“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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“The Rain-Soaked Bride” by Guy Adams (2014)

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rain-soaked“From the other side of St Isaac’s Square, a driver beats his horn twice in quick succession.”

I made a mistake this week, it turns out, although not one that had particularly dramatic consequences. I started reading the book in question this week and thought something seemed a bit … odd. It jumped right into the action, and while that’s not unusual in a book, said action was never then later explained. It took longer than it should’ve done for me to realise that The Rain-Soaked Bride was a sequel. As such, I may have missed some of the finer points of an ongoing arc, and perhaps it tainted my enjoyment a little, but nonetheless, here are my thoughts.

The novel opens with Tony Greene chasing down the Russian Mafia through a hotel to save a woman from a life of prostitution. (I think if I’d read the first book, this would’ve all made a bit more sense to me as to the stakes and the characters.) It jumps ahead three months and we learn that Tony is the latest recruit of The Clown Service, the department of British Intelligence that deals with paranormal threats to the nation. This time round, people have started dropping dead after receiving a cursed text message, each of them being killed by the accident-causing rain-soaked bride of the title.

When it turns out all the dead people are all related to a trade agreement between the British and the South Koreans, Tony Greene and his superior August Shining are called in to accompany the delegations at Lufford Hall in Alcester. They are accompanied by August’s sister April and various other members of the Secret Service, but before long more people are found dead, each in a situation that could be an accident, but the sodden and saturated surroundings suggest otherwise. Tony, Shining and the others must work out how to remove this curse once and for all before the negotiations entirely fail.

The cover of the book bills it as “the spy thriller that Douglas Adams never wrote” and I can see where they’re coming from with that. It has shades of Douglas Adams about it, but it’s not as funny for a start. The funniest character is April Shining, by a long way, and that’s simply for her amazing dialogue and sense of not caring what anyone else thinks about her, nor bowing to any demands thrown her way. The rest of the characters all fall a bit flat for me, and there are very few physical descriptions of any of them, although, again, perhaps this is what happens when you miss an installment.

It does have some great observations, particularly those about the English, noting that the English response to approaching trouble is “polishing the silverware and pressing the shirt collars while the enemy advances”, and April at one point notes that English food is fine “once you get the hang of gravy”. However, generally a lot falls flat and there feels like there are a lot of plot points left hanging that never quite get explained, and the reveal of who is behind it all comes a bit too soon, meaning we spend a lot of the final third of the book dealing with the fallout without the suspense. The supernatural stuff is quite good – I enjoyed the expert in curses and the dip into a Japanese mythology – but I’ve seen this sort of thing done better, such as in The Rook.

I’m probably not being fair on the book, because I’m obviously missing a fair amount from having skipped ahead, and while the dealings with the bride herself work as a standalone, the ongoing plot threads are lost on me. Still, I’m not writing it off, and I probably will end up reading the first book too. Lesson learned – stick to the prescribed order!

“Miss Marple’s Final Cases” by Agatha Christie (1979)

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marple-final“The vicar’s wife came round the corner of the vicarage with her arms full of chrysanthemums.”

I checked back, and all the books I’ve read recently seem to have been published in the last few years. In fact, this year the blog has been very heavy with contemporary releases. I decided it was time to slip back a bit, but I only made it as far as the seventies. Thus, I bring you Miss Marple’s Final Cases, a collection of short stories about everyone’s favourite old lady.

The collection is of nine stories, seven of which contain Miss Marple and two are more supernatural in their nature and feature none of the usual characters. The final story, “Greenshaw’s Folly”, I read feeling like I’d definitely read it before, then realised I had, as it’s also in The Adventure of the Christmas Pudding. I covered that one there, so here’s a brief rundown on the other eight.

First up is “Sanctuary”, in which a down-and-out man is found dying in a church after weakly asking for sanctuary. When it is discovered that he had recently escaped from jail and he’s left a suitcase at Paddington station, Miss Marple and vicar’s wife Bunch set about trying to find out why he came to be at that church in particular. In the second story, “Strange Jest”, a young couple are foxed when their wealthy uncle dies having left them far less money than they thought he would. However, it seems the old man was fond of jokes, and it takes Miss Marple’s memories of an old uncle to work out where the rest of the money is hidden.

In “Tape-Measure Murder”, a dress fitter attends a client only to find that she’s dead. The local police are stumped but Miss Marple’s sharp eyes find a clue that everyone else deems unimportant that allows her to pin down the murderer. Fourth in line is “The Case of the Caretaker”, in which a young couple move to the village of St Mary Mead much to the apparent anger of the former caretaker of the house they knocked down to build their own. The new wife is convinced that a curse has been laid upon her, and it isn’t long before tragedy strikes. The fifth story is “The Case of the Perfect Maid”, which is a tale of servants, domesticity and theft as Miss Marple attempts to clear the name of a poor maid and uses her own methods to achieve things that the police, in all their wisdom, are unable to do. The sixth tale, “Miss Marple Tells a Story” is, I believe, unique among the canon as it is to my knowledge the only story told from Miss Marple’s point of view. She is regaling her nephew Raymond and his wife Joan about the time she solved a murder for her former solicitor, when a friend of his is accused of murdering his own wife.

The seventh story, “The Dressmaker’s Doll” is enough to put the creeps up anyone, telling the tale of a doll that seems to have appeared very suddenly in a dressmaker’s studio. It seems to be moving of its own accord and the women in the office cannot remember how the doll arrived, nor understand what it wants. I hate all stories of creepy dolls (it’s something that really bloody weirds me out), and this is right up there with the best/worst of them. The final new story is “In A Glass Darkly”. The narrator goes throughout being nameless, but is staying with friends when, in a mirror, he sees another guest being strangled by her lover, although when he turns around in fright, there’s nothing but a wardrobe there. Did he really see her being killed, or has he had a premonition?

Often with collections of short stories, the quality is highly variable, but here I found all the stories to be relatively strong. My favourite was probably “Strange Jest”, which had a satisfactory ending regarding the many different forms that money can take, and how some people just can’t resist a practical joke. I was least impressed with “In A Glass Darkly”, which I happen to have seen adapted for television, and don’t remember being too keen on then either. It just doesn’t feel very Christie, especially in a book surrounded by Marple stories.

Although not collected and published together until 1979, these stories were written between 1934 and 1958, and they’re a great testament to the skill Christie had, as all her work is. Despite most of the stories being less than fifty pages long, she manages to fill them with so much in the way of plot and character that even minor figures jump out of the page, and there isn’t a word wasted. As usual, all the clues are there if you’re smart enough to piece them together before Miss Marple does, and as usual, I proved that I’m not.

And so, with this final collection, I bid a fond farewell to Miss Marple  – I’ve read them all. No doubt I’ll return to them eventually, but this feels like something of a momentous occasion. Goodnight to you, Jane Marple, you will remain one of the finest detectives ever committed to paper.

“Agatha Christie: Crime Collection” by Agatha Christie (1972)

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There exists in Rochester, Kent, a shop called Baggins Book Bazaar, which is England’s largest secondhand and rare bookshop. I have been to it just once, with one very bookish friend and two less-bookish friends, and found the place absolutely mesmerising. It’s a bit out of my way so I have yet to return, but I will do eventually. While there, I bought very little as it happens, rather more enjoying the maze-like layout of the building and the constant twists and turns to find new stock, but one of the books I did buy while there was a collection of three Agatha Christie books in one hardback book – and it’s forty-one years old.

As such, the following post might be longer than usual as I am reviewing the three books within this one book. If you’re not much for Agatha Christie, then skip on and I’ll have something else for you next time. If you are, then settle in and get ready for something a bit different.

agatha 2Partners In Crime (1929)

The first book in the collection is Partners In Crime, the second of the Tommy and Tuppence novels. I read the first one earlier this year and found it to be much more adventure based than her other novels. However, this one holds up. Tommy and Tuppence are more unique among her characters in that they age in real time, allowing us to share in their lives with them. In this one, it is six years since we last saw them and their marriage, while still happy, has stagnated and Tuppence wishes that something would happen.

No sooner than the begins to think it out loud than it indeed becomes far more interesting than she ever thought possible. The two take over a private detective agency under the guidance of a friend of theirs and, adopting fake names and refusing to deal with divorce cases, they begin to explore various small challenges. They take their lead from various detectives of fiction – Sherlock Holmes, Thornley Colton, Tommy McCarty and Denis Riordan, Joseph French and, yes, even Hercule Poirot himself. However, while enjoying the task of solving murders and proving alibis, the two find themselves mixed up in something much more sinister indeed.

The stories (it is more accurate to describe these as a series of short stories) are parodies of previous detective novels, with Christie showing her brilliance in mimicking others. Tommy, Tuppence and their faithful secretary Albert are lively, interesting characters and the underlying plot of the big mystery involving the man who wishes them dead is well played out, escalating gradually throughout the stories and tying them all together by the end.

At Bertram’s Hotel (1965)agatha 1

The most modern of the three books, this is a Miss Marple novel that has her in London, holidaying Bertram’s Hotel, a curious olde-worlde England sort of place, full of stuffy old clergymen and admirals, as well as rich Americans enjoying their time across the Atlantic. Miss Marple stayed there many years before, some fifty or sixty years previously, and upon returning finds that the place is much as she remembered it. Catering to those who love the past, and run under the unwavering eyes of Mr Humphries, Miss Gorringe and the impeccably skilled Henry, the place is a lost paradise, and above all suspicion.

However, strange things have begun to happen. Notable daredevil Bess Sedgwick is staying in the hotel, unbeknownst to her estranged daughter Elvria Blake who is also there for a couple of days. There’s also Canon Pennyfather, the notoriously absent-minded clergyman who would forget his own head if it wasn’t screwed on. He takes off one night for a conference but upon arriving at the airport, finds that he is a day late and has missed not only his flight but the entire conference. He returns, sadly, to the hotel only to be greeted by a bump on the head and a loss of memory. Add to this the fact that a racing car belonging to a famous driver who may or may not be the lover of Lady Sedgwick, and Miss Marple begins to piece together the idea that something is not quite right about the apparently perfect Bertram’s Hotel.

This is probably my favourite of the three, but that’s mostly down to Miss Marple, who seems considerably older here. Once again she is, quite against her will, drawn into a murder and finds that no one really wants to listen to the ramblings of a dotty old woman. That is, until Chief Inspector Davy realises that there is more to her than meets the eye, and she, like him, has noticed that not everything is as it seems. It’s a proper whodunnit, although the actual murder comes quite late into the narrative, but the way the viewpoint changes rapidly between almost everyone in the hotel leaves you guessing throughout as to what is actually going on and who is on who’s side.

Enjoy your stay, and do try the muffins.

agatha 3The Hound Of Death (1933)

Finally, we have this book which is actually a collection of twelve short stories, each with more of a supernatural flavour. Although Christie is more known for writing books that are based solely in scientific fact and not allowing the answers to her mysteries to be paranormal, here she seems to let that slide a little. Actually, that’s not strictly true. Most of the stories here do have perfectly rational explanations, but a couple … well, let’s just say that maybe there is more to this world than any of us realise.

The stories are about hallucinations (The Hound Of Death), premonition (The Red Signal), mediums (The Last Seance), hypnosis (The Strange Case Of Sir Arthur Carmichael) and ghosts (The Lamp). As I say, most of the time Christie proves that what seems bizarre and impossible is actually the product of human nature and there is always a sensible explanation to every possible bump in the night or chill in the air. However, some, in particular The Last Seance, are far less clear about what is actually going on and seem to allow the paranormal to take over and manifest itself as real.

Probably my favourites in the collection are The Witness For The Prosecution, which I saw adapted for stage a few years ago and really enjoyed, and The Fourth Man, which is about a woman with severely disparate multiple personalities. The stories are not the usual Christie fare at all, but they’re definitely worth a look. They are some of her earlier works, and there is a sense of creepiness about them all that I didn’t know she was capable of.

Three very different stories, each of them brilliant in their own way.