Over at The Invisible Event (which is a source of marvelous discussions about Golden Age mysteries), fellow blogger and mystery fanatic JJ is hosting a relatively new chat about short stories. Check out the original post here.
I’m not surprised that Agatha Christie’s name has not come up in conversation. Although she wrote dozens of short stories, her talents as a plotter were, by and large, better suited to novels. That’s not to say that she didn’t create some gems, such as “Witness for the Prosecution,” which packs a great punch! In addition to some fine stories featuring her regular sleuths, Christie even created new characters who appeared only in short form: Mr. Parker Pyne, solver of problems of the heart, and Mr. Harley Quin, who may or may not be of this earth. I need to be in the right mood to read a Quin tale, but the Parker Pyne stories are a lot of fun.
Curtis Evans, in his excellent blog, The Passing Tramp, recently reviewed them. Here’s a link to part one of that review.
My favorite Christie short story collection is a series of tales that were published in British magazines between December 1927 and November 1931, then gathered together and published in 1932 under the title The Thirteen Problems. In America, the publication came out in 1933 with a changed title, The Tuesday Club Murders. I like the American title, although, as it will become clear, it isn’t entirely correct.
The most significant factor about this collection is that it introduced Miss Jane Marple, the elderly spinster whose life and experiences in the village of St. Mary Mead became the source of twelve novels and twenty short stories. Of all Christie’s detectives, Miss Marple’s personality and style are most conducive to the short story form because she was all about the parable: her stock in trade was to find parallels in village life to the events surrounding a particular crime and from there, to find the truth that had invariably eluded the police. The novels featuring Miss Marple, while delightful, tend to feature less emphasis on logical puzzles and clueing than the Poirot books and more focus on the vagaries of human nature. I admit that you can reach the end of a Marple novel – 4:50 From Paddington, for example – and say, “Well, that was fun, but how the heck could she have known that X was the killer?” The short stories tend to be better clued, with the solutions coming about from a combination of examination of the evidence and the elderly sleuth’s store of knowledge about the way people act and think.
Another wonderful thing about this collection is its premise. Rather than present a series of cases with Miss Marple tottering about, sniffing out clues, the stories – with one notable exception – are shaped rather like The Canterbury Tales. They take place in a drawing room where a group of friends each take a turn sharing a past crime with which they were involved, then challenge their fellow guests to solve the mystery. Yes, it’s a formula, but a delightful one, and the interplay between these acquaintances is as fun to read – if not more so – as the mysteries themselves.
Finally, in examining this book, one can find Christie experimenting with tricks she will expand into novel form. She was known to do this throughout her career. For example, the 1941 Miss Marple story, “The Case of the Caretaker,” contains the foundation for the full-length Endless Night (1967), and the fine 1937 short, “Yellow Iris” is stretched almost unbearably into Sparkling Cyanide (1945).
One can actually split The Thirteen Problems into three sections: the first, originally published in The Royal Magazine between December 1927 and May 1928, contains the actual six cases of the Tuesday Night Club, a weekly gathering at Miss Marple’s house of six friends, including her nephew Raymond West, an insufferable modern novelist, Sir Henry Clithering, a retired Commissioner of Scotland Yard, , Joyce Lempriere, a popular artist, Mr. Petherick, a dry as dust solicitor, and Dr. Pender, the local clergyman. Sir Henry and Raymond appear in many more Miss Marple tales, while Joyce, in the sixth tale, seems destined to become Raymond’s wife (although her name changes unaccountably to Joan in future stories.) Dr. Pender, it is assumed, will retire and be replaced by Len Clement just in time for Miss Marple’s debut novel, Murder at the Vicarage, in 1934.
The idea of a weekly gathering to discuss real life mysteries comes from Raymond West in the first story, “The Tuesday Night Club.” West proposes that each person in turn will tell his or her tale and then allow the group to try its hand at solving the case before the solution is revealed. Each guest feels that he or she possesses a certain gift that will give him (or her) an advantage in the game: Sir Henry and Mr. Petherick rely on their legal experience, Raymond and Joyce claim their artistic imaginations will take them far, and Dr. Pender claims that his experience in the clergy, especially at confession, allows him to understand “a side of human character better which is a sealed book to the outside world.”
At first, no one assumes that Miss Marple will even want to play, and Christie’s initial presentation of the old lady paints a prosaic picture: “Miss Marple wore a black brocade dress, very much pinched in round the waist. Mechlin lace was arranged in a cascade down the front of the bodice. She had on black lace mittens, and a black lace cap surmounted the piled-up masses of her snowy hair. Her faded blue eyes (were) benignant and kindly . . . “ It comes as a surprise to everyone when she insists on participating because, as she explains, “I think it would be very interesting, especially with so many clever gentlemen present. I am afraid I am not clever myself, but living all these years in St. Mary Mead does give one an insight into human nature.” It will come as no surprise to any reader that Miss Marple, and she alone, is the only one savvy enough to figure out the correct solution every time.
The second six stories were originally published in The Story-Teller Magazine from December 1929 to May 1930. The cast, setting and format differ slightly in that each member of the company tells a tale over the course of one evening during a dinner party at the home of Colonel Arthur Bantry and his wife Dolly, who will figure so prominently in one of the best Miss Marple novels, The Body in the Library (1942.) Mrs. Bantry returns as a widow in The Mirror Crack’d From Side to Side (1963). Here, they have invited Sir Henry Clithering to dinner, and he has asked them to include Miss Marple in the company. Rounding out the guest list is Dr. Lloyd, presumably Dr. Haydock’s predecessor, and Jane Helier, a glamorous and simple-minded actress.
I love the humor of this second batch of stories, and the framing device is better developed. The voices of the narrators are more distinctive: while the characters in the first six tales all seem equally up to telling a story, some of the characters in the second round struggle with their roles as narrators, making for some really funny interplay.
In order to make a true baker’s dozen of tales, the book concludes with “Death by Drowning.” This is not a story told in retrospect but an actual case that Sir Henry takes up when he returns to St. Mary Mead to visit the Bantrys. It is a fascinating story that showcases Miss Marple’s ability to work in tandem with – and one step ahead of – the police in an ongoing case. In a sense, then, the final tale serves as a true audition for her first novel-length case two years later and deserves some consideration.
Next time, I will examine the first six stories. I hope you’ll come along for the ride.