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Agatha Christie is always a safe bet for a quiet weekend, when already feeling over tired or unwell. I have had this book club edition of Destination Unknown among my Christie collection unread for years. I love the 50’s cover. Personally, I wouldn’t mind a cape just like that.

If you open up an Agatha Christie novel looking forward to a nicely arranged corpse in front of a roaring fire, and Hercule Poirot standing over them – then this one might disappoint – though it shouldn’t. There are no corpses – and no Poirot or Marple – not even a brace of Beresfords.

This is one of Christie’s thrillers – and it is excellent in a similar way to the They Came to Baghdad was. Like so many Christie’s novels set in the places she travelled to – there is a great sense of place, and she always portrays that peculiar species – the Brit abroad – so well too. In place of bodies, poison, blackmail and detectives, we have British Intelligence, disappearing scientists, a shadowy organisation proposing a new world order, and a wonderfully plucky woman.

“Why do you decry the world we live in? There are good people in it. Isn’t muddle a better breeding ground for kindliness and individuality than a world order that’s imposed, a world order that may be right today and wrong tomorrow? I would rather have a world of kindly, faulty, human beings, than a world of superior robots who’ve said goodbye to pity and understanding and sympathy.”

A famous British scientist Thomas Betterton has gone missing – and with conflicting reports of sightings, British intelligence are getting twitchy. For Betterton is the inventor of ZE Fusion, and it is well known that there are those who would like to get their hands on it. Other scientists have also disappeared. A man called Jessop invites Betterton’s wife in for a little chat – no one is quite sure if she knows where her husband of six months has gone or not. Olive Betterton is exhausted from the press speculation and worry – and asks permission to go abroad to get away from it all – she was thinking about Morocco.

Permission granted Olive Betterton sets off, a carefully orchestrated tail in close pursuit. However, Olive’s plane to Casablanca crashes, and Olive lies insensible in hospital, one of just a few survivors, the doctors predict she won’t live long.

Meanwhile Hilary Craven has also arrived in Casablanca from England – though luckily for her on the next plane, she was originally booked on the same plane as Mrs Betterton. Hilary is a broken woman, realising her escape from England has really changed nothing, she has decided to end it all in her hotel room. Hilary’s child has died – her husband left her and has married again, what does she have to live for? All Hilary wants is for the misery to end. However, someone has noticed her, noticed how her age, height, red hair makes her vaguely similar in appearance to Olive Betterton. Those vague descriptions once shown inside a passport would be the same for both women. As Hilary sits on her hotel bed with a glass of water and a handful of pills, the locked door opens, and in walks a man she’s never met before – but Olive Betterton would know as Jessop.
Hilary is persuaded to undertake a very dangerous mission – after all if she is so keen on death – there might as well be a purpose to it, and Jessop thinks there is a high chance of death.

“‘Within a day or two Mrs Craven will die in hospital, and Mrs Betterton will be discharged, suffering slightly from concussion, but able to proceed on her tour. The crash was genuine, the concussion is genuine, and concussion makes a very good cover for you. It excuses a lot of things like lapses of memory, and various unpredictable behaviour.’
Hilary said: ‘It would be madness!’
‘Oh, yes,’ said Jessop, ‘it’s madness, all right. It’s a very tough assignment and if our suspicions are realised, you’ll probably cop it. You see, I’m being quite frank, but according to you, you’re prepared and anxious to cop it. As alternative to throwing yourself in front of a train or something like that, I should think you’d find it far more amusing.’
Suddenly and unexpectedly Hilary laughed.
‘I do believe,’ she said, ‘that you’re quite right.’”

We follow Hilary as taking up the challenge issued by Jessop, she travels through Morocco – meeting up with various characters, not all of whom she can be sure are who they say they are. Hilary is bright, unafraid and desperate for something to distract her mind from her hopeless misery. As she journeys toward her unknown destination in the guise of a dead woman, Hilary begins to want to live.

I won’t say too much more about the plot – as it would be too spoilery. The plot is fairly improbable to say the least. But if you are huddled under a blanket on a wet Saturday afternoon – do really care if it is improbable? Christie’s storytelling is great, and Destination Unknown is a real page turner. Naturally there is a lovely little twist at the end – and a fairly satisfying ending – the reader needs to suspend disbelieve – but overall this is a great bit of cold war escapism.

 

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I’ve read Agatha Christie on and off since I was about eleven – but it was more recently that I discovered a particular fondness for Tommy and Tuppence Beresford. Agatha Christie unfortunately only wrote four full length novels and a collection of short stories about Tommy and Tuppence – which is a crying shame. With Poirot’s ridiculous fastidiousness, ‘little grey cells’ boastful confidence, and Miss Marple’s old lady nosiness (all of which I still love) there is something about Tommy and Tuppence that is a breath of fresh air.

It appears I have read the Tommy and Tuppence novels in completely the wrong order – but I don’t suppose that matters. A few months ago, I read By the Pricking of My Thumbs which takes place a few years after this one, an excellent mystery – and I have had the final novel Postern of Fate for years but have never read it. Admittedly I have seen some poor reviews of that last novel – so perhaps I shouldn’t be in too much of a hurry to read it.

N or M? takes place in the spring of 1940, Tommy and Tuppence who original readers first encountered as bright young things, trying to shake off the horrors of the First World War, are now middle aged in the early months of another war. They have been married for a long time, have two grown up children, and have, in the past undertaken work of a secretive nature for ‘Mr Carter’ the former chief of Intelligence. The pair have been feeling very much out of things for a while, yet know they still have a lot to offer, are desperate to do something to help the war effort.

So, when a Mr Grant ‘a friend’ of Lord Easthampton (the real name of Mr Carter) Tommy and Tuppence know immediately that it is no social call. Sensing that their visitor would rather speak to Tommy alone, Tuppence makes her excuses.

“ ‘…All we know about them is that these two are Hitler’s most highly trusted agents and that in a code message we managed to decipher towards the beginning of the war there occurred this phrase – suggest N or M for England. Full powers –’ ”

Mr Grant wastes no time in taking Tommy into his confidence, a conspiracy of fifth columnists, activities which threaten Britain’s European campaign. Grant asks Tommy to undertake a secret, covert operation, he needs someone whose face is unknown. The only thing the intelligence service know are the code names N and M; the final words of a murdered man and the name of a boarding house on the south coast. Grant asks Tommy to keep his mission a secret even from Tuppence and invents a dull desk job for him in Scotland to explain away his absence. Tommy bids a fond farewell to his understanding wife, and to add colour to the lie, takes a train to Scotland, before turning around and heading back South to the boarding house Sans Souci in the seaside town of Leahampton. ww2 poster

When Tommy finally arrives at San Souci – as Mr Meadowes he is absolutely stunned to find Tuppence already installed, in the guise of a Mrs Blenkensop. Tuppence having of course listened in to the conversation between Tommy and Mr Grant – was not about to miss out on a bit of excitement, and the chance to prove herself still useful. They have a challenging task, routing out traitors and conspirators, a seaside boarding house not an obvious hunting ground. Tommy and Tuppence must appear to everyone as strangers – and they manage to play their part very well, meeting up on the beach to swap notes. At their first meeting after Tommy’s arrival, Tuppence is unrepentant at her deception.

“ ‘…I wished to teach you a lesson. You and your Mr Grant.’
‘He’s not exactly my Mr Grant and I should say you have taught him a lesson.’
‘Mr Carter wouldn’t have treated me so shabbily,’ said Tuppemce. ‘I don’t think the Intelligence is anything like it was in our day.’
Tommy said gravely; ‘It will attain its former brilliance now we’re back in it. But why Blenkensop?’
‘Why not?’
‘It seems an odd name to choose.’
‘It was the first one I thought of and it’s handy for underclothes’
‘What do you mean Tuppence?’
‘B, you idiot. B for Beresford, B for Blenkensop. Embroidered on my cami-knickers. Patricia Blenkensop. Prudence Beresford. Why did you choose Meadowes? It’s a silly name.’ ”

The boarding house is filled with an odd assortment of people. There is Mrs Peranna, her daughter Sheila, a Major, Mrs Sprot a devoted young mother and her charming little child Betty, a large Irish woman Miss O’Rourke, a German refugee von Deinem, an elderly lady called Miss Minton, a married couple, the Cayleys an invalid and his fussy, chattering wife. Tommy and Tuppence soon have their suspicions, and within a day or two of their arrival another foreign woman has been seen loitering outside the boarding house.

Tommy and Tuppence find themselves playing a dangerous game in a bid to unmask the traitors. Neither of them is safe, each of them seeming about to land themselves in hot water, I had my heart in my mouth. However, Tommy and Tuppence are possessed of incredibly cool heads. Christie is quite brilliant here, at recreating the sense of wartime paranoia, where nobody’s identity can be take at face value and foreigners are all treated with a degree of suspicion. Twists, turns and misdirection keep the reader guessing, and there are several surprises before the case is solved.

N or M? is an excellent Christie novel, more wartime espionage than the usual murder mystery we associate her with, it’s a brilliant little page turner, featuring an adorable couple.

Agathachristie3

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cof

My second pick for the 1968 club was Agatha Christie’s By the Pricking of my Thumbs – the third of the four full length novels featuring Tommy and Tuppence. The couple also appear in a collection of short stories. Rather adorably Agatha Christie dedicated this late novel as follows;

“This book is dedicated to the many readers in this and in other countries who write to me asking: ‘What has happened to Tommy and Tuppence? What are they doing now?’ My best wishes to you all, and I hope you will enjoy meeting Tommy and Tuppence again, years older, but with spirit unquenched!”

I completely love Tommy and Tuppence though I have largely neglected these novels, I am pretty sure I had read this one before, although I had forgotten almost all of it. I read The Secret Adversary – the first Tommy and Tuppence novel four years ago, (which is when I decided I loved T&T) and I have the final Tommy and Tuppence novel – and indeed the final ever Agatha Christie novel Postern of Fate tbr – I have had a first edition of it for years! and recently bought a copy of N or M? In The Secret Adversary Tommy and Tuppence are Bright Young things – the First World War had taken its toll on both of them. I can’t think why I have never got around to reading the other Tommy and Tuppence books so far – but I will and soon, and I so wish there were more of them. By the time of the events in By the Pricking of My Thumbs Tommy and Tuppence have been married for a long time, they are the parents of two adult children, and grandparents, and of course have lived through another war. The world has changed around them, their hair is showing signs of grey, yet Tommy and Tuppence are still recognisable as the enthusiastic young detectives Agatha Christie first wrote about in 1922. As a couple the Beresfords are still every bit as adoring of one another as they ever were – one really can’t imagine one without the other. 

“I don’t particularly want to think of your funeral because I’d much prefer to die before you do. But I mean, if I were going to your funeral, at any rate it would be an orgy of grief. I should take a lot of handkerchiefs.”

Tommy’s Aunt Ada has been residing in the Sunny Ridge care home for elderly ladies for some time, and every now and then her nephew and his wife pay the dutiful visit that is required of them. Aunt Ada is not the easiest of old ladies, she has never much liked Tuppence. When Tommy decides it’s time for them to visit his aunt again, he manages to persuade Tuppence to accompany him. When the couple arrive at Sunny Ridge, Aunt Ada quickly dispenses with Tuppence who wanders off while Tommy talks to his aunt. There are old ladies shouting they are dying, others who have forgotten whether they have had their hot chocolate or not, but Miss Packard who is in charge, takes it all in her stride, laughing off all the little eccentricities of her clients. Tommy doesn’t think too much of his aunt’s mistrust of the staff, taking her whispered assertion that ‘they’ could be about to rob and murder her in her bed with a pinch of salt. While Tommy talks to Aunt Ada, Tuppence is shown into a pleasant little sitting room, where another elderly lady is already sitting close to an imposing fireplace nursing a glass of milk. Tuppence engages Mrs Lancaster in conversation, the two of them getting on quite famously. However, when Mrs Lancaster suddenly asks Tuppence –

‘Was it your poor child’

– It can’t help, but send a slight shiver down our spines. The question certainly un-nerves Tuppence – the words resonating in her memory days after having left Sunny Ridge behind. Three weeks later Aunt Ada has died, and Tommy and Tuppence are back at Sunny Ridge to clear out her things. Tuppence is eager to visit Mrs Lancaster who she met before – even more so when she learns that the very attractive painting that is hanging in Aunt Ada’s room was a recent gift from Mrs Lancaster. Tuppence is concerned that Mrs Lancaster might want the painting back, rather than it going to strangers – but Mrs Lancaster is no longer at Sunny Ridge, having been taken away by relatives to a London hotel, on the way north. Tuppence – as poor old Tommy well knows is not one to let things drop, and she is determined to track Mrs Lancaster down and ask her about the picture. The picture shows an attractive house by a canal which Tuppence is convinced she has seen before. The hotel where Mrs Lancaster and her relatives are supposed to have gone have never heard of Mrs Lancaster. Where is the old lady that Tuppence met at Sunny Ridge? Tuppence is determined to find out, so while Tommy is off at a secret conference with government/secret service types – Tuppence decides to set out on a railway journey to find the house in the painting, and find out what (if anything) has happened to Mrs Lancaster. At the back of her mind too – those strange words spoken by the old lady in the sitting room at Sunny Ridge.

As the cover to my lovely old book club edition of the novel suggests – By the Pricking of my thumbs is quite a creepy story. Tuppence gets herself into all kinds of trouble and when Tommy returns from his secret pow-wow he wonders where she has got to, and is soon on her tail.

I completely loved this Tommy and Tuppence mystery, aspects of the plot are really clever – and Christie shows her ability to write a darn good mystery with few clues to go – no body or smoking gun – just a (possible) missing woman, a few odd words spoken by a confused old lady a pretty painting and a nagging doubt. Honestly, I couldn’t put it down. I must read some more Tommy and Tuppence soon.

Agathachristie

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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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“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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