“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 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.

“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.

“The Female Detective” by Andrew Forrester (1864)

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female detective“Who am I? It can matter little who I am.”

Literature is populated with almost as many detectives as it is criminals. Some of the best of these are women. We all know Miss Marple, and many of us are familiar with Agatha Christie’s other female detective, Tuppence Beresford. And then there’s Lisbeth Salander, Nancy Drew, Jessica Fletcher, Temperance Brennan, Thursday Next, Ellie Miller … but how many people recognise the name “Miss Gladden”? I would wager very few. But Miss Gladden occupies a very important role in the history of the fictional female detective: she was the first.

Written way back in the 1860s, the novel is another one reproduced for a new generation for the British Library Crime Classics series, which I’ve dealt with a few other times on the blog so far and always loved. This one indeed introduces us to the first ever female detective in literary history. She gives her name as Miss Gladden, but freely admits that it’s not her real name. In fact, we discover very little about her; more interested as she is in talking about her cases and adventures.

The book is split into seven stories of wildly varying lengths which detail some of the cases of our heroine. Some involve a murder, some involve theft, one involves an issue of inheritance, but they all orbit around the fact that the person investigating is female. The stories are of varying quality and interest, and the language is what one would expect of the time.

Miss Gladden, as mentioned, keeps much of her identity secret, and the novel is certainly of its time with the impression it gives of women. Although written by a man, I actually think it does a fairly good job of giving us a female protagonist who is on one hand certainly feminine, and yet at the same time, incorrigible, strong and capable. The book makes note of the fact that it is easier for a woman to eavesdrop without being suspected, or to gain access to the private places of female suspects – be they physical or simply mental – than a man may be able to. Characters accept Gladden in her role, regardless of her gender, which is refreshing, and it’s also noted that she isn’t the only female detective in London. In reality, of course, there wouldn’t be a female police officer until 1915, some fifty years after this book was written.

Some of the stories seem to lack a satisfactory ending. Sometimes justice reaches the criminal by some other method than that of Gladden, or simply she stops writing about them, either unable to solve the case or unwilling to press on with it. Some of the solutions given also, I don’t think, would stand up in modern crime writing, but one can let them slide here.

The book is notable for its historical and literary importance, and I’m not sorry I’ve read it, nor indeed that it’s been widely published again, but I have found more than ever that I just can’t always get on with the style and language of books from two centuries previous. The blueprints are there for all the women who followed in Miss Gladden’s footsteps, but the stories have much improved over time when compared to this original installment.