I only finished eleven books in January, which isn’t a lot by my standards as of the last couple of years, even taking into account that two of the books were decidedly on the long side (all the more as I balanced out the two long books by two extremely short ones). But I decided to take my reading slowly this year; in addition to which, by the time New Year’s had rolled around, despite a full month of holiday coziness back in December, I was still so wiped out from all of 2020 that it took me a while to get my (non-holiday) reading mojo back in shape.
Topically / in terms of authors, January 2021 was a great start into my new Diversity Bingo project, as well as a(nother) month of reading books by Agatha Christie and other Golden Age mystery writers. And speaking of reading projects, in terms of of my Around the World challenge, I visited three continents (Europe, the Americas and Africa) and four countries (the UK, France, the U.S., and South Africa). Of the eleven books, four (= approx. 36%) were by authors of color — definitely a beginning that promises better statistics than 2020 if I can keep it up.
And now, without any further ado: To our muttons! *
The Dreidel pick for my first book of 2021 from the 2020 edition of Festive Tasks, and in many ways, things only went uphill from here. It’s not a bad book, mind, just not entirely my cup of tea. I had wanted to read this, on the one hand, because (as I’ve learned from Martin Edwards’s nonfiction books on the era) Connington was one of the heavyweights of the Golden Age mystery arena; on the other hand, because I had been unsettled by parts of Connington’s Nordenholt’s Million, which starts out with a breathtakingly prescient doomsday scenario (and, though ending with a bit more whimper than bang, still manages further bits of prescience up to the very end), but which also contains seriously jarring racist and misogynistic passages in between. Mystery at Lynden Sands is supposed to be one of the best books in Connington’s Sir Clinton Driffield series, so it looked like a good choice to validate either point; and this, it definitely turned out to be.
Now, as a mystery, this book is solidly in the “plodding / humdrum detective” tradition of Freeman Wills Crofts‘s Inspector French series and John Bude‘s mysteries; i.e., a book which on the one hand scrupulously plays fair with the reader, but on the other hand — and as a result of the author’s desire to place the reader on exactly the same footing as the fictional detective by laying out the path to each and every clue precisely as it is travelled by the detective (maps and all) — more than just occasionally sacrifices suspense for detail. The more I delve into the world of Golden Age mysteries, such as it is reemerging in the recent wave of republications, the more I find that this is not really my cup of tea. I enjoy trying to solve the mystery while I’m reading it as much as the next person (I wouldn’t read mysteries if I didn’t enjoy this aspect to begin with), but one of the main reasons why I am a fan of the so-called Queens of Crime (Agatha Christie, Dorothy L. Sayers, Ngaio Marsh, etc.) is that they squarely place the emphasis on the psychology of their characters (as well as, frequently, the settings of their books): i.e., they don’t just serve up a dazzling mystery with plenty of red herrings along with well-hidden genuine clues, their books have an added element above and beyond the mystery element, taken straight from literary fiction, which also translates into the mystery in that its solution likewise takes the various characters’ psychology — and the psychology of the crime committed — into account (and similarly, every so often, the psychological particularities of the locus delicti). Connington does a bit of this here, too, but rather tentatively and by far not profoundly enough to be likely to make me a fan.
Moreover, his lead detective, Sir Clinton Driffield, is a Chief Constable, i.e., someone who is way above and beyond the daily investigative grind, and who, in every single book, needs a special “hook” to be called into the investigation to begin with. Even if (like here) in the end he generously lets the inspector formally in charge of the case have all the credit for solving it, this only ends up smacking of promoting someone beyond their actual abilities — not least because this particular inspector does blunder rather badly and, early on, gets fixated on a theory of the crime that is neither fully in line with the available clues nor with the psychology of the persons he considers his chief suspects. In addition to working alongside the inspector formally in charge, Driffield also has his very own Watson / Hastings figure, Squire Wendover, and while the good Squire certainly does have his fair share of Watson-cum-Hastings moments, I was rooting for him all the way, because he had a firm grip on the psychology of the thing and was, in fact, proven right in the end.
On the plus side, though, I am happy to report that the book features several strong and (in one case ultimately, in another case, from the outset) sympathetically-painted women characters — plus another woman who, though in the main stupid and quarrelsome, at least provides some of the major clues — so unless I should come across another example of blatant misogyny, for the time being I’m willing to absolve Connington of that particular charge — as well as, though the evidence is slimmer on that point, the charge of racism; at least vis-à-vis Britain’s continental European neighbors.
I have one more book by Connington on my TBR (The Ha-Ha Case), which I think will allow me to assess Connington’s views over time a bit more fully (Nordenholt’s Million was published in 1923, Mystery at Lynden Sands in 1928, and The Ha-Ha Case in 1934) — as well as his approach to mystery writing as such — but unless something of a truly earthshattering nature happens, I think after that third book I’ll be done with Connington, at least as far as his full-length mystery novels are concerned. (The odd short story of his tends to show up in one Golden Age mystery anthology or another, and by and large I rather like his short stories, where he doesn’t have quite as much space to lay out the minutiae of the investigation, while still presenting an engaging puzzle.)
This was the monthly “main” read in the Appointment with Agatha / Agatha Christie Centenary Celebration group read (my blog master post can be found HERE; the Goodreads group is HERE): Like almost all of Christie’s spy / political conspiracy novels, this won’t ever be one of my all-time favorite books by her — parts of the plot are decidedly over the top, and the heroine, Anne Beddingfeld, lacks the foil that Tuppence has in Tommy in terms of witty repartee –, but despite the odd TSTL moment (where Christie was probably bowing to the clichés / expectations of her time), I like Anne’s spunkiness, and I get a bit of a kick out of her best buddy Suzanne as well.
More importantly, though, having revisited the book for the first time after reading The Grand Tour, Agatha Christie’s letters and diaries from the 1922 British Empire Expedition (from which Christie returned almost exactly 2 years before this book was published), it’s really been driven home to what extent The Man in the Brown Suit is based on Christie’s own experience during the first (South Africa) leg of that tour. The 1922 “Grand Tour” of course features in her autobiography as well, but more cursorily and as seen from the distance of several decades; also, some of the details are muddled there — so while the autobiography, too, does suggest that the novel was inspired by Christie’s travel experience, it is really the immediacy and detail of her 1922 letters and journals, coupled with the same writerly exuberance as in Christie’s early fiction and in characters such as Tuppence Beresford and Anne Beddingfeld, that drives home just how much of Christie’s personal experience found its way into the book.
Not only is Anne (like Tuppence and a number of Christie’s other young heroines) almost certainly at least partly an incarnation of Agatha Christie herself — and shares the young Christie’s views on adventure, marriage, and women’s self-determination –; Anne’s experience in South Africa also comprises virtually everything that Christie herself experienced there, too, from surfing to the first view of Table Mountain, train journeys to then-Rhodesia [Zimbabwe], visits to plantations, Cecil Rhodes’s tomb, and the jungle, and finally being caught up in the March 1922 Rand Rebellion. Similarly, the character of Sir Eustace seems to be a superficially somewhat more sympathetic incarnation of Major Ernest Belcher, whom Christie found insufferable as a traveling companion (even if she seems to have made her peace with him later) — the leader of the “Grand Tour” party and manager of the 1924-25 Empire Exhibition, which in turn formed the background and inspiration of the “Grand Tour” … or at least Sir Eustace and Major Belcher share some of the same character traits, such as a certain amount of pomposity and being prone to fits of temper.
Spoiler warning: Only go on reading if you’ve read the book and know the solution to the mystery.
I already own print as well as audio CD editions of all of Christie’s full length novels, but Audible last year started rereleasing them in “two for the price of one” digital packages, and who am I to complain? Crooked House is the book paired with The Man in the Brown Suit in that series of double feature packages, so I just kept on listening after I’d finished the first book — which was an even more proximate choice as Crooked House is one of my favorite non-series mysteries by Christie and on my list of overall favorite books by her as well. — Christie believed that everyone of us has the capacity for evil; notably, no one is too young to be a criminal, and she makes no bones about that here (she doesn’t even bother trying to give the culprit a motive designed to call upon the reader’s sympathy, though she does play merry hell with red herrings in the way she first makes that person appear).
Side note: The 2017 TV adaptation of Crooked House starring (inter alia) Glenn Close, Terence Stamp, Max Irons, Julian Sands, and Gillian Anderson is just about the last of the recent(ish) Christie adaptations to be broadcast that I like; it was perhaps fortunate that the screenplay was written by Julian Fellowes, who can usually be relied upon to produce / replicate period material authentically and in truly splendid style, and who also respected Christie’s original work enough to leave the core story unchanged, even if there are a few alterations in the margins. By contrast, though I haven’t seen all of Sarah Phelps’s Christie output (which includes, to date, And Then There Were None (2015), The Witness for the Prosecution (2016), Ordeal by Innocence and The A.B.C. Murders (both 2018), as well as The Pale Horse (2020)) — and I’m not planning to torture myself through her full catalogue –, for all that I have seen, only one of her efforts, the 2015 adaptation of And Then There Were None, does justice to Christie’s original: the others are varying degrees of horrors that have absolutely nothing to do with Christie’s books and play fast and loose with the material in a way that is an outright insult to Christie herself and to her fans alike. As for the even more recent Branagh Poirot movies … well, let’s just say I’d have wished he’d stuck to narrating the audios of Murder on the Orient Express and Death on the Nile, instead of recording the audios only after the fact and as promotional material for his movies.
Look, here’s the deal: If you’ve formed your idea of this tale based on its numerous movie adaptations, and / or if you are expecting a saga of gloriously heroic derring-do, swashbuckling and romance, be warned: You’ll be sorely disappointed; maybe you’ll even end up hating the book, because what Dumas actually wrote has almost nothing to do with what Hollywood made of it.
Core to the understanding of Les trois mousquetaires is that it is a picaresque novel: the 17th, 18th and 19th century’s version of a cartoon, in which boorish and / or (as in this book) provincial — read: simple and uninformed — characters tumble through a series of adventures, with virtually no character development whatsoever (nor, for that matter, an even remotely profound psychology to begin with), and where satire is used as a major tool to get the author’s points across. And like in a modern cartoon, not only the (for lack of a better word) “heroes” see no character development whatsoever; so, to, their antagonists are cardboard archetypes: Milady de Winter is unremittingly scheming and evil incarnate; Cardinal Richelieu is the silver-tongued, manipulative power behind a weak monarch’s throne; and Constance Bonacieux and the queen (Anne of Austria) are the proverbial wet towels that they need to be in order to tullflll their role as the (quasi-)virgins in peril whose sole function, in a “real” knightly tale, would be to be rescued by the heroes, knights in shining armour and all that, whereas here … well, OK, they did get the queen’s necklace back; but then Dumas wasn’t out to write alternative history, so obviously the royal marriage had to be saved, if only formally. But that’s about as far as the fearsome foursome’s heroism goes, and even that is almost accidental to their many cavalcades along the way. (The La Rochelle fortress stunt is, of course, sheer slapstick.)
Dumas found his inspiration for the novel’s four main characters in the semi-biographical / semi-fictional account Les mémoires de M. d’Artagnan by an author named Gatien de Courtilz de Sandras, an erstwhile soldier who later repeatedly found himself in the Bastille, where a former companion of the real d’Artagnan (Charles de Batz de Castelmore d’Artagnan) was warden at the time and probably told Courtilz de Sandras about his friend, who, like the real life Portos (Isaac de Porthau), Arthos (Armand, Seigneur de Sillègue, d’Athos, et d’Autevielle) and Aramis (Henri d’Aramitz), really was a protégé of the Musketeer Guards’ captain, Jean-Armand du Peyrer, Comte de Troisville, Dumas’s Monsieur de Tréville. (Porthau, d’Athos and d’Aramitz also were de Troisville’s nephews; Batz de Castelmore d’Artagnan later became his successor — all four men arguably served with distinction. D’Aramitz, upon resigning from the Musketeer Guards did join the clergy; d’Athos was killed in a duel — so in that respect, too, the story takes up elements of the real historical background.
In the novel’s preface, Dumas uses number of sleights of hand to (1) ground his narration in real history (and thus, enhance its credibility factor), (2) collar the writing credits for himself, while, at the same time, (3) establishing plausible deniability and distancing himself from the substance of the tale: He truthfully admits to having been inspired by Courtilz de Sandras’s account to research the four characters who first met in M. de Tréville’s (Troisville’s) antechamber, but then invents a further manuscript — by one Comte de Fère, i.e. Athos –, for which he then claims to have requested and obtained permission to publish it under a different title (that of the novel) and with a level of editing that makes him “beg the reader to lay to our account, and not to that of the Comte de la Fère, the pleasure or the ennui he may experience.” In other words, Dumas suggests that there are historically provable facts at the core of the narration, but not only did he (Dumas) not witness them personally — as in, how could he possibly since they happened several centuries earlier? — but the original source text has also been edited; not with the intent of altering the facts but the style, so Dumas himself is, after all, the author of the version presented to the reader. (What Dumas doesn’t say, but what would have been obvious at least to anybody familiar either with the historical personalities or with Courtilz de Sandras’s account, is the not unsignificant fact that the real historical persons didn’t actually live during Louis XIII’s and Cardinal Richelieu’s time but during that of Louis XIV, the Roi Soleil (sun king) of glorious memory, and the time of Richelieu’s protégé and successor, Cardinal Mazarin.)
Why, though, did Dumas not make his protagonists the heroes he arguably could have made them, based on the biographies of the real persons on whom they are based? Well, consider the publication date, and consider the author’s own provenance: It’s 1844; we’re only little over half a century after the French Revolution (1789) and barely three decades after Napoleon was ousted once and for all (1815). We’re also a decade and a half into the so-called July Monarchy (1830-1848), the attempt to replace the main branch of the House of Bourbon, who had reascended the French throne after Napoleon’s downfall, by a Bourbon cadet branch (the House of Orléans). In other words, in the space of a mere half century, France has seen a whirlwind back-and-forth between the political opposite extremes of monarchy, republic, reign of terror, empire, and back to monarchy, infighting and all. And our author, Alexandre Dumas, is the son of a mixed-race hero of the Revolutionary Wars, called Thomas-Alexandre Dumas (and btw, if you have not yet read Tom Reiss’s biography of The Black Count, General Dumas, you may want to remedy that — soonish). General Dumas had fought tooth and nail for the Republic. He’d seen the inside of a foreign prison, and there is every reason to believe that Napoleon, to whom he was an unloved rival, had no particular interest in redeeming him post-haste. (It’s also obvious that General Dumas was the model for his son’s perhaps greatest hero, the Count of Monte Cristo.) Now, after all that France had gone through between 1789 and the 1840s, and what with the personal history and political stance of his own father as a fervent defender of the Republic, can you seriously imagine Dumas, as a writer, wanting to glorify the Ancien Régime? Of course not: his aim was to convince his fellow countrymen that letting the Bourbons reestablish their reign and permanently do away with the Republic (as had happened in England, not 200 years earlier) was the *last* thing that would be in their interest. But can you possibly reach that aim if you create a glorious, romantic tale of swashbuckling derring-do set during the Ancien Régime, full of noble sentiments and with plenty of character development? Again, of course not. So what do you do instead? You write a burlesque focusing on a bunch of cartoon characters, with a scheming, manipulative representative of the erstwhile First Estate (the clergy, which had lost much of its former standing as a result of the Republican separation of church and state) pulling the strings in the background, stage-managing even the actions and decisions of his own king, and employing a female arch-villain as his chief agent.
So that’s how we got to the novel that Dumas actually wrote … and for all that Hollywood turned his intentions on their head (and yes, of course I love those movies, too, particularly the two directed by Richard Lester), at least in one respect they played into his hands after all — well, other than lifting the fame of his tale and of his characters on an entirely new level, that is — by staying entirely true to his portrayal: Because, hand on heart, who do you think of if you hear the name Cardinal Richelieu: The historical person or the character created by Dumas? Or are those two synonymous after all?
Harris wrote this book while still serving as a U.S. Senator; still, it also conveys quite a good picture of what kind of Vice President she will be — because it leaves little doubt about the kind of person that she is, and the things that motivate and drive her. The Truths We Hold: those are not merely the truths that she sees as core to the belief system underpinning the American society, but very much also her own personal creed.
There is a fair amount of emphasis on her initiatives in the context of issues such as the housing crisis and immigration law (detention centers, Dreamers, etc.), plus her various election campaigns for San Francisco and later California Attorney General, as well as U.S. Senator of course, and a bit (though not quite as much as I had expected) on her work as a sex crimes prosecutor, the gay marriage campaign, the Women’s Marches, gun safety, and the 2016 election interference investigation; as well as less generally known initiatives such as her (anti-)school truancy program and the prosecution of fraudulent private corporate universities. If all of this spells “fighter”, that is hardly a surprise; not only based on her public record and her cross examination of witnesses during public Senat hearings, but also in the daughter of a mother active in the medical battle against breast cancer, who moreover as a student had once been part of the Berkeley civil rights movement, who upon later moving to Montreal (in the middle of winter, at that) enrolled her California-born-and-bred daughters in a native French speakers’ school as the quickest way for them to learn the language (and, apparently as a matter of course, expected them to make their way just fine), and whose standard response to her daughters’ tales of injustice or wrongs observed, no matter where and how, was, “Well, what did you do?”
What impressed me considerably more here was the seemingly small stuff, such as the fact that Harris’s very first action as a summer intern in the Alameda County D.A.’s office was to make sure that an innocent bystander who had falsely gotten caught in a drug bust — a mother who might have lost her children if she’d had to stay in jail over the weekend — got her case taken care of and dismissed even though it was late on a Friday afternoon and the judge had already retired to his chambers, his regular court day done, and had to be asked to return to the bench. What also strongly resonated with me was Harris’s assertion that justice is necessarily a matter “for the people” (as expressed, in fact, in every American prosecutor’s introductory words at the beginning of a trial), as that is a notion that is front and center to my own belief system as well.
Among the images included in the book’s photography section is one of Harris being sworn in as a U.S. Senator by then-VP Joe Biden, as one of his last official acts before leaving that office. She is smiling, her eyes are beaming, and apparently they have established eye contact (it’s not clear because his back is to the photographer, but she is definitely looking in the direction of his face). I hope that photo is a foreshadowing of Harris’s and Biden’s working relationship in years to come. It is clear that they both passionately care about justice, equality, and the rights of the individual (especially the protection of and assistance for the weak and disadvantaged vis-à-vis bigger and more privileged players) — I didn’t have to read this book to know as much about Harris, but it was still inspiring to see just how passionately she feels about these issues. And I hope President Biden will extend to her the same privilege as that which he extracted from then-President-Elect Obama as his condition for agreeing to be his Vice President: to always be the last person remaining in the room and being listened to, no matter what topic is on the agenda and who else has been part of the discussion.
Oh, and incidentally, did I mention that I love that Harris’s first name means “lotus flower”?
Sandwiched between two personal accounts by modern-day black American leaders, as my January book for this year’s (Mostly) Dead Writers Society Literary Birthday challenge, I went back to a fictional account set in Jim Crow America: the story of Jeanie Crawford, who after three marriages finally comes home to herself (and to be herself), having made her way out from under her grandmother’s overprotective instincts, and through male domination and spousal abuse, belatedly fulfilled love, poverty, riches, adventure, and finally freedom; having thrown off, once and for all, the burden she’s been made to bear as a black woman and, hence, “the mule of the world”.
Women, Zora Neale Hurston writes in this book’s introductory paragraphs, only remember what they want to remember: “The dream is the truth. Then they act and do things accordingly.” Janie has to overcome enormous obstacles in order to make her dreams, first dreamed while lying under a pear tree in her grandmother’s garden, come true, but she perseveres; and along the way, Hurston gives her readers a close-up view of life in the black communities of Jim Crow America (even if her vision was initially rejected by the — largely male — representatives of the Harlem Renaissance, to the point that her writing vanished from the public eye for decades to come and it took the advocacy of contemporary black women authors such as Alice Walker and Edwidge Danticat to make her work known to a wider public).
I’m glad I picked this as the year’s first book in the Literary Birthday challenge (and, in addition to Harris’s and Obama’s books, also got to fill in a third square in my Diversity Bingo project at the same time). It would have been a shame if the men of the Harlem Renaissance had had their way and Zora Neale Hurston’s voice had been silenced forever.
Probably the most-anticipated publication of the final weeks of 2020, and for once I not only rushed to read it but am also inclined to agree with the hype (at least, for the most part). This is the voice of the President Obama that we’ve come to know while he was in office, perhaps tempered by four years’ worth of reflection (as well as the added worry and thought engendered by his successor’s erratic acts and decisions), but in essence the same strong, principled and visionary leader; more ambitious, deep down, than his often laid-back public appearance would let on (and certainly also more ambitious than his account of his own high school and student years would suggest), with a firm belief in the values of the American society (as well as the belief that, for all the things that profoundly separate Americans, these shared values still exude an even greater unifying force — may this belief of his be justified now more than ever, I’m bound to add), and with as great a passion for justice, equality, the rights of the individual, and the need to stand by the disadvantaged as Kamala Harris and Joe Biden.
Presidential memoirs (or biographies), especially those of a President who has served a full two terms, are hardly apt to be contained in a single book; it is thus hardly surprising that, even at a length of 700 pages, this first volume barely gets us past the half-term mark of his first term in office, ending with the secret mission to take out Osama bin Laden. But then, Obama certainly had a lot on his plate even during these first years, from the global financial crisis to the Affordable Care Act and beyond; in addition to which, his account is chronological and (even though comparatively briefly) touches on his Hawaiian upbringing and his Chicago years, at least to the extent that he considers them relevant to the formation of his lasting belief sets and character, or notable in terms of challenges to be overcome (not the least of which was — as becomes clear in his own account even more than in that of his wife, Becoming — the near-fatal strain that his political career put on his marriage).
For the longest time, this looked like a sure five-star read in my book, but two instances intervened; both of them having to do with his attitude towards certain aspects in which the global financial crisis touched on Germany and, more generally, Europe at large. The first of these instances was the plan to save General Motors, which he himself signed off on, and as a result of which — while GM itself survived and was shortly able to resume operations — thousands of employees of GM’s German subsidiary, Opel, lost their jobs (in addition to which, their union representatives were pitched into an incredibly nasty dog fight with their fellow unionists at GM’s British subsidiary, Vauxhall). Now, these job losses as such may or may not have been unavoidable, but I confess I was a bit put out that Obama (who, having personally signed off on the rescue plan, must have been aware that they were in the cards) celebrates the rescue of GM without sparing a single word for the toll that the plan placed on the lives of thousands of people outside of America.
Similarly, even though the EU eventually did come up with a rescue package for Greece roughly along the lines first suggested by Obama in 2009 or 2010, he would have been well advised to take Angela Merkel’s terse first response (“I don’t think that is going to work for us”) as a warning to be heeded: Anybody who has been able to watch Mrs. Merkel’s public appearance for even a fraction of the time we’ve been able to do so in Germany will tell you that that response, in her, is the politest code she can muster for “Shut up, you’re talking out of your hat.” And as subsequent developments would show, she had good reason for responding that way: The Greece rescue package not only almost broke apart the EU as an organization, it also (more or less directly) led to the formation of Germany’s most recent and by far most dangerous right-wing party, the AfD (“Alterinative für Deutschland”) — in addition to spurring on xenophobia and already-existing right wing movements in many other European countries, too — and it caused a huge constitutional crisis in Germany, as it was anything but certain (and was in fact doubted by some of the highest-regarded German constitutional law scholars) whether under the existing EU framework and the German constitution, the German government was permitted to grant the newly-created European institutions overseeing the rescue package as much power as they had been given in the relevant treaties. Eventually the German Constitutional Court signed off on the rescue package, and in the grand scheme of things there may have been few (if any) alternatives — and it also seems to have worked — but again, Obama does not waste a single word on these issues, of all of which he must have been aware. Rather, his attitude is that which has long been resented in Europe anyway; namely, Big Daddy America telling the unruly children in the Old World how to settle their problems. It was seriously disappointing to see Barack Obama, of all people, to display this sort of attitude.
So, two unexpected blotches which, albeit briefly, considerably interfered with my reading pleasure — but by and large, I’m still very glad we finally have Obama’s take on his years in office, and I am already looking forward to the next volume of his memoirs.
This play, even to longstanding fans of Agatha Christie, must necessarily come as at least as great a surprise as to writer and director Julius Green, who discovered it in 2018 (apparently, along with a number of other plays — though at least those listed HERE were in fact already known and available in print at the time) when researching Christie’s archives for his book, Curtain Up: Agatha Christie: A Life in the Theatre. Still in 2018, Green directed a first stage reading of the play, and he later adapted it into a broadcast script for the BBC (currently available on YouTube … long may it last).
The Lie is not a mystery but Christie’s first foray into what would later become “Mary Westmacott territory” (novels / dramas centering on the complications of love and marriage), and it is believed to date from the mid-1920s, possibly written around the time she discovered her then-husband Archie’s infidelity. As such, the play is believed to be at least partly autobiographical and, even if it is not, it’s still rather indicative of Christie’s own feelings about the topic at the time of its writing; strongly advocating, as it does, marital fidelity and balancing marriage against a woman’s desire (and right?) to seek her own path in life. It’s not without problems; not so much in the writing as such but, especially, in the ending, which will hardly resonate with today’s listeners (at least not their female contingent), but Christie’s hand at creating distinct characters and complex problems is on fine display, and it certainly allows fascinating glimpses into her thoughts and attitude at the time of its creation.
As a detective protagonist, like Agatha Christie herself, I prefer Miss Marple to Hercule Poirot, and among all of the Miss Marple books, this is one of my all-time favorites. Needless to say, this was a (well, actually my umpteenth) repeat visit, courtesy (also on repeat) of Richard E. Grant’s narration as part of the trio of Miss Marple books recently recorded with him (the others being The Murder at the Vicarage and The Moving Finger).
This is classic Christie territory: a country house — euphemistically denominated as a “Lodge”, much to the disgust of the investigating inspector, who actually has been brought up in a lodge and knows what it’s supposed to look like –, complete with shallow trophy wife, a family whom the live-in housekeeper has no qualms describing, all and sundry, as “very unpleasant people”, shady financial manipulations, African gold mines (sans gold), an unlucky heiress, a madwoman (almost) off stage, a tennis pro gigolo and, of course, a fiendish murderer, who mocks the (not-so) grieving family and the police alike by using the nursery rhyme Sing a Song of Sixpence as the theme song for his series of murders. (Or does he? Miss Marple to the inspector’s rescue …) Oh, yes, and of course, there’s also a maid named Gladys — what would an Agatha Christie mystery possibly be without them?
The January “side read” — topic: Murder by Transport — for the Appointment with Agatha / Agatha Christie Centenary Celebration group read (blog master post, again, HERE; Goodreads group HERE): For me, another reread after first having read this collection only last year, but decidedly one of my favorites among the British Library Classic Crime short story anthologies edited by Martin Edwards. Like its sister anthologies, the book features a number of short mysteries by Golden — and Silver — Age writers, tied together topically (in this instance, as the title indicates, the overarching topic is “railroads”) and ordered roughly by publication date. In all, there are 15 stories in this volume:
- Arthur Conan Doyle: The Man with the Watches
- L.T. Meade and Robert Eustace: The Mystery of Felwyn Tunnel
- Matthias McDonnell Bodkin: How He Cut His Stick
- Emmuska Orczy: The Mysterious Death on the Underground Railway
- Victor L. Whitechurch: The Affair of the Corridor Express
- R. Austin Freeman: The Case of Oscar Brodski
- Roy Vickers: The Eighth Lamp
- Ernest Bramah: The Knight’s Cross Signal Problem
- Dorothy L. Sayers: The Unsolved Puzzle of the Man with No Face
- F. Tennyson Jesse: The Railway Carriage
- Sapper: Mystery of the Slipcoach
- Freeman Wills Crofts: The Level Crossing
- Ronald Knox: The Adventure of the First-Class Carriage
- Michael Innes: Murder on the 7.16
- Michael Gilbert: The Coulman Handicap
Having previously read something else by most of these authors in my personal exploration of the world of Golden Age mysteries, I can say that in most cases these stories give a fairly good impression of the respective writers’ style (at least at the time of these writings); this is particularly true for the stories by Orczy, Whitechurch, Freeman, Bramah, and Sayers (whose style, in turn, probably evolved most later on) — so they are very apt to serve as an introduction to these writers for anybody thinking about exploring their work at greater length.
That said, although I am a great fan of Arthur Conan Doyle’s, the story included here, The Man with the Watches (which is taken from a collection named Round the Fire Stories) is decidedly not one of my favorites, but it is also the only story for which this is the case, and it is more than made up for by the Ronald Knox entry, The Adventure of the First-Class Carriage. Knox was a considerable authority on Conan Doyle and Sherlock Holmes, and his story featured here is not concerned with his own series hero, an insurance detective named Miles Bredon, but rather, with Sherlock Holmes himself (complete with Dr. Watson and Inspector Slack in tow). And as Holmes pastiches go, it’s an admirable effort — except for the fact that anybody familiar with the Holmes canon will be able to spot the who, how and why a mile away, and the story’s ending is (though ostensibly still paying hommage to Conan Doyle) perhaps a bit more Knox than ACD after all.
Overall, my favorite stories in this collection are R. Austin Freeman’s much-anthologized Case of Oscar Brodski (one of the early short stories in which Freeman developed his unique structural narrative approach — another famous and equally frequently-anthologized one being The Singing Bone),** Dorothy L. Sayers’s Unsolved Puzzle of the Man with No Face (a fine example of an early Wimsey mystery), Michael Gilbert’s The Coulman Handicap (featuring a cleverly-designed cat and mouse game all across London between the police and a gang of thieves), and Freeman Wills Crofts’s The Level Crossing. The latter for once also has the virtue of not being typical Crofts fare at all: As mentioned above in connection with J.J. Connington’s Mystery at Lynden Sands, in most of his writing Crofts is a representative of the “plodding / humdrum detective” tradition; i.e., of mysteries which, in their desire to play fair with the reader and to place him / her on exactly the same footing as the fictional detective by laying out the path to each and every clue precisely as it is travelled by the detective, more than just occasionally sacrifice suspense for detail. Not so here, however: The Level Crossing is, like R. Austin Freeman’s story, styled as an inverted mystery, i.e. one where you see the crime being committed from the first (for a classic screen version using this format, think of the Columbo series), and which nevertheless manages to offer up more than just one surprise twist before the end.
Spider’s Web is a screwball drawing room murder mystery comedy mashup with bits of Christie’s own Bundle Brent books (The Secret of Chimneys and The Seven Dials Mystery), as well as bits of the Hitchcock comedy The Trouble with Harry thrown in for good measure. The result is an evening’s entertainment of pure hilarity — next to nothing intricate or refined (and Christie fans will be able to separate out real clues and red herrings easily enough), but definitely worth checking out. As long, that is, as you stick with Christie’s original text and don’t go for the novelization by Charles Osborne, which (like those of two of Christie’s other plays, Black Coffee and The Unexpected Guest) manages to suck the marrow out of Christie’s work and leave behind a spineless corpse that is a mere shadow of the original, however much of the dialogue may be left behind.
I do recommend the 1960 movie adaptation, however, which currently — like the BBC audio of The Lie — is available on YouTube: The screenwriter added a few explanatory / “setting the scene” curlicues at the beginning and the end (and Osborne’s novel promptly replaces Christie’s original ending by that of the movie), but both the plot and the dialogue are almost 100% those of the play, and so are the characters; only the inspector is decidedly more menacing in Christie’s play (but then, you just can’t expect Peter Butterworth to play a character like that as a straight-up sinister figure). — The play’s main character is another one of Christie’s spunky young women, Clarissa Hailsham-Brown, the quirky young wife of a diplomat, who is chiefly known for her high flights of fancy, which reputation proves decidedly unhandy when trying to convince others that the highly unlikely sequence of events she is narrating to them is actually the literal truth. In the movie, Clarissa is played by Glynis Johns.
* For the non-Christie readers: This is a Poirot-ism, coined by way of a near-literal translation of his native “revenons à nous moutons”, which means “let’s get back to the key matter at hand”.
** In Freeman’s own words, from the introduction to the five-story collection The Adventures of Dr. Thorndyke:
“Some years ago I devised, as an experiment, an inverted detective story in two parts. The first part was a minute and detailed description of a crime, setting forth the antecedents, motives, and all attendant circumstances. The reader had seen the crime committed, knew all about the criminal, and was in possession of all the facts. It would have seemed that there was nothing left to tell. But … the reader would be so occupied with the crime that he would overlook the evidence.“”
(And it would then, of course, be for Dr. Thorndyke to unravel the evidence and solve the case.)