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I always come back to Agatha Christie – it’s a world I understand, everything makes sense because it all gets tidied up so neatly. I saw this novel mentioned somewhere else recently, and I realised I couldn’t remember if I had ever read it. I own a nice first edition, with tatty dustjacket but once the fragile wrapper had been removed I was happy to read it carefully.

First published in 1963, it does feature an ageing Poirot, although he rightly gets to do the best bit (the reveal) – Poirot features much less than in earlier mysteries. Although to be fair – he is getting on a bit by 1963 – so that seems fair enough.

“To every problem, there is a most simple solution.”

It seems like a perfectly ordinary day at The Cavendish secretarial and Typewriting Bureau in Crowdean; Edna has broken the heel off her shoe, and Sheila Webb is a little late back from lunch. Upon her return Sheila is called into Miss Martindale’s office – a request has been telephoned in, for Sheila to go to Wilbraham Crescent, number 19 and if there is no one in to let herself in and wait. Slightly puzzled at the request – for she can’t remember having worked for this client before – Sheila follows the instructions exactly. Sheila finds herself in the sitting room of number 19 Wilbraham Crescent, she is not alone, behind the sofa is the body of a man. Moments later, Miss Pebmarsh arrives home, a blind, braille teacher – who later claims to have never called The Cavendish Secretarial and Typewriting Bureau. Aside from the presence of a dead body, the other notable addition to the room are four clocks – set to thirteen minutes past four.

As any self-respecting secretary would, Sheila rushes screaming from the house – straight into the arms of one Colin Lamb, a marine biologist come intelligence officer. We later learn that Colin is an old friend of Poirot’s (there is a suggestion that his father was one of the police Inspectors to benefit from the Belgian’s brilliance.) Colin was following a lead in one of his own cases, looking for a spy in hiding – when he happens upon an altogether different puzzle.

The police are soon on the scene, Detective Inspector Hardcastle in charge of what looks like a fiendishly difficult case. Hardcastle is a friend of Colin’s too – and quite happy to have him tag along as he interviews the neighbours – and attempts to identify the dead man. There are naturally, many questions. Did anyone see or hear anything? How did the body get into the house? What do the clocks mean? Why was Sheila asked for by name?

Colin quickly starts to feel very protective towards Sheila – who he feels Hardcastle is looking at suspiciously. The two are drawn to one another – and Hardcastle isn’t sure that he approves.

“I looked at her. Sheila was my girl–the girl I wanted–and wanted for keeps. But it wasn’t any use having illusions about her. Sheila was a liar and probably always would be a liar. It was her way of fighting for survival–the quick easy glib denial. It was a child’s weapon–and she’d probably never got out of using it. If I wanted Sheila, I must accept her as she was–be at hand to prop up the weak places. We’ve all got our weak places. Mine were different from Sheila’s, but they were there.”

Colin decides to pay a visit to his old friend Hercule Poirot. He remembers how Poirot once claimed that he could solve a crime, merely by sitting in his chair and giving the matter serious thought. Colin gives the details of the case to the old detective, hoping at the very least to relieve some of boredom he knows Poirot often feels. Poirot is happy to give the case his consideration, although he hasn’t been entirely idle – he has been making a detailed study of famous works of crime fiction. Having Poirot’s take on The Levenworth Case, The Mystery of the Yellow Room and Sherlock Holmes is great fun for those who like their vintage crime.

Another bookish joy I wanted to share with you is this description of a tiny cluttered bookshop.

“Inside, it was clear that the books owned the shop rather than the other way about. Everywhere they had run wild and taken possession of their habitat, breeding and multiplying and clearly lacking any strong hand to keep them down. The distance between bookshelves was so narrow that you could only get along with great difficulty. There were piles of books perched on every shelf or table. On a stool in a corner, hemmed in by books, was an old man in a pork pie hat with a large flat face like a stuffed fish. He had the air of one who has given up an unequal struggle.”

Back in Crowdean and the inquest of the dead man is opened and adjourned, within hours of the inquest however, there is another violent death – leading to more questions. Inevitably, Hardcastle’s case and Colin’s hunt for a spy look like they may be connected, and eventually someone comes forward to identify the dead man.

I really don’t want to say any more about this story – which I think is really well plotted mystery, firmly rooted in the 1960s. The solution is clever, and one can sense Poirot’s old eyes twinkling as he reveals all – a minor point: the ending is perhaps a tiny bit rushed – overall though, of course I thoroughly enjoyed it.

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murder-at-the-vicarage

“There is no detective in England equal to a spinster lady of uncertain age with plenty of time on her hands.”

I think it must be something like thirty years since I read The Murder at the Vicarage, (I was very young) though I had forgotten almost all the details, I do remember how enthralled I was back then. It was the first time I think I had encountered anyone called Lettice in fiction, and the one part of the story I had remembered involves Lettice – she must have created quite an impression. The other thing I had forgotten was that Murder at the Vicarage, is the first Miss Marple story – set of course in her village of St. Mary Mead.

“The young people think the old people are fools — but the old people know the young people are fools.”

While I was reading – I distinctly heard the voice of the wonderful Joan Hickson, whenever Miss Marple spoke. It occurred to me, that Joan Hickson must have studied the character in the novels, and which better one to start with than The Murder at the Vicarage. It has all the ingredients of a classic mystery, gossip, peculiar telephone calls, anonymous letters, an affair, a mysterious woman, missing church funds and the death of a thoroughly unpleasant man. There are, plenty of suspects residing in St. Mary Mead, and no one is very sorry that Colonel Protheroe has been killed.

The story is narrated by Mr Clements; the middle-aged vicar, not long married to Griselda, a much younger woman. Pretty, kind hearted, she has a cheerfully slap-dash attitude to domestic matters, desperate to keep hold of their dreadful maid Mary.

“Some oysters which Griselda had ordered, and which would seem to be beyond the reach of incompetence, we were, unfortunately, not able to sample as we had nothing in the house to open them with—an omission which was discovered only when the moment for eating them arrived.”

Staying with the vicar and his wife is Dennis, the vicar’s sixteen-year-old nephew, who is dreadfully excited when he finds himself in the middle of a real mystery. Worried by Hawes; his new curate – who is rather too high church – Mr Clement’s is more frequently harried by Colonel Protheroe. Money has gone missing from church funds, and in his capacity as church warden, magistrate Protheroe is determined to get to the bottom of it. Mr Clements has a meeting with Protheroe scheduled, to examine the accounts.

Colonel Protheroe lives at Old Hall, with his second wife Anne and his daughter Lettice from his first marriage. Lettice seems to have affected an attitude of dizzy vagueness, which Mr Clements for one does not entirely believe. An unknown woman has come to live in the village recently, and all the old biddies who love to gossip, are desperate to know more about her. Meanwhile, artist Lawrence Redding has been linked to Lettice, and gossip has it that Protheroe did not approve. There’s also a good bit of gossip about Gladys Cram, assistant to Dr Stone, in the process of excavating a site in the grounds of Old Hall. Miss Marple sees it all, she is a fine examiner of human nature.

“Intuition is like reading a word without having to spell it out. A child can’t do that because it has had so little experience. A grown-up person knows the word because they’ve seen it often before.”

The day of Protheroe’s death, is the one on which the Vicar was due to meet his church warden, when a telephone call to the vicarage obliges Mr Clement to rush off to visit a parishioner, leaving a message for the colonel who will be waiting for him in his study. By the time the vicar returns, Colonel Protheroe is dead, shot while apparently writing a note at the vicar’s writing desk in the vicar’s own study.

The police are called, and we are introduced to Inspector Slack, who is keen to clear matters up quickly – and is too full of his own importance to listen to the vicar’s statement about the clock in his study. Miss Marple is quickly in the thick of it – demonstrating as only she can, what an acute observer of life she is. Miss Marple’s cottage is next door to the vicarage – and she had a perfect view of all the comings and goings on the fateful day.

The Murder at the Vicarage is great comfort reading, though I really don’t think it is one of Agatha Christie’s best, in fact if I am honest, I prefer the Poirot novels. However, I loved getting to grips with this one again – prompted by a read-a-long on a Miss Marple Facebook group.

Agathachristie3

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appointmentwithdeath

I think I am sometimes in danger of forgetting how much I love Agatha Christie. The 1938 club provided me with the perfect excuse to pick one up – one I have certainly read before, long enough ago to have forgotten the crucial details. I love the familiarity of Agatha Christie’s world – old fashioned and a little class conscious it might be – there is nevertheless a wonderfully polite kind of justice within the pages of an Agatha Christie mystery which is oddly comforting. Appointment with Death is a Poirot mystery – and he was always my favourite.1938club

On his first night in Jerusalem Hercule Poirot over-hears part of a rather odd conversation while fiddling with his window at the Solomon Hotel.

“You see, don’t you that she’s got to be killed?”

Poirot doesn’t attach too much importance to the words at first – realising he has heard only a snippet of a conversation – totally out of context. Poirot remembers the words of course, and knows that he will recognise the voice again should he hear it.

Staying in the same hotel is the Boynton family from America. The Boyntons stand out rather – as they make a point of keeping themselves to themselves. Already they have come to the attention of Sarah King a young woman from England who has just completed her medical degree, and a Frenchman; Dr Gerrard a renowned psychologist/psychiatrist – not sure which. The two doctors put their heads together and discuss the peculiar family – Sarah has her romantic eye on one of the sons – despite having only spoken to him once in the corridor of a train.

Mrs Boynton is a truly horrible creation – with obvious malice, she keeps her family in thrall to her peculiarly cruel whims. Almost an invalid – Mrs Boynton’s family run around her, ensuring she has what she needs. Terrified of upsetting her, they won’t allow themselves to get drawn into interacting with fellow travellers. Mrs Boynton is the step-mother to Lennox, Raymond and Carol, Lennox’s wife Nadine probably the least damaged of the group, while Mrs Boynton’s own daughter Ginevra – the youngest appears to be the most nervously affected.

“And then, suddenly, the old woman’s eyes were full on him, and he drew in his breath sharply. Small black smouldering eyes that were, but something came from them, a power, a definite force, a wave of evil malignancy. Dr Gerrard knew something about the power of personality. He realised that this was no spoilt tyrannical invalid indulging petty whims. This old woman was a definite force. In the malignancy of her glare he felt a resemblance to the effect produced by a cobra.”

Sarah tries to engage Raymond in conversation, while Mrs Boynton watches with grim disapproval from nearby. The conversation is not repeated. Later Sarah manages to snatch a late night conversation with his sister Carol – but Mrs Boynton discovers Carol returning to her room, and any future meetings are stopped before they can be arranged. Frustrated Sarah allows her dislike of Mrs Boynton to show, causing a little scene on the steps of the hotel on the day she and Dr Gerrard and two other western tourists leave Jerusalem for a tour of Petra. Lady Westholme and Miss Pierce are Sarah and Gr Gerrard’s companions in the car driven by a local guide.
In Petra there is a camp set up for the tourists, some people staying under canvas some in caves. Already settled into the camp at Petra when Sarah King and her party arrive, are the Boynton family with Jefferson Cope; an old friend of Nadine Boynton’s from before her marriage.

As you might expect, it isn’t long before Mrs Boynton is found dead in her chair in front of her cave. Evidence of a needle prick in her arm, and certain items having gone missing from Dr Gerrard’s tent, point to a suspicious death.
Hercule Poirot is staying in Amman with a letter of introduction to Colonel Carbury, Carbury has already been informed of Mrs Boynton’s death, a death he really isn’t happy about. He consults Poirot and Poirot promises to have the matter satisfactorily explained in twenty-four hours.

“We will make them tell us what it is,” said Poirot.
“Third degree?” said Colonel Carbury.
“No.” Poirot shook his head. “Just ordinary conversation. On the whole, you know, people tell you the truth. Because it is easier! Because it is less strain on the inventive faculties! You can tell one lie – or two lies – or three lies or even four lies – but you cannot lie all the time. And so – the truth becomes plain.”

The comings and goings of everyone in the camp are gone over in minute detail – but I had already more or less worked out who did what and why – though not quite the how. There are various rules to an Agatha Christie mystery which I suppose are well known. Hercule Poirot spends something like fifty pages setting out various theories attached to each person in the camp at the time of the murder, dismissing them one by one until the culprit is revealed.

This is not the best Agatha Christie novel, it’s not quite clever enough for that – but I do think it’s a very enjoyable one, hugely readable and for me comfortingly familiar.

Agathachristie3

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ordeal by innocence

“it’s not the guilty who matter. It’s the innocent… It’s we who matter. Don’t you see what you’ve done to us all?”

As much as I love Hercule Poirot and dear old Miss Marple, I rather enjoyed the absence of them in this novel. Ordeal by Innocence is a little more psychological than many Poirot/Marple stories – although there is a murder in the past, and another toward the end of the novel to remind us that we’re in familiar Christie territory. There is a small amount of typical 1950’s xenophobic posturing against foreigners, while Christie considers the whole nature vs nurture debate in the stories of five very different siblings. It is perhaps this element of the narrative that really dates the novel.

The opening is brilliantly atmospheric; a stranger climbs the hill up from the Ferry at dusk one cold evening, asking for directions to Sunny Point, a house still called Viper’s Point by the locals. The stranger is Arthur Calgary, a scientist recently returned from an Arctic expedition; he has important information for the family at Sunny Point. News, which when delivered will change everything for the shocked members of the Argyle family.

“He was conscious, or thought he was conscious, of a veiled curiosity in the ferryman’s eyes. Here was a stranger. And a stranger after the close of the tourist season proper. Moreover, the stranger was crossing at an unusual hour – too late for tea at the café by the pier. He had no luggage so he could not be coming to stay.”

Jacko Argyle had died in prison just a few months into a life sentence for the murder of his mother. There had been little doubt in his guilt, the police case hardly tested at all, despite the defendant’s insistence that he had an alibi. Jacko was always a delinquent, a difficult boy he grew into a difficult young man, he stole, he lied, he conned money out of lonely, vulnerable women, and none of his family really mourn his loss. Now, Calgary will shatter the peace of this odd little family by showing that Jacko’s alibi can be proved after all. For Leo Argyle and his family, the news can hardly be less welcome, for if Jacko didn’t kill his mother, it stands to reason that one or other member of the family most probably did.

Jacko was one of five adopted children of Mrs Rachel Argyle, a woman who having discovered she was unable to have her own children went around collecting waifs from disadvantaged backgrounds in a series of unofficial adoptions during the war. Now these adult unrelated siblings continue to be affected by the woman who had controlled their lives. Jacko, given to sudden bursts of temper had always been after money, and had argued with his mother on the day of her death. Mary Durrant, married to Philip a polio sufferer was the first of Rachel Argyle’s adoptions in New York City. Michael had always resented Rachel and her lovely home and the life she gave him, remembering, with rose tinted spectacles the colourful life he had had with his natural mother, late night fish and chips and a series of ‘uncles. ’ Tina, a quiet little librarian, the child of a prostitute, and Hester, the youngest of the Argyle children, were all spoiled and indulged, given the best, wrapped in cotton wool. Rachel Argyle’s husband Leo is about to marry his secretary Gwenda Vaughan, while Miss Lindstrom, the woman who had helped Rachel Argyle with her war time nursery and stayed, is openly suspicious of Calgary and his story.

With Jacko now officially cleared and given a posthumous pardon, there is danger for the remaining members of the Argyle family. Someone is hiding something and Calgary hangs around at a local hotel to see the thing through and do a bit of his own investigating. While Calgary speaks to members of the Argyle family, the doctor, and the family lawyer, Superintendent Huish finds himself having to look again at a case he thought had been solved. It would seem that almost everyone connected to Sunny Point had reason to kill the wealthy matriarch, however with no evidence at all, and the distance of two years, Huish is unsure the truth can ever be known.

The truth (for naturally we get to truth after all) – is delivered in a Poirot style revelation by Calgary – following a dramatic series of events which brings everything to a head. The solution is clever, ends tied up nicely, and quite satisfactorily, which even allow for the suggestion of a little romance. Ordeal by Innocence is by no means the best Christie novel I don’t think, but still it is very enjoyable, with some good twists.

Agathachristie3

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herculepoirotschristmas
This is surely just the perfect kind of book to curl up with on Christmas Eve and Christmas morning. I last read this about five years ago – and I am pretty sure I had read it before then. However I soon found that I had remembered virtually nothing about it.

In this novel old Poirot takes a bit of a back seat – the other characters featuring much more prominently, in fact he doesn’t even appear until page 73 but of course Poirot does have the most important bit at the end – the bit I always love – whether I have worked out whodunit or not. In this one the family of old Simeon Lee gather for Christmas at the family mansion. These include the son and daughter in law who live with old man, rather slavishly and dutifully, two more sons who have been invited, another daughter in law, one of the sons Harry is something of a returning prodigal. Also staying for the season are Simeon Lee’s granddaughter; Pilar and the son of Simeon Lee’s former South African business partner who turns up unexpectedly. Agatha Christie is particularly good at portraying the strains and petty jealousies of a dysfunctional family Christmas. Simeon Lee – is of a course a tyrant, so many Christie victims seem almost deserving of their grizzly fate – and Simeon Lee is wonderfully awful. Typically there is of course an elderly butler and a slightly sinister valet who slides in and out of rooms with the stealth of a cat.

“It is the quietest and meekest people who are often capable of the most sudden and unexpected violences for the reason that when their control does snap, it goes entirely”

Meanwhile Poirot has come to stay nearby with his friend the chief constable, and so is therefore on hand when a couple of days before Christmas Simeon Lee is found behind a locked door with his throat cut. Of course several people have a motive, and more than one person is harbouring a secret. All good Christie stuff, locked rooms, piercing screams, missing uncut diamonds as well as a body, and yes Christie does cheat a bit (this is what people often accuse her of), sometimes, things and people turn out to be not as you thought them, and so the reader never has all the facts – but so what – they still make for a good old read.

Agathachristie3

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thesecretadversary

The Secret Adversary was Agatha Christie’s second novel, first published in 1922. It is also the first novel to feature the duo Tommy and Tuppence. Tommy and Tuppence are no doubt the least successful of Agatha Christie’s fictional sleuths –as they feature in only four novels and a collection of short stories. The secret Adversary is an engaging little story – full of 1920’s silliness it I suppose of its time and it is an early Christie novel, written long before those novels which really made her name. I read this while away on holiday in Devon, and it was when I was about halfway through the book that I paid a visit to Greenway – the beautiful riverside holiday home of Agatha Christie which is now managed by the National Trust. Greenway of course was bought by Agatha Christie many years after she had written The Secret Adversary – but it seemed appropriate to be reading her when I was paying a visit there.

“Money, money, money! I think about money morning, noon and night! I dare say it’s mercenary of me, but there it is”

In 1919 Tommy and Tuppence are reunited after the end of the war, old friends Tommy is a demobilised soldier, Tuppence a former VAD nurse. They are both out of money and decide to fall back on to their friendship and Tuppence’s brains by becoming private enquiry agents. They are immediately (and somewhat unbelievably) drawn into a mystery involving a missing girl Jane Finn who was a survivor of the Lusitania in 1915. Jane Finn, a young American, was handed a packet of secret documents just moments before she boarded a life boat – by a man who feared he wouldn’t make it off the ship – but was relying on the tradition of “women and children first” to save the girl and with her the documents he so desperately wanted to get out. However Jane Finn then disappeared, her name on the list of survivors the only proof of that she made it off the stricken vessel. In 1919 in London Tommy and Tuppence are soon surrounded by people who are also on the trail of Jane Finn and the missing documents that have the potential to bring down the government. A cold ageing beauty in whose home Tuppence manages to wangle herself a job as a maid – a sinister Russian, an American millionaire and an intelligence officer among others. Both Tommy and Tuppence face dangers as they delve further into the mystery of Jane Finn.
The mystery is really rather improbable – but although a little silly it is readable and Tommy and Tuppence are really rather delightful in their silly old way. By the time the mystery is settled (and I was pleased that I guessed who “the secret adversary” was) Tommy and Tuppence have woken up to their feeling for one another and their partnership is sealed.

“Marriage is called all sorts of things, a haven, and a refuge, and a crowning glory, and a state of bondage, and lots more. But do you know what I think it is?’

‘What?’

‘A sport!’

‘And a damned good sport too,’ said Tommy.”

2013-08-13 13.40.19A quick word about Greenway – it was probably the nicest day of my week in Devon. Agatha Christie apparently called it “the loveliest place in the world” and I can see why. Only taken over by The National Trust a few years ago – it still has the feel of a family home. There are bookcases filled with Agatha’s books – Ngaio Marsh, Dorothy Sayers, Ellory Queen, Conon Doyle, PG Wodehouse among others, photo frames filled with family pictures, and cases and cases of the china and other things that she and her husband Max Mallowan collected in the years they had together including some of their archaeological finds. There are even a few examples of Agatha’s clothing hanging in an upstairs cupboard. I was reminded strongly of the setting for Dead Man’s Folly while I was there – and following a conversation on Facebook later I discovered that Greenway was indeed the inspiration for the house in that book. If you love Agatha Christie and you haven’t been to Greenway – then if you find yourself in the area make sure you take time out of your day to visit, the grounds alone with views over the river are worth it.

Agathachristie2

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mousetrap-60

I have been an Agatha Christie fan ever since I first picked up one of her novels when I was 11. Since then I cannot remember a time when I have not been aware of the play The Mousetrap, which has been playing to packed houses in London’s West End since 25th November 1952. That is quite a record. I have always wanted to see it – yet somehow, ridiculously never getting around to it. Agathachristie

However the Mousetrap is on tour for its 60th anniversary. I hadn’t actually heard about the tour, recently I saw a poster advertising the week long staging in my home city, I was beyond excited. Originally, I had wanted to go with two friends (impossible all tickets for seats together had gone). I managed to secure a single seat. I find that it is often possible to get concert and theatre tickets when the show is all but sold out that way – there is usually one or two odd seats dotted about. In the end I had a very good seat – the seventh row of the stalls – a marvellously clear view of the stage and the actors.
I’m not going to say too much about the story of the play – it is of course traditional to keep “whodunit” a secret – and I’ll certainly be doing that. As a period piece The Mousetrap is wonderfully atmospheric. There are jokes about rationing and references that would have been very much of the time, raising a big laugh. The Mousetrap is in parts, very funny. It is also brilliantly clever – and so entertaining, I just loved it. Did I guess? Yes I did – I was rather surprised at myself, I don’t often manage to do that. IMAG0161
grahamseedIn the run up to my exciting night out I hadn’t really thought much about who might be in it. It was only on opening my programme that I saw that there were several recognisable actors from British tv among the cast. karl Howman

brunolangleyFans of Coronation Street may remember Bruno Langley who played Todd Grimshaw in the show for three years. There were also brilliant performances from Karl Howman, Clare Wilkie and Graham Seed who were all very recognisable to me, and I’m sure they will be to other people. clarewilkie

The entire cast though, were first class and made for a brilliant evening’s entertainment.

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