parker pyne

Christie’s other detective

“Four grunts, an indignant voice asking why nobody could leave a hat alone, a slammed door, and Mr Packington had departed to catch the eight forty-five to the city.”

Quickly, list of Agatha Christie’s famous problem solvers. Did you do it? Well, if you did, I can be pretty sure you said Poirot, and also fairly certain you mentioned Marple. If you’ve been really astute, you might even have got Tommy and Tuppence. But unless you’re a Christie aficionado, I reckon you didn’t get Mr Parker Pyne.

No one ever gets Parker Pyne, star of just a handful of short stories that have been collected and published here in this 1934 book. He is not a private eye or former policeman, nor a busybody neighbour, nor is he after thrills and spills. He has spent 25 years working in a government office of statistics and has become an expert in human nature, claiming by use of an advertisement in the personals that if you are unhappy, he can cure you of that ill. He deals, quite simply, in crimes and issues of the heart.

The twelve short stories are easily divided into two. In the first six, Parker Pyne (that’s two surnames; his first initial is given as J) meets with people who have read his advert and need a change in their lives to make them happy. Almost like a genial Santa Claus, he delivers the goods, as one would hope given the amount he is charging these people for his services. To a bored housewife, he gives a romance. To a disillusioned soldier, he gives him a new adventure, with the solider never realising that it was all a set up. He tries to save a marriage where only one half of the partnership wants a divorce, and he gives a rich woman more than she could ever buy.

In the following six, he is travelling around, visiting Petra, Baghdad and Delphi, eagerly trying to relax and enjoy his holiday but accidentally getting caught up with people who are unhappy and require his services. Here he deals with false identities, stolen jewels, a poisoning plot and a pair of sandy socks. One of the these stories is most unusual and was obviously an early draft for Christie as it takes the title of one of her novels, Death on the Nile, but gives it the plot of “The Cornish Mystery”.

The famous advertisement

The famous advertisement

Parker Pyne is perhaps more Sherlockian in his manner, apparently just “knowing things”, but it’s made clear from the outset that he doesn’t work alone. In his employ are Claude and Madeleine, two very attractive people who can make anyone reveal things they’d perhaps rather not. His receptionist is none other than Miss Lemon, who more frequently turns up as Poirot’s secretary, and he also plans some of his movements out with the aid of Ariadne Oliver, the famous novelist. The inclusion of these two characters show that Poirot also exists in this world, and by extension so does Marple, as she has characters that overlap with Poirot. Christie has expanded her universe widely, which makes it perhaps all the more tragic that none of her key figures ever met, although may well have known one another by reputation.

While not my favourite Christie, it definitely has something about it. While there are a couple of murders here, mostly the crimes we’re dealing with are jewel theft. In fact, five stories seem to contain no crime at all, they merely display Parker Pyne’s ingenious methods of making unhappy people happy once more. He claims that there are five causes for unhappiness and thanks to his years of studying statistics, he can pinpoint them all.

An interesting creation, but I can’t say I’m sorry Christie didn’t make more of him. He’s good for a change of pace, but I don’t think I would be too interested in a whole novel dedicated to Mr Parker Pyne.