Despite being our shortest month, February carries a lot of responsibility on its shoulders. It’s the month when two of America’s most important presidents were born, when the Chinese celebrate the lunar New Year, when winter’s length relies on a bashful groundhog, when Catholics mark their foreheads with ashes, and when the jazz and booze flow freely on the streets of New Orleans during Mardi Gras. February is Black History Month, American Heart Month, Chocolate Lovers’ Month and National Dental Month!
But most of all, it’s the month of love!
Jack Benny, the legendary comedian, celebrated his birthday (Feb. 14, Valentine’s Day) on the radio each year by tackling his theme song “Love in Bloom” on the violin. That’s the inspiration for the Tuesday Night Bloggers, who have decided to mark the month as a celebration of Love (and Murder) in Bloom. Check out the beautiful cover Bev found. And guess who gets to play host and gather all the entries this month for the first time? Here are the first week’s posts. Please check them out!
Kate tackled Christie and others over at Cross Examining Crime.
Bev is all about Sayers at My Reader’s Block.
In a murder mystery, love is, shall we say, problematical at best. This is true for any drama worth its literary salt, but in a mystery, rivals in love are as likely to end up dead on the library floor . . . or strung up on the gallows. It stands to reason, for the power of love is potentially as violent as the impetus to kill. Some people sadly thrive on hate as deeply as others thrive on love, leading to carefully prepared murder plans, while love thwarted creates such heat that . . . well, let’s just say the term “crime of passion” rolls trippingly off the tongue of every decent mystery fan.
Agatha Christie was a woman who understood these matters well. She herself had dallied with many men in a light-hearted fashion before she let Archie Christie sweep her off her feet and subsequently break her heart. Max Mallowan rescued her for the rest of her life, but whatever damage Archie had done found its way into the pages of her stories for the rest of her career. Whereas authors like Patricia Wentworth and Ngaio Marsh sanctified the primary romance in each of their novels – young couples may be inconvenienced murder but are never permanently separated by one of them being the killer – Christie did not treat innocent love as sacrosanct. Plenty of her romantic entanglements are cut short by homicidal tendencies on the part of one mate or the other, or lovers practice the homily: “the family that slays together stays together.”
At the end of last summer, I wrote a post about some of Christie’s deadly duos, those couples whose passions often merged love and death. Today I offer my suggestions for the author’s best couples and her best entanglements in what I call the “Triangle Plus.” In each section, I count down to my favorite, and I would love to hear from you as to whether you agree with me, have a different favorite on each list, or are enamored of a couple or grouping I neglected to mention. I warn you – there will be spoilers.
Tied in fifth place, we find two of those couples you would never find in Wentworth. They seem devoted, but alas! Romantic happiness is not in the cards for them!
#5 (tie): Louise and Erich Leidner
I have to admit that I place this couple on the list because they irritate me so! On the one hand, Louise Leidner is interesting because she is based on a real person: Katharine Woolley, the wife of the noted archeologist Sir Leonard Woolley, for whom Max Mallowan was working when Agatha Christie met her future second husband. Erich Leidner, like Max, is an archeologist and the devoted second husband to the emotionally neurotic Louise, so there are even superficial parallels to the author’s life (although, unlike Louise, Christie was fascinated by archaology and assisted in her husband’s work with energy and verve.) When Louise comes to believe that she is being menaced by her first husband, a man everyone assumes has died in a train accident, Erich Leidner does all he can to assuage her fears, but nothing can stop death from striking. The bereaved husband flings himself into the investigation into Louise’s murder and supports Hercule Poirot throughout his investigation.
SPOILER ALERT: And why shouldn’t he? Erich Leidner has no reason to think that Poirot or anyone would catch onto the single most absurd plot twist in the canon: the idea that a smart woman could be terrified of her dead husband and not be aware that her second spouse is her “dead” first husband. Oh, come on! END SPOILER
#5 (tie): Jane Grey and Norman Gale
As alluded to before, nearly every Patricia Wentworth mystery has at its center a vital romance between two young people. That was not the case with Agatha Christie. Rarer still did two people engaged in solving a crime grow so close as to contemplate another engagement. This happens, however in the 1935 mystery, Death in the Clouds. The novel opens in the first class cabin of a trans-channel air flight, where Christie lets us into the heads of the various passengers. Thus, we learn that dentist Norman Gale finds the lovely Jane Grey a dashed attractive little minx, and the comely hairdresser thinks Mr. Gale is no slouch either. When a fellow passenger is murdered, Hercule Poirot lures Jane and Norman into helping him with his investigation. Thus thrown together, their feelings for each other can’t help but blossom. One of the great joys of this novel is watching “Papa” Poirot plays Cupid.
SPOILER ALERT: Christie proves that she is no Patricia Wentworth! Anyone and everyone in her novels can turn out to be the murderer. By the end, we realize that Poirot’s matchmaking was as much about saving a life as it was finding a happy ending for two young people. END SPOILER
#4: Hercule Poirot and Countess Vera Rossakoff
Yes, there are classic detectives who have started their careers out as bachelors and then, usually through a case, fallen for one of the suspects and, after a suitable period of courtship, have forsaken the single life for the bliss of matrimony. I maintain that this works best for those characters who have been introduced as personable young men with a dearth of eccentricities. Roderick Alleyn, Bobby Owen, and Albert Campion come to mind. Lord Peter Wimsey’s affectations had largely subsided by the time he met Harriet Vane (and saved her from the gallows!) The same might be said for Nigel Strangeways. Ellery Queen went through many personality changes, but only in the Hollywood years did he engage in all sorts of flirtations. (His creators established at the start that Ellery was married with children, but I don’t think they ever took that idea seriously. It was abandoned early on.)
The true eccentrics – Nero Wolfe, Philo Vance, Sherlock Holmes, and Hercule Poirot – seemingly did not have the disposition for romance; bluntly speaking, the blood coursed through their brains and not their other organs. Yet, in at least two cases, a special someone was mentioned to suggest that, after all, the detective had a heart. I mention Countess Vera Rossakoff here because it seemed, for a moment, that Christie had given Poirot his own Irene Adler. These were early days in the author’s career, and her first short stories definitely derive from the same literary province that Doyle located Sherlock Holmes. And yet, the Countess is never the singular person that we find in Irene Adler after just one story. In fact, Vera changes personality and purpose in each of the three stories in which she appears. She is a suspect in a short story, “The Double Clue,” and by the end of the investigation, Poirot’s annoyance with her has transformed into intoxication. In the novel The Big Four, (1927) she plays a pivotal role as the secretary of one of the main villains. Her character is far more serious, a change of style that robs her of much of her charm. (But then, nobody is at his or her best in The Big Four.) The wacky grande dame returns in full force in her final appearance, “The Capture of Cerberus,” the final story in The Labours of Hercules. I don’t think any fan of Poirot takes his protestations of love for Rossakoff very seriously, but it is a charming footnote – and one of the few semi-continuous threads found in his lengthy career.
#3: Ellie and Michael Rogers
I must confess I am not a huge fan of Endless Night (1967), but it is one of the purest depictions of love in all of Christie, scarcely interrupted by any sort of detection. Christie builds a careful portrait of her narrator, Michael, as a neurotic young man plagued by a difficult upbringing and deprivation. Meeting and marrying Ellie seems to turn life around for him. Her love is pure and simple, assuaging the self-doubt that constantly plagues him. There is nothing greedy or obsessive about her. And her money buys Michael the one dream he has cherished all his life: a beautiful home. The subsequent downfall of their life together parallels its rise and has all the markings of genuine tragedy.
SPOILER ALERT: Except Michael is not a neurotic: he’s sociopathic, and he sees Ellie and everyone else who cares for him as a stepping stone to his own primitive dream of feeling rich. He uses the architect, he uses Greta, his mistress – and ultimately kills them all because he is incapable of sharing his desires with another in any lasting, meaningful way. And so Endless Night becomes a portrait of the power of love as seen through the eyes of someone who cannot experience it. END SPOILER
Runner-Up: Sophia Leonides and Charles Hayward
War brings Sophia and Charles together, and murder tears them apart. In Crooked House, they are deployed together in the Middle East where they fall in love. Sophia is sent back to England and Charles soon follows, intending to marry her. But in the interim, Sophia’s grandfather, old Aristide Leonides, has been poisoned, and suspicion falls on the family. Sophia regretfully tells Charles that she cannot marry him with this stain hanging over the family, and Charles, who conveniently has a relative at the Yard assigned to the case, decides to solve the crime and free his beloved from all worry and doubt.
As much as readers focus on the ending of Crooked House, one of Christie’s most dazzling solutions, the motivation that drives Charles is significant because he does what he does out of love. Only after he begins his quest does Charles have doubts as to the consequences of uncovering the truth. In that sense, this is one of Christie’s best representations of the effect murder can have on a family. And when he comes to the possibility of his beloved Sophia herself being the killer, Charles’ crisis goes into overdrive. It’s a marvelous mystery, and a trenchant portrayal of love in a time of great stress.
. . . and the WINNER is:
Tommy and Tuppence Beresford
Say what you will about the body of work that comprises their life story, there is no clearer depiction of love in Christie than her sleuthing couple. Childhood chums Prudence Cowley and Thomas Beresford meet up again at the end of World War I – and in the second of Christie’s novels, The Secret Adversary (1922) – and take up their friendship where they left off. They form a detective agency, The Young Adventurers, Ltd. and quickly become embroiled in a rambling conspiracy that involves the Lusitania, a missing girl, a mysterious conspiracy to topple something or other, and a criminal mastermind known as Mr. Brown who is closer to the Young Adventurers than they think. In the end, Tommy and Tuppence bring the conspiracy to a crashing halt and defeat Mr. Brown, and the intensity of their investigation brings them from a fast friendship to the brink of matrimony.
Tommy and Tuppence would appear in a subsequent set of short stories, Partners in Crime (1929) and three more novels. Their adventures have something of the reek of an old Saturday morning movie serial: every fifteen or so pages, Tuppence – and, on rare occasions, Tommy – finds her life in desperate peril, and must either a. be rescued, or b. rescue themselves. What is most notable and charming about the couple is that their universe operates basically in as close to real time as Christie allowed herself to get. In Partners in Crime, they solve cases in an effort to defeat another conspiracy of spies; they also happen to be young marrieds who find themselves a little bored after the honeymoon. The story set ends with Tuppence announcing her pregnancy, and they disappear into the ether until 1941’s N or M, where once again, the couple, now empty nesters (their son and daughter grew incredibly rapidly!) once again don disguises, this time to foil Nazi spies.
We don’t meet the couple again for twenty-seven years until, in 1968’s By the Pricking of My Thumbs, they are well past middle age. Visiting Tommy’s Aunt Ada in a retirement home, they get drawn into yet another odd conspiracy, though this one has nothing to do with spies but with a batty resident who goes missing and the legend of a murdered child. It’s a great set-up that falls flat, then picks up again for a nice twist of an ending. The couple’s joints may creak as much as the plot, but in their dialogue they sound remarkably like the “bright young things” they were in 1922.
The charming relationship of the couple – at least the memory of it – is pretty much all there is to hold onto in their final adventure, Postern of Fate (1973), a disjointed mess, evidence that the elderly Christie was grappling with senility. The Beresfords’ final case involves another nest of WWI spies, all of whom should be dead by now, or at least remarkably infirm. Age and time is all askew and the mystery, such as it is, makes little to no sense, but the love between Tommy and Tuppence still burns bright.
That’s it for couples, although there are many more to consider in the vast work of so prolific an author. Next week, I will tackle what I call The Triangle Plus in Christie, those complicated romantic tangles that end up in delicious death!