“Evil Under The Sun” by Agatha Christie (1941)

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“When Captain Roger Angmering built himself a house in the year 1782 on the island off Leathercombe Bay, it was thought the height of eccentricity on his part.”

Undaunted by a disappointing Agatha Christie last month, I press on with the final few novels. We’re much earlier in her career this time, 1941 to be exact, and back with Hercule Poirot, so there was a lot more hope that this was going to be one of the good ones. Indeed, it was.

We find our Belgian hero holidaying on a tiny island off of Devon at the Jolly Roger Hotel. His fellow guests are quite a jolly bunch, but one among them is causing quite a stir. Arlena Marshall is an uncommonly beautiful woman and all eyes turn to her as she makes her way down onto the beach every morning; the men look on with lust, the women with hatred and jealousy. She seems particularly intent on flirting with Patrick Redfern, a married man who follows her around like a loyal dog. With all this interest around her, it isn’t long before she’s found dead, strangled, on one of the island’s more remote beaches.

Ruling out the staff and noting it would be almost impossible for someone to cross from the mainland to the island unnoticed, it quickly becomes apparent that the murderer is among the hotel guests. Could it be that her husband, Kenneth Marshall, had finally had enough of her and the way she carried on and slipped off to murder her? Was it her step-daughter, Linda, who was seen that very morning with a bag of candles and no explanation? Is is Reverend Stephen Lane, convinced that Arlena was “evil through and through”? Perhaps Patrick’s wife Christie, jealous and angry? Not to mention Kenneth’s old friend Rosamund, athletic spinster Emily Brewster, or the garrulous Mrs Gardener? Everyone seems to have a perfect alibi, but Poirot is on the case, trying to work out what a bath, a bottle and a pair of nail scissors have to do with anything.

Fortunately, I adored this one. Poirot is on hand to help the local police, who are portrayed well and as a reasonably sensible group. The hotel guests are all interesting, and until the reveal, you could make quite a strong case against most of them. Liberally stuffed with red herrings, the story as usual has all the clues there, but it’s hard sometimes to even know what you’re looking for, or what offhand comment might reveal all. It’s a gorgeous setting too, and the novel includes a little map of the island, presumably added so Christie doesn’t have to provide a chapter of exposition on its shape and layout, and also to help amateur sleuths work out where everyone was when the crime occurred. There’s even a lovely little meta-joke: when one of the hotel guests asks Poirot to share with them his thoughts, he says, “I reserve the explanations for the last chapter.” And indeed, as usual, he does.

I’m going to be sorry when I’ve run out of Christie novels to discover for the first time. Undoubtedly a re-read of them all will have to take place. Still, until then, six to go.

“Problem At Pollensa Bay” by Agatha Christie (1935)

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“The steamer from Barcelona to Majorca landed Mr Parker Pyne at Palma in the early hours of the morning – and straightaway he met with disillusionment.”

I’ve been commuting via train this week which has certainly been a novel and tiring experience. Engaged in Catch-22 for the previous week, I finished and decided I needed something a bit less dense that was easier to read in the mornings when surrounded by other passengers. When in doubt, it’s always best to turn to Agatha Christie.

A collection of eight short stories, these tales bring back some old characters, as well as including two other stories with none of the usual heroes. Two tales feature Mr Parker Pyne, another two reunite us again with Mr Satterthwaite and Harley Quin, and two more provide a welcome return for Hercule Poirot. The final two are gothic tales and not the mysteries we associate with Christie, but I’ll get onto them shortly.

Poirot appears in “The Second Gong” and “Yellow Iris”, the latter of which I’ve seen as a stage adaptation. The first involves the murder of a man in his study and is very traditionally Christie, and in the second, Poirot receives a mysterious phone call from a panicked woman who tells him to join her immediately at a restaurant where she feels something awful is about to happen. Mr Parker Pyne shows up in the titular “Problem at Pollensa Pay” where he’s desperately trying to enjoy a holiday without being recognised but he still ends up trying to fix an unwelcome engagement. He shows up again in “The Regatta Mystery” when a rare jewel goes missing after a prank goes wrong.

Mr Satterthwaite once again meets his mysterious friend Harley Quin first in “The Harlequin Tea Set”, in which a knowledge of genetics will help prevent a murder. They collide again, literally, in “The Love Detectives” where a man has been killed and it seems that everyone is prepared to claim they did the crime, despite none of them seeming to know how he died. All six of these stories are brilliant and charming, full of character and humour alongside the darkness and I’m almost sorry it took me so long to get around to them.

The final two stories, on the other hand, are less engaging. Involving no murder, or really any crime at all, they are gothic tales that are somewhat haunting, but not particularly engaging. “Next to a Dog” is about a young woman who needs to get married because no job she goes for will allow her to keep her precious dog, Terry, meaning she is blindly led into a marriage of convenience with a man she doesn’t love. The second, “Magnolia Blossom” also feels very familiar as a story and I may have seen an adaptation of it at some point but I can’t quite remember. It’s about a woman who leaves her husband, but dashes back later the same day when she discovers her husband’s company has collapsed and her loyalty is such that she can’t leave him on the same day as that happening. Her husband, however, then tries to use her for his own means to save his life, leading her to wonder if her loyalty wasn’t misplaced.

So, while mostly a good batch with a great collection of Christie’s finest characters, I was left disappointed by the final two tales. Still, they can’t all be winners, and you can’t begrudge her from trying some new styles every now and again. Truth is though, her murder mysteries are still the best, and nothing else can quite measure up.

Just as a quick note in case there are the sort of people reading this and get fussy about specifics, although published as this collection in 1991, I have dated it 1935, which is the date the title story was first published. The stories themselves, however, were published separately between 1926 and 1971. So there you go.

“The Labours Of Hercules” by Agatha Christie (1947)

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the-labours-of-hercules“Hercule Poirot’s flat was essentially modern in its furnishings.”

I love the Greek myths. I love Agatha Christie. Bring in a book that combines the two and I’m a very happy man indeed. Fortunately, you don’t need to be classically educated to keep up with this one, so let’s just get stuck in.

Hercule Poirot, world-famous detective, is contemplating retirement. He’s getting on, and these days he’s more into the idea of growing marrows than seeking out murderers. But when an old friend scoffs at Poirot’s thoughts of retirement, Poirot seems determined to prove him wrong. Poirot, however, can’t just disappear of the scene, however. He decides that he will take twelve more cases, only dealing with those that seem to mirror the Twelve Labours of his mythological namesake, Hercules.

And so Poirot sets about his task. The twelve short stories each detail a specific crime that, in one manner or another, represents the Herculean task. Unusually, he is rarely dealing with murder here, and along the way he solves issues of missing persons, theft, a brainwashing, money-grabbing cult, criminal gangs and drug addiction. He is occasionally assisted by Inspector Japp and his secretary Miss Lemon, and he meets again Countess Vera Rossakoff, the only woman to whom he seems to show any attraction, despite her criminal background.

Despite the assurance that these are his last cases before retirement, we know full well that this was never going to be the case. He is retired already in his first book, The Mysterious Affair at Styles, and by The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is growing marrows in the countryside. However, he also makes reference here to an incident from The Big Four (the novel in which the Countess is also introduced), which was published after Ackroyd, suggesting to us that the novels were not published in the order that things happen. These fit in somewhere, but their real place in the canon isn’t strictly important.

Poirot’s insistence that the stories match up to the legendary tasks means that he can only take certain cases, although he’s definitely stretching a point a few times. “The Lernean Hydra”, for example, is famously about a monster that can never die because it always regrows new heads when one it cut off. Here, he is dealing with a village of gossips, who can never be fully silenced. “The Horses of Diomedes” gives us an untamed herd of daughters that are running riot with the wrong crowd, and for “The Apple of the Hesperides”, we are taken along on a journey to recover a stolen goblet that is decorated with emeralds to represent apples in Eden. “The Capture of Cerberus” is indeed about bringing a dog up from Hell (although, in this case, Hell is an underground nightclub), but “The Stymphalean Birds” merely relates the title to two women who are birdlike in their manner and appearance, with beaked noses and big capes.

They’re an enjoyable set of stories, and while the body count is low, it’s almost refreshing to see a Christie where the bodies aren’t piling up. Poirot dealt with far more than just murder, and this collection shows of his ability to turn his little grey cells to any puzzle. Short, sharp and very clever; a delightful read.

“Third Girl” by Agatha Christie (1966)

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third-girl“Hercule Poirot was sitting at the breakfast table.”

There are many things that one comes to expect from an Agatha Christie novel. A recently rewritten will. A loyal butler. A fussy foreign detective. A red herring or six. But above all what one expects is a body. These books are about murder, after all. So when you’re reading one and there isn’t a body at all, you’re thrown somewhat. This is, of course, Third Girl.

Poirot is enjoying breakfast when his servant George informs him that there is a young woman to see him, most urgently. Although Poirot doesn’t normal take house calls at this time of the morning, he allows her to be seen in and very quickly she announces that she thinks she’s committed a murder, although she doesn’t seem very sure. Before Poirot can even learn her name or any more details, she declares that he’s too old to help her, and makes her exit, leaving a hurt and frustrated Poirot behind.

Upon receiving a call from friend and writer Ariadne Oliver, Poirot is soon buoyed again by her company and it transpires that the dotty author is the one who sent the girl to him in the first place! Seeking out the girl’s name and address, Poirot and Oliver set about exploring the friends and family surrounding this mysterious woman. There’s her father, recently returned from abroad with his new, young wife; a dotty old soldier who is trying to write his memoirs; a highly efficient secretary who may just be too efficient; and a glamorous dandy of a man who the mystery girl seems rather fond of.

But all the while there doesn’t seem to have actually been a murder committed, which leads to a very difficult question – is this girl a murderer, or is she mad?

If ever you need a reminder that Christie wrote more than just books set in the twenties, here is a great example. Published in 1966 and set around the same time, we dispel for the most part with the grand house and murdered nobility to explore a London populated by working girls, beautiful young mods, and more drugs than you can take if you had the whole decade free. Poirot feels like a throwback to a much older time in this society, and yet he’s on top form as ever. Personally, I find that Christie’s later novels rarely live up to the pure genius of her earlier ones (although there are, of course, exceptions) and this one includes a very long chapter in the middle in which Poirot lays out to himself everything that he has learnt so far. The answers are all in there, but you need to know what you’re looking for. I got some of the hints quite sharpish, and I’d worked out half the solution, but I wasn’t entirely there.

The book is notable, however, because just when you think you’ve seen Christie do everything possible, she plays around with the medium again. The idea of having a murderer but no murder is an interesting one, and it’s unusual to go so long in a Christie novel without finding a body. Poirot becomes increasingly frustrated that he doesn’t have a murder, and it becomes almost as weird as it is amusing. Body or no, however, I enjoyed this one. It may have meandered a little, but everything seems to tie up and you once again feel sure that justice has been done.

“After The Funeral” by Agatha Christie (1953)

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Let's put this year to rest.

Let’s put this year to rest.

“Old Lanscombe moved totteringly from room to room, pulling up the blinds.”

The year is almost at an end  – thank goodness – but there was still time to squeeze in one more book before it ended. Given the slew of high profile deaths this year – with George Michael, Carrie Fisher and Debbie Reynolds all joining the list in the last few days – it seemed that there was only one book suitable to sum up the year. This is Agatha Christie’s After the Funeral.

The remaining members of the Abernethie family have gathered at the family pile of Enderby Hall after the funeral of the eldest brother, Richard. Everyone seems far more eager to have lunch and get the will read, rather than do much mourning. After solicitor Mr Entwhistle goes over the basics of the will, Richard’s younger sister, the slightly scatty and simple Cora Lansquenet comments that it’s all been rather hushed up and when everyone stares at her in confusion, she adds, “He was murdered, wasn’t he?”

The family think that Cora may just be trying to find them up or has entirely got hold of the wrong end of the stick, but the next day, Cora is found mudered in her bed, a hatchet taken to her sleeping body several times. Suspicion abounds immediately, as it seems the Abernethie family have a killer in their midst, and it will surely only be a matter of time before they strike again. Entwhistle calls in the assistance of Hercule Poirot, who sets about infiltrating the family to find out the truth behind these deaths.

It’s hard to often know what to keep saying about Christie novels. They are all so clever and interesting that they generally garner a lot of praise from me immediately. This one is definitely very smart, and while I’d brushed up against the solution a couple of times, I had chased myself away from it too with other ideas. The red herrings are deftly placed, and truly right up until the reveal just a few pages before the end, it could plausibly have been any of the suspects. In many ways, this is peak Christie – a big house, a dysfunctional, wealthy family, a string of murders. Perhaps the most striking elements are the fact that all the murders are very different, whereas most murderers seem to have a particular method, and that, as Sophie Hannah says in her introduction to the book, the motive is non-transferable. That is, it’s a motive that could not belong to any other character, making the solution all the tighter.

Christie wasn’t fussed about how likely things were to happen. As long as they could happen, no matter how unlikely, then that was good enough for her to use. This allows her to write books like this, where the ending feels unique, and her style is so good that you don’t find yourself questioning any of the methods. This is, dare I say it, one of her best books, with a collection of selfish characters and speedy pacing that serves as a great delight to see out the year.

So, let’s put this year to rest. Early in the new year, I shall present a list of my ten favourite books of 2016, but until then, I wish you all the best for 2017. X

“The Santa Klaus Murder” by Mavis Doriel Hay (1936)

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santa-murder“I have known the Melbury family since the time when Jennifer, the youngest daughter, and I climbed trees and built wigwams together in the Flaxmere garden.”

‘Tis the season for turkey, stuffing, crackers, ribbons, snow and trying to ask tactfully if Aunt Olive kept the receipt. Of course, this being Britain and, more specifically, my blog, it isn’t quite Christmas until someone’s been murdered in a big country house. Well, one doesn’t like to mess with tradition…

At the grand country pile of Flaxmere, seat of Sir Osmond Melbury, the family are descending with various levels of enthusiasm and excitement for Christmas. With the house full of Melbury his son and four daughters (as well as their partners and children), a couple of family friends and the ever-present staff, tensions are high but Sir Osmond has come up with the idea of convincing one of the guests to dress up as Santa Klaus and distribute presents to the children. However, tragedy strikes on Christmas Day when Sir Osmond is found dead, a bullet hole in his head.

Suspicions immediately falls on the man who found the body, but he’s the only person in the house who doesn’t seem to have a motive. Everyone else would do well with the old man’s death. Jennifer would finally be allowed to marry Philip; Carol may inherit enough money so she can jump-start her dream career; the former chauffeur Ashmore potentially resented the way he’d been treated; and everyone else would probably do alright from the will. Local detective and old family friend, Colonel Halstock is called in to find out who the killer was, but in a house where everyone is keeping a secret, this is easier said than done. And things get even more confusing when it turns out there was more than one Santa Klaus sneaking around the house that Christmas…

The book is mostly narrated by Colonel Halstock, but seven chapters are told from the perspective of another character to tell us things that Halstock isn’t present for. Indeed, the first five chapters each come from the point of view of someone different in the house, and this becomes relevant later in the story when it transpires that these are reports written by the characters are the request of the police after the incident to better understand what happened in the run up to the murder. Like the best Christie novels (although this is one of her contemporaries), the riddle is thorough, and while the answers are there, the sheer number of red herrings and blatant lies burst out by the characters makes it difficult to solve. There are also a vast number of characters – seventeen adults all of whom could have had a hand in it – so keeping track of all possible motives is quite a challenge.

Nonetheless, it’s a very smart, gripping read. The characters of any importance are all fleshed out well, and the tension of having the family altogether again is palpable and very familiar, as it’s something I’m sure many people can relate to, even if most of those gatherings, thankfully, don’t end in a murder (unless the Christmas Day game of Monopoly gets way too out of hand). The plot device of having multiple narrators works well and feels really different in a book like this, allowing us, if we so wish, to consolidate the information and make an educated guess at the murderer long before Halstock has come to his conclusions. The British Library, once again, has rediscovered a forgotten gem.

So, with little more to add, may I wish all my readers a wonderful Christmas! Eat, drink and be merry! We deserve it after this year.

“Sad Cypress” by Agatha Christie (1940)

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sad-cypress“Elinor Katharine Carlisle. You stand charged upon this indictment with the murder of Mary Gerrard upon the 27th of July last. Are you guilty or not guilty?”

If there’s one enduring certainty left in this world, it’s that books will always be there to rescue us, to teach us, and to help us. As the news of this week sunk in and seemed to become worse with every passing moment, I moved from Jasper Fforde to Agatha Christie, feeling safe among the words of writers I admire and know I can trust.

The book opens in court, with Elinor Carlisle being accused of murder of the young Mary Gerrard. The evidence all seems to point at her guilt, but the defence counsel isn’t so sure, and neither is Hercule Poirot. The story leaps back to show us how to got to here. Elinor and her fiancé Roddy Welman receive an anonymous letter from, apparently, a concerned well-wisher who tells them that their Aunt Laura (biological aunt to Elinor, aunt by marriage to Roddy) is not long for this world and that the young woman who lives at the lodge on the grounds of the house, Mary, is sucking up to the old woman presumably hoping to be left money in her will.

Upon arriving, Roddy finds himself immediately smitten with Mary, and when Aunt Laura has a second stroke, her death soon follows, much sooner than either Doctor Lord or Nurses Hopkins and O’Brien had thought. But it soon turns out that Laura Welman had never written a will, and so the money all falls directly to Elinor. Unable to marry her now, in case people think he’s only doing it for the money, Roddy ends the engagement and sets off for Europe to decide if he really does love Elinor, or if it’s now Mary he adores. Elsewhere, Nurse Hopkins discovers that some morphine has gone missing from her bag, but she convinces herself that she left it at home by mistake. It’s only when Mary Gerrard is found dead, and morphine poisoning is stated as the cause, that suspicion falls on Elinor, the only person who seems to have had the means, motive and opportunity to commit the act.

Now everyone has questions. Why did Elinor give Mary money before killing her? What made Mary so eager to write a will of her own? Where has the morphine gone? And what significance does a rose bush have to the solving of the crime? Poirot has his work cut out for him again, but with his little grey cells, he’s certain that he’s on the right track.

A little more emotionally pliable than some of her works, in Sad Cypress Christie plays with the notion of the love triangle again, and lays out the red herrings and genuine clues so beautifully that you can’t help but slap your forehead at the end and realise exactly what’s going on. And if you happen to be a horticulturist, you may be able to get it sooner even than that. It’s all there, and it’s all so obvious once you’re told the solution, but nonetheless it’s a good, fun tale.

It’s divided into three parts, which roughly coincide with the murders and everyone’s reactions to and around them, Poirot’s investigations, and then the court case. The latter section deals with the witnesses for the prosecution and the defence. Elinor seems very definitely in the frame – and things are complicated further when Laura is exhumed and they find she too shows signs of morphine poisoning – but Poirot and the very capable lawyer Sir Edwin Bulmer are on hand to make sure justice is fair.

The cast is small, but it’s a big mystery, and a very smart one too. Just remember that everyone lies, and their lies often reveal truths they didn’t intend.

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