HELEN: What’s In a Name?

My life changed significantly on November 19, 2014, when I joined a group on Facebook called Golden Age Detection. It is one of the few events of my life connected to the Internet whose effect on me I cannot overdramatize. I have been reading classic murder mysteries for nearly fifty years, and I had experienced the pleasures of that pastime largely alone. This group has linked me for the first time in my life to a decent-sized, varied assembly of scholars, writers and readers who share my passion and deep love for this genre of literature. Because of the GAD group, my life has gotten bigger with new friendships that span the globe.  I even became a blogger, and the joy I get from the conversations and shared knowledge with mystery lovers from all over the world is without measure.

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One of those group members was Helen Szamuely. All I really knew about Helen was that she was British, she was opinionated, and she was funny. I liked the way she expressed her opinions, and so I checked out her blog, Your Freedom and Ours, like I do with so many other members who keep a blog. I thought I had wandered into the wrong place: this was not a book lovers blog but a political site, and if you think Helen’s opinions were strong about books, she really had some things to say about world matters. To say that she and I are far apart on the political spectrum is . . . well, it’s a moot point, one we never had to bother with.

Given the state of affairs that we have been experiencing lately all over this crazy world of ours, we bloggers seem to have tacitly agreed to keep politics off the table as much as possible and concentrate on our reading proclivities. As a result, I never got to know Helen very well (even virtually), but when she passed away recently, I felt her loss. We measure our relationships differently in this technical age, and no matter how briefly we connected, I appreciated the intellectual back and forth I got to share with Helen and others in one discussion after another. I’d like to believe that the GAD group is where many of us, Helen included, could find a welcome respite from the cares of the world, including the burden of our own beliefs and causes.

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This month, the Tuesday Night Bloggers are honoring Helen with posts that connect to her in some way – to her name or her interests. For example, if I can find a break from my Nordic Nightmare this month, I hope to read a Helen McCloy novel. I know I speak for everyone when I invite anyone who got the chance to talk to Helen to join us any week this month.

The name Helen is Greek, and it means “shining light” or “the bright one.” Our Helen certainly embodied that, as she was deeply intellectual and highly political. The first famous Helen was anything but that, although she ignited a war of major proportions. The myth of Paris is one of my favorites, dealing as it does with the “Rule of Three” of fairy tales: three goddesses vie for the Golden Apple in his possession, and each offers Paris an incomparable gift: Hera will give him a king’s power, and Athena offers him wisdom and skill in battle. Of course Paris, thinking like men do with the wrong body part, ignores both of these proffers and gives the apple to Aphrodite, Goddess of Love, who endows him with the most beautiful woman in the world as his wife. In typical thoughtless fashion, the goddess forgets that Helen is already married, and that sparks the Trojan War! (I’m sure our Helen would have had a few choice words to say to Paris and Aphrodite!)

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When I’m pressed for time, I always turn to Agatha Christie. There are in my memory three major instances of the author using the name Helen. Two of the novels feature Hercule Poirot, and the third Miss Marple. In nearly every way, the characters are different, and the books vary in structure and style.

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1940’s One Two, Buckle My Shoe is, to my mind, Christie’s ode to John Buchan or even Dashiell Hammett. It is a very linear story that begins in a quiet, domestic way, grows to take on international proportions, and then returns to the deeply personal. I realize even as I write this sentence that I am potentially spoiling things for those who have not read the novel, so I ask you Christie neophytes to tread carefully.

The novel opens in a rather comic vein with a morning at the dentist’s:

“Mr. Morley was not in the best of tempers at breakfast. He complained of the bacon, wondered why the coffee had to have the appearance of liquid mud, and remarked that breakfast cereals were each one worse than the last.”

The last thing any patient wants is a dentist in a bad mood! Fortunately, his observant sister is able to draw out the issues that are plaguing Mr. Morley, filling us in on some of the characters who may or may not figure into the mystery to come, and sends him on his way.

Certain aspects of life are great levelers, and going to the dentist is one of them. No matter that we are a member of the military, a political fanatic, an international banker, a small-time Greek criminal, or the world’s greatest private detective, everyone needs to have his teeth cleaned every six months. And that is how Hercule Poirot happens to be upon the scene of a soon-to-be murder, one whose permutations will grow and change over the course of the novel. Was Mr. Morley’s death suicide or murder? If the latter, who would want to kill the dentist? And here Christie is at her most mordantly humorous, for who would not want to kill their dentist and avoid the pain of a good drilling?

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But Christie soon leaves the laughs behind and gives Poirot a merry chase through the city and surrounding counties of England and even into international waters. His sights focus on the household of Alistair Blunt, a banker whose every movement reinforces the strong economic foundation of Great Britain. Blunt is An Important Person. His death would rock the core of British stability. In that way, I’m sure One, Two, Buckle My Shoe strikes a modern chord today for some readers. It’s true that when Christie wades into political waters, as she does with most of her thrillers, the results range from staunchly conservative to patently absurd. But in this book, Christie has some interesting things to say about our public figures and their private lives, an aspect that also resonates. Is it right and fair to place too much responsibility for stability on any individual’s shoulders? And with that responsibility, do the rules of the game alter?

What game, you ask? I’ve already given too much away. The book has never crossed the list of my favorite Christies, but it has some pleasures to savor. It is much more an adventure in the mode of The A.B.C. Murders or The Big Four than a tradition country house mystery. Yet there is a country house in the novel, and among the inhabitants is one Helen Montressor, Blunt’s second cousin:

“(She was) a sturdy woman clad in a tweed coat and skirt, black-browed with short-cropped black hair who was evidently talking in a slow, emphatic Scotch voice to what was evidently the head gardener.”

Helen doesn’t appear until well into the second half of the book. She is one of those characters you’re not quite sure what to do with, due to the brevity of her appearance. Do we add her to the list of suspects? She does stand to inherit a small portion of Blunt’s large fortune. Does she have hidden depths that we don’t know about? Several suspicious events take place in and around Helen’s beloved garden, but her connection to them seems tenuous at best. In fact, given the duplicitous feelings that Blunt’s other relations and hangers-on harbor for the banker, Helen turns out to be the one person he can count on when danger rears its head.

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A second character named Helen features in a more prominent role in the 1953 novel, After the Funeral. Richard Abernethy has died, and his relations come crawling out of the woodwork for the reading of the will. At the wake, batty Aunt Cora cries out, “But he was murdered, was he?” sending the family into an emotional tailspin that will leave at least one more person brutally murdered and two others at death’s door. Only someone who heard Aunt Cora speak these words could be responsible for the chain of crimes that follow.

If One, Two is a linear detective story, whose crime plot is amorphous in shape for good reason, Funeral brings us back to the warm comfort of the closed circle where Christie’s gift for misdirection is in full sway. The Abernethy clan is full of people who are eccentric, greedy, and emotionally self-serving . . . with the exception of Helen.

Helen Abernethy isn’t a blood relation. She is the widow of Richard’s late brother and possibly his favorite family member. She is one of those rare Christie characters that it is impossible to suspect. Much is made of how others admire and like her throughout the book; it is possible that Mr. Entwhistle, the family solicitor, harbors a bit of a crush on her. Her genuine love for the late Richard Abernethie is beyond reproach. She is a good person – Poirot dubs her “Saint Helen of the Blameless Life” – and so the author gives her a big secret to carry. Christie is also careful not to give Helen a perfect alibi, since characters with perfect alibis tend to have planned for such exigencies long beforehand. Instead, she endows Helen with a sharp mind and information – her keen powers of observation have alerted her to a maddeningly vague sense of wrongness about something or someone after the funeral. It is one of the best clues in a well-clued mystery, and it inspires a sense of anxiety over Helen’s continued well-being – an anxiety that turns out to be well-founded!

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If Helen Montressor comes across as a minor character, and Helen Abernathy a middle-aged heroine, then the third of Christie’s Helens is a cipher. In Sleeping Murder, the last Miss Marple mystery written in the 1940’s but published in 1976, Helen Kennedy Halliday is the long dead center of the mystery that haunts Gwenda Reed, the novel’s heroine. Gwenda and her husband Giles have purchased a large, old house on the south coast of England, and wouldn’t you know it? By strange coincidence, this is the house Gwenda was born in and where she witnessed the final stages of a woman’s murder.

Of all the characters discussed here, Helen Kennedy is the one that reminds us more of the ancient Greek Helen: beautiful, desired by many men, and changeable in her affections. Her very presences makes the blood of more than one suitor boil over, and her death by strangling inspires another classical allusion, this one from John Webster’s Jacobean tragedy, The Duchess of Malfi: “Cover her face; mine eyes dazzle; she died young.”

These are the words that trigger Gwenda’s long suppressed memories, words she heard a murderer speak over the body of his victim. (Words, by the way, that gave the whole game away to this student of theatre!) Unfortunately, like most of the characters in this novel, Helen Kennedy never really comes to life as more than a motivating factor, but what we do learn about her suggests that she was ruled by her passions and consequently wasn’t a very good wife or stepmother.

I’m not sure that Helen Szamuely would have had the patience to hang out with any of these Christie-an namesakes, but I’d like to believe that, like me, she would have been drawn to Helen Abernethy. She might have scolded the character after uncovering her secret, but I can imagine them spending time in London museums or bookstores, drawn to each other’s intelligence. I’ve read that our Helen could be quite difficult. Maybe Helen Abernethy might have mellowed her some, at least in their time spent together. More likely Helen Szamuely’s strong conservatism would have drawn fire from Saint Helen. Perhaps they would have wisely avoided the topic of politics altogether . . . I know that this seems to be what happened between Our Helen and the members of the GAD group. We saw a very different side to the woman than the political causes that defined her for so many. It makes me deeply appreciative for how multi-faceted people are and for having had the chance with Helen to put aside our cares about the world and talk about the books we both loved so much.

That return to a sense of calm and order is at the very heart of the Golden Age of mystery, isn’t it?

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9 thoughts on “HELEN: What’s In a Name?

  1. What a lovely tribute to Helen, Brad. And you’ve chosen really interesting Christie characters, too. Interesting how different they are, although they have the same name. Thanks for sharing this.

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  2. Very interesting, who knew there were so many Helens in Christie’s fiction!

    For me the first Helen that came to mind when thinking of Christie was the short story “The Face Of Helen” from “The Mysterious Mr. Quin”.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. In The Mystery Of The Blue Train, there is a servant girl named Helen, but she is called Ellen by her employer Miss Viner because “Helen is not a suitable name for a servant”. I quote:

    “…..tell Ellen she is not to have holes in her stockings when she waits at lunch.”
    “Is her name Ellen or Helen, Miss Viner? I thought—”
    Miss Viner closed her eyes.
    “I can sound my h’s, dear, as well as anyone, but Helen is not a suitable name for a servant. I don’t know what the mothers in the lower classes are coming to nowadays.”

    Liked by 1 person

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