Monday, January 21, 2008

Agatha Christie

The Mainly Mysteries Book Club met once again last night to discuss the Grande Dame of Mystery, Agatha Christie, (Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire, 1890 – 1976), writes Jeannine. Christie wrote over 80 novels and short story collections, and over a dozen plays over the span of more than half a century. Her books have been translated into over 100 languages with an estimated 4 billion sold. And on and on.

Rather than all read one title, each member could read whatever book featuring whichever detective they wished. With several members needing to leave early, we jumped right into the “show and tell.” Our first member read Partners in Crime (1929), short stories featuring the less well-known characters of Tommy and Tuppence. She likened them to Nick and Nora Charles, light and witty tales in which the couple like to take on the persona of other famous detectives. She enjoyed the vivid quick vignettes of the characters and setting, though there were lots of references she had never heard of, which she assumed was because it was published in 1929, “a bit before my time.” When one of the other members razzed her about “just a little bit,” she informed us that she was happy to have just had her 65th birthday and was celebrating it enthusiastically, threw her arm up with a cry of “Senior Power!” and told us she had laminated her Medicare card and she was ready!

After we rolled ourselves back onto our chairs, a topic came up that reappeared several times throughout the evening, the “missing” time when Agatha Christie disappeared from her home in Berkshire (8 December 1926), and was found 10 days later in a hotel in Harrogate saying she had amnesia. There has been all kinds of speculation made (it was certainly generated at our table), and even a movie, Agatha (1979, starring Vanessa Redgrave) offered a fictional solution to the real mystery. One of our members had read that this happened shortly after Christie’s mother died, and her first husband, Colonel Archibald Christie, ran off with another woman. So disappearing for a few months made a good deal of sense to most of us. This event also features briefly in one of Kage Baker's time-travelling Company series.

Our next member had picked up a collection of Miss Marple stories. She generally does not care for short stories, but she had read 50 or 60 of Christie’s books, and Miss Marple was her favorite character, so she gave the Marple stories a try, and enjoyed them very much. One of her favorites was “The Tuesday Night Club” (from The Tuesday Club Murders, 1932) where a group of people gather together for an evening of telling mysteries and guessing the solutions, including Miss Marple and a Scotland Yard detective (guess who outsmarts who). Miss Marple has been played on TV and film by five actresses, from Gracie Fields (1956) to Joan Hickson (1985-1992), and then, in the 2005 PBS version, by Geraldine McEwan.

And did you know that Christie even had a novel set in ancient Egypt? It’s Death Comes as the End (1944).

And now we follow Miss Marple to the Caribbean in the aptly titled Caribbean Mystery (1964), filmed in 1983 and 1989 for TV. Miss Marple goes to the Caribbean for the warmer weather, and rather than go bathing or work on her suntan, she people-watches and always listens. Our reader said the mystery was good, and that though there were hints throughout, she didn’t see the end coming. She enjoyed it more for the “different setting;” moving from the parlor to the veranda.

One of our members had had surgery and was unable to hold a book, so tried Christie on tape, but even told with the correct accent, the story was just too slow for her. The next person tried both Hercule Poirot (Murder in Mesopotamia, 1936) and Miss Marple (A Pocket Full of Rye, 1953) with different results. Many people had already expressed a disdain for the Poirot character, and she had to agree, the fussy, egotistic detective does nothing but interview – talk, talk, talk. She found Miss Marple far more interesting, and despite the very British bias, thought Christie brought people to life very succinctly.

Poirot was enjoyed by the next reader, who tried Poirot Investigates (1924), a collection of short stories. She said Poirot is obviously one of those characters you either love or hate. She enjoyed the short format that gave short cameos of characters, had a mystery that kept the reader guessing, but found the wit and humor more interesting. The short stories were something like the Encyclopedia Brown children’s stories or Two-minute mysteries for adults.

We discovered that Poirot hated the heat (Murder in Mesopotamia, Death on the Nile, etc) because it made his mustache wilt, and the sand “deranged” him (a word he repeatedly used in a more literal, English-as-a-second-language sense).

Our next reader was another member who held back from reading any Christie because he had a real hang-up with the Poirot films, which he called “like treacle” (Americans: think “molasses”). He too decided to try short stories because he left it to the last minute, and was surprised to find himself really getting into them. He picked up a copy of Masterpieces in Miniature (2005), which included short stories featuring four of Christie’s most popular detectives – Miss Marple, Hercule Poirot, Parker Pyne, and Harley Quin. He spent more time on the less well-known characters of Pyne and Quin. He found it interesting how Pyne draws from his career using statistics to solve the unhappiness problems of his clients, and how the Quin stories had almost a menacing feel to them, with the harlequin references (multi-colored lights repeatedly fall on the character) giving it an otherworldly touch. The Poirot stories gave insight into life in the 1920s and 1930s in London, and he speculated on the possible reasons the Christie stories do not seem to date themselves in the same manner as he felt the Rex Stout do. Christie does not root her stories in concrete, well-known locales, while Stout's New York is noticeably not the city we know today.

Did you know that two of Agatha Christie’s pet hates were marmalade pudding and cockroaches? Well, I wouldn’t want them together either.

Upon the recommendation of friends to read Ten Little Indians (1939), our next member picked up a copy that included it and 4 other novels. She found it interesting how some titles have changed over time. Ten Little Indians had two previous titles, and is currently better known as And Then There Were None (1943). She enjoyed the stories, though admitted they were slow reading. The novel was made into a 1945 film, starring Barry Fitzgerald and others.

More short stories! The Mysterious Mr. Quin (1930) was a collection of stories featuring the previously mentioned Harley Quin. But most of the stories only describe him has “Mr. Quin” so she never caught the “Harley-Quin” reference (smack forehead!). She likes short stories because each one can be completed in one sitting, and these stories are a nice product of the time – the 1930s – and English county houses and manners. Sometime after a crime, Mr. Quin fortuitously shows up after the police have given up, retells the facts as known in a manner that makes the truth apparent, crime solved.

Someone noted that in the earliest Poirot stories (the first was written in 1916), Poirot was not as fussy, with the accentuated mannerisms that he later displayed. And evidently he was more popular with the public than with Dame Christie; she is reported to have found him detestable. Hm, perhaps that’s why he became so much worse; she wanted everyone to detest him as well. She was finally able to kill him off in 1975, and for the first time in history, the New York Times ran a front-page obituary for a fictional character.

After a few more minutes of Poirot bashing, we moved on to another Marple fan. Short stories yet again in Witness for the Prosecution and Other Stories (1948) featuring a number of different characters. She was completely unimpressed with the title story, however, saying it read like Perry Mason. Or is it that Perry Mason reads like Agatha Christie?

Then it was Ordeal by Innocence (1958) which instead of the usual detectives, featured a doctor in the middle of a very dysfunctional family murder. It wasn’t “exciting,” but the mystery wasn’t easy to figure out.

It’s not always the case, but reading Agatha Christie’s stories made quite a few of the readers curious about Christie herself. In addition to all the speculation about her missing months, some wondered what kind of background she had. She never went to school, but was educated at home by her mother and governesses, typical for the time. In 1917 she qualified as a “dispenser” thus acquiring her knowledge of poisons. Some wondered if perhaps Poirot was similar to her ex-husband and thus her desire to kill him? We sent one of the members home with Christie’s autobiography (Agatha Christie: An Autobiography, 1977) so she can answer all our questions.

Now we come to another person who picked up short stories because they’re, well, short. Not a fan of Miss Marple (snore), she tried Mr. Parker Pyne, Detective (a.k.a. Parker Pyne Investigates, 1934). As mentioned earlier, Pyne offers his services by a classified ad: “Are you happy? If not, consult Mr. Parker Pyne, 17 Richmond Street.” And an extraordinary number of gullible people respond to this, show up in his office, and willingly fork over large sums of cash because somehow they just trust him. “It’s odd…but I do. Without knowing anything about you! I’m sure I can trust you.” The rather omniscient Mr. Pyne then creates elaborate scenarios with various actors to create situations in which the clients discover their way to true happiness. This reader’s lack of interest in Christie was not revised, but rather reinforced.

And it’s back to Hercule Poirot in The Hollow (1951). There is a gathering at an English country house in which one character is shot and another found with the gun. But not with the murder weapon. The characters’ unhappiness in life is dragged out over many (many!) chapters, and, more like a play, characters walk into the scene, then walk off, on, off…. Christie builds up the mystery with frequent surprises, and this reader liked the story “somewhat.”

Our grand finale is Endless Night (1967), and if he had described this at the last meeting, this is the one most of us would have read. He liked the way Christie writes, that she has good descriptions of the characters. There is a haunted house, a lot of people die, and a gypsy witch’s predictions. Wow, that doesn’t sound dull at all. Another member mentioned that Christie wrote ghost stories before she did mysteries; too bad she didn’t do more.

Our display had lots of books about Christie, photos of her and some of her books, and one of the very stylish Old Cataract Hotel portrayed in Death on the Nile, featured in Michael Palin's travelogue, Pole to Pole, Day 59 (DVD, 1992). (On Day 44 of this journey, Palin had stayed in Room 411 of the Pera Palas Hotel, where Agatha Christie wrote Murder on the Orient Express, 1934).

There was a lovely English teapot, candlesticks, knitting paraphernalia, and Poirot’s obituary from the New York Times. Refreshments were teacake, French truffles (Poirot would be so pleased), cookies, er, that should be “biscuits,” and the tea to go with them.

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