Category Archives: Christie, Agatha

2023 Fall Read-a-Thon

It has been a long time since I posted anything here, but I’ve had a busy few months. There will be time to enlarge on that further, but for right now, I’m here for the fall read-a-thon. I’m in the U.S. – on the west coast – so my start time is 5:00 a.m., which means I’ve been going for almost 8 hours. I haven’t read for 8 hours, though – my general read-a-thon goal is typically to read for about 12 out of the 24 hours.

So far, I’ve finished one rather short mystery and I listened to a short story while I made lunch.

The Case of the Baited HookThe Case of the Baited Hook
by Erle Stanley Gardner
Rating: ★★★½
Series: Perry Mason #16
Publication Date: January 1, 1940
Genre: mystery: golden age (1920-1949)
Pages: 248
ReRead?: No
Project: a century of crime

The bait is half of a $10,000 bill, delivered to Perry Mason by a man who promises the second half of the note should his companion, a silent masked woman, ever require the lawyer’s services. When a dead body is discovered soon after, Mason feels the hook—but how can one prove the innocence of a person whose identity is unknown?

It’s hard to believe that I’ve never picked up a Perry Mason mystery before, so I decided it was time to rectify the oversight. I wasn’t sure what to expect, and ended up quite enjoying the book. It’s very convoluted, and has echoes of a mid-century noir, but with less grit. I grabbed three others from my library when I checked this one out, and I enjoyed it enough to read at least one more, although not today.

I also read (well, listened to) The Plymouth Express, a short story that has been collected in Midwinter Murder: Fireside Tales from the Queen of Mystery.

Midwinter Murder: Fireside Tales from the Queen of MysteryMidwinter Murder: Fireside Tales from the Queen of Mystery
by Agatha Christie
Publication Date: October 20, 2020
Genre: mystery: golden age (1920-1949), short stories
Pages: 320
ReRead?: No
Project: appointment with agatha

An all-new collection of winter-themed stories from the Queen of Mystery, just in time for the holidays—including the original version of Christmas Adventure, never before released in the United States!

There's a chill in the air and the days are growing shorter . . . It's the perfect time to curl up in front of a crackling fire with these wintry whodunits from the legendary Agatha Christie. But beware of deadly snowdrifts and dangerous gifts, poisoned meals and mysterious guests. This chilling compendium of short stories—some featuring beloved detectives Hercule Poirot and Miss Marple—is an essential omnibus for Christie fans and the perfect holiday gift for mystery lovers.

- Three Blind Mice
- The Chocolate Box
- A Christmas Tragedy
- The Coming of Mr Quin
- The Clergyman's Daughter/Red House
- The Plymouth Express
- Problem at Pollensa Bay
- Sanctuary
- The Mystery of Hunter's Lodge
- The World's End
- The Manhood of Edward Robinson
- Christmas Adventure

I am not sure if I’ve read this particular story, because it is basically a shorter version of The Mystery of the Blue Train, and I’ve definitely read that one. Mystery of the Blue Train was published in 1928, and The Plymouth Express wasn’t published until 1939, so, although Mystery of the Blue Train was somehow published first, the notes on the Agatha Christie website indicate that the full-length novel was lengthened from the short story, which is a little bit confusing.

So far, I’ve read for 4 out of 8 hours. Time to start a new book!

2023 Reading Journal: Books 1, 5, 9, & 12

The next round of quick updates is the golden age mysteries I’ve read so far this year: The Mad Hatter Mystery by John Dickson Carr; One, Two, Buckle My Shoe by Agatha Christie; Murder’s a Swine by Nap Lombard and Coroner’s Pidgin by Margery Allingham.

The Mad Hatter MysteryThe Mad Hatter Mystery
by John Dickson Carr
Rating: ★★★½
Series: Gideon Fell #2
Publication Date: January 1, 1933
Genre: mystery: golden age (1920-1949)
Pages: 304
ReRead?: No
Project: a century of crime

At the hand of an outrageous prankster, top hats are going missing all over London, snatched from the heads of some of the city’s most powerful people—but is the hat thief the same as the person responsible for stealing a lost story by Edgar Allan Poe, the manuscript of which has just disappeared from the collection of Sir William Bitton? Unlike the manuscript, the hats don’t stay stolen for long, each one reappearing in unexpected and conspicuous places shortly after being taken: on the top of a Trafalgar Square statue, hanging from a Scotland Yard lamppost, and now, in the foggy depths of the Tower of London, on the head of a corpse with a crossbow bolt through the heart. Amateur detective and lexicographer Dr. Gideon Fell is on the case, and when the dead man is identified as the nephew of the collector, he discovers that the connections underlying the bizarre and puzzling crimes may be more intimate than initially expected.

This was my first book of the year. I’ve read several others by John Dickson Carr, and I pretty much always enjoy them. This was not a “locked room” mystery, which is his specialty, and wasn’t as good as The Hollow Man, which seems to be the acknowledged masterpiece, and which I rated a full five stars. The Mad Hatter Mystery is set in London, and is the second in his Gideon Fell series; Gideon Fell, for some reason that I can’t really explain, sort of reminds me of Nero Wolfe, although he is modeled on G.K. Chesterton. This one has quite a twist at the end, that I wasn’t expecting. I read the American Mystery Classics edition, published by Otto Penzler’s press.

One, Two, Buckle My ShoeOne, Two, Buckle My Shoe
by Agatha Christie
Rating: ★★★★
Series: Hercule Poirot #20
Publication Date: November 1, 1940
Genre: mystery: golden age (1920-1949)
Pages: 224
ReRead?: Yes
Project: appointment with agatha

Even the great Poirot harbours a deep and abiding fear of the dentist, so it is with trepidation that he arrives at the celebrated Dr Morley’s surgery for an examination.
Yet even Poirot couldn’t have guessed that only hours later he would be examining the dentist, dead in his surgery – an apparent suicide.

Why would a successful dentist choose to kill himself on such a busy day? Poirot turns to the other patients for answers – but only finds other, darker questions.

This one of those Christie mysteries that gets better every time I read it. It’s not her strongest work, and the first time I read it, I was actually not that impressed. It has improved on reread. I enjoyed the political element, and thought that Christie did a good job of portraying privileged individuals who believe – and are treated as though – they are above the law. Given the political realities in both my home country of the U.S., and in the British government, this seems to be a depressingly accurate depiction of power and the people who wield it.

Murder's a SwineMurder's a Swine
by Nap Lombard
Rating: ★★★★½
Publication Date: January 1, 1943
Genre: mystery: golden age (1920-1949)
Pages: 280
ReRead?: No
Project: a century of crime

“I should imagine this was murder, too, because it would be very difficult to build yourself into a heap of sandbags and then die…”

In the blackout conditions of a wintry London night, amateur sleuth Agnes Kinghof and a young air-raid warden have stumbled upon a corpse stowed in the walls of their street’s bomb shelter. As the police begin their investigation, the night is interrupted once again when Agnes’s upstairs neighbor Mrs Sibley is terrorized by the sight of a grisly pig’s head at her fourth-floor window. With the discovery of more sinister threats mysteriously signed ‘Pig-sticker’, Agnes and her husband Andrew – unable to resist a good mystery – begin their investigation to deduce the identity of a villain living amongst the tenants of their block of flats.

A witty and light-hearted mystery full of intriguing period detail, this rare gem of Golden Age crime returns to print for the first time since its publication in 1943.

This book was so much fun – one of the best BLCC reissues that I’ve read. It is set in 1943, in London during the earliest part of the war, with the victim found in an air raid shelter among the sandbags. The main “sleuths” are a married couple, Agnes and Andrew Kinghof, with some of the same sparkle as Tommy and Tuppence or Nick and Nora (note the name alliteration, which seems to be a requirement). The killer taunts and scares his/her victims before murdering them by wearing a pig’s mask and appearing in windows before the murders; it’s a bit disturbing. There are motives aplenty. Overall, I really enjoyed this golden age mystery.

Coroner's PigeonCoroner's Pigeon
by Margery Allingham
Rating: ★★★½
Series: Albert Campion #12
Publication Date: October 1, 1945
Genre: mystery: golden age (1920-1949)
Pages: 241
ReRead?: No

World War II is limping to a close and private detective Albert Campion has just returned from years abroad on a secret mission. Relaxing in his bath before rushing back to the country, and to the arms of his wife, Amanda, Campion is disturbed when his servant, Lugg, and a lady of unmistakably aristocratic bearing appear in his flat carrying the corpse of a woman.

The reluctant Campion is forced to put his powers of detection to work as he is drawn deeper into the case, and into the eccentric Caradocs household, dealing with murder, treason, grand larceny, and the mysterious disappearance of some very valuable art.

I always want to like the Campion mysteries more than I actually like the Campion mysteries. I find Allingham’s plots to be convoluted and sometimes difficult to follow, although I do like her characters. I think that if I can just get a handle on the series, I will enjoy it more. I’ve been reading them out of order, and I’m wondering if it might be better to back up and start at the beginning – this was 12th in the series, and maybe that’s why I tend to struggle a bit. I have read The Crime at Black Dudley, which is nominally first in series, but barely includes Campion. When I dive back into this series, it will be with Book 2, Mystery Mile, and I’ll see if I make any headway.

Marple: Twelve New Mysteries by Various Authors

Marple: Twelve New MysteriesMarple: Twelve New Mysteries
by Alyssa Cole, Dreda Say Mitchell, Elly Griffiths, Jean Kwok, Karen McManus, Kate Mosse, Leigh Bardugo, Lucy Foley, Naomi Alderman, Natalie Haynes, Ruth Ware, Val McDermid
Rating: ★★
Publication Date: September 13, 2022
Genre: short stories
Pages: 384
ReRead?: No

A brand-new collection of short stories featuring the Queen of Mystery’s legendary detective Jane Marple, penned by twelve remarkable bestselling and acclaimed authors.

This collection of a dozen original short stories, all featuring Jane Marple, will introduce the character to a whole new generation. Each author reimagines Agatha Christie’s Marple through their own unique perspective while staying true to the hallmarks of a traditional mystery.

Miss Marple was first introduced to readers in a story Agatha Christie wrote for The Royal Magazine in 1927 and made her first appearance in a full-length novel in 1930’s The Murder at the Vicarage. It has been 45 years since Agatha Christie’s last Marple novel, Sleeping Murder, was published posthumously in 1976, and this collection of ingenious new stories by twelve Christie devotees will be a timely reminder why Jane Marple remains the most famous fictional female detective of all time.

Whew. I am not going to lie – this was a slog.

Let me explain.

I’m an Agatha Christie fan – I’ve read all of her full-length mysteries at least once, and most more than once. I’ve read much of her short fiction; I’ve read The Mysterious Mr. Quin and Parker Pyne Investigates; I read, and loved, the linked Poirot anthology, The Labours of Hercules, and the linked Marple Anthology, The Thirteen Problems, and the Tommy & Tuppence short stories collected in Partners in Crime. I haven’t read every single Poirot or Marple story, but there are only a handful left that remain unread.

So, I feel like I know Agatha. She’s a friend of mine.

Half of the stories in this book are not worthy of publication in any way associated with her name. From best to worst: The Mystery of the Acid Soil by Kate Mosse was excellent. It was a believable Marple story. It actually made me want to read more by Kate Mosse, as she was unknown to me.

Val McDermid’s The Second Murder at the Vicarage and Elly Griffith’s The Villa Rosa were both well done. I felt like McDermid, in particular, really accepted the challenge of writing a Marple story with an appropriate amount of respect and love for the source material. In addition, the Vicar – Len – and his wife – Griselda – are two of my favorite characters from the Christieverse, and she did right by them. Griffith’s story was set at a luxury resort on the Amalfi Coast and I thought it was really fun and well done.

The third tier stories were the contributions by Natalie Haynes, Jean Kwok and Dreda Say Mitchell. Each of them had elements worked. They were fine. There was a lot of hauling an aged Marple around continents in this anthology – and the Kwok story had her on a cruise to Hong Kong. It also had two of the best placed Marple-ish clues in the entire anthology.

Now we come to the fourth tier: Lucy Foley and Ruth Ware. Ruth Ware’s story, Miss Marple’s Christmas, shamelessly stole its plot from a Dorothy Sayers/Peter Wimsey short story. She acknowledged it, but still. Lucy Foley’s story, on the other hand, has Marple acting like an idiot with a non-functioning sense of self-preservation, which is not how Jane Marple would ever act.

But, it gets worse from there. The only resemblance that the final four stories bore to a Marple mystery was that they included the word “Marple” and there was a mystery. They were irredeemably bad. I don’t have an issue with YA, and I have enjoyed books by both Karen McManus and Leigh Bardugo, but their stories were horrid. McManus’s story might not have been bad, if it hadn’t involved Jane Marple and if it had been in a YA mystery anthology. Bardugo’s story was the worst piece of fiction in the book, and that’s saying something, because Alyssa Cole’s Miss Marple Takes Manhattan was truly terrible. And Naomi Alderman’s story was better written than some of the others, but it had a plot hole the size of Greenland.

So, overall, if you are actually a fan of Miss Marple, I would give this anthology a miss. It’s a publisher’s money grab and I’m surprised that the estate of Agatha Christie approved publication.

Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? by Agatha Christie

Why Didn't They Ask EvansWhy Didn't They Ask Evans
by Agatha Christie
Rating: ★★★★
Publication Date: September 1, 1934
Genre: crime
Pages: 224
ReRead?: Yes
Project: appointment with agatha

When Bobby Jones found a dying man at the foot of a Cliff beside a golf course, he stood in the shadow of his own Death.
But Bobby was lucky - lucky to escape being poisoned, and lucky to have the Quick-witted Frankie, otherwise Lady Frances Derwant, to help find the would-be murder,
Their only clues - a photograph and the dead man's last Words : Why didn't they ask Evans??

Back in 2019, when I was finishing up my Agatha Christie mystery project, I kept this one back so I could read it last. February 23, 2019 was the day that I finished it, and I remember being really happy that it was my final mystery. If I tried to describe this book in one word, that word would be charming.

This is a relatively early Christie – published in 1934 – as she moves into the period during which she will publish her best known and most beloved books. Murder on the Orient Express is the book that directly follows this one, and it is preceded by Lord Edgware Dies, which isn’t up to the standard of MotOE, but is still quite a good Christie. Why Didn’t They Ask Evans? was also published under the title The Boomerang Clue, and my paperback copy uses that title.

I was meant to read this book last November, as part of the Appointment with Agatha GR group, but, at the time, I just didn’t have the time to get to it. When I saw that the new Hugh Laurie adaptation was getting ready to drop for US viewers, I decided that I really needed to revisit it. I also convinced my daughter to read it, and we plan to watch the adaptation together soon. Maybe even as soon as tomorrow, but maybe not until next weekend, depending on where she is in the book.

This is just a post about the book, but a quick word about the trailer for the adaptation – it’s available on YouTube and it looks completely, again, charming. Will Poulter has been a favorite actor of mine since his turn as Eustace Scrubb in the not-particularly-good-nor-successful adaptation of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. The movie was mediocre at best, but he was terrific. He was also really good in Dopesick as the pharmaceutical rep who finds his conscience. I also really like Lucy Boynton – I thought she was really good in both Bohemian Rhapsody and the Branah version of MotOE. If they have any chemistry at all, the casting looks to me to be about perfect.

Back to the book, though. I remember being surprised when I read it because I mentally had it placed in the 1950’s in Christie’s oevre, and this is definitely early 1930’s Christie. Frankie and Bobby are delightful – similar to Tommy and Tuppence in many ways, and also reminiscent of Bundle Brent and Anne Beddingfeld. The mystery itself is mundane – this is just a vehicle for the two protagonists to spend time together and to careen madly across a British countryside. It recaps some of the social issues that we see in this Christie era. Bobby has been released from the Navy and is at a loose end in a country with high unemployment and poor prospects from men of his class and experience. Frankie is the daughter of an earl, but isn’t all that interested in the young men of her class, and is much more invested in the idea of adventure. And Bobby. This book has one of her more delightful romantic subplots.

Basically, come for the mystery, stay for the charm.

My January Christie: Three Act Tragedy

Three Act TragedyThree Act Tragedy
by Agatha Christie
Rating: ★★★★
Series: Hercule Poirot #12
Publication Date: June 1, 1934
Genre: mystery
Pages: 272
ReRead?: Yes
Project: appointment with agatha

Sir Charles Cartwright should have known better than to allow thirteen guests to sit down for dinner. For at the end of the evening one of them is dead—choked by a cocktail that contained no trace of poison.

Predictable, says Hercule Poirot, the great detective. But entirely unpredictable is that he can find absolutely no motive for murder.

This has never been a favorite Christie – I think I’ve only read it once or twice previously. But, my reread continues apace, so here we are, 15 months in.

I think that I liked this book more this time around. The last (and possibly only) time I read it, I was deep into a Christie binge, and I remember that I read this on the heels of The A.B.C. Murders. That is one of Christie’s most brilliant books, so this book fared rather badly by comparison. In addition that book and this book have a clue that is somewhat similar, which meant that, while I did not figure out whodunit, I did figure out a foundational aspect as to why the murders were committed. That negative comparison was, I think at this point, unjustified.

Because this book was thoroughly enjoyable this time around, and Christie buried the perpetrator with such a deft hand that, even recalling who it was, I was somewhat awed by her plotting. In addition, the first time I read it, I had not yet been introduced to Mr. Satterthwaite, who is ubiquitous in her Harley Quin stories, so re-meeting him in this one added a lot to my delight. And Egg Lytton-Gore and Oliver Manders, both, turned out to be memorable and likeable characters, although the relationship between Egg and Sir Charles, a man 30 years her senior, gave me the heebs. What a creeper – I have a husband who is about Sir Charles’s age, and the idea of him creeping on a girl our daughter’s age makes me feel all yucky inside. Pass the brain bleach, please.

Next month, Death in the Clouds. This is a book that I remember being very meh about, so we’ll see how it turns out. I have a run of Poirot’s, because March’s book is the absolutely terrific The A.B.C. Murders. In fact, it isn’t until October, with Murder is Easy, that I’ll be a reading that doesn’t have Poirot in it at all.

Peril at End House

Peril at End HousePeril at End House
by Agatha Christie
Rating: ★★★★
Series: Hercule Poirot #8
Publication Date: February 1, 1932
Genre: mystery
Pages: 228
Project: appointment with agatha, halloween bingo

Agatha Christie’s ingenious murder mystery, reissued with a striking cover designed to appeal to the latest generation of Agatha Christie fans and book lovers.

Nick Buckley was an unusual name for a pretty young woman. But then she had led an unusual life. First, on a treacherous Cornish hillside, the brakes on her car failed. Then, on a coastal path, a falling boulder missed her by inches. Later, an oil painting fell and almost crushed her in bed.

Upon discovering a bullet-hole in Nick’s sun hat, Hercule Poirot decides the girl needs his protection. At the same time, he begins to unravel the mystery of a murder that hasn’t been committed. Yet.

Peril at End House was the September Appointment with Agatha book, and is designated as #8 of the Hercule Poirot series. This numbering includes some of the short story compilations, so it isn’t just the full-length mysteries.

This is on of my favorite Poirot mysteries – and, aside from The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, the best so far in the series. We begin the book with Poirot and Hastings on the terrace of The Majestic Hotel, where they have gone on holiday together. It is narrated in the first person by Hastings, who sets the stage thus:

We were sitting on one of the terraces of the Majestic Hotel. It is the biggest hotel in St. Loo and stands in its own grounds on a headland overlooking the sea. The gardens of the hotel lay below us freely interspersed with palm trees. The sea was of a deep and lovely blue, the sky clear and the sun shining with all the single-hearted fervour an August sun should (but in England so often does not) have. There was a vigorous humming of bees, a pleasant sound—and altogether nothing could have been more ideal.

The Majestic is an obvious analog to The Imperial Hotel in Torquay, Devon, pictured below.

(The Imperial has sadly been remodeled and doesn’t look anything like this picture anymore. It’s a rather unattractive concrete block structure now.)

As they sit on the terrace, Poirot meets the main character, sprightly, manic-pixie-dream-girl Art Deco edition, Nick (Magda) Buckley. She tells him about a number of near misses with death that she has been experiencing, and Poirot becomes convinced that someone is trying to murder her. Vacation or not, Poirot is on the case. It doesn’t hurt that Nick is charming, both in personality and appearance.

Much of the appeal of this book is in the interactions between Poirot and Hastings. Hastings has been off in The Argentine for a while, before returning to England on his own (without Bella, his wife). I am not a Hastings fan, but I really enjoyed a lot of the tongue-in-cheek barbs being traded in this book:

“You have an extraordinary effect on me, Hastings. You have so strongly the flair in the wrong direction that I am almost tempted to go by it! You are that wholly admirable type of man, honest, credulous, honourable, who is invariably taken in by any scoundrel. You are the type of man who invests in doubtful oil fields, and non-existent gold mines. From hundreds like you, the swindler makes his daily bread. Ah, well—I shall study this Commander Challenger. You have awakened my doubts.”

Poirot to Hastings.

And this funny exchange:

“I am old-fashioned and sentimental myself, Mademoiselle.”
“Are you? I should have said that Captain Hastings was the sentimental one of you two.” I blushed indignantly.
“He is furious,” said Poirot, eying my discomfiture with a good deal of pleasure. “But you are right, Mademoiselle. Yes, you are right.”
“Not at all,” I said, angrily.
“Hastings has a singularly beautiful nature. It has been the greatest hindrance to me at times.”
“Don’t be absurd, Poirot.”
“He is, to begin with, reluctant to see evil anywhere, and when he does see it his righteous indignation is so great that he is incapable of dissembling. Altogether a rare and beautiful nature. No, mon ami, I will not permit you to contradict me. It is as I say.”

And then we have Hastings:

I reflected that Poirot’s abasement was strangely like other people’s conceit, but I prudently forebore from making any remark.

Poirot is not at his investigative best in this book – he seems to stumble a bit, and misses the point such that the murder, had he been a bit more on the ball, might have been prevented. And, with respect to that murder, the victim is one of the most innocent of Christie’s victims. It is poignant, especially a scene that occurs with the victim’s parents where Christie describes their grief in a really affecting way. The solution to the mystery is ingenious and the clueing is subtle and clever.

This book never seems to make the “best of Christie” lists, and I don’t really know why that is. I have always thought that it was a clever, well-written and compelling story, and I always enjoy reading it. End House is a classic “country house” and the holiday watering hole of St. Loo makes a great setting.

The Sittaford Mystery by Agatha Christie

The Sittaford MysteryThe Sittaford Mystery
by Agatha Christie
Publication Date: September 7, 1931
Genre: mystery
Pages: 248
Project: appointment with agatha

In a remote house in the middle of Dartmoor, six shadowy figures huddle around a table for a seance. Tension rises as the spirits spell out a chilling message: "Captain Trevelyan . . . dead . . . murder."

Is this black magic or simply a macabre joke? The only way to be certain is to locate Captain Trevelyan. Unfortunately, his home is six miles away and, with snowdrifts blocking the roads, someone will have to make the journey on foot...

Publication information: this is Agatha Christie’s 11th full-length mystery, published in the UK by Collins Crime Club on September 7, 1931. It was published in the U.S. that same year by Dodd, Mead & Company under the title Murder at Hazelmoor.

The Sittaford Mystery is a stand-alone, with only a single character who appears in more than one Christie – Inspector Narracott also makes an appearance in a radio play called Personal Call, which is part of an audio anthology called Agatha Christie: the Lost Plays. If you are interested, you can find it on Audible here.

I have read The Sittaford Mystery several times – four at least. I always enormously enjoy it, and this was no exception to that rule. Agatha is at her most playful here, incorporating a number of Sherlock Holmes-ish elements, including a seance, an escaped convict and the Dartmoor landscape.

She sets the book during a notable snow-storm – the book opens on a snowy evening party at Sittaford House, which is being rented by a mother-daughter pair of Australians. This makes The Sittaford Mystery a perfect winter reading escape – I was actually reading it at the wrong time of year altogether. I do remember that my last reading of the book occurred as part of a family winter holiday. My daughter & I listened to it on a drive between our home in the Portland area and the Bend area of Oregon, which was sheer perfection. The roadsides were white and piled with snow, and we drove in a very light snow, so that there weren’t safety issues, but there was added atmosphere for the Hugh Fraser audiobook.

Snow on the Tors

Back to the beginning of The Sittaford Mystery, though. Looking for entertainment, the party, which introduces many of the characters, decide to indulge in a spot of table-turning. The “spirit” who contacts them claims to be Captain Trevelyan, the owner of Sittaford House, where the party is taking place. Captain Trevelyan is spending the winter in a nearby town, because he wanted the money offered by Mrs. Willett to take Sittaford House for the winter. He is supposed to be very much alive at the moment of the table turning. The spirit’s announcement becomes even more dramatic – with a claim that he, Captain Trevelyan, has been murdered.

This all happens very early in the book, so it’s not a spoiler. It’s a cracking opening, though, and is immediately intriguing.

The announcement that Captain Trevelyan has been murdered has quite an effect on the table-turners. His best friend, Major Burnaby, who was reluctantly drawn into the table-turning enterprise, is shaken against his will. He decides that he needs to get to Exhampton to make sure that Trevelyan is all right. The conditions are terrible, deep snow and more snow falling with a blizzard expected. The roads are impassable so driving to Exhampton is out of the question. Nonetheless, Major Burnaby is the sporty type, so he takes off on foot, for the two and a half hour walk through the snow. He finds Captain Trevelyan murdered.

I’m not going to spoil this book because Agatha’s puzzle mysteries are such fun. I almost never figured them out the first time through. I don’t remember if I figured this one out or if it was wholly baffling.

I want to talk about bit about two of my favorite characters in the book, though. First, a mention of Inspector Narracott, our Inspector du Livre, who is very well-drawn and likeable. He is no bumbler – he comes to Sittaford to solve the mystery, and is quite capable. It’s a bit of a pity that Agatha never really used him again.

The life and soul of this book, though, is Emily Trefusis, whose fiance, James Pearson, is one of Captain Trevelyan’s heirs. It seems that the good Captain is quite well-off, and, as well, is a woman-hater so he has no wife or children to stand in the way of his siblings – and their children, inheriting a packet. Each of the four heirs are quite hard up, and they all stand to gain approximately 20K pounds.

This is a tidy sum – according to a calculator I just used, 20K pounds in 1931 had the equivalent purchasing power of 1.4M pounds today. For American readers, that’s almost 2M dollars.

Motives everywhere! Anyway, back to Emily Trefusis, who is delightful. Over the many years that I have read Christie’s books I have found that some of her best characters are young women, and Emily Trefusis is a firecracker. She is resourceful and, at times, manipulative. She is a very capable young lady who is determined to clear her boyfriend’s good name, as he has been arrested for the murder. He’s a weak, albeit attractive, young man and is but clay in her hands – her plan is to marry him and make him into a success.

I have no doubt that she will prevail in any endeavor she undertakes. Because Emily Trefusis is a force of nature. Not everyone will connect with her character, but I absolutely do. There was a time in my life, before I raised kids, had a career for 30 years, and was worn down by life, when I, too, was a force of nature. I didn’t need to manipulate a man to fulfill my ambitions, because I have the good fortune of having been born in 1966 instead of 1911 and could do for myself. I don’t hold Emily’s fierceness against her, even when she uses it to manipulate the men around her. Which she does, very effectively.

This being a Christie, there is a love triangle between Emily and her two suitors: the afore-mentioned, somewhat wet, James Pearson and the not-at-all-wet Charles Enderby, a journalist who comes to town to deliver a prize to Captain Trevelyan for winning some sort of a puzzle competition and stays for the murder investigation. Emily very openly uses Enderby to accomplish tasks that she isn’t able to manage by dint of her status as a young woman. Also this being a Christie, Emily chooses between them by the end, and will go off and be married, never to be seen or heard from again (which is really too bad. A mid-career visit from a mature Emily Trefusis would have been a sight to behold).

The Sittaford Mystery isn’t Christie’s best work – but it’s an enjoyable mystery with a great setting and some wonderful characters.

Halloween Bingo: Amateur Sleuth

I’ve completed my discussion of the first row, and have realized that I am going to run out of time before Bingo begins. No worries, though. I’ll just keep going until I lose interest!

This is a really easy square for me to fill – it’s mystery, first of all, which is my favorite, and most read, genre, and then it’s also a sub-genre that I read a lot of, in any case. I’m not actually a huge cozy mystery fan, which works well for “Amateur Sleuth,” but a lot of my favorite Golden Age series, and even some of my modern series, do have P.I. or other amateur protagonists.

Which brings me to the definition – I take a “broad” approach to amateur, allowing any sleuth who isn’t actively employed by a police department or other government sanctioned agency (FBI, sheriffs, prosecutors, etc). So, with my definition, P.I.’s and retired police officers fit, and even Sherlock Holmes is an “amateur sleuth,” notwithstanding the fact that he would be deeply, deeply offended by the characterization!

I’m not going to list all of the books I’ve read in past bingo games that would have fit this square because the list would be long, indeed. Looking back over past cards, I’m surprised to note that I have never actually played this specific square before. In any case, I’m just going to mention a few books/series that are on my radar for this HB season!

I will definitely be reading both of these books, as they are my Appointment With Agatha reads for September and October. They are also both Poirot books, and much to his irritation, he is also an “amateur sleuth” under this square’s definition.

If I decide to apply both of those books to alternative squares, however, I have some other ongoing vintage mystery series that I could dip into for this one: Brian Flynn’s Anthony Bathurst series, currently being republished by one of my favorite small, independent publishers, Dean Street Press, Gladys Mitchell’s Mrs. Bradley series, most of which are available through the Kindle Unlimited Library, the Miss Silver series by Patricia Wentworth, which I mostly own for kindle, or Ellis Peter’s delightful Brother Cadfael books, which I have also collected over the years.

The choices are, truly endless.

Appointment with Agatha

October of 2020 was the 100 year anniversary of the publication of Agatha Christie’s first whodunit, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, which featured her beloved Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot, who appeared in 33 full length mysteries, and several short story collections.

I had been planning to reread Agatha Christie’s full-length mysteries in publication order for a few years, after successfully concluding my first-time-through Agatha Christie read in February, 2019 with Why Didn’t They Ask Evans. This was mostly documented on my now defunct Booklikes blog. I had planned to immediately start over at the beginning, but got bogged down.

So, when the 100th anniversary rolled around, it seemed a propitious time to begin. I started looking for a Goodreads group to join, but soon realized, disappointingly, that all of the existing groups were well into their read-throughs.  No matter, I decided to start a new Goodreads group for my readthrough, to be scheduled at one per month beginning in October. We spent a couple of months reading short story collections, gathering members, until the full re-read began with The Mysterious Affair at Styles. We have now read the first eleven Christies (one per month), along with 11 vintage mystery side-reads. I haven’t written blog posts about any of them yet.

I did previously review The Mysterious Affair at Styles way back in August, 2012,  when my first Christie read accidentally began (you can find that post on my old Classics Club blog here). My daughter had become a fan of Christie after reading And Then There Were None for a high school English class, and her love of Christie reminded me how much I had also enjoyed reading Christie over the years. I started collecting the Black Dog and Levanthal editions when I would visit my local Barnes & Noble, which was the start of my obsession with all things Christie.

I plan to catch up on all of the Christies that I have previously read, and then will try to stay current as the group reads move forward. The book for this month was The Sittaford Mystery, which is a stand-alone, and is a favorite of mine. So far, we have finished:

  • The Mysterious Affair at Styles
  • The Secret Adversary
  • Murder on the Links
  • The Man in the Brown Suit
  • The Secret of Chimneys
  • The Murder of Roger Ackroyd
  • The Big Four
  • The Mystery of the Blue Train
  • The Seven Dials Mystery
  • The Murder at the Vicarage
  • The Sittaford Mystery

Our September read is Peril at End House, which is also a personal favorite (I suspect that this will be a very overused phrase throughout these posts), and is vastly underrated, in my opinion. In addition, we are through the period in which Christie is alternating relatively weak mysteries with very weak thrillers (with the exception of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd and The Murder at the Vicarage) and beginning the period where she is publishing some of her Best Work.

The Mysterious Affair at Styles is a remarkable debut mystery. It combines a lot of the elements that Christie will use again and again in her mysteries – the closed circle, the country house, her knowledge of poisons, the double bluff, the faked alibi. It ends up, in my opinion, being a middling Christie, and if it had happened in the middle of her career, it would be rather meh, I think. But because it’s the first, it’s noteworthy for that reason alone. The interactions between Poirot and Hastings are priceless.

My goal is not necessarily to write up traditional reviews for each Christie mystery, but rather to focus on the ways in which a specific book resonates with me this time around, since I have read all of Christie’s mysteries at least once, and in many cases, four or five times. I almost always remember the solutions, but can still admire her elegance, cleverness and wit all the better for knowing what’s coming. In addition, I have created a page to rank the Christies as I go along, from best to worst (in my estimation only), which can be found here.

Cat Among the Pigeons

Cat Among the PigeonsCat Among the Pigeons
by Agatha Christie, Hugh Fraser (narr)
Series: Hercule Poirot #36
Publication Date: November 2, 1959
Genre: mystery
Pages: 256
Project: a century of women, appointment with agatha

A revolution in the Middle East has a direct and deadly impact upon the summer term at Meadowbank, a picture-perfect girls' school in the English countryside. Prince Ali Yusuf, Hereditary Sheikh of Ramat, whose great liberalizing experiment -- 'hospitals, schools, a Health Service' -- is coming to chaos, knows that he must prepare for the day of his exile. He asks his pilot and school friend, Bob Rawlinson, to care for a packet of jewels. Rawlinson does so, hiding them among the possessions of his niece, Jennifer Sutcliffe, who is bound for Meadowbank. Rawlinson is killed before he can reveal the hiding place—or even the fact that he has employed his niece as a smuggler. But someone knows, or suspects, that Jennifer has the jewels. As murder strikes Meadowbank, only Hercule Poirot can restore the peace.

I’m a huge Agatha Christie fan – back in 2019, I finally finished reading all 66 of her full length novels: Poirot, Marple, the Beresfords, and all of the other one off, two off, three off or four off characters as well. And, as I mentioned yesterday, during this stressful time of stay-at-home orders and viral spread and economic dislocation, I seem to be gravitating in the direction of comfort reads.

I think that all readers have a different set of comfort reads. For me, children’s literature, especially classic British children’s literature, Golden Age Mystery, especially Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers and Patricia Wentworth, and certain favorite series to reread (especially Laurie R. King’s Mary Russell & Sherlock Holmes series, for some odd reason) are my go-to comfort reads. Because of that, I’ve been dipping in and out of Agatha Christie, sort of semi-randomly choosing books from my shelves.

I also set my Christie collection as my zoom background, which puzzles my coworkers and makes me happy every time we zoom.

Over the weekend, I reread Cat Among the Pigeons. This book was originally published in 1959, after Ordeal by Innocence and before The Pale Horse. It is the 28th full-length Poirot book, out of approximately 33 (excluding short story compilations & plays).

I own the relatively boring Berkeley mass market paperback edition, which was published in 2005 (you can see it on the top shelf, left hand side, of the photo above). I own a few of these – both my copy of The Sittaford Mystery and The Seven Dials Mystery come from the same line. There are no recurring characters in this book aside from Poirot – neither Ariadne Oliver nor Arthur Hastings make an appearance here.

Christie is often criticized for weak characterizations. As someone who has read every single one of her full-length mysteries, I feel like this criticism is often unfair, and that, to the contrary, Christie had a knack for brief but effective character sketches. Her books have a lot of characters, which may be one of the reasons that this belief exists, but it has been my experience that each book contains at least one, and often more than one, really interesting and engaging character. In my opinion, she is especially good with women. In Cat Among the Pigeons, there are two side characters that I just love – Miss Bulstrode and Julia Upjohn.

It was quite an impressive room, and Miss Bulstrode was rather more than quite an impressive woman. She was tall, and rather noble looking, with well-dressed grey hair, grey eyes with plenty of humour in them, and a firm mouth. The success of her school (and Meadowbank was one of the most successful schools in England) was entirely due to the personality of its Headmistress. It was a very expensive school, but that was not really the point. It could be put better by saying that though you paid through the nose, you got what you paid for.

The mystery here is a bit of an oddity – it is one of Christie’s rare books that combines a bit of her international thriller plots with a straight-up mystery. Her thrillers tend to be markedly weaker than her mysteries, but, in this case, I feel like her plot really works. The book is set in a famous British girl’s school – Meadowbank – where Miss Bulstrode is the headmistress. There are some murders, of course, and there is also a side plot related to a revolution in Ramat, a fictional Middle-eastern country similar to Saudi Arabia.

Poirot enters the story very late, at around the three-quarters mark, when Julia Upjohn, one of the students, makes a startling discovery and turns to him for help.

Julia looked at him in an expectant fashion.

“You leave yourself in my hands? Good.” Hercule Poirot closed his eyes. Suddenly he opened them and became brisk. “It seems that this is an occasion when I cannot, as I prefer, remain in my chair. There must be order and method, but in what you tell me, there is no order and method. That is because we have here many threads. But they all converge and meet at one place, Meadowbank. Different people, with different aims, and representing different interests—all converge at Meadowbank. So, I, too, go to Meadowbank. And as for you—where is your mother?”

Christie was very good at creating notable young women, although they are usually in their twenties as opposed to their teens. Julia Upjohn is an exception to this rule, as she is around 15 during the action of the book, but she is really delightful – clever, active, perceptive and ethical. She is really the catalyst who solves the mystery. As Poirot says to her:

And I should very much dislike anything to happen to you, my child. I will admit that I have formed a high opinion of your courage and your resource.” Julia looked pleased but embarrassed.

I recently bought copies of both of John Curran’s books which delve into the information contained in Agatha Christie’s old notebooks.

Typically when I reread a Christie, I pull out the books and turn to the indexes to see what interesting tidbits I can find out about the particular Christie.

The second book, Agatha Christie: Murder in the Making; More Stories and Secrets from Her Notebooks, devotes several pages to Cat Among the Pigeons. There are over 80 pages in her notebooks related to Cat Among the Pigeons. Christie initially considered both Poirot and Miss Marple as potential detectives.

Miss Marple? Great niece at the school?
Poirot? Mrs. U sits opposite him in a train

I agree with Curran that in many ways, Marple might have made more sense here, given the setting of a girl’s school, although it is Poirot who usually gets involved in mysteries that might involve diplomatic or international elements. Superintendent Battle or Colonel Race might also have been appropriate to the international thriller storyline.

There were also two proposed titles for the book:

Death of a Games Mistress
Cat Among the Pigeons

Obviously, we know which title was picked, although Death of a Games Mistress actually makes it into the story in the conversation between police officers early in the book, after one of the murders.

“Death of a Games Mistress,” said Kelsey, thoughtfully. “Sounds like the title of a thriller on a railway bookstall.”

In addition, Cat Among the Pigeons was a proposed title for the Christie mystery published just prior to this one – Ordeal By Innocence – before it became the title of this mystery.

This isn’t one of Christie’s best mysteries, and it’s not one of her best books, but the setting is a good one, and the characters of Miss Bulstrode and Julia Upjohn make the book well worth reading. In addition, the BBC adaptation of this particular book, starring David Suchet as Hercule Poirot, is one of the best of the late Poirot episodes. It brings in Poirot much earlier, and while we don’t get as much Julia Upjohn, Miss Bulstrode is performed by the inimitable and always fabulous Harriet Walters. It’s worth watching for her alone.