Agatha Christie’s THE THIRTEEN PROBLEMS: Part II

Grabbing at the chance to enter into the discussion about short stories over at The Invisible Event and always eager to talk about Agatha Christie, I thought I would spend the next few posts discussing The Thirteen Problems, Christie’s version of The Arabian Nights Tales that served to introduce everyone’s favorite spinster sleuth, Miss Marple.

An examination of Christie’s methods will no doubt reveal far too much spoilerish information, so those who have not read the stories – or much of Christie’s work – should stand warned. Herewith, the first three tales of the Tuesday Night Club.

CASE #1: “The Tuesday Night Club”

NARRATOR: Sir Henry Clithering                bobbies-arresting-man

Sir Henry is given the first slot by virtue of his position as a retired Commissioner from Scotland Yard. The tale is a model of economy, encompassing the formation of the Tuesday Night Club, the introduction of its members, and the first tale in less than fifteen pages. Even Sir Henry’s introduction of the case is admirably concise: “The facts are very simple. Three people sat down to a supper consisting, amongst other things, of tinned lobster. Later in the night, all three were taken ill, and a doctor was hastily summoned. Two of the people recovered, the third one died.” When it is proven that the dead woman succumbed to arsenic, rather than food, poisoning, her husband comes under suspicion. Yet, despite the uncovering of numerous motives for his wife’s murder, the husband could not have doctored her meal. The question becomes: who killed the wife and how?

Husbands and wives make up the crux of a great number of Christie’s finest cases. The spouse, according to both Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot, is always the most likely suspect. In the novels, ten husbands kill their wives, and five wives kill their husbands. Ah, but what of the companion? Christie populates many of her stories with that most interesting of creatures: often poor but ladylike (due to having fallen out of her class), too eager to please, yet filled with envy or anger regarding her low station in life. (One of my all time favorite Christie killers works as a companion.) And let us not forget the pretty housemaid on hand to serve at table or the doctor’s daughter waiting in the wings to marry the widower.

The story highlights Christie’s favorite murder method: death by poisoning. Rare is the character who, expiring after partaking of some edible substance or medicine, has not been done away with. Here, Christie plays upon the average consumer’s suspicion against tinned fish, a device she later works to perfection in the novel Sad Cypress. In addition, the idea of many people taking ill after a meal with only one dying will pop up again and again in her works, notably in the Miss Marple novel 4:50 From Paddington, in the tour de force set in ancient Egypt, Death Comes As the End, and even later in this very book of stories.

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As each of the Tuesday Club members propounds a theory, it is clear that they are all grasping at straws. It makes sense for a husband to do away with his wife in order to inherit her money or marry a prettier woman, but how can it be proven? Companions tend to fade into the background and are not taken seriously as suspects, which in this case, could be a mistake. The members make their guesses, but nobody knows for sure. Then, Miss Marple speaks, and all becomes clear.

This brief tragedy is a fine introduction to the way the elderly lady works. Her eye for small domestic details, her use of village parallels to gather insight into the people and events in the case, and her logical assumptions of how certain people will behave – stout women, for example – lead her to a solution that makes total sense, even if there is no really solid evidence against the killer. This instinctive form of detection will trump the evidentiary in nearly all the Miss Marple stories, short and long.

CASE #2: “The Idol House of Astarte”

NARRATOR: Dr. Pender

“My life has been passed in quiet places,” says Dr. Pender, the elderly clergyman, to start off the second Tuesday Night Club meeting. “Very few eventful happenings have come my way. Yet once, when I was a young man . . . I saw a man stricken to death by apparently no mortal agency.” This impossible crime is set in the winter on the borders of Dartmoor at the home of Sir Richard Haydon. The house party is large enough to populate a novel, although most of the guests are only tangentially involved in the case. The most striking character is Miss Diana Ashley, “one of the most notorious beauties of the Season,” who has captured the hearts of more than one of the gentlemen in the party.

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The story, first published in 1928, touches on the subjects of archeology, two years before Christie married her second husband, the archeologist Max Mallowan, and of the supernatural, a topic Christie returns to in interesting ways in several more of these stories and in such novels as The Sittaford Mystery (1931), Dumb Witness (1937), and The Pale Horse (1961). Sir Richard’s home, Silent Grove, contains a barrow where various artifacts from pagan and Druid cultures have been unearthed. The property also contains a grove of trees that historically had been used as a setting for rituals honoring the Phoenician goddess Astarte. Christie’s strength never lay in her powers of description, and it is largely through the reactions of the various houseguests that Christie shows the powerful effect that atmosphere can have on a group of people, one that is the centerpiece of this mystery. Dr. Pender feels “a curious oppression.” Young Dr. Symonds states simply, “I don’t like it. I can’t tell you why. But somehow or other, I don’t like it.” Only Diana Ashley is drawn to the dubious charms of the grove and the small summerhouse in its center that contains a shrine to the goddess. “Oh, do let us have a wild orgy tonight. Fancy dress. And we will come out here in the moonlight and celebrate the rites of Astarte.”

Diana’s passion for drama leads to a night of horror: the death of one man and the near-death of another. Sir Richard is apparently struck down and stabbed to death by no mortal agency. Later, his cousin Elliot is attacked in the exact same place. He survives, but his recounting of what happened to him only deepens the mystery of how both men were struck down with nobody in the vicinity. Has the house party awakened an evil spirit, or is this night of death the work of a human agency?

The Tuesday Club members are clearly affected by the atmosphere of the story. Maybe Joyce shouldn’t have turned off the lights and allowed Dr. Pender to recount his tale by firelight. “I have been to séances,” says Joyce, “and you may say what you like, very queer things can happen.” Practical theories abound as to how Richard and Elliot Haydon could have been attacked when nobody was standing nearby, and each of them – mass hypnotism, murder by javelin, suicide – is problematical. Even after Miss Marple explains the true solution, Dr. Pender is not satisfied: “I do not think that explanation quite covers the facts. I still think there was an evil influence in that grove, an influence that directed (the killer’s) action. Even to this day I can never think without a shudder of The Idol House of Astarte.”

The events that occur on the fatal evening are nice and spooky, but the trouble with this tale for me and for other frequent readers of impossible crime stories is that, once you eliminate the possibility of the supernatural (which all good mystery readers must do!), you are left with pretty much one solution. It doesn’t help that I recently read a fine Helen McCloy novel that used the exact same trick (and which, consequently, fooled me not a jot). Still, Dr. Pender’s final point is worthy of examination, and Miss Marple herself remarks that some places appear to attract unhappiness or evil. The circle of trees where no birds sang may have been the tipping point for a person with murder in his or her heart.

CASE #3: “Ingots of Gold”

Narrator: Raymond West

“I know, dear,” says Miss Marple to her nephew, the writer Raymond West,” that your books are very clever. But do you think that people are really so unpleasant as you make them out to be?”

Throughout the Miss Marple canon, West shows himself to be devoted to his aunt, sending her the best doctors when she is ill or paying for luxury vacations to the Caribbean. Yet, we are clearly meant to laugh at Raymond, with his fatuous pontifications and clearly inflated ego. As a result, one surmises that his tale to the group – the only one for which the narrator does not have a solution – is meant as a form of comeuppance to a man who, as a writer, fancies himself a keen observer of human nature, when in reality he is clearly a gullible twit. It’s my bet, therefore, that nobody will be fooled by the red herring at the heart of this story of stolen gold bullion that coincides with legends of treasure buried beneath the seas off the coast of Cornwall. Still, Christie has fun laying the traps for Raymond, and Miss Marple delivers the embarrassing truth with a loving twinkle in her eye.

This particular tale reminds me a great deal of many Sherlock Holmes stories, where a client comes to Baker Street and recounts a mysterious event, the truth of which Holmes quickly lays bare. (If you’ve read a lot of Holmes, you’ll have no trouble with this one!) One of the most basic techniques found in Christie is the character who, by virtue of his or her position in the tale, we invariably trust, despite Miss Marple’s (and every other sleuth’s) constant reminders not to trust anybody. How often is Captain Hastings led astray through his instinctive trust of a fellow military man or his attraction to auburn-haired women? To me, this is one of the minor tales of this collection, perhaps my least favorite, but it does remind us that a canny reader of mysteries must accept no information on face value.

In our next installment: two tales that again tap into superstition and the supernatural, as well as the first of two mysteries narrated by Miss Marple herself, a story containing one of Christie’s rare uses of the dying message!

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4 thoughts on “Agatha Christie’s THE THIRTEEN PROBLEMS: Part II

  1. I love these stories (especially as read by Joan Hickson). Christie does describe the “grove” – it sounds like Wistmans Wood on Dartmoor. OK, so maybe she doesn’t give us fine writing and lots of adjectives, but that is her method. She presents what the members of the house party would have seen and heard – and besides, the unliterary Dr Pender is telling the tale.

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    1. Lucy, I agree with you that she’s quite descriptive here. I even included some of her writing about the place and about Diana and then cut it for space. I myself have always appreciated her brevity, and there is enough here to make us understand that, even on the tors of Dartmoor in the winter, this is a bleak and creepy place.

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  2. I love the Sherlock allusion in ‘Ingots of Gold’, Brad, that’s superbly apt. Not especially challeging, no, but viewed in that way it does take on a new charm of sorts. ‘Idol House…’ is easily one of my favourite Christie stories ever; I don’t care how much hue and cry that raises, I read it in my early days and was blown away by the simplicity of its complexity if you follow me (the same can be said of many of the stories in Poirot Investigates). A great start, really looking froward to further instalments.

    Mark Green has just posted a great statistical breakdown of the Marple short stories on the Bodies from the Library blog that you (and you discerning readers) may be interested in. Some very interesting points there, well worth checking out:

    http://bodiesfromthelibrary.com/2015/11/23/miss-marple-the-bodycount-rises/

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