“The Listerdale Mystery” by Agatha Christie (1934)

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“Mrs St Vincent was adding up figures.”

My journey through Christie is almost at an end, and I find myself back at an earlier book, The Listerdale Mystery. Published in the thirties, there is little in the way of murder here, and none of her recurring detectives put in an appearance. The stories instead focus primarily on theft (usually of jewels), deception, liars, mistaken identities, almost all with issues of class buried within. Class isn’t something I’ve focused on especially in my reviews of Christie I don’t think, but it’s always there. You wouldn’t be able to write a book set in these times without touching on the fact that servants are still common and neither the upper or lower classes respect each other.

But back to it, here are twelve tiny little stories that have been packed into a single collection. When faced with a short story collection, I find it’s sometimes hard to find something to say about them all, so I’ve just picked out some of the best, as there are a couple of duds here that don’t sparkle quite so brightly.

The titular story, “The Listerdale Mystery” is one of the collection’s best, and also notably one of the very few Christie puzzles I have solved before the answer was revealed. (About time too!) In it, Mrs St Vincent and her children move into a charming Westminster house and are asked to pay only a “nominal rent” as the mysterious owner, Lord Listerdale, would rather have someone in the house who loved it than the money. Aided only by the perfect butler Quentin, the family set about making a home for themselves and have to wonder if Mr Listerdale is even still alive, or is he boarded up in the walls? It’s quick and clever.

In “Philomel Cottage” we meet Alix Martin, who is starting to become fearful of her husband when she finds cuttings relating to a serial wife murderer in his desk. Is she about to become the next victim? Alix, however, is no slouch when it comes to secrecy herself, and soon it’s hard to tell who might be hunting whom. The story is fine, but my favourite part has to be the gardener who has such a wonderfully funny written accent that you just have to read his lines out loud.

“The Manhood of Edward Robinson” and “Mr Eastwood’s Adventure” both feature a man caught up in an adventure that is not his own after he’s mistaken for another person. In the first case, Edward Robinson longs to be like the heroes in the romantic adventure novels that he reads, which happens to him when he accidentally gets in the wrong car and ends up part of a diamond theft. In the latter, Mr Eastwood is an author struggling with his new plot, when the universe provides him one all thanks to a simple word – cucumber. Although he gets more than he bargains for. It might be my favourite story in the collection.

In “Accident”, Inspector Evans finds himself on the trail of a woman who has killed a couple of husbands, although the deaths are always played off as purely accidental. The woman, however, knows that someone is on her trail, so Evans must try and stop her before she strikes again. It’s actually a very clever story, and I hadn’t quite known what was coming until it did.

Almost identically to another story in the collection, “The Girl in the Train”, “The Golden Ball” features young George Dundas who has just been fired from his uncle’s company. He meets a girl who picks him up in her car and immediately asks him to marry her. Keeping up with the joke, they set out into the country to look at potential houses for their future, but danger is in the air and the people who own the house don’t seem so keen on snoopers. It’s a silly story, but I enjoyed it for that, and it’s fancifulness is what makes it so charming. It’s one of the wackier stories of Christie’s canon.

Finally here, “The Rajah’s Emerald” features a man called James Bond who, unlike his more famous namesake, is wetter than a weekend in Wrexham. While making use of a private beach hut, he accidentally puts on the wrong trousers and finds a stolen jewel in the pocket. Should he use it to impress the higher class lady that he loves, or should he try and return it? More than any, this story is particularly about the class war and how money and breeding doesn’t necessarily make you a decent person.

And so I leave here with a mixed bag of stories and find myself in a position where I only have one of Christie’s mysteries left to read. That’s going to be a momentous occasion, I feel, so until then, let’s savour some other stories. On we go.

I’m currently crowdfunding to get my second novel, The Third Wheel, published. In it, we meet Dexter who is struggling with the fact that he’s the last single friend of his group. When aliens invade, however, it puts a lot of things into perspective. The project is over a third of the way funded, and if you’d like to know more or pledge your support to the project, please click here.

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“The Diary Of A Nobody” by George & Weedon Grossmith (1888)

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nobody-diary“We settle down in our new home, and I resolve to keep a diary.”

There are always debates about what the funniest book ever is. For my sins, I feel it’s probably The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, though undoubtedly there are many others I’m forgetting. Still, that’s definitely one of them. A couple of years ago I read Lucky Jim, which is often declared one of the funniest books ever written, but I didn’t especially agree. However, I embarked on The Diary of a Nobody and came to the conclusion that this is definitely a strong contender, and I understand why it’s never been out of print in over 120 years.

This short book is extracts from the diary of Mr Charles Pooter, a clerk in Victorian London who has high hopes of being considered as good a diarist as Samuel Pepys. He is frustratingly middle-class, but like many people of the time (the book having first been serialised between 1888 and 1889), he is obsessed with his status in society, taking great pride in his work, enjoying the company of people he believes to be his betters and treating them with a reverence they probably don’t deserve, and becoming very excited by invitations to posh balls and parties.

His daily life is interrupted when his son Lupin returns home to live with him and his wife, Carrie. Lupin’s love life now becomes something to worry about, and Pooter must balance his son’s louche behaviour with his ever-present friends Gowing and Cummings, his money troubles and his desire to be considered a great man.

For a book so old, it feels startlingly modern. I don’t pretend to be any sort of expert on Victorian literature – I’ve rather avoided the time period as a whole, due to an unfortunate incident with Dickens – so maybe this is common of the time, but it’s properly funny and the Grossmith brothers are fully aware of what an idiot Pooter is, although the man himself has a high opinion of his own position and status, and sees nothing ridiculous about it. He admits early on that he rarely tells jokes, but at least once a chapter he comes out with some little bit of wordplay or a pun, which are rather sweet in their way, but seem to make the characters roar with laughter almost every time. Still, I suppose things were simpler then – they were still waiting for the Playstation to be invented.

Still, the jokes are delightful, but the true humour comes from that most English of issues – class. Pooter feels like a very early example of characters like Basil Fawlty and David Brent, men who are desperate to be recognised but consider society to be ignoring them and not letting them progress as they would like. Pooter is charmingly innocent, always tries to see the best in things and hates causing a fuss if he doesn’t have to. Is he aware that he has no authority and people don’t take him seriously? Probably not.

It’s a great little cast of characters too. We know almost nothing of any of them physically, but their personalities leap off the page. His friends, Cummings and Gowing (at one point he quips that in their house, Cummings always seems to be going, and Gowing always seems to be coming) are strange and don’t treat him with respect always, but he seems to still adore them well enough. The greatest relationship in the book though is that between Pooter and his wife, Carrie. They have been together a long time and yet still seem utterly besotted with one another. Carrie finds her husband ridiculous at times too, and isn’t afraid to speak her mind, but she obviously loves her foolish husband, and it’s rather sweet to witness.

Utterly charming, very funny and an engaging little read. Pooter will certainly never be a Nobody to me – he will always stand out as one of literature’s great Somebodies.

“The White Tiger” by Aravind Adiga (2008)

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white-tiger“Neither you nor I can speak English, but there are some things that can be said only in English.”

I don’t have much truck with many awards, and I usually find that whatever ends up winning an Oscar, Man Booker, Emmy, Brit, and so on, I’ve never seen, read or heard. One of my friends thinks this is because I like to shun things that are popular, but that doesn’t take into account my obsessive love of Harry Potter, among other things. I think generally it’s because the sort of books and films that win these awards generally never really appeal to me. They seem to have been created for the award and the award alone.

In particular, the Man Booker Prize is something that I’ve never really paid attention to. I have, however, read three of them. Well, two and a bit. I started The God Of Small Things at university and despised it, giving up after a few chapters. I read Alan Hollinghurst’s The Line Of Beauty a few years ago and enjoyed it. And this brings us to the third Man Booker Prize winner I’ve ever read – The White Tiger.

This is the tale of Balram Halwai who grew up in a poor caste in a dirty village of India. Despite his caste being sweet-makers, his father was a rickshaw puller, having had his destiny stolen from him. Attempting to make something of himself, Balram is employed by a local rich man and his family, and becomes their driver.

Balram is a honest, hard-working servant who comes to struggle with his position. He realises that the caste system once so prevalent in India has been replaced by a much simpler one – the haves and have nots. He sees himself as a white tiger, a rare beast that comes along once in a generation and cannot be tamed. His employers begin asking more and more terrible things of him, and as things come to a head, Balram decides to do something drastic to free himself from this life that he doesn’t believe he deserves.

The framing device is that the story is told over seven nights in a letter to the Chinese Premier, Wen Jiabao. This seems odd, but Balram is keen to tell Jiabao about how India is a country full of entrepreneurs and go-getters. Whether Jiabao ever reads the letter, or even receives it, is never disclosed.

There are so many themes running throughout this story. There’s an ongoing battle for Balram’s independence and his insistence that he is not like other men, which for the most part he isn’t. He discusses the political situation in India, although he doesn’t necessarily get all the ins and outs of it, and he is aware that the people are locked in, what he terms, a “rooster coop”. That is, no one can escape alone from the position they are in, and no one else is going to help them do so. It’s also a tale of globalisation, with Balram’s master Ashok being a fan of America and New Delhi being full of strip malls, call centres and hotels that are all only there because of Western development.

Like Lucky Jim, oddly enough, the biggest theme though is perhaps class. Balram notes that people either have big bellies or they do not, declaring that the divide between the rich and poor is stronger than ever, and hugely obvious to anyone who’s looking.

It’s a darkly funny book, biting and caustic towards the situation in India, and it opened my eyes to what things are like there. Balram is fairly likeable, even with his final acts (corruption is another ongoing theme, one that he first dislikes and later comes around to understand), but I never quite understood how old he was meant to be. It’s never explicitly stated, so in my head he is in his twenties, but may well be older.

Overall, the book served to prove to me that just because it won a Man Booker Prize, it doesn’t mean I should write it off as something I wouldn’t like. It’s a smart book, a brilliant debut and well deserving of a place in modern literature.

“Lucky Jim” by Kingsley Amis (1954)

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lucky jim“‘They made a silly mistake, though,’ the Professor of History said, and his smile, as Dixon watched, gradually sank beneath the surface of his features at the memory.”

Siiiigh. If I will keep insisting on reading the “classics”, I’m sure I will keep disappointing myself. It’s also a stark reminder of how difficult it is to find books that are genuinely funny, as those that claim loudly that they are, invariably are not. Lucky Jim, for example, is always billed as one of the funniest books – if not the funniest book – of the last century, so with a hopeful expression, I burrowed in and once again, as with The Metamorphosis, found myself at the mercy of a friend with more knowledge, in this case Iryce, a lecturer in literature at the University of Illinois.

So this is the story of Jim Dixon, a history lecturer at an unimpressive university somewhere in the Midlands. He has come from a lower-class background and is now struggling to keep up with the upper classes who dominate this place. He is irritated by everyone, from Professor Welch, the man he has to impress to keep his job to Welch’s artist son Bertram, and the men he shares his digs with. He also has to deal with a sexless relationship with Margaret, his girlfriend who doesn’t let him sleep with her, but he stays with anyway because he feels guilty about leaving her as she is recovering from a failed suicide attempt.

Now burdened with the task of writing a lecture on Merrie England by Welch, a topic he has little interest in, Dixon feels worse than ever, and these feelings are compounded further by a disastrous party at the Welches house in which he sneaks off to the pub to get drunk, then somehow burns holes in the bedsheets that night, and he also meets Bertram’s beautiful girlfriend Christine, a girl that Dixon knows is far out of his league. Struggling to keep his composure, Dixon must keep his nose clean, get his lecture finished, and make sure that he can keep his job.

Iryce, however, informs me that this is a story about the class war, and she should know as she’s taught the book a lot. She said, “He’s oppressed by the burgeoning bourgeois upper middle class trying to mirror the heydey of the pre-War Tories [who] are not going to give him any autonomy if they don’t have to.” True, parts of this are displayed obviously, such as the fact that the bedroom Dixon is given at Professor Welch’s house is only accessible through a bathroom. He’s almost viewed as no better than a servant.

Generally I found Dixon rather a pathetic protagonist, somewhat like the hero of a bad sitcom from the 60s or 70s, for whom nothing ever goes right. When that happens to Basil Fawlty, I laugh, but here, I couldn’t bring myself to care enough. Dixon doesn’t deserve the things that happen to him, not really, but he allows himself to be a doormat. It’s refreshing when he does later start to challenge everybody and starts standing up for himself, eventually doing battle with Bertram for the sake of Christine, discovering the truth about Margaret from an ex-partner of hers, and dismissing the Welch family themselves, who he finds ridiculous. I expected it to have a tragic ending, with Dixon no closer to happiness than he was at the start, but it was pleasing to find that the “lucky” of the title rings true, at least. This is a story where the geek gets the girl.

Dixon’s rally against the upper classes wins through, and some of their pomp is punctured by this silly northern man who has tired of playing their games. Whether it will stick or not, we don’t know, but it takes so long for him to finally fight back that I’d lost a lot of interest.

My biggest issue though remains that it somehow isn’t funny. I can see where it should be funny, and Amis has a great way with words, but at no point did I laugh to any real degree. It’s outdated, I think, and while the class war rages on still, it’s been done so much better in other mediums; see Fawlty Towers, The Good Life and Keeping Up Appearances for perhaps the three ultimate tales of class battles.

So, well done Jim, you got the happy ending, but I was fundamentally underwhelmed by your story. Shame, really.