked when he last had such a signal, to which he replies: tonight. Before the night is over death will have struck one of the party guests, which lands another in decidedly hot water. Given the final solution it was disappointing that the ending was rushed and in fact I think this story would work well as TV adaptation.
The Second Gong
I think the reason why I enjoyed this story less was because it feels like a story which should have been novel and this comes out most in Poirot’s investigation of the supposed suicide of the eccentric musician Hubert Lytcham Roche. Poirot had been going down to Roche’s country abode because Roche believed he was being swindled. Are the two cases connected or is there another motive behind Roche’s death? The murder method is quite pleasing, but was undermined by the brevity of the tale and the explanation of it feels rushed. Moreover I think Diana, Roche’s slightly wayward adopted daughter, was not fully realised as a character and seems to also have a character reversal at the end, going from a loud modern to a gushy heroine.
Sing a Song of Sixpence
In contrast one of the reasons I enjoyed this story was because of the carefully placed clue which ultimately solves the case. An elderly retired criminal barrister, Sir Edward Palliser, is required to fulfil his promise of help to a much younger woman, Magdalen, who he flirted with on a boat from America to England 9-10 years ago. Her and her three other relatives are all under suspicion of having murdered their aunt and Magdalen wants Palliser to find out who did it and thus relieve the unbearable suspicion that encases them. I think the only thing which irked me was Palliser’s slightly snooty and supercilious attitude towards Magdalen, thinking that she has somewhat lost her appeal now that she is in her late 20s rather than her late teens.
S. O. S.
This story takes place in a very isolated country cottage where the Dinsmead family reside. Their evening meal is interrupted by Mortimer Cleveland, whose car has broken down on a stormy night. When he retires for the night, having been allowed to stay until the morning, he finds the letters, SOS written in the dust in his room. Who put it there? Looking at the family he has entered into he notices the strange amount of tension there is and being a mental science expert and a psychic phenomenon researcher he is keen to get to the bottom of it. But as with many of Christie’s stories the answer is a sordid crime of opportunity. The psychic research element felt a little forced into the story and didn’t really play much of a part. Equally although the solution is clever I don’t think the reader would get there by themselves, as Cleveland himself has to take a few leaps of the imagination to arrive at it.
Mrs Harter has a weak heart and is recommended by her doctor to lead a calm, yet occupied life. Her nephew Charles who lives with her decides on getting a wireless to help implement this recommendation. All seems to go well until one night when listening to the radio alone, Mrs Harter hears her dead husband speak to her on the radio and he says he is coming to for her. Seasoned readers of mystery fiction will find there is not much of a mystery to solve here, as the trope employed has been used in various ways in other mysteries, such as by Ngaio Marsh and in Christie’s Mr Quin short stories. Therefore I think this is a story you read for the kick at the end.
Poirot and the Regatta Mystery
The final story in this collection focuses on Isaac Pointz, who is at Dartmouth harbour with an assorted party. Over dinner one of the guests’ daughter bets she can steal his very valuable morning star diamond which he always carries on his person. This she goes onto do over the meal, yet when she goes to return the item it has gone. A further search of the room and other guests yields nothing, so of course it is time for Poirot to do his stuff. What let this story down was the fact that Poirot’s work happens off stage and therefore lacks drama and excitement, which is a shame as this is a good example of characters’ social veneers proving decidedly false.
Overall I would say this is an enjoyable collection of some of Christie’s short stories and ‘Witness for the Prosecution,’ along with ‘Mr Eastwood’s Adventure,’ ‘Philomel Cottage’ and ‘Sing a Song of Sixpence’ were my favourites, involving clever solutions or endings, as well as Christie’s trademark skills at foxing reader assumptions and expectations.