This re-read is in preparation for JJ and Brad’s forthcoming discussion on the book next month. Whilst my memories of this book are fairly limited, I do remember it not being very good. But on starting out with this book I tried to remain positive, saying to myself that it might not be as bad as I remembered and that this re-read might help me to notice things I had missed the first time around. After all this book did garner newspaper reviews such as: ‘Past and present interlock impressively… this is a genuine tour de force’ (Observer) and ‘The Beresfords are wonderfully revived. Smooth, beautifully paced, and effortlessly convincing’ (New York Times). Well, all I can say is that clearly we weren’t reading the same book…oh the pain…
But for those who have missed out this unique reading experience, here’s what the story is about…
Tommy and Tuppence start the book by moving into a new home in Hollowquay. Interestingly Tuppence got ahead of Marie Kondo’s game in the art of decluttering, as when deciding on which books to cull, she says: ‘we have to put them into the shelves, and look inside them, of course, each time to see whether it’s a book I do really want and I can really remember.’ Unsurprisingly this is more of a great theory than something Tuppence actually practices. Instead Tuppence pulls various books off the shelves and begins re-reading stories she read as a child. Yet when she gets to Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Black Arrow, she finds the book’s original owner, Alexander Parkinson, has underlined certain letters on a few pages. These letters spell out the following sentence: ‘Mary Jordon did not die naturally. It was one of us. I think I know which.’ It is this sentence which sets Tommy and Tuppence off on the hardest case of their career and in my opinion, the hardest cold case, Christie ever set for any of her sleuths… Can this mystery of WW1 ever be laid to rest?
When I haven’t enjoyed a book so much, it’s nice to be able to find some positive. Yet I have to be honest and admit I really really struggled with this one. I couldn’t even recourse to the cover artwork, (which I know one blogger
turned to when trying to think of something nice to say about a different book). But eventually I did find something, or rather someone, and that has to be the Manchester terrier, Hannibal, which the Beresfords own. His more comic role in the story offered the occasional moment of sunshine in this tale.
I know Christie used her later novels as a way of exploring old age, but never has this theme hampered the characters, the plot and the writing style so much. I was in a for bumpy ride with this book from the very first pages. Tommy and Tuppence’s increase in age is definitely felt and shown explicitly and implicitly. Of course, there are comments about getting stiff and finding it hard to bend down etc., but the dialogue this couple share is also decidedly less sharp. It meanders in an unpleasant way and I am genuinely convinced that at various points these two are not even sure what they’re talking about, let alone the reader.
Long windedness is endemic in this narrative. Despite their past career in detection, for instance, Tommy painfully explains to Tuppence, how he is paying someone to do research into the life of Mary Jordon i.e. look up the information to do with birth, marriage, death, wills etc., but the way he goes about doing it, you would think he was talking to a fairly dim two year old. Though in fairness Tuppence does act fairly obtusely within this conversation. These verbose and rambling conversations also leave their mark on the interviews Tommy has with various secret service contacts. For pages and pages, he listens to these people, yet they either provide the same info or less than, the Beresfords have heard elsewhere. In fact, one conversation takes place over 20 pages, in which nothing is said at all. It’s just relentless waffle. Seriously the characters in this book have a great deal of difficulty in getting to the point.
A key issue is the length of time between the original supposed crime and the contemporary setting of the book. First-hand witnesses are all dead, so it’s their relatives who offer second-hand information, which is not wholly reliable, yet immensely repetitive. So, it’s not surprising that hundreds of pages in, the plot hasn’t moved forward, and the reader has been starved of any new information for chapters and chapters. What is baffling though are chapters in which the Beresfords are supposed to be comparing new information they have found, yet not only is it just one person sharing about their latest experience, the information gained is no different from what the reader has previously learnt. There is blatantly no comparing of notes going on. So yes, Tommy and Tuppence’s approach to detection leaves a lot to be desired, their biggest inadequacy being their failure to put two and two together with one particular clue, which is repeated at several points, and which the reader has had clocked for 200 odd pages. In the way some people shout at their TVs, I can imagine some readers wanting to do similar with this book.
It’s not just the conversation which has lost its sparkle in this book, but Tommy also became a more irritating element. His consistent excessive anxiety over the safety of Tuppence, whilst I am sure is commendable, is also deeply annoying, as it starts from word go in the story. Barely a chapter into the book and he is distraught when he finds Tuppence is not home. One passage demonstrating his concern stayed with me in particular, when he is thinking about the floorboards which have been lifted up for the electricians:
‘All one had to do was to be careful to not rick an ankle, fall through a hole, damage yourself in some way or another. He was far more afraid of Tuppence damaging herself than he was of doing the damage to himself. He had had more experience than Tuppence.’
It’s the last line which rankles. Seriously, he has more experience? What in? Looking where he’s going? The way Tommy goes on, it sounds like Tuppence needs to be in assisted living accommodation. Yet more chapters in we find her whizzing down a hill in a children’s cart toy, landing in a monkey puzzle tree, without lasting injury. Tommy’s concern really doesn’t match the woman it’s for. Right… breathe in, breathe out…
I do appreciate that Christie’s health was not at its best when writing this book and that her husband and her secretary did have to help pull the book together, but I still find it sad that this had to be the final case for Tommy and Tuppence, concluding their career on somewhat of a low note. In fact, this low note is emphasised by the cases that preceded it, as the reader knows the heights these two characters were able to reach in earlier investigations. Comparison also doesn’t do this book any favours, when we consider it alongside Christie’s Miss Marple novels, as despite getting frailer physically, Miss Marple doesn’t lose her mental acumen. Then again, we never see Miss Marple as a younger woman, so perhaps that plays a part in it as well. Cold cases are not the easiest of mysteries to write, as you have to convincingly find ways for the sleuth to pick up on information long buried, either literally or in people’s minds. At her best Christie could do this well, but unfortunately that is not the case here and the story devolves into thriller territory. Yet it’s not a well-written thriller either. The near-death experiences are somewhat lacklustre in comparison to the Beresfords’ glory days and the final solution is not particularly satisfying.
I’m not sure I will ever re-read this book again, but I am looking forward to JJ and Brad’s astute, insightful and entertaining discussion (no pressure guys!) As a general rule of thumb, the books I like, JJ doesn’t tend to like and vice versa. There are the odd moments where our opinions align, but will this be one of these moments? Or will it turn out to be JJ’s favourite Christie novel? We’ll have to wait and see next month!
Just the Facts Ma’am (Silver Card): At least two deaths by different means