“While The Light Lasts” by Agatha Christie (1997)

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“The Ford car bumped from rut to rut, and the hot African sun poured down unmercifully.”

Were this a blog where I discussed all manner of pop culture issues, I’d open with a loud scream of joy that Doctor Who has finally taken a great step and cast a woman in the lead role. I, for one, cannot wait to see what Jodie Whittaker does with the part, and I fail to understand anyone who has considered themselves a fan of this show all the while a man has been central to it, yet has somehow failed to pick up on a single one of its messages about tolerance, peace and equality. As it is, this is a blog that deals mostly with books, so if you want more of my mad rantings about Doctor Who, follow me on Twitter. Here, we’re getting back to another superb woman – hello, Agatha.

While the Light Lasts collects together nine of her most disparate stories together for the first time. Published in 1997, it feels very much like an act of mopping up the few that were yet to have been captured, which isn’t a complaint. Most of these, if not all, were writing in the 1920s at the beginning of her career, and each of them sparkles with a promise of greater things to come. That’s not to say that these stories aren’t good on their own merit, they’re great, but ideas used here occur later in far more famous tales.

“The Actress”, for example, is about, what else, an actress who tries to take revenge against a blackmailer. Her method of doing so will reappear later in Evil Under the Sun. The titular story, “While the Light Lasts” takes on a new life in the romance novels she wrote under the name Mary Westmacott. Each story is accompanied by an afterword that explains further about the story and how it came to be. “The Edge” was written not long before Christie’s disappearance, and seems to lay bare many of the feelings she had at the time about her husband. “Christmas Adventure” has links to her childhood homes.

Perhaps the most interesting story is “Manx Gold”; not because it’s especially devious but because of how it came into being. The novel was written to contain clues for a very real treasure hunt on the Isle of Man. Conceived to boost tourism, the local council hid four “treasure chests” around the island and Christie then wrote a novel which showed characters trying to find them. The characters are successful in finding all four, and smart readers are able to hunt down all of them by following the clues within the text. In reality, only three of the prizes were found. While the story lacks some detail because at no point can the characters fully explain where they are or what they’re doing, it’s still compelling, and the truth behind the story is perhaps even more interesting.

Two of the stories here also contain supernatural elements that Christie occasionally employed, many of them gathered in The Hound of Death. Two more contain Poirot, but a couple contain no crime at all, especially “The Lonely God” which is about two lonely figures bonding over a statuette in the British Museum.

A charming collection and a quick read, enough to whet the appetite of any Christie fan.

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“Peril At End House” by Agatha Christie (1932)

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peril end house“No seaside town in the south of England is, I think, as attractive as St. Loo.”

I like new books, but there is little that pleases me more than the smell of an old book. The version of Peril at End House I have is in the same book as The Pale Horse, which I’ll review another time, and is a beautiful leather-bound copy from the 1970s. While not exactly ancient, it’s old enough to have developed its own scent, and the leather certainly helps. If you’re in need of new books, head to where I got this, the book market beneath Waterloo Bridge. But I digress, on we get with the review.

In what is chronologically the eighth Poirot novel, he and Hastings are on holiday in the picturesque Cornish town of St. Loo. Poirot is, once again, determined that he has retired, but when he gets talking to a young woman who lives nearby, he finds that he might be coaxed out of retirement once more. Miss Buckley, known to all as Nick, lives alone in End House, the old family home, and is the last of her lineage, but it turns out that in the last few weeks she has been at the wrong end of four nasty accidents. At least, what might be accidents. There was the heavy picture frame that fell on her bed, the boulder that fell from the clifftop, the tampering of her car brakes, and now she’s just been shot at.

Poirot is adamant that these are not mere accidents and that someone has it in for Nick Buckley. He is determined that the fifth attempt will not be successful, but when it leads to the death of Nick’s innocent cousin Maggie, Poirot thinks that for once he might just have his work cut out for him, as he investigates the nine people who have close contact to Nick, and contemplates that, maybe this time, he’s missing one suspect entirely.

I confess upfront that for some reason this book didn’t grab me as other Christie novels do. I’ve been quite distracted this week, so I think it was probably just that, because it took me longer than usual to find it interesting. But, as usual, particularly with her earlier work, Christie does deliver. We see a more personable and human Poirot here, one who seems to have real affection for the intended victim, and we also get to see him more stumped than ever as he struggles to piece together the jigsaw, the pieces of which don’t seem to fit.

It’s potentially quite racy for the time too, as one of the characters – and a woman no less – is revealed to be taking cocaine on a regular basis, to which none of the other characters seem to react with horror. It is very much a product of its time – the 1920s were a time when everything was changing quickly, as particularly noted in a funny scene where Poirot searches Nick’s underwear drawer and Hastings flusters in a very English manner about the whole thing in the corner. Poirot notes that these “modern” girls are far less secretive about their under garments in these enlightened, un-Victorian times. If only he could see how people dress today.

Despite feeling slightly underwhelmed for much of the novel, the ending is probably one of her best and while, once again, all the clues are there, I did not pick up on them. Christie is as intentionally misleading as ever, and allows you to chase many theories round and round your mind before settling on, undoubtedly, the wrong solution. The ending alone redeems the rest of the book, and while not one of my favourites all over, it’s definitely another one that shows simply how skilled she was at laying traps and plotting genius ideas.