NOW APPEARING IN YOUR KINDLE 99¢ BIN

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I had planned to title this post, “One Cranky Voice Among Many,” because today is my one-year anniversary as a blogger. But then I thought, “Okay, you made a small hoopla about your 100th post only a couple of weeks ago, so enough is enough! Plus, you’re not really cranky, just opinionated.”

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What has one year of blogging brought me? Well, first and foremost, it has given me a platform on which I can blather on about the esoteric things that interest me. Since nobody else within 100 miles seems to share my interests, I have connected with people (bonus: from all over the world!) who do. These interactions have been so delightful that I count many of these new acquaintances as friends. The Tuesday Night Bloggers, mixed with the “Verdict of Us All” group – Bev, Moira, Curtis, Rich, Noah, Steve, John, and most especially, my staunch amigos Kate and JJ, have given a whole new zing to my lifelong love of mysteries. And I have connected to others over Hitchcock and theatre and other passions. I even have thirty-nine followers, folks! These people are so insightful that, whether they agree or disagree with me, I always learn something from them. And I hope that, if I keep plugging along for another year, by next September I will have forty followers!

But enough about me! Let’s talk about my opinions! I owe the following review to Kate and Curtis, although they don’t know it. Through Curtis Evans of The Passing Tramp blog (he who inspired me to start writing this thing!), we have all discovered “new” forgotten authors whom we have praised, panned, argued over and enjoyed arguing over. The first one that really made me jump up and down with joy was Harriet Rutland, who only wrote three mysteries. The first one, Knock Murderer Knock, takes place at a hotel (well, a hydro-spa that also serves as a hotel), and I loved it so much that I bought all three of her books on my Kindle and have spaced them out so that I can savor my Rutland experience. And they only cost ninety-nine cents apiece.

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So did the works of Ianthe Jerrold, who only wrote two mysteries, although her books have since shot up in price on Amazon, one to $1.99 and the better one, Dead Man’s Quarry, to $6.15. I still need to buy these. I think I’m waiting for a sale!

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Eilis Dillon is an Irish writer whose prolific career, funnily enough included only three mysteries. Her first, Death at Crane’s Court, also takes place at a hotel. The price for her books on Kindle is $3.99 a piece which still isn’t bad! I mean, you have to hand it to the folks at Amazon who are making it easy for those of us looking to rediscover writers from the classic era of mysteries to collect new writers, at least virtually. (I did read Death at Crane’s Court, although spent much more on an actual book at The Mysterious Bookstore in NYC. I enjoyed it, but not nearly as much as Rutland’s debut.) Next, Kate heaped high praise on another forgotten female mystery writer, Margaret Armstrong, who – you guessed it – only wrote three mysteries, the first of which was Murder in Stained Glass. This does not take place in a hotel, but it sounded interesting, and guess what? All three of Armstrong’s mysteries can be found for ninety-nine cents in the Kindle bin! So I decided on a whim to purchase them all.

Of course, Amazon, always the clever marketing strategist, immediately popped some more writers on my page: “IF YOU LIKE THIS, YOU’LL LOOOOVVVE THIS!!!” “This” proved to be an American author named Anita Blackmon, who wrote – yup! – three mysteries in the late1930’s. Two of these books feature a female sleuth named Miss Adelaide Adams, who is described as “irascible.” Well, that’s a great word. Plus, the first mystery, Murder a la Richelieu (1937) takes place in a hotel! Feeling I was on a roll, I purchased the two Miss Adams mysteries, both costing – stay with me now – ninety-nine cents. (Oddly enough three different publishers handle Adams. Black Heath Classic Crime charges 99¢, while Lost Crime Classics charges $3.99. I bought the cheap copy, but I have just discovered that the more expensive one includes an introduction by Curtis himself! That might make the extra cost worth it. Curtis actually mentioned these books on his blog,  but it was a year before I discovered this virtual world of mystery fans, so I didn’t know!

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It’s fascinating how the two publishers describe the book differently. Black Heath stresses the mystery:

Adelaide Adams is a tough old spinster, living a quiet life at the Hotel Richelieu, somewhere in the southern United States. But her peaceful existence is shattered when a man is found brutally murdered in her room. More murders follow and, as suspicion falls on all of the hotel residents in turn, Adelaide teams up with the handsome salesman Stephen Lansing to solve the crime. But with a psychotic killer on the loose, they find that amateur sleuthing is not the safest of pass-times…

Sounds interesting, right? That’s the blurb that sold me. Then I found the Lost Crime Classics version, which focuses on the comedy element:

In the opening pages of “the old battle-ax” Adelaide Adams’ debut appearance, Murder á la Richelieu, Anita Blackmon signals her readers that she is humorously aware of the grand old, much-mocked but much-read “Had I But Known” tradition that she is mining when she has Adelaide declare: “Had I suspected the orgy of bloodshed upon which we were about to embark, I should then and there, in spite of my bulk and an arthritic knee, have taken shrieking to my heels.” Unfortunately, Adelaide confides: “There was nothing on this particular morning to indicate the reign of terror into which we were about to be precipitated. Coming events are supposed to cast their shadows before, yet I had no presentiment about the green spectacle case which was to play such a fateful part in the murders, and not until it was forever too late did I recognize the tragic significance back of Polly Lawson’s pink jabot and the Anthony woman’s false eyelashes.” Well! What reader can stop there? . . .

So is this book supposed to be a parody of a classic mystery from the pre-Golden Age in the Mary Roberts Rinehart tradition. Let’s look inside and see what we’ve got:

The Richelieu Hotel services both residents and transient tourists. Why tourists might come to this town we may never know as, through the entire novel, nobody seems to leave the building. Adelaide has lived off her considerable inheritance at the Richelieu for a great many years. We learn that she once gave up the love of her life to care for her invalid father, and she does not wear her spinsterhood with much charm. She devotes a lot of her narration telling us what’s wrong with everyone around her. (In all fairness, she is sometimes hard on herself as well.) She makes snap judgments about people, most of which turn out to be wrong. She throws her considerable weight around, terrorizing or annoying employees and guests alike over trivial things in her trivial life. She even has hard feelings for her best (and only?) friend, Ella Trotter, because the woman enjoys winning at cards too much. She harbors old-fashioned sexist attitudes about her own sex, agreeing with one lovelorn female character that “women are kittle cattle.” Most unpleasantly, she displays the casual racism for the African American labor force who work at the hotel, each of them depicted in gross stereotype. This was no doubt the status quo mindset for faded ladies of the South at the time. I don’t know if this is a stab at characterization on Blackmun’s part, or if it reflects beliefs founded on the author’s own upbringing (she’s from Arkansas), but it still stinks. Since there was no warning about this when I read the blurb and the five positive reviews on Amazon, consider yourselves warned.

Adelaide is surrounded by people – a lot of people – in this book. There’s the proprietress of the hotel, Sophie Scott, who used to be close to Adelaide until Sophie married the highly unsuitable Cyril Fancher, who seems to hold a dark secret in his willowy frame. Could it have something to do with the series of young waitresses who come and go through his employ at the hotel coffee shop? All of these women seem to bear some dark secret! There’s the beautiful Kathleen Adair and her addled mother, whose closeness masks dark secrets. Then there’s the gay young Polly Lawson, who lives for some reason with her Aunt Mary at the hotel. Polly used to have an understanding with clean-cut banker Howard Warren, but for some reason, she has started stepping out with the dashing cosmetics salesman and roué, Stephen Lansing. By the way, I forgot to mention that all four of these people have a dark secret. I also need to add Lottie Mosby, who also lives at the hotel and has been stepping out on her drunken husband Dan with, of all people, Stephen Lansing. There’s something dark and secretive about that couple, if you ask me. Then there’s Pinkney Dodge, the night clerk, known to everyone as Pinky because “it suited his weak eyes and pinkish hair.” His obsession with his mother puts me in mind of another hotel clerk; clearly, Pinky has his own dark secrets as well. And I would keep an eye out on Hilda Anthony, a voluptuous woman “of questionable reputation” who came to this small backwater Southern town from New York in order to obtain a divorce and then has spent all her time since living at the hotel in order to find a rich husband. Since that goal is impossible to obtain at the Richelieu, Hilda must have a dark secret! Especially as she spends all her time frolicking with Stephen Lansing! (What is the secret to your stamina, sir?)

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These people live and/or work at the hotel and never seem to go anywhere else. They eat all their meals at the coffee shop, and most of them seem to sit around the large lobby people-watching and muttering about the tourists, or entertaining each other in their rooms. It’s putters along on the strength of Adelaide’s (or Blackmun’s) writing style, which is floridly old-fashioned and includes a lot of those references to the HIBK school of mystery that are described in the Amazon blurb. This style is not really to my taste and took me by surprise. That’s what comes of reading the cheap blurb!

Into this menagerie comes a visitor from New Orleans named James Reid, who snoops around a lot and tries without success to ingratiate himself with Miss Adams. Imagine Adelaide’s distress when one afternoon she enters her room to find Mr. Reid hanging from her chandelier by a rope, his throat cut. Enter Inspector Bunyan of Scotland Yard . . . oh, I wish. No, he’s the local homicide detective, and despite his dogged efforts, people keep dying on his watch, sometimes quite literally under his nose. It doesn’t help that the suspects all refuse to cooperate until the end when a mountain of unleashed dark secrets threatens to crush the hotel – and this reader – under its weight.

I can’t help but pull out Rutland’s Knock, Murderer, Knock once again for a comparison, and Blackmon’s plotting, characterization, and prose creak a lot more. In true American style, the murders are all much gorier at the Richelieu, and the secrets revealed about many of the guests are surprisingly salacious. The plot goes a rat-a-tat-tatting along, but it lacks Rutland’s cleverness and genuine humor. The developing relationship between Adelaide and Stephen Lansing (who emerges as the true hero, no surprise there) is one of the high points of the novel, and by the end they work together to bring down a number of criminal elements. Still, Miss Marple she ain’t! If I had been a resident of that hotel at the time, I could have pointed to the killer in a jiffy, prevented three more murders, and saved everyone a lot of trouble.

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So now I find myself faced with the second Adelaide Adams mystery on my queue. There Is No Return takes place at yet another hotel, where the ghost of rich heiress Gloria Canby seems to be gunning for her surviving relatives. Luckily Adelaide Adams has joined her friend Ella for a vacation at the very same hotel, where she’s just too crabby to believe in ghosts and decides to solve a murder or two. And I’m left wondering how much I am up for another ride with this cantankerous old biddy.

But then, it only cost me 99¢.

YOU ALWAYS REMEMBER YOUR FIRST CARR

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When I saw that Rich Westwood was celebrating all things mysterious from 1930 all month at his blog, Past Offenses, I quickly checked out the literary scene at the time. Folks, this year was golden! Nearly every member of the Detection Club seemed to churn one out that year, and some of them created landmarks with the novel they published: Agatha Christie debuted Miss Marple in novel form! Dashiell Hammett had begun serializing The Maltese Falcon the previous year, but it all came to a head in 1930. And perhaps, most notably for readers of Golden Age mysteries, a young Pennsylvanian made his debut, a lover of Poe with one foot firmly planted in the history and literary style of Europe, a man whose fascination with magic and the impossible would soon earn him the title of the Grand Master of the locked room mystery.

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Yup, I’m talking about John Dickson Carr, the guy who invented Gideon Fell and Sir Henry Merrivale; the man who came up with nearly every variation on the impossible crime and inspired countless others to give it the old college try; the man who set the bar high for radio mystery programs, including writing most of the early scripts for the classic series Suspense.

In addition to his mastery of the locked room and all its variations, I consider Carr one of the four best handlers of misdirection, the other three being Christie, Ellery Queen, and Christianna Brand. (Is it any surprise that this lover of misdirection has just named his four favorite mystery authors?) As far as Carr goes, I was fairly selective, reading all of the Gideon Fell novels, but skipping the rest (except for The Burning Court – a classic!) I am slowly making my way through the Sir Henry Merrivale titles written under the pen name Carter Dickson. But before either of these portly gentlemen graced the pages of mystery fiction, there was Bencolin.

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Henri Bencolin, the juge d’instruction of the Paris police force, appeared in early short stories by Carr and as the sleuth in the first four novels the author wrote. He reappeared once more in 1938’s The Four False Weapons and then, as far as I can tell, disappeared forever more.

1930’s It Walks By Night introduces us to Bencolin and to Carr himself. As in many early Carr novels, an earnest young gentleman narrates It Walks by Night. Jeff Marle has come over from America to Paris and has looked up an old friend of his father’s, one Henri Bencolin. Bencolin promises to look after Jeff, yet I can’t say that I would place much faith in a man if he put my son through the events to which Bencolin subjects Jeff. They go to a torrid club where gambling and intrigue mask even more lurid crimes, and there they get involved in the murder of a young Duc, who has the ill fortune of being decapitated on his wedding night. Of course, his body is found in a room, the entrances of which were watched at all times, and nobody went in or out.

The investigation proceeds, and more deaths occur or are uncovered, each more gruesome than the last. Bencolin, who claims at the start that he knows the truth to every case almost immediately, leads Jeff and his team on a storm-tossed ride before he unmasks a surprising killer.

Now, debut novels are tricky to review or analyze. An author is clearly just beginning to establish himself, not only as a plotter but in the way he sets a tone for things to come. Each book, by necessity, either gets stronger as one begins to master the tricks of the writing trade, or the writing falls into a dull sameness and the author fades deservedly into obscurity. I can say that this was in many ways an auspicious beginning. It certainly grabs your attention and shakes you over and over until it tosses you exhausted in a pile on the floor. Yet I wasn’t sure that I really liked it. I had to talk to somebody else! And there’s nobody I would rather talk about Carr with than one of the blogosphere’s staunchest fans of the author, Monsieur JJ from The Invisible Event, who has graciously agreed to discuss the novel and the author with me.

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JJ, thanks so much for joining me today. Let’s plunge right in: What do you see in this debut that begins to establish Carr as the author he would become at the pinnacle of his success?

Atmosphere, atmosphere, atmosphere.  If we’re calling Carr’s peak the 1940s (and they were), he was at a stage then where the dropping of a single adjective could completely change the comportment of a scene or the response it incited in you.  Here, he’s guilty of somewhat over-writing to ensure he gets his point across, but even then there are some beautifully descriptive and succinct expressions — ‘Surprising how a match-flame can blind one against a darkness moving and breaking like whorls of foam on water!’ has always stuck with me, especially given the context of that match.  It’s Carr’s atmosphere that brings me back time and again — the plots are absolute marvels, but marry them to lifeless settings and you’re getting nowhere — and you see the very nascent threads of that here.

I was blown away by the graphic violence found in this novel! Each murder was more gruesome than the last! It reminded me of those old Tales from the Crypt comic books! Care to comment?

Part of me sees this as the natural extension of it being so over-written, the almost grand guignol aspect of how hideous it all is.  No-one will get that alarmed over a stolen book of stamps, but horrible, violent, foul, repulsive murder…well, that’s something to stir the (ahem) blood.  It brings home how unusual a thing it is, in spite of those of us who immerse ourselves in this kind of book on a regular basis: the ending of someone’s life in this way is a ghastly thing, and should be written in a ghastly way.

 It’s interesting how some Golden Age writers wrote in a style meant to lull us into believing that this whole event – the murder (or series of murders), the suspects, the clues, the grand reveal – all could exist in a reality much like ours. Indeed, in his biography of Carr, The Man Who Explained Miracles, Doug Greene explains that Carr consciously wrote in an unrealistic style, although he certainly tamed the flow of adjectives as he matured. Greene says of this novel, “We don’t investigate the crime; we are fooled by it. Our attention is directed toward the supernatural, toward the innocent characters, toward everyone and everything except the true solution until Carr, and Bencolin, are ready to reveal it.”

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How do you yourself rate the quality of the plot? (I have to admit that I guessed the killer because one early piece of misdirection seemed to stand out to me – I wouldn’t put this in the post but it’s when Mme. De Saligny says that she saw her husband walking into the card room and everyone caught a glimpse of someone who could have been the Duc.)

There’s not so much plot as there are “events around what’s going on” to my mind.  There’s a huge amount of ancillary material that can be disregarded, once you look back at it.  Let’s not claim Carr cracked the perfect puzzle plot at his first swing — he had to wait until The Problem of the Green Capsule for that — even the impossible angle of IWbN is kinda weak when you come to explore it.  So I’m not disagreeing with Doug Greene.  He still hasn’t talked to me after the last time . . .

 Ha ha! We’ll save that juicy story for another day . . . Anyway, you, Greene, and I agree that IWbN is overwritten. I freely admit that I prefer Carr’s novels that find more of a balance between the supernatural and modern domestic British life, books like He Who Whispers and The Crooked Hinge. Where do you stand in your preferences, if you have any?

I agree, but I also think The Crooked Hinge has the same problem — as does The Plague Court Murders, and Hag’s Nook, and . . . well, many others.  I don’t know if I have an overall preference in the type of Carr, but I’m more of a fan of Fell than I am of H.M, and there are many moments in Fell’s books where he’s described as watching someone very intently and it always gets the hairs on the back of my neck going.  If Carr ever wrote a book where Fell sat in a corner and just stared at people, I’d probably read it every month for the rest of my life.

I agree with you in my preference of Fell over H.M., but neither one is in evidence yet. In 1930, Agatha Christie introduced Miss Marple in novel form (Murder at the Vicarage), the perfect sleuth for a traditional village mystery. Carr gives us Bencolin. He certainly fits with the aura of horror that drips from each page here. I have to say, though, that he kind of drives me crazy! How do you rate Bencolin among Carr’s sleuths?

Carr himself tried to backtrack on Bencolin come The Four False Weapons, having the character much more relaxed and even (I’m pretty sure) apologizing for or excusing his attitude in the earlier books.  I like his abrasiveness — he was intended as a sort of anti-gentleman sleuth, with no smooth corners — and I sort of wish Carr had maintained that.  But since we never really know him, I can’t lament the absence of more books featuring him.  Carr got what he needed out of Henri and moved on.  That’s great.  I’d rather he ditched Bencolin and brought Fell to life than we never get Fell and have 35 Bencolin novels.

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One year earlier, Ellery Queen made his debut. I know you just reviewed The Roman Hat Mystery and are about to do the same with Queen’s second novel, 1930’s The French Powder Mystery. So here are two Americans, peers if you will, and they are completely different in influence and style. Why did Carr make it to your top four Kings of Crime writing and Queen did not?

Urf.  At a fundamental level, they did the same thing: produced superlative puzzle plots that can be held up as shining examples of the genre, dazzled readers with their ingenuity time and again, operated across several different mediums, and undoubtedly changed the lexicon and direction of detective fiction in the 20th century.  So why Carr ahead of Queen? Carr was a far superior writer in my eyes, produced more legitimately stone-cold classics than Dannay and Lee (again, personal opinion and coverage key factors here), and seemed to be having a lot more fun while doing it.  Those early Queens are hard work, man — I had to quit on French Powder because, crikey, wasn’t it ever a drag — whereas Carr had a quick start and just always seemed to be enjoying himself so much, never simply grinding them out to prove how smart he was even if they were a chore to trudge through.  I’d pick a Carr novel ahead of any Queen novel to convince someone to give the genre a go, and he seemed more interested in the writing than the brand (witness the countless Queens not written by who we mean when we say “Ellery Queen”).  But I know you’re not happy about it, and I’m sorry.  Will you please stop prank calling me now?

Oh, dear, I seem to have made you uncomfortable . . . . . good! But I’ll grant you that some of those early Queens are damn near impossible to re-crack while no Carr novel has ever stopped me cold. Maybe it’s because Queen was influenced by Van Dine, who is very hard to read today, while Carr was influenced by Edgar Allan Poe. Still, his literary heart was mostly rooted in Europe, where he lived for many years. Both in setting and in tone, his writing was less realistic, more fantastical, like a Grimm’s fairy tale with none of the original nastiness excised for children. Is this part of Carr’s appeal for you, or does his style ever distract you?

I read Carr for the style, for that moment when a tennis court becomes a lethal place, or a flesh and blood man is snatched out of a sealed, guarded room.  The supernatural aspect never really plays into it for me — the Grimms were big on the supernatural, of course, but Carr’s use of it is (almost) exclusively to dispel it with a rationale hewn from something more ingenious than you realised possible in the circumstances.  It’s the way his brilliance for exploiting every situation is always ticking away that I find most compelling about Carr, and naturally the style of his writing — the way he chooses to present it — is a massive part of that.

A fascinating fact I learned in Greene’s book is that Carr’s “masterpiece”, The Three Coffins, (which I admit I’m not terribly fond of), was originally intended to mark the return of Bencolin under the title Vampire Tower. And it’s true that TTC is jammed with atmosphere, much like IWbN, more than the usual Dr. Fell novel (and minus the usual allotment of humor). I understand that Carr became disenchanted with his first sleuth, calling him “unreal . . lifeless . . . a dummy!” But do you think that Dr. Fell fits any better into this story?

I did not know that!  It would have been an interesting fit for Bencolin…but I suppose it’s a question of which Bencolin: the apologist version of Four False Weapons wouldn’t quite have worked, the horror of it all would have overwhelmed him, I feel.  That driven, heedless, arrogant man of Carr’s first works would have met the challenge full-on and probably also been crushed beneath its wheels.  It’s undoubtedly a most Fellian case at it stands, I can think of no better detective in fiction to have taken it on — it needs the reassuring presence of a man who can pick up a few books in the study where a murderer has just vanished across a field of unmarked now three storeys down and quietly deduce the entire history of the victim of said killer from just a few notes in the front of the volumes.  The magnificence of Fell is how secure you feel in his presence, and he is absolutely the rock around which the waves of that case break.

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I want to thank my very special guest, JJ, for volunteering time out of his busy life to answer my questions and offer his insights on Carr and much more. (JJ, I will wire you the location of your car keys and your dog, as I promised, as soon as I post this.) And thanks to everyone who’s reading this for joining us on this exploration into the origins of one of the greats! I’d love to hear about your experiences with John Dickson Carr in the comments below!

TELL ME WHY YOU CRIED (And Why You Died on Me)*

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What’s this? Two posts in one day?!? My adoring fans will grow tired of me – both of them! But after all, it is Agatha Christie’s birthday, and the blogosphere is lit up with celebrations and personal confessions over why Christie means so much to mystery fans.

Author Margot Kinberg really got into the swing of the celebration at her blog Confessions of a Mystery Novelist with an excellent post discussing Christie’s strengths, both those widely acknowledged (plotting, misdirection, breaking all the rules) and those sadly overlooked (subtle and innovative characterization, strong women who are defined by more than a search for love). You can read the whole post here.

One passage got me thinking:

“Christie also arguably innovative when it came to the characters of her victims and murderers. There are, admittedly, not that many credible motives for murder. But even within those parameters, she experimented with different sorts of characters who are killed (or who kill) for different reasons. And in several cases (I can’t be specific, for fear of spoilers), her killers’ characters are developed to the point that we can understand them, even have sympathy for them.”

I would argue that most of Christie’s murderers have very credible motives for doing the deed. In fact, today I took a few minutes and ran through the author’s bibliography to chart the plethora of motives Christie has used. I broke these down into six categories – Greed, Love, Revenge, Self-Protection, World Domination, and the ubiquitous Other – and I thought it would be fun to discuss these.

"Nothing but Celine Dion CDs. There's your motive, but how do we even begin to narrow down the list of suspects?"
“Nothing but Celine Dion CDs. There’s your motive, but how do we even begin to narrow down the list of suspects?”

The major rules of how I broke motive down were as follows:

  • I focused on the primary murder in each murder and not on any subsequent murders since most of these follow-up deaths occur because somebody found out too much. I only counted self-protection if it forms the basis of the murder plot.
  • The EXCEPTION to focusing on the primary murder would be a book that had more than one killer, and where each culprit acted for different reasons.
  • While I included every novel, I excluded the short stories and novellas for obvious reasons. (Mainly, there are way too many of them, and a great many deal with crimes other than murder.)
  • I take that back: I did not include Postern of Fate. The plot of Christie’s last written novel is incomprehensible, (although there are pleasures to be had in some of the reminiscences that resemble Christie’s own childhood), and I did not want to peruse the book again to try and remember what purpose anyone had for killing Mary Gerrard. I think it had to do with Nazis???
  • I may have generalized a bit with the thrillers which often contain multiple deaths that tend to lead to the same general motive.

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The number one motive in Christie – and perhaps in all of mystery fiction – is greed. I counted twenty-seven novels where the killer’s prime reason for killing was gain. The most common example of this involves matters of inheritance, centering the mystery around a family and/or a marriage.

With family mysteries, this motive appears – I say, appears – more straightforward. Start at the very beginning with the Cavendishes of The Mysterious Affair at Styles, and consider such families as the Arundells of Dumb Witness, the Lees of Hercule Poirot’s Christmas, the Cloades in Taken at the Flood, the Fortescues in A Pocketful of Rye, the Abernethies in After the Funeral and the Crackenthorpes in 4:50 from Paddington. These and other books revolve around a passel of relatives all eager to partake of their share of a patriarch’s – or matriarch’s – fortune. Beware, however, of falling into the trap of embracing this old chestnut of a murder plot: in Christie, sometimes the entire inheritance plot is a red herring, and the true motive exposes someone heretofore not even considered to be suspect.

One could write a book about the variations Christie utilized in her novels set around a marriage. Here is Rule #1 of murder mysteries: when someone dies, especially somebody rich, the primary suspect is always the spouse. Funnily enough in Christie, when the husband or wife does turn out to be the killer, the detective invariably says, “I told you to always look first at the spouse,” yet when it turns out the spouse is not guilty, the detective never apologizes for trotting out that obvious rule and then going against it. I won’t list any of these books for fear of spoiling the fun, but I will warn any new reader that, unlike many of her peers, Christie was never overly sentimental when it came to love.

"It wasn't an actual gene that made him do it, your honor. It was his wife, Jean."
“It wasn’t an actual gene that made him do it, your honor. It was his wife, Jean.”

The next largest category of motive concerns the idea of self-protection. I counted thirteen novels where this is the primary motive for the main killing; there are countless examples of novels where people stumble on some aspect of the truth, endangering the killer’s safety, and must be bumped off to ensure their silence. Again, I’m not considering “second murders” here. Christie had a sense of humor about them and voiced her opinion, through her character, the mystery writer Ariadne Oliver, that these killings are something of a cheap trick that an author employs when she fears her readers are getting bored.

Some murders for self-protection cross over into the category of greed since the killer is trying to protect a profitable enterprise or some aspect of a good life that is being lived. Many of these killers are decent, kind, productive members of their society (and hence above suspicion) who may have made a mistake in the past or did something they can’t or don’t want to undo – like married for love instead of money or took advantage of a situation in a way that might be shady but seemed to hurt nobody at the time. Should this past come to light, the life they have built for themselves – and for others perhaps – would collapse into rubble. Often, these killers convince themselves that they are acting out of noble motives; a couple believe that the British government or the world economy would collapse if they are forced to pay for their crimes. (A pause for a gripe: this has become the go-to motive for nearly every episode of Midsomer Murders for the past ten seasons and almost as many episodes of Inspector Lewis. It’s getting tired, folks!)

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Are you surprised to hear that only nine murderers kill for love? Yet this is a reasonable number for an author as unsentimental as Christie. The variations here run the gamut, from anger at thwarted love (often a crime of passion) to killing a current spouse in order to be free to marry a new love. The author travels to the darkest corners of human psychology in presenting these men and women whose love lives are thwarted. Outwardly, these characters may bear little resemblance to each other, but when they are exposed, we can see how they share the same streak of egotism, a sense that only their feelings matter. Whatever – or, in this case, whoever – they want they must get, no matter how many people get hurt, even killed, in the process.

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I tend to lump the thrillers together, and that’s where you find the motive of world domination. The best thrillers do not deal with this; rather, their criminal exploits have to do with greed and self-aggrandizement. But the six books that drive so many of us Christie fans crazy tend to regurgitate the myth of a new world order, the emergence of a charismatic leader who will endow the world with his love in exchange for society’s capitulation to fascism. It’s all terribly hokey, and I don’t think that I have ever bought the world being in true danger from these nut jobs, especially not with some spunky heroine on the scene to foil this international threat time and again.

Far more interesting are the final two categories. The phrase “revenge is a dish best served cold” certainly does not apply to Christie, since the seven novels dealing with revenge contain some of her most fascinating and even sympathetic killers. The other significant thing about these novels, which makes it almost impossible to discuss them without truly spoiling them, is that, more than any other motive, the concept of revenge is hidden in the depths of the novel and only springs forth at the best possible moment to surprise the reader. My guess is that my fellow diehard Christie fans are recognizing these titles from memory and count at least some of them among the novels they have most enjoyed. The one title that explores this concept openly is Murder on the Orient Express. By the end of Part I, just after the murder has been committed, Hercule Poirot realizes a shocking truth about the victim’s identity and understands, with no doubt whatsoever, that this must have been a revenge killing. This fact proves to be the killer’s undoing, but even after the truth is uncovered and the who is connected to the why, more surprises are in store for the reader.

"I struggled for years to understand what motivates me to do the things I do. Only took the jury five minutes."
“I struggled for years to understand what motivates me to do the things I do. Only took the jury five minutes.”

Which brings us to that category known as “other.” And, oh, the juicy delights that await the reader who stumbles upon these unique criminals. Often, these killers are mentally unbalanced to some degree, yet their motives are understandable. U.N. Owen, the serial killer in And Then There Were None, states his case at the beginning: like Agatha Christie herself, he believes that killers must be punished for their crimes with death; hence, murder for the sake of justice! Another multiple murderer never actually does the deed themselves but manipulates others to kill, just for the rush of power it brings. My favorite motive in all of Christie occurs in After the Funeral. I won’t give it away because it turns a complicated plot upside down, but when it is revealed, the moment is delicious.

Margot was correct in her analysis that Christie’s creative play with motive resulted in great innovation in character. These murderers might appear similar from novel to novel in that they comprise a cross section of the British middle class, basically decent people the lot of them. Rarely does a killer come across as a despicable person; some of the most cold-blooded amongst them possess the greatest charms. There are kind murderers, loving murderers, socially conscious murderers, even ladylike murderers! And throughout her career, Christie’s skill extends beyond her boundless capacity to surprise you as to whodunit and demonstrates her understanding of human nature through her ability to vary the reasons why they did it.

 

* Margot likes to title her posts after songs, so in honor of her inspiring me, I played around a bit with one of my favorite Beatles tunes!

CHRISTIE FIRSTS: Another Blogger’s Take

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Happy 126th birthday to you, Happy 126th birthday to you! Happy 126th birthday, Dame Agatha . . .

I can’t believe it has been a year since all the fuss occurred in Torquay over Agatha Christie’s 125th birthday! The panels, the performances, the men and women dressed up as Countess Vera Russakoff . . .

Okay, maybe that’s not how it was. I wouldn’t know, stuck as I was in America and enviously fuming. So when Kate over at Cross Examining Crime invited me – heck, she invited everyone, but I think I was one of the first – to celebrate the birthday by sharing my thoughts on which Christie novels a new reader should start with, I jumped at the chance to be included in this year’s festivities. Here’s the link to her post in case you want to join in by posting a link to your own blog or just offering your choices in the comments section. I welcome all comments below as well!

I love this idea of Kate’s because too often when I write about Christie in the blogosphere or on Facebook, someone invariably bursts in with a diatribe against the author, based on having gotten their first taste with At Bertram’s Hotel or Passenger to Frankfurt! Really?!? This is like saying Dickens was not compelling based solely on reading Barnaby Rudge! Maybe I was just lucky in my choices because, believe me, they weren’t planned. I was twelve! So, here goes:

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First Poirot: Death on the Nile

This is one of my favorite Poirots, as well as one of Christie’s best! The first Poirot I actually read was Murder on the Orient Express, which I loved. But the presence of Poirot in that one is a bit overshadowed by, on the plus side, one of the most extraordinary solutions in all of mystery fiction and, on the minus side, a preponderance of suspect interviews.

Nile is a great first choice for a number of reasons: it has just the right amount of Poirot, balancing his presence with a lot of attention paid to a ship full of colorful suspects; the setting is exotic, revealing Christie’s love for travel and for the Middle East; it would be a fabulous Golden Age mystery no matter who the detective was; and – and this is a technical point – it contains the very best example of a solution similar to others Poirot would encounter before and afterward in his long and varied career.

 tom-adams_a-murder-is-announced_london-fontana-books-1974_3445First Marple: A Murder Is Announced

If I am to assume that a reader is intelligent enough to read all of Christie, then I would say read the Marples in chronological order because, more than Poirot, she does change as she ages from about 78 to 147! But here I just had to choose the best Miss Marple mystery because it’s so good. Christie’s 50th novel is not only a wonderful dissertation on how World War II affected British village life, but that effect turns out to have a major part to play in the unraveling of the crime. It showcases Miss Marple’s skills as a more intuitive sleuth than Poirot, and it is one of the most fairly clued cases for a detective who didn’t always play fair with the reader. The things that Christie was best at – an extraordinary opening hook, subtle uses of language to misdirect, finding depths of color in a seemingly ordinary group of people, the interplay between Miss Marple and the best of her policemen (Dermot Craddock) – all combine to make this a must-read novel.

 

First Superintendent Battle: Cards on the Table

Is this cheating that I’m picking another Poirot novel that happens to feature Battle? This one is as Golden Age as they get! Poirot and Battle team up (along with Mrs. Oliver and Colonel Race) to solve the murder of a man who collected murderers! I also think that this is the perfect way to meet Battle before you read his best case, Toward Zero! In that later Christie, we get a brilliant depiction of the emotional life of a houseful of murder suspects. We even get more of a sense of Battle as a rounded person, dealing with family issues (that actually help him solve the crime he’s working on), but first you should see what a stolid investigator he is, and Cards on the Table is just the place to do it! (I love the cover below because it has absolutely nothing to do with the plot of this novel!!!)

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First Tommy and Tuppence: Partners in Crime

The Beresfords are a matter of taste. If you like married couple sleuths, you must start at the beginning, especially since each of Tommy and Tuppence’s cases finds them at an important crossroads in their lives: meeting, marriage, baby, empty nesters, old folks. But as much as I love the characters, there’s always something a little disappointing for me about the novels in which they are featured. Therefore, I suggest first reading their one collection of short stories. There is a through-line to the tales – something about tracking down an organization spies, which plays out by the end – but the stories are outright pastiches of great detectives of the early years, including Hercule Poirot himself. The stories are as light as air yet great fun, and if you enjoy this fey quality about the Beresfords, you will want to graduate to the novels, beginning with The Secret Adversary.

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First Thriller: The Pale Horse

As far as I’m concerned, this is the only thriller that the casual reader needs to pick up, if by “thriller” Kate means those self-indulgent novels that Christie loved to write about international conspiracies and Bright Young Things in jeopardy from a Master Criminal!!!!!!! The Pale Horse is actually quite wonderful, with the added bonus that it features characters from earlier books. (Be sure and read it after you read Cards on the Table.) I’ve been getting back into John Dickson Carr, which I mention here only because The Pale Horse is a great contrast to Carr in its use of the trappings of the supernatural. Christie was fond of inserting witchcraft and spiritualism into her stories, as did Carr, but the contrast in the way both authors went about it is fascinating.

And it has the added thrill that it was responsible for the capture of several real life criminals who tried this plan on for size because someone had read this book!!!!!

First Standalone: And Then There Were None

I count nine, maybe ten, novels by Christie that 1) do not feature any of her sleuths and 2) are pure murder mysteries, not thrillers. They are all very much worth reading! So why not start with the best: the best Christie standalone, the best Christie novel, and to many minds, the best mystery ever written. That’s saying a lot, so I won’t argue the point. I will admit that this is the first Agatha Christie novel I ever read, and it started a relationship with the author that is entering its sixth decade. Even if you don’t particularly love mysteries, even if you think getting caught up in Christie is not worth your time (what’s wrong with you?), I would insist that you should try at least one Agatha Christie novel, and this is the one you should try.

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ALL MY DEADLY DAUGHTERS: Christie’s Children in Fact and Fiction

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“I know all mothers rave about their babies, but I must say that, though I personally consider newborn babies definitely hideous, Rosalind actually was a nice-looking baby. She had a lot of dark hair, and she looked rather like a Red Indian; she had not that pink, bald look that is so depressing in babies, and she seemed, from an early age, both gay and determined.”

So writes Agatha Christie in An Autobiography about the birth of her only child, Rosalind. I’m sure the author liked her daughter very, very much, but when you pick out the bits about Rosalind throughout the book, it feels less like a mother-daughter relationship and more like one between a big grown-up and a little grown-up. Christie doesn’t dote constantly on her child; soon after Rosalind’s birth, Agatha and her husband Archie embark on various travels, leaving the little girl with various nurses, friends and relatives. After taking a voyage around the world, including a surfing holiday in Hawaii, Christie wrote:

“It was exciting to go away; it was wonderful to return. Rosalind treated us, as no doubt we deserved, as strangers with whom she was unacquainted. Giving us a cold look, she demanded: ‘Where’s my Auntie Punkie?’ My sister herself took her revenge on me by instructing me on exactly what Rosalind was allowed to eat, what she should wear, the way she should be brought up, and so on.”

Rosalind’s childhood was a whirl of change. Her first decade saw her mother’s establishment as the Queen of Crime, the unhinging of the Christie marriage, and Agatha’s notorious disappearance. Christie divorced Archie in 1928, dated a few men, and then met and married the noted archaologist Max Mallowan in 1930. Unsure whether she should accept his proposal, Christie writes that she sat down with Rosalind, “my home oracle,” to have a conversation:

“Rosalind,” I said, “would you mind if I married again?”

“Well, I expect you will sometime, said Rosalind, with the air of one who always considers all possibilities. “I mean, it is the natural thing to do, isn’t it?”

“Well, perhaps.”

“I shouldn’t have liked you to marry Colonel R.,” said Rosalind thoughtfully. I found this interesting, as Colonel R. had made a great fuss of Rosalind and she had appeared delighted with the games he had played for her enjoyment.

I mentioned the name of Max.

“I think he’d be much the best,” said Rosalind. “In fact I think it would be a very good thing if you did marry him . . . We might have a boat of our own, don’t you think? And he would be useful in a lot of ways. He is rather good at tennis, isn’t he? He could play with me.”

It’s significant to mention that this conversation occurred when Rosalind was 10 or 11.

The little girl that Christie creates in her autobiography sounds very grown up, indeed. And when one examines the child characters that Christie created in her fiction, this concept of “the little adult” becomes striking. Although they are relatively pint-sized, Christie’s children are not only fully realized characters, they fulfill every role that a character in a murder mystery can play. Every role . . . as witnesses, heroines, or victims. They can even be murderers.

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There aren’t a lot of children in Christie’s archive of characters. Maybe that’s a good thing, considering the atmosphere of dark deeds pervading her books. Christie was quite ruthless in her plotting: there was no guarantee that two people in love could be crossed off the list as a murderer, nor could you trust the spry old lady, the worried mother, even the investigating officer. Yet, there is also a pervading kindness in Christie’s books, in keeping with much of classic detective fiction. Her sense of justice is so keen that it tends to overshadow the grief that comes when a circle of closely related people lose not just the victim but the slayer as well.

Christie waited until late in her career to cast a child in the role of victim, and then it happened with almost alarming frequency. Dead Man’s Folly (1956), Endless Night (1967), By the Pricking of My Thumbs (1968) and Hallowe’en Party (1969) all begin with the death of a child. In the case of Endless Night, the death is buried in the early events of the main character’s life, and its significance does not become clear until the book’s end. The death that is called to mind in Pricking/Thumbs is of an infant, and it thankfully occurs long before the events of the book, but it does inspire more child deaths, again occurring in the past. The murderer in Elephants Can Remember (1972) also preys on children. As for the victims in Dead Man’s Folly and Hallowe’en Party, they are both teenage girls whose murders open a can of worms that reveal much larger murder plots. Christie spares her audience some discomfort over these girls’ deaths by making them quite unattractive, given to lying and/or blackmail.

 

Other children pop up along the way as witnesses, often brightening up the scene with their unusual perspicacity. In The Clocks (1963), Geraldine Brown gives Hercule Poirot important information because her illness gives her the perfect excuse to watch the neighbors. She also provides one of the few pleasures in this mostly tiresome mash-up of espionage and murder.

Most of the children in Christie’s novels are female, and one can’t help wondering how much the author derived inspiration from her own life, not only her own daughter, but Christie’s memories of herself as a little girl, often playing in solitude or treated like a grown-up by her mother and sister. We can see this autobiographical influence in an examination of three major child characters from the canon.

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Agatha Christie was a very pretty little girl, so in that respect she is the opposite of Josephine Leonides from Crooked House (1949) whom the investigator, Charles Hayward, is startled to find staring over his bed as he wakes up in her house one morning, She is described as:

“ . . . a fantastically ugly child with a very distinct likeness to her grandfather. It seemed to me possible that she also had his brains . . . The face still had its goblin suggestion – it was round with a bulging brow, combed back hair, and small, rather beady, black eyes. But it was definitely attached to a body – a small skinny body.”

Like Christie, Josephine is a precocious child, having grown up in a house filled with people much older than her. (Christie’s brother and sister, like Josephine’s, were significantly older but closer to their sister in terms of affection.) Left to her own devices, Josephine, like her creator, spends much of her time in nature, or watching the adults around her closely, or creating stories to act out. Most significant is Josephine’s assertion that she is the detective who will solve her grandfather’s murder – a dangerous plan for any character in a mystery.

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Josephine’s mother, Magda, is a famous stage actress. Like Christie, she is absorbed with her artistic career, which affects the time she can spend with her daughter. Unlike the author, Magda’s personality is all about appearances and emotional effect. Each pronouncement of her love or concern for her children comes off like a scene from a play, and each of her children responds to that in a different way. The eldest, Sophia, becomes an uneasy caregiver, gently trying to keep her mother focused on reality without puncturing the illusion that life centers around Magda. Her brother Eustace nearly disappears from the scene. And Josephine withdraws to a position of self-amusement and solemn, malicious observation.

Most of her interactions are with Charles, who tries with increasing desperation to get Josephine to reveal what she knows. There is something preternaturally old and almost supernatural about this child. The goblin imagery suggests something stunted and unreal, and in conversation and action, Josephine behaves like an adult, yet one with the moral compass of a child. She literally possesses more wisdom about the case than anyone else in her household. Given that she is only twelve years old, that makes her situation fraught with suspense and tinged with the potential for tragedy.

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In Hallowe’en Party, the central child figure in the novel turns out not to be the victim but another twelve-year old girl named Miranda Butler. Hercule Poirot’s first meeting with Miranda calls to mind the same otherworldly imagery we get from Josephine:

“Her voice was clear, almost bell-like in tone. She was a fragile creature. Something about her matched the sunk garden. A dryad or some elf-like being.”

Appropriately enough, Miranda is usually found in a wondrous garden that is central to the mystery plot. She feels most at home in the outdoors, yet Miranda is connected to her community more than Josephine: she is close to the single mother who raises her (one might say they raise each other) and to her friends, while Josephine is a solitary child, oddly estranged from the large family with whom she lives in Crooked House. Miranda is also connected to a murder case, yet she has a self-possession that Josephine either lacks or chooses to ignore, which makes Miranda’s ultimate fate quite different.

Like Josephine, Miranda is presented as an extraordinary child. She inspires strong feelings in both noble and unsavory people. Her relationship with Michael Garfield, the grown man who designed the garden they both love, has always made me deeply uncomfortable. Still, the main problem for Miranda, to be frank, is that she is trapped in a mystery plot that is so wobbly and dull that, by the time we reach the climax – in which Miranda figures prominently – many of us no longer care what happens.

If Josephine and Miranda are inspired by the fairy stories that Christie loved, then Julia Upjohn of Cat Among the Pigeons (1959) is firmly rooted in the realities of English girlhood, even if the book she inhabits is a fantastical piece of fluff, a hybrid of murder mystery and the escapades in espionage of which Christie was all too fond.

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What makes it a truly enjoyable novel for me is the depiction of the staff and schoolgirls at Meadowbank Academy, the private school that is the main setting of the story. Yes, the sacred jewels of Ramat are hidden on the premises, and yes, there is a deadly spy and at least one murderer on campus. Yet, as the bodies pile up, the girls are mostly concerned about their classes and their sports and in pondering the sex lives – or lack thereof – of their teachers.

In the middle of all this stands Julia Upjohn, “a plain freckled child, with an intelligent forehead, and an air of good humor.” Along with her best friend, Jennifer Sutcliffe, “a pale solid child of fifteen,” who lives and breathes tennis, Julia finds herself through sheer happenstance at the center of this complex plot. And what does she do? She behaves practically, without a hint of coyness or self-importance, and seeks out the best source of aid she can find – a small Belgian detective who can be coy or self-important with the best of them!

Julia has the same strong, positive relationship with her mother that Christie seems to have had with Rosalind. Julia’s mother, like Christie, loves to travel into the deepest parts of the Middle East, leaving her daughter behind for long periods of time. Yet their relationship is extremely warm and close. Like Christie, Mrs. Upjohn was engaged in important war work for her nation: Christie worked in hospitals where she learned all about poisons. Mrs. Upjohn worked in espionage, where she learned all about spies. And yet, despite where this knowledge took them – into the heart of murder – both women maintained rather ordinary lives centered around their families.

That link between mother and daughter is a central feature of the three novels mentioned here. It is the only real spark found after a juicy murder opens the mediocre Halloween Party. It is the most life-affirming aspect of a good novel like Cat Among the Pigeons. Most of all, a classic like Crooked House has the strength to explore a more dysfunctional relationship and the terrible ramifications that occur when a child is not nurtured with the selflessness that motherhood requires.

L’EXCROISSANCE or, Giving the (Moving) Finger to Christie

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My buddy Kate over at Cross Examining Crime just wrote an interesting article on Agatha Christie’s The Moving Finger. While she’s not as fond of the novel as I am, she had a fascinating take on the character of Megan Hunter here.

By an amazing coincidence, I happened to watch the TV adaptation of The Moving Finger this evening. You know the story I’m talking about, right? The one set in the little village where everyone is receiving poison pen letters? And then a pair of outsiders come to the village to stay because one of them was injured and nearly died. And he just happens to be a police inspector from the Surete, remember? And his boss is that flamboyant ladies man of a sleuth, Superintendent Larosière. Surely you haven’t forgotten this part? You know, when the Superintendent falls hard for the awkward daughter of the village solicitor, the girl named Louise? That’s right, and she had a best friend named Clara, who was the daughter of the town artist, M. Maloverde, but Clara drowned, and now everyone is getting killed, and nobody knows who the killer is because the whole thing stopped making sense in the first half hour? Remember?

Of course you don’t remember because it never happened in an Agatha Christie novel. That’s because Christie knew her way around a plot. But the creators of the hit the French series Les Petits Meurtres D’Agatha Christie (The Little Murders of Agatha Christie) never saw a Christie novel that they couldn’t improve by giving it the ol’ Gallic twist! Since 2009, the series has adapted 23 of Christie’s novels and one short story, and decimated them.

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How have they “improved” things? Well, for one thing, Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple are out! The first series features the aforementioned Larosiere and his bumbling assistant Inspector Lampion. Larosiere is a buffoon who takes all the credit for Lampion’s quiet wisdom. (Except for when Larosiere gets it right himself. Consistency of character would be way too boring for these people) Either way, each ninety minute TV-movie contains at least twenty minutes of French “humor” often involving suspects thinking Larosiere is gay (hyuck yuck yuck) or inflicting painful indignities on the actually gay Lampion (har de har har). And there’s a lot of sex, most of it quite unattractive. For example, in Finger, the old lady (think Miss Emily Barton from Christie’s novel) who rents her house to Lampion is having a torrid lesbian affair with her maid, the truly grotesque French version of Partridge.

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In place of Miss Marple, we have a sexy young journalist named Alice Avril who butts into the murder investigations of Commissaire Swan Laurence. You could cut the sexual tension between them with a knife. Or you could cut both their throats with a knife and end the madness.

Avril and Laurence make up the second and all subsequent seasons of this travesty, and their adventures take place in the 1950’s, as opposed to the 1930’s setting of the first season. The cases are indiscriminately based on Poirot tales, Miss Marple tales, Tommy and Tuppence tales, and a few stand-alones. The creators of the series have taken great care to get period details correct. The episodes look beautiful. But this doesn’t matter at all, for the series is not only crap, it’s an affront to Christie fans everywhere. That’s why I’m so baffled by all the positive reviews on Amazon. One fan states it’s the best filmed rendition of Agatha Christie’s work yet! Others talk about the delightful “Francophile” adaptations of the Mistress of Mystery’s novels. All I can ask myself, is “Why? Why? WHY???” Did the writers simply not have the imagination to create an original series? Are they mad at Dame Agatha for some reason? And just how many francs did Mathew Shepard ransack from the French in exchange for their right to mock his grandmother’s legacy?

The Moving Finger is part of the second set of programs made available with English subtitles. Yes, after buying and loathing the first set, I purchased the second set and set about picking the scab off. I took a bullet for all of you. You’re welcome.

For those of you who love Christie enough to collect any and all adaptations (yes, I once considered myself one of these people) and are unsure as to whether you should or shouldn’t give these versions a try, below I will elucidate the basic differences between each episode in the first set and the Christie novel on which it is based along with my measure of the French sex quotient in each episode. (I have only watched Finger from the second set; there are four more to suffer through.). Be wary of spoilers.

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Les Meurtres ABC (The ABC Murders): This starts out as a fairly faithful adaptation in that there is a series of murders based on the alphabet, and a copy of a railway timetable is found by each body. Since Superintendent Larosiere is an official policeman, unlike Poirot, his relationship to the suspects is different, more like a bully. The murders are much more gruesome in the series, and the bulk of the story centers on Larosiere’s competition with another detective to be the first to solve the case. Then the adaptation goes completely off the rails with a different murderer whose very Francophile motive asks you to sympathize with a mass murderer. (FRENCH SEX QUOTIENT: 3 gigolos out of 5. Fortunately for Lampion, the rival detective is a closeted homosexual, so somebody gets lucky!)

 Am stram gram (Ordeal by Innocence): This might be the most faithful adaptation, although it puts odd new twists into the story. At least it is less burdened with the tiresome comic interactions between Larosiere and Lampion. (FRENCH SEX QUOTIENT: One gigolo. Lampion falls in love with one of the young male suspects, who very kindly rebuffs him and tells him to live openly and be happy.)

La Maison du peril (Peril at End House): A garbled version of the original, with some very odd new characters added in. The ending is sort of the same as the original, although the murderer is looked upon with more sympathy for no good reason other than l’affairs d’amour. (FRENCH SEX QUOTIENT: Four gigolos. Larosiere falls madly in love with the Nick Buckley character, and she returns his affections. Lampion gets hit on by an elderly male suspect.)

Le chat et les souris (Cat Among the Pigeons): Hmmmm . . . Both versions take place at a girls’ school. And there is a tennis racket somewhere in there. I think about half the solution sort of resembles Christie’s, but it’s a complete mess otherwise. (FRENCH SEX QUOTIENT: A midget gigolo. Surprisingly little considering that Larosiere is surrounded by women.)

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Je ne suis pas coupable (Sad Cypress): This one has something to do with a feminist retreat and, in a plot twist that is particularly insulting, Lampion is disguised in drag as a champion of women’s rights. Buried in there is the original story, however, complete with the original solution. (FRENCH SEX QUOTIENT: The equivalent of a dose of saltpeter. Larosiere and Lampion pretend to be married. Zero laughs ensue . . .)

Un cadavre sur l’oreiller (The Body in the Library): Identical to the novel. Except the library is now a whorehouse, and all the upper class suspects are hookers. Larosiere is suspected of the murder since the body (once found in a British library in St. Mary Mead) is now found in his bed. Somehow it reaches the same ending as the book version, but this time you feel like you have to take a long, hot shower and really scrub. (FRENCH SEX QUOTIENT: Many, many gigolos! Hey, it’s a bordello, so everyone gets lucky! Larosiere has a favorite hooker named Esmeralda, and Lampion has a sweet, doomed romance with the piano player, Raymond.)

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Jeux de glaces (They Do It With Mirrors): The only episode in this set from the second season, it is set in the 1950’s and features Commissioner Laurence. Although many characters are cut or combined, and far too much time is taken establishing the bickering relationship between Laurence and the obnoxious female reporter Alice, the plot at first seems to be very much like the original. Then everything goes flooey! The wrong people die, and the wrong people turn out to be guilty, and the whole thing becomes a travesty unworthy of Miss Marple. (FRENCH SEX QUOTIENT: Three and a half gigolos. The character most like Gina from the novel flirts and sleeps with every other character, including Larosiere.)

Why am I bothering to discuss this awfulness in my blog? Well, I can think of three reasons. First, I can WARN YOU OFF!!! Do not bother with this series! Do not give Mathew Prichard any more undeserved drachmas! Do not encourage this kind of malevolent nonsense!

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Second, I can steer you in the right direction, toward the first incarnation of Miss Marple mysteries starring Joan Hickson. These are perhaps the most faithful adaptations out of all the adaptations of Christie in the world, in tone and plot, even if the occasional character is excised. I also happen to adore David Suchet’s Poirot, although by the end, there were some major missteps (especially the unbearable revision of Appointment With Death). The later Miss Marple series has its ups and downs, although by the middle of its run there’s a pretty steady slide into what-the-hell! And third, I got the chance to plug Kate’s article about the real Christie novel, The Moving Finger. I may not agree with all Kate says there, but at least on her site you’re dealing with intelligent writing about the real thing! Thanks, Kate!

THE CASE OF THE VANISHING VOLUMES: The Solution!

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This month, the Tuesday Club Bloggers are talking about Children in Crime. Just in case you didn’t get a chance to read this newly discovered adventure starring my childhood detective heroes, The Hardy Boys and Encyclopedia Brown, here’s the linkI was going to wait till Friday to post the solution, but WE HAVE A WINNER!!! So here’s the answer you’ve all been waiting for – enjoy!

Chief Brown stared at the three grinning boys. “Don’t tell me you all know who the thief is!” The three ace detectives smiled and nodded together. “Well, out with it, gentlemen!”

As the oldest junior sleuth in the room, Frank Hardy began.

“Chief, the culprit responsible for the theft of our book collections was identified through one of Dad’s sources – Anne Graham. Correct?”

The Chief nodded in agreement, and Frank went on.

“But we proved conclusively that Miss Graham could not have been the thief! The elevator had broken down, so from the moment we came downstairs until after we returned and discovered the theft, nobody could have used it to go upstairs. And although Miss Graham had the key to the emergency staircase, the presence of undisturbed dust on the floor and railing indicated that nobody had used the stairs either.”

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That clears Professor Friedman, too,” piped in Joe. “Plus, he had no key to the stairway and he has unimpeachable witnesses who can swear he was downstairs the whole time: us!”

“I follow you so far, boys,” said Chief Brown. “And I’m relieved that two of Idaville’s finest citizens have been proven innocent. But where does that leave us?”

“It means that the burglar must be someone who was already on an upper floor and had access to the stairs,” Frank explained. “Now, we could consider every hotel guest or hotel staff member who was between the second and the sixth floor at the time. But if we narrow our focus on the three guests who shared our floor and were present during the theft, I think we’ll find our culprit.”

“So what do we know?” asked Joe. “Well, Wendy Carn was next door taking a bath –“

“Most improper for that young lady to answer her door in such a state of dishabille!” sniffed Aunt Gertrude. “I’m sure you boys felt just as mortified as I did.”

All three lads blushed crimson. Joe hurried on.

“Er, yes, Aunt Gertrude. Both Otto Q Street and Mr. Stratemeyer claim they were in their rooms, but we only have each man’s word for it.”

“With the elevator out, where could either of them have gone?” asked Frank.

“Now, did I mention everybody?” Joe looked around at the others. “I did not! Remember that Mr. Stratemeyer opened the door and asked a passing maid for one of the towels she was carrying!”

“The maid!” cried Aunt Gertrude.

“Yes,” said Joe. “Where did that maid come from? She couldn’t have taken the elevator to the sixth floor, so she either walked up the stairs or she was already on this floor.”

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He paused triumphantly. The pause stretched into a long moment until the Chief could stand it no more.

“Well?” he asked. “Which was it?”

At this point, Encyclopedia stirred. He turned to the Hardy Boys.

“May I?” The boys deferred graciously to their young colleague. “Let’s step back for a minute, Dad, to Mr. Hardy’s phone conversation with you. We’re assuming that Mr. Hardy’s source made a mistake when he gave the name ‘Anne Graham,’ right?”

Chief Brown started. “Do you mean that after all this Miss Graham is guilty?”

Encyclopedia shook his head. “Not at all. But what if Mr. Hardy misunderstood what his source was saying? Maybe the name he heard meant something else. Not “Anne Graham” . . . but ANAGRAM!!!”

Chief Brown looked around him. The Hardy Boys were nodding and smiling at their friend. Aunt Gertrude’s face was a study in surprise.

“Anagram?” she sputtered. “Do you mean –“ She thought for a moment. “What exactly do you mean??”

“I mean that the source knew that the culprit was using a name that was an anagram for another name,” said Encyclopedia.

“But which guest does that lead us to, son?” asked the Chief.

Frank raised a hand. “Well, sir, it couldn’t be Mr. Stratemeyer because he is actually quite a famous person, a publisher of impeccable taste. Unless he is pretending to be Mr. Stratemeyer, that is. But I’m pretty sure he can prove who he is easily.”

Joe took up the narrative. “And it couldn’t be Otto Q Street!”

“Why not?”

“The Q, Dad,” explained Encyclopedia. “Q was his entire middle name, remember, and that means the only letters you can attempt an anagram with, besides the q, are e, o, r, s, and t . . . “

The Chief smacked his forehead. “ . . . and no “u”!!! You can’t make any word or name with a ‘q’ and no ‘u’”

“Exactly, sir,” nodded Frank approvingly. “Good thinking.”

“Which leaves . . . “ said the Chief.

Joe’s face grew troubled. “Which leaves only one person . . .”

*          *          *

Chief Brown led the procession of sleuths down the hall to Room 601, where he rapped on the door commandingly. Presently, the door opened, and Wendy Carn stood there, a vision in a smart yellow dress and green sweater. She stared at them all with an expression of utter innocence.

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“Oh my goodness,” she said. “Another unexpected pleasure!”

“May we come in, Miss Carn?” asked the Chief.

“Of course.” Wendy opened the door wider to allow them entry. She had made some attempt to clean up the earlier clutter. “What can I do for you boys?”

“Young lady, there is a lot you can do to assist us in our enquiries! I’ll let these young men explain.”

Joe stepped forward a little bashfully. “Wendy, I guess you were having me on all morning, but I’m here to tell you nothing but the truth: we know you broke into our room and stole our books!”

Wendy’s face broke into an “O” of surprise. “Me?”

Frank nodded “What’s more, we know why you did it.”

Wendy’s expression hardened. She strolled over to an armchair, sat down and folded her arms. “I’m listening.”

Encyclopedia, sat down beside the girl and said in a gentle voice, “Here’s what happened: When we went downstairs this morning, we met you coming out of the elevator. That clued you into the fact that the Hardy’s room was empty and that it was time to put your plan in motion.”

Wendy snorted. “What plan?”

“You went into your room and changed into a maid’s outfit that you had brought with you. You had some sort of skeleton key or pick with which you could open the hotel room door. You grabbed a stack of towels from your own bathroom to help with your disguise and made your way toward the room next door to you.”

Frank took up the story. “But Mr. Stratemeyer came outside of his room hoping he could snag some towels. He saw you, and you played the helpful maid perfectly.” The Chief glanced sharply at Frank. The young man sounded almost admiring of the girl’s tactics.

“Ridiculous!” cried Wendy.

Joe replied, “Let’s invite him over. Perhaps you wore a wig or glasses, but I’ll bet a man who publishes mystery fiction would be able to identify you as the maid he spoke to.”

Wendy shifted uncomfortably. “Go on,” she muttered.

“You then made your way across the hall, broke into our room and stole the books by wrapping them in the remaining towels you had brought with you,” said Encyclopedia. “Afterward, you returned with the books to your room.”

Chief Brown interrupted. “But son, when we searched Wendy’s room earlier, we found no sign of the books.”

“That’s correct!” Wendy said triumphantly. “And why would I ever want to steal your stupid book collections?”

“I can answer both those questions,” said Encyclopedia. “Dad, we’ve assumed that the thief wanted to steal the books in order to sell the autographed copies for a profit. But what if they were stolen for another reason?”

“What reason?” asked the Chief and Wendy together.

“What if they were stolen in order to destroy them?”

“But that’s – that’s just spiteful!” the Chief rubbed his jaw in puzzlement.

Frank chimed in. “I think Wendy went into our room to be spiteful, sir. She didn’t know exactly what she was going to do. She just wanted to make trouble for us.”

“And when she saw the books,” added Joe, “she got her idea. She took them back to her room – “

“ – and she destroyed them,” finished Encyclopedia.

“But where? How?” asked the Chief, looking around the room. “There was no sign of any torn or burned books.”

“Not in this room,” replied his son. “But what about the bathroom?”

Wendy stood up abruptly from her chair, but Joe was too fast for her. He dashed to the bathroom door and flung it open. A wave of steam wafted out of the doorway and surrounded Joe, who stared dumbfounded in front of him.

“Oh my gosh! Look, guys!” Joe pointed. Frank, Encyclopedia and the Chief hurried to stand beside him. Their mouths dropped open.

Mist rose from the bathtub full of hot water, but it couldn’t obscure the piles of ruined, drowned books that lay at the bottom!

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Everyone turned to look at Wendy Carn, whose eyes brimmed with tears. Chief Brown walked over to her and said sternly, “Young lady, can you explain this?”

Wendy opened her mouth to speak, but then she flounced back down on the chair and folded her arms tightly across her chest. Chief Brown looked from his son to the Hardy Boys in amazement, then he crossed to the telephone by the bed and picked up the dial.

“Dad, what are you doing?” Encyclopedia asked.

“I’m calling for a squad car. This young lady has vandalized personal property.”

“Er . . . can we just let it go, sir?” asked Frank.

The Chief stared at them. “I don’t understand, boys! You’ve found your burglar. Why don’t you want me to arrest her?”

Frank and Joe looked at each other, then at Encyclopedia, who turned to his father.

“Because we understand why she did it.” He turned to face Wendy. “I can see how upsetting it would be for you to watch the Hardy Boys and me being honored today. But I don’t think you can blame Professor Friedman. He’s just not as well read as we are.”

Wendy, who had been dabbing her eyes with a tissue, stopped and stared at all three of her accusers.

“You really do know, don’t you?”

Joe Hardy walked over to the chair and kneeled before Wendy. Taking her hand, he said, “If it makes you feel any better, we all think you deserve the same accolades we got. Maybe more, considering how much harder it is for a girl to break into this business.”

The Chief slammed the phone back onto the receiver. “Will somebody please explain to me what is going on? Just who is this young lady?”

Encyclopedia smiled. “Dad, not everyone who can disguise themselves and break into a room is a thief. This girl possesses the skills of a very clever detective! One who has earned every honor that we received this morning.”

Frank chuckled. “I’m surprised Mr. Stratemeyer didn’t recognize her this morning even with her disguise, considering he published 175 books about her.”

The Chief blinked slowly for a moment and then turned to his son. “You said – you said her name was an anagram?”

Encyclopedia Brown smiled and said, “That’s right, Dad, an anagram. Wendy Carn is an alias. Shake hands with Nancy Drew!”

 

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Congratulation to John, who figured out, well, more of the solution than anyone else did! (Maybe not the motive, John . . . “shameless hussies” in a children’s story???) John is the winner of a genuine used copy (from my very own childhood) of Hardy Boys Adventure #3: The Secret of the Old Mill. Great sleuthing, sir!