Thursday, September 20, 2018

Agatha Christie, Death on the Nile


Agatha Christie, Death on the Nile
© 1937 Agatha Christie Mallowan
© Renewed 1965 Agatha Christie Mallowan
Originally published 1938, Dood,Mead & Company

 This is apparently the second Poirot mystery set in the Middle East (Murder in Mesopotamia, 1936, preceded it), and, for me, the strength of the book is its careful and accurate depiction of Egypt at the time.  (Michael Pearce’s Mamur Zapt series has that in common with Christie’s Middle East books:  http://www.stopyourekillingme.com/P_Authors/Pearce_Michael.html).  I read this first sometime in the late 1960s or early 1970s, and (of course) saw the 1978 film version (Peter Ustinov as Poirot).  The entire cast was excellent, and the movie captured the look and feel of the novel’s setting very well.  (https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0077413/fullcredits/?ref_=tt_ov_st_sm).  (I have to say, my favorite performances were Angela Lansbury as Salome Otterbourne and David Niven as Colonel Race).

As for the story…Jacqueline De Bellfort brings her fiancĂ© Simon Doyle to meet wealthy (and very self-centered) Linnet Ridgeway, with an eye to his becoming the manager of her estate.  Instead, Simon and Linnet get married, and embark on a honeymoon trip that culminates is a cruise on the Nile.  And, at every turn, Jacqueline is there, watching, making them very uncomfortable.  The other passengers on the cruise (among whom are Hercule Poirot and Colonel Race, apparently a big shot in British Intelligence, and a remarkably odd cast of characters) all, at one point or another, behave in ways that raise questions about their actions.  It may be particularly relevant to mention the presence of Andrew Pennington, one of the trustees of Linnet’s fortune (which comes out of a trust and becomes vested in her on her 21st birthday—or on her marriage).  In a prologue, we are given reason to believe that not all is well with the trust, and it’s clear that Pennington’s presence is most decidedly not a coincidence.

And, as the boat on which much of the action occurs is turning back north, Linnet Ridgeway Doyle is murdered.  And Simon Doyle is shot.  Poirot and Race, in the absence of any other authority, undertake to identify the killer.  Poirot proceeds as usual, carefully questioning all the people who might be involved, and working his way through a maze of unusual actions by many of them on the night of the murder.  While he his finding his way, two more people die.  Eventually, the “little grey cells” work their magic, and justice triumphs (more or less).

In some ways the book is very odd; there’s what amounts to a lengthy (24 page) prologue in which all the principals are introduced, and some things relevant to their subsequent behavior are revealed.  And somewhat characteristically for Christie, most of the characters are essentially one-dimensional. 

For me, the conclusion does not work well.  And I always find Poirot to be a little too-too (as an eccentric genius, he’s more plausible than Philo Vance, but less plausible than Nero Wolfe or the later Ellery Queen.  In the case of this particular book, I find it hard to accept the plausibility of the motives and actions of the person or people responsible for the deaths.  In my opinion, at least two others in the cast have more believable motives.  But as a whole Death on the Nile works well, helped along by the setting. 

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

S.J. Parris, Heresy


S.J. Parris, Heresy
© 2010 Stephanie Merritt
Random House/Anchor Books
ISBN 978-0-7679-3252-3

Doctor (of philosophy) Giordano Bruno (an excommunicated Catholic priest) has arrived in Oxford (accompanying Sir Philip Sidney and as an undercover spy for Walshingham) in May 1583.  One of his purposes is to meet and get to know the dons of Oxford and to discuss philosophy with them, especially the meaning of Copernicus’s view of the cosmos (and his extension of it).  But he is also there to help uncover whatever lingering Catholic influence may remain at the University.  (He’s also hoping to find a copy of what may be a proscribed—both by the Catholics and by the Church of England –book.) He is the guest of the Rector of Lincoln College.

Parris establishes the setting very well, and deals (so far as I can tell) exceptionally well with the religious aspects of the late 16th century, including the persecution of the remnants of the old faith and its lingering presence in England.  Bruno has not been long in Oxford when one of the dons is killed by a feral dog in a locked garden of the college (one of the students manages to kill the dog with a well-aimed arrow).  Bruno recognizes the manner of death as mirroring the martyrdom Ignatius, and thinks that it is important.  The Rector, Dr. Underhill is disinclined to see the death as anything other than an accident.  But this is just the first of a series of deaths that seem to be based on the deaths of early leaders of the Catholic church.

The Fellows of Lincoln College are an odd assortment (and we really learn very little about their role as teachers), but it seems that several of them, while professing loyalty to the Church of England are either secretly or nor so secretly adherents of Catholicism. 

Bruno’s investigations proceed slowly, and, while much that happens confirms his belief in the motives behind the murders, he does not seem to be getting very close to identifying the party or parties responsible.  And, while this is all going on, he becomes very strongly attracted to the Rector’s daughter Sophia.

This is really a fairly remarkable book.  The setting and the events are strongly presented and every person in the book seems to act in accordance with their characters as we know them.  It’s the first of a now 5-book series, in all of which Bruno (and so far as I can tell) Sophia are involved in additional situations revolving around the religious conflicts in England.  That’s not to say this is a flawless book.  For one thing, it seems to be raining almost incessantly (and this website--https://www.booty.org.uk/booty.weather/climate/1500_1599.htm

--suggests that 1583 was a drought year).  Also, there are what appear to be the occasional anachronism (the one that stood out to me was a mention, by Bruno in his narrative, of being overly stimulated by a rush of adrenaline (I really thought this was a significant error, but it turns out the adrenal gland was identified in the 1560s, although adrenaline and its affects were not isolated until the 1890s). 

But those issues are all of little importance, really.  Heresy is a fine beginning to the series, and I am looking forward to reading the subsequent books.

Saturday, September 15, 2018

Rex Stout, Curtains for Three


Rex Stout, Curtains for Three
© 1948, 1949, 1950 Rex Stout
Original book publication by The Viking Press, 1950
Reprinted by Bantam Crimeline, 1994

I’m continuing to read Stout’s novellas, featuring Nero Wolfe and Archie Goodwin, as bedtime reading, and recently finished this collection.  It is, I must admit, not one of my favorites, and includes what I often think is one of the weakest Wolfe stories that Stout wrote.

The collection opens with “The Gun With Wings;” Peggy Mion, the widow of a famous tenor (Alberto Mion), and the man she wants to marry (and who wants to marry her, Frederick Weppler (music critic for The Gazette) want Wolfe to investigate Mion’s death.  It has been officially been ruled a homicide—Mion had been shot by a bullet through his open mouth, and the  gun was found on the floor next to his hand, but they seem to have some reason for thinking that it might be murder.  Mion had been injured, assaulted by an angry baritone (Gifford James), who believes that Mion had seduced his daughter Clara.  Mion had sued James for damages, a he was unable, for the present, to perform.  But there’s a problem—neither Peggy nor Weppler can buy suicide.  And their concerns are getting in the way (perhaps partly because either of them would have had the opportunity to commit the crime.  And there’s another issue, to which the title of the story alludes.

Wolfe somewhat reluctantly takes the case, eventually getting his clients to come clean about their real concern.  And, of course, he discovers both who committed the murder—because murder it was, and how the gun with wings managed its trip.  And, not for the only time in his career, Wolfe moves things along by forging a document.  A nicely structured situation, brought nicely to a conclusion by Wolfe.  And the best of the three stories in the book.

In “Bullett for One,” Wolfe is hired by the daughter (Dorothy Keyes), partner Ferdinand Pohl), competitor (Frank Broadyke), unjustly fired employee (Audrey Rooney)and stable owner (Wayne Stafford) to investigate the murder of Sigmund Keyes, industrial designer extraordinaire.  Most of them believe that Victor Talbott, whose job it was to sell the designs crated by Keyes, is the murderer, the problem being that he has a very good alibi.  Keyes, you see, was shot while riding early one morning in Central Park (his horse was stabled with Stafford).  And Talbott, who often rode with him, was apparently in bed at the time, with testimony to that effect.  The problem is that the people seeking to hire Wolfe loom large among the alternative suspects.  And Wolfe, of course, refuses to take a case in which his job is to prove Talbott guilty.  Because, of course, what if he isn’t?  Among the high points, for me, were Archie’s interactions with one the NYPD’s finest, mounted patrolman Hefferman (I don’t believe we ever learn his first name). 

For much of the case, Archie is mostly sidelined, so much of what we actually observe is not particularly germane to the solution (or, really) to the investigation.  And, for me, the solution was something of a let-down.  Nonetheless, overall a good outing.

Which brings me to “Disguise for Murder” (originally titled “The Twisted Scarf,” which isn’t as evocative a title but does avoid putting the reader on the look-out for something).  Bill McNab, the garden editor of The Gazette, talks Wolfe into holding an open house for the members of the Manhattan Flower Club, and over 200 of the members and their guests show up.  Among them are “Cynthia Brown” and her “brother,” “Colonel Percy Brown,” there as guests of one of the club members, Mrs. Owrwin.  The “Browns” are running a con on Mrs. Orwin.  After a fairly trying afternoon, Archie heads for the office for a beak, and he is joined by “Cynthia.”  She wants to get him to get Wolfe to talk to her; she claims that the murderer of Doris Hatten (who was strangled a few weeks back) is there, looking at orchids.  Doris was being kept, by someone, and the general assumption (by the police, the papers…) is that her meal ticket got tired of her, or the expense, and killed her.  (I will note that the murder of a kept woman is a major part of the plot of a much later, full-length work—Death of a Doxy—and is much better handled there; a similar situation is also central to the Tecumseh Fox novel, The Broken Vase.)  Archie goes back to the roof, helps shepherd people out, intending to rope Wolfe into a conversation with “Cynthia.”  Except that by the time just about everyone has left, one of the guests—Mrs. Homer Carlisle—has peeked into the office and discovered “Cynthia,” dead, strangled by a scarf.

Leaving aside the general weakness of the presumed motive for the murder of Doris Hatten, I thought that both Archie and Inspector Cramer were a lot slow in picking up on the one fact that Wolfe had that he could use to pin down the murdered.  I also have always found the denouement fairly weak, and more than a little implausible.  Even with that one fact, actually proving that the murderer was guilty would have been awfully hard.  So I’ve always found this not to be one of the best.  Readable, of course, but with that very large flaw.

As a group, these are middling Stout, and will probably appeal most to those of us who treasure Stout and his work.  The casual reader of mysteries may be less than enchanted.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Agatha Christie, Murder at the Vicaage


Agatha Christie, Murder at the Vicaage
© 1930 Dodd, Mead and Company
Copyright renewed © 1958 Agatha Christie Mallowan
This edition published by G.P. Putnam’s Sons
ISBN 0-7394-0354-0

(I’m continuing to read Agatha Christie in preparation for the Road Scholar program we will be attending in a little while.)

Ten years after the debut of Hercule Poirot, Christie introduced her other primary sleuth, Miss Jane Marple (an unmarried woman of uncertain age, living in St. Mary Mead, but eventually travelling widely and encountering murder everywhere she goes).  This story is narrated by the vicar of the Anglican church in the village, Mr. Clement.  As the narrative begins, Mr. Clement is awaiting—not happily—a meeting with Col. Protheroe that evening, at 6:15.  The meeting involves the insistence by one of the parishioners that the £1 note she had left in the collection late was apparently stolen and replaced by a 10 shilling note.  However, Mr. Clement is called away, and, by the time he returns, Col. Protheroe has been shot (in the study) while awaiting the vicar’s return.

As usual in any small village lived in or visited by Miss Marple, nothing, and no relationships, are simple.  It appears that Col. Protheroe’s wife (Anne) is not very happy in her marriage, that his daughter by a former marriage (Lettice) is even less happy, that Lawrence Redding (an artist) is infatuated with Anne, and that’s just to skin the surface.  Redding almost immediately confesses, but it quickly becomes apparent that things did not happen as he clams.  The time of death (as determined by the local doctor) and a note left by the colonel for the vicar don’t seem to match up.  As the official forces of law and order (Inspector Slack and the chief constable, Major Melchett) pursue their investigations, Mr. Clement becomes deeply involved as well.

What’s interesting is that Miss Marple’s appearances are few, and brief, until the denouement, when she is able to unravel the various lies, misstatements, and complexities of the situation.  I actually do not know of another mystery in which the person who turns out to be the one who solves the crime has a little to do for most of the book.  Another interesting aspect of the life of St. Mary Mead, at least in this book, is the relative unimportance of the men in the community.  While they are present, the dominant presences were, for me, the women of the village.

Miss Marple is here as she will continue to be—elderly (more or less), occasionally inclined to dither, but fundamentally a keen student of human nature and observer of events around her.  This might, in fact, be one of the very best of the Miss Marple books.


Sunday, September 9, 2018

Copycat photoblogging, shopping edition

Chris Bertam has the interior of a junk shop in Marseille; I have a shop window in Paris: 



Saturday, September 8, 2018

Agatha Christie, The Mysterious Affair At Styles

Agatha Christie, The Mysterious Affair At Styles
(This book is no longer under copyright)
Originally published in 1920 by John Lane Company
This was the first Hercule Poirot mystery, narrated as so many of them were to be, by Captain Arthur Hastings.  Hastings is recovering (although at no point in the book does he seem to be suffering from any physical constraints) from an injury suffered in the War.  He winds up as a houseguest as a result of an invitation of an acquaintance, John Cavendish.  The household includes John Cavendish, his wife Mary, his brother Lawrence, his step-mother Emily Inglethorpe, her new husband Alfred Inglethorpe, and assorted servants.  A number of family friends round out the cast.  And Poirot, whom Hastings had met in Belgium before his injury, is living, along with a group or Belgian refugees, in the village.
Interestingly, we can set this book very precisely.  Hastings tells us that “the 16th of July fell on a Monday,” and a quick consultation makes it certain that the year was 1917.  On the night of July 16/17, Mrs. Inglethorpe dies—murdered—having taken a large dose of strychnine. The poison seems certain to have been in either a cup of coffee or a cup of cocoa (probably the former), in her bedroom, to which all the doors were locked (it’s what appears to be the usual English house thing, in which bedrooms are connected by doors to other bedrooms on either side and to the corridor.  A quantity of paper having been burned in the fireplace leads Poirot to conclude that Mrs. Inglethorpe had acquired a standard will form and written out a will, which she, or someone, decided to destroy.
Everyone’s suspicions center immediately on her husband, who is 20 or more years younger than his wife (who is around 70).  But evidence is hard to find, and it appears that no one is being entirely open about their movements during that night. 
Inspector Japp  arrives shortly after the inquest.  What’s interesting here is Poirot’s comment to Hastings:  “Do you know who that little man is?...That is Detective Inspector James Japp of Scotland Yard…Jimmie Japp.”  If you are familiar with the A&E versions of the Poirot mysteries, describing him as a “little man” will amuse you.
The official investigation results in an arrest and trial (and a not guilty verdict); Poirot, meanwhile has kept his views to himself, ultimately revealing the how, the who, and the why of the murder.
All the elements that we see throughout the series are already present:  Poirot’s eccentricities (as they appear to the English); Hastings’ cluelessness; the man and woman who may or may not be in love and one of whom may or may not be the murderer.  The book wraps up quite convincingly, with Poirot tying up all the loose ends and making everyone—except the killer—happy.  I read this book at least 40 years ago, and enjoyed it both then and now.  As is the case with many series mysteries, the Poirot books need not be read in order; if there is any growth or change in the continuing characters, there is little enough that it doesn’t matter.  (Curtain probably should be left until last, though.)  I don’t think that Christie’s work is of as high a standard as many people do.  I think Dorothy Sayers, for example, is a better writer (although Christie may plot better) and that Ngaio Marsh gives us a much more interesting series, one in which the main characters do grow some and change some.  Still, Christie’s work holds up well and is worth the time.

Thursday, September 6, 2018

Agatha Christie, What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw

Agatha Christie, What Mrs. McGillicuddy Saw
(English title:  4:50 From Paddington)
© 1957 Agatha Christie Ltd.
As it happens, we’ll be off for a week-long jaunt in a few weeks, a program offered by Road Scholar (a/k/a elderhostel), “Agatha Christie, Classic Film Mysteries, and the Legacy of Sherlock Holmes”  So we thought it would make sense to read (or re-read) some of their stories.  The first one I managed to get sent to me by a used bookseller was this one, and, apparently, I had never read it or I read it so long ago I had no memory of it at all.  As with almost all of Agatha Christie’s mysteries, this has gone through dozens of editions, both in hardcover and in paperback.  The edition I got was from the 1980s US reprint series under the general title of “The Agatha Christie Mystery Collection.
Miss Marple’s friend, Mrs. McGillicuddy, has a has had a startling, and very disturbing, experience while returning from London to her home in St. Mary Mead—as her train and another one, both going in the same direction, are side-by-side briefly, she sees a man strangling a woman.  All she sees is the man’s back, but she has a clear view of the woman’s face.  She dutifully informs one of the conductors on the train, and the police in the next town at which the train stops.  But no body is found on the train beside the train (on at least one side, there’s a considerable down-slope).  So she decides to confide in her good friend Jane Marple.  And then she leaves to visit family in Ceylon.  Miss Marple passes the information to Inspector Dermot Craddock, whom she has met before.  He is, in short order, assigned the investigation for Scotland Yard.  And she decides to do a little investigating on her own.
But not by herself.  She does travel from London, on the same train that Mrs. McGillicuddy took, and decides that her friend could very well have seen a murder and that the terrain is such as to make it possible that the body might not have been easily found.  We learn that she is feeling her years (we are quite explicitly told that she is 87) and so seeks out the assistance of Lucy Eyelesbarrow.  She is described as a “brilliant scholar,” but one who chose not to lead an academic life.  So she creates a niche for herself—a very high-class, very expensive temporary domestic servant (and she once worked for Miss Marple, whose nephew paid the bill).  She also finds this to be an intriguing assignment, and accepts.  The plan is for her to seek (and obtain) a temporary position in the home of Luther Crackenthorpe (the sole offspring of a maker of high-class appetizers).  Meanwhile Miss Marple will find a place to stay in the town that surrounds the Crackenthorpe estate, posing as Miss. Eyelesbarrow’s aunt.
Luther Crackenthorpe has three (living) sons—one died in World War II—and one living daughter.  The estate is complicated, in that Luther receives only the income, with the estate to de distributed, upon his death, in equal shares to his surviving children.  And there arises a question about the son who died in the war.
The investigations proceed.  The body is found, and needs to be identified—which is a problem.  One problem that (for me) needed to be resolved is how the murderer got the corpse off the train.  The answer Is that the individual cars were not what were called “corridor” coaches—passengers entered the individual compartments through doors specific to that compartment.  This is important, because getting the body off the train through a window would have been awkward.  (It’s still, to me, a little awkward.  The line must be double-tracked, at least for some of the distance.  And it’s unclear whether the door to the compartment was on the side that would have been between the trains.  If the door was between the trains, then hurling the body across a second track might be quite difficult.)  Whether there is a connection with the Crackenthorpes muse be established—and that is complicated by what we learn about the deceased son.  Progress is made on all these fronts, and, in the end (which I must confess, I found a bit ad hoc), the murderer is identified and arrested.
One thing that occurred to me, based on the character of Lucy Eyelesbarrow…I thought it at least possible that Christie might have decided that Miss Marple had aged enough that continued adventures for her would be difficult to make plausible.  So I wondered if Lucy might have become a new series character, perhaps continuing to work with Miss Marple or displacing her.  If Christie entertained the idea, I can find nothing that suggests she acted on it; there were 6 more Miss Marple novels and 2 short story collections to come.
I’ve always felt that the solutions in the Miss Marple books were a bit ad hoc, and not always well supported by the things revealed in the investigations.  And this book did nothing to change my mind.  Miss Marple, though, is a very engaging personality, and even if I can quibble about the path to a solution of the crime, I can’t argue that Miss Marple is anything less than a thoroughly entertaining person.