by-the-pricking-of-my-thumbs“Mr and Mrs Beresford were sitting at the breakfast table.”

This week marked the 124th anniversary of Agatha Christie’s birth, which meant it was only right that I went back to her and read another one. Well, the decision was based partly on that, and partly on the fact I feel I’ve done too many bad reviews lately, and I can at least pretty much guarantee a good read from the Queen of Crime. I decided to embark on the fourth Tommy & Tuppence story, having already reviewed the first three on here.

Last time we saw Tommy and Tuppence Beresford, they were involved in spy work in the middle of the Second World War. Now, it’s the sixties and times have changed. The two are much older now, their children grown up and married themselves, and while our heroes our still happy in their lives, they seem to miss the excitement of their youth.

Tommy becomes guilty that he hasn’t visited his old Aunt Ada for over a year and so the Beresfords set off to Sunny Ridge home of the elderly to check on her. She’s as grumpy and irascible as usual, refusing to even acknowledge Tuppence, who goes off to amuse herself by talking to some of the other patients. She gets involved with the dotty Mrs Lancaster who, during their conversation, suddenly says, “Was it your poor child?” Confused and intrigued, Tuppence doesn’t get a chance to find out what she means.

A few weeks later, Aunt Ada has died and the Beresfords return to Sunny Ridge to sort out her things, which happen to include a painting of a house that was given to Ada by Mrs Lancaster only a short while ago. Tuppence feels it’s not right to take it and tries to return it to Mrs Lancaster, only to find that her relatives collected her mere days ago and she is no longer at the nursing home. But Tuppence becomes obsessed with the painting, convinced that she has seen the house somewhere before. Why did Mrs Lancaster have it? Where is the house? Who painted the picture? And are all the old ladies at Sunny Ridge just a bit senile, or have some of them stumbled across some information that they shouldn’t have. With Tommy away at a conference, Tuppence takes up the challenge and sets off to find the house and solve the puzzle, leading her deep into a nasty web patrolled by a host of spiders ready to gobble up a juicy fly that lands in their midst…

The majority of the book tells of what Tuppence is up to, but Tommy gets some chapters later on. It’s interesting and refreshing to read a story where the protagonist is an older woman, particularly adventure thrillers like this, as I can’t think of many examples. (My favourite, though, is Thursday Next from Jasper Fforde’s books, who is still an action hero in her late fifties despite walking with a cane.) Tuppence is a warm character, described like a terrier who cannot be deterred once she sets her sights on some idea. Tommy can’t do anything to stop her, but you also get the impression, despite his chastising, that he wouldn’t have her any other way.

It’s a slow burner, taking a while to get going, but the many coincidences and the plot ties itself up neatly and you are finally presented with a very well-crafted story, leading to one of the most surprising, creepy and entertaining showdowns in the entire Christie canon. I don’t know her opinion on the book, but other reviews of the time seem less favourable, stating that her plots have become a bit more woolly and her dialogue more verbose. Granted, it’s quite lengthy and some passages may be unnecessary, but I’ve no problems with that. It’s sinister and eerie, and being a Tommy & Tuppence novel, it’s a thriller rather than a detective story. While Christie excels at the latter, she isn’t bad at these either.

The book was written, it seems, almost as a love letter to the fans who were questioning her as to the lives of the Beresfords since the war. They are, of course, her only characters who age in real time, and will appear once more in Postern Of Fate, which was both the last novel they appeared in and the last novel Christie wrote before her death. I am intrigued to find out the eventual fate of the Beresfords.

It’s time for the next book, and given the title of this one, there was only one candidate to follow it up…