“A Talent For Murder” by Andrew Wilson (2017)

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“Wherever I turned my head I thought I saw her, a woman people described as striking, beautiful even.”

If you delve into the life of Agatha Christie, there’s something very interesting about her that will quickly come to the surface. On the 3rd December 1926, following a row with her husband Archie, she disappeared. Eleven days later, she was found at a spa hotel in Harrogate, checked in under the name of her husband’s lover and apparently suffering with amnesia. She never told anyone what had happened during this time, and the whole incident is missing from her autobiography. The mystery remains one of the most fascinating of the twentieth century.

Did she suffer from a breakdown? Did she do it to spite her husband and stir up trouble? Was she trying to drum up publicity for her next novel? Did she have an encounter with a giant wasp and a Time Lord? No one knows, and it’s unlikely now we’ll ever find out. Andrew Wilson, however, has had a bash at an explanation.

Agatha Christie is out Christmas shopping, and while waiting for a tube station platform, she feels herself being pushed in front of an oncoming train. However, she is pulled back at the last moment by a man who introduces himself as Dr Patrick Kurs. He insists on taking her for tea to restore her nerves, but she can’t help think – did this man push her before he pulled her to safety? He seems to know a startling amount about her life, her marriage problems and her family, and it soon becomes clear that Kurs most certainly does not have Christie’s best interests at heart.

Kurs wants his wife dead, but knowing that he would be the prime suspect, he employs Christie to do his evil work for him, convinced that because she knows so much about murder, she’ll be quite willing to perform one. Besides, if she doesn’t … well, the consequences don’t bear thinking about. Christie leaves her house in the dead of night and is taken by Kurs to a hotel in Harrogate where they can plan the murder. It all seems hopeless, but her disappearance is quickly noticed and soon the whole country is looking for her, in particular the stubborn Superintendent William Kenward in charge of the case, and Una Crowe, an intrepid would-be journalist who is determined to prove that Christie is still alive.

It took a bit of time to get into, and was unusual but spine-tingling to see my heroine as the central figure in a mystery book. Wilson portrays her with love as a gentle, damaged woman, who is struggling to come to terms with her husband’s infidelity, still in denial and hoping he’ll come back to her. You have to feel sorry for her as she is taken away from her life by the nefarious Dr Kurs, but you understand why she does it – she can’t risk any harm coming to her daughter, Rosalind. Wilson, to his credit, seems fairly run-of-the-mill in his style, before coming into his own with twists worthy of a novel by Christie herself.

His attention to detail is phenomenal. At first I thought it might be an opportunity to get in every fact we knew about Christie – the fact she could surf and roller skate, her favourite drink, the name of her publisher – but it soon becomes clear that it all goes far deeper than that. The events of her first night at the Swan Hydropathic Hotel are documented as really happening. She did receive a package while at the hotel, although what it contained remains a mystery in reality. Even Una Crowe, the amateur journalist, was a real person, but to the best of our knowledge, she didn’t know Christie and was never a reporter. Wilson has weaved magic here to answer more than just what happened to Christie, and it’s absolutely genius.

The book purports to answer several questions that have remained unanswered for nearly one hundred years. Why did she introduce her husband as her brother? Why is there no mention of The Murder of Roger Ackroyd in her notebooks? Who killed Una Crowe? Why did Christie choose the name of her husband’s lover as her pseudonym?

Of course, I’m still going to favour the Doctor Who episode “The Unicorn and the Wasp” as the truth regarding Christie’s disappearance, but this is still a fun, engaging and really enjoyable read, and it’s not over yet – there’s a sequel on the way, although I’d be curious to see how they fit any other changes into her life. Then again, the rest of her life did take her all over the world…

“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.

“Passenger To Frankfurt” by Agatha Christie (1970)

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“Fasten your seat-belts, please.”

Some things get better with age; a wine fine, a smelly cheese, unwashed jeans. Other things are better then they’re younger, and I hate to be the one to say this given my overwhelming love of her, but Agatha Christie is definitely part of the latter group. It’s suggested now that by the end of her life she was suffering from Alzheimer’s, but it was never diagnosed at the time. It’s without question though that even for a fan, her later books simply do not stack up to the earlier ones. I’ve noted this before with Postern of Fate and Nemesis, but I think it’s especially evident here.

The story begins with diplomat Sir Stafford Nye flying home from Malaya. His plane is rerouted, and while waiting for the next connection, he is approached by a woman who wishes to borrow his passport and cloak so that she can get home safely and avoid the people who are trying to kill her. Nye decides that his life needs a touch of excitement, and agrees.

However, without knowing, he has endangered his own life, and a while later he meets the woman again, although this time she has an entirely different name and it’s quite clear he’s not meant to acknowledge their having met before. Soon, Nye is caught up in an international mystery that will take him and his new companion around the world on the hunt of an invisible and dangerous enemy. There is much danger afoot, with stories that the student protests going on around the world have a much more sinister motive. And could it be that the rumours are true – did Adolf Hitler really survive the war?

This book was released for Christie’s eightieth birthday and it makes me wonder if people were now too afraid to edit her, given her reputation as such a great author. Robert Barnard, crime writer and critic, noted; “Prizes should be offered to readers who can explain the ending.” Unfortunately, I have to agree with him. The novel bounces around a whole host of characters, many of whom seem to have more than one alias (although that might just be me being confused) and covers all manner of topics. The beginning is engaging enough, but I found my attention wandering quite a lot until you reach a point over halfway through when you’re wondering why they’re talking about Hitler’s possible son who was raised in Argentina with a swastika branded on his foot and why no one’s been killed in an old country house.

One particularly notable inclusion is Mr Robinson, a secretive financier who seems to have fingers in a lot of pies and knows a lot about the world’s money. He is notable in that he ties together much of Agatha Christie’s fictional universe, having had dealings with Poirot, Marple and Tommy & Tuppence over the years. Perhaps the most interesting part of the book isn’t actually part of the story. It features an introduction in which Christie herself explains to the reader how she would ideally answer anyone who asks her, “Where do you get your ideas from?” As a writer myself, I found it honest and hilarious.

There’s a touch of fantasy about this one, and it’s all a little strange and unwieldy. A completist would, of course, find it necessary to read this, but in general, Christie’s novels of the 1970s are not ones you’d ever really recommend. They can’t all be winners, I suppose.

 

“A Is For Arsenic” by Kathryn Harkup (2015)

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“The name ‘arsenic’ has become almost synonymous with poison – it could be argued that it represents the gold-standard of criminal poisoning.”

Do you ever find yourself reading a book or watching a film and there’s a character in it with an unusual job and you go, “I could do that”? It happens to me with alarming regularity, but it really kicked into effect with this book. I found myself wishing I could redo everything and have studied science for longer at school and gone on to be a toxicologist. Of course, I’m sure this desire will last only as long as it takes for this book to fade a little from my memory, but suffice to say at this moment, there’s a part of me that wants to dive back into education and switch from artistic pursuits to scientific ones.

My Agatha Christie obsession remained forefront as I delved into A is for Arsenic, which takes a look at a bunch of poisons and both describes how they work and how Christie used them in her stories. Not everyone knows that Christie worked as a pharmacy dispenser during both wars, and it was here that she picked up all of her detailed knowledge on the world of poisons. The most common cause of death among her characters was poison, and she always did her best to ensure the science was correct. As Kathryn Harkup recounts here, it seems that most of the time she was spot on.

The fourteen poisons covered in the book are arsenic, belladonna, cyanide, digitalis, eserine, hemlock, monkshood, nicotine, opium, phosphorus, ricin, strychnine, thallium and Veronal. They form a blend of very well known killers, and some that are downright obscure. For example, ricin and thallium were both unheard of as methods of murder before Christie wrote about them. However, it seems that sometimes her stories gave rise to ideas in the real world, and there’s been more than one killer caught because he had one of her books stashed away in his study. Conversely, on a few occasions people have been saved by recognising the symptoms of poisoning from reading a Christie novel. While there are some people who consider her detailed use of science to be damaging, her books are generally highly praised for their accuracy.

Each chapter studies a particular poison, giving details of where it can be obtained, how it was discovered, how exactly it kills, and whether there is an antidote. Among these, we also learn about real life cases involving the poison, and it all gets related back to one of Christie’s plots and how accurate she was. There are some surprising facts here, not only about the poisons, but about Christie herself, and we learn a little more about her scientific mind. The poisons are the real stars though, and it’s fascinating to learn about the very close relationship between morphine and heroin, quite how poisonous pure nicotine is, how best to mask the bitter taste of cyanide, and which poisons are still used today. Hemlock, for example, while being quite famous for its toxic qualities, hasn’t been recorded as being used to intentionally kill someone since the days of Socrates. Christie made use of it in Five Little Pigs, one of my favourites.

Although for the most part Harkup avoids sharing spoilers, there are a few present, but always headed with a warning to skip ahead if you don’t want to see “whodunnit”. Generally we aren’t told, but sometimes the solutions need to be explained to give an extra detail on how the poison is used within the story. For anyone with an interest in Christie’s work or toxicology (or ideally, like myself, both), this is a startlingly good read. If not inspiring me quite fully to become a toxicologist, I am at least inspired to return to the murder mystery I started writing. I believe there is some cyanide in a cocktail I need to sort out…

“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.

“Agatha” by Anne Martinetti (2016)

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agatha-comic“These novelists will stoop to anything for some attention!”

Of all the authors I’ve discussed on this blog over the years, there’s none I’ve talked about quite so much as Agatha Christie. As the bestselling novelist of all time, Christie is someone who, even if you’ve never read one of her books, you will be able to name at least one of them. Her life was much more than just writing murder mysteries, though. In fact, her feat of writing over eighty novels and countless plays and short stories is just about the least remarkable thing about her.

My love for Christie is unashamed and unlimited and, as you have probably noticed, today is Valentine’s Day. I’m told you’re meant to spend the day with someone you love, so I did the best I could and ventured to the small village of Cholsey in Oxfordshire to visit the grave of this incredible woman. It only seemed fitting, then, to read about her while I was there. Although I do have her autobiography on my shelf awaiting reading once I’m finished with her fiction – plus it’s a hefty tome and I need to work on my upper body strength first – I picked up this book, Agatha, last year and decided to read that for now. It’s a graphic novel that tells the story of her life; a story just as interesting and complicated as her finest novel.

The story opens with her fabled disappearance in 1926, before leaping back to explore her early life. Once caught up to her vanishing act again, it progresses forward. The story deals with all the important moments in her life, such as the death of her beloved father when she was just a child, her first husband’s affair, her time as a nurse during the First World War, her sister’s challenge to her to write a novel, her travels around dig sites in the Middle East, to the success of The Mousetrap and later receiving her DBE. It also explores things about her that are perhaps less well-known, such as the fact she was one of the first British people to surf standing up, having learnt while in Hawaii, and that she was once offered propaganda work by Graham Greene during the Second World War.

christie-graveThroughout the narrative, she is visited by her characters, Miss Marple, Ariadne Oliver, Tommy & Tuppence, and most of all, Hercule Poirot, a man she swiftly grew to hate and promised to kill off. Sometimes these characters serve to give her advice, but sometimes she longs for them to go. Her relationship with Poirot is particularly interesting, as she realises that while she doesn’t like him, he can’t exist without her and she has no fortune without him.

The book dwells a while on her disappearance, although because she never spoke about what happened, what is displayed in the book is pretty much all drawn from the imagination. One incident that really occurred around this time involved another great mystery writer – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. He took one of Christie’s gloves to a medium to get to the bottom of whether she was still alive or had died rather than just gone missing. Rather pompously, but very sweetly, he comments here, “the father of Sherlock Holmes could hardly abandon the mother of Hercule Poirot!”

Above all, while reading this, not only do you get a sense of what an interesting and bright woman she was, she can also be considered very modern. While there’s no getting away from the fact that some of her books, particularly the earlier ones, contain views that are very much of their time, she was a pioneer in many other respects. In 1911 she flew in one of the first aeroplanes, and later she spent so much time on archaeological digs with her second husband Max Mallowan that she became the most knowledgeable woman in Britain on the subject.

Agatha Christie was a phenomenal woman, modest and humble right up to the end. She knew her own mind and lived an extraordinary life, but I sense that she didn’t always see that. I am honoured to have her in my life in such a big way, and if there was a better way to spend Valentine’s Day this year, I don’t want to know about it. Thank you, Agatha, for everything.

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