Agatha Christie

Let’s all have some tea and muffins at Bertram’s Hotel

Title: At Bertram’s Hotel
Author: Agatha Christie
Series: Miss Marple #11
Published 1944

Plot summary from Goodreads: Miss Jane Marple has checked into Bertram’s Hotel in London for a much-needed vacation. The last thing she expects is that this elegant establishment, known for its service and old-world charm, could be embroiled in scandal. But after a series of strange events—including the disappearance of a fellow guest, the arrival of a notorious celebrity bad boy, and finally, a shocking murder—she finds herself drawn into a multifaceted mystery.
The hotel is full of suspects who have potential motives—and convenient alibis. While the local inspector is preoccupied with a series of recent robberies, only Miss Marple, with her shrewd observations and keen understanding of human nature, can sort out the puzzling sequence of events and zero in on the killer.

At Bertram’s Hotel is the 11th Miss Marple, published in 1944, and Jane is winding down her career – there are only two more Miss Marple mysteries after this one: Nemesis, published in 1971 and The Sleeping Murder, published in 1976 (but apparently written much earlier).

Bertram’s Hotel is an old-fashioned hotel in London, with an impeccable reputation and an equally impeccable tea tray. One can get *real* muffins here, slathered in butter, to go with one’s tea. As an American, I have no idea what these real muffins look like – I’m concluding from the discussion that they are not our blueberry studded, cake-like confections, and are, perhaps, something more like what I would call an English muffin.

Photo by Jelleke Vanooteghem on Unsplash

Anyway, the whole book had me wanting to eat something. Because these people drank a lot of tea, and ate a lot of tea pastries.

Five minutes later breakfast came. A comfortable tray with a big potbellied teapot, creamy-looking milk, a silver hot water jug. Two beautifully poached eggs on toast, poached the proper way, not little round hard bullets shaped in tin cups, a good-sized round of butter stamped with a thistle. Marmalade, honey and strawberry jam. Delicious-looking rolls, not the hard kind with papery interiors—they smelt of fresh bread (the most delicious smell in the world!). There was also an apple, a pear and a banana.

This was a fun mystery for other reasons as well – there were three separate subplots here: the robberies that Scotland Yard was trying to solve, the mystery of the missing Canon Pennyfather, and then the murder of the Commissaire (sort of a doorman, I think) which occurred very late in the book.

Bess Sedgewick was a wonderful side-character. She was an adventurous sort of a woman, who was staying at the hotel during the time that Miss Marple was spending her holiday there. This is one of those Christie books where she puts a whole bunch of people in the same place to watch the fireworks ensure – Bess is there, her daughter Elvira, who was raised by an elderly retainer after her father died and after Bess sailed into the great unknown to have adventures, is there, an ethically challenged, but extremely handsome, Italian race-car driver is hanging about, and then we have the ridiculously absent-minded Canon Pennyfather who disappears midway through the book and turns up miles away from where he should have been.

Chief-Inspector Davies, nicknamed “Father,” is the one that puts it all together after Scotland Yard is brought in to figure out what has happened to Canon Pennyfather. He and Miss Marple are perfect together, and I wish that he had shown up in some of the other Marple books. Christie missed an opportunity here. He says to his subordinate:

“I just think I’d like to have a good deal more information about this place. I’d like to know who is behind it, what its financial status is. All that sort of thing.”
Campbell shook his head. “I should have said if there was one place in London that was absolutely above suspicion–”
“I know, I know,” said Father. “And what a useful thing it is to have that reputation!”

The resolution to the book is a bit of a let-down, unfortunately, with the murderer being seemingly free due to a lack of evidence. I don’t want to say too much and spoil the end, though, because Christie’s puzzles are always so much fun to try to solve. I had read this one before, and remembered the identity of the murderer, but the other two subplots were just as mysterious this time as they were the first time I read it! This is one of the reasons that I love Christie so much – between the mouthwatering descriptions of tea and the complicated plotlines, I always find something to enjoy!

Agatha Christie

You’re Not Over The Hill If You Can Still Match Wits With German Spies

Title: N or M?
Author: Agatha Christie
Series: Tommy and Tuppence #3
Published in 1941

Plot summary from Goodreads: It is World War II, and while the RAF struggles to keep the Luftwaffe at bay, Britain faces an even more sinister threat from “the enemy within”—Nazis posing as ordinary citizens.

With pressure mounting, the intelligence service appoints two unlikely spies, Tommy and Tuppence Beresford. Their mission: to seek out a man and a woman from among the colorful guests at Sans Souci, a seaside hotel. But this assignment is no stroll along the promenade—N and M have just murdered Britain’s finest agent and no one at all can be trusted. . .

This review cross posted on Cannonball Read here

This is the year that I will finish reading Agatha Christie, and what that means is that I have just a few left, and the ones that are left are not her best work. I long ago read And Then There Were None, along with all of the rest of the Poirot mysteries. I’ve finished Superintendent Battle and Colonel Race, and most of Marple (although I am saving Sleeping Murder for the end, because I’ve heard that it doesn’t suck).

When I started figuring out which titles I had left, I realized that I had almost all of Tommy and Tuppence Beresford. This is the third in the series, following The Secret Adversary and Partners in Crime. When we left Tommy and Tuppence, at the end of Partners in Crime, Tuppence had just announced to Tommy that she was pregnant (after ridding the world of an espionage ring). In N or M?, many years have passed, and the twins, Deborah and Derek, are both young adults.

N or M? was published in 1941, in the midst of WWII, and, at the beginning of the book, Tommy and Tuppence are feeling their age. They can’t find anyone to give them an opportunity to serve Britain in the war, and they are a bit down in the mouth about it: the secret service doesn’t want Tommy, and Tuppence has been turned down for a nursing slot. Their children, in the inimitable manner of young people, have cheerfully decided that mum and dad should shuffle off and spend the war years in a decline somewhere.

One of the best things about Tommy and Tuppence is Tommy and Tuppence. They still have their signature witty banter, and their relationship is good fun. Even after all these years, they still like each other alot, and it shows in their interactions. Occasionally, things get a bit twee with the pair, and there is an annoyingly adorable plot moppet named Betty who accidentally reveals a secret while she is babbling on with Tuppence. When a man approaches Tommy to take on a job rooting out a pair of German spies (code name N and M) without Tuppence, Tuppence is having none of it. He sneaks off to Sans Souci, a seaside boarding house where intelligence suggests the spies are operative. When he arrives there, Tuppence is sitting in the common room knitting a balaclava. Point one to Tuppence.

Christie’s espionage stories are never as good as her straight up mysteries, and this one dragged for about the first 30%. Things do pick up, though, when Betty is kidnapped, and then Tommy goes missing and Tuppence must figure out the identity of the spies with the help of one of Deborah’s friends, Anthony Marsdon, who is a young code breaker. Bring in their old retainer, Albert, and the book comes to a solid and entertaining conclusion. I figured out half of the solution, which with Christie is about as good as it gets.

If you’ve never read Christie, definitely don’t start here. If you already like Tommy and Tuppence, give this one a go – while they are slightly less effervescent in N or M? than they were all the way back in The Secret Adversary, the characters are still a lot of fun. If you’re looking for a place to start reading Christie, though, start with one of her best: And Then There Were None, Murder on the Orient Express or The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.

Agatha Christie

When Hastings Fell in Love

Title: Murder on the Links
Author: Agatha Christie
Series: Hercule Poirot #2
First published in 1923

Plot summary from Goodreads: An urgent cry for help brings Hercule Poirot to France. But he arrives too late to save his client, whose brutally stabbed body now lies facedown in a shallow grave on a golf course.

But why is the dead man wearing an overcoat that is too big for him? And for whom was the impassioned love letter in the pocket? Before Poirot can answer these questions, the case is turned upside down by the discovery of a second, identically murdered corpse.…

Oh, Hastings. You ninny.

This is the second Hercule Poirot novel – and in spite of the title has almost nothing to do with golf. This is a good thing, in my opinion, since I find golf slightly less interesting than watching paint dry, but it was almost a deal breaker. I did not want to read this mystery. Based on the cover, I assumed it would be about a British guy in knickers geting clonked on the head with a five iron on the back nine. I read it purely for completeness sake – and I am glad I did.

The only connection to golf is that the body was buried in a location that was soon to become a hazard on a new golf course. Also, it is set in France, which I found totally baffling since I have never, not even once in my entire life, considered the possibility that there might be golf courses in France. So, I learned something there.

The mystery itself is quite a clever little mystery, with lots of misdirection. There is a funny rivalry between the vain Poirot and the equally vain and condescending Gireau, who is the inspector investigating the case for the French police. Poirot is frequently piqued at being mocked by Monsieur Gireau, and is able to prove his superiority in satisfying fashion. Hastings, though, is a total dolt. He gets mixed up with an acrobat known to him only as Cinderella, and ends up in a not-even-remotely convincing romance. It is silly, although Cinderella ends up proving her courage in a rather compelling way.

One of the things about Agatha Christie is that she has no qualms about depicting her female characters as just as venal, just as sneaky, just as mean, just as smart, just as strong, just as wilful, and just as brave as her male characters. It’s refreshing, really. Her character studies aren’t terribly detailed, but she stays away from stereotyping based on gender.

On the whole, I would put this in the midrange of Christie’s work. Not dazzlingly clever, like some, but still enjoyable.

Agatha Christie

Appointment With Death by Agatha Christie

Title: Appointment With Death
Author: Agatha Christie
Series: Hercule Poirot #19
First published 1937

Summary from Goodreads: Among the towering red cliffs and the ancient ruins of Petra sits the corpse of Mrs. Boynton, the cruel and tyrannizing matriarch of the Boynton family. A tiny puncture mark on her wrist is the only sign of the fatal injection that killed her. With only twenty-four hours to solve the mystery, Hercule Poirot recalls a remark he overheard back in Jerusalem: “You do see, don’t you, that she’s got to be killed?” Mrs. Boynton was, indeed, the most detestable woman he had ever met.

This book is about what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object. It is one of my absolute favorites of the Poirot novels for both the setting – the rose red city of Petra, Jordan – and the villainy of the victim.

Christie draws on her experience travelling with her archeologist husband, Max Mallowan, as she did in Murder in Mesopotamia and Death on the Nile. In my opinion, this mystery is loads better than Murder in Mesopotamia, and is every bit as good as Death on the Nile.

The book begins with Poirot overhearing two people speaking in the hotel room next to his, through an open window. The voice of a man says “You do see, don’t you, that she’s got to be killed?” The first section of the book occurs at the hotel, where the reader is introduced to the Boynton family, including Mrs. Boynton, who is a simply unredeemable, petty domestic tyrant. She has exercised total psychological control over the four children who travel with her: Lennox Boynton, Raymond Boynton, Carol Boynton and Ginevra Boynton. She is manipulative and extremely cruel to her family, and she has them so cowed that they have simply collapsed under her tyranny.

The book is partially narrated by a young doctor named Sarah King, because once the Boynton family leaves Jerusalem for Petra, Poirot is not present until the end. The murder occurs with him off-stage. Sarah King is also an interesting character – one of Christie’s bright young women – and she is more than capable of seeing clearly that Mrs. Boynton is mostly pathetic, in spite of her ability to terrorize her family.

Mrs. Boynton is the sort of person who doesn’t understand that everyone has a breaking point, so by the time we get to Petra, it becomes clear that she is going to come to an unhappy end. This is essentially a closed circle mystery, with an ingenious solution. The first time I read it, I was a bit blindsided by the identity of the murderer. In subsequent readings, I’ve been astounded at how cleverly Christie drops clues into the book that, with exquisite subtlety, point the reader to whodunnit.

Agatha Christie

#1944 Club: Sparkling Cyanide by Agatha Christie

Title: Sparkling Cyanide
Author: Agatha Christie
First published in 1944
Series: Colonel Race #4

Plot Summary: Six people reunite to remember beautiful Rosemary Barton, who died nearly a year before. The loving sister, the long-suffering husband, the devoted secretary, the lovers, the betrayed wife – none of them can forget Rosemary.

But did one of them murder her?

This was my first book for the 1944 club, hosted by Kaggsy at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings and Simon at Stuck in a Book.

1944 was quite a year for Agatha Christie. She published Towards Zero and Sparkling Cyanide, as well as Death Comes As The End and Absent in the Spring under her romance nom de plume, Mary Westamacott. Interestingly, none of these books involved either of her main two sleuths, Hercule Poirot or Jane Marple. Towards Zero is a Superintendent Battle book, Death Comes as the End is her sole foray into historical fiction, and Absent in the Spring is one of six romance novels that have been mostly lost to the sands of time – by which I mean they are available, but largely ignored.

Sparkling Cyanide was a reread for me – my first experience with the book was an audiobook on a trip with my family, which everyone enjoyed. This time around, I read the Pocket Book edition which I picked up for $3.00 at a bookstore in Newport, Oregon, which has, sadly, permanently closed. It was one of those lovely bookstores which has a cat, a fireplace, and teetering piles of books in which treasures are often buried.

While I do love both Poirot, with his leetle grey cells, and Jane Marple in her fuzzy cardigans, I am also a huge fan of both Superintendent Battle and Colonel Race, as I have probably mentioned before. Sparkling Cyanide is a fantastic example of Agatha Christie’s skills in plotting and misdirection, and is the fourth in the Colonel Race series.

The plot begins with Rosemary, the empty-headed, pretty and very, very rich, young woman who has died of cyanide poisoning at a birthday party at the Luxembourg in London, surrounded by her husband, George Barton, her sister, Iris, her husband’s terrifyingly efficient secretary Ruth, Stephen and Alexandra Farraday, a Member of Parliament who is also her secret lover and his wife,and Anthony Browne, another of Rosemary’s erstwhile lovers. The death is ruled a suicide due to depression after influenza. About six months later, however, George begins to receive poison pen letters claiming that Rosemary’s death was no suicide.

It was murder.

The middle, longest section of the book deals with the six suspects. Each of them is given his/her own chapter and narrative where Christie lays out their motives. Rosemary was one of those careless, beautiful women who’ve long profited from being lovely, who breaks things and people simply because she can’t conceive that they might have needs that are different from her own. Everyone had motive to murder her, and her death almost universally profited her friends and family. Iris inherited her wealth, George was the cuckolded husband, Alexandra the cuckolded and devoted wife to Stephen, Stephen fears the truth of the affair being revealed, Ruth is in love with George, and Anthony is a cipher.

Colonel Race makes a brief appearance in the book as a friend of George’s father, who has known George since boyhood. He has been off in exotic places, far away, staving off threats to the British empire and arrives back in London to learn that George, on the heels of the letters, has scheduled a reenactment of Rosemary’s birthday party on the anniversary of her death, a spectacularly dangerous and terrible idea.

The solution to Sparkling Cyanide, or Remembered Death as it was called in America, is ingenious. All of the clues are there, but they are nearly impossible to put together until the end, when the answer comes together. It’s Agatha at her most brilliant, and I highly recommend it for fans of golden age/classic mysteries as well as fans of Agatha Christie.

Agatha Christie

Towards Zero by Agatha Christie

Title: Towards Zero
Author: Agatha Christie
First published in 1944

Plot summary from Goodreads: What is the connection among a failed suicide attempt, a wrongful accusation of theft against a schoolgirl, and the romantic life of a famous tennis player?

To the casual observer, apparently nothing. But when a house party gathers at Gull’s Point, the seaside home of an elderly widow, earlier events come to a dramatic head. As Superintendent Battle discovers, it is all part of a carefully laid plan — for murder.

This is the fifth, and last, of the Superintendent Battle interconnected mysteries. Superintendent Battle wasn’t one of Christie’s favorite creations, apparently, since she only wrote 5 books with him, but to my mind, they are five of the most enjoyable! He does exist within the same universe as Hercule Poirot, as he appears with Poirot, Colonel Race and Ariadne Oliver in Cards on the Table, although none of them appear in this book. Superintendent Battle does, however, make reference to Hercule Poirot while he investigating the murder of Lady Tressilian, noting Poirot’s attention to detail and its usefulness in crime solving.

The obsessive need for revenge takes center stage in this book. Agatha Christie has previously plumbed the depths of the obsessive personality, in books like Death on the Nile and And Then There Were None, and she will return to the theme in her psychological thriller Endless Night. The more I read – and reread – Agatha Christie, the more convinced I am that she had a way of cutting through societal niceties to see the blood and bone beneath, and frequently the true sight was terrifying. Her character sketches are quite compact, and while the negative or positive traits can be exaggerated, they are also remarkably perceptive given their brevity. This book demonstrates the devious and malicious undercurrents that can flow between two people – a victim and a perpetrator – while society sees something entirely different. And, until the very end, as is so often the case, Christie hides the truth in plain sight.

There are several supporting characters in this book that I particularly like, including Mary Aldin. About Mary Aldin, Christie said:

She has really a first-class brain—a man’s brain. She has read widely and deeply and there is nothing she cannot discuss. And she is as clever domestically as she is intellectually. She runs the house perfectly and keeps the servants happy—she eliminates all quarrels and jealousies—I don’t know how she does it—just tact, I suppose.”

If there is one thing that this book needed, it was more Mary Aldin!

One significant weakness to this book, I think, was Christie’s failure to develop the character of Angus McWhirter, using him as a prop to jump in and save the day, and the damsel, at the end. Christie had a thing for literal (not figurative) love at first sight, in which her male characters are constantly plunged into deep passionate love with a pretty face at first glance. While I am perfectly willing to buy lust at first sight, or infatuation at first sight, the shallow manner in which her characters profess love at first sight annoys me, and demeans the emotion. I also didn’t care particularly for the ending, although the promise of a legitimate happy ending for Mary was pleasant.

If you’re a fan of Dame Agatha, and you’ve somehow missed this one, I recommend it. If you are coming to Christie as a new reader, there are others that I would recommend before Towards Zero, although it is an enjoyable read and shows many of her skills to advantage.

A note on the television adaptation: the Miss Marple series grabbed this one for an adaptation, along with several other of the non-Marple independent mysteries, a fact which I personally consider a travesty. It was poorly done, so don’t bother with it. I really wish that someone would do a solid adaptation of the Christie mysteries that don’t involve Marple and/or Poirot. There are some really good books, and trying to shoehorn them into the Marple series doesn’t do them justice!

Agatha Christie, Angela Thirkell, Patricia Wentworth, Stella Gibbons

#1944 Club: 10/15/18 through 10/21/18

Simon, at Stuck in a Book and Kaggsy at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings are hosting the 1944 Club next week. This will be the first time that I’ve managed to participate in one of their “clubs,” and I’m very excited about it. I haven’t quite settled on a book (or two) yet, but, in keeping with this blog theme, it’s definitely going to be by written a woman. Some of my possible choices: