Category Archives: Christie, Agatha

Peril at End House

Peril at End HousePeril at End House by Agatha Christie
Rating: ★★★★
Series: Hercule Poirot #8
Publication Date: February 1, 1932
Pages: 228
Genre: mystery
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
Pages: 248
Genre: mystery
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
Pages: 256
Genre: mystery
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.

Faithful, if Lackluster, Adaptation

Title: Murder on the Nile
Author: Agatha Christie
Date of First Performance: 1945

Plot summary: Agatha Christie
Full Length, Mystery
Characters: 8 male, 5 female
Interior Set

Simon Mostyn has recently married Kay Ridgeway, a rich woman, having thrown over his former lover Jacqueline. The couple are on their honeymoon and are at present on a paddle steamer on the Nile. With them is Canon Pennefather, Kay’s guardian, and Jacqueline, who has been dogging their footsteps all through the honeymoon. Also on the boat are a rich, ill tempered old woman with her niece and companion, a rather direct young man, a German who nurses a grudge against Kay’s father and Kay’s maid. During the voyage Jacqueline works herself into a state of hysteria and shoots at Simon, wounding him in the knee. A few moments later Kay is found shot in her bunk. By the time the boat reaches its destination, Canon Pennefather has laid bare an audacious conspiracy and has made sure the criminals shall not go free.

Let me admit at the outset that I am not a play reader, although I do love to go to live theater, and it is a lifelong dream of mine to see The Mousetrap performed, preferably in London. It’s also important to note that Death on the Nile is one of my favorite of Christie’s mysteries – the setting is wonderful, the characters are well-drawn, and the solution is satisfying even if there are rather too many side-plots going on in the book.

I will talk further about all of those elements in a later review, because I plan to do a reread of this delightful mystery around the middle of May.

For now, though, I will confine my remarks to this play. My edition was published by Samuel French, and was ordered from Amazon. Along with the script, it contains a character list, a stage schematic, a Furniture and Property Plot and a Lighting Plot. The Furniture and Property Plot was actually fairly interesting, and the Lighting Plot went right over my head.

I have never seen this play performed, although when I was googling about, I found information that a local theater actually performed it a couple of years ago, which left me quite bitter. If I had known it was being staged, I absolutely would’ve gotten tickets for it.

However, reading the script did make one of the primary complaints that I’ve read about this play quite clear to me. There is absolutely no real connection to the setting here. Egypt is mentioned, the Nile is referenced, but this is a play that occurs primarily in a single room – the observation saloon on a paddle steamer nominally travelling down the Nile. It could, however, have happened anywhere, including on the Thames.

I honestly don’t know how to stage this play to take advantage of the Egyptian setting, but, then again, I’m not a playwright. It certainly seems, as well, that Agatha Christie – who was the playwright – also didn’t really know how to do this, as throwing in a couple of random beadsellers at the very beginning of the play, during what is meant to be the embarkation process, seems to be the extent of her efforts. Weak.

The stripped down nature of the play, as well, means that we don’t really get a lot of character development. Because I’ve had the advantage of reading the original text, and having seen the Poirot adaptation, I attributed much of the character depth from other sources to these characters. Someone just seeing the play, I’m afraid, wouldn’t have the benefit of that depth and would likely feel that the play itself left a lot to be desired in terms of character development. Kay, in particular, felt extremely thin. Perhaps actors who are also familiar with the source novel would be able to imbue the characters with the depth that they lack through their performances. I don’t know.

Canon Pennefather takes the place of Poirot, which was actually fine for me. Poirot might have overwhelmed the production with his fussiness and his mannerisms anyway.

Notes for the Agathytes: As I’ve previously mentioned, Canon Pennefather “reappears” with a slight name change (Canon Pennyfather) in At Bertram’s Hotel, approximately 20 years later. The characters are completely different in personality, however.

Kay is the name that Agatha Christie chose for Linnett Ridgeway in the play. I thought that was actually somewhat interesting, because Kay is also the name of the second wife, Kay Strange, in Towards Zero, a book that was published in 1944, which was also adapted as a play in 1956. The play was first performed that same year. There are some physical similarities between the two Kays. Agatha does like to recycle.

In terms of the endings, I’ll talk about this more when we reread Death on the Nile, but there were some crucial differences between the ending of the play and the ending of the book.

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

At Bertram's HotelAt Bertram's Hotel by Agatha Christie
Series: Miss Marple #10
Publication Date: October 1, 1965
Pages: 272
Genre: mystery
Project: appointment with agatha

At Bertram’s Hotel the intrepid Miss Marple, on holiday in London, must solve a deadly mystery at the end of a chain of very violent events.

An old-fashioned London hotel is not quite as reputable as it makes out to be.…

When Miss Marple comes up from the country for a holiday in London, she finds what she’s looking for at Bertram’s Hotel: traditional decor, impeccable service, and an unmistakable atmosphere of danger behind the highly-polished veneer.

Yet, not even Miss Marple can foresee the violent chain of events set in motion when an eccentric guest makes his way to the airport on the wrong day.…

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!

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

N or MN or M by Agatha Christie
Series: Tommy & Tuppence #3
Publication Date: November 1, 1941
Pages: 304
Genre: mystery
Project: a century of women

Set during the dark days of World War II, Agatha Christie’s N or M? puts two most unlikely espionage agents, Tommy and Tuppence Beresford, on the trail of a pair of Nazi spies who have murdered Britain’s top agent.

World War II is raging, and while the RAF struggles to keep the Luftwaffe at bay, Britain faces a sinister threat from “the enemy within”—Nazis posing as ordinary citizens.

With pressure mounting, the intelligence service appoints two improbable 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 far from an easy stroll along the promenade—N and M have just murdered Britain’s finest agent and no one can be trusted...

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.

When Hastings Fell in Love

Murder on the LinksMurder on the Links by Agatha Christie
Series: Hercule Poirot #2
Publication Date: January 1, 1923
Pages: 320
Genre: mystery
Project: appointment with agatha

On a French golf course, a millionaire is found stabbed in the back…

An urgent cry for help brings Poirot to France. But he arrives too late to save his client, whose brutally stabbed body now lies face downwards in a shallow grave on a golf course.

But why is the dead man wearing his son’s overcoat? And who was the impassioned love-letter in the pocket for? 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.

Appointment With Death by Agatha Christie

Appointment with DeathAppointment with Death by Agatha Christie
Series: Hercule Poirot #19
Publication Date: May 2, 1938
Pages: 303
Genre: mystery
Project: appointment with agatha

Among the towering red cliffs of Petra, like some monstrous swollen Buddha, sat the corpse of Mrs Boynton. A tiny puncture mark on her wrist was the only sign of the fatal injection that had killed her.

With only 24 hours available to solve the mystery, Hercule Poirot recalled a chance remark he’d overheard back in Jerusalem: ‘You see, don’t you, that she’s got to be killed?’ Mrs Boynton was, indeed, the most detestable woman he’d 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.