“Postern Of Fate” by Agatha Christie (1973)

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postern“Books!” cried Tuppence.

This is the final book Agatha Christie wrote, although it was not the last to be published. It is also the final part of the Tommy and Tuppence series, the rest of which can be found elsewhere on my blog, specifically here, here, here and here. As mentioned there, this series follows the exploits of married couple Tommy and Prudence “Tuppence” Beresford as they grow up and grow old, from their early twenties in the first book to their mid-seventies as they are now, making them the only Christie characters to age in time with the real world. These books are not murder mysterys so much as detective thrillers and spy stories, and while Christie is usually pretty good at whatever she attempts, but here … well, look, I’ll explain after a synopsis.

In the fifth outing for Tommy and Tuppence, they have just bought a new house in the little village of Hollowquay and find themselves struggling with all the problems that come with moving house. There are electricians ripping up floorboards, a garden to tame, and people’s possessions left behind that need sorting. Tuppence takes a shine to a few boxes of childrens books in the attic and when going through some old favourites seeking out memories one day, comes across some red underlinings in one of them. The previous owner hasn’t, however, underlined whole words or phrases, just single letters. When added together they spell out a singular, unmistakable message: “Mary Jordan did not die naturally.” Not one to ever let a mystery pass her by, even in her advancing years, Tuppence begins asking around the village for anyone who may have known who Mary Jordan was.

Tommy soon finds himself caught up in Tuppence’s questioning and seeks out his old friends and contacts who, all still being impressed with how he and his wife so hugely helped the war effort two books ago in N or M?, are happy to point him in the right direction to seek out the right answers. But it soon becomes apparent that they might be lifting stones and prodding sleeping dogs that should all have been left well alone. Because even if it has been sixty years since Mary Jordan was killed, the killer remains at large…

There’s no beating about the bush on this one – it simply isn’t very good. One has to remember that at this point Agatha Christie was eighty-two years old and even at the time the reviews were mostly negative. Sure, some people were happy with it, but others note that Christie was clearly showing her age. The characters and their conversations meander and repeat, and things that seem like they have easy answers take ages for the characters to sort out. Tommy and Tuppence seem to forget what they say to each other a few times, and there’s a lot of dialogue repeated before much action takes place. In fact, it’s actually been suggested that the style here is indicative of Alzheimer’s Disease, despite Christie never being officially diagnosed with it. Going, I think, a bit too far, The Cambridge Guide to Women’s Writing in English says that Christie has lost “her grip altogether”.

Perhaps it’s intentional. Perhaps the fluffy, confused style of the novel is supposed to represent the aging minds of Tommy and Tuppence as they have less of a firm hold on their world. Perhaps these are just the thoughts of someone trying to convince himself that there’s no way Christie could’ve written a bad book. Truth is, while I think Christie was marvellous for a good many decades, at the end there, her age defeated her. She died three years later, having never written another book.

The star of the book, incidentally, is the Beresford’s Manchester terrier, Hannibal. Portrayed as a hugely intelligent dog who, in the end, is repsonsible for saving the day and being a wonderful comic hero.

Obviously, it’s a shame that Christie’s skills had become somewhat less acute by the end of her life, but given that I’ve read about sixty of her novels by now and this is the only one I’ve come across that’s had me disappointed, I consider that a win. She had a sparkling, incredible career, and while this one might be more forgettable than some of her others, there’s no denying that she was one of the most talented wordsmiths in history and we were lucky to have her for as long as we did. The Queen of Crime, long may she reign.

“By The Pricking Of My Thumbs” by Agatha Christie (1968)

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by-the-pricking-of-my-thumbs“Mr and Mrs Beresford were sitting at the breakfast table.”

This week marked the 124th anniversary of Agatha Christie’s birth, which meant it was only right that I went back to her and read another one. Well, the decision was based partly on that, and partly on the fact I feel I’ve done too many bad reviews lately, and I can at least pretty much guarantee a good read from the Queen of Crime. I decided to embark on the fourth Tommy & Tuppence story, having already reviewed the first three on here.

Last time we saw Tommy and Tuppence Beresford, they were involved in spy work in the middle of the Second World War. Now, it’s the sixties and times have changed. The two are much older now, their children grown up and married themselves, and while our heroes our still happy in their lives, they seem to miss the excitement of their youth.

Tommy becomes guilty that he hasn’t visited his old Aunt Ada for over a year and so the Beresfords set off to Sunny Ridge home of the elderly to check on her. She’s as grumpy and irascible as usual, refusing to even acknowledge Tuppence, who goes off to amuse herself by talking to some of the other patients. She gets involved with the dotty Mrs Lancaster who, during their conversation, suddenly says, “Was it your poor child?” Confused and intrigued, Tuppence doesn’t get a chance to find out what she means.

A few weeks later, Aunt Ada has died and the Beresfords return to Sunny Ridge to sort out her things, which happen to include a painting of a house that was given to Ada by Mrs Lancaster only a short while ago. Tuppence feels it’s not right to take it and tries to return it to Mrs Lancaster, only to find that her relatives collected her mere days ago and she is no longer at the nursing home. But Tuppence becomes obsessed with the painting, convinced that she has seen the house somewhere before. Why did Mrs Lancaster have it? Where is the house? Who painted the picture? And are all the old ladies at Sunny Ridge just a bit senile, or have some of them stumbled across some information that they shouldn’t have. With Tommy away at a conference, Tuppence takes up the challenge and sets off to find the house and solve the puzzle, leading her deep into a nasty web patrolled by a host of spiders ready to gobble up a juicy fly that lands in their midst…

The majority of the book tells of what Tuppence is up to, but Tommy gets some chapters later on. It’s interesting and refreshing to read a story where the protagonist is an older woman, particularly adventure thrillers like this, as I can’t think of many examples. (My favourite, though, is Thursday Next from Jasper Fforde’s books, who is still an action hero in her late fifties despite walking with a cane.) Tuppence is a warm character, described like a terrier who cannot be deterred once she sets her sights on some idea. Tommy can’t do anything to stop her, but you also get the impression, despite his chastising, that he wouldn’t have her any other way.

It’s a slow burner, taking a while to get going, but the many coincidences and the plot ties itself up neatly and you are finally presented with a very well-crafted story, leading to one of the most surprising, creepy and entertaining showdowns in the entire Christie canon. I don’t know her opinion on the book, but other reviews of the time seem less favourable, stating that her plots have become a bit more woolly and her dialogue more verbose. Granted, it’s quite lengthy and some passages may be unnecessary, but I’ve no problems with that. It’s sinister and eerie, and being a Tommy & Tuppence novel, it’s a thriller rather than a detective story. While Christie excels at the latter, she isn’t bad at these either.

The book was written, it seems, almost as a love letter to the fans who were questioning her as to the lives of the Beresfords since the war. They are, of course, her only characters who age in real time, and will appear once more in Postern Of Fate, which was both the last novel they appeared in and the last novel Christie wrote before her death. I am intrigued to find out the eventual fate of the Beresfords.

It’s time for the next book, and given the title of this one, there was only one candidate to follow it up…

“The Secret Adversary” by Agatha Christie (1922)

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secret adversary

Probably the guy with the briefcase…

“It was 2 p.m. on the afternoon of May 7th, 1915.”

I have been a fan of Agatha Christie ever since the Doctor Who episode in which she featured. My knowledge of her prior to this was minimal, although I was aware she was the bestselling author of all time and known as the Queen of Crime. I fought through my reluctance to read anything published before 1990, picked one up and was instantly hooked. She truly is the best crime and mystery writer that history has yet given us.

The Secret Adversary is her second novel, published in 1922 after the success of her debut The Mysterious Affair at Styles which featured Hercule Poirot in the leading role. Here, she dispenses with him (and with the straight mystery genre with which she is so closely associated) and it’s a whole new ball game. This book is about Tommy Beresford and Tuppence Cowley, two young things who have known each other since their childhood and have just met again in 1920s London, at the height of the jazz age.

As I said, this is also not one of the traditional mysteries, being much more of an action story, providing far more chasing about than Poirot does. This is a spy novel, perhaps a precursor to the James Bond novels in some respects. However, the traditional Christie mystery aspect remains forefront.

Tommy and Tuppence are in their early twenties and, broke and bored, decide to set up Young Adventurers Ltd, a silly idea of a company that they will advertise, letting them have small excitements and adventures and get paid for them – in fact, the advertisement states that the pay must be good. However, before they even get a chance to make their plans known, they are met by a man who has overheard their talk and says that his boss would wish to hire them. Tuppence meets the man in question and, after claiming her name is Jane Finn and convincing him that she knows more than she does, manages to anger him so much that he pays her off handsomely. (Apparently £50 is enough to buy two dinners for two people, and a trip to the theatre, and still retain 80% of the original sum in 1922.)

Tommy and Tuppence then find themselves embroiled in one hell of a mess. Who is this Jane Finn, and why has her name upset this man Whittington so much? Who is Mr Brown? Where are these orders coming from? Can Julius Hersheimmer be trusted? Where are the documents hidden? What’s up with Mrs Vandemeyer?

ritz

The Ritz: both then and now a sign of splendour

The novel makes good use of the time period, using the sinking of the Luistania as the catalyst for all over events. The characters of Tommy and Tuppence – who appear in several other of Christie’s works and are unique in being the only characters who age along with the real world – are introduced cleverly and the exposition of their backstories does not feel forced. They meet again after a few years, and therefore the discussion of what they’re been up to in that time feels natural. You are soon caught up in them. They are both grand characters, very different but immediately likeable. Tommy is considered slow and stupid, and called so a number of times, but he is merely someone who likes to have a solid opinion before speaking, and he can rarely be swayed from it. He is good in a tight corner and cannot be decieved because he has no imagination. Tuppence on the other hand is a quick thinker, obsessed with money and one of those thoroughly modern girls who wears short skirts and displays their ankles. Together, they make an excellent detecting team.

I previously read a Christie novel that was more action based, The Big Four, and was not so impressed, but I think it was because she was shoehorning Poirot and Hastings into the genre, when the whole thing was beneath them. Giving the roles of action heroes to two younger characters works far better.

It’s a gripping read and kept me going until the very end, when, in typical Christie fashion, everything comes together in a way you (or I, as usual) didn’t see coming. Yes, it has a few cliches in it, but that’s the nature of the genre and still the whole thing works and is a very enjoyable read. Hersheimmer is a great addition as the slightly eccentric millionaire, and there’s even a nod within the book to other aspects of Christie’s world, implying that these books are set in the same universe was Poirot, even if the characters don’t meet.

An exciting visit to London at its finest. A must for any adventure fan.