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Launching the #1947 Club with a wonderful Agatha Christie revisit!

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Yes, today is the first day of our wonderful week of reading books from the year 1947 – part of a series cleverly thought up by my co-host Simon at Stuck-in-a-Book. So far we’ve covered books from 1924 and 1938, and had some fabulous reading experiences. However, 1947 looks to be a vintage year for publishing, and I’m starting off the week in style! I’ve also put up a separate page for 1947 and if you read or review anything from that year do leave a comment and I’ll do my best to include everyone!

I was personally really pleased to find out that Agatha Christie’s “The Labours of Hercules” was one of the books published in 1947, as I have happy memories of reading it as a teenager, and I thought it was definitely due a revisit. By the time of its publication, Christie had been a household name for decades as was Poirot himself; and this collection of linked short stories is presented under the conceit that Poirot will take on 12 cases mirroring the historical Labours of Hercules before he finally retires. Of course, we know now that the determined detective would carry on solving crimes until his creator’s death in the 1970s, but at the time the thought of Poirot retiring must have shocked his readers as much as the death of Sherlock Holmes on the Reichenbach Falls did!

My original copy from the 1970s - in much lovelier condition than some of my books from that era!

My original copy from the 1970s – in much lovelier condition than some of my books from that era!

There is a foreword where Poirot dines with an academic friend and laments he never studied the classics. It is this friend, Dr. Burton, who mentions in passing the classic Labours and laughingly refers to Poirot’s inappropriate forename, thereby triggering the whole concept of the book. The stories that follow are a wonderfully varied bunch, tied loosely to each Labour, and even if you have no classical knowledge (and I don’t!) they’re absolutely brilliant and immensely enjoyable.

So for example, “The Nemean Lion” has Poirot looking into the kidnapping of Pekinese dogs, an apparently trivial crime that turns out to have hidden repercussions. “The Lernaean Hydra” deals with murder and poison pen letters (the latter one of Christie’s regular tropes) in a small village. “The Stymphalean Birds” has fraud and potential blackmail, and warns of the dangers to foolish Englishmen who travel abroad without knowing any other languages! “The Cretan Bull” features hereditary madness, and “The Capture of Cerberus” reunites Poirot with Countess Vera Rossakoff in a post-War London setting. The latter was always one of my favourites, with the opening scenes of Poirot being jostled in the London Tube and encountering the Countess on a huge escalator permanently stuck in my mind. These are just some of the highlights; really, each of the varied stories is a little gem and I don’t want to pick favourites! Inspector Japp and Poirot’s valet Georges make an appearance or two, as does Miss Lemon, who is always a joy!

And Poirot ranges far and wide whilst undertaking his Labours, travelling all over the world and meeting a variety of different people, all the while using his ingenious methods of discovering the truth and dispensing his own kind of justice (as we see in many of his stories). There is a surprising amount of drug-taking featured (cocaine and the like, not just poisons being used for murders) and Christie has a wonderfully no-nonsense approach to life. In fact, it’s a delight to rediscover how much she used sly humour to dig at the rich and silly. There isn’t a titled lady with a Pekinese who gets off lightly, nor a pompous lord or businessman having an affair with a secretary who isn’t deflated or warned off. Agatha Christie and Hercule Poirot are on the side of the governesses, companions and car mechanics, and it’s lovely. That’s not to say that the cases don’t deal with some richer people from the upper echelons – they do, which is proof that Christie can see good in all. Some of her descriptions are just priceless, like this one of a rather alarming country home:

Inside, it was what a house agent would have described as “fully furnished”. Cross-legged Buddhas leered down from convenient niches, brass Benares trays and tables encumbered the floor space. Processional elephants garnished the mantelpieces and more tortured brass work adorned the walls.

If I had to stand back and be truly honest, there *are* times when Christie rather stretches things to fit in with her concept; taking Poirot to the top of a Swiss mountain to deal with dangerous gangsters is perhaps – well, unexpected. But none of this detracts from reading Christie at the height of her powers, and the book is pure joy and entertainment. There are a couple of sly nods to Sherlock Holmes, as if to acknowledge the debt all Golden Age crime writers owed to Conan Doyle (particularly in a partnership structured like Poirot and Hastings), as well as mentions of Reggie Fortune and Sir Henry Merrivale, some of Poirot’s contemporaries.

Agatha Christie

So my first book for the 1947 Club has turned out to be a fabulous one and a real pleasure. I forget how much I love Christie when I leave a gap between books, but revisiting “The Labours of Hercules” has convinced me that when I have the time (retirement maybe!) I shall sit down and read the entirety of her output from start to finish in chronological order!

A rediscovered pleasure

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By the Pricking of My Thumbs by Agatha Christie

Middle Child is most definitely going to take the blame for this one! I was in the middle of preparing for the 1938 Club with a little stack of books for that, sitting alongside some review titles, when over the Easter break Middle Child returned a couple of Agatha Christies she’d borrowed from me. MC is nearly as big an Agatha fan as I am, mainly the Poirot stories, but I had loaned her a Tommy and Tuppence basically because I love them so much! And it was sitting on the side waiting to go back on the shelves, and I just picked it up and there you go – I had to read it!

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BTPOMT is a later Christie, first published in 1968, and the Tommy and Tuppence Beresford we meet here have grown up a little since their original appearance as a couple of slightly dizzy characters in the 1920s. Middle aged or old (depending on your viewpoint), they have grown up children but are still looked after by the faithful Albert. The story opens with the pair visiting Tommy’s ancient aunt Ada in a rest home, and while Tommy is spending time with the aunt, Tuppence goes off and encounters another resident, Mrs. Lancaster. The latter suddenly comes out with the spooky question, “Was it your poor child?” She goes on to talk about the child being behind the fireplace, and Tuppence (and later Tommy when she tells him) comes to the conclusion that the old lady is just a bit batty. However, Tuppence being Tuppence is not quite satisfied…

Shortly afterwards, Aunt Ada dies, and when the Beresfords return to the home, Mrs. Lancaster has been mysteriously swept off by a relative, and neither of them can be traced. Tuppence is convinced there is something wrong – she has had a feeling, sort of like “the pricking of her thumbs” where she’s convinced something wicked is happening. Tommy, prosaic as ever, is less convinced and so while he’s off at a conference Tuppence begins investigating. Pivotal to the mystery is a painting of a house given by Mrs. Lancaster to Aunt Ada, and Tuppence sets off to track the house down. This action sets in place the rest of the story which involves murder, madness, kidnap, crime gangs, mistaken identity and all sorts of general mayhem. I’m not going to say any more about the plot because that might spoil it!

James Warwick and Francesca Annis as Tommy and Tuppence int he 1980s

James Warwick and Francesca Annis as Tommy and Tuppence in the 1980s

The received wisdom is that later Christie is not so good, and certainly her last Tommy and Tuppence book “Postern of Fate” comes in for a lot of criticism. However, I just loved this one! It’s absolutely ages since I read it, but it felt wonderful to be back in the world of the Beresfords – although Christie only wrote a few titles featuring them, I do love them. And this is a very clever book, with that wonderful element I always like in Christie of investigating things that happened in the past. It’s a trope she used often and well, and I always admire what she does with it. There’s also a real feeling of menace in some of the characters, and although you suspect the heroes will come out well in the end, there’s always a suspenseful point in the story where you wonder if they won’t.

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I guess BTPOMT might be more of a thriller than a straight murder mystery, and certainly Tommy and Tuppence’s novels veer more towards spies than ordinary detecting. That doesn’t make it any less good because I’m one of those who’s of the opinion that substandard Christie is better than anybody else’s best! If I had to make any criticism it would be perhaps that Christie does over-egg the pudding a little when it comes to plotlines; there are a *lot* of different strands, many of which are red herrings, and she manages to pull them all together at the end – though I did wonder if she needed quite so many! But the book is full of twists and turns, absolutely gripping and has a wonderful denouement that I had fortunately forgotten and so took me by surprise – lovely!

In an ideal world with infinite reading time I would sit down and read everything Agatha Christie wrote in chronological order and have the most wonderful time. As it is, I really must make a habit of going back to her books more often – there’s nothing more comforting and satisfying than a Christie when you want classic crime!

The 1924 Club : Exercising those little grey cells…

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Poirot Investigates by Agatha Christie

1924 was a very good year for rising young author Agatha Christie. Following the success of her first three novels (“The Mysterious Affair at Styles”, “The Secret Adversary” and “The Murder on the Links”), she produced during the year in question her first stand-alone thriller novel “The Man in the Brown Suit”, as well as a collection of short stories featuring the exploits of her most famous detective – Hercule Poirot.

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“Poirot Investigates” gathers together eleven stories which were originally published in The Sketch magazine, and their history is fascinating. It was the magazine’s editor, Bruce Ingram, who suggested that Christie wrote them, as he’d been so impressed with “Styles”, and they appeared as follows:

The Adventure of “The Western Star” – 11 April 1923, Issue 1576
The Tragedy at Marsdon Manor – 18 April 1923, Issue 1577
The Adventure of the Cheap Flat – 9 May 1923, Issue 1580
The Mystery of Hunter’s Lodge – 16 May 1923, Issue 1581
The Million Dollar Bond Robbery – 2 May 1923, Issue 1579
The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb – 26 September 1923, Issue 1600
The Jewel Robbery at the “Grand Metropolitan” – 14 March 1923, Issue 1572 (under the title The Curious Disappearance of the Opalsen Pearls)
The Kidnapped Prime Minister – 25 April 1923, Issue 1578
The Disappearance of Mr. Davenheim – 28 March 1923, Issue 1574
The Adventure of the Italian Nobleman – 24 October 1923, Issue 1604
The Case of the Missing Will – 31 October 1923, Issue 1605

When published by Bodley Head in 1924 Christie was astute enough to insist that Bodley’s accept this as one of the books she was contracted to do with them. The stories feature Poirot and Captain Hastings, with Inspector Japp making appearances, and so you might be forgiven for thinking that you’re in traditional Poirot territory – well, not quite…

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All of these tales are excellent of course; full of Christie’s misdirection, wonderful puzzles, sparkling repartee between Poirot and Hastings, plenty of twists and turns and satisfying solutions – one even has a little map! However, what’s particularly fascinating is that we’re seeing an *early* version of Poirot, before all the characteristics we think we know him for have developed (although much of the Poirot we know is already there). His lodgings are anonymous, on a street described as “not aristocratic”; and when he and Hastings arrive at Marsdon Leigh in “The Tragedy at Marsdon Manor”, Poirot decides they will *walk* the mile from the station to the manor house. We even see, in “The Adventure of the Cheap Flat”, Poirot and Hastings lowering themselves down a chute in a coal lift! Miss Lemon and the more palatial Whitehaven Mansions are absent, and in these early tales, Christie’s debt to Conan Doyle is much clearer, and the relationship between Poirot and Hastings is noticeably Holmesian

However, it seems that as Christie was writing the stories, she was developing and refining her character. By “The Adventure of the Egyptian Tomb”, one of the later 1923 works, Poirot is suffering in the Egyptian heat and sand, and exclaims at one point, in recognisable Poirot fashion:

“And my boots”, he wailed. “Regard them, Hastings. My boots, of the neat patent leather, usually so smart and shining. See, the sand is inside them, which is painful, and outside them, which outrages the eyesight. Also the heat, it causes my moustaches to become limp – but limp!”

By the time we reach the end of the stories, Poirot has settled into the detective we know and love, with his vanity intact, his amused tolerance of Hastings’ blunders and his ability to predict events and prevent disasters. He may not quite have the majesty of the Hercule of, say, “Murder on the Orient Express” , but he is still Poirot. But even in one of the early stories, “The Kidnapped Prime Minister”, Poirot states his credo as a detective strongly:

“It is not so that the good detective should act, eh? I perceive your thought. He must be full of energy. He must rush to and fro. He should prostrate himself on the dusty road the seek the marks of tyres through a little glass. He must gather up the cigarette-end, the fallen match? That is your idea, is it not? … But I – Hercule Poirot – tell you that it is not so! The true clues are within – here! … All that matters is the little grey cells within.”

And needless to say, in several stories Poirot solves the mystery by just sitting still and exercising them. As Hastings says, in exasperated fashion at the end of one of the tales, “Poirot was right. He always is, confound him!”

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There is an old saying that familiarity breeds contempt; and although I could never feel contempt for Poirot there’s the risk that he’s become so familiar to us nowadays that we see him as a bit of a caricature and don’t look past the surface image. However, rereading “Poirot Investigates” has been something of a revelation; I’ve reconnected with Christie and her creation in a big way and I’ve rediscovered how much I love her books. So thank goodness for Simon’s wonderful idea for the 1924 club…!

Introducing The 1924 Club!

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As a reader and book blogger, it’s easy to get a little bogged down in all the lovely books that surround you; and a new project is sometimes just what you need to focus the reading. So when Simon at Stuck-in-a-Book asked if I’d like to be involved in a new idea of his, I was delighted! The project is called “The 1924 Club” (as you can see from the rather snazzy button that Simon’s designed) and basically the idea is to focus on books published in that year.

1924 Club

I think Simon’s chosen a rather wonderful year, as there appears to be a wide range of fascinating books published in 1924. Basically, we’ll be asking other readers/bloggers to read, review, suggest and discuss books from the year in question, and thereby build up an overview of the literature of the day. It would be great if as many of you as possible can join in, and the fun will come from discovering the new and the unusual, books we haven’t heard of or hadn’t realised were written in 1924, and also revisiting some classics!

Michael Arlen's The Green Hat - one possibility

Michael Arlen’s The Green Hat – one possibility

There’s a list on Wikipedia that Simon found here which gives a starting point, and Goodreads also has a useful “Most Popular Books Published in 1924” entry (though do check your actual books, as there are plenty of volumes incorrectly labelled!) These lists give plenty to choose from – Agatha Christie published two of her early classics “Poirot Investigates” and “The Man in the Brown Suit”; Russian writer Zamyatin’s “We” appeared, prefiguring much of Orwell’s “Nineteen Eighty Four”; Forster’s “A Passage to India” came out; plus there are *lots* of Viragos from the year. And that’s just scratching the surface!

Two of my battered but beloved old Agatha books

Two of my battered but beloved old Agatha books

Personally, I’m toying with Michael Arlen’s “The Green Hat”, a classic Bright-Young-Things novel; and I’d like to re-read one of the Christies. In fact, when I started looking through the lists, I realised that the first book I ever reviewed on the Ramblings was from 1924 – not the most brilliant of write-ups, but it was my first post!!

So if you want to join in, do put the button on your blog and get reading and researching! We’ll be posting from October 19-31st and we’d love to hear from you! Simon’s introductory post is here for more info – so let’s get reading! 🙂

Golden Age High-Jinks from Masters (and Mistresses!) of the Genre

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Ask a Policeman by members of The Detection Club

Many moons ago, back in my teenage years, I discovered Agatha Christie; in those days pre-Young Adult books, she was an ideal author when making the transition to adult books. I gradually collected all of her works over the years – from jumble sales (happy memories), charity shops and second-hand bookshops. It was lovely to get a complete set, but even more exciting was the appearance in the early 1980s of “The Scoop” and “Behind the Screen” – two short stories written by members of the famous Detection Club, including Christie, Sayers and many others. I still have my trusty paperback (and I did have another of their works, “The Floating Admiral”, which I’m sure should be somewhere on the shelves…)

ask a policeman

However, a recent hunt in one of the local charity shops revealed this volume – “Ask A Policemen”, another group effort, by John Rhode, Helen Simpson, Gladys Mitchell, Anthony Berkeley. Dorothy L. Sayers and Milward Kennedy. As a bonus, the book features a rare essay by Agatha Christie where she discusses her fellow writers and an excellent introduction by the doyen of vintage crime (and current chair of the Detection Club) Martin Edwards.

The plot of “Ask A Policeman” is a dramatic one: unpleasant newspaper tycoon Lord Comstock has many enemies, owing to his papers’ constant attacks on religion and the police force. He’s found murdered in his country home and surprisingly enough has just been visited by a government Chief Whip, an Archbishop and the Assistant Commissioner of Scotland Yard! All have motives and all are therefore suspects, as is Comstock’s slightly dodgy secretary, Mills. Then there is the gardener, the manservant and a mysterious woman seen on the lawn…

A 1932 Dinner of the Detection Club -  from http://margaretperry.org/

A 1932 Dinner of the Detection Club – from http://margaretperry.org/

Because of the suspicions around Scotland Yard, the Home Secretary takes the unusual step of asking four amateurs to investigate: Mrs Adela Bradley, Sir John Saumarez, Lord Peter Wimsey, and Mr Roger Sheringham – of course nobody dares to ask a policeman! All have a wonderful pedigree as detectives, but the storytelling waters become somewhat muddy, as the Detection Club members swap sleuths! Thus Helen Simpson tells her tale through Mrs. Bradley, Gladys Mitchell tackles Sir John Saumarez, Dorothy L. Sayers writes of Roger Sheringham and Anthony Berkeley provides Lord Peter Wimsey’s investigations. Milward Kennedy and John Rhode set the scene and round up the story at the end, while the poor addled reader tries to work out whodunnit!

AAP is a wonderfully enjoyable read; cleverly conceived and written, full of red herrings, with plenty of humour and sly little digs at the various detectives and their foibles. The four central writers have great fun playing with each others’ characters and I felt that they brilliantly caught the voice of the original authors (although I can’t tell about Sir John as I haven’t read any of Helen Simpson’s work). The sleuths all have their usual milieu and sidekicks (barrister son Ferdinand for Mrs. Bradley; Inspector Parker and Bunter for Wimsey) and all their little quirks are present, but perhaps exaggerated a little. The mystery was complex and each detective came up with a different and entirely credible solution! Milward Kennedy revealed the real answer to the puzzle, and admitted that he really didn’t play fair with the reader!

As for Christie’s essay, it’s quite a revealing piece of work. Initially written to be translated into Russian to introduce British crime writers to that country, the fact that it was never likely to be read by any of the other writers allowed Christie to be unguarded in her comments about her peers. It’s nice to know she rates Sayers so highly!

All in all, AAP was an excellent read, and I’m starting to think that Martin Edwards deserves a knighthood for services rendered to Golden Age crime, what with his British Library Crime Classics involvement and this. And I believe there is another volume, “Six Against The Yard”, lurking out there somewhere – I really *must* track down a copy…. 🙂

Nine out, one in – plus a library book

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Without wishing to become a bore on the subject, I lugged nine more volumes to donate at the Samaritans Book Cave today (and was pleased to see some of my old volumes nestling in the shelves!)

And this week I only came home with one new book myself, in the form of this:

ask a policeman

I have at least one Detection Club from ages ago, but this is a recent release, with an introduction by Martin Edwards – so kind of essential, I think!

And this is the library book (which I’ve had on order for a while).

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It’s basically (I think!) a book about a man’s obsession with the Tarkovsky film “Stalker”. I stumbled across it while looking up Strugatsky books online (as you do) and thought it might be intriguing.

We shall see! 🙂

A Christiean early birthday treat!

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I must admit that after the recent bout of poorliness I’ve felt in need of treats recently, and OH (who is always so good at surprising me with unexpected gifts) came up trumps with an early birthday present in the form of tickets for the 60th anniversary tour of Agatha Christie’s “The Mousetrap”!

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As such a huge Christie fan, it seems a little odd that I’ve never seen her most famous play. However, OH was clever enough to notice that the tour had its last night at the local big town and got us tickets in the third row – how cool is that! The offspring were sworn to secrecy so this was a wonderful, wonderful treat and really gave me a lift when I needed it!

The Mousetrap

I shan’t say much about the plot except that it’s classic golden age crime – set in a snowbound manor house-cum-guesthouse in the 1950s with murder and mayhem and a killer in their midst. The cast were absolutely wonderful and the whole experience was grand! If you haven’t seen “The Mousetrap” and you love Christie – well, what are you waiting for? 🙂

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